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Friday, March 16, 2012

The Tenuous Rise of the Singing Class in Jazz-Pt. I

In a recent interview at Jazz wax, Robert Glasper said of existing jazz styles: "I think they've run their course in terms of attracting a new audience."  Glasper also said, in referring to The Great American Songbook, that "It's time for a new standard. We can't do the old thing forever."

He's on to something. Two trend lines are going in opposite directions.

Chet's Funny Valentine
For many years, learning "All the Things You Are," "Laura," etc. served a dual purpose: you could study how the masters negotiated the chord changes and you could play songs that audiences wanted to hear. Today, aspiring jazz musicians continue to learn pretty much the same tunes their forebears have for the last, say, 50 years, but at this point, a rapidly diminishing number of listeners recognize these tunes.  And, the work of any instrumentalist playing standards in the traditional, bop, or swing style will always be compared to the incomparable body of work generated by the great jazz masters. After having heard these tunes played by the likes of Dexter Gordon and Miles, will even these listeners hear the 1000th iteration of "My Funny Valentine" as anything but pleasant background to a nice meal?

Jazz vocalists are apparently surviving this process better than instrumentalists. Of course, singers doing the American Songbook in a jazz style can also be compared to previous jazz giants, but at this point, the abstraction of a note combined with the specific gravity of a lyric (a.k.a. singing a song) continues to foster a free-floating emotional exchange between the artist and a fairly broad range of listeners. This kind of exchange may have once been the norm between mainstream jazz instrumentalist and audience, but it's now a lot rarer.

I have no hard stats to back me up, but my strong perception is that in the last fifteen years, there has been a increasing percentage of vocalists booked into Boston-area jazz venues. Booking follows taste.  Other circumstantial evidence: the various incarnations of Roy Eldridge playing "Rockin' Chair" on YouTube have about 13,000 views. The vocal version done by Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden have hundreds of thousands of views. Michael Buble's "The Way you Look Tonight" has over a million views. I think you'd be hard pressed to total up 50 posted jazz versions of the tune to reach a million.

People often talk about these songs being cyclically re-discovered, but to people under 30 (except those studying jazz), knowing "Just In time" is like knowing who preceded President Taft. 

Part 2: Can you salvage the standard repertoire by infusing current influences. Or, if you bend a standard too far does it break?

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