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     ...jazz standards, song form, etc.

    You need to know tunes!
    By Phil Smith

    Volumes have been written about the importance of knowing standard tunes commonly played as part of the jazz repertoire. However they are invariably aimed at melodic and harmonic instrumentalists. Unfortunately many young drummers fall into this trap and tend to just "follow along" rather than learn the music. Good instincts will only get you so far in this business. To be a successful, working drummer, knowing the repertoire is an absolute must. This article is primarily aimed at popular tunes normally referred to as "standards". These songs were originally written for Broadway or by composers and lyricists who worked for Tin Pan Alley publishers. This article also addresses a separate style of music known as "jazz standards". Jazz standards were penned by jazz musicians (such as Horace Silver, Benny Golson, Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron, Wayne Shorter, etc.) and intended for play inside the jazz idiom exclusively. Many of the same characteristics described below apply to jazz standards. However within that discipline of music there can be many different and sometimes complex challenges that do not adhere to common forms or styles. When encountering this type of song it will require case-by-case study.

    Lyrically Challenged

    "Fish gotta swim"!, yelled the saxophonist to the band. The players executed a flawless segue from one song to another. About 3 minutes later the old haggard leader turned to us one more time and said, "I took a trip on a train"!
    "Huh"?!, I asked the bassist standing next to me. He smiled and said nothing executing another perfect modulation into another song. This second time I knew something was happening and I began to sweat. The fear of the unknown is absolutely gut wrenching to the on-stage musician. There's nothing like public humiliation for a quick jolt into reality. "Missed the Saturday dance"!

    Finally I understood what was happening. Instead of calling the names of the songs, the leader (who was also an accomplished vocalist) was calling new tunes by giving the first line of their respective lyrics. The other musicians on the bandstand (who were also older than myself) knew the lyrics to all the songs and were able to make quick segues with no problem. After a few more gigs with this leader I became much more aware of the lyrical content of standard jazz tunes.

    Most young musicians concentrate on instrumentalists of their same discipline. With this in mind they seldom hear or realize that many standards they routinely play have lyrics. Knowing these lyrics could certainly help you in situations like the one illustrated above. Knowing the words can also help you tremendously with memorizing the melody making you more aware of the structure of the song. Lyrics are also an excellent tool in helping you learn how to phrase timekeeping and solo ideas over the form.
    The best way to learn lyrics and phrasing is to listen to the great jazz vocalists. Anything sung by Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McCrae, Joe Williams, or Johnny Hartman is bound to be a perfect example. There is a plethora of vocal fake books available that have lyrics and melodies for you to study. Another great source for lyrics is the internet. There are several sites dedicated to lyrics so a quick visit to any search engine can put great information in front of you.

    Warm for the Form

    If you aren't aware that the standards you are playing have a strict form, which you are repeating over and over again, it's time to get to work. This standard type of music operates on simple song forms often indicated by letters for the different sections of each tune. The most common song form is indicated by the AABA structure. The majority of the time this form is 32 bars in length with the bridge coming third in the sequence (er go the letter "B") of 8 bar phrases. Common songs with this form are, "Satin Doll", "Don't Get Around Much Anymore", and "Body and Soul".

    Another common 32 bar style tune is the ABAC form (or ABAB'). Sometimes musicians refer to this as a "1st ending, 2nd ending" form. This kind of tune doesn't have a bridge. Instead it has 2 like sections (the beginning of the song and the start of the 17th measure) that are followed by two different 8-measure endings. Sample tunes with that form are, "Just Friends", "All of Me", and "Out of Nowhere".

    The 12 bar blues is another common song form that should be mastered. It can easily be recognized by its simple chord progression using I7, IV7, and V7 chords. Some players also prefer to learn the form by breaking it down to three separate, four measure phrases. The first of these 3 phrases begins with the I chord, the second phrase begins with the IV chord, and the third phrase starts with the V chord. Sample blues include, "Things Ain't What They Used to Be", Straight No Chaser", and "Billie's Bounce".

    Finally, one bit of useful information that often goes unmentioned (until an accident occurs on the bandstand) is that all tunes under 32 measures in length should be played twice through before starting the solos and when finishing the song. Even though this may not be true all of the time, most experienced musicians will do this as a general rule of thumb.

    Formus Interruptus

    As you might expect, not all jazz standards follow one of the forms we've previously talked about. In fact, sometimes what starts out as a familiar 32 bar tune turns into a nameless, faceless beast crashing through normal phrase endings and cadences leaving you grasping at straws as just to when this thing might end.

    One common device that adds length to a tune is the 4 or 8 (or even longer) measure tag. These extensions are commonly added to the end of a song. Some songs with this addition are, "I Got Rhythm" (the original version, not a rewritten version with a new melody, i.e. "Oleo"), "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You", "Where or When", "Star Eyes", and "All the Things You Are".

    Occasionally some composers will extend the length of the song's bridge. "Cheek to Cheek" and "Devil May Care" are good examples of this type of elongated bridge. Also, jazz composer Horace Silver did this with his latin tune, "Cape Verdean Blues".

    Of course, some songs are exclusive of any traditional form and must be learned on their own. A few commonly played songs that fit this description are "Old Devil Moon", "I'll Remember April", and "No More Blues" by Jobim.

