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The History Behind All Those Famous Jazz Standards
by Jerome Weeks 20 Jul 2012

There have been “fake books” before this – compilations of all the songs a jazz musician needed to know for a paying gig. But now Plano music historian Ted Gioia has written the stories behind those 252 classic jazz numbers.

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John Coltrane and Miles Davis around the time of the album, Some Day My Prince Will Come

We’ve heard jazz standards like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Star Dust” for decades. But what makes a song a standard? Who decides? KERA’s Jerome Weeks talked with Plano music historian Ted Gioia [pronounced JOY-ah]. His new book examines the stories behind 250 classic songs.

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  • KERA radio story:

[Thelonius Monk’s “‘Round Midnight’ plays under.]

Many standards are pretty much what you might think: They started as old blues numbers or pop hits or Broadway show tunes like George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” And jazz composers wrote some themselves, like Thelonius Monk’s “‘Round Midnight.” They’re outstanding examples of American popular song. Of course, jazz musicians would play them.

[“Some Day My Prince Will Come” starts and continues under]

But what you’re hearing now, performed by Miles Davis in 1961, is a rarity. It’s the only classic song in Ted Gioia’s new book, The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire , that came from a cartoon.

Gioia: “Miles Davis took ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come” from the Disney animated cartoon, Snow White. And he didn’t try to do it tongue-in-cheek or what we’d call post-modern now. He played it straight and brought out the beauty of the song. So it started in a cartoon, it ended up in jazz. But that key intermediary was Miles Davis.”

Dave Brubeck originally picked out “Some Day My Prince Will Come” for his 1957 album, Dave Digs Disney. But it was Davis’ 1961 version with John Coltrane that inspired such later masters as Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. This shows how a song becomes a standard. In general, jazz is about how a musician transforms a song through his improvisations. It’s what’s done to a song. But a song only becomes a standard when enough other musicians respond. They agree, this is worth playing – and re-playing.

Gioia: “Today’s jazz musicians are actually in a dialogue with the past greats. They play the same songs that were played 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago. And they’re very aware of the tradition, and they try to re-invent it.”

Gioia is a music and book critic, plus a jazz pianist. He’s also the younger brother of Dana Gioia, the former head of the National Endowment for the Arts. He moved to Texas ten years ago while researching his history of the Delta blues. His earlier book, The History of Jazz, has become an essential reference work. Before The Jazz Standards came out this year, jazz musicians had “cheat books”or “fake books” – collections of the  sheet music for the songs most often performed. They’d help you ”fake’ your way through. But Gioia’s Jazz Standards is the first book that examines the history behind what is basically “the jazz canon.” Gioia himself learned these numbers the old-fashioned way. Befoe jazz was taught in colleges, you learned the songs older musicians knew – if you wanted to be hired for a gig. [Bud Powell’s cover of  “Cherokee”  starts]

Gioia: “Generally, there was a song that you had to learn how to play. Duke Ellington had to show that he could play “Carolina Shout,” a song James P. Johnson had written. For the be-boppers, they had to show they could play “Cherokee.” Twenty years later, you had to show you could play Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” You show that you’ve arrived by paying attention to where the music’s been.”

But this makes jazz sound hidebound by tradition, as if it’s entirely about the past. The fact is, the many new recordings listed in Gioia’s book are all versions of older classics. Apparently, no new jazz standard has been composed since 1974. Gioia says that’s because right around then, the repertoire was becoming codified – standardized.

Gioia: “And I don’t think that’s a good thing. I’d like to see jazz musicians draw on more contemporary material. And I see some do take songs by, you know, Kurt Cobain or Michael Jackson, and they try to bring it into the jazz repertoire. It’s exciting. But there’s not enough of a critical mass behind these songs to make them into standards.”

[return of ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’ continues under] At the same time, Gioia is optimistic – because jazz, he says, has no end point. It’s not just that jazz is still being written. It’s still being re-written.

Gioia: “The one thing I re-learned writing this book is there is no one right way to play these songs. When I listen to a Miles Davis or a Charles Mingus what I marvel at is not that they are playing a specific song but that they’re able to take that song and make it say something new and different than it’s ever said before.

