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Book Excerpts

The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire

By Published: June 25, 2012
Over the years, I often wished I had a handbook to this body of music, a single volume that would guide me through the jazz repertoire and point me in the direction of the classic recordings. A few books were helpful in my early education into the nuances of this body of music, especially Alec Wilder's American Popular Song (1972), but even the best of these books invariably focused on only a small part of the repertoire—mainly Broadway and Tin Pan Alley songs— and dealt very little with this music as it related to jazz. The book I needed didn't exist when I was coming up, and still doesn't. I wanted to delve into these songs as sources of inspiration for great jazz performances—a perspective that often took one far afield from what the composer might have originally intended. I wanted a guide to these works as building blocks of the jazz art form, as a springboard to improvisation, as an invitation to creative reinterpretation.

This book aims to be that type of survey, the kind of overview of the standard repertoire that I wished someone had given me back in the day—a guide that would have helped me as a musician, as a critic, as a historian, and simply as a fan and lover of the jazz idiom. To some degree, this work represents the fruition of all my experiences with these great songs over a period of decades. The compositions that were once mysterious and even foreboding have now become familiar friends, the companions of countless hours, and I have relished the opportunity to write about these songs and discuss my favorite recordings. Certainly those readers familiar with my other books will note a more personal tone here, a more informal approach—one that felt natural to me as I delved into a body of work that has become, by now, such a vital part of my life.

Let me share a few final words about the selection process involved in picking the songs highlighted here. I chose songs based on their significance in the jazz repertoire of the current era. I have picked the compositions that a fan is most likely to hear—and a musician is most frequently asked to play—nowadays. This approach has led me to pass over some songs that might have once held sway in the jazz world—"The Sheik of Araby," "Some of These Days," etc.— while including others that have, perhaps, been recorded on fewer occasions in toto, but have been performed more often in recent years. In short, my choices reflect the jazz idiom as a vibrant, present-day endeavor.

Even so, I am troubled by how few recent compositions are discussed in these pages. If I were writing a book about my favorite jazz songs or the jazz composers I most admire, a somewhat different list of songs would be highlighted here—but that is a task for another day. The jazz repertoire is not as fluid as it once was, and the same process of codification that resulted in works such as The Real Book has also made it difficult for newer songs to enter the standard repertoire. And though a number of jazz artists have tried to champion more recent material—works by Radiohead, Björk, Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
, Kurt Cobain, Maria Schneider
Maria Schneider
Maria Schneider

, etc.—these songs still haven't received enough traction to justify inclusion here. I lament this state of affairs, even as I respect its harsh reality. I would welcome a more expansive and adaptive repertoire, and would happily embrace the very changes in the art form that might make the song selection in this book obsolete.

In the interim, here is an assessment of the cornerstones of the jazz repertoire as it exists today—songs that have formed the soundtrack of my own life. As such, this book is my tribute to them, to the compositions and the creative minds that not only wrote them, but those others who have reinterpreted and refreshed them over the years, inspiring me by taking old songs to new places.

"Tea for Two"

Composed by Vincent Youmans, with lyrics by Irving Caesar

The popularity of this tune among jazz musicians is a bit of a puzzle—the melody is monotonous and akin to a second-rate nursery song. In fact, I would rather play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" or "On the Good Ship Lollipop": at least those melodies won't stick in your head like a chronic migraine. The chord changes to "Tea for Two" are your typical ii-V fare, and the B theme sounds suspiciously similar to the A theme, almost as if musical phrases were being rationed and recycled in a time of shortage. Of the lyrics, the less said the better.

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