Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Jazz Standards: A Guide To The Repertoire

As one comes to know and appreciate jazz, it becomes apparent that jazz musicians create their own compositions, avail themselves of other jazz compositions, or utilize familiar songs that have become known as "standards."  Standards are often songs from the Broadway stage, but can be any popular tune from the recorded era.  The standard provides a form (verse, chorus, sometimes bridge), a chord progression and a melody that is played at the beginning and end.

With his guide, The Jazz Standards, Ted Gioia provides a great service to anyone interested in exploring jazz by discussing more than 200 of the best known melodies employed in the jazz repertoire.  His entries first give some background on a melody's pre-jazz origins.  He also shares his personal response to each standard often highlighting some of his favorite renditions.  The end of each entry includes a short discography of his preferred recordings.


Despite disliking the melody and chord changes of "All The Things You Are" by Jerome Kern, the author claims it as a favorite standard of his.  He appreciates it for its "exciting set of possibilities as a springboard for jazz improvisation."  The song first appeared in the 1939 musical flop Very Warm For May , but it soon grabbed the attention of jazz musicians.  By the end of the year Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra introduced it and took it to the top of the charts.  The author spoke to saxophonist Bud Shank near the end of his 60 year career "who never felt he had exhausted the possibilities of this specific song."


Writing about "I'm In The Mood For Love," by the standard-making songwriting team of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Field, Gioia noted that it had the misfortune to be prominently sung by the character of Alfalfa in a Little Rascals short. However, that was already a year after the song had been introduced by Frances Langford in the film Every Night At 8, released in August 5, 1935. The review in Variety magazine noted that "she reprises 'I'm in the Mood for Love' several times" but predicted other songs from the movie would get more attention from the jazz orchestras.  Variety was proven wrong when Louis Armstrong powered it to number 3 on the charts a few months later, assuring its status as a standard.


While he sort of disparages one of my favorites, Vincent Youmans' and Irving Ceasar's "Tea For Two, ("the melody is monotonous and akin to a second-rate nursery song"), Gioia illuminates the song nonetheless.  He repeats the apocryphal tale about how Harry Frazee, the backer of the song's show No, No Nanette, sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees to finance his show.  I enjoyed reading about Dmitri Shostakovich's scoring of the song for orchestra (see volume 10 of the composer's collection works - Sobranie sochineniń≠ v soroka dvukh tomakh).  Gioia is at is best when he tells of how New York's finest jazz pianists seemed to try one-up each other with more brilliant renditions of this tune.

Many of these songs are well established within the Great American Songbook making the contents of this book elide well with our Dorothy Starr Collection of sheet music. The cover illustrations above all come from the collection.  You will not find yourself always agreeing with Gioia's assessments, but he takes us on an entertaining and informative journey through this repertoire and will certainly entice you to listen to more jazz.

Art Tatum playing "Tea for two"

The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire by Ted Gioia (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories, 1890-1954: The History of American Popular Music: Compiled from America's popular music charts 1890-1954 (Record Research, 1986).

Sobranie sochineniń≠ v soroka dvukh tomakh, volume 10, by D. Shostakovich (Muzyka, 1979-1987).

Variety Film Reviews, volume 5 (Garland Pub., 1983).

Sheet music:


"All The Things You Are," music by Jerome Kern (Chappell & Co. Inc., 1939).


"I'm In The Mood For Love," words and music by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields (Robbins Music Corporation, 1935).

"Tea For Two," music by Vincent Youmans (Harms Inc., 1924).



Blossom Dearie singing "Tea for two"

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