Blog post
20 January 2019
Alec Katz piano

Playing Jazz Standards

Last updated on August 21, 2019

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The Great American Song Book

The Great American Song Book, a collection of American popular songs from the early 20th century by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Richard Rodgers, and others become a musical treasure. Songs from The American Song Book are a big part of the jazz (and not only jazz) repertoire. They inspire generations of musicians and listeners all over the world.

Songs from The Great American Song Book or American Standards often have some common elements – like harmonic structure or form. Nevertheless, each one of them has something special. Sometimes it would be and that beautiful melody or harmonic movement or combination of both. My mentor and friend Dutch pianist Frans Elsen used to say about American Songs that they are kind of little masterpieces, like Schubert songs.

Learning The Standards

American standards were written by Academically trained people who came from a word of European classical tradition. Barry Harris talks about American standards and composers:

Here is what Barry Harris says about American standards and composers:

” Most of the standards were written by the Italians, Russians … – Europeans. You very seldom find a standard that isn’t correct. Most of them are correct, there are no phony shifts in standards. That’s because those cats who came from [Europe] had a joist in theory… “

Learning to play jazz standards can teach us a lot about harmony and its connection with the melody, voice leading, phrasing, and interpretation.

Real Books and Fake Books are good sources for learning standards but sometimes they miss some important information even the chord changes are not correct. You should be always considering checking out the original sheet music of the song. It has the right melody, lyrics, and correct changes. Sometimes there important counterlines which are a part of the song. And, of course, listen to the recordings, especially recordings by the great singers like Billy Holiday, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole. This way you will be inspired by the lyrics, understand the right phrasing and the rhythm of the melody.

There are much beauty and harmonic interest in orchestrations made for singers. The piano players can learn so much from that.

The great arranger Nelson Riddle did beautiful arrangements for Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.


These three albums by the great Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles with Betty Carter with a stunning arrangements by Nelson Riddle and Marty Paich are great examples that could inspire the piano players as well.  I placed here YouTube links to full albums.
Listen and enjoy the lush harmonies and orchestrations of the American standards.

Nat King Cole Sings For Two In Love
(arrangements by Nelson Riddle)

Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely 
(arrangements by Nelson Riddle)

Ray Charles and Betty Carter (arrangements by Marty Paich)
Listen to “Alone Together”

Jazz piano has so many great examples in its recorded history of piano interpretations of standards. Much can be learned about harmony and individual approaches to the tunes by close listening to the versions of the same tune recorded by different piano players.

I always tell my students to “go further back” and to check out the great masters of this instrument.

Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Teddy Willson, Erroll Garner, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Ahmad Jamal, Hank Jones, Barry Harris – just a few to mention here.

One can also get much inspiration from playing written jazz piano arrangements. Some years ago I came across the really great book by George Shearing called “Interpretations for Piano: Piano Solos”. It has these beautiful harmonized, tasteful short piano arrangements of the jazz standards. I read somewhere that even Cedar Walton and Herbie Hancock learned from that book. 


Playing The Standards

The Great American Song Book is a great source of inspiration and the best way to learn about harmony, melody, rhythm and musical form. I dedicate a great deal of my time with the students helping them to find their way of playing jazz standards and studying various approaches of interpretation at the keyboard.


I am trying to apply here some harmonic ideas of reharmonization 

In Your Own Sweet Way

This tune was written by Dave Brubeck and has a beautiful melody and interesting harmonic structure.

Round Midnight

Thelonius Monk’ Round Midnight is one of the most beautiful jazz ballad tunes. Here is a little clip from a lesson a few years ago.

Over The Rainbow

I have written dozens of jazz piano arrangements to demonstrate some approaches to jazz standards, harmonization techniques, etc. Here my arrangement version of a popular song Somewhere Over The Rainbow by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Click on the image below to go to the page with the audio and sheet music.

You can listen to / preview / purchase the arrangement here

Somewhere Over The Rainbow

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Claudio Werner

Great music, jazz is the best

Brian Hastings

Thanks for sharing the knowledge. In fact, I found out the best jazz musicians in Dallas who are veterans in the jazz industry for over 3 decades and they are a source of inspiration to my interest in music.

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