Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Why Learn Tunes?

Marco Castillo
David Jernigan
I played a really nice couple of gigs last weekend with Brazilian-born-but-Winnipeg-based singer-guitarist Marco Castillo. The first night was duo, and the second night we added the versatile, spirited  percussionist Scott Senior. We played many different samba and bossa nova songs; some were originals of Marco's, but many were from what is considered "standard" brazilian repertoire. And then some were off the beaten path, songs by Ivan Lins or Chico Buarqe that I remembered from almost twenty years ago from my gigs with Washington D.C. bassist David Jernigan. (Jernigan "showed me the ropes" regarding any of the Brazilian stuff that I know.) It was a really fun couple of nights, but I couldn't help noticing that there were virtually none of the jazz students from the U of Manitoba (where I'm currently teaching) at the venue to check out the music. (Too expensive? Not unless you consider free cover to be too expensive...)

I'm sure there were a multitude of reasons as to why there weren't any students there (although there was a crowd on the Friday night). However, I started to wonder if jazz students these days see any connection with Brazilian tunes and jazz, or with Brazilian tunes and their own musical development. I always remember bossa nova tunes being part of the Baltimore and Washington D.C. jazz gig repertoire. Tunes like "Corcovado","Chega De Saudade", "Favela", and "Desafinado" were considered the level one Brazilian standards one was supposed to know. I wonder if that's still the case, in D.C. or anywhere for that matter.

Cedar Walton, composer of
"Bolivia" and many other
hard tunes...
While I don't feel like I know as many tunes as I would like, I spent a fair bit of time in my early twenties learning as many "jazz" tunes as I could. I and my friend, bassist David Ephross, used to spend a lot of time working on not just standard tunes, but more obscure tunes, like "California Here I Come", or "Stars Fell On Alabama", or "Heyoke", a wonderful Kenny Wheeler tune. Indeed, many of the Cedar Walton tunes we had learned were considered to be advanced, and made people think we were more advanced players than we actually were! In fact, the first tunes we really learned were "Bolivia" by Cedar Walton and "Stablemates" by Benny Golson. I didn't even know "Misty" or "All The Things You Are", but despite that, people thought, wow, he must be very advanced....

Back to present-day Winnipeg, I believe that I got the call to play with Marco Castillo because I knew at least a few more tunes than the Level One bossa nova repertoire. And yet most of my students are struggling to remember "Body and Soul", let alone "Comecar De Novo" by Ivan Lins. It makes me wonder what I should be emphasizing as a teacher. Should I insist on having my students learn 150 tunes a year?

Again, I don't claim to know every tune ever written. Many of the older cats know way more tunes than I do. They say Harold Mabern knows at least 5000 tunes. David Jernigan seemed un-stumpable when it came to tunes. By all accounts, Russell Malone knows many, many tunes.When I was a guest on the Marian McPartland show, she called a whole mess of tunes that I had never heard of. I think she called a few pre-Civil War tunes!

I get the impression that the modern student is oftentimes perplexed as to how to develop the quantity of their repertoire of tunes. Many of my students come to me and say, "Professor Colligan, I don't know what tunes I'm supposed to be learning, and the ones I learned, I seem to forget them after three months of not playing them!" I find this to be really unfortunate, and I don't have the easiest answers. This is because I learned the tunes I know on the gig (or preparing for a gig).

When I was in Maryland in the early 90's, I played many more gigs than I do now. Sometimes I would have four gigs on a Saturday! And I'd have gigs every night through the week. But students now don't seem to have those opportunities. So how can they get motivated to learn a whole bunch of tunes for gigs that don't exist?

One option is to look at it in terms of "preparation". There is some expression that goes something like,"It's not the opportunity, it's whether or not you are ready for the opportunity."  For example, a student of mine was offered a trio gig with some of the top Winnipeg jazz players. I asked him if he had enough tunes for two sets of trio playing. He showed me his list of tunes. It seemed like enough, however, I feel like one should have more than merely enough. This might be referred to as "depth" of knowledge. The standard for me over a decade ago was the Bradley's gig in New York , which was an entire week of three one-hour sets a night. So let's say six tunes a set times twenty one sets equals 126 tunes. (That's assuming you didn't repeat any tunes.)

