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Anatomy of a Standard

What makes a standard a standard? How do the nuts and bolts of songwriting combine to make a jazz composition an enduring work of art? This column will explore these questions through the analysis of elements of great songs that have graduated to "standard" status. Each month I will post an analytical discussion about a selected jazz standard, examining parameters like chord progression, melody, rhyme scheme, phrase structure, text setting and form. 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.


"It's Only a Paper Moon" by Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg and Billy Rose

Read ""It's Only a Paper Moon" by Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg and Billy Rose" reviewed by

One of my favorite Great American Songbook composers, Harold Arlen (nee Hyman Arluck, 1905-1986), composed music for over 500 songs during his long, successful career, even though he originally set out to become a great singer and was not particularly interested in writing songs. His tremendous success reached across Broadway stages, Hollywood film scores and Top 10 radio hits for countless singers. In 1932, Arlen collaborated with friends Yip Harburg and Billy Rose to create one of Arlen's best-known, enduring ...


"Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Frank Loesser

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A host of seasonal songs may be categorized correctly as standards, and this well-known piece is no exception. “Baby, It's Cold Outside" is particularly noteworthy in that, in North America, it fits any month between mid-autumn and early spring. This makes the song particularly versatile as a seasonal favorite--I personally have performed it at Christmastime, at a St. Valentine's Day symphony concert, and this year on Thanksgiving weekend, as the months of November through February are all fair game for ...


"Georgia On My Mind" by Hoagy Carmichael

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Great American Songbook composer, Hoagy Carmichael, (1899-1981) penned many more standards besides the timeless “Stardust" and “Georgia On My Mind..." He also is credited with writing “The Nearness of You," “Heart and Soul," “Skylark," and “I Get Along Without You Very Well," to mention a few more classics. Carmichael starred in a couple of films as a pianist-actor, making his permanent mark in that medium as well as in recorded music and in the writing of American standards. The enduring ...


"Close Your Eyes" by Bernice Petkere

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One of the major challenges of writing this column remains how to choose one song among several by a given composer that I have decided to feature. When determining to include a song by the very talented Great American Songbook composer, Bernice Petkere (1901-2000), two of my favorite songs immediately came to mind: “Close Your Eyes" and “Lullaby of the Leaves." I also marveled that both happen to be among my favorite standards written in minor keys... However, for the ...


"Nice Work If You Can Get It" by George and Ira Gershwin

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George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin represent a quintessential songwriting team laying claim to several early masterpieces included in what we now call the Great American Songbook. Representing the epitome of the “Jazz Age," they worked together from 1924-1937, creating no fewer than twenty-five full musical scores for performance in Hollywood and on the Great White Way. One of their many undisputed standards, “Nice Work If You Can Get It," beautifully balances clever lyrics with an interesting interplay of melodic and ...


"Desafinado" by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Newton Mendonça and Jon Hendricks

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There has been a healthy dose of Latin songs that have made their way into the Great American Songbook--after all--Central America and South America are every bit as “American" as the United States. Among the composers of Latin jazz standards, the inimitable guitarist/composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994), stands tall. Jobim composed a great many enduring songs that jazz musicians have latched onto as essential Great American Songbook gems. Newton Mendonça wrote the original Portuguese lyrics, after which the vocalese master, ...


"Ain't Misbehavin'" by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf

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Legendary pianist and songwriter, Thomas Wright “Fats" Waller (1904-1943), contributed several outstanding gems to what we consider today to be the Great American Songbook. These standards include “Honeysuckle Rose" and “Ain't Misbehavin'" (both from 1929), among others. Waller's all-too-brief career reflected the impressive output of a first-rate musician, and showed him to be a talented radio personality, prolific recording artist, and beloved performer both on live stages and in film. Well-versed in the stride piano style, thanks to his early ...


"Prelude to a Kiss" by Duke Ellington

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Last month's initial installment of this column opened with an introduction to the concept of analyzing jazz standards for the purpose of adding to our understanding about the structure and elements of great songs having enduring qualities. I did not feel it required mentioning that a song's final structure and the process of songwriting were completely different viewpoints. One purview implies looking back at a final product of art and the other requires looking ahead at a blank page of ...


"Here's That Rainy Day" by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke

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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 ...