Image outfront from Shutterstock

Out-takes from the interview:

  • The greatest writer of jazz standards you’ve never heard of: Jimmy Van Heusen, composer of “Darn the Dream” (covered at different times by Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Stan Kenton), “Here’s That Rainy Day” (Frank Sinatra, Bill Evans, Gary Burton) and “I Thought About You” (Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Branford Marsalis) — among many others.
  • Thelonius Monk, the fourth most-often-cited song composer in The Jazz Standards, would have appeared only a handful of times — if this book had been written 20 years ago:
  • The case to be made — for and against — Antonio Carlos Jobim (“The Girl from Ipanema,” “Wave”) as the fifth-most-cited composer, ahead of Jerome Kern and Charlie Parker:
  • The oddest source, ever, for a jazz standard, a song covered by Erroll Garner, Cannonball Adderley, Frank Sinatra and Keith Jarrett:
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  • Joanna

    What a great piece for a Friday morning. This highlights the incredible diversity and depth of jazz music and its contributions to America’s cultural heritage. For those of us who love jazz this is an affirmation of how great this music is. I want to point out that today’s jazz artists are inspired by contemporary artists like Kurt Cobain and others – I regularly hear our local jazz musicians riffing on contemporary music or reinterpreting jazz standards in unique ways. There is also a great deal of great original jazz music being performed here from Arlington Jones, James Gilyard, Dave Zoller, Cindy Horstman, Gregory Slavin, Chris DeRose and so many others. Thanks to Ted Gioia for writing the book and Jerome Weeks for bringing it to us.

    Joanna St. Angelo

  • Joanna

    What a great piece for a Friday morning. This highlights the incredible diversity and depth of jazz music and its contributions to America’s cultural heritage. For those of us who love jazz this is an affirmation of how great this music is. I want to point out that today’s jazz artists are inspired by contemporary artists like Kurt Cobain and others – I regularly hear our local jazz musicians riffing on contemporary music or reinterpreting jazz standards in unique ways. There is also a great deal of great original jazz music being performed here from Arlington Jones, James Gilyard, Dave Zoller, Cindy Horstman, Gregory Slavin, Chris DeRose and so many others. Thanks to Ted Gioia for writing the book and Jerome Weeks for bringing it to us.

    Joanna St. Angelo

  • Ken

    The nexus between the standards of the great american song book and the dominant repertoire of most jazz musicians comes from the confluence of two important concerns for the musicians that originally embraced these songs: (1) they are very well written songs, whose harmonic structures lend themselves to improvising, and whose strong melodies are so memorable or recognizable that most audience members can recognize instrumental versions of them, (2) because the audience could recognize them (even without a vocalist to sing the lyrics) they were very audience friendly…… even as instrumentals. During a time when song writing teams often composed these songs, with one person writing the music and wanting to make sure the song would stand on its own as “music” and another focusing on the lyrics with similar concerns for their contribution, you naturally got an environment that fostered a pursuit of excellence in both the music and the lyrics. This environment even affected the exceptions to the team writing approach by composers like Cole Porter. Because the U.S. has been one of only a handful of countries that never paid broadcast royalties to performers, only to publishers and composers, one cannot underestimate the impact that a group like the Beatles had on the entire system. Because they wrote a great deal of their own material, even in the beginning. So record companies could access another revenue stream by getting hold of part or all of such a group’s publishing rights, thus generating additional income for each and every broadcast of material that could otherwise only generate income from record sales. This led to the dominance of the “singer songwriter”. These writers are rarely concerned with hip chord changes, blowing friendly forms or melodic development. And understandably so. But it also meant that much of the popular repertoire since 1974 has been “slim pickins” when it comes to what many jazz musicians look for in what they will develop and blow on. Which in part contributes to our dwindling audience. But that is another issue ………. in my opinion.

    • Anonymous

      Ken: I realize you’re making generalizations and although they may be (very partially) true — as broad generalizations — there are some holes in them. When we think of ‘jazz standards,’ for instance, we tend to think of the great, harmonically rich classics by Gershwin, Kern or Ellington, but there are heralded standards that are based around little more than blues riffs. They’re just platforms for improvisations; whatever complexity and richness they gain comes from the interpretation, not so much the original.

      To me, your first argument (and your later dismissive observations about singer-songwriters not being interested in hip chord changes or melodic development) comes too close to the old (self-congratulatory) canard that rock ‘n’ roll and funk are just too crude for jazz folk — when, in fact, a ton of rock and funk have left behind the three-chords-with-a-4-beat format a long, long time ago. In fact, I thought Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and quite a few others had proved these areas well worth exploring — oh, 30-40 years back.

