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5 Jazz Tunes for Beginners

5 Jazz Tunes for Beginners
Latest posts by Pietro Venza (see all)

So you want to learn Jazz. That’s great, but where do you begin? I know you might be feeling disoriented trying to gather information about Jazz on the internet. If you type “Jazz guitar” on YouTube, many videos cover every subject, from the pentatonic scale to the scary Coltrane changes. Still, it is not common to find someone telling you what songs to learn and what to play over them if you’re a beginner.

Jazz is a style of music based on improvisation. So, you need to understand scales, arpeggios, and all that good stuff. But, what are you playing your scales over? It would be best never to forget that you will still be playing songs even if you want to be a Jazz musician. That’s the most crucial part of the equation.

Maybe you want to play a gig. What should you learn to prepare? Songs. Even if you only want to jam with your friends, you will still need to learn songs. Musicians play tunes, and Jazz musicians play Jazz Standards.

Standards are the bread and butter of any Jazz musician worth his salt. When I was in college, my teachers always told me that old-school Jazz musicians wouldn’t even want to play with them before they had learned at least 100 standards.

Luckily for us, things are different nowadays, but we still need to know a few songs. But, which ones? Today, I will talk to you about five Jazz standards that you can learn as a beginner.

All of Me

“All of Me” is one of the first standards that every aspiring Jazz guitar player should learn. This piece, written by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons in 1931, features an A B A C structure.

Every section lasts eight bars, so the song is thirty-two bars long. Therefore, once you go through the C section, you have to go back to the beginning and start from the top again. Let’s look at the lead sheet for the song.

all of me notes

Unless you are playing with a singer who might have some preferences about the song’s key, this piece is usually played in the key of C Major. Whenever you have to analyze a Jazz standard, I suggest approaching it section by section. So, let’s start with the A.

all of me notes

As you can expect, the first chord is indeed C Major 7, and it lasts for two bars. Followed by an E Dominant 7, then an A Dominant 7, and finally a D minor 7, each played for two bars. If you refer to the chords as degrees of the C Major Scale (C D E F G A B = I II III IV V VI VII), you are playing a I (First Degree = C Major 7), III7 (Third Degree Dominant = E7), VI7 (Sixth Degree Dominant = A7), IIm7 (Second Degree = Dm7).

The melody of a Jazz standard is also known as the “head”. Memorizing the head is crucial when studying a Jazz standard. Not only because you might have to play it on occasions but also because it can be helpful during your improvisations.

The first four bars of the A section’s melody are based on the arpeggios of the chords. So, bar one features a descending C Major arpeggio over a CMaj7 chord, and the same goes for bar three, where we find an E Major arpeggio over an E7 chord.

The head doesn’t particularly highlight the A7 in bars five and six because the chord’s third is missing (in this case, the note C#). On the other hand, the third of the Dm7 (the note F) pops up in bars seven and eight.

A good trick to start improvising on the A section of “All of Me” is to use arpeggios. The melody gives you a hint on how to play arpeggios in the first four bars, so over our CMaj7 and E7, but you can also play the A7 and Dm7 arpeggios over their respective chord.

You can also experiment with different rhythms and add extra notes from the C Major scale. Don’t worry if it doesn’t sound like the most exciting Jazz solo ever played. The most important thing is that you memorize the chords and start to “anticipate” them in your head.

Now let’s take a look at the B section.

all of me notes

The B section starts with an E7 chord going to an Am7 (III7 going to VIm), another perfect occasion to play your E7 arpeggio, just like the melody suggests in bar ten. Then, from bar thirteen to bar sixteen, we encounter a typical Jazz chord progression: we start from a D7 (II7) which then turns into a Dm7 (IIm7), going to a G7 (V7). Have you ever heard about the two-five-one (II – V – I)? Well, there you have it.

Whenever you have to play over these kinds of chord progressions, I always suggest that you emphasize the thirds of the chords. Therefore, you should play these notes: G# on E7, C on Am7, F# on D7, F (natural) on Dm7, and B on G7.

Only one note over every chord will not be enough to play an entire solo. Still, you have to give a higher value to the third, which you should try to play on downbeats, but you can “fill” the remaining spaces with other notes from the C Major Scale or the arpeggios for each chord.

Finally, let’s analyze the C section.

all of me notes

The C section of “All of Me” is the last part of the structure, and it is also the richest for what concerns harmony. It starts from the IV chord, which in the key of C Major is F. It then applies a traditional move going to Fm7 (IVm7) and then resolving to Em7 (IIIm7), functioning as a “substitute” chord for CMaj7 (Em7 is a CMaj9 chord without the C note).

