Top 50 JAzz Blog

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Jazz Re-Shaping Standards

Without jazz, would "standards" be standards? Fact is, jazz musicians took-and continue to take-a body of music rooted in late 19th and early 20th century musical conventions and re-conceive, rejuvenate and adapt them to changing aesthetics. 

I originally took this up in this post, showing how jazz made All The Things You Are a standard. I ran across an interesting website,, and I'm going to use the vast amount of data they've compiled about jazz standards to expand the concept.

According to that site, these are the top ten most recorded tunes in the jazz canon, along with the year of their composition. [Notice these are all 30's and 40's tunes. In fact, in the top 300, there are only a handful that were written after 1950-but that's another story]. To keep the length of the post down, I'll take the first five of these tunes and post the earliest recordings I can find in the original context and compare them with the earliest versions I can find in the jazz context. 

1. 1930 Body and Soul
2. 1939 All the Things You Are
3. 1935 Summertime
4. 1944 Round Midnight
5. 1935 I Can't Get Started

6. 1937 My FunnyValentine
7. 1942 Lover Man
8. 1930 What Is This Thing Called Love
9. 1933 Yesterdays
10.1946 Stella By Starlight

Body and Soul, written by Johnny Green for Gertrude Lawrence, was recorded by Helen Morgan in the same year it was written. The vocal has a rubato, recitatif quality to it, with plenty of vibrato. It fits comfortably in the stylistic parameters of the era; post-parlor music, with a bit of art song harmony and the heightened emotion of European cabaret. Morgan does the verse (the first section of the song before the chorus), which most jazz versions don't include; unfortunate, from my perspective. 

Louis Armstrong also recorded Body and Soul in 1930. Right away we have the parallel universe of jazz made manifest. The Armstrong version is clearly a dance record, with a steady swing rhythm section. He approaches the tune with some measure of emotional commitment, but he completely displaces the melody rhythmically and his rendition, both vocally and on his horn, opens onto a different world than that represented by Morgan's version.

I dealt with the chronology of All The Things You Are more extensively in my previous post, but I do have more to say about it here. The original cast recording is a duet in harmony and counterpoint for soprano and baritone, performed in an essentially operatic style, with light accompaniment touches provided by a melodic background chorus and orchestra. The ending is constructed to showcase the soprano's upper register. Surprisingly, this recording doesn't include the verse.

The Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw Orchestras both had a great run with All The Things You Are, starting in 1939. They're different enough in approach that I'll use them both in this post. The Dorsey version starts out with a semi-symphonic opening and moves to a warm trombone statement of the melody (without the verse). The band plays a sweet-not hot-version, sticking close to the original and the vocalist, Jack Leonard, brings down the heat. He uses ample vibrato, but a much more laid back approach. There is some clarinet obligato work, but overall, little improvisation.

The Shaw version is slightly more uptempo. There's a short orchestral opening and some jaunty piano leading to Shaw's clarinet. Unlike Dorsey, Shaw uses less vibrato and more rhythmic alteration and note bending. When the band kicks in, the approach is slightly more syncopated than Dorsey's but similar overall. Vocalist Helen Forrest is more clearly coming from the Louis Armstrong-Billie Holiday direction-less vibrato, small shakes at the end of a phrase, just a small catch in her voice.

I wrote extensively about the Gershwin tune Summertime here, but there is more to say in this context. Summertime, written for the opera Porgy and Bess, is sung here by the originator of the Bess role, Anne Brown. So, even though it's a later recording, it is stylistically what would have been recorded years earlier. Call it a stylized operatic approach, with choral background and orchestra playing a lean and sophisticated harmony behind the expressive soprano.

Billie Holiday's 1936 version is night and day. We start with trumpet growling on plunger mute and go from there. It's at least double-time of the original, with the harmony somewhat simplified. 

This is an interesting conundrum, as jazz tended to build off the original harmony of a song by stripping away certain cliched approaches and adding passing and substitute chords. Jazz musicians seem not to have been comfortable with Gershwin's repeated augmented chords, with their whole tone free-floating implications and they moved the song harmonically so it would fit more squarely into the category of blues. 

Back to Billie-It gets the same swinging treatment from her that she would give to any of the material she sang-whether it be low-end pop, blues, broadway or jazz. Note that, even though the lyrics are actually somewhat upbeat, the tempo and approach of the original belies that, while Holiday's version affirms its innate optimism.

Round Midnight is the first of our songs written after 1940, and by a composer who came not from Tin Pan Alley or Broadway, but from jazz-Thelonius Monk. The first recording was done by Cootie Williams in 1944. After a short dramatic opening, Cootie states the melody-notably, without plunger mute. He plays straightforwardly; at first, even stiffly. There are some hip voicings in the band behind him, but the chord changes are not ones that Cootie-a swing player-would have necessarily known how to handle and there is almost no improvisation in this recording. 

In 1946, Dizzy Gillespie added an intro and coda which have since become closely associated with this song and other ballads, like I Can't Get Started. After the intro and a short improvised piano solo, Diz states the tune with some ornamentation-alone and then with Lucky Thompson. Milt Jackson then improvises with threads of the melody still present, but with more freedom. Thompson's solo is basically a restatement of the melody. Al Haig's solo is hipper; an improvisation based less on the melody, more on the chords, Diz takes it out dramatically, in his upper register and tags on a more relaxed coda.

Speaking of I Cant Get Started-The tune was first sung by Bob Hope in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. I couldn't find a recording of the song in that context, so I'm substituting this song, written for the Follies of the same year by Irving Berlin. Oddly, it begins with a long quote from Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue before it gets down to the vocal by tenor John Steel. Stylistically, it's a typical popularization of the operatic approach-lightly stentorian, fairly heavy vibrato, with mucho sincerity.

The trumpet player Bunny Berigan had a big hit with his version of the tune. Bunny's version was largely a showcase for his playing. He starts with a "dramatic" opening trumpet statement-slightly cheesy-followed by a simple statement of the melody on trumpet. He sings the tune with an ease of phrasing and some ornamentation, rhythmic displacement and manipulation of the melody. Instead of vibrato, per se, he uses fairly heavy "shakes" at the end of phrases. The out chorus builds drama by contrasting his lowest register with his highest. 

Clearly, there was enough in the bones of these songs to inspire jazz musicians in several eras and styles: swing, bop, cool and later, what was called "mainstream" (to distinguish it from hard-bop, funk, free and other branches of the jazz tree). 

There were four basic tools jazz used to effect the alchemy:  First, rhythm. The infusion of swing was absolutely crucial. Second, updating the chord structures, along with an emphasis on harmony that allowed the freedom to play with the melodic line (not every composer was happy about this, see Richard Rodgers). Third, a kind of emotional detachment; not that emotion wasn't important in communicating the message of the song through jazz, but its use was more nuanced; there was a pulling back from the heavy-handedness that often weighed down the original versions. The result was the creation of hundreds of free-floating musical entities, not bound by the aesthetic strictures of any one era.

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