Unfortunately, Bradley's closed in the late 90's, and I have no idea if that kind of gig exists anywhere nowadays. To further throw a wrench into things, most touring bands play the same repertoire of twenty or so tunes every night. And some really successful jazz musicians have admitted that they only know a handful of standards (although they play the mess out of them.) And so many young jazz musicians are composing their own music, which I whole heartedly support. Many of these youngsters say,"Well, if there are no gigs that require me to learn standards, and I'm just going to get my own gigs where I can play my own tunes or standards that I like, why should I spend hours learning tunes that I may never play?"

It's difficult to answer these questions. Let me just say this: knowing at least some depth of music makes you a deeper musician. But even though I am a jazz educator, I don't want to tell you exactly how to develop this depth. You might know 500 songs, or you might only know 100, but play the heck out of them! Easily, I could give you a list of jazz tunes that I think you should learn. But I believe that part of developing as a mature artist means finding the tunes you like to play and developing those in your repertoire.

Of course, there are going to be tunes that you have to learn, or will be called on a gig and maybe you won't know it. So bring a fakebook! No shame in that. (While some people say you should always learn tunes off the recording, I think using fake books combined with listening to great versions is good. Gary Bartz told me that he would buy the original sheet music for standards, so he could see what the composer originally intended.)

Carl Allen
 Carl Allen, the current Artistic Director of Jazz Studies at the Juilliard School, used to tell the students to write down any tune which is called during a session or gig that they don't know, so that next time it's called, they know it! We do the same thing here at the U of M, but I believe, correct me if I'm wrong, but I've seen only one student ever engage in this practice! So I guess the message has not sunk in yet...

For those of you who are struggling to broaden your repertoire, believe me, I've felt the intimidation. My first tour with Cassandra Wilson was in the fall of 1999. We did 9 weeks straight, 2 in Japan and 7 in Europe. Although we had a set repertoire ever night (which I had learned, of course), I remember getting a wake up call during every single soundcheck: Wilson and bassist Lonnie Plaxico would, just messing around, play different tunes from Motown, R&B, Rock, Folk, Country, Jazz, TV themes, Pop, you name it. I knew very few of them. And I'm talking every night for 9 weeks. That was impressive, to say the least.
Cassandra Wilson

I'd love to hear some responses in terms of your personal philosophies. I think the jury is still out on this issue. But if you are trying to learn more tunes, I do believe you've got to learn one at a time!


  1. George,

    Thanks for posting this. I'm a border-line fanatical advocate of learning as many tunes as possible. It's usually a major topic point when I give clinics.

    Although I detect that a lot of the Jazz groups out there are moving away from core Jazz repertoire and moving into their own tunes or contemporary pop (Radiohead and such), I still think there are great reasons to become a "tunesmith".

    One being that tunes are still a major proving ground while getting started in the business, and you never know when you're gonna be "called to arms" with tune knowledge. We've all seen it happen. Another reason is that most Jazz is still played within a structured form with harmony, melody and rhythm. These tunes teach you a lot about form, harmony, melody, and rhythm; and that helps you with learning other people's original music. Also, knowing music that came before you helps with developing your own compositional style. Additionally, I believe it helps with memory retention- the more tunes you know, the easier it is to keep learning additional tunes and keep your repertoire growing.

    In general, it's more music to fuel your knowledge with, and the more music you know, the better musician you are.


  2. I just wanted to request a possible blog for the future. At the top of this article you mentioned how no students showed up. I dont think it has to do with it being Brazilian. I have noticed fewer and fewer students going to check out music recently. maybe not in new york as much, but in other cities, all which have atleast on jazz program at a university, the support from students is dwindling. So why are they not going out? sorry that this is a question more than a comment, but i love your blogs and would be interested to get your thoughts on this.

  3. I find it very useful to learn the melody before learning the changes. Learning the words is useful too, it helps the memory (and with phrasing). Mike Murley hipped me to that.

    Chuck McClelland

  4. I guess you didn't see me when I first started learning about Latin music...ask some of the U of M graduates about my year with the guiro!

  5. great post, george, thanks for this!

    i agree very much about the notion of preparation for situations that might be inaccessible now - it's not a great substitute for experience (e.g. you're learning the tunes because you're playing them on gigs and at sessions), but in this day and age a really committed jazz student has to WANT to be that comprehensively skilled and to a large extent has to take on faith those admonitions from folks like you who've been in the situations they aspire to be in - e.g. if you want to be a part of the jazz tradition, you have to pay certain dues, including repertoire-building, and you're better off getting ready now. i was just telling a particularly precocious student today (in a non-shaming way, of course) that he sounds great, BUT he's got holes to fill and he can choose to believe me and focus on filling them or he can coast for several years until he's in an environment where he doesn't outshine those around him (whereupon the coasting will bite him in the ass). point being that i don't think it's unreasonable as a teacher (who is also an experienced practitioner) to ask people to invest in acquiring a skill they may not use for a while - that's part of the teaching/mentorship tradition in many arts.

    as for HOW to learn tunes, that's a whole 'nother can of worms, but i'll share a little bit of wisdom i gleaned from studying with kenny barron, who in turn gleaned it from folks like benny carter and sweets edison and so on. the older generations knew these songs largely through exposure to them - they were popular songs in these folks' era, so learning them on a basic aural level was not a self-conscious activity for musicians or simply for people who like music (i know a bunch of non-musicians in their 70s who can hum and/or recite lyrics to hundreds of tin pan alley standards). once you have that kind of relationship with a song, you a) don't forget it and b) have a much easier time learning the nuts and bolts of melodies and changes and such. my students have generally all seen the "wizard of oz," so they have that sort of relationship with "over the rainbow" without ever having thought about learning repertoire. it's a bit more of a time investment, and i'm not necessarily even expressing the opinion that one SHOULD do this. but if you develop a genuine RELATIONSHIP with a tune (learning the lyrics to a ballad studying the original recording of a wayne tune, etc.) then it can become unshakable from memory in a manner akin to that of a pop tune from our own childhood (damn you culture club!). i haven't played "the very thought of you" on a gig or at a session in probably 13 years, but after kenny had me study billie holiday's version and learn the lyrics, it's stuck in the ol' noggin for good.

    okay, rant over!

  6. I think you're on to something with the whole tunes vs. originals thing--the steady standards gig, which used to be the working jazz musician's bread & butter, is getting rarer & rarer, and it seems like playing non-originals is more likely to get you accused of not being contemporary enough anyway. It's definitely still worth it, though, and different from working on your own tunes--I read something Jason Palmer said recently about learning someone's tune being a way of learning how they think, and when it comes to Jobim or Cedar or Kenny Wheeler, those are definitely not ways of thinking about music that most people would stumble into on their own.

  7. Great article, George. Just to clarify, what do you mean by "know?" I know you mentioned no shame in using a Fakebook, but by "know" do you mean "memorized," or is there some wiggle room?

    Along those lines, I was at a jam session once, and called Dolphin Dance, a tune that I knew/had memorized/etc. The bassist (who was running the show), said he didn't know it and didn't want to play it. I told him I didn't care if he used the Real Book, but he refused to play anything he didn't have memorized.

    Seemed really silly and a bit elitist/purist to me. How do you (or anyone else reading) feel about that?

  8. Hey George, thanks for all your blogging...I guess...you terrified me already, long before you started writing...anyway, I think we should all know all the tunes, from memory, and that the iReal Book means the apocalypse is starting.

  9. I'm a bass player. I did a gig last night with a singer that didn't bring her book. She called tunes in different and obscure keys, I didn't do to well.
    The drummer told me it's not my fault. He said when you work with a singer for the first time, she needs to bring her book and have a set song list.
    I thought is my fault regardless because my 'ears' wasn't big enough to fake through the tunes. Will somebody comment on this. So did I lose this steady big because of my weak ears or she didn't bring here book?

