Top 50 JAzz Blog

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Jazz Makes a Standard

Pianist Robert Glasper said, in reference to The Great American Songbook: "It's time for a new standard. We can't do the old thing forever." Given the many attempts to bring jazz into hip hop or hip hop into jazz, I then posed the question: How far can you bend a standard before it breaks?  
Sung to the tune of Melancholy Baby: "Come to me my broken metatarsal"
Jazz has always been in the business of bending tunes. In fact, it seems completely reasonable to think that the Great American Songbook would be a much smaller part of American musical culture if these now "standard" tunes had not been plucked from their original Broadway or Hollywood context by jazz performers, who dug out and actualized their rhythmic, harmonic and melodic implications.

Going back to the 1920's, there were both vocal and instrumental jazz/pop versions of tunes originally used on stage and in film. Working alone, neither sung versions or instrumental versions could have done the job, but together they showed how a tune could be transmuted into a musical entity that transcended its initial conception and performance.

To see if this process unfolded in a way that is comparable to current cross-fertilization efforts between hip hop and jazz, let's look at how the process traditionally happened, using one of the great jazz war horses: "All the Things You Are."

With music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, Jr. this song originally came from a show called "Very Warm For May." The history of the relationship between this tune and jazz is long and deep and also a little perplexing. All sources say the show opened on November 17, 1939, but according to Dr. Chalfen, there were two jazz-inflected versions recorded before that date: Tommy Dorsey's on October 20, '39 and Artie Shaw's, on Oct. 26. The sheet music says the song wasn't copyrighted until 1940, so maybe someone heard it in previews in Boston or New London and rushed out arrangements before the legal profession could stick its oar in. Sheer speculation.

In any case, this is the way Kern and Hammerstein conceived it to be performed in 1939 (as produced in a later re-creation):

The song was lovely in its fashion, but completely rooted in one particular era and style: Broadway Musical-shading-toward Light Opera. Kern marked the chorus a "Burthen," and "cantabile," (singable). These are archaic and/or fancified terms, reflecting Kern's roots in 1910's musical theatre. Withal, given its sophisticated harmony, it was clearly a song worth the attention of jazz people.

As noted above, in 1939, before the show actually opened, Artie Shaw recorded it with Helen Forrest. The first part (verse) was eliminated. There is a "classy" intro (big brass chords) before the low-down-ish piano slides in. Then, Shaw's clarinet chorus is a great illustration of how jazz claims source material and makes it its own. Forrest's vocal follows Shaw's lead. 

Although we're focusing on vocal transformations, we need to have an instrumental version, done in a style that would have been formative for any jazz vocalist. Here's Charlie Parker, with Red Rodney, Al Haig, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes in 1949. 

This is Ella Fitzgerald in 1963, long after the song had been enfolded by jazz into its protean bosom. The tempo is up a bit, the background is more overtly jazz-like and Ella inflects the song all the way through. Even though Ella could handle a soprano range, the key has been brought down to take the gleam off and give it a darker feeling. When she picks it up after the instrumental, she completely alters the melody, then takes it home.

Through the years, various jazzmen wrote new melodies for the song's chord changes, including "Bird of Paradise" by Charlie Parker, "Prince Albert" by Kenny Dorham and "Boston Bernie" by Dexter Gordon. Charles Mingus retitled it "All the Things You Could Be By Now if Sigmund Freud's Wife was Your Mother." 

Addendum: Who first came up with what became the classic jazz intro for "All the Things You Are?" It's completely unlike the Kern verse. I'm thinking that Dizzy wrote it, but would love to hear from anyone who can spec this out. Thanks, Steve.


Steve Provizer said...

Bruno Vasil comments: I think your comment of "musical entity that transcended its initial conception" implies that the original has been bettered..
the original may fit the composers concept far better than the more contemporary versions..

Although not a "jazz standard", things really started to bend when Coltrane recorded "My Favorite Things" in 1961... but they did not break ... that period for me was a paradigm shift in jazz and music in general ..

Steve Provizer said...

Bruno, I suppose I show my prejudice there, although my case is that jazz showed that a tune could be conceived of much differently than the original and therefore opened up a world of new possibilities. To me, that was a very new idea in the world of composed music, which had served up till then as a pretty strict template for reproduction.

As far as Trane's "My Favorite Things," I don't really see that as more of a bend than what the boppers did to the tunes of their day.

Steve Provizer said...

Addendum to the Addendum: Dr. Chalfen has located the intro-with slight variation-on a 1944 Billy Eckstein recording, "Good Jelly Blues," arranged by Diz. I still feel like that's jumping from Zinjanthropus man to Cro-Magnon man-there's a link missing. The song is here:

Steve Provizer said...

For another wrinkle in the All the Things/jazz fabric, check out Brew's post: