Lessons Learned: “Standards” – Determining Curricular Repertoire, Part 1

July 26, 2011

Dr. Mark Watkins

Given the extensive repertoire available to jazz musicians, it is sometimes daunting to know where to start, especially for the young player. Yet the responsibility remains for the university jazz program to prepare their students for the professional world in a sequential and timely manner covering appropriate styles and tune types. This is compounded when one considers that students may eventually reside in other geographical regions due to family, work opportunity, or graduate studies.

Three parameters might be considered when developing a curricular repertoire:

  1. Regional commonalities – which tunes constitute a unified and transferable foundation as opposed to those more common to one location than another
  2. Sequential learning – organization into freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior levels
  3. Exposure to styles – such as songbook standard, jazz standard, blues, Rhythm, bebop, ballad, Latin, fusion, avant garde, etc.

With the ideal of discovering a universal repertoire in mind, a survey was initiated to ascertain convention. There are many publications where writers have included a list of recommended tunes such as those by David Baker, Mark Levine, or Hal Crook. These are wonderful resources based on the experience of great professionals. The present study is designed to assess commonalities across a broad topography. The survey statement is informal, as follows:

I’m working on our jazz curriculum…and wondered if you could help me out. I’d like to refine our requirements for repertoire by comparing tune usage in various parts of the country.  Would you be willing to jot down a quick list of tunes that are played a lot in your area?  The number of tunes on the list doesn’t matter, just what comes to mind quickly as being the most called at gigs and jam sessions.

Thirty-seven respected jazz educator/performers responded. Names and locations are listed.

Six hundred and eleven different tunes were submitted. Of these, 263 are unduplicated, meaning the contributor included a composition that is used in their area but, since it is not on anybody else’s list, it may be considered regional or personal preference. Another 87 tunes are only mentioned on two submissions each. It should be noted that virtually every contributor emphasizes the profound significance of studying the blues and music based on “I Got Rhythm” chord changes.

Concurrence exists for many tunes. These might be considered most significant. Results of the survey are included on two lists. The first list ranks submissions recommended by at least ten contributors representing a more universal repertoire. The next list includes those included on at least five, making them secondary in commonality. Numbers to the left indicate how many contributors’ lists contain the reference.

List 1: Repertoire included on at least 10 contributor lists

List 2: Repertoire included on at least 5 contributor lists

Keep in mind that no list can be taken as conclusive. Contributors to the above lists were asked to submit what came to mind at the moment. Some included lists that they created for their teaching curriculum others only what they played regularly. Too many variables exist to be definitive.

Another angle is that of “compositions most recorded.” A list is posted at www.jazzstandards.com that ranks standards in this manner.

Many contributors added comments. These comments fall into ‘several’ categories: regional preferences, curricular considerations, venue demands, and personal preferences.

Regional Preferences

“For gigs – all the popular Sinatra tunes are a must-know.” (Shannon LeClaire, Boston)

“…For some reason certain tunes seem to be played more in some places at jam sessions than in other localities. …Lots and lots of original tunes were played there [Greely, CO], too. …Hoagy Carmichael tunes [Indiannapolis/Bloomington, IN].” (Jon Gudmundson, Seattle, Los Angeles, et al)

“We play quite a wide variety of tunes here…. We also play a lot of Latin standards… In general, most of the stuff we play is ii-V7-I oriented.” (Ed Calle, Miami)

“And of course many of the Motown tunes and older rock and roll standards take over half way through the event.” (John Rekevics, San Diego)

“Really, any standard by Rogers and Hart, Harold Arlen, Porter, Gershwin, etc. Any tune recorded by John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and many by Monk….” (Paul Bollenback, New York)

“There are two main jazz scenes in New Orleans.  One of which is based on New Orleans Traditional Jazz, which we call Trad Jazz, and the other is an extension of the bebop tradition that was modified by modern New Orleans players from Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Batiste, among others, to Wynton, Terrence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Nicholas Payton, and others.  Then there are the cats who work in both of these scenes and the New Orleans R&B Funk scene, like the Meters and the Neville Bros.” (Victor Atkins, New Orleans)

Curricular Considerations

“Irrespective of where they are when you get them, if you are interested in developing or maintaining a quality Jazz program, the focus must be on the following: 1) creating a positive relationship with tonal music (i.e. major/minor scales; ii-V-I chord progressions, etc.) because many young people have no relationship with the popular music from the Gershwin’s, Porter’s, Kern’s and others from their period whose songs heavily influenced jazz players of the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s through the early to middle 1960’s; 2) whenever possible, acquaint students with the songs from musicals like The Wizard of Oz, Oklahoma!, Oliver!, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and any other musicals which produced standards played and recorded by jazzmen like Hawkins, Davis, Evans and others; [and] 3) develop piano, bass, drum-set and guitar rhythm sections ASAP. Have them learn and play blues in selected keys and tempi. “ (Ellis Marsalis, New Orleans)

“… Tunes I feel every player should learn to play, either because they are tunes everyone knows or because they are good for one’s development as a player.” (Dennis Dotson, Houston)

“I don’t adhere to this [curricular repertoire] list religiously. Once my students get past the first two [foundational] groups we go somewhat based on their interest and somewhat based on the list.” (Tom Walsh, Indianapolis/Bloomington)

Venue Demands

“A lot of these tunes are called during the dinner sets for wedding and corporate party bands.  Then they get into the top 40/classic rock stuff.” (Mike Vance, Washington, DC)

“As far as tunes go they change from venue to venue depending on if it’s dinner music or concert music.” (Jim Mair, Kansas City)

“Some of these songs are not usually played in a ‘straight ahead’ jazz club setting but seem to be popular choices in a setting such as cocktail hour on ‘casuals.’  I think the intent of your project is to prepare students for what they might encounter in the real world so I kind of selected songs with that in mind.” (Rob Verdi, Las Angeles)

Personal Preferences

“More important, maybe, than actual tunes, I always play on any given program a piece by Monk, by Ellington, by Jimmy Rowles, a couple classic beboppers, in addition to my own things.” (Bill Mays, New York)

“…The repertoire in an area is largely affected by whom the seasoned band leaders are and what tunes they like to play.”  (Corey Christiansen, St. Louis, Atlanta, et al)

A second goal is to organize the most commonly expected repertoire (survey) into levels usable in a sequential manner: freshman to senior, easier to harder, simple to complex. Eleven respondents included their curricular lists; other sources come from university requirements as posted on Web sites, including: University of Northern Colorado, Manhattan School of Music, Sacramento State, University of California Los Angeles, Indiana University, University of Idaho, McGill University, Florida State University, University of Southern California, University of North Texas, University of Denver, and Rutgers University. These graded lists are combined to determine agreement and then matched with the survey. Some tunes are found under multiple years. A few additional titles are allowed if they appear on at least one survey response and on multiple university charts.

Dr. Mark Watkins has performed and lectured throughout the U.S., England, Wales, France, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Canada, Chile, Thailand, Singapore, and The Philippines with upcoming visits to Puerto Rico and Scotland in 2012. Comments regarding his latest CD, FOUR: On a Warm Summer’s Evenin’ include: “I need my Mark Watkins bop-fix!  This is great jazz from start to finish – beautiful, intelligent, soulful, swinging and all done with the highest caliber of performance.” (Noah Peterson, Portland), and “…Watkins’s diversified, fresh, and engaging writing results in new discoveries with every listen.” (Ed Calle, Miami) Watkins received his doctorate in five woodwind instruments from Indiana University and presently serves as Director of Jazz Studies at Brigham Young University–Idaho.


Leave a Comment