    One of the great things about learning tunes with abnormal forms is that many of them are readily available on the Aebersold series of play-alongs. These recordings try to replicate what it will be like on the bandstand hence things like feel changes and solo breaks are usually included. Use these play-alongs to your advantage even though most of them already have drums recorded. Sometimes you can turn down either the left or right channel on your stereo to reduce the presence of the drums.

    Another thing that I like to do is make my own play-along. Most drum machines have melodic capabilities that allow you to program your own song into the memory. By doing this you can quickly familiarize yourself with the song and customize your play-along with as many feel changes, solo breaks and choruses as you like. Plus it will allow you the flexibility to play the song as a ballad or at break neck speed.

    Tune Recognition = Style Indication

    Naturally, all competent drummers must be well versed in all styles of drumming. Swing, latin, straight 8th, ballads, ECM feel, etc. are all common styles that today's drummer must be proficient with. Many songs that we are called upon to play are synonymous with the various styles mentioned above. Bandleaders will expect you to play a Bossa Nova if they call, "Black Orpheus" or "How Insensitive". Likewise they'd expect to hear broken straight 8th time if they called, "Icarus" or "The Sidewinder". Also, don't forget about tunes that combine different feels. One of the most common style changes encountered on the bandstand is from swing to latin (or vice versa). "On Green Dolphin Street", "Nica's Dream", "Bolivia" and "Stablemates" fit that description.

    Naturally one must be adept in a variety of different drumming styles to be comfortable playing any tune. Basic things such as independence and steady tempo should already be perfected in order to concentrate on learning the song. A great way to perfect feel and style changes is to use 8 and 16 measure phrases changing between swing, latin and other styles. Special concentration should be given to setting up the transition from one feel to another. Practice leading the band into the new feel/style by phrasing the last few bars of the old time feel with a fill phrased in the new time feel. This is standard procedure for must drummers but it must be practiced regularly in order to hear (and play) a different feel while another style is being played. In the practice room use a metronome while working on this since most of us have tendencies to either rush or drag different time feels.

    Transcribing is also a good way to learn some of the more esoteric grooves associated with studying jazz repertoire. Writing out contemporary, broken time feels by drummers like Jack Dejohnette, Jon Christensen, and Bill Stewart will certainly give you a more thorough understanding of the style, feel and mood of the tune.

    Definitive Recordings

    The bandleader calls the Cole Porter song, "All of You". One, Two and away we go, right? Not really. You are definitely hearing a common 32 bar form but do you really know this tune? If you're familiar with songs via fake books you could be in for a surprise once you encounter them on a gig. Many musicians learned songs they way they were arranged and performed by the players who popularized them. So it is highly suggested that you do your homework and study these definitive recordings because you will eventually be asked to play one of them. This in itself is the best reason to increase your cd library and listening chops. Now back to the problem tune. The definitive version of the aforementioned song is on the Miles Davis album, "Round About Midnight". The arrangement of this tune is not difficult only different but it could certainly cause major confusion among the musicians if they are not aware of this version. Other great drummer specific examples of this would be, "Poinciana" by the Ahmad Jamal trio (featuring Vernel Fournier), from "Live at the Pershing" and "Billy Boy" (featuring Philly Joe Jones) on Miles Davis', "Milestones".

    Learning definitive versions takes time and patience. Finding the recordings and taking the time to really listen to them is the only way to achieve success. Keep in mind that even in today's quick study, computer driven age some of the most valuable information we have is not found in books, computers and DVDs. The best resources are knowledgeable players and educators in your area that can point you in the right direction. They can recommend recordings for you to hear and possibly even have charts for you to study as well. Another great exercise is to use the recordings you find as play-alongs. After repeated listening the characteristics of the definitive versions will soon become very comfortable to navigate.


    As you can see, sometimes just asking the band leader if a song is "swing, latin, or rock" just isn't enough. Knowing tunes is not just for harmonic or melodic instrumentalists. It's the drummer's duty to know the song inside out along with the many regularly played versions. Remember, great drummers navigate the band through the intricacies of a tune and play the song from the inside out. The only way to effectively do this is through knowledge. Conversely, lack of knowledge gives way to lack of confidence and indecision - two of the biggest nemeses facing all musicians. So, do your homework, be prepared and don't let ignorance ruin the gig for you. Learn to enjoy the music and play for the moment, not out of fear.

    Phil Smith has been a first call drummer in Atlanta, GA for years. He holds a Bachelor's
    Degree in Music from the University of Tennessee and a Master's Degree in Music from Memphis
    State University.  He has also studied privately with Ed Soph, Steve Houghton, and Jeff Hamilton.

    Along with drumming, Phil is also actively involved in writing and percussion education.  He has taught at the University of Memphis and the Atlanta Institute of Music and is currently teaching from his own private lesson studio. Phil is an active clinician, having performed at several NAMM conventions, the Berklee College of Music, and various music stores across the United States. Phil is an endorsing artist for Bosphorus Cymbals, Aquarian Drum Heads, and Regal Tip Sticks and Brushes. Please visit Phil on the net at www.philsmithdrums.com.


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