Why "Standards"?

Jazz is often described as a genre of music that defies easy categorization. One way to distinguish it, is by considering where it is performed. It can be on a concert stage with a specific band, in a studio with that same band and perhaps additional studio musicians, or at an open jam session where anyone can join in. Jazz standards are played in all three of these scenarios, but especially the songs performed at jam sessions need to be common knowledge among the attending Jazz musicians. Hence, the structure of Jazz standards and their significance for jam sessions deserve a closer look.

When you start worrying about form, then you're not in the moment. - Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk is right when she's talking about performing. You need to worry about the form beforehand, that is when you are practicing or rehearsing. The structure of Jazz standards is the foundation upon which artists build their creative interpretations and improvisations. Whether you're an aspiring Jazz musician or a devoted listener, understanding these structures will deepen your appreciation of Jazz.

The Anatomy of a Jazz Standard

Jazz standards come in a variety of forms, understanding these forms is crucial for every improvisor and basic knowledge for every listener. Let's explore the anatomy of Jazz standards and how they're structured.

First of all, a Jazz song consists of multiple verses, just like any other song. In Jazz the more common word is "Choruses". And, also like any other song, there is often an intro into the song and an outro out of it.

So the overall structure of an entire song is:

| Intro | Head |: Improv :| Head | Outro |

With or without Intro is mostly discussed before the start of the tune.

A "Head" is one or more repetitions of a Chorus, where one or more solo instruments play the melody as written. For short forms, like the 12-bar Blues, a Chorus with the melody is often played twice as head.

After the first head comes the section of improvisation. Every musician on the stage can improvise over one or more choruses. Generally the "Caller" of the piece, the one who suggested to play the tune in the first place, gets to play the first solo section. As soon as he or she wants to finish, the next player is cued. Until the last player has played.

Then it gets back to the last head, sometimes literally cued with a fingertip to the head. This way one big conversation is created between the improvising musicians.

The outro is often played spontaneously, improvised.

The 32-bar AABA Form

At the heart of many Jazz standards lies the classic 32-bar AABA form. This structure is like the blueprint that many composers and songwriters have used. The AABA structure is simple, yet it provides room for creativity. In this form, you have an initial 8-bar section (A) that introduces the main melody and harmony, followed by a repeating 8-bar section (A) with the same melody and harmony. The A sections provide the listener with a familiar theme, creating a sense of comfort and predictability.

The B section is a contrasting 8-bar segment that adds a new dimension to the composition. It can introduce a shift in mood and tone, creating tension and anticipation. Often called "The Bridge".

Finally, the A section is repeated, sometimes with a slightly different flavor, to wrap up the song. This dynamic interplay between familiarity and novelty is able to keep Jazz standards engaging and fresh.

Lead sheet of an AABA form

Examples for AABA tunes

  • Cry Me A River
  • I Got Rhythm (aka "The Rhythm Changes")
  • It Don't Mean A Thing
  • Lullaby Of Birdland
  • On The Sunny Side Of The Street

Derivatives of the AABA form

While the AABA structure is a staple of Jazz standards, it's important to note that it's not set in stone. Musicians often inject their own variations and deviations to make each performance unique. Modifying chord progressions or melodies enables Jazz musicians to explore uncharted musical territory while staying rooted in the framework of the AABA form. Not even the length of a section has to be determined.

Here are some other common Forms: AB, each section with 16 bars. AABC and ABAC, where the last 8 bars are unique for example "Autumn Leaves" or On "Green Dolphin Street". And even all four 8-bar sections can be different: "All The Things You are" with 36 bars total, has the form ABCD.

The 12-Bar Blues Form

In contrast to the 32-bar AABA form, the 12-bar blues structure is a different animal entirely, where you have 12 bars divided into three 4-bar segments.

These 12-bars represent a musical conversation with a distinct question-and-answer format. The first four bars set the stage, posing a musical question that yearns for resolution. The next four bars intensify the emotion, building anticipation. Finally, the last four bars offer a satisfying answer, bringing closure to the musical narrative. This form is the backbone of iconic tunes like "Blue Monk" and "Sonnymoon For Two" creating a foundation for the expressive, soulful, and often deeply personal improvisations that make blues and Jazz standards so moving.

