The Magazine

The Hit Parade

Why these melodies linger on.

Sep 10, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 48 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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Ted Gioia, who recently published an excellent History of Jazz, now turns his attention to classic instances of that art. As a pianist and teacher of jazz piano, Gioia often wished, he writes, for a “handbook to this body of music, a single volume that would guide me through the jazz repertoire and point me in the direction of the classic recordings.” The result is this A-to-Z guide (only to Y, actually, since few tunes begin with Z) in which roughly 300 specimens are examined, mainly with admiration, always with serious care. It is the most useful and satisfactory book about the subject since Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song, published some 40 years ago. 

Richard Nixon awards Duke Ellington the Medal of Freedom at the White House, 196

Richard Nixon awards Duke Ellington the Medal of Freedom at the White House, 1969.

associated press

Wilder studied the art of the popular song as it was most memorably practiced by the great innovators—Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, and others. Gioia acknowledges with respect Wilder’s fine effort; his own is different, since he chooses his examples “based on their significance in the jazz repertoire of the current era.” There’s much overlap in the songs Wilder and Gioia choose, but Gioia has to deal with an additional 60 years’ worth (Wilder stopped at 1950) and, even so, is troubled by how few recent ones made it into his guide. 

As someone who grew up mainly on the songs of the late 1930s and ’40s, and who plays them regularly on the piano as whim directs, I was less troubled, indeed more than pleased, to meet some old friends, a few of them hiding in the back of my mind, for a spell.

But I’m perhaps not the only reader who will, at first, be thrown off by the title. Why are “standards”—the songs that have most vividly survived—necessarily jazz ones, and what exactly is jazz anyway? Louis Armstrong’s famous dictum—if you know what it is, you don’t have to ask—is all well and good, and we know that “Tin Roof Blues,” “St. James Infirmary,” “Scrapple from the Apple,” and “How High the Moon” qualify as jazz standards insofar as we associate them with jazz musicians such as, respectively, Jelly Roll Morton, Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Stan Kenton. 

But what about songs like “I’m in the Mood for Love,” or “My Secret Love,” or “Skylark,” where, at least for this listener, Billy Eckstine or Doris Day or Helen Forrest (with Harry James) come to mind. Can it be that the lovely “Someday My Prince Will Come” (from Snow White) or “My Favorite Things” (Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music) belong in this guide? Gioia’s answer is yes, inasmuch as the former was celebrated by John Coltrane and Dave Brubeck, the latter by Brubeck and Miles Davis. It all depends on whether the tune continues to be heard in live jazz performances and recordings.

One is amazed at the number of performances and recordings Gioia knows about and meticulously lists at the close of his discussion of each song. Consider, as an example, “It Could Happen to You” by Jimmy Van Heusen, who did the music for many songs recorded by Frank Sinatra. It was first heard in a 1944 movie, And the Angels Sing, and was recorded by many singers of the time, for me most beautifully by Jo Stafford. Gioia reveals the astonishing fact that over 500 recordings have been made of the tune, including ones by Errol Garner, Miles Davis, and Sonny Rollins.

In The Art of Popular Song, Wilder discusses “It Could Happen to You” in terms of chromatic lines and diminished chords, and quotes the first eight measures by way of making a point about its originality of tonal movement. The Jazz Standards is without musical quotations, which is a real loss, though an inevitable one if he’s to include as many standards as he does. Instead, he notes the “upward movement of the melody” as it contrasts with lyrics that “discuss a metaphorical falling (in love) along with real stumblings and tumblings” (i.e., Don’t count stars or you might stumble, / Someone drops a star and down you tumble). 

Another great tune that one doesn’t usually think of in terms of jazz performance is Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” a song that has special resonance for me since, along with a forgotten, brief hit “Careless,” it served as my introduction to popular music (the tunes occupied spots number one and two on the radio program “Your Hit Parade,” which I began to listen to when I was 7 or 8 years old). Wilder, who rightly considers it one of Kern’s greatest songs, quotes the first eight measures and admires their complex cadences and key changes. (Kern thought the song too complex to be a hit, but he was wrong.) 

Gioia, who also prizes the tune, writes that in his twenties he would play it almost every day, and that he found “constant solace in constructing melodic variations over its chord changes.” That he wasn’t alone in sensing its improvisatory potential for jazz treatment is testified to by the fact that, as with “It Could Happen to You,” hundreds of versions have been recorded, the only one I’m familiar with being the terrific Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker version from bebop’s early days. Like Wilder, Gioia notes the unusual modulations, and says that after 1940 the song never again showed up on pop charts. For him, “All the Things You Are” is a tune he loves “less for what it is than for the exciting possibilities it presents to jazz interpretations.”

Gioia is an agreeable host throughout, never patronizing his readers, but unafraid to make discriminations about the song he’s considering. (He hates the line in “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” about kissing the “pug-nosed dream.”) He is right to include (which Wilder doesn’t) Cole Porter’s gorgeous “I Love You,” as sung by Bing Crosby in 1944, and with later jazz treatments by Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eck-stine, Coltrane, and Art Pepper among others. He judges the song to be not among Porter’s best because its lyrics are weak—“familiar prattle about birds, daffodils, the dawn—and none of the clever turns of phrase that were his trademark.” But what immediately floats into my mind are some of Porter’s words from the song’s bridge about how It’s spring again / And birds on the wing again / Start to sing again / The old melody, and I think how clever of Porter to stay on that “again” without straining for rhyme words. 

So I don’t think the lyrics are weak (even though I agree with Gioia about its “sweet modulation in the bridge”), just the words for that downward melodic sequence.

Naturally, any listener will have favorites that are excluded, whether by reason of the infrequency with which they’ve been treated over the years, or just possibly because the compiler forgot about the song. Although I don’t remember “I Remember Clifford” (about the trumpet player Clifford Brown), I do remember “I Remember You” and regret its absence. And where is “Where or When,” which might have been included on the sole basis of Benny Goodman’s clarinet introducing Peggy Lee? Or “They Didn’t Believe Me,” believed by this listener worthy of a place? But as Robert Frost once wrote, one poem implies another and each is best read in light of all the other poems ever written: “The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do.”  

The great distinction of Ted Gioia’s book is that it helps us remember what we’ve heard, and maybe why we were moved by what we heard: to get among the songs and hear how they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.