This is an archive post ~ originally published Feb. 25, 2015 and updated in 2018
When I got my first gig playing lush hotel lobby music with the strolling violins of “Danny Yale and the Regency Strings” I did not personally have to stroll. Nope, my job was to play sweeping glissandos at the beginnings and endings of tunes and at choice dramatic moments in the music. Also to wear long gowns and high heels.
But quick, before you read more – if you’re starting to play jazz on the harp, save yourself some heartache and download the list of tunes I wish I’d had when I started:
So … here’s what I looked like back then. I was trying hard to look like a ‘real harp player.’
Jack Nebergall, the harpist I subbed for, showed me the ropes — but didn’t mention anything about the music, except to say it was all out of the American Songbook (standard pop and movie tunes from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s). I didn’t actually have to play the tunes – I just had to set my pedals for the key we were in, and create dramatic swirls at musically opportune moments. So long as I knew what key were in I’d be fine and I figured the bandleader would just yell that out before we started each tune. Only he didn’t. He just yelled out the name of each tune. And I’d sit there struggling to figure out the key.
If Only I had the key!
Danny Yale was a tad on the testy side and he fumed at me underneath his impressive toupee as I sat there fumbling. At the end of the second night, close to tears, I jumped up and said “Look, somebody needs to tell me what freakin’ KEY we’re playing in or I can’t do this!” Five strolling violinists turned to peer at me over their bridge-pins... Click To Tweet Five strolling violinists turned to peer at me over their bridge-pins like I’d just said I needed to eat a salamander or I’d go into anaphylactic shock. “I said the name of the tune!” Danny barked. “But that’s the name of the tune, not the key we’re playing it in!” I blubbered. It had never occurred to anyone to tell me that the name of the tune was the key to the … uh … key. That standard tunes have standard keys. Why would anyone think to tell me that? “Everybody’ knew it. Except me.
It’s all in the name
So when Danny yelled out “Over the Rainbow,” everyone knew that meant we were playing in Eb Major. If he yelled “Girl from Ipanema” that meant we were in F. If he shouted “Misty” it meant the key of Eb. The idea that songs lived in specific keys had never occurred to me. I thought that songs got shifted around from key to key depending on the vocal range of whoever was singing. I also thought that the underlying ‘feel’ – whether a tune bounced and swung or had a Latin beat — was totally arbitrary.
It never occurred to me there was a standard way to play a song. I thought all of that was up for grabs all the time, based on how you felt at the moment. Turns out that while you can interpret any song in any way, in the jazz culture certain tunes are Latin tunes, certain are Swing, and they each have their standard key. A few have more flexibility, but most you can predict. (Uh … maybe that’s why they’re called ‘standards.’) Who knew?? It never occurred to me there was a standard way to play a song. Click To Tweet
Now I have the KEY!
Well now, when I coach harpists in how to play jazz, one of the first things I give them is a STARTER-LIST of standard tunes and their keys so they don’t have to go through what I went through.
You can read about it here, or click to get the key chart below – it won’t cover every jazz standard, but it’ll give you a starter list of 75 tunes, their keys and tips for harp players on which ones to try first.
Click here for DHC’s Jazz-Harp Starter-List
That’s funny, Deborah! But those guys sound kind of old school. Certainly with any jazz musicians accustomed to playing with singers, they will always state the key as it is changed around a lot to fit the vocal range of the singer.