Musicians like Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk incorporated it into their compositions. One of the most famous Jazz standards to use the 12-bar blues form is "Billie's Bounce" by Charlie Parker. This form's adaptability and emotive power have allowed it to transcend genre boundaries, making it a beloved structure among Jazz musicians and audiences alike.

16-Bar and 24-Bar Tunes

While the 32-bar AABA and the 12-bar blues are two of the most recognized Jazz standard forms, they are by no means the only options available to composers and musicians.

In the world of Jazz standards, 16-bar tunes provide a middle ground between the concise 12-bar blues and the more extensive 32-bar AABA structure. These tunes offer a bit more room for exploration while retaining a compact and memorable structure. "There Will Never Be Another You", "Blue Bossa" and the ever green "Summertime", are examples of well-known 16-bar Jazz standards, admired for their engaging form and melodious possibilities.

Melody and Lyrics

Without a melody a song is just a collection of chord changes, the melody identifies the song. It is very common to use the same chord changes with different melodies, as it is done with Rhythm Changes. So the structure of a Jazz standard can not be complete without the melody.

Many good Jazz improvisations over Jazz standards reference the melody at one time, it's an essential part for every improvisor.

Sometimes a soloist gets lost in the form, not exactly knowing where the others are. As soon as someone from the rhythm section notices that problem, he can indicate the current spot by playing a short snippet of the melody and help the lost player back into the form.

For almost every common Jazz standard anybody has written some lyrics, to be able to sing over it. To me, the lyrics are a great tool to memorize and recognize the form. During a performance I try to sing along in my head - another way of staying in the form.

Common Intros

At a jam session the intro is mostly agreed upon ahead of time. There can be specific intros for some songs, that you just have to know. Just hear what your heroes are doing on your favourite songs. Sometimes the last eight bars of a tune serve as an intro. The end is designed to lead back to the top.

Sometimes there is no intro at all, hopefully someone has called the infamous "A one, a two. A one, two, three, four". And if not - well: improvise!

Common Outros and Endings

Many Jazz tunes end in a II-V-I chord progression, which can be changed into a turnaround by replacing the last I chord with a III-VI-II-V-I and repeat that for some times.

There are also some classic endings, like the "Take the 'A' Train" Ending. See this interesting blog post, until I have written my own comprehensive view on outros.

As the ensemble nears the end of a performance, non-verbal cues become pivotal in signaling the impending conclusion. These cues can range from subtle nods, eye contact, or knowing smiles exchanged between band members, to more obvious physical gestures, such as a conductor's authoritative signal or a drummer's well-timed drum fill.

Strategies for Memorizing Tunes

...and again, you have to listen. Get a lead sheet in your hand this time and follow it during your active listening. Try to follow the sections of the song, often 8 bars each.

If it's difficult to follow along, use a slower version of the song, if available. And in the beginning you can count the bars in each section, count internally like so:

|: one 2 3 4 | two 2 3 4 | three 2 3 4 | four  2 3 4  |  
| five 2 3 4 | six 2 3 4 | seven 2 3 4 | eight 2 3 4 :|

It is possible to embody the counting by assigning a finger to each bar, start with the thumb:

|: thumb 2 3 4 | index 2 3 4 | middle 2 3 4 | ring  2 3 4  |  
|  pinky 2 3 4 | ring  2 3 4 | middle 2 3 4 | index 2 3 4 :|

Next, get the melody into your mind. As soon as you have it, sing (or think) it along during an entire listening session, including all solos. This way, you always know exactly where you are!

As soon as you are more advanced, you will hear where you are by following the harmony. If you are able to do that, this post might be a little underwhelming.

As always

Internalizing the form of your first Jazz standard will take some time. Tackle one small chunk at a time, it will get easier. Overall there are only so many different building blocks for Jazz songs. Not long and you will recognise a II-V-I Progression, when you see it.



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