TO KNOW TUNES!!!
...jazz standards, song form, etc.
You need to know tunes!
By Phil Smith
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Tune Recognition = Style Indication
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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