Nov 14, 2012

A Review of Benjamin Schwarz's Book Review in "The Atlantic"

A friend sent me a copy of Benjamin Schwarz’s review of Ted Gioia’s "The Jazz Standards," in this month’s The Atlantic magazine. I reviewed Gioia’s book myself, in a previous post. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to take a few minutes to review Schwarz’s review. His article is titled The End of Jazz: How America’s Most Vibrant Music Became a Relic.”

The title is kind of a red flag, isn’t it?

First, please read the article. Schwarz is an excellent writer. I’d expect no less from The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.

In his first two paragraphs, Schwarz lavishes praise on Gioia, and on Gioia’s book. The second paragraph concludes, “The value of such a work, of course, depends on the acumen of the author. In virtually every instance, Gioia delivers.”

In the third and fourth paragraphs, Schwarz examines Gioia’s writeup of “Lush Life,” and finds it praiseworthy: “...Gioia’s entry, in its own way definitive, is but one of a quarter-thousand assessments in this monument to taste and scholarship.”

In his fifth paragraph, Schwarz discusses four songs that he thinks Gioia should have included: “Where or When,” “In the Still of the Night,” “Begin the Beguine,” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” I’m sure that anyone who reads Gioia's book will have some opinions of this sort. I guess Schwarz is partial to Cole Porter. That’s all right with me.

In the sixth paragraph, Schwarz briefly touches on the line of thought that relates to the article’s title:
The great overlap between the [Great American] Songbook and the jazz catalogue largely explains a fact that troubles Gioia—that his book can enshrine “few recent compositions”—and raises doubts about his assertion, supported by passion rather than by argument, that “the jazz idiom [is] a vibrant, present-day endeavor.”

The seventh and eighth paragraphs develop the idea that the “jazz catalogue” and the “Great American Songbook” are closely intertwined, and the ninth paragraph describes Frank Sinatra’s role in establishing “Great American Songbook” titles as essential jazz repertoire.

The tenth and final paragraph continues the argument that jazz is closely identified with “Songbook” compositions - but at the very end, Schwarz takes a sudden turn:
...despite Gioia’s ardency, there is no reason to believe that jazz can be a living, evolving art form decades after its major source—and the source that linked it to the main currents of popular culture and sentiment—has dried up. Jazz, like the Songbook, is a relic—and as such, in 2012 it cannot have, as Gioia wishes for it, an “expansive and adaptive repertoire.”

This, then, leads us back to the article’s title, “The End of Jazz: How America’s Most Vibrant Music Became a Relic.”


I’d have to say that the content of the article does not support the assertion in these last two sentences, or the shallow sensationalism of the title. I could charitably imagine that someone else at The Atlantic besides Schwarz is in charge of creating titles for articles.

The “End of Jazz” is an idea that is meaningless to those who are actually involved with the music.

Here are a few more comments on the subject. I’ll keep it short; a rant isn’t worth the effort.

What do we think “jazz” actually is? I might say that it is improvisational music with a particular history and a self-referential vocabulary; it is creative and exploratory by definition.

Or as Louis Armstrong supposedly said, “If you don’t know, don’t mess with it.”

It’s not limited to straight-ahead performances of "Great American Songbook" tunes - far from it - although I love that stuff.

As my wife put it, “Improvisation isn’t going to die until people stop thinking.” (Thanks, Patricia!)

Let’s let it go at that.

For some further thoughtful comments and some ranting by others, have a look at the comments at the end of the Atlantic article.

Nov 5, 2012

Review: Hal Leonard Real Book Vol. 4

A couple of months ago I purchased a copy of the Vol. 4 Hal Leonard Real Book, and I’ve been checking it out. To evaluate this book, let’s start with a brief review of what came before:

The original, “old” Real Book was produced in 1975 by a couple of Berklee students, and succeeded wildly in the jazz world. The music calligraphy is quite good, and the harmonies are mostly (not completely) accurate. The tune selection (400 or so) is well-considered, including many of the greatest “Great American Songbook” tunes, as well as some by jazz composers that were cutting-edge in 1975 (e.g., Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson), with only a few less useful tunes. The old RB reflected the basic repertoire of its time and place, and in turn became a strong influence in defining (some might say “ossifying”) the basic repertoire of the present.

Old RB Vol. 2 followed, around 1985. Another bootleg, from different anonymous compilers. The format is similar, the production/accuracy not quite as good. It presents another 400+ tunes, most of them useful to jazz players.

Old RB Vol. 3 came out in (I think) the early 1990s. Another bootleg, from anonymous compilers. It swept up still more standards, most of them useful. Each successive volume of the old pirate RB strove for usefulness (and hence saleability), but to come up with yet another 400 or so tunes, the compilers had to dig deeper towards the bottom of the barrel.

