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You are at JazzStandards.com, a website dedicated to the preservation of information for the musical compositions known as Jazz Standards.

The information at this site has been assembled from hundreds of reference books and historical documents with additional commentary by jazz performers, historians, and musicologists.

In one location you can find:

  • A list of the 1000 most-frequently recorded jazz standard compositions (Click on Songs)
     
  • Detailed information on the top 300 jazz standards including origins, historical notes, musical analyses, CD suggestions, and much more (Click on Songs)
     
  • Concise biographies for the writers and introducing performers
     
  • A decade-by-decade look at jazz history through the trends, events, and people who shaped the jazz standards canon.
     
  • References on hundreds of songs to help you in your research (look in Songs, Biographies and the Jazz Standards Bookstore)
     
  • Questions and Answers, see the column to the right.
Footnotes

Click on the numbers at the left to return to the referring text.

[1]External definitions of a standard:

“A composition that is continually used in repertoires.”

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Houghton Mifflin company 2000 ISBN 0-395-82517

“A musical piece of sufficiently enduring popularity to be made part of a permanent repertoire, especially a popular song that is held in continuing esteem and is commonly used as the basis of jazz arrangements or improvisations.”

The Unabridged Random House Dictionary 1967 Random House, Inc.

“A standard is a popular song that is well known, frequently performed, and remains in the popular repertoire for at least several years.”

Enjoying Jazz by Henry Martin Schirmer Books, 1986 ISBN 0-02-873130-1

“Composition or song that has, by dint of its lasting memorability and general worth, become a regularly used item in some field of music – a jazz standard, for example."

The Oxford Companion to Popular Music 1991, Peter Gammond, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-311323-6

[2] “Tin Pan Alley” may need some explanation.  In the first half of the twentieth century many popular compositions were written by the composers and lyricists who worked for publishing houses on West 28th Street in Manhattan.  Originally “Tin Pan Alley” referred to a segment of that street.  Later it became a generic term for all publishers of American sheet music.

[3]By “jazz artists” we mean artists whose main body of work is jazz music.

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Questions and Answers
Click on these links to navigate to the questions on this page ....
What Is a Jazz Standard?
The terms "standard" and "jazz standard" are often used when one is referring to popular and jazz music compositions.  A quick search of the internet reveals, however, that the definitions of these terms can vary widely. So what is a standard?  Comparing definitions from a number of dictionaries and music scholars[1] and basing a definition on the points on which they are in agreement, it is reasonable to state:

A "standard" is a composition that is held in continuing esteem and is commonly used in musical repertoires.

And,

A "jazz standard" is a composition that is held in continuing esteem and is commonly used as the basis of jazz arrangements and improvisations.

Sometimes the term "jazz standard" is used to imply a jazz composition that has become a standard. Words and phrases often have multiple valid meanings and this term is no exception. At this site we will use the definition having the more general acceptance, one that allows compositions from any origin.  To better understand our decision, consider the contents of the following sheet music collection titled Jazz Standards:

Jazz Standards: Melody Line, Chords and Lyrics for Keyboard, Guitar, Vocal (Hal Leonard Publishing, 1998)
All the Things You Are
Autumn in New York
Bewitched
Cry Me a River
Don’t Get Around Much Anymore
A Fine Romance
I Can’t Get Started With You
I’ve Got You Under My Skin
The Lady Is a Tramp
Manhattan
Misty
My Funny Valentine
Old Devil Moon
Prelude to a Kiss
Route 66
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
There’s a Small Hotel
(and more)

Clearly the majority of these "jazz standards" were not originally jazz compositions.  When music publishers include the term "jazz standards" in a description or title they almost always are referring to compositions used as the foundation for jazz arrangements or improvisations, regardless of whether or not they were written by a jazz composer.

In general, music authors and theorists also favor the broader definition.  Will Friedwald, in his book Stardust Melodies, comments how Coleman Hawkins did more than anyone else to establish Johnny Green's "Body and Soul" as an all-time jazz standard. In Listening to Class American Popular Songs, Allen Forte, author and Battell Professor of the Theory of Music at Yale University, refers to Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight" as a jazz standard, a song that was introduced by Fred Astaire in the RKO musical Swing Time.

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What Types of Compositions Become Jazz Standards?

The most common categories of origin are:

  • Tin Pan Alley[2]

  • Broadway musicals and Hollywood movies

  • Jazz composers

In the broadest sense of the definition one might also include:

  • Traditional (folk, church, Christmas)

  • Rock and roll

  • International popular and folk music

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What Makes a Good Jazz Standard?


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).

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How Are the Jazz Standards Identified and Ranked?
Before continuing, we should say that jazz music, by its very nature, resists definitions and categorization. It is a given that some visitors to this site will take issue with the ranking system we have devised and we respect their points of view.

We hope the majority will understand that without an underlying structure there would be no way to move forward with our primary and long-term goal: To centralize and preserve information for the compositions jazz artists most frequently record.

When we are done, surely the majority of jazz standards on anyone's list will be included.


The JazzStandards.com ranking system is based on conservative definitions and merely reflects the compositions jazz artists choose to include on their CD recordings.  There is no editorial judgment. Simply put, a composition is ranked highest because it has been included most often on currently issued CDs by the greatest number of jazz artists[3]. This premise is based on our definition,

A "jazz standard" is a composition that is held in continuing esteem and is commonly used as the basis of jazz arrangements or improvisations.

One area where we considered editing our results was the inclusion of jazz Christmas collections. After some lengthy deliberation, we decided to be true to our "hands-off" editing policy. If we start excluding theme collections should we exclude theme songs from non-theme collections? Should all holiday songs be excluded or just Christmas songs? So while "Jingle Bells" is not usually thought of as a jazz standard, it satisfies our definition and has been recorded by dozens of mainstream jazz artists. As a result, it is on our list.

CD performances have been chosen as the yardstick because the compact disc is currently the most popular medium for the demonstration of a musician’s repertoire, style, and performing ability.  The compact disc is also an indispensable medium for the listener as few jazz fans are able to attend live performances on a regular basis.

We do not rank a composition higher for multiple performances by the same artist.  It would not make sense to call a composition a "jazz standard" simply because one performer has included it on a dozen CDs.

No value is placed upon CD sales figures.  The phrase “commonly used as the basis of jazz arrangements or improvisations" implies the jazz artist’s choice of composition is what is important, not popularity amongst consumers. Based on a sampling of hundreds of thousands tracks on currently available CDs by 700 jazz artists,

  • The number one ranked song, "Body and Soul," was found on CDs by well over 100 different jazz artists
  • Compositions having a rank of 750 or higher were found on CDs by at least 10 different jazz artists
  •  The number 1000 ranked composition was found on CDs by 6 different artists

If CDs by all jazz artists were tallied, the numbers would be much higher, but the ranking would remain virtually the same.

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What Data Set Was Used for the Jazz Standards Ranking?

Over 1000 jazz artists were identified using various respected jazz music guides.  Only the artists who appeared in all of the guides were retained and only artists whose main body of work is jazz -- not pop artists who have dabbled in jazz. This restriction reduced the number of artists to 700.  Next, all of the currently available CDs by the 700 artists were identified.  Hundreds of thousands of tracks were then tabulated and sorted using extensive rules-based algorithms to normalize the names for programmatic matching purposes.  For example, "little" may also be spelled several ways including "li'l" and "lil'". And "in" "in'" and "ing" may be equivalent as long as "in'" isn't part of "ain't".  "Old" may be spelled "Ol'" or "Ol" or "Ole".  "Ghost of a Chance" may be titled "(I Don't Stand) A Ghost of a Chance (With You)" with or without the parenthesis and with or without either of the parenthetical phrases.  Many compositions have two seemingly unrelated titles and different compositions may share the same title.  The list of rules goes on and on.

Out-of-print media (CDs, sheet music, and vinyl records) were not included and are not of concern as they are inconsistent with our definition’s phrase “held in continuing esteem.”

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How Many Jazz Standards Are There?
The top 750 compositions on JazzStandards.com are routinely found in jazz standard collections and are often referred to as jazz standards in liner notes and reviews.  Oscar Levant once characterized his composition “Blame It on My Youth” as a minor standard.  Minor Jazz Standards may be a good term for the compositions that rank toward the bottom of the list.

Note that the values given above for "number of different artists" performing a given composition are relative values derived from a data set based on 700 jazz artists.  It should be noted that there are many jazz artists who were not included in the survey so the “number of different artists” values are actually very conservative.

An astounding fact that came out of this analysis is that 40 percent of the compositions included on Jazz CDs today are arrangements of the 1000 compositions found on JazzStandards.com.

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