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Contemplating The Jazz Canon

The other day I read on Salon a well-written and fairly lengthy article by Scott Timberg called “Did The American Songbook Kill Jazz?” A provocative title, but I think even the author would agree, to paraphrase Twain, that the reports of the death of jazz are greatly exaggerated. The music is constantly performed, recorded, written about and studied.  And while the audience of the music is tiny compared to popular genres, this is no recent phenomenon and the prominence of the Great American Songbook is but one factor.

A related one is a certain ossification that’s occurred because most students now learn jazz in the academe instead of on the bandstand. There’s no comparable finishing school these days to either Art Blakey or Betty Carter.  And with jazz as an academic discipline, the standards written by the likes of Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, Berlin, along with those by Ellington, Strayhorn, Monk, Parker and Gillespie – and particularly the recordings of them by jazz masters past – have become as canonical in the jazz world as those of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart are in the classical world.

As a sometime songwriter who’s written a few tunes in various jazz idioms and has played a little cocktail piano, I’ll admit that I’m tired of hearing yet another Bill Evans-inspired rendition of “My Funny Valentine.” But there’s two parts to that. One, certain standards are overdone to the point of being aural shoe leather. The other is that too many pianists are all but stylistic Xeroxes of their predecessors like Bud Powell or Bill Evans. I’m sure my trumpet and sax-playing friends have had similar experiences listening to talented performers who’ve not developed a distinctive style.

One war horse cited by Timberg is “Autumn Leaves.” One of my favorites, I’d play the piece as a mid-tempo swing, a la Cannonball and Miles’ rendition.  Then I heard the late Eva Cassidy’s arrangement – and it is truly a recasting of the work, complete with alternative harmonies, that brings out the poignancy of the Johnny Mercer lyric.  Even  the most played standards can be made fresh in the hands of a skilled artist and Eva Cassidy has forever changed how I interpret the song.

Timberg makes the point that an earlier generation of jazz musicians who tried to record more recent pop songs, even those written by the likes of the Beatles, were not successful. Part of the problem is that you can’t make those songs “jazzy” in that they don’t swing and they sound cheesy when you try to perform them in a traditional idiom.  However, just as jazz moved early on beyond the swing beat to Afro-Cuban rhythms and later Brazilian samba, one can certainly play convincing jazz these days with a straight-eighths rock beat.  Just listen to Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” as an early example.

Brad Mehldau is rightly mentioned as someone who’s recorded his fair share of standards but has gone well beyond the Songbook, recording not only his originals, but songs by the Beatles, Kurt Cobain and Radiohead, among others. I heard his arrangement of “Blackbird” live and it was transformative.  Mehldau didn’t try to make the Beatles classic sound jazzy; rather, he let the song be true to its roots and he spun several minutes of brilliant and beautiful improvisations from the song.  And to the extent that more recent popular songs lack the harmonic complexity of the standards, the answer is to find songs that lend themselves to one of the improvising artist’s principal tools: harmonic substitution.

If there is a “problem” with contemporary jazz, it’s not the Great American Songbook, although the canon does provide a clue. All of the enshrined works are songs – they have lyrics! And it’s the lyrics that provide much of the emotional content and make these songs memorable – even when performed as instrumentals.  While some of the Songbook masters wrote both words and music, most did not. They collaborated with lyricists like Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart and Johnny Mercer. Jazz is far from dead. However, I think if some of the many younger composer-performers found talented lyricists to collaborate and craft songs with, their music would reach a wider audience and, to address another point in the Timberg post, would be more culturally “relevant.” Jazz singers are dying for good, new material – they’re tired of just singing standards, too.