Norman Warwick reads a lot about jazz
Today, we make room on our still-under-construction bigger bookshelf, for an updated new edition of Ted Gioia’s acclaimed compendium of jazz standards, featuring 15 additional selections, hundreds of additional recommended tracks, and enhancements and additions on almost every page.
Since the first edition of The Jazz Standards was published in 2012, author Ted Gioia has received almost non-stop feedback and suggestions from the passionate global community of jazz enthusiasts and performers requesting crucial additions and corrections to the book. In this second edition, Gioia expands the scope of the book to include more songs, and features new recordings by rising contemporary artists.
Title The Jazz Standards
Author Ted Gioia
Publisher Oxford University Press
Publish Date September 2021
The Jazz Standards is an essential comprehensive guide to some of the most important jazz compositions, telling the story of more than 250 key jazz songs and providing a listening guide to more than 2,000 recordings. The fan who wants to know more about a tune heard at the club or on the radio will find this book indispensable. Musicians who play these songs night after night will find it to be a handy guide, as it outlines the standards’ history and significance and tells how they have been performed by different generations of jazz artists. Students learning about jazz standards will find it to be a go-to reference work for these cornerstones of the repertoire. This book is a unique resource, a browser’s companion, and an invaluable introduction to the art form.
Ted Gioia is a pianist, critic, scholar, historian and educator. He is author of 11 books, including The History of Jazz and Delta Blues–both honoured by the New York Times on their list of 100 notable books of the year. His three books on the social history of music–Work Songs, Healing Songs, and Love Songs–have each been honored with the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. Gioia holds degrees from Stanford and Oxford, and previously served on the faculty of Stanford’s Department of Music. Praised as one of the leading music historians of our day, Gioia is a preeminent guide to songs of the past, present, and future.
Jazz writer and scholar Ted Gioia makes book-writing look easy, which, of course, makes life a little harder for the rest of us scribes. An insightful, clean writer, Ted tackles tough jazz subjects and develops a narrative that’s easy to follow, telling the book’s story in a highly informative and engaging style. You probably know Ted best as the author of West Coast Jazz (1998) and Delta Blues (2009), but he also has written The History of Jazz (1998), The Birth (and Death) of the Cool (2009) and quite a few others.
Ted’s latest is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire (Oxford), a handy reference guide to 252 songs and the stories behind them. As with all of Ted’s books, this one will surely be on home shelves long after others are gone.
In an interview with Ted, 54, Jazzwax talked about the criteria for a jazz standard and why so few songs written today fit into this category…
Ted Gioia: Songbook standards refer to the best popular songs from the Golden Age of American songwriting, which started in the 1920s and ran out of steam the late 1950s and early 1960s. While many of these songs are jazz standards and are in my book, jazz musicians also draw on other compositions, some of them little-known by the general public. These might include obscure soundtrack themes such as Invitation, traditional pieces like Tiger Rag, or original compositions by jazz artists such as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. No book has covered this core repertoire in its entirety—essentially the songs working jazz musicians need to know and fans ought to learn. I wanted to fill the gap.
I ended up choosing and writing on 252 compositions. But to decide which ones to include, I started by looking at those that had been recorded most often by jazz players. But I soon realized that many of those pieces have fallen out of favor in recent years. Tunes like The Sheik of Araby and Some of These Days. So I couldn’t rely on a simple numeric ranking based on objective criteria
I needed to make some subjective judgments about which songs are cornerstones of the jazz repertoire today. I’m sure there will be debate and controversy about what I included or excluded—those conversations are part of the fun of a project like this. But I expect general agreement about the vast majority of the music discussed in my work.
Some biggies seem to be absent—like Killer Joe, Blues March, Along Came Betty, Hi-Fly, Four and What a Difference a Day Made. Was this a conscious decision?
Songs like The In Crowd, Mercy Mercy Mercy and Cast Your Fate to the Wind. On the other hand, songs such as Lush Life or Blue Bossa might never show up on the Billboard charts but are performed again and again by jazz artists.
What is the newest jazz standard in your book?
I haven’t done a chronological sorting, but you raise an important question. I am dismayed at how little the standard repertoire has changed since the 1970s. Some jazz artists today are trying to broaden the standard repertoire—by performing works by Kurt Cobain or Radiohead or Michael Jackson or other more contemporary figures. But none of these newer songs are performed frequently enough to justify inclusion alongside Summertime and I Got Rhythm.
Does this trend worry you?
I hope this state of affairs changes. I would welcome a more expansive attitude toward the standard repertoire, and I’d be quite happy to revise my book at some future date because newer songs were getting covered as often as the older tunes. I worry about the stagnation of the repertoire. I even considered including an appendix on songs that should be jazz standards, but aren’t—but that would have opened a different can of worms.
If you were to rank your choices, which would be your list of 10 most potent and influential jazz standards—in order?
You could debate this endlessly, but here are 10 milestone works that have continued to provide a benchmark for jazz improvisers over several generations:
- I Got Rhythm
- Body and Soul
- St. Louis Blues
- All the Things You Are
- Round Midnight
- How High the Moon
- Take the A Train
- Star Dust
- My Funny Valentine
Yet even here, you can see some changes in attitude over the years.
When I was first learning to play jazz piano, Caravan would not have made the list. It was considered more a bit of musical exoticism than a core standard. But this song is very well suited to the modal phrasing and stylistic preferences of the current day, so it now takes center stage at many gigs. Star Dust, in contrast, might eventually fall off my top-10 list—even though it is one of the most popular jazz songs ever recorded. It doesn’t adapt quite so well to modern conceptions of improvising.
