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Instructional Content

Clarinet, Saxophone, Jazz

What Jazz Tunes Should I Learn?

by Denis Diblasio


I want to talk to you about learning tunes and what tunes are good to learn. If you don’t sit-in a lot, you’re not sure what to learn. What tunes should I put together? What tunes should I learn? Should I learn bebop tunes, swing tunes, ballads, Latin tunes, calypso tunes, tunes in ¾? Well, there’s an awful lot to do just to even out your tunes; you have tunes from all different styles. But, what should I learn if I don’t sit in a lot or if I’m just starting? This is one of the things I do; I actually do two things with my students. I’m going to give you an idea of how to look at certain types of tunes. This is just one technique:

1. Learn some tunes that have short forms (tunes that are 16 bars or less)

Any blues tunes. I’m going to name you a few tunes that are 16 bars or less: Solar, Blue Bossa, Tune Up, Lady Bird, St. Thomas, Beatrice, Blue and Green, Cantaloupe Island, Doxy, Sugar, On the Trail, Minority, When the Saints Go Marching In, Watermelon Man. Those tunes are all 16 bars or less. It’s good to think that way because if you try to learn a tune like Lush Life or Invitation or some tune that has a really long form, the amount of time it would take you to put together a long form tune, you can probably learn 3 shorter tunes. These tunes aren’t better or worse than the long form tune but if you need to expand your vocabulary, this is a good way to think. And when you’re learning these tunes, if you can comp the chord changes on piano, if you can memorize the comp and chord changes (I don’t know why) but it seems that every tune I’ve learned how to comp on piano, I can never forget it. I try, but I can’t forget it. So I don’t know what that type of process is for the piano but for me, it locks it in. So if you can comp these tunes, that will really be helpful. So that’s one list—that’s one way to think about it: short form tunes.

Now here’s something else. Dan Hurly is a great piano player, great teacher, he has a book out called “The Jazz Sound.” It’s been out for years and he talks about it, and it’s worth its weight in gold. I keep saying that because some of these books have little nuggets that are just great and explain a lot.

2. Bracketing

So what he’ll do is he’ll look at a series of chord changes and realize that all of the chords are basically built off a scale. So if you had Dminor, G7, C, that all comes from the scale of C major. Which then means you can use C major over that whole distance that these chords exist. So if I pull chords out of the C scale, while those chords exist, I can just play the C scale on top. He calls that “bracketing”—“bracketing” the tonality or “bracketing” the scale on top of the chords that come from that scale. Well it just so happens that there are a couple tunes that you can bracket the whole tune on. If you learn the melody, you can play a scale over the whole form and I call that “bracket-able tunes.” When I teach my students I tell them ‘here are some tunes, learn the melody, and then right off the bat you can bracket.' Which still means you have to bring in good time, good sound, good concept, you still have to swing—all of that stuff. All of that stuff we’ve talked about (articulation) that all has to be in there.

But this is a way to at least get into the tune and you can be creating on it. And then, very shortly after that, we’re getting in and learning where the 3rds and 7ths of each chord. But if you know some tunes that are “bracket-able” and you know the melody, you can basically play tunes likes that. So this is another type of tune. Tunes like: Autumn Leaves, Bye Bye Blackbird, Doxy, Dearly Beloved, Melancholy Baby, Softly as a Morning Sunrise, St. Thomas, Summertime, Fly Me to the Moon.

So, two types of tunes that you could look for: short form tunes and bracket-able tunes. In the time that it will take you to be able to play these types of tunes, you will be able to play more of these types of tunes than something that of a really, really long form. Keep that in mind. Look for short forms and look for bracket-able tunes.

Short Form

  • Solar
  • Blue Bossa
  • Tune Up
  • Lady Bird
  • St. Thomas
  • Beatrice
  • Blue and Green
  • Cantaloupe Island
  • Doxy
  • Sugar
  • On the Trail
  • Minority
  • When the Saints Go Marching In
  • Watermelon Man


  • Autumn Leaves
  • Bye Bye Blackbird
  • Doxy
  • Dearly Beloved
  • Melancholy Baby
  • Softly as a Morning Sunrise
  • St. Thomas
  • Summertime
  • Fly Me to the Moon