By Peter Spitzer - Jazz Author, Musician, and Instructor
Did the composers of tunes that were to become jazz standards originally conceive of them as vehicles for improvisation? Judging from many songs’ original settings, it seems that the answer is “sometimes yes, sometimes no.”
Certainly many composers in the “Golden Age” of the Great American Songbook (1920s to 1940s) conceived their songs with fashionable, jazz-signifying features like blue notes, syncopation, or swing beat - but in those years, most popular composers were not writing their songs as vehicles for jazz improvisation.
Songs were often first presented as part of Broadway shows or movies, or as sheet music intended for popular use. New songs were marketed by publishers’ “song pluggers” to band leaders and arrangers, who, it was hoped, would then turn them into pop hits - meaning sheet music sales, record sales, and radio play.
Bands often re-interpreted these songs, presenting them in danceable, jazzy arrangements. Many of these arrangements featured improvised solos, but for the composers, that was incidental. As jazz history progressed through the 1930s and 1940s, improvisation became increasingly important; today we think of improvised solos as the central part of a “jazz” performance.
One might make a case for classifying jazz standards into three categories:
- Tunes that were not originally intended to be played as jazz, but took on on a jazz character through subsequent recordings,
- Tunes with jazz-signifying features (blues licks, blues chords, swing beat) written into the melody, harmony, or rhythm, meant from the start to be heard as “jazz” (though not necessarily meant for improvisation), and
- Tunes written specifically for improvisers. These are generally later additions to our list of “jazz standards.”
Looking just at the top ten jazz standards as defined on this site, the first category might include “All the Things You Are,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Yesterdays,” and “Stella by Starlight.” The second category might include “Body and Soul,” “Summertime” and “What is This Thing Called Love.” Into the third category we could put “Round Midnight,” and probably “Lover Man.”
Composers like Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter were very much aware of jazz and blues, and wrote jazz-signifying melodic and harmonic devices into their compositions, beginning as early as the mid-1910s. But these composers did not necessarily consider themselves part of the jazz world. Jerome Kern expressed displeasure with nearly all jazz interpretations of his songs. On the other hand, George Gershwin, more of a jazz fan, reportedly was fascinated by Art Tatum’s extensive improvisations on Gershwin’s tune “Liza.”
Original Sheet Music vs. Modern Fake Books
The sheet music version of a “Golden Age” song, marketed to amateur musicians, may not always have accurately represented the song’s original Broadway or movie setting, but presumably it at least had the approval of the composer. Sheet music format consisted of words and melody, with a fully written-out piano accompaniment. The piano part often included countermelodies, voice leading, or bass lines that were meant to be part of the tune. Above the staff would often be tablatures and chord symbols for guitar (or ukelele), usually representing a much-simplified harmonic accompaniment. These publications were not aimed at improvising musicians.
In the swing and early bebop years, sheet music would have been musicians’ printed reference for standards; fake books did not appear until perhaps the late 1940s (and those were rather crude).
Jazz musicians would also often have learned songs by listening to records, or from each other - with or without notating the music. It’s easy to see how details of melody, harmony, and rhythm could end up being changed in musicians’ common practice.
Over the last half century, fake books have come to replace sheet music as the most common printed reference used by jazz musicians. Fake book versions of “Golden Age” standard tunes often differ considerably from their original sheet music versions.
Fake Book Harmony
While sheet music generally had a written-out piano part, modern fake books show only melody and chord symbols. Subtleties in the original piano accompaniment have often been lost. However, the chord symbols are generally an improvement on the original sheet-music chord symbols. Harmonies are usually adjusted to fit modern performers’ preference for standard harmonic devices such as II V progressions. Chord voicings are rarely specified; it is assumed that the performer will improvise the details. This presentation is geared to the needs and practices of contemporary jazz musicians.
Tunes are often presented in reharmonized versions that reflect either modern standard practice, or occasionally a reharmonization by an artist like Bill Evans. To get a sense of how differently a song may be reharmonized, try comparing versions of “Round Midnight,” “Embraceable You,” or “Like Someone in Love” from different fake books. Which version is best? It’s your decision!
Fake Book Melody
In fake books, as in sheet music, melodies are usually presented in very simple note values (whole, half, quarter, eighth). It is assumed that performers will supply a personal interpretation.
Verses (introductory “lead-in” sections) are usually left out, with just a few exceptions (e.g., “Star Dust,” “Lush Life”). The Standards Real Book (published by Sher Music) includes verse sections, but that does not mean that performers will include them.
Fake Book Rhythm
Many standards were not originally conceived in “jazz” rhythm - but a popular recorded arrangement could quickly turn a song into a swing tune. Some tunes originally conceived as ballads are now usually played at medium or fast tempos (for example, “Somebody Loves Me,” “Cherokee,” and “Oh, Lady Be Good!”). Sometimes the reverse happens, and a tune written with a faster tempo will become a ballad (“Star Dust,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”).
Some songs’ original melodic rhythms have been altered significantly in modern fake books (“A Foggy Day,” “Have You Met Miss Jones”).
A classic recorded performance may result in the beat being changed: A swing tune might be played Latin (“Tea for Two”), or a Latin tune might be played as swing (“I’ve Got You Under My Skin”). A tune originally in 3/4 might be played in 4/4 (“Fly Me to the Moon”).
Drum, bass, piano, and guitar rhythms are usually not specified in fake books, beyond the time signature and a notation at the top of the page like “swing,” “Latin,” or “bop.” Occasionally some important kicks will be notated. As with melody and harmony, it is understood that the rhythmic details of drum, bass, piano, and guitar parts will be improvised.
More modern tunes may also be altered or simplified in fake books. Introductions, shout choruses, and other parts of the original arrangement may be left out. For example, see Joe Henderson’s “Recordame” (abbreviated in both the bootleg and the Hal Leonard Real Books, but shown in a more complete version in the “New Real Book,” under the name “No Me Esqueca”). And of course, performers will add their own arrangements and interpretations to this repertoire, just as they do with “Golden Age” standards.
In their extended life as “jazz standards,” then, songs have often acquired characteristics not intended by the composer. It is a tribute to the craftsmanship of composers like Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter that their melodies and chord progressions have endured so well, and have proved so consistently inspiring. But jazz has always valued “newness.” For this reason, and for the historical reasons discussed here, it is only natural that modern performances often take melody, harmony, and rhythm far beyond the composer’s original intent.
Mel Bay Jazz Theory Handbook
Mel Bay Publications, Inc.
(Jazz Theory Handbook is a great jazz theory resource for beginners and established musicians. Click the graphic to see our review.)