Which jazz standard has the most intriguing back-story?
Probably Body and Soul. Today we treat this song as the ultimate sax ballad, the measuring rod by which an improviser is judged. But it almost failed to become a standard. The singer who commissioned it originally never even bothered to record it. The middle section of the song was a reject—turned down by bandleader Guy Lombardo when composer Johnny Green tried to give it to him. The lyricists were unhappy with the words and continued to tinker with them even after the song was copyrighted. Even the name of the tune caused problems.
At the time, NBC refused to announce the title over the airwaves since they deemed the word “body” too explicit. The fact that Body and Soul overcame all these obstacles is largely due to one man—Coleman Hawkins. But even he was surprised when his record became a big hit in 1939. “I don’t understand why or how,” was his later comment.
What is the secret recipe for a timeless jazz standard?
Jazz musicians favor songs that are good vehicles for improvisation. Often this is due to an interesting twist in the chord changes or some other factor that the general public probably wouldn’t even notice. Take All the Things You Are, for example. To the average set of ears, the first eight bars of the song sound the same as the next eight bars. But there is actually a modulation that brings the melody down a fourth. This is quite unconventional, and improvisers dig it. But the average listener wouldn’t even hear it.
Shortly before saxophonist Bud Shank [pictured] died in 2009, he told me he still felt he hadn’t yet exhausted all of the possibilities in All the Things You Are. He was 82-years-old at the time and had been playing the song for more than a half-century. For him—and for many jazz musicians—a piece of this sort isn’t just a song. It’s a set of possibilities. It’s an invitation to explore. Those qualities are what establish a song as a jazz standard. Not what the song is, but what it can become in the hands of a creative improviser.
Is this recipe still valid today?
Clearly it’s getting harder to apply this recipe. There’s a growing chasm between popular music and the jazz sensibility. The harmonic underpinnings of popular music today are getting simpler and simpler. The melodies are getting squeezed into a narrower range, with fewer chromatic notes and more predictable phrasing. But most jazz musicians want songs that have interesting chord changes or some clever hook in their construction. This divergence makes it difficult for a current-day song to move from the Billboard charts to the jazz bandstand.
But jazz musicians can’t merely play the same standards over and over again.
That’s true. Jazz needs to maintain a vibrant dialogue with the popular music of the current day if it hopes to remain vital and not turn into a museum piece. Artists such as Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding are trying to forge this kind of dialogue, but sometimes it feels as if the jazz side of the equation has been sold out in the process. Even so, efforts of this sort are, I believe, essential for the long-term health of the art form.
Why do these older jazz standards continue to intrigue jazz buyers?
The standard jazz repertoire continues to have a large audience in the jazz world and even among aging rock and pop stars. Paul McCartney is the latest. And even young pop icons line up to record the old songs alongside Tony Bennett. His last album [Duets II] found him revisiting standards in tandem with Lady Gaga, Carrie Underwood, John Mayer and other performers who aren’t even half his age.
Cabaret is another big market for jazz standards, yes?
Absolutely. You also hear them turn up in movie soundtracks, as background to commercials, in video games and other likely and unlikely places. I give many examples in my book.
So, is it still possible to write a jazz standard today?
I listen to new music every day and hear many promising songs. But it’s harder than ever for a serious songwriter to navigate through the industry bottlenecks. The music industry seems determined to turn the record business into a fashion and lifestyle category, where songwriting as a professional craft has little or no role.
Are jazz musicians themselves an obstacle?
To some extent. Many jazz musicians prefer recording their own original songs and rarely want to feature a song by anyone outside of their band—unless the composer is dead and gone. A few major jazz musicians are bucking this trend, and I applaud them. I just wish more improvisers would follow their lead.
Reviewers of The Jazz Stadards say
“If you look up just one title in The Jazz Standards, before you realize it you will have spent an intriguing hour or two learning fascinating and new things about old songs that you have known most of your life.” Dave Brubeck (left)
“Which is best: interpretation or song? In any case, jazz and standards are forever locked in loving embrace. A finely researched work.” Sonny Rollins
“Mr. Gioia’s is the first general-interest, wide-ranging and authoritative guide to the basic contemporary jazz canon.” — Will Friedwald, Wall Street Journal
“In virtually every instance, Gioia delivers.” The Atlantic Monthly
“One man’s repertoire may be another man’s B-list, but when the man is Ted Gioia, one tends to listen – in both senses. Gioia, among the most lauded of jazz writers, has chosen more than 250 songs. He tells the story behind each….Compulsively readable, and belongs on the shelves of every jazz lover, or jazz-lover wannabe.”
Toronto Globe and Mail
“This book should be in the library of every gigging jazz musician and every serious jazz fan.” Library Journal
“What a useful and informative book The Jazz Standards is! Explaining the jazz repertory in a way that is accessible for the jazz beginner yet stimulating for the aficionado, Ted Gioia shows once again why he is one the best jazz writers around today.”
Gerald Early, Editor of Miles Davis and American Culture
“Warning: This book is addictive….Putting together a compendium like this must involve prodigious research and an encyclopaedic memory. Fortunately Gioia…wears his learning lightly and conveys it with wit and insight, and a minimum of musicological jargon.”
Dallas Morning News
“The book is wise, often funny and it always accomplishes the highest mission of writing about music, which is to send you back to the music with wide-open ears.” Kansas City Star