The Em7 (or Cmaj7 substitution) in bar 27 is the starting point of a turnaround composed using IIIm7 (Em7) (could be I, so CMaj7), VI7 (A7), IIm7 (Dm7), and V7 (G7) resolving to the I chord (CMaj7).

The I (or III) – VI – II – V is a typical progression in Jazz standards. You can approach improvising over the entire C section by playing arpeggios and emphasizing the thirds, just like we did before, but remember that you can also choose to play a single scale over a turnaround like the one starting at bar 27.

For example, you can play the C Major or the C Minor Pentatonic scale, and you’ll get a more soulful, bluesier sound than if you were to arpeggiate the chords. I suggest you experiment with both approaches.

Overall, “All of Me” is a very approachable Jazz piece for you to learn. It has a simple, singable melody that’s easy to memorize and usable as a starting point to develop an improvised solo. The chords are not that hard to solo over if you apply the concept of emphasizing the thirds.

It is a standard that pretty much every Jazz musician knows, so you should be able to play it with almost everybody that is into Jazz, regardless of their level.

I suggest you listen to the Louis Armstrong version of this song, which should give you a clear idea of this composition’s feel and mood.

So What

“So What” is one of the most iconic Jazz standards composed by the legendary Miles Davis. The album that this piece is taken from is “Kind of Blue”, released in 1959, a massive milestone in Jazz history. This is arguably one of the most influential Modal Jazz records ever made, and “So What” is a perfect example of this genre.

The repetitive and straightforward harmonic nature of the chord progression makes this song an ideal beginner Jazz standard to learn. You’ll have plenty of time over only one chord before the next one comes. Let’s look at the lead sheet.

so what notes

The structure is A A B A. Every A is in the key of D minor, while the B is in Eb minor. So, it is fair to say that the piece is mainly in the key of Dm.

The part labeled as “BASS RIFF/MELODY” is a phrase played by the bass player in the original recording, but I included it in this lead sheet anyway because it could be considered as the melody of this song.

There is no difference between the A and B sections: the same riff and chords are played in two different keys. First Dm, and then Ebm.

Overall, you can see that the piece is pretty simple. You only have two parallel chords per section, played back to back in response to the bass riff. These would be your Em11 and Dm11 in the A section and your Fm11 and Ebm11 in the B section.

so what notes

These are what you would call Quartal Chords, the essential sound of Modal Jazz and a powerful tool for a more modern approach to jazz harmony. Let me explain.

Usually, chords are built in thirds. For example, a traditionally voiced Dm7 chord would be constructed like this: D (First Degree), F (Minor Third), A (Fifth Degree), and C (Minor Seventh).

These four notes are all third intervals apart, which would look like this (don’t pay too much attention to the Tablature because this chord is not easily playable on the guitar).

so what notes

On the other hand, the quartal version of this Dm7 chord uses fourth intervals stacked on top of each other.

so what notes

Using the quartal harmony approach to build chords will sound more open and almost “suspended”. To use fourths instead of thirds, you must sacrifice the A note (Fifth Degree) and put the G note (Fourth Degree) in its place. Adding the fourth to a minor seventh chord will transform it to a minor eleventh (same as minor fourth) chord.

Using the quartal harmony approach to build chords will sound more open and almost “suspended”. To use fourths instead of thirds, you must sacrifice the A note (Fifth Degree) and put the G note (Fourth Degree) in its place. Adding the fourth to a minor seventh chord will transform it to a minor eleventh (same as minor fourth) chord.

To improvise a solo over a modal piece like “So What” is undoubtedly more accessible for a beginner than doing it over a structure with more chords, like the standards from the bebop era. Still, jamming over a single chord for a relatively long time is not a piece of cake.

I suggest you start using the D Dorian Scale (D-E-F-G-A-B-C) for the A section and the Eb Dorian Scale (Eb-F-Gb-Ab-Bb-C-Db) for the B section. The Dorian Scale’s peculiarity is the major sixth instead of the minor sixth you would find in the natural minor scale. This note sounds sweeter than its minor counterpart, making it easier to manage over more extended periods.

“So What” is a standard that you can constantly improve upon because that’s the beauty of modal Jazz. One chord can be easy to deal with if you’re thinking about one scale and one arpeggio, but as soon as you start implementing “weirder” notes, it will act as a blank canvas to express your musicality.

