I just finished a 2 month gig at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan. It was a unique opportunity to play with great musicians every day while still having plenty of free time to compose, practice, exercise, and enjoy the natural surroundings of the island.
One of the composing projects was to finish a big band arrangement of my tune “Evanston”, which I hope will be premiered at my former high school at its jazz festival this February. Another was to revise and finish a big band arrangement of Jelly Roll Morton’s tune “Kansas City Stomp”. I’m thrilled that the Eastman Jazz Ensemble is going to play it in a concert on December 2nd!
While the gig required me to learn many tunes, it also forced me to maintain focus for long sets (sometimes an hour and a half) after playing the same tunes for weeks in a row. I played in a piano trio for diners, solo piano at various events in the hotel, and in quartet with a vocalist for ballroom dancers. Playing for dancers required me to learn tunes based on the different types of dances, styles, and tempos that dancers enjoy. While I already knew many swing tunes and ballads, I had to learn some cha-chas, rhumbas, waltzes, as well as rock songs. While these tunes may have simpler harmony than most jazz songs, I was nowhere near as familiar with their respective styles and subtleties. This was especially true for the rock and latin styles.
In regard to learning tunes I encourage beginning jazz students to spend more time exploring only a few tunes or even one. Once you learn the basic melody and harmony to a tune, listen to a great recording or several recordings of it to glean more detail. After a while, you will develop a more personal attachment and maybe even interpretation to these songs which you would not achieve by trying to learn them quickly.