If you spend any time at all around jazz as either a musician or a listener, it won't be long before you read something or hear someone discussing "jazz standards" or just "standards." Which in turn may prompt one to ask, what is a standard, and why are they important?
Simply put, a "standard" is a composition that gets played, recorded and/or requested frequently enough that professional musicians are expected to know it, preferably by memory.
A standard may have originated as part of a Broadway show or movie, as with much of what's often called "the Great American Songbook." It may have been a popular song in another genre of music, as with jazz covers of pop, rock or soul hits from the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, or Radiohead. Or it may have been written by a well-known jazz musician like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, or Horace Silver.
The definition of what constitutes a standard can be influenced by the age and backgrounds of the players in question, as older tunes go out of fashion and are replaced by more recent ones. Geography also can play a role, as a tune adopted by an influential musician in a local scene can catch on with other bands and musicians in the same town, and tunes taught to student musicians as part of the curriculum at a particular school can find their way into those musicians' gigging repertoires.
So, given all these factors, what are the essential standards every jazz musician should know? Well, there are a lot of opinions about that, and, this being the Internet, a lot of lists. Back in 2012, saxophonist, music teacher and blogger Peter Spitzer took on the task of comparing some of those lists of “must-know” jazz standards to see which tunes they had in common.
He found that 31 songs appear on all six lists; 47 show up on five of the lists; and 76 songs turn up on at least four lists. You can see which tunes are which and read more about Spitzer's research here.
Of course, there are plenty of other opinions on the subject of which standards are most important. Earlier this year, saxophonist Mike LeBrun's post on the blog The Woodshed, titled "300 Tunes to Know: Prioritized, Categorized, and Organized," identifies "36 Tunes You Can’t Avoid Learning," then prioritizes them and 264 more standards as "critical," "high," "medium" and "low".
The famed pianist Dick Hyman years ago even wrote a book on the subject, Dick Hyman's Professional Chord Changes and Substitutions For 100 Tunes Every Musician Should Know, and if you have an account on the website Scribd, you can download a copy of it here.