      I found your economic point about royalties rather interesting because, although I’ve come across various observations about how the composer-performer model changed the popular music industry, I’d never encountered any direct application to the decline in jazz’ popularity. Interesting, though I’m not sure I buy it — partly because you start by arguing for the ‘audience friendly’ nature of jazz standards, which is an odd case to make for, say, Thelonius Monk’s music which, for years, was considered too thorny, too eccentric for wide acceptance. Yet, as I note above, he’s the fourth most-cited composer in Ted Gioia’s book. How’d that happen? I don’t think it’s because audiences suddenly started humming ‘Epistrophy.’ Whether you buy it or not, you can listen to Gioia’s case above, about how jazz musicians started picking up his music after his death. As I state in the story, a song becomes a jazz standard when jazz musicians start tossing it back and forth amongst themselves. A number of what we consider great Broadway-to-jazz standards actually came from obscure musicals and movies that failed. In other words, the songs themselves never got a chance to become well-known or popular UNTIL jazz musicians kept playing with them and audiences found, yeah, these are wonderful.

      What’s more, ‘audience friendliness’ would seem to point to rock and pop becoming even MORE amenable to jazz interpretation, if that’s indeed a major reason a song becomes a standard. I can get a group of the right age (not too young, not too old) clapping along by shouting just the words “Brick house” to the right rhythm. Ditto ‘Burning down the house’ or just repeating the rhythm and horn chart for ‘I feel good.’ They’re rock and funk standards — immediately identifiable to a great many people and easy to remember, with or without the lyrics. So why aren’t they jazz standards? And if you say because the songs are too simple, we’re back to the argument in my first paragraph: Some great jazz standards started out pretty simple, too.

      • Ken Hatfield

        Jerome, As I stated in my first sentence I’m referring only to the standards of the so called great american song book……… which for most of jazz’s history have comprised the bulk of the repertoire. The category of jazz classics that are so frequently played that they entered the canon is (in my opinion) another or sub genre. Especially given that they generally began their lives sans lyrics, only to have them added by someone other than the composer at a later date…….. such as Carmen McRae’s or Jon Hendricks’s Monk lyrics.

        Monk is a good case in point …… because as much as I love his music, it has only entered the canon in the last several decades. And I suspect that most non jazz aficionados are still woefully unaware of how great his tunes are.

        I agree that I am painting with a broad brush……. so for the sake of making my point without having to address every exception, please grant me a bit of latitude. Not all of the songs written since 1974 lack interest for jazz musicians. I frequently play many. But in this limited format what I wanted to emphasize is the specific economic model that has not at all favored the process of song writing teams, where each partner is an expert in their area of contribution…….. like George and Ira Gershwin …. with George writing the music and Ira writing the lyrics.

        In the era where labels had A&R people and publishers had song pluggers, the input that went into recording an artist was very different than it is today. There are clearly great contemporary composers, but the reasons for the failure of their music to become “a standard” seems multi-faceted …. at least to me. And I see one big change beginning with the shift toward the singer songwriter model……. perhaps the musical equivalent of the “big box store”, where the labels could streamline the process, and get the composer and performer in one package. And if they played their cards right, own the artist’s publishing rights as part of the price of producing the sound recording, which was the life blood for any artist…… at least back then.

        Many of the Jazz legends I’ve been fortunate enough to work with lament that change …. and for many good reasons…….. among them in my opinion is the shift in emphasis the new economic model brought to bear on the process of producing the music most folks consumed. To get an idea of how much the singer songwriter model differed from the pre-Beatles “norm” check out the repertoire on Bob Dylan’s first Columbia release in 1962; it contained only two Dylan originals, the rest were covers…… and this from even the quintessential “singer songwriter”. Or check out the first Rolling stones recording released in the U.S (also from 1962); it contained only one original, all the rest were covers. The Beatles changed the economic model (and even their early recordings contained covers). The changes that precipitated are significant contributing factors for the lack of “modern standards” (for lack of a better phrase). I’ve heard and played recordings of really good interesting instrumental jazz versions of Kurt Cobain tunes for fans of Nirvana, and they could not even recognize the tune as being a Kurt Cobain song! So maybe what they focus on is not what Jazz musicians focus on. And as I also stated (as reason # 2) in my previous comment: part of why jazz musicians play/played the standards in the first place is that the audience recognizes them (or at least they used to).