I suggest you listen to the original version of the piece, as played by Miles Davis in “Kind of Blue”.

Blue Bossa

“Blue Bossa” is a song written by Kenny Dorham and first recorded by Joe Henderson on his 1963 album “Page One”. It is a simple Jazz standard to learn because it doesn’t have many chords, and the ones in there are pretty much in the same key.

This piece has some minor blues-ish vibes in the A section, with a modulation in the B section. Still, as the name suggests, it is generally played over a Bossa Nova groove. Let’s look at the lead sheet.

blues bossa notes

“Blue Bossa” is based on a simple A B structure, where each section is eight bars long, resulting in a sixteen-bars chorus. Bear in mind that the first bar of the composition (before the A section starts) is not included in the count.

The A section is in the key of C minor, while the B section modulates to Db Major, only to return to C minor in the last four bars. Let’s take a look at the A section by itself.

blues bossa notes

The first chord of this section is a Cm7, followed by an Fm7. This is a typical “I minor to “IV minor” chord progression, standard in songs that use a minor blues structure, hence the blues-ish nature of the composition I mentioned before. It then goes on to play a Dm7(b5) (Second Degree) to a G7 (Fifth Degree), resolving to our I chord, Cm7. This is a minor II – V – I (Dm7(b5) – G7 – Cm7).

These chords are all in the key of C minor, so if you choose to play the C Natural Minor Scale (C – D – Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb), you will not run into any problematic notes (as long as you don’t emphasize the Bb note over G7). Still, I suggest you practice playing the relative arpeggios and using the thirds of the chords to improvise. I firmly believe that this is always the best approach to improvisation. The melody, which in this case is very scale-sounding, could also be a good starting point to develop your solo.

Let’s now analyze the B section.

blues bossa notes

As I previously mentioned, the B section starts with a modulation to the key of Db Major. It is achieved with a II – V – I, beginning with an Ebm7 (II m7) chord, going to Ab7 (V 7), and resolving to a DbMaj7 (I Maj7). The remaining four bars adopt the same approach to go back to the key of C minor, using a minor II – V – I or Dm7(b5) – G7 – Cmin7, precisely as we saw it at the end of the A section.

Melodically, the B section continues the piece’s first half. So, this is still a heavy scale-based head. We can take advantage of that by using the Db Major Scale (Db – Eb – F – Gb – Ab – Bb – C) over the first four bars and, once again, the C Natural Minor Scale over the last four. Anyway, do not neglect the arpeggios and the emphasis on the thirds. It is crucial.

“Blue Bossa” is a good piece for experimenting with scales and II – V – I progressions. You shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the chords as long as you choose an appropriate tempo that you feel comfortable playing in. Remember: you can start using just the C Natural Minor scale and the Db Major scale and gradually focus more on the arpeggios and the thirds of the chords.

I recommend listening to the original Joe Henderson version of this Jazz standard.

Autumn Leaves

“Autumn Leaves” is a classic jazz standard. Everybody in the Jazz world knows this piece and has played it probably more than a thousand times. Initially composed by Joseph Kosma in 1945, this piece is a perfect beginner-to-intermediate level template to practice your improvisational skills.

Unlike the other standards I’ve already discussed, “Autumn Leaves” has many chords. Still, most of them act as II – V – I progressions, and even if it might be hard to “catch” these chords while improvising over them, this is an unavoidable exercise you will need to approach at some point if you’re serious about learning Jazz. Anyway, let’s look at the lead sheet.

autumn leaves notes

“Autumn Leaves” is in the key of G minor, and it has an A A B C structure. If you were to look up this standard on the Real Book (the collection of lead sheets of most of the Jazz repertoire), you would find it written in the key of E minor.

This happened because jazz students made the transcriptions in the original Real Book, and they transcribed a specific version of “Autumn Leaves” that happened to be played in the “wrong” key. So, it would be best if you learned it in G minor because it is the most popular key for this specific piece.

As I said before, the relatively high number of chords in this piece might be intimidating if you’re a beginner, but you shouldn’t worry too much about this. The entire song is in one key (G minor), and you could get away with playing just the G Natural Minor Scale over the whole thing. Sure, you might want to use arpeggio, but it’s good to know that if you play said scale, at least you won’t be playing any “bad notes”.

Let’s analyze the A section.

autumn leaves notes

The first chord in “Autumn Leaves” is a Cm7, which, together with the following F7 and BbMaj7 chords, gives us the first II – V – I progression of this standard. In this case, the I, or resolving chord, is the BbMaj7.

