Almost a year ago, I started attending weekly jazz jams hosted by Jay Jay Lim at South Park Bar and Grill here in San Diego. I've been to maybe twenty-five of them as well as a few others. Most times when I'm called up to play a few songs, someone else calls the tune, usually the horn player or singer. So even though I come prepared with a few tunes I want to play, I frequently have to recall or sight read changes on the spot. Most of the other players seem to know a ton of standards well enough to get through them without a lead sheet. I know a few, and I'm constantly working on my repertoire, but I'm still caught off guard at least once every time I go.
Back in September, I wrote about a spreadsheet I created to keep track of the tunes I'm learning. I've been using it regularly since then, and it's been immensely helpful. Just a glance, after sorting by the different columns, shows me which tunes could use some brushing up, which ones I need to learn, and which ones I thought I knew last time I updated but don't anymore. Plus it's nice to track my progress.
Over the months, I've watched the list grow, both in what I know and what I ought to know. It currently contains 401 different tunes. When I see a list somewhere of "must know" jazz standards, I add any that aren't on my list. Ditto for repertoire lists at college jazz programs. But most importantly, I add every single tune I hear called at jam sessions. These are local people I'm likely to play with again, and they're telling me what tunes they know and enjoy playing every time they call one. It's like I'm being fed my own "must know" list of standards, tailored to my situation, in little bits every time I go jam.
I realized this a few months ago, and I discovered exactly how I could harness it. I added three columns to my spreadsheet to keep track of how many times I've heard a tune called, where it was called last, and when. Now, every time I witness or play in a jam, I write down or text myself every tune that someone else calls. (I don't include my own.) When I come home, I increment the tally for each tune and update the other info to remind myself that I've already changed the count. When I practice, I can sort the spreadsheet to find out what's been called most often, what gave me trouble last week, what I haven't heard in the longest time, etc.
View the complete live spreadsheet on Google Docs. (The "Ranks" worksheet shows an automated sorting of all the columns based on how well I know the tunes overall.) You can copy the whole thing to your own account and swap out all the tunes if you like the idea.