© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Standard. A composition, usually a popular song, that becomes an established item in the repertory; by extension, therefore, a song that a professional musician may be expected to know. Standards in jazz include popular songs from the late 19th century (e.g., When the saints go marching in), songs from Broadway musicals and Hollywood films by composers such as George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rogers, and tunes newly composed by jazz musicians (e.g., Thelonious Monk's Round Midnight, Dizzy Gillespie's A Night in Tunisia, and John Coltrane's Giant Steps).
Jazz musicians themselves, however, distinguish further between these categories, referring to the first as comprising dixieland standards, the second as unqualified or mainstream standards, and the last as jazz standards; it is the consensus that the essential repertory of standards is comprehended within the mainstream category. Many jazz performances are based on standards, taking not only the melody but also the harmonies of the entire piece, or more often the refrain only, as the theme (...); part of the impact of a performance based on a standard derives from its being familiar to the listeners, who are the better able to appreciate skillful arrangement and inventive improvisation because they know the original work.”
- Robert Witmer, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz
As it formed in my mind, the idea for this feature seemed a sound one and a fun one, too.
So I thought I’d have a go at the question of what constitutes a standard in Jazz?
This is a topic that I have returned to from time-to-time ever since I received my copy of Ted Gioia’s The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire [New York: Oxford University Press, 2012].
Actually, the process of periodically returning to the question of what makes a Jazz standard - what Ted refers to as “... the knowledge of the repertoire” - was in line with the way in which I read his book - intermittently.
Given the 250+ songs and the 2000+ recommended listening suggestions, Ted’s book contained too much information to absorb all at once. Tracking down Ted’s recommended versions of each tune added further depth to the experience of identifying how and why a tune becomes a Jazz standard, but it is a time-consuming process.
Loosely stated, Ted defines the repertoire of Jazz standards as the “200-300 songs all Jazz musicians are expected to know; a Jazz performer needed to learn these songs the same way a Classical musician studied the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.” [Introduction, p. 1; paraphrased].
On a related point, and much to the distraction of many of my Jazz buddies; I have always listened to the recordings in my collection, “vertically” instead of “horizontally.”
By that I mean, I study them - one track at a time - going over and over the same version of a tune rather than listening to the recording as it is programmed - one track after another.
Initially, my reason for doing this was to memorize all the drum licks, kicks, fills and solos as I practiced to them.
As my ear developed and as my melody-and-harmony friends taught me what to listen for in terms of these cornerstones of the music, I would listen to the same track repeatedly trying to pick-up on how the horn players, guitarist, pianist, et al. were building their solos on either the song’s basic melody and/or it’s chord structure.
After a while, I learned to pick-up on reharmonizations of the basic chords, how dynamics were used to enhance the overall texture [sonority] of the music, how bass players were “framing” chords behind the instrumentalist, etc.
Things to listen for in each, repeated listening of a track became almost endless.
With all this going on, I ultimately realized that Jazz musicians had so much to do while making up alternative melodies, reharmonizing chords and adding different “feels” and “textures” to the music that it really helped when the original tune fell easily on their ears.
Tunes that are easy to sing, hum or whistle - songs with melodies that linger in our minds and are easy to recall - are ideal candidates for the category known as “Jazz standards.”
Two such tunes - one old and one fairly recent - in the Jazz taxonomy are Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust and Mal Waldron’s Soul Eyes.”
Interestingly, both Hoagy and Mal are pianists, and yet, neither Stardust nor Soul Eyes sounds as though they were written for that instrument.
Or as Ted Gioia explains concerning the latter:
“The name of the late Mal Waldron may hardly register with young jazz fans today, and he rarely shows up on lists of significant jazz pianists of the late 1950s and early 1960s. But his impact during that period could be felt in an impressive range of settings—albeit usually as a sideman supporting a far better-known bandleader. He worked as accompanist to Billie Holiday in the final stages of her career and anchored the all-star band that performed with her on CBS in 1957—a setting where, in a manner emblematic of his career, he can be heard but barely seen. Around this same time, Waldron performed on Charles Mingus's Pithecanthropus Erectus and on a number of sessions with Jackie McLean and other artists. A few years later he held the piano spot in the seminal Eric Dolphy and Booker Little band that recorded at the Five Spot. …
Mal Waldron's 1978 solo piano performance — included in the CD reissue of his Moods album — shows how the composer interpreted his most famous work during this period. That said, I don't hear this song as a keyboard-oriented composition. Ballads with melodies that rely on so many long-held notes — such as Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge," Wayne Shorter's "Infant Eyes," or this work — are clearly better suited for horn players.” [pp. 388-389].
Similarly [but with an interesting twist concerning simplicity versus complexity], on the subject of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust, Ted comments:
“The composer claimed the melody came to him while looking up at the night sky, thinking of a girl — he then ran to find a piano to work it out before the inspiration left him. His biographer Richard Sudhalter has documented a more gradual and less colorful process of composition.
Judging by the song itself, Carmichael’s artistic vision was spurred less by a romantic attachment and more by his friend, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. The latter's spirit and style of improvisation seem infused in the intricate phrases that make "Star Dust" arguably the most melodically complex hit song in the history of American music.
Jazz players, as a matter of course, find inspiration for their solos in pop songs, but how many pop songs take their inspiration from a jazz solo? …
By the early 1940s, one might have thought that "Star Dust" had run its course, but Artie Shaw brought the song back to prominence with his recording, which sold in bountiful copies during the first weeks of 1941. ‘The greatest clarinet solo of all time’ was Buddy DeFranco's description of Shaw's achievement. … Looking over this astonishing track record, I can only surmise that the composition's extreme complexity, normally the death knell for commercial success, here had the opposite effect, at least once "Star Dust" [the original spelling] had gotten over the hump of first exposure to the public: the intricate interval leaps in the melody kept it sounding fresh after many repetitions, where a simpler song might have seemed insipid within a few hearings.” [pp. 396-397, paragraphing modified].
To help you judge for yourself as to the universality of the melodies of these, two songs and why they have become Jazz standards, here are two videos of each tune offering very contrasting versions of Soul Eyes and Stardust in terms of how each has been approached by Jazz musicians.
Soul Eyes - Scott Wendholt, trumpet, Kevin Hays, paino, Dwayne Burno, bass and Billy Drummond, drums.
Soul Eyes - Steps Ahead - Michael Brecker, tenor saxophone, Mike Mainieri, vibes, Don Grolnick, piano, Eddie Gomez, bass, Steve Gadd, drums.
Stardust - Artie Shaw and His Orchestra
Stardust - Paul Desmond, alto saxophone, Dave Brubeck, piano, Ron Crotty, bass and Joe Dodge, drums.