That’s because the chord numbering is always relative. So, don’t think that if you’re playing a piece in the key of G minor (just like “Autumn Leaves”), then any II – V – I must always be meant to resolve to a Gm chord.

The following chord is an EbMaj7 (bVI in the key of G minor), which leads us to the Am7(b5) to D7 to Gm7. This is the second II – V – I progression we encounter, but it’s a minor variation this time.

The A section of “Autumn Leaves” melodically follows the “third-emphasis concept” faithfully. As you can see, there’s an Eb note on the Cm7, A on F7, D on BbMaj7, G on EbMaj7, and so on.

Still, although I strongly suggest you practice the third and arpeggio approach, the G Natural Minor Scale (G – A – Bb – C – D – Eb – F) has all the right notes you need to play over these chords (as long as you don’t play the F note on the D7 chord too much).

Let’s move on to the B section.

autumn leaves notes

Harmonically speaking, there’s nothing new here. The B section begins with a minor II – V – I (Am7(b5) – D7 – Gm7) followed by another II – V – I made using the Cm7 – F7 – BbMaj7 chord progression. The EbMaj7 comes right after that. So, the chords for this section are the same as the previous one, basically played “backward”.

Since the chords are the same, nothing changes on the improvisational side. Still, the ascending linear nature of the head in the B section might be an exciting starting cue to develop a cool “scalar” improvised solo over this part of the song. I suggest you experiment with this and the arpeggios of the chords.

Let’s take a look at the C section.

autumn leaves notes

The C section of “Autumn Leaves” is probably the trickiest part if you look at the chords. After another minor II – V – I (Am7(b5) – D7 – Gm7), we encounter a few new chords.

So, the Gm7 to C7 is a II – V progression, resolving to Fm7 (I). Still, the Fm7, besides being the resolution of this II – V, also acts as the starting point of another II – V progression: Fm7 to Bb7. This second II – V is a bit weirder than the other ones we’ve looked at in “Autumn Leaves”.

That’s because it doesn’t resolve to a I chord. The resolving chord should have been an Eb of some sort, but we find an Am7(b5) in its place. This is a pretty standard chordal move, although slightly more challenging than the rest of the song. Anyway, the final four bars present another minor II – V – I progression (Am7(b5) – D7 – Gm7) that concludes the piece.

How do you approach improvising over the Gm7 – C7 – Fm7 – Bb7 progression? In this case, you have no choice but to use arpeggios and the third-emphasis concept. That’s the only way to actually “follow” the chords. Still, I can tell you from experience that if you manage to play the G Minor Pentatonic Scale (G – Bb – C – D – F) with the right “bluesy” attitude over these chords, you’re going to be just fine.

“Autumn Leaves” is one of the most played jazz standards ever written, and I strongly suggest you learn it as soon as possible. You will play it sooner than you think if you want to play Jazz.

I suggest you listen to this version by Chet Baker and Paul Desmond if you want to get a feel for the original mood of the song. On the other hand, this version by Wynton Marsalis is a more intricate approach that I think some of you might enjoy.

Take The A Train

“Take The A Train” is one of my favorite Jazz standards. Although relatively simple, this piece has some cool-sounding chords and a very hip head. After all, this shouldn’t be a surprise since this song (written in 1939 by Billy Strayhorn) was famously played by Duke Ellington, one of the founding fathers of the golden era of Jazz.

The structure is pretty straightforward, and the chords are simple. This song sounds cool to me because of the “outside-sounding” D7(b5) chord, which makes “Take The A Train” have a unique overall vibe. The famous piano intro for this piece is not included in the score I wrote for you, but you can listen to the original version here. Anyway, let’s take a look at our lead sheet.

take the a train notes

The piece is in the key of C Major, with a traditional A A B A structure. As you can see, the chords are pretty long and spacious, and the melody is not overly complicated to play. These characteristics mean that this is an easy Jazz standard to learn if you’re a beginner.

Let’s analyze the A section.

take the a train notes

The chords for the A section of “Take The A Train” are not complex. The song starts with a CMaj7 going to a D7(b5), which creates a very identifiable sound. The last four bars of this section present us with a II – V – I progression, going from Dm7 to G7 to CMaj7.

For what concerns improvisation, you could approach this section of the song by playing only the C Major Scale (C – D – E – F – G – A – B), as long as you substitute the F note for an F# note when playing over the D7(b5).

