Jazz writer and scholar Ted Gioia makes book-writing look easy, which, of course, makes life a little harder for the rest of us scribes. An insightful, clean writer, Ted tackles tough jazz subjects and develops a narrative that's easy to follow, telling the book's story in a highly informative and engaging style. You probaly know Ted best as the author of West Coast Jazz (1998) and Delta Blues (2009), but he also has written The History of Jazz (1998), The Birth (and Death) of the Cool (2009) and quite a few others.
Ted's latest is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire (Oxford), a handy reference guide to 252 songs and the stories behind them. As with all of Ted's books, this one will surely be on home shelves long after others are gone.
In an interview with Ted, 54, we talked about the criteria for a jazz standard and why so few songs written today fit into this category...
JazzWax: So what’s the difference between a jazz standard and a Great American Songbook standard?
Ted Gioia: Songbook standards refer to the best popular songs from the Golden Age of American songwriting, which started in the 1920s and ran out of steam the late 1950s and early 1960s. While many of these songs are jazz standards and are in my book, jazz musicians also draw on other compositions, some of them little-known by the general public. These might include obscure soundtrack themes such as Invitation, traditional pieces like Tiger Rag, or original compositions by jazz artists such as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. No book has covered this core repertoire in its entirety—essentially the songs working jazz musicians need to know and fans ought to learn. I wanted to fill the gap. [Photo above: New York's Tin Pan Alley]
JW: What criteria did you use for the songs in your book?
TG: I ended up choosing and writing on 252 compositions. But to decide which ones to include, I started by looking at those that had been recorded most often by jazz players. But I soon realized that many of those pieces have fallen out of favor in recent years. Tunes like The Sheik of Araby and Some of These Days. So I couldn’t rely on a simple numeric ranking based on objective criteria
JW: What did you do?
TG: I needed to make some subjective judgments about which songs are cornerstones of the jazz repertoire today. I’m sure there will be debate and controversy about what I included or excluded—those conversations are part of the fun of a project like this. But I expect general agreement about the vast majority of the music discussed in my work.
JW: Some biggies seem to be absent—like Killer Joe, Blues March, Along Came Betty, Hi-Fly, Four and What a Difference a Day Made. Was this a conscious decision?
TG: I focused on songs that you're likely to hear today at a jazz club—or might be asked to perform on the bandstand if you are a musician. These aren’t always bestselling jazz songs, or the most popular among fans, or even the most respected by critics. Sometimes a jazz song can earn a gold record, but not be performed frequently enough by later name artists to become a standard.
JW: For example?
TG: Songs like The In Crowd, Mercy Mercy Mercy and Cast Your Fate to the Wind. On the other hand, songs such as Lush Life or Blue Bossa might never show up on the Billboard charts but are performed again and again by jazz artists.
JW: What is the newest jazz standard in your book?
TG: I haven’t done a chronological sorting, but you raise an important question. I am dismayed at how little the standard repertoire has changed since the 1970s. Some jazz artists today are trying to broaden the standard repertoire—by performing works by Kurt Cobain or Radiohead or Michael Jackson or other more contemporary figures. But none of these newer songs are performed frequently enough to justify inclusion alongside Summertime and I Got Rhythm.
JW: Does this trend worry you?
TG: I hope this state of affairs changes. I would welcome a more expansive attitude toward the standard repertoire, and I'd be quite happy to revise my book at some future date because newer songs were getting covered as often as the older tunes. I worry about the stagnation of the repertoire. I even considered including an appendix on songs that should be jazz standards, but aren’t—but that would have opened a different can of worms.
JW: If you were to rank your choices, which would be your list of 10 most potent and influential jazz standards—in order?
TG: You could debate this endlessly, but here are 10 milestone works that have continued to provide a benchmark for jazz improvisers over several generations:
- I Got Rhythm
- Body and Soul
- St. Louis Blues
- All the Things You Are
- Round Midnight
- How High the Moon
- Take the A Train
- Star Dust
- My Funny Valentine
Yet even here, you can see some changes in attitude over the years.
JW: How so?
TG: When I was first learning to play jazz piano, Caravan would not have made the list. It was considered more a bit of musical exoticism than a core standard. But this song is very well suited to the modal phrasing and stylistic preferences of the current day, so it now takes center stage at many gigs. Star Dust, in contrast, might eventually fall off my top-10 list—even though it is one of the most popular jazz songs ever recorded. It doesn’t adapt quite so well to modern conceptions of improvising.
