Book Review: The Jazz Standards

A Guide to the Jazz Repertoire

What makes a song to be categorized as a jazz standard? Ted Gioia strives to educate audiences about inherently timeless treasures that have exemplified the jazz fare in his book The Jazz Standards from Oxford University Press. Arranging the songs in alphabetical order, Gioia provides a short description of each of the memorable melodies and instrumentals composed by jazz artists that have been covered over and over again. He peppers the descriptions with his own experiences performing these tracks and/or listening to others play them live.

Gioia shows that what turns a tune into a jazz standard is a track’s magnetism to be retooled for new audiences and its inclination to inspire musicians to be spurred to create new music from its grains. The first point Gioia makes is that many jazz standards were commissioned for or featured in films and Broadway shows like Fats Waller and lyricist Harry Brooks “Ain’t Misbehavin’” featured in Broadway’s Keep Shufflin’, Harold Arlen and lyricist Johnny Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” written for the musical St. Louis Woman, and Erroll Garner and lyricist Johnny Burke’s “Misty” which was the theme song in Clint Eastwood’s film Play Misty for Me.

Though many of the jazz standards cited are familiar showtunes or songs popularized by international vocalists like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and Lena Horne, Gioia’s scope is much more global. Meaning he inducts jazz-inspired compositions belonging to a wider range of artists including those from all facets of bop and the avant-garde pool. He classifies Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart’s “Falling in Love with Love” and Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” on the same level as Sonny Rollins “Airegin” and Milt Jackson’s “Bags’ Groove” explaining that “Bags” was Jackson’s nickname.

Gioia covers a wide range of artists from popular artists like Henry Mancini, Oscar Hammerstein, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Benny Goodman and share their pages with artists whose popularity has waned over time such as Red Garland, Ben Webster, Horace Silver, and Eric Dolphy. Gioia resurrects those jazz artists who have been forgotten over the years, and reaffirms the brilliance of iconic works which continue to be performed like eden ahbez’s “Nature Boy” and Arthur Johnston and lyricist Johnny Burke’s “Pennies from Heaven.”

Ted Gioia’s The Jazz Standards is geared towards jazz audiences and showtunes buffs alike. His retrospect courses through the beginnings of jazz to its present day vision. The book is heavily involved in the jazz world to the extent it takes several weeks to consume all the information provided, but it also canvasses a large breadth of generations and their jazz artists who have participated in shaping the jazz diaspora.

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Susan Frances