Choosing repertoire for a working jazz combo

How can you choose songs you love to play, the band loves to play, AND the audience loves to listen to? 

When Jim Fink and I put together our working jazz trio with Bob Woll in 1995, we needed an instant 4-hour book.  Coming up with a list of 60 titles – let alone writing out all the charts – would have been impossible for me to do in the 4 days before our first gig.  Fortunately, Jim had all 3 Real Books, so I just went through them and picked our list from there.

Jim and Bob prefered reading charts on stage.  At that time, I did not yet have my wonderful telescopic glasses, so I did not use paper at all on stage (except for a list of song titles and keys written in a huge 36 point font).

I ended up picking songs I already knew and loved (I know a lot of songs), things I was not totally sick of.  Right from the start, I said, “forget about ‘Summertime,’ ‘Ipanema,’ and ‘Satin Doll.’  They may be great songs, but they’re way overdone.

At that time, we were doing corporate events, Starbucks, Neo Bistro, Argosy cruises, Grazzi’s, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc.  Our audience did not contain many jazz aficionados, so we shied away from the more obscure tunes by Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Ornette, etc.  With only 1 horn and no drums, we did not think groove tunes like “Song for My Father” would come off too strongly, and we did not want to jam endlessly on the blues.  Basically, we ended up with tunes from the “great American song book” (Gershwin, Porter, Rogers, Kern, etc.)  These songs have great melodies which work well as instrumentals, and have therefore stood the test of time.  Although I am not a great singer, I sing 1 chorus of those songs containing lyrics not to be missed like Mercer’s “I’m Old Fashioned” or “Skylark.”

When I am promoting my latest CD, we add a couple of originals from that CD.  If they stand the test of time, we keep them.

Fast forward to 2007.  It is becoming increasingly clear that anyone under 60 does not relate personally to “All the Things You Are” or “Body and Soul” the way they do to Michael Jackson or the Beatles.  The songs are still great, but they are not as immediate to the younger audience.

Is it possible for a jazz musician to retain integrity and still play songs familiar to a younger audience?

I have been thinking a lot about the jazz legacy, wondering how our jazz classics became jazz classics in the first place.  When Miles did “Someday My Prince,” “If I Were a Bell,” or “It Never Entered My Mind,” was he bowing to commercial pressure from the record company?  Knowing what we know about Miles, I don’t think so.  I believe Miles chose tunes which had great, enduring melodies and changes he could solo over effectively.

Billie Holiday sang pop songs which were current in her day and came to ‘own’ those songs.  She would transform a superficial pop ditty such as “Them There Eyes,” “All of Me,” or “Miss Brown to You” into a jazz classic.  Many great jazz singers renovated current pop tunes into standards which we still perform today.

Does this mean that jazz musicians cannot use a song unless it has been ‘validated’ by Bird or Ella, given the ‘seal of approval’ by Sarah or Dinah?  I don’t think so.  I think the tradition of culling out today’s best pop songs for tomorrow’s jazz classics is still a valid jazz tradition, one which will help keep tomorrow’s jazz repertoire relevant and fresh.

Mind you, this practice is fraught with great risk.  For if I put together a CD of today’s pop hits, I will for sure be accused of selling out to commercialism, and my work will be viewed as shallow and superficial.  It takes discernment to find pop hits which are really great compositions, courage to commit yourself to them, and creativity to arrange a song to suit your identity.  Often times, records include superfluous riffs or entire sections which need to be eliminated in the same way Count Basie would nix licks from an arrangement which did not enhance the groove.

As you look through pop hits of the past 40 years, you will want to choose things that meet some or all of these criteria:

  • Is it a good song (That is #1)?
  • Do I love the song (not just the recording)?
  • Can I arrange the song to suit my band?
  • Can my instrumentation handle the arrangement?
  • If I am playing dance venues, is the song danceable?
  • Does the song speak to the average age / demographic of my audience?

For a gig such as the Sequim casino, I am looking at an older audience which loves to dance.  It is going to be wonderful to work with the fabulous trumpet of Ed Donohue.  He reads great, solos great, and can play anything in a believable way.  Our current rhythm section of George Radebaugh (piano), Robert Matthews (bass), and Tom Sovornich (drums) is as good and flexible as any on the Olympic Peninsula, so this gig should be a total blast.

For a typical 1-hour, 12-song dance set, our list will need to break down sort of like this:

  • 4 fast dance tunes
  • 1 or 2 fast shuffles
  • 2 or 3 Latin tunes
  • 1 or 2 mediums
  • 1 or 2 slow ballads
  • 1 waltz (this is the most difficult to come up with)
  • 1 or 2 Dixieland jams
  • Maybe 1 blues

Below are some ideas I have come up with in the last week which may work.  I won’t choose any of these, if the other band members strongly object.  I don’t EVER want to hear the band groan, when we call off a tune.  This situation can be partly averted by having a larger list and rotating the tunes to keep them fresh.

So here is my quickly scriblled out list.  I welcome your suggestions, comments, questions, or complaints.

Beatles:  Elenor Rigby, Here Comes the Sun, Something, Taxman, I Feel Fine

Sam & Dave:  When Something is Wrong

Al Green:  I’m So Tired of Being Alone, Take Me to the River, How Can You Mend (he did sing it)

Stevie Wonder:  In My Dream (NOT “Sunshine of My Life”!!!)

Everly Brothers:  Wake Up, Little Suzy

Ike & Tina:  I Think It’s Gon’na Work Out Fine

FAST:  Poison Ivy, Caledonia, Tell Him, Old Black Magic, That’ll Be the Day, Walk On By, I Believe in You, Bandstand Boogie, This Could Be the Start of Something

SHUFFLES:  My Baby Just Cares, Just a Gigolo, Woodchopper’s Ball

LATIN:  Save the Best for Last, Save the Last Dance for Me, Superwoman, Spanish Harlem, Under My Skin, Poinsiana, This Magic Moment

MEDIUM:  Broken Hearted Melody, Fools Rush In, A Million to One, All In the Game, Misunderstood, Canadian Sunset

SLOW:  Blues in the Night, Black Coffee, Smoke Gets In, Someday, Somewhere Out There, You Don’t Know Me, I’ve Been Waiting, Across the Universe

WALTZ:  What the World Needs Now, She’s Leaving Home, Bluesette, Sunrise Sunset, Hello Young Lovers, Scarborough Fair, Never Land, Someday My Prince, Tenderly

DIXIE:  Way Down Yonder, What a Little Moonlight, When I Grow Too Old, Up a Lazy River

Since writing this post, I produced the CD “Skykomish.”   It contains several ’70’s pop hits which I arranged for a jazz octet using trumpet, trombone, myself (on clarinet, alto, or tenor sax), vibes, guitar, piano, bass, and drums.   Several cuts from “Skykomish” get significant internet play, and we do some of the charts at live gigs.  Write me, if you’d like a copy of one of these charts.

Below is our current combo list.

  • Ain’t Misbehavin’ Eb
  • All of Me  C
  • All of You Eb
  • All the Things U R    Ab
  • Alone Together   Dm
  • As Time Goes By     Eb
  • At Last     C
  • Autumn Leaves  Bb
  • Avalon     Bb
  • Beautiful Friendship Eb
  • Best Things in Life R Free  C
  • Beware (see “My Foolish”)
  • Bewitched     C
  • Black and Tan    Bbm
  • Black Orpheus    Am
  • Black Velvet  Bb  (don’t ya go away mad)
  • Blue Berry Hill    Eb
  • Blue Bossa    Cm
  • Blue Monk     Bb
  • Blue Room    F
  • Blues in the Night  Bb
  • Body and Soul    Db
  • But Beautiful G
  • Capistrano    F
  • Cheek to Cheek  C
  • Cherokee Bb
  • Come Rain or Come Shine Eb
  • Confessin’     G
  • Corcovado     C
  • Corner Pocket    Bb  (Until i met you)
  • Cottontail Ab
  • Creepin’        F
  • Dancing in the Dark Bb
  • Dancing on the Ceiling  F
  • Darkness on the Delta     F
  • Days of Wine and Roses    F
  • Deep Purple  F
  • Desafinado    F
  • Do Nothin’ ‘Til     Bb
  • Don’t Get Around     C
  • Don’t Go to Strangers   Bb
  • Don’t Misunderstand     F
  • Don’t You Worry         Dm
  • Do You Know What Means C
  • Dreamboat    F
  • East of the Sun  G
  • Easy Living    F
  • Eleanor Rigby   Dm
  • Embraceable You    G
  • End of a Love Affair F
  • Every Time We Say Eb
  • Everywhere Calypso C
  • Falling in Love    Bb
  • Flintstones    Bb
  • Fly Me     C
  • Foggy Day     F
  • Fools Rush In          A
  • Four         Eb
  • Gentle Rain   Am
  • Georgia Brown   F
  • Ghost of a Chance     C
  • Gift, The     Em
  • Gimme That Wine    G
  • Girl from Ipanema       F
  • God Bless the Child Eb
  • Green Dolphin Street    C
  • Harbor Café Blues   F
  • Harlem Nocturne     Gm
  • Have You Met Miss Jones  F
  • Here’s That Rainy Day  G/Bb
  • Himalayan     Ab
  • How Deep Is Ocean Cm
  • How High the Moon G
  • I Can’t Get Started        C
  • I Concentrate on You    Eb
  • I Cover the Waterfront  Ab
  • I Didn’t Know About You   Eb
  • I Didn’t Know What Time It Was Em
  • If I Should Lose You      Gm
  • If You Could Read My Mind     Bb
  • I Got News for You   F
  • I’ll Remember April  G
  • I Love Lucy   F
  • I’m Getting Sentimental      F
  • I’m Glad There is You   F
  • I’m Just a Lucky So & So G
  • I’m Old Fashioned       F.:
  • In a Mellow Tone     Ab
  • Indiana     F
  • Indian Summer   G
  • Invitation       C dorian
  • I Remember You     F
  • Isn’t It Romantic?        Eb
  • Isn’t She Lovely     F
  • It Could Happen To You  Eb
  • I Thought About You     F
  • It Might as Well be Spring   C
  • I’ve Got You Under My Skin     Eb
  • I’ve Grown Accustomed Eb
  • I Want to Talk   Eb
  • Jeannine     Abm
  • Jersey Bounce    F
  • Just Friends  G
  • Just in Time  Bb
  • Just Squeeze Me     F     Ellington
  • Just the Way U R     D
  • Killing Me Softly  Ab
  • Lady Be Good     G
  • Lady Is a Tramp C
  • Like Someone in Love   C
  • Little Sunflower  Dm/D
  • Lookear   Bb
  • Lotus Bb
  • Love Walked In  Eb
  • Lullaby of Birdland   Fm
  • LuLu   Eb
  • Man I Love    Eb
  • Meditation     C
  • Mercy, Mercy Bb
  • Midnight Sun Will Never Set      F  Quincy Jones
  • Migration     Gm
  • Mills Blues    Bb  intro
  • Misty  Eb
  • Molly Ann F  drum solo
  • Moonlight in Vermont    Eb
  • More I See You  Eb
  • Mountain Greenery  C
  • My Baby Just Cares Eb
  • My Foolish Heart     Bb
  • My Funny Valentine Cm
  • My Little Suede Shoes  Eb
  • My One and Only Love  C
  • My Romance C
  • Nature Boy    Dm
  • Never Never Land         Eb
  • Nice & Easy  C
  • Nice Work     Eb
  • Night and Day     C
  • Nightingale Sang in Barcley     Eb
  • No More Blues    Dm
  • October    Dm
  • Old Folks   Dm
  • One Note Samba     Bb
  • On the Street Where          Bb
  • On the Sunny Side  C
  • Our Love is Here to Stay    F
  • Over the Rainbow    Eb
  • Paper Moon C
  • Paris Buffet   Bb
  • Pavane     Fm
  • Pennies from Heaven         C
  • People Will Say we’re in Love  C
  • Pink Panther Em
  • Polka Dots    G
  • Poor Butterfly           Ab
  • Remember      Ab
  • Rivers    G,Bb,Eb
  • Robbin’s Nest  (Whey Have a Falling Out?)   Db
  • Roll Over Redmond    D mix
  • Ruby and Pearl    Dm
  • Saint Thomas          C
  • Samba de Cute  C
  • Samba de Orfeu C
  • Save the Best         Eb
  • Scotch and Soda     Eb
  • Second Time Around    C
  • Secret Love   Eb
  • Sentimental Journey     Eb
  • September in the Rain  Eb
  • Shadow of Your Smile   Em
  • Sir Duke Bb
  • Skykomish  F
  • Skylark     Eb Mercer & Carmichael
  • Smoke Gets In Your Eyes   Eb
  • Solitude   Eb
  • Someday My Prince Bb
  • Someone to Watch  Ab
  • Song is You  C
  • Sophisticated Lady   Ab
  • Soul Eyes   Cm
  • Speak Low   F
  • Spring Can Hang          C
  • Spring is Here    Ab
  • Star Eyes Eb
  • Stella  Bb
  • Stompin’ at the  Savoy  Db
  • Sugar Cm
  • Summer Samba   F
  • Sway Em
  • Sweet Lorraine   C
  • Take the A Train C
  • Tenderly   Eb
  • There Will Never Be      Eb
  • These Foolish Things    Eb
  • They Can’t Take That    Eb
  • Things Ain’t What    F
  • This Can’t Be Love  F
  • This Masquerade   Fm
  • Til There Was You   Eb
  • Time After Time  C
  • Unforgettable G
  • Waiting for a Girl Like You        Bbm
  • Watch What Happens   Eb
  • Way U Look 2night  Eb
  • We’ll Be Together    C
  • What  C
  • What a Differnce     Eb
  • What a Fool Believes  Gm / Bb
  • What a Little Moonlight G
  • When I Fall in Love  Eb
  • When Sunny Gets Blue F
  • When You Believe        Dm / F
  • Where Are You  Ab
  • Where or When  Eb
  • Whisper Not    Cm
  • Windows of the World   Dm
  • Witchcraft     F
  • Wonderful World     Eb
  • Wrap Your Troub     C
  • Yardbird Suite     C
  • Yesterdays    Dm
  • You & the Night &      Cm
  • You’d Be So Nice     Am
  • You Don’t Know Me C
  • You Do Something      Eb
  • You Go to My Head   Eb

7 thoughts on “Choosing repertoire for a working jazz combo

  1. Hi Craig,

    I like your concept and song choices when playing at our local casino. There’s a heck of alot of folks that love to dance to a variety of different styles (yes, even a waltze once in awhile;-)

    Your target audience will love these choices, plus the group you’ve put together could stand up anywhere. I’ve played with you all with the exception Robert Mathews to know what you guys are about, so I’m sure he’s in there with the rest of you monsters.

    I’ve somewhat taken the same approach as you regarding song choices in my group even though the target audience is different. Is it a good/great song? Can it be arranged to play with the instrumentation we have and not lack something? What type of venue are we going to playing in? Dancing venue, Concert venue, etc?

    Anyone wanting to start a group of any kind really needs to almost write a business plan beforehand. Your questions you ask are very real, and again, anyone wanting to embark on such an adventure, really better have a plan.

    Right on Craig, keep up the good work!!



  2. Could I make the following recommendations. !. No dance number should be longer than 3 minutes. Medium ability dancers will be repeating figures after this period. 2. No two consecutive dances should have the same tempo… boredom! 3. National Dance Council & I.S.T.D. tempi are available at & should always be used, nobody wants to waltz at 41 mpm.
    If you stick to this the people without skills won’t notice the difference & the real dancers will be eternally grateful. Remember you often have a U.S. champion, some medallists & many students of all ages in your audience & the students are not the only ones to get confused.


  3. I recently bought your jazz course! Thank you for developing it, it is very informative without so much theory which can become discouraging sometimes. Its upbeat and positive!

    Ken Harper


  4. Hi Craig,
    I have enjoyed your site very much. I teach high school band. In a little over a month we will be doing a Valentines Dinner show and dance. We have been doing this for the past 10 years. I would like our combo to do some different tunes rather than what we’ve always done. I tried clicking on the link that lists tunes you have done but it just shows a 404 error. Could you possibly email the list to me?


  5. Hey, Craig,
    Thanks for the awesome suggestions and strategies! It’s now 2017; have your song list and priorities changed much in the 10 years since you posted these ideas?
    Thanks again, man!


    1. Hi Jeff,
      Good to hear from you! Our book of charts was becoming unwieldy, so I recently divided it into the “A Book” and the “B Book.” Different gigs call for various approaches. Our usual repertoire still leans heavily on “The Great American Song Book.” However, I added some more recent pop tunes (which are contained on my CD “Skykomish“) for younger audiences. These invariably raise a nod of recognition and often of appreciation. In addition, the guys in the band enjoy playing some straight ahead jazz heads. These must be programmed judiciously, as many are less familiar to our audiences. We also have a few numbers with a more “classical” pedigree. A standout from this latter category is Faure’s “Pavane,” which always gets a warm reception. More recently, Linda Dowdell and I have created a Brubeck retrospective, in which I endeavor to “get inside Desmond’s head,” to think the way he would think. Those tunes are also well liked.


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