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Book Excerpts

The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire

By Published: June 25, 2012
This article appears in the prologue of The Jazz Standards A Guide to the Repertoire by Ted Gioia (Oxford Univ. Press, 2012).

Introduction

When I was learning how to play jazz during my teenage years, I kept encountering songs that the older musicians expected me to know. I eventually realized that there were around 200 or 300 of these compositions, and that they served as the cornerstone of the jazz repertoire. A jazz performer needed to learn these songs the same way a classical musician studied the works of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart.

In fact, I soon learned that knowledge of the repertoire was even more important to a jazz musician than to a classical artist. The classical performer at least knows what compositions will be played before the concert begins. This is not always the case with jazz. I recall the lament of a friend who was enlisted to back up a poll-winning horn player at a jazz festival—only to discover that he wouldn't be told what songs would be played until the musicians were already on stage in front of 6,000 people. Such instances are not unusual in the jazz world, a quirk of a subculture that prizes both spontaneity and macho bravado. Another buddy, a quite talented pianist, encountered an even more uncooperative bandleader—a famous saxophonist who wouldn't identify the names of the songs even after the musicians were on the bandstand. The leader would simply play a short introduction on the tenor, than stamp off the beat with his foot... and my friend was expected to figure out the song and key from those meager clues. For better or worse, such is our art form.

I had my own embarrassing situations with unfamiliar standards during my youth—but fortunately never with thousands of people on hand to watch. I soon realized what countless other jazz musicians have no doubt also learned: in-depth study of the jazz repertoire is hardly a quaint historical sideline, but essential for survival. Not learning these songs puts a jazz player on a quick path to unemployment.

But no one gave you a list. Nor would a typical youngster of my (or a later) generation encounter many of these songs outside the jazz world—most of them had been composed before I was born, and even the more recent entries in the repertoire weren't part of the fare you typically heard on TV or mainstream radio. Some of these tunes came from Broadway, but not always from the hit productions—many first appeared in obscure or failed shows, or revues by relatively unknown songwriters. Others made their debut in movies, or came from big bands, or were introduced by pop singers from outside the jazz world. A few—such as "Autumn Leaves" or "Desafinado"—originated far away from jazz's land of origin. And, of course, many were written by jazz musicians themselves, serving as part of the legacy of Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
, Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
, Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
, John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, and other seminal artists.

My own education in this music was happenstance and hard earned. Eventually "fake books" appeared on the scene to clear up some of the mystery, but I never saw one of these (usually illegal) compilations until I was almost 20 years old. When I first encountered The Real Book—the underground collection of jazz lead sheets that began circulating in the 1970s—even the table of contents served as a revelation to me. And, I'm sure, to others as well. Aspiring musicians today can hardly imagine how opaque the art form was just a few decades ago—no school I attended had a jazz program or even offered a single course on jazz. Most of the method books were worthless, and the peculiar culture of the art form tended to foster an aura of secrecy and competitiveness. Just knowing the names of the songs one needed to learn represented a major step forward; getting a lead sheet was an unwonted luxury.

A few years later, when I started teaching jazz piano students, I put together a brief guide to the repertoire, listing the songs my pupils needed to learn and the keys in which they were normally played—a rudimentary forerunner to the work you now have in your hands. Still later, as I began writing about jazz, I continued to study these same songs, but from a different perspective. I now tried to unravel the evolution of these compositions over time, understand how different jazz artists had played them, and what changes had taken place in performance practices.

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
b.1954
guitar
, Kurt Cobain, Maria Schneider
Maria Schneider
Maria Schneider

band/orchestra
, 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.

Give lyricist Irving Caesar credit for admitting, years later in an interview with Steve Allen, that the words were just supposed to be temporary fillers, replaced later by something more profound. But no later fixing took place—or was needed: the song and its musical, No, No, Nanette, were successes, and both would be revived periodically in future years. Even so, the show had a hidden cost: a fanciful—and possibly true—legend claims that producer Harry Frazee raised money for No, No, Nanette by selling Babe Ruth, then a player for Frazee's Boston Red Sox, to the Yankees. For this reason alone, those Bostonbred Berklee College of Music students ought to insist on a perpetual boycott of this tune.

Yet "Tea for Two" has enjoyed widespread popularity, not just with the general public—no accounting for their tastes, after all—but even in highbrow circles. Dmitri Shostakovich scored a very dainty arrangement of it, and it even got him in trouble with Soviet Union authorities for its decadent Western influences. Piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz developed his own version of the song, which was recorded but never released. Put these beside the more than 700 jazz recordings and you would need a massive tea set to serve all the famous artists who have put their stamp on the Vincent Youmans tune.

Art Tatum
Art Tatum
Art Tatum
1909 - 1956
piano
featured the song as a keyboard showpiece when he arrived in New York and recorded a bravura solo version at his celebrated March 1933 session for the Brunswick label. At a now-legendary cutting contest, he relied on this number to beat into submission an all-star assembly of New York's finest jazz pianists, including Fats Waller
Fats Waller
Fats Waller
1904 - 1943
piano
, James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson
1894 - 1955
piano
, and Willie "The Lion" Smith
Willie
Willie "The Lion" Smith
1897 - 1973
piano
. "When Tatum played 'Tea for Two' that night, I guess that was the first time I ever heard it really played," the great James P. later recalled. Tatum's recording does little to persuade me of the significance of the song, but does show what a formidable pianist Tatum was at age 23.

Fats Waller clearly wasn't shaken enough to hand the song over to Tatum, and offered up his own solo version in 1937—an uncharacteristically graceful and subdued performance from this often raucous performer. That same year, Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
1909 - 1986
clarinet
performed it with an all-star quartet and Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt
1910 - 1953
guitar
recorded it in Paris. In fact, Reinhardt tackled "Tea for Two" on five separate occasions in the period leading up to World War II. My favorite is his 1937 solo version, with its impressive reworking of the song's underlying harmonies.

I suspect that the ease with which this song is adapted to ulterior purposes is what keeps it in the jazz repertoire. The best jazz versions have a certain extravagance about them. Mark Levine has recorded an Afro-Cuban version (under the name "Te Para Dos") that might make you think that the composers had written it with a montuno in mind. And for other subversive examples, just listen to Dave Brubeck's bold conception of the standard from his fi rst trio session for the Fantasy label, Bud Powell's blistering version recorded the following year, or Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
's quirky interpretation from 1963.

Even more intriguing than the version Monk recorded, however, was the one he might have made three months earlier, when both the high priest of bop and the famous concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz were present at Columbia's New York studio on the same day. This was the occasion when Horowitz recorded his never released version of "Tea for Two." I enjoy speculating on what might have happened if Monk had joined Horowitz in a duet to show him how it should be played.

Recommended versions

Art Tatum, New York, March 21, 1933

Benny Goodman (with Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Krupa), New York, February 3, 1937

Fats Waller, New York, June 11, 1937

Django Reinhardt, Paris, December 28, 1937

Dave Brubeck, San Francisco, September 1949

Bud Powell (with Ray Brown and Buddy Rich), New York, June—July 1950

Thelonious Monk from Criss Cross, New York, February 26, 1963

Norma Winstone, from Somewhere Called Home, Oslo, July 1986

Mark Levine (recorded as "Te Para Dos"), from Isla, Berkeley, California, 2002

Learn more about The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire . © 2012, Ted Gioia


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