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I am honored to be authoring a new column for All About Jazz revolving around the question, "What makes a song a standard?." Surely there are as many answers to that rhetorical question as there are scholars having opinions about it. My charge, as I accept it, is to provide some analysis of chords, melody, lyrics and overall gestalt of recognized jazz standards. Over time, my deconstruction of these songs will hopefully lead to a greater understanding of some timeless works of art, proffering support for why the songs have endured.
Some "standards" may have obtained the title in certain circles based, in part, upon enduring popularity of the individual who originally recorded the songs, while others earned the elite status based on pure excellence of construction which led to acclaim above other songs of the period. For the purposes of this column, I will attempt to explore some of my favorite, finely crafted, frequently recorded songs written by acknowledged key composers of the Great American Songbook. I make no attempt to offer more than one scholar's impressions of these wonderful works, and I by no means assume that breaking songs down into constituent parts always helps us appreciate them betterbut it often does. Further, my choice of songs to explore is in no way meant to judge some to be superior over others. Any experienced musician knows there are many thousands of songs today that could be considered "standards," and there are no fixed criteria surrounding the use of the word. That said, I could not live long enough to publish an analytical synthesis of every song I consider to be a jazz standard! I simply must choose a few favorites and let that be that.
To me, the term "standard" is applicable to a song having enduring quality of some kind, causing it to be performed and recorded many times by many different musicians over a period of several years. Singers and instrumentalists may be drawn to a song for any number of reasons, but a standard boasts quality in more than just lyrics, melody or chord progression. The compatibility and well-aligned marriage of two or more of these elements often shine through the standard repertoire.
The fact that I am a music theorist, instrumentalist and vocalist reveals why I will deal with both the music and the lyrics as equals. For proper interpretation and thorough preparation, every instrumentalist performing any standard ought to know the original lyrics backward and forward, as they are inherently necessary in correctly understanding the composer's and lyricist's intent. Doing some research on a song before undertaking its performance greatly benefits both the players and the audience, so soloists, please learn your lyrics!
For the sake of space, I have decided to forgo attempts to subject a song to exhaustive theoretical analysis, so theory geeks, there's your warning. Instead, I will touch on some important points that I feel are noteworthy in an effort to leave some room for the inquisitive reader to finish the analysis on his/her own. Analyzing songs requires more than "simply" a theoretical analysisit requires analysis of rhyme scheme, text usage, text setting and phrase structure as well. In order to give these lyric-based elements their due, one is behooved to seek balance in discussing both music and text in a column such as this.
The example with which I would like to begin is Jimmy Van Heusen's "Here's That Rainy Day," from the Broadway musical, Carnival in Flanders (1953). This lovely lyric (penned by Johnny Burke) shows a writer less concerned about catchy rhymes than about poignancy, evidenced by the fact that only four words in the entire song rhymefar less than many equally clever songs. The wistful storyline spun amongst those four rhyming words ("day" with "way," and "near" with "here"each eight bars apart) reveals that a heartbreak has caused the "rain" mentioned in the title. Brilliantly, though, the explanation of the title's significance is delayed until the penultimate line: "Funny how love becomes a cold rainy day..." Only at that moment do the song's mysterious allusions to unrealized dreams and disillusionment make sensein the metaphor of rain (spurned love) spoiling one's hopes and plans.