photo by orange tuesday
Learning new songs is a never ending process. (DISCLAIMER: yes I know the difference between songs and instrumental compositions. SEO dictates the use of the word "song".) I used to be amazed when I heard some of my teachers say they probably new hundreds or thousands of jazz tunes. Those kinds of numbers make a young student feel really overwhelmed.
In the early days, my repertoire was built ad hoc from teacher assignments, band requests, etc. Only later did I start writing a list of tunes to learn. The list came from the indexes of all The Real Books. I simply went down the list, writing all of the relevant song names.
This isn't a bad way to go about it, but I never finished the task. I got to a little over 200 tunes and then fell off the wagon. I say go ahead and make your ideal list. Maybe you'll accomplish your goal, especially if you're a Gun for Hire. See the Gigs section of How to Quit the Job You Hate and Do Music Instead Part 3.
One of my chief tenets in music is to grab the low hanging fruit first and get the most bang for your buck. I'm always tempted to follow an idealized, perfect and complete process, which ends up taking 10 times longer to finish than the job requires. Integrity and attention to detail are good traits, but you can't do everything equally well. I've finally figured out a simple trick to learn the important songs first. When you go to a gig, take one of those little bitty note pads and a pencil with you. Yes, you may look like a dork, but you'll soon be a dork who knows all the tunes in town.
When a tune gets called that you don't know, write it down. Go home and learn the tunes on your list. It's that simple. Many of you may be saying, "Duh! I've been doing this for years." Maybe so. However, it's been years since I've seen someone write tunes down at a gig. Most of us think we can just remember. Fail!
Depending on the size of your town, there may be 50-100 songs that get played 90% of the time. And 25 of those tunes may occupy 50% of the frequently played repertoire. So, quit being a perfectionist, and learn the tunes that will make you more hire-able. It's no fun to be the guy who doesn't know songs. And we've all been there at some point.
If you are a student without many gigs, you can get a real advantage over your fledgling peers by bringing your notepad to other people's gigs. If you hear a tune played more than once, you can be sure someone will call it on one of your future gigs. Be prepared.
Your town may have a few perennial favorites that don't commonly get played elsewhere. That's why internet top-100-jazz-tunes lists come up short sometimes. Face it; there will always be more tunes to learn. But at least with this strategy we have a way to learn the most important songs first. Do your homework. Know tunes. Get more gigs.