        I too feel we need to expand both our repertoire and our audience. I’m not the one with the answers, but I know that professional musicians make a living plying their trade. And when the means of remuneration change, folks adjust their approach, find work elsewhere or starve. The shift I’m referring to from professional composers and lyricists creating material for performers being the norm, to singer songwriters being the norm, changed the repertoire of “popular” music in the U.S. And the demise of new entries into the Great American Song Book coincides with that shift in the economic model, much like the switch to digital has changed the game in recent times. Sometimes change is not progress, but merely change, and change is unavoidable as long as we live in time. But these broad generalizations are merely the learned opinion of someone that cares deeply about our music, and wants it to survive and prosper.

        Ken Hatfield

  • Ken

    The nexus between the standards of the great american song book and the dominant repertoire of most jazz musicians comes from the confluence of two important concerns for the musicians that originally embraced these songs: (1) they are very well written songs, whose harmonic structures lend themselves to improvising, and whose strong melodies are so memorable or recognizable that most audience members can recognize instrumental versions of them, (2) because the audience could recognize them (even without a vocalist to sing the lyrics) they were very audience friendly…… even as instrumentals. During a time when song writing teams often composed these songs, with one person writing the music and wanting to make sure the song would stand on its own as “music” and another focusing on the lyrics with similar concerns for their contribution, you naturally got an environment that fostered a pursuit of excellence in both the music and the lyrics. This environment even affected the exceptions to the team writing approach by composers like Cole Porter. Because the U.S. has been one of only a handful of countries that never paid broadcast royalties to performers, only to publishers and composers, one cannot underestimate the impact that a group like the Beatles had on the entire system. Because they wrote a great deal of their own material, even in the beginning. So record companies could access another revenue stream by getting hold of part or all of such a group’s publishing rights, thus generating additional income for each and every broadcast of material that could otherwise only generate income from record sales. This led to the dominance of the “singer songwriter”. These writers are rarely concerned with hip chord changes, blowing friendly forms or melodic development. And understandably so. But it also meant that much of the popular repertoire since 1974 has been “slim pickins” when it comes to what many jazz musicians look for in what they will develop and blow on. Which in part contributes to our dwindling audience. But that is another issue ………. in my opinion.

    • JeromeWeeks

      Ken: I realize you’re making generalizations and although they may be (partially) true — as broad generalizations — there are some holes in them. When we think of ‘jazz standards,’ for instance, we tend to think of the great, harmonically rich classics by Gershwin, Kern or Ellington, but there are heralded standards that are based around little more than blues riffs. They’re just platforms for improvisations; whatever complexity and richness they gain comes from the interpretation, not so much the original.

      To me, your first argument (and your later dismissive observations about singer-songwriters not being interested in hip chord changes or melodic development) comes too close to the old (self-congratulatory) canard that rock ‘n’ roll and funk are just too crude for jazz folk — when, in fact, a ton of rock and funk have left behind the three-chords-with-a-4-beat format a long, long time ago. In fact, I thought Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and quite a few others had proved these areas well worth exploring — oh, 30-40 years back.

      I found your economic point about royalties rather interesting because, although I’ve come across various observations about how the composer-performer model changed the popular music industry, I’d never encountered any direct application to the decline in jazz’ popularity. Interesting, though I’m not sure I buy it — partly because you start by arguing for the ‘audience friendly’ nature of jazz standards, which is an odd case to make for, say, Thelonius Monk’s music which, for years, was considered too thorny, too eccentric for wide acceptance. Yet, as I note above, he’s the fourth most-cited composer in Ted Gioia’s book. How’d that happen? I don’t think it’s because audiences suddenly started humming ‘Epistrophy.’ Whether you buy it or not, you can listen to Gioia’s case above, about how jazz musicians started picking up his music after his death.

      What’s more, ‘audience friendliness’ would seem to point to rock and pop becoming even MORE amenable to jazz interpretation, if that’s indeed a major reason a song becomes a standard. I can get a group of the right age (not too young, not too old) clapping along by shouting just the words “Brick house” to the right rhythm. Ditto ‘Burning down the house’ or just repeating the rhythm and horn chart for ‘I feel good.’ They’re rock and funk standards — immediately identifiable to a great many people and easy to remember, with or without the lyrics. So why aren’t they jazz standards? And if you say because the songs are too simple, we’re back to the argument in my first paragraph: Some great jazz standards started out pretty simple, too.

