Music history looks different when you track it not by groups or musicians, eras or styles, but by the songs themselves.
That’s part of the fun of Ted Gioia’s new book, The Jazz Standards, which looks at more than 250 songs --. He pays special attention to their origins, the varied way jazz artists have interpreted each one, and a handful of the finest versions of each. (There are a few technical descriptions, but this is not for musicians only.)
This is one of the best browsing books I know, and I’ve spent more time than intended wandering from Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine” to Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” to the traditional “St. James Infirmary,” and wondering what these numbers might have in common. Part of what’s striking is how many great, enduring songs come from goofy movies or minor shows.
Of course, there are songs I would have loved to see in here: Where’s “Daydream”? “Chitlins Con Carne”? “Born To Be Blue”? I’ve got my fingers crossed for a second volume.
(Disclosure: Ted -- who is the author of West Coast Jazz, Delta Blues, and a blogger on science-fiction and the detective novel -- is a friend and confidante of sorts, and I am named in his acknowledgements.)
Here's our exchange.
What were your criteria for these songs? Your favorite? The most performed or taught, or some mixture of factors?
When I started work on The Jazz Standards, I knew that somewhere between 200 and 300 songs needed to be covered in the book. These are the core songs jazz musicians are expected to know, and fans are likely to hear. I eventually settled on 252 songs for inclusion, and listed more than 2,000 tracks in my recommended listening guide.
So this isn’t a survey of my favorite standards—although many of these songs are personal favorites. Nor is it a look at the bestselling jazz performances or even the most frequently recorded. Some older jazz songs—such as “Fidgety Feet” or “Sweet Sue”—have been recorded more often than “Giant Steps” or “So What,” but aren’t really part of today’s standard repertoire. Instead, I aimed to put together a guide to the songs that are the core of the standard repertoire in the present day.
The ‘30s was a rich period for Broadway shows, and the ‘40s saw the exploding creativity of bebop, the ‘50s great jazz songwriters like Monk, Mingus and Miles Davis. But looking at these songs that speak to us in the 21st century, did the lid close at some point? How and why? Any kind of song that seems to succeed since that heyday?
Popular music has grown simpler and simpler over the passing decades. You could even quantify it. I’d love to see a statistician measure the change in hits songs since the 1930s. You could chart the decline in chromaticism, the narrowing range of the melodies, the replacement of wide interval leaps with more predictable whole note steps and repeated notes, or the reduced pace of harmonic movement. Music has gone on a starvation diet, and the songs often look weak and anemic as a result.
Given this state of affairs, who can be surprised that jazz musicians continue to play the old songs? Certainly there are still interesting new songs and talented composers out there, but it’s harder and harder to find them. I listen to new music every day—I’ve listened to more than 500 new albums so far this year—and I’m struck by how well hidden the best recordings are. The good stuff almost never appears on major labels anymore, and almost never on the radio either. You need to be determined and persistent to find high quality new songs nowadays. Most jazz musicians take the path of least resistance: they play the old standards, and write new songs of their own, but rarely draw on the broader streams of modern popular music.
This comes at a cost, however. Jazz needs to maintain a vital dialogue with the popular music of the current day, otherwise it risks becoming a museum piece. I applaud the jazz musicians who are trying to find a way of creating this kind of dialogue. But can they convince others to join them in this endeavor? And can they incorporate populist elements in their music without diluting the high standards that, even today, are the pride and joy of the jazz world? Time will tell. I note with some concern that the list of jazz standards featured in my book isn’t much different than the list someone might have compiled ten or twenty years ago. That can’t be healthy for the art form.
Which composer shows up the most often? What musical quality could he summon better than anyone else?
I haven’t done a count, but clearly the great American songwriters—George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers—are well represented, as are important jazz composers such as Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.
Yet as I look at the range of the standard repertoire, I don’t notice many stylistic similarities. You can’t study this material without marveling over the diversity of this body of work. And even though I like some of these songs better than others, there are very few works in the standard repertoire that don’t have some redeeming quality or noteworthy hook in their construction. Jazz musicians like smart songs, and the standard repertoire mostly consists of real gems, and only a few fake jewels.
Is there a musician who seemed to have an individualistic and intuitive sense of the possibilities of a great song – even those that others had neglected or failed to transform? Maybe you could say a word about the way Chet Baker and Sonny Rollins – two very different artists – chose their material.
People who listen to the recommended tracks I list in my book—and by the way, a great Spotify playlist compiled by Jim Higgins (http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/entertainment/161618065.html) makes it easy for them to do so—will see the many different ways jazz musicians have put their own distinctive stamp on the music. Sometimes their interpretation builds on the basic personality of the song, but in other instances a jazz performer will force a song to take on new, unexpected disguises. Lester Young and Chet Baker might be considered masters of the former approach, building their own renditions on the lyrical ingredients inherent in the composition. On the other hand, a Sonny Rollins or a Coleman Hawkins erect their own imposing superstructures on the original foundations, sometimes with such boldness and mastery that the original song is turned into something the composer might never have anticipated. Both approaches are part of the jazz heritage. In fact, part of the joy of studying this music comes from accepting that there is no one right way of playing it.
Do we learn anything technically by looking en mass at the best or most-played songs? That is, does there seem to be a key or tempo our ear likes best, or some hard-wired rule about not jumping more than a fifth in our favorite melodies, or something?
I’m not sure we can draw conclusions about songs in general based on the jazz standard repertoire. Most of the songs in the standard repertoire are more complex than your typical pop tune, but even that isn’t a hard and fast rule. Some standards are simple riff-tunes., not much different than a rock or R&B tune. Sometimes the song itself is nothing special, but the chord changes serve as a good vehicle for improvisation.
In general, this body of work tells us more about how jazz musicians can find inspiration almost anywhere—in a movie theme from a forgotten film, from a tune from a failed Broadway show, from some new twist in a song from Brazil or France or wherever. Studying this music, you learn that jazz musicians are omnivores, able to devour and digest a surprising diversity of raw materials and adapt them to their own purposes.
Do you have a single favorite, after listening to and thinking about hundreds, maybe thousands, of songs? What makes it so perfect?
If I could have composed any standard, and put it up on the shelf like a trophy, I probably would choose Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” The chords are exquisite and the composition is as sophisticated as any art song in the classical repertoire. And the words are as daring as they come. Have you ever heard a love song that presents such a savage denunciation of love? Is there a more unexpected line in the popular song idiom than “Romance is mush stifling those who strive”? That’s some heavy stuff. Yet “Lush Life” also shows a soft underbelly, an extraordinary vulnerability, even as it pretends to give up on love and romance. There are many levels of meaning in this song, and even its title has a double signification. It’s hard to believe that Strayhorn wrote this piece at such a young—part of it when he was perhaps only 17 or 18. This sounds like a song you would compose after long and painful experience of life’s many vicissitudes.
In the broadest sense: Does jazz need standards, or does a firm canon inhibit the music’s growth?
Any canon is both a blessing and a curse. You want to hold up the best work for emulation and admiration, and formulating a canon is an essential part of this process. You can use it as a teaching tool for the young, and an emblem of achievement for the old. But too much reverence for a historical body of work can be stultifying. In my book, I aimed to celebrate those who established the standard repertoire, but also acknowledge the contributions of those who tried to subvert it. The jazz world needs both kinds of practitioners, and fortunately we are still blessed with a few of them.