For instrumental jazz standards (bebop, hard-bop, modern-jazz tunes, etc), you should take a similar approach. Find the original recording (or different well-known recordings) of the tune in your record collection or find it on YouTube and learn it by ear. Don't just whip out a fake book and start reading a tune. These songs didn't originate in fake books! If you want to be thorough, learn it by ear in all 12 keys. Obviously, this is easier for a song like Blue Bossa than it will be for learning a Charlie Parker head. However, saxophonist Michael Brecker said he would always learn each melody in all 12 keys before he began working on any other aspect of the song (chord changes, etc.). I think he might be onto something...
Speaking of Blue Bossa, how many young jazz students play this song and have never even heard the original version (or even know the names Kenny Dorham and Joe Henderson)? Educators - we're failing in this respect! Plus, I find that students get way more out of playing a song (and it's more fun) when you have context.
For the truly lazy, I've just discovered a great website that does it all for you. Learnjazzstandards.com has a fairly extensive selection of jazz standards, and it includes links to classic versions of the song on YouTube as well as a free play-along for the song all right there! If that's not enough, they include a description of the origin of the song, and the chord changes too. This is a great resource for any up-and-coming musician. If we had this in the '90s, it would have blown my mind.
Check out their page on Lady Bird (click to go through to the actual site):
Here are some practice ideas:
- Listen to the ORIGINAL version (if possible) many times over several days/weeks and get it in your head (be able to sing along) before you practice with your instrument.
- If the song has a challenging tempo, try slowing it down with a program like Transcribe! or The Amazing Slow Downer.
- Another strategy for fast or dense melodies is to start at the end with just a few notes or bars, and add on one-bar at a time. Eventually, learn the last 'A' section (last 8 bars) and continue working backwards until you reach the beginning of the tune.
- If you get bored of playing along with the head, try switching to the head at the end of the tune (the head-out). Often, they are slightly different - or the musicians may rush/drag so the tempo could change! As an added bonus you get to learn the ending too.
- Once you memorize the song, play along with the recording, and then keep repeating the melody over the solo form. For example, if you are playing Billie's Bounce, play along with Bird on the head, and then keep playing the melody for the entire duration of the tune behind every solo, and then play with the head-out. If you can keep your place and repeat the melody over every chorus, you are definitely getting a pretty good grip on it. It will seem like a lot of run-throughs, but in reality you are only playing for 4 or 5 minutes (a very small amount of practice-time in the long-run).
You can read part I of this post here.