Hot Rod Jazz God, Part 2: An Open Letter to Rod Stewart
Like those bits about harmless Uncle Rod who shows up on holidays with a bottle-shaped microphone and comparing your interpretation of standard jazz melodies to a bull in downtown Pamplona. Sorry, mate. I take it back. I admit I was bitter.
Bitter because I'm a jazz musician. And like most jazz musicians, I struggle to make a living playing and singing all those standard jazz songs you've recorded on your Great American Songbook series.
It's been this way for over half a decade. If you can get up on stage and play "As Time Goes By" or "Fly Me to the Moon" or "The Way You Look Tonight" without the drummer tossing a cymbal at your face, then you're in the club, you're a struggling jazz musician. We cut our teeth on jazz standards, paid our dues with jazz standards. They're our lingua franca. We play them in our sleep.
And here's the bitter part, Rod. When a struggling jazz musician like me makes a record of jazz standards, I'm lucky to sell 500 albums. You do it and sell 5 million.
Your secret? Your master plan? Certainly part of it is avoiding any association with the word jazz. In your book you list Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday as influences, but jazz is never mentioned. Smart move, since, on the list of most unpopular careers, jazz musician tends to rank right up there with asbestos worker, meter maid, goatherd, chimney sweep, lawyer and politician. In other words, if "Jazz Musician" were a Monopoly game the cards would read something like: Visit sperm bank, collect $50... Wedding gig, buy groceries... Play jazz cruise, get teeth fixed. Not exactly the most popular career choice. Until you came along. And, try as you might to deny it, those who sing jazz songs are jazz singers. Ella Fitzgerald. Billie Holiday. Frank Sinatra. Rod Stewart.
Turns out you've always been a closet jazz fan. (Me too, a closet is all I can afford.) In your autobiography you tell how you grew up listening to popular jazz tunes and always wanted to make an album of standards. So in 2001, with your rock career in the tank, you hired some "crack jazz-pop session musicians" and recorded some demo tracks. But you didn't like the result. Too conventional. Too boring. Too real. Then you replaced the best musicians in L.A. with synthesized backing tracks to make it "more modern-sounding." Finally, at the behest of music industry magnet Clive Davis, you "took out the synthesizers and programmed percussion and put in band instruments and strings." Put in band instruments. That was the stroke of genius. Basically you replaced one synth patch with another synth patch... and presto! Your 2002 mega-hit release It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook went platinum in the UK! Double platinum in the US! Ditto for your next jazz standards album. And the next. And the next. Turns out that selling jazz records is as easy as watching NASCAR drivers turn left. "And on it went," you write, followed by a statement unique in the history of jazz recording: "By the time this series wrapped, we'd clocked 22 million copies."
Let me be the first to say congratulations, jazz singer. You're the best selling jazz artist OF ALL TIME! Well done, mate. But for the rest of us, not so much. As soon as your record came out I started getting swamped with requests to play "It's A Wonderful World" by Rod Stewart. "The Best Is Yet To Come" by Rod Stewart. "April In Paris" by Rod Stewart. "My Life Is a Synth Patch" by Rod Frickin' Stewart.
Just a tad bitter...
Finally, after a decade of tearing my hair out at the mention of your name, I decided to listen to your jazz records and find out what all the fuss was about. Maybe, I said to myself, I'll learn a thing or two about improvisation, phrasing, timing, orchestration. Steal a couple of your vocal licks. Discover your secret. So I took the bus to the public library and listened to all five of your Great American Songbook recordings, back to back. 70 jazz standards. Nearly 5 hours of music.
I discovered that listening to your records is like visiting the Grand Canyon. Have you ever been? It's really quite astonishing. You go and stare at this big hole. And think, This is a really big hole. And five hours later you're still thinking, This is one big-ass hole. How can something so big be so empty? We're talking nothing there. Zero. Nada. Squat. Wait a minute, is that a speck of mud floating at the bottom? Listening to you sing jazz is like spotting the Colorado River.
But 22 million people can't be wrong, right? It must be me, I decided. I must be missing something. I needed to try harder. I needed to explore that big-ass hole. Get deep in there and get my hands dirty. Do what you do. Feel what you feel. Copy your every move. Make a checklist. And fortunately for me, in 2012 you published your life story. Rod.
The word according to Rod is: