In the mid-'60s, following the breakout of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, no self-respecting pop artist would record other composers’ works. Yet, jazz musicians continued to perform decades-old songs like “‘Round Midnight” and “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.” And they still do.
This continuing reliance on so-called standards has led a number of young improvising musicians – most notably the Houston-born pianist Robert Glasper – to call for the creation of a new, shared language. As he told JazzWax blogger Marc Myers in March: “If today’s jazz musicians mirrored today’s times – all of it – the way earlier jazz musicians did, jazz would be more relevant.”
Of course, in the early days of jazz those "standards" were, in fact, new songs, many of them in the realm of pop music. So as jazz has largely become disconnected from contemporary music, you have to wonder: are we witnessing the death of the jazz standard? Or perhaps we should ask, should we witness the death of the jazz standard?
Focus on the past and kill the future
“For the most part, the standard repertoire is not much different today than in the early ‘70s,” jazz writer Ted Gioia, whose new book is titled The Jazz Standards, tells me in an email. “That can’t be a healthy state of affairs. In earlier decades, jazz benefited from having a dialogue with the best popular music of the day. When jazz musicians lose interest in having that dialogue, and focus too much on the past, their music runs the risk of stagnation.”
“Early 20th-century American popular music developed alongside jazz,” Ken Schaphorst, chair of jazz studies at the New England Conservatory, says via email. “George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter were all influenced by jazz, and Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Fats Waller were in turn influenced by the Tin Pan Alley composers.”
In the '40s, many Tin Pan Alley compositions were supercharged by young virtuosos like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell, who used them as improvisational vehicles, radically rearranging the songs’ harmonic structure. In turn, Parker and his fellow bebop pioneers encouraged composers like Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver and Charles Mingus to extend the language. Since the early '50s, only a handful of composers – Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane among them – have had the same impact on the standard repertoire.
Do standards still set the standard?
“There’s no questioning the compositional framework of some of those standards,” Andy Milne, a Hamilton, Ont.-born composer and pianist who teaches at The New School and New York University, says in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of information in those tunes.”
Although he uses hip-hop rhythms in his own compositions and has recorded pieces by pop composers like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Sting, Milne says some compositions that have become embedded in the standard repertoire have a “universality” that contemporary compositions lack.
He says younger artists like Glasper are ignoring the way that music reflects and influences broader social patterns.
“Are they trying to dictate how art is made?" he asks. "It’s not up to someone to decide what becomes popular. I wonder if Monk’s tunes were being played by everybody six months after they were released. Is Glasper’s assertion even something that has been experienced in any widespread way? Perhaps we’ll have to wait another 20 years to see if a Dave Douglas tune will become fashionable to call at a jam session.”
New standards vs. jazz narcissism
“I like to think that tunes written by today’s jazz musicians will work their way into the repertoire,” Schaphorst says. “Time will tell. At the conservatory, I hear certain tunes by Brad Mehldau and Kurt Rosenwinkel played a lot. The problem I see is that more and more jazz musicians are composing to impress other jazz musicians. That can be problematic on multiple fronts.”
“I am surprised that jazz musicians nowadays almost never play an original composition by one of their peers,” adds Gioia. “I fear a narcissistic tendency is starting to permeate the jazz world. Each musician will tell you how important new, original compositions are to the art form, but that vote of confidence does not extend beyond what they compose themselves. This is an unhealthy state of affairs, and we won’t get new standards unless it changes.”
Stories and Standards - 'Stardust'
Stories and Standards - 'Summertime'
Stories and Standards - 'Giant Steps'
LA Weekly: Five Song Requests Jazz Bands Wish You Would Stop Making
on Aug 01, 2012