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Great, Enduring Songs in ‘The Jazz Standards’

An alphabetical walk through classic compositions

Oct. 8, 2012
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The great thing about jazz, one of America’s distinct contributions to the world’s culture, is that it’s always changing—not just year to year, but also performance to performance. At least that’s the line from some of the music’s proponents, who overlook the carefully arranged charts of the swing era, the traditionalism of Dixieland and the pressure on any popular performer to hew to the familiar. Ted Gioia’s The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire (Oxford University Press) ruefully undermines the “always changing” thesis through its selection. Scarcely more than one number in this encyclopedic, alphabetic song-by-song overview of the music’s classic compositions was written after 1970.

And that’s a troubling problem for Gioia, a jazz musician and author of several histories of jazz and blues, including The Birth (and Death) of the Cool. “The jazz repertoire is not as fluid as it once was,” he confesses, and despite the best efforts of The Bad Plus and others to inject Nirvana and Radiohead into set lists, “these songs still haven’t received enough traction to justify inclusion here.” And yet, shouldn’t Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” have made the cut, given Miles Davis’ recording?

Knowledgeable and entertaining, The Jazz Standards is the kind of book readers can crack at random and enjoy. The A-Y compendium (there has never been a standard starting with “Z”) includes hundreds of enduring songs whose composers and compositions are described, recording histories outlined and emotional and technical challenges explicated. A criticism of jazz culture can be discerned in the essay on Miles Davis’ “So What.” The composition is a study of simplicity constructed around limitations, yet most players insist on “spicing it up” to show off their chops. Perhaps one problem with jazz nowadays is too much emphasis on physical acts of dexterity and not enough on emotional empathy. Fingers and lungs take precedence over heart and soul.

Many other themes surface in Gioia’s work, including the salvaging of unpromising material through great performances. The monotonous “Tea for Two” (“akin to a second-rate nursery song,” Gioia remarks) has been a springboard for extravagant flights of fancy. Great singers such as Billie Holiday have brought diamonds from the dim recesses of Tin Pan Alley. One can always quibble over what’s left out of a book like The Jazz Standards. Surely Gioia should have cited Frank Sinatra’s miffed yet hurt take of “Just Friends” among that song’s great recordings, and since he wants to show dialogue between jazz and other worlds of music, he might have mentioned Janis Joplin’s electrifying version of “Summertime.” But then, quibbling over lists is at least half the fun of reading them.


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