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.
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.
“Miles Davis took ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come” from the Disney animated cartoon, Snow White, says Gioia. “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 around with – and re-playing.
“Today’s jazz musicians are actually in a dialogue with the past greats,” says Gioia. “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, 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. Before jazz was taught in colleges, you learned the songs older musicians knew – if you wanted to be hired for a gig.
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 and primarily college-taught.
“And I don’t think that’s a good thing,” he says. “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.”
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.
“The one thing I re-learned writing this book is there is no one right way to play these songs,” Gioia says. “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.”
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: