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Jazz History: The Standards (Introduction)

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

Jazz History Contents
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By Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

What are the ingredients that make a song into a “jazz standard”? It would be convenient if there were a set recipe, but more often it’s a complex mixture of musical influences (harmony and melody) and artist prerogative.

From its beginnings until the 1950s, jazz was a utilitarian music intended mostly for dancing. Consequently, musicians felt compelled to include a large percentage of popular songs in their repertoire. Recorded evidence is not always the best yardstick for judging what jazz groups played, especially prior to the 1940s (when artists were finally allowed more input regarding tune selection). For example, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, arguably the benchmark of excellence in classic jazz performance, recorded 40 titles in 1923, yet not one is a popular song. Anecdotal evidence, however, indicates the band routinely played many pop tunes on their regular engagements. On the other hand, the Jean Goldkette Orchestra of 1927, which featured the talented cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, was relegated to recording a mostly dreary group of pop songs, and the great jazz numbers arranged by Bill Challis were unreleased by Victor Records which considered them commercially unacceptable.

Even from the very first jazz recordings in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (“Indiana” and “Darktown Strutters Ball”), recording executives could see that it was mutually beneficial to work with sheet music companies to “push” certain songs. In the 1930s, pianist, vocalist, band leader and composer Fats Waller would be given a group of the latest popular songs from the Brill Building (Tin Pan Alley’s unofficial headquarters) and told to select the ones he wanted to record. Rarely was he ever given an opportunity to record his own compositions which were generally far superior to the standard Tin Pan Alley fare.

Some artists, especially those who had achieved a degree of popularity, were able to negotiate with recording executives in favor of better quality material. The first jazz musician who appears to have been given some latitude in choosing his recorded repertoire was Louis Armstrong, who in the late 1920s and early 1930s recorded such tunes as “Body and Soul,” “Stardust,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “I Got Rhythm,” “After You’ve Gone,” and “St. Louis Blues”--- these just from the top 100 jazz standards list. Duke Ellington is another artist who, almost from the beginning of his recording career, was able to record his own compositions and very few pop tunes.

As the popularity of swing music increased in the mid-1930s, top record-selling artists such as Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw made a point of recording better quality material in favor of the Tin Pan Alley songs that undoubtedly they were required to record. Yet, as in the 1920s, some bandleaders, for economic survival, were required to cater to the Tin Pan Alley song pluggers, especially those who were struggling to get their bands off the ground such as Bunny Berigan, Jack Teagarden and Gene Krupa.

Despite the effects of the Great Depression, the period from 1929 to 1940 is the era where the majority of jazz standards originated. During this decade there were a great many excellent songwriters contributing well-crafted material for Broadway shows (and for movie musicals) such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Irving Berlin , Hoagy Carmichael, and Walter Donaldson, to name just a very few whose material rose above the standard Tin Pan Alley fare.

Generally, a contributing factor to a song becoming a standard is due to an important jazz recording. For example, Louis Armstrong’s 1931 version of “Stardust” was a key recording of the tune, making it popular among jazz musicians. Nevertheless other non-jazz recordings, like Bing Crosby’s, helped assure the tune’s popularity among the general public. Although Armstrong recorded “Body in Soul” in 1930 and Benny Goodman in 1935, it was really Coleman Hawkins’ 1939 treatment that made the tune the standard it is today. The same situation applies consistently throughout jazz history.

Although external influences like World Wars, the Great Depression, and the 1940s bans by ASCAP and the American Federation of Musicians affected aspects of musicians’ work, these things had little effect on what musicians played. But following the recording ban there were a number of indie recording companies formed specifically to record jazz artists, and these companies extended artistic control to the musicians, enabling them to select their own material. While the major companies were recording pop versions of “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?” and the “Hut Sut Song,” indies like Keynote and Savoy were recording classics such as “Night and Day,” “All the Things You Are,” “Cherokee,” and “Just You Just Me” by artists like Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Don Byas.

Following World War II, as recording technology progressed from the 78 rpm to direct-to-disk recording to the long playing 33 1/3 record and, especially, the longer recording times afforded by magnetic tape, one can get a better idea of how jazz artists selected their repertoire from live recordings. For example, it’s interesting to look at a list of tunes played by Charlie Parker on a gig in March, 1947. Out of 26 tunes recorded, ten are on the top 100 jazz standards list, including “Body and Soul,” “Indiana,” “All the Things You Are,” “Stardust,” “Perdido,” and “Night in Tunisia,” and several other tunes (“Hot House” and “Ornithology”) are originals based on the chord changes of standards. Similarly, a recorded portion of a 1963 gig by pianist Bill Evans consists of 11 tunes, seven of which are from the top 100 jazz standards, including “Lover Man,” “Love is Here to Stay,” “‘Round Midnight,” “All the Things You Are,” and “What is This Thing Called Love.”

Ultimately, one cannot create a formula to explain why a particular song becomes a standard, but the revelation from jazz history is that it frequently comes down to those songs that are artists’ favorites, the tunes that inspire them to creatively spin an improvisational web.

Our jazz historian Chris Tyle has been given top honors by the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD. Only one in one thousand CDs are given a crown, the guide’s special token of merit. Check out Chris Tyle’s Silver Leaf Jazz Band’s CD New Orleans Wiggle at CDUniverse.com.

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