Meanwhile, starting in 1984, Sher Music put out a series of "New Real Books" Vols. 1-3, as well as a "Standards Real Book," a "Latin Real Book," and more. These were nicely researched and produced, with a high level of respect for the jazz musicians that would be using the book, and for the music itself. The tune choices, however, are what one might call eclectic - genres in each of Sher RB Vols. 1-3 range from standards, to fusion, to soul.

There have been a number of other useful collections of tunes over those years: Aebersold volumes, the two Dick Hyman books, and so forth. But the old RB remained the standard of the industry, until...

Beginning in 2005, the Hal Leonard Corporation (the “world’s largest print music publisher”) came out with its own series of “Real Books,” basically replicating the old bootlegs, with mostly the same tune selections, and with a format that mimics the the bootlegs. The name “Real Book,” of course, had never been copyrighted, so was up for grabs.

HL’s Vol. 1, the so-called “Sixth Edition,” was a bit disappointing to me (see this earlier post). HL’s obvious intent was to take control of the “Real Book” franchise, an effort that has mostly succeeded. I felt that this product could have been better in both repertoire and accuracy, given Hal Leonard’s resources. A number of important tunes from old RB1 were omitted, a number of mistakes in old RB1 were corrected, and some new mistakes were introduced. Copyright was respected - that was an improvement.

HL Real Book Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 followed, attempting to replicate the old bootleg RB Vols. 2 and 3. Like the first HL book, these were useful enough, better in some ways than the bootlegs.

Against this background, let’s consider HL RB Vol. 4.

There never was an “old” Vol. 4, so this one is entirely a Hal Leonard creation.

First, let’s look at the tune choice. I’m imagining a meeting of the production team. The team leader says, “I want each of you to come back in a week with 100 tunes that didn’t make it into the first 3 volumes.” A week later, they have a collection that includes a sampling of virtually every style that has been called "jazz" in the last 100 years:

  • some “trad” dixieland tunes (e.g., "Cakewalking Babies from Home," "Aunt Hagar's Blues"), 
  • some 20s and 30s pop that could arguably perhaps be called "jazz" (e.g., "Across the Alley From the Alamo," "When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin' Along"),
  • some third-tier standards,
  • a handful of important standards that were for some reason left out of the HL Vol. 1 “Sixth Edition” (e.g., "Days of Wine and Roses," "Just Friends," "Night and Day"),
  • some interesting but often obscure bebop ("Goin' to Minton's," "Bags' New Groove"),
  • some Beatles, Ray Charles, and James Brown,
  • some fusion and smooth jazz (Bob James, David Sanborn, Marcus Miller),
  • various good tunes that may have been chosen because Chuck Sher had included them in his fakebooks ("A House is Not a Home," "After the Rain," "Mr. Lucky"),
  • some more recent jazz originals (e.g., Chick, Wayne, Bill Evans), and
  • Some Christmas jazz tunes (Mel Torme, Vince Guaraldi).

The resulting collection is quite eclectic - or, one might say, unfocused.

Second, let’s consider usability. The chords are reasonably well done. As with the first three HL books, the look and feel mimics the old bootleg books, with a nice, readable, “handwritten” music font, and a comb binding that opens flat on a music stand. However, I don’t see the book as being particularly useful on gigs - it’s not worth hauling it around for the few tunes that one is likely to select from this book for a jazz gig, in whatever genre.

The content, as scattered as it is, would be a useful addition to an electronic collection, for those musicians who have dozens of fake books on their tablets, in pdf form.

As well, the book might be interesting to people like me, who enjoy checking out even some of the more obscure repertoire.

It wouldn't be the first fakebook to buy for your collection; it might be the sixth or seventh.

As with the previous bootleg and HL Real Books, no lyrics are included. This, I think, is unfortunate. Quite a few of the songs in this collection really only come off well as vocals ( e.g., "I Saw You," "Waters of March," "Compared to What"). In addition, horn players are - or should be - interested in the lyrics to standards; knowing the words helps us to come up with more appropriate phrasing when playing the heads, and helps us to understand the original meaning of the tunes. The Sher books are better in this regard, although even in that series, the words only appear in the concert key editions.

I suppose that you can always look up lyrics somewhere online. But you shouldn’t have to.

HL RB Vol. 4 is not really a “Real Book,” in the Real Book tradition of providing resources that address the everyday needs of jazz musicians. It’s actually more of an eclectic, fairly interesting collection of tunes that is packaged under the saleable name, “Real Book,” in a visually similar format. (HL has a number of other publications that exploit the name and use the same format.)

Far be it from me to question the financial imperatives of the business world.

Another HL "Real Book" -  Vol. 5 -  is scheduled for release in April 2013.