Sep 3, 2012

Book Review: "The Jazz Standards" by Ted Gioia

Any jazz player should have a great deal of curiosity concerning what we call "Jazz Standards" - which ones are most important to learn, where the tunes came from initially, how they acquired the status of basic repertoire, what the classic recorded performances are. Ted Gioia's new book, "The Jazz Standards," does a great job of addressing these questions. It's a book that needed to be written. Gioia is an accomplished jazz pianist and jazz historian, and the right person to have done it.

The "Jazz Standards Canon" is not exactly the same thing as the "Great American Songbook," although the categories overlap. "Jazz Standards" are those tunes preferred (and preserved) by jazz musicians, while "Great American Songbook," or "Golden Era" tunes, are those that have become iconic with a wider public. Any list of "Jazz Standards" would include not just "Golden Era" tunes, but also a number of tunes written by jazz players, yet not widely known by the general public.

Before Gioia's book was published, the definitive reference on standards was Alec Wilder's 1972 book, "American Popular Song." It still is a definitive reference for "Golden Era" tunes. Wilder was a composer of both popular and classical music (and a legendary one), and wrote his book from that viewpoint. The book is organized by songwriter, with chapters on Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, etc. Wilder researched virtually every song that these composers had written (thousands), then wrote about the songs that seemed to him significant, particularly representative of the composer, or particularly well-written. Wilder is extremely and openly opinionated, but deeply informed. He knew some of the great songwriters personally, and interviewed others; his book includes some first-hand quotes from Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter's get the idea. He frequently offers musical analysis on particular aspects of the tunes that seem to him to explain their success.

Wilder was a friend of quite a few prominent jazz and popular musicians too, but he didn't have a jazz player's perspective. Ted Gioia, writing from a jazz viewpoint, focuses on different information. Reading Wilder, I feel as though I am taking songwriting lessons from an eccentric, opinionated master. Gioia's presentation seems more like taking a course from a well-organized jazz studies professor who has done his research.

To give you some idea of the difference in their approaches, here are summaries of the two writers' discussions of Cole Porter's "All of You." This tune is unarguably a jazz standard.

Gioia discusses the original setting of the song (the 1955 musical "Silk Stockings"), the subsequent 1957 movie with Fred Astaire, and a series of influential recordings: Ahmad Jamal, Miles Davis, the MJQ, Ella, Billie, Sarah, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner - the recordings that helped to establish it as a "jazz standard." The essay and list of recordings cover about a page and a half.

Alec Wilder, on the other hand, writing in 1972, and certainly knowing that the song was widely regarded as a standard, wastes only a short paragraph on this tune: "I honestly doubt if All of You would have achieved the popularity it did but for the rather dubious wit of the lyric line, 'The East, West, North, and the South of You.'...I mention this line only because the song doesn't have any particular distinction."

So much for that tune. When he likes a song, though, you will find a valuable and informative writeup. I mention this Wilder quote only to point up his frank and honest approach to his subject.

Gioia discusses 252 tunes. "The Jazz Standards" is organized alphabetically by song, rather than chronologically or by composer. Each song receives a one- or two-page essay, covering the origin of the tune, pertinent anecdotes, and the route that led to its popularity. Often Gioia will, in the Wilder tradition, offer his personal opinion on some aspect of the song. He tends to go easy on harmonic analysis, in order not to exclude the general reader. Following each essay is a list of recordings that are either historically significant, or particularly interesting, in the author's opinion. His writing style is clear, entertaining, and scholarly-yet-informal.

In his introduction, Gioia states that his book was conceived primarily as a "must-know" list that is also a reference work. I see it as just as much a historical "must-know" list, though, as it is a list of tunes for aspiring jazz players to learn. I say this as a way of explaining the inclusion of a number of "traditional jazz" tunes that are not really a major part of modern repertoire (e.g., "Dinah," "Tiger Rag," "Tin Roof Blues").

A friend (thanks, Bill!) sent me a copy of a Wall Street Journal review of "The Jazz Standards," in which the reviewer takes Gioia to task for leaving out "Sheik of Araby" and "Some of These Days" on the trad side, but also for leaving out "Something to Live For," "Stablemates," "No Moon at All," and "Green Chimneys." Well, one has to make some decisions! I would have a different set of tunes to include or to excise, but I wasn't the author, and it's a great book as is. Anyone into jazz, player or not, should find it interesting and valuable, both as a good read and as a reference work.

"Must-know" lists of standards are pretty much always subjectively chosen. I'll have more to say about this in a future post. For now, here are a few other takes on the subject. All are a bit different, reflecting the compiler's background and viewpoint. Only the first list uses some sort of "objective" criteria.

  • The list of 1,000 tunes on, ranked for popularity by a statistical method (full disclosure: I have written a few articles for this site).
  • The list in Chapter 21 of Mark Levine's "Jazz Theory Book."
  • De facto choices in collections like the original bootleg "Real Book," the Sher "Standards" fakebook, Dick Hyman's two collections, or other fakebooks. Also in this category: Ralph Patt's "Vanilla Book" list.
  • My own list of 100 "must-know" tunes.

Here are some links to check out:
Ted Gioia's website 
An interview with Ted Gioia
Alec Wilder's biography

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