The Top 25 Jazz Standards

Mastering the jazz repertoire is a journey that takes a lifetime of study, and at times on the way it seems overwhelming. There are thousands of songs to choose from and it can feel like the repertoire is endless when you’re at a jam session where every song that gets called is completely new to you.

The good news is, some jazz standards are very much more important than others.

Some tunes get called often while others are obscure and come up rarely. Believe it or not, the number of songs that are called all the time is actually quite manageable - start with these and you'll be well on your way to being on familiar territory most of the time.

How do we know it’s these songs?

Lots of people have made lists of these big songs - and there's a broad consensus - but I wanted something a bit more objective and data-driven. This is exactly the kind of problem that’s well suited to a really good spreadsheet.

So for the last year I've been keeping a record of every song that gets called at every session I've played at so I can take a look at the patterns that emerge.

This sample is of nearly a thousand calls (occasions when a song was played) at jam sessions in London since mid 2019. This data reflects my experience - if you go to different sessions then yours will contrast - but based on research and conversations, the broad sweep seems relatively consistent.

So what do we learn from the data now it's been collected?

Most songs are called only very rarely

Chart of call count frequency

In this dataset songs only called once are by far the largest group. Many of these are relatively obscure tunes brought by a horn player or singer to one jam session that probably won't come up again very soon. This long tail behaviour is what you'd expect given the thousands of jazz songs out there and the social nature of jazz musicianship.

A thousand or so is still a relatively tiny sample. You would expect some of these at least to get called more and climb up the chart, while the overall shape of the distribution remained similar.

A relatively small number of songs comprise the majority of calls

If you only knew 10 songs, this would make up 18% of all calls at jam sessions. If you knew 25 songs this would get you to 36%.

Chart of call count percentage

Getting to the point where you knew every other song requires you to know 38 songs - which is in fact very manageable.

These songs are broadly-speaking driven by this data, although I've editorialised slightly to make them fit such nice round numbers.
(A link to the full data is below if you're curious to draw your own conclusions.)

Top 10 standards (18% of all calls)

Top 25 standards (36% of all calls)

As I carry on collecting data, I’ll be adjusting these to reflect any changes that come up.

The Top 201 Standards on this site are a good expanded list

Songs from the list on this site comprise some 81% of calls. For a list that's aiming to be representative of the most important tunes in the repertoire rather than exhaustive, that feels pretty decent.

What should I do if I already know these 25?

By the time you know these tunes, it’s time to forge your own path through the repertoire. While picking common songs is still helpful, once you have that core set of tunes down, it can also be fun to pick something a bit more obscure !

If you don’t already have a list of songs you like and want to learn, I’d suggest listening to the master spotify playlist of 200+ songs on shuffle and waiting till something really grabs your ear, then investigating that.

Notes

The raw data underlying this post is available in a CSV here.

It takes in 958 calls from 64 jam sessions since 22 Jun 2019.