Still, it must be clear that I prefer the third-emphasis and arpeggio approach, particularly when the melody follows it as well, just like in this case. Except for the G7 chord, where we find a more scalar and chromatic approach, the head for the A section uses mainly the notes from the chords, hence my advice to practice arpeggios more than scales.

Let’s move on to the B section.

take the a train notes

The B section is even simpler than the last part of the song we analyzed. Harmonically, the first four bars require you to play only one chord: FMaj7, which is the fourth degree of the C Major Scale. Then, you will have to play a simplified version of our D7(b5), so just a D7. You can play the b5 version of the chord if you like it more. Finally, we finish this section with a II – V – I progression (Dm7 – G7 – CMaj7).

The melody in this section is quite consonant sounding because it again uses the notes from the chords. It is fantastic to see that the head is quite “repetitive” here. The same melody happens twice (once every four bars), but the change from the F note (in bar 14) to the F# note (in bar 18) is a very clever compositional “trick”.

Talking about the improvisational approach you need to have, I suggest playing the F Major Scale (F – G – A – Bb – C – D – E) over the FMaj7 chord. Four bars can be pretty long, so you have time to experiment with the full scale.

Then, play the C Major Scale with the F# note instead of the F note (also called the Lydian Scale). The following II – V – I can be approached by playing the C Major Scale. Still, although I only talked about scales, remember that the third-emphasis and arpeggios approach is almost always the best choice.

Overall, “Take The A Train” is an excellent standard that I enjoy playing. Some songs might be simple, but that doesn’t mean they can’t sound good. This piece is a perfect example of that.

If you want to listen to a different song arrangement, I suggest checking out this version by legendary Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald.

FAQs

Let me answer some of the questions you might have on your mind after reading this article.

Question: Why do I need to emphasize the thirds of the chords? Can’t I think about scales while I’m playing?

Answer: The third is arguably the most defining note within a chord. It gives you the essential information you need to know about a specific chord: whether it’s major or minor. So, for example, as long as you play an E note over a C bass note, that will always mean C Major.

On the other hand, if you switch to an Eb note over the same bass tone, you will get a C minor sound. That’s the power of the third. If you manage to find a way to highlight the thirds in your solos, you will always sound like you’re “glued” to the chords. Good improvisers can make you understand what harmony they’re playing over even when nobody plays chords behind them.

While playing, the problem with thinking about scales is that not every note inside them is equal. For example, an A note over a C bass will give more of an A minor sound. An F note will provide you with an F power chord sound. These notes are in the C Major Scale, so they’re not “wrong”. Still, neither will make a C Major sound. Bear that in mind.

Question: I can’t improvise over these standards. Do you have any advice?

Answer: It’s ok if you cannot play Jazz songs right away. These five standards are only relatively easy, so you shouldn’t feel discouraged. My advice is to break things up into tiny chunks. So, for example, if you’re having trouble with the B section of “Autumn Leaves”, work on the first two or four bars only. Also, this will sound contradictory, but you can even “pre-write” your improvisation.

Good Jazz musicians have a repertory of licks and phrases that they can put together as they wish. This is called “vocabulary”. Therefore, improvising doesn’t mean coming up on the spot with stuff you’ve never played before; quite the contrary. So, the best advice I can give you is to build your Jazz language vocabulary. You can do it yourself or learn other musicians’ solos over these standards. Either way, this is the right approach.

Question: Does the advice you gave work only for Jazz standards?

Answer: Of course not. It is pretty universal. I only gave you essential advice on improvisation without getting too specific about any genre. The third-emphasis and arpeggio approach will make you sound like you know what chords you are playing over. Whether that’s a II – V – I or the chords to “Stairway To Heaven” don’t make a difference.

Conclusion

I wanted to give you a clearer idea of what songs you need to learn to get into Jazz. Now, of course, you can learn different tunes. There are a gazillion Jazz standards, and all of them will help you get better as a musician.

Still, some of them might be too hard if you’re a beginner, and the five pieces I talked about here are essential to your Jazz repertoire. It is unlikely you won’t have to play any of these five songs if you go to a jam session.

Studying Jazz will make you understand music more. So, even if you are not planning to become a Jazz guitar player, I will still suggest getting into it for a while.

You will have a better understanding of harmony, your ears will be much more accurate, and you might also improve your technique if you listen to the right musicians.

A little bit of Jazz will do you no harm, and these five songs are a great place to start. Have fun!