      Yes, obviously, audience appeal is a key factor — if no one wants to hear a song again once they heard it or they have a hard time remembering anything about it, then it’s not likely it’ll stick around. But as I state in the story, a song becomes a jazz standard when jazz musicians start tossing it back and forth amongst themselves. A number of what we consider great Broadway-to-jazz standards actually came from obscure musicals and movies that failed. In other words, the songs themselves never got a chance to become well-known or popular UNTIL jazz musicians kept playing with them and audiences found, yeah, these are wonderful.

      • Ken Hatfield

        Jerome, As I stated in my first sentence I’m referring only to the standards of the so called great american song book……… which for most of jazz’s history have comprised the bulk of the repertoire. The category of jazz classics that are so frequently played that they entered the canon is (in my opinion) another or sub genre. Especially given that they generally began their lives sans lyrics, only to have them added by someone other than the composer at a later date…….. such as Carmen McRae’s or Jon Hendricks’s Monk lyrics.

        Monk is a good case in point …… because as much as I love his music, it has only entered the canon in the last several decades. And I suspect that most non jazz aficionados are still woefully unaware of how great his tunes are.

        I agree that I am painting with a broad brush……. so for the sake of making my point without having to address every exception, please grant me a bit of latitude. Not all of the songs written since 1974 lack interest for jazz musicians. I frequently play many. But in this limited format what I wanted to emphasize is the specific economic model that has not at all favored the process of song writing teams, where each partner is an expert in their area of contribution…….. like George and Ira Gershwin …. with George writing the music and Ira writing the lyrics.

        In the era where labels had A&R people and publishers had song pluggers, the input that went into recording an artist was very different than it is today. There are clearly great contemporary composers, but the reasons for the failure of their music to become “a standard” seems multi-faceted …. at least to me. And I see one big change beginning with the shift toward the singer songwriter model……. perhaps the musical equivalent of the “big box store”, where the labels could streamline the process, and get the composer and performer in one package. And if they played their cards right, own the artist’s publishing rights as part of the price of producing the sound recording, which was the life blood for any artist…… at least back then.

        Many of the Jazz legends I’ve been fortunate enough to work with lament that change …. and for many good reasons…….. among them in my opinion is the shift in emphasis the new economic model brought to bear on the process of producing the music most folks consumed. To get an idea of how much the singer songwriter model differed from the pre-Beatles “norm” check out the repertoire on Bob Dylan’s first Columbia release in 1962; it contained only two Dylan originals, the rest were covers…… and this from even the quintessential “singer songwriter”. Or check out the first Rolling stones recording released in the U.S (also from 1962); it contained only one original, all the rest were covers. The Beatles changed the economic model (and even their early recordings contained covers). The changes that precipitated are significant contributing factors for the lack of “modern standards” (for lack of a better phrase). I’ve heard and played recordings of really good interesting instrumental jazz versions of Kurt Cobain tunes for fans of Nirvana, and they could not even recognize the tune as being a Kurt Cobain song! So maybe what they focus on is not what Jazz musicians focus on. And as I also stated (as reason # 2) in my previous comment: part of why jazz musicians play/played the standards in the first place is that the audience recognizes them (or at least they used to).

        I too feel we need to expand both our repertoire and our audience. I’m not the one with the answers, but I know that professional musicians make a living plying their trade. And when the means of remuneration change, folks adjust their approach, find work elsewhere or starve. The shift I’m referring to from professional composers and lyricists creating material for performers being the norm, to singer songwriters being the norm, changed the repertoire of “popular” music in the U.S. And the demise of new entries into the Great American Song Book coincides with that shift in the economic model, much like the switch to digital has changed the game in recent times. Sometimes change is not progress, but merely change, and change is unavoidable as long as we live in time. But these broad generalizations are merely the learned opinion of someone that cares deeply about our music, and wants it to survive and prosper.

        Ken Hatfield

  • s

    The painting on the cover of this book is by Thomas Andersen, view his work here:

    http://www.andersenart.com.au

  • s

    The painting on the cover of this book is by Thomas Andersen, view his work here:

    http://www.andersenart.com.au

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