If you can’t put your finger on the appeal of a good song or instrumental, you’re in good company. In his book titled Lyrics, Oscar Hammerstein II comments on the most popular of all jazz standards...
“Star Dust” rambles and roams like a truant schoolboy in a meadow. Its structure is loose, its pattern complex. Yet it has attained the kind of long-lived popularity that few songs can claim. What has it got? I’m not certain. I know only that it is beautiful and I like to hear it.
Even without knowing what makes a good composition, we can still answer the question, “What Makes a Good Jazz Standard?” Based on our definition of a jazz standard,
A “jazz standard” is a composition that is held in continuing esteem and is commonly used as the basis of jazz arrangements and improvisations.
the types of compositions that become ”good” jazz standards are simply those that the jazz performers esteem, play and record the most.
To better understand why performers pick certain compositions, consider some comments by musicians and musicologists:
“Prelude to a Kiss”:
The melody has a lot of beautiful chromatic movement, and there are enough key centers and resolutions to keep things interesting when soloing.
“Yesterdays”: The melody is strong and easily played or sung, and the tune works at any tempo.
“Body and Soul”: The unusual changes in key and tempo are highly attractive and provide a large degree of improvisational freedom ... it is attractive to jazz musicians because of its challenging chord progressions.
Many jazz musicians like to improvise on compositions with familiar chord progressions and others take advantage of relatively flat melodies. Repeated notes, for example, are said to build melodic tension while emphasizing rhythm and holding the door open for harmonic ingenuity.
If you then surmise that jazz performers like both flat and interesting melodies, both familiar and unusual harmonies, and both easy to play and challenging compositions, you’re right. The types of compositions that are interesting to jazz performers are as varied as the performers’ interests, their backgrounds, and their moods.
So, the answer to the question, “What makes a good jazz standard?” is simply a composition that jazz vocalists and musicians often choose to play, perform, and record. The reasons they choose compositions are varied and sometimes contradictory. To provide more insight into their reasoning we have included musicians’ comments in many of the composition abstracts.
Also, from time to time we will conduct interviews with instrumentalists, vocalists, and musicologists. The first two interviews are with alto saxophonist Bud Shank, who talks to JazzStandards.com about his favorite standards, composers and more and with professor, musician, composer and author Randy Halberstadt, who discusses why he chooses compositions to play, record, and write about. Click here for the interviews...