Jazz pianists face innumerable decisions when playing a song from the American Songbook. Every time we perform a song by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, or Duke Ellington, we address questions about

  • key (we are not obliged to play the tune in its original key);
  • tempo (should it be slow, medium, fast, or free); 
  • rhythmic background (shall we try swing, a gentle jazz waltz feel, or a driving Latin beat). 

Of course, when improvising, there are countless additional choices that are made. Then comes the fi nal decision of how to end the song. Here are some standard approaches to explore. 

For our purposes, I am presuming that the song we are about to end is a ballad, which we have played in a slow, graceful, soulful treatment (ending a song that has used a rhythmic feel, such as swing or Latin, requires a different discussion!). Our song, as is typical, fi nishes with the root of the tonic in the melody: if the song is in the key of C, the last note sung or played is a C. Listen to a recording by Tony Bennett or Ella Fitzgerald, or sing your favorite ballad (The Man I Love; So in Love; Over the Rainbow). Notice what the last note is—it's the same as the tonic. Also, imagine you've slowed the tempo down and are going to end with a peaceful fade, and a lovely decrescendo

I want to encourage the exploration of these ideas in several keys, so I have used roman numerals, but with examples in the key of C. There is no tempo indication—remember, you are playing the last measure of the song, so interpret the rhythms freely and liberally, not literally. Occasionally, the last note of a song will end on the downbeat of the next-to-last measure. Adjust the length of the examples accordingly. The chords are what I want you to investigate. 

1. Endings of tunes in major keys:

a) I > ♭II maj7 > I 

b) I > ♭VII (either ♭VII7 or ♭VII maj7) > I

c) I > ♭III (either ♭III maj7 or ♭III7) > II7 > ♭II maj7 > I

2. Endings of tunes in minor keys: 

While most of the songs from the American Songbook are in major keys, a few standards are in minor: Autumn Leaves; Lover Man Oh Where Can You Be (Billie Holiday); Angel Eyes (Matt Dennis); Stolen Moments (Oliver Nelson); and, of course, Summertime (Gershwin).

a) i > ♭II maj7 > i

b) i > ♭VII7 > i

 c) i > ♭III maj7 > ♭II maj7 > i

After you play the very last chord, try adding 'bell' tones: 

a) For both major (and minor chords), scale degree 5 is always a safe choice.

Remember—these rhythmic values are not strict. 

b) For major chords, try any combination of scale degrees 2, 3, sharp-4, 5, 6, maj7; try for a spontaneous feel—some long tones, some not so long—making your choice different each time. Depending on the key, use as much of the piano's upper register as is appropriate. Change the last note you play: sometime make it the 2nd or 6th or 7th scale degree (never the root!). Sharp-4 is very cool and might make a wonderful last sound. Don't forget dynamics: fade as you get to the last sound —but don't always go up. Start high on the keyboard and descend a few octaves.

c) For minor chords: same procedure as major chords, EXCEPT: change sharp-4 to 4. Use scale degrees 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 in any order, in any direction; (try single tones, right-hand octaves, or use both hands two octaves apart). 

d) Play soprano and bass on downbeat, then the rest of the chord.

e) Add arpeggios: arpeggiate both hands up two to three octaves.

I highly recommend going to www.jazzstandards.com for continued help with this project. On this amazing site, answers to these questions can be found: 

  • What is a "jazz standard?" 
  • What types of compositions become jazz standards? 
  • What makes a good jazz standard? 
  • How are the jazz standards identified and ranked? 
  • What data set was used for the Jazz Standards ranking? 
  • How many jazz standards are there? 

In addition there are biographies of the major composers, lyricists, and performers of this great music, as well as samples of recommended recordings of each song (including remarkably diverse approaches to endings).

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