JW: Which jazz standard has the most intriguing back-story?
TG: Probably Body and Soul. Today we treat this song as the ultimate sax ballad, the measuring rod by which an improviser is judged. But it almost failed to become a standard. The singer who commissioned it originally never even bothered to record it. The middle section of the song was a reject—turned down by bandleader Guy Lombardo when composer Johnny Green tried to give it to him. The lyricists were unhappy with the words and continued to tinker with them even after the song was copyrighted. Even the name of the tune caused problems.
JW: How so?
TG: At the time, NBC refused to announce the title over the airwaves since they deemed the word “body” too explicit. The fact that Body and Soul overcame all these obstacles is largely due to one man—Coleman Hawkins. But even he was surprised when his record became a big hit in 1939. “I don’t understand why or how,” was his later comment.
JW: What is the secret recipe for a timeless jazz standard?
TG: Jazz musicians favor songs that are good vehicles for improvisation. Often this is due to an interesting twist in the chord changes or some other factor that the general public probably wouldn’t even notice. Take All the Things You Are, for example. To the average set of ears, the first eight bars of the song sound the same as the next eight bars. But there is actually a modulation that brings the melody down a fourth. This is quite unconventional, and improvisers dig it. But the average listener wouldn’t even hear it.
JW: Why do jazz musicians keep playing it?
TG: Shortly before saxophonist Bud Shank [pictured] died in 2009, he told me he still felt he hadn’t yet exhausted all of the possibilities in All the Things You Are. He was 82-years-old at the time and had been playing the song for more than a half-century. For him—and for many jazz musicians—a piece of this sort isn’t just a song. It’s a set of possibilities. It’s an invitation to explore. Those qualities are what establish a song as a jazz standard. Not what the song is, but what it can become in the hands of a creative improviser.
JW: Is this recipe still valid today?
TG: Clearly it’s getting harder to apply this recipe. There’s a growing chasm between popular music and the jazz sensibility. The harmonic underpinnings of popular music today are getting simpler and simpler. The melodies are getting squeezed into a narrower range, with fewer chromatic notes and more predictable phrasing. But most jazz musicians want songs that have interesting chord changes or some clever hook in their construction. This divergence makes it difficult for a current-day song to move from the Billboard charts to the jazz bandstand.
JW: But jazz musicians can’t merely play the same standards over and over again.
TG: That’s true. Jazz needs to maintain a vibrant dialogue with the popular music of the current day if it hopes to remain vital and not turn into a museum piece. Artists such as Robert Glasper [pictured] and Esperanza Spalding are trying to forge this kind of dialogue, but sometimes it feels as if the jazz side of the equation has been sold out in the process. Even so, efforts of this sort are, I believe, essential for the long-term health of the art form.
JW: Why do these older jazz standards continue to intrigue jazz buyers?
TG: The standard jazz repertoire continues to have a large audience in the jazz world and even among aging rock and pop stars. Paul McCartney [pictured] is the latest. And even young pop icons line up to record the old songs alongside Tony Bennett. His last album [Duets II] found him revisiting standards in tandem with Lady Gaga, Carrie Underwood, John Mayer and other performers who aren’t even half his age.
JW: Cabaret is another big market for jazz standards, yes?
TG: Absolutely. You also hear them turn up in movie soundtracks, as background to commercials, in video games and other likely and unlikely places. I give many examples in my book.
JW: So, is it still possible to write a jazz standard today?
TG: I listen to new music every day and hear many promising songs. But it’s harder than ever for a serious songwriter to navigate through the industry bottlenecks. The music industry seems determined to turn the record business into a fashion and lifestyle category, where songwriting as a professional craft has little or no role.
JW: Are jazz musicians themselves an obstacle?
TG: To some extent. Many jazz musicians prefer recording their own original songs and rarely want to feature a song by anyone outside of their band—unless the composer is dead and gone. A few major jazz musicians are bucking this trend, and I applaud them. I just wish more improvisers would follow their lead.
JazzWax tracks: Jim Higgins, book editor of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, assembled a Spotify playlist featuring 2,000 songs that Ted has recommend in his new book. Go here.