Learn some tunes: a rant.

Today, a rant directed at some young musicians who need to learn some tunes.

Recently, I have met more than a few senior high school and university jazz students who don’t know any tunes from memory. Not even one tune! In a jam session or sit-in situation, they struggle even to name a tune they would like to play. Others will happily call a tune but have no idea how it actually goes. “I don’t know it without a chart” they’ll say.

This is as astounding as it is dismaying.

Students, you need to actually know tunes in order to play them. It doesn’t matter whether I’m talking about jazz standards or something else. To know a tune and be able to play it means you know the head from memory well enough that you can play it accurately or, better still, play your interpretation of it. You must know the chord changes, from memory, and the form. The only exception is if your ears and experience are strong enough that you can hear these things right away (they aren’t and you can’t).

Really you should also be aware of other important or impactful versions of any tune you are learning. Yes, you should listen to other people and maybe learn from them.

If you have your head buried in a lead sheet or chord chart the whole time, you cannot effectively engage with the other members of the band or the audience, let alone with the tune itself. Jazz is not just about taking turns soloing in isolation. It isn’t even just about soloing and showing off your crazy chops. It is about creating music in collaboration with others, interactively, in real-time. You need to engage with the people and the music you are trying to make.

If nothing else, knowing tunes and chord changes from memory is convenient. Imagine not having to rely on a chart whenever you play?

There is no excuse. You don’t have to know everything, but at least a few tunes surely isn’t too much to ask. To not know a single one is embarrassing. It is not sustainable and seriously damages your potential for advancement as a jazz player.

Want to play jazz music? Go and do some work. Learn some tunes. It is worth it and it will transform you as a musician and your playing in a host of positive ways. It is relatively easy to do and the pay-off far outweighs the effort. Remember, you can do it!

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