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Jazz History: The Standards (1940s)

The Trends, People, and Events that Shaped the Jazz Standards Canon

Jazz History Contents
Jazz Standards from the 1940s
Year Rank Title
1944 4 'Round Midnight
1942 7 Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be)
1946 10 Stella By Starlight
1947 11 Autumn Leaves (Les Feuilles Mortes)
1940 21 How High the Moon

Click here to see the full list for this period
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By Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

With the big band era in full swing, the 1940s began ominously. Events in Europe and Asia would soon plunge America into its second World War of the century. As America entered into the fray, inevitable changes occurred in the music industry and in jazz. First, a wartime entertainment tax hurt profits for big bands, and then the draft created vacancies that were difficult to fill.

In March, 1940, ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Artists and Producers), proposed a new contract increasing by 100 percent the royalties they received from broadcast use. In retaliation broadcasters created their own organization, BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated) and began signing non-ASCAP songwriters. By the end of 1940, 650 broadcasters signed with BMI compared with only 200 who continued with ASCAP. At the end of 1941 ASCAP negotiated a new contract, but the “ban” of ASCAP material by many broadcasters had a substantial effect on popular music. Many of the artists BMI signed during the ban were country or western swing artists, who subsequently received considerable airplay and a rise in the popularity of western music.

Then in August, 1942, American Federation of Musicians president James C. Petrillo initiated a ban on recording, in hopes of coercing record companies into returning part of their profits to the union to be used for special concerts and projects. This forced the record companies to focus on recording singers and singing groups and reissuing previously recorded material. The ban lasted until Decca Records capitulated in September, 1943, but it would be another 14 months before RCA and Columbia would give in. Consequently the recording ban further weakened the popularity that the big bands had, and by the end of the decade the swing era had given way to the era of the pop singer.

By the end of the decade, several important technological changes would affect the music industry. First, vinyl would replace shellac as the medium for pressing records; then 78 rpm records would give way to first 45 rpm and then 33 1/3 long play records. Television, invented in the late 1930s, was no longer a novelty as the big radio networks (CBS and NBC) perceived it as the medium of the future.

The 1940s in Jazz

While the big bands struggled to keep going during World War II, a revolution in jazz music was occurring. Starting in the mid-1930s, 52nd Street in New York City became “Swing Street” where small combo jazz was featured. By the 1940s these groups, spearheaded by musicians like Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Coleman Hawkins, were exploring the harmonic frontiers of popular song. This new type of jazz came to be known as “bebop.” Whereas in the 1920s and 1930s jazz and popular music crossed paths, bebop and the jazz styles built upon it appealed to a specialized audience, and the music rarely ventured back into the popular music realm.

As jazz advanced harmonically, many musicians looked back to tunes from the 1930s, especially Broadway show tunes, which were generally more sophisticated than Tin Pan Alley tunes. Following the mid-1940s recording ban, a number of independent record labels specializing in jazz began business, and the artists they hired were generally given freedom to record material of their choosing.

Some swing era musicians, for example alto saxophonist Louis Jordan, found that there was a growing market for “jump” music, which came to be known as “rhythm and blues” and became part of the roots of the music which would rise to popularity in the 1950s, “rock-n-roll.”

The 1940s in Song

Music from the 1940s reflected a wide spectrum of tastes, ranging from swing band numbers like “In the Mood,” “Tuxedo Junction” and “Take the ‘A’ Train,” to strictly Tin Pan Alley tunes like “Paper Doll” and “Buttons and Bows.”

Here’s a brief list of tunes that were million sellers in the decade. Those underlined are part of the top 1000 jazz standards list.

In general, tunes that became jazz standards from the 1940s tended to be from Tin Pan Alley, with Broadway show tunes being replaced by tunes from movies (for example, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”). There was a higher proportion of numbers written and performed by jazz artists like “Night in Tunisia,” “Perdido,” “Good Bait” and “Four Brothers.”

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