  10. Anonymous bass player: I think it's a combination of things, which is often the case in jazz. I believe that singers SHOULD have charts, especially if they have a lot of obscure tunes and weird keys. HOWEVER, I think you have to develop that skill set at home of being able to transpose tunes on the spot. Now, if somebody asked me to play Chick Corea's You're Everything in another key, I might have a hard time, but standards should be manageable. The way I do it is to think of the theory. For example, If the tune is Green Dolphin Street, instead of thinking:
    EbMaj7 GbMaj7 FMAj7 E Maj7 EbMaj7
    G-7 C7 F-7 Bb7 EbMaj7
    Ab-7 Db7 GbMaj7 F-7 Bb7

    It's better to think:
    IMaj7 bIII Maj7 IIMAj7 bII Maj7 Imaj7
    iii-7 vi7 ii-7 V7 IMaj7
    iv-7 bVII7 bIIIMaj7 ii-7 V7

    DO you see what I mean? While having better ears helps as well, it might be a question of understanding the theoretical analysis behind the standard tunes. This sort of analysis works well with all the tin pan alley stuff. It might be tougher to analyze , say, an obscure Wayne Shorter tune this way, but it is possible. I think this way is easier than just straight transposition, although that's a good skill to have as well.
    I might make this into a mini-blog. So look for a reprint of this conversation shortly.

  11. Thanks George!
    I do get by on the numerical system on tunes I know.I think I can manage to transpose tunes I know in different keys like 'More' but about tunes that I don't know? Are there any study material on this or courses. On how to pick up on tunes that I don't know. There's got to be a concept on this? Or is it just *knowing* the tunes?

  12. Regarding form and transposition: If you've got a tune in F and someone wants it in A (only a singer...) transposing by mechanically wrenching each chord up a major third, one by one, isn't going to cut it. Far better to scope out a chunk of four bars or more as I-VI-ii V - tritone sub to I, and apply that scheme to the new key. It's just like reading - you don't read a letter at a time, or a word at a time, you take it in phrases.

    Regarding "knowing" a tune: I "know" hundreds, but I only have a couple of dozen installed in mental RAM at any time. It's more important to have played the tune sometime.

    Playing in the house section of a jam session is great reading/memory training. You're bound to be going round the form ten or twenty times, so make it a challenge to yourself to take your eyes off the page after three or four choruses. Memorise as you go along - even if it's just in short-term grey cells.

    I think how many tunes you have in memory is influenced by often and how widely you work. When I was working three or four nights a week (long time ago!) I got to the point where I hardly ever had to use books (but I still took 'em).

    Oh, and listening is as important as practising. A bassist called I Should Care on a jam the other day. I asked him whether he was thinking more Bud Powell or Bill Evans. The point is that once you're reasonably proficient at reading/faking, it can be enough just to have heard a tune or a certain treatment of it.

    Jason (pianist)

  13. It's crazy but I just read this article almost an year late.
    There is some lessons that are not teaching in the classroom.

    Amber showed 9 of 10 of my gig's when I arrived in Winnipeg learning everything she could about Brazilian Music there was a free Brazilian music lesson, she's a smart girl an example of dedication.

    I'm sure you George did your best here. Winnipeg and the musical community are missing you for sure, I'm missing you, but I'm glad I had the privilege and fortune to play with you and share musical and common ideas. Who wasn't there at our gig, missed.

    The musical repertoire vocabulary will still this infinite musical universe of variety, it doesn't matter: Brazilian, Cuban, American, Jazz. Fusion, Rock , pop... and lucky who are wanting to learn more every time....
    Thank you so music for sharing your experience George. I'll try to follow your blog more often from now! See ya!

  14. I'm abiding you George did your best here. Winnipeg and the agreeable association are missing you for sure, I'm missing you, but I'm animated I had the advantage and affluence to play with you and allotment agreeable and accepted ideas. Who wasn't there at our gig, missed.

    Cheap WOW Gold
    RS Gold

  15. Distinctive cars might have distinct areas like under the steering wheel, driving the ashtray, involving the front seats ps2 truck or under the driver's seat. A quick look at on line should really allow you to find the spot to your unique automobile if it is not easily obvious.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.