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Defining the Great American Songbook

JT vocal jazz columnist blogs on the canon for singers

Patricia Barber
Cassandra Wilson, Jazz Standard, New York, 2003

Near the beginning of the classic backstage drama All About Eve, in words shaped by the inimitably eloquent Joseph L. Mankiewicz, lauded Broadway director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) sounds off about the restrictive imprudence of theatrical elitism. Sampson opens his diatribe with the question, “What book of rules says the theater exists only within some ugly buildings crowded into one square mile of New York City?”

Every time I hear that impassioned speech, it makes me think of the Great American Songbook. To paraphrase Sampson (and Mankiewicz), I wonder, ‘what book of rules says the Great American Songbook is defined solely by the work of popular composers whose careers flourished during the early- and mid-20th century?’

There is a grassroots group you may know of, led by vocalist and producer Ron Kaplan. It’s called the American Songbook Preservation Society. On the society’s website. they aver that the Great American Songbook is “largely composed of songs written between 1920 and 1960 from the Tin Pan Alley era through the Broadway stages and sets of Hollywood musicals. [It] is a distinct body of musical works, which collectively represent one of America’s true cultural treasures, and exemplify popular songwriting at its best, with vivid, literate lyrics set to haunting elusive harmonies and gorgeous melodies that have come to hold an exalted place in American culture and around the world.”

All true, (though “haunting elusive harmonies” seems a bit much.)

The society’s stated mission is “to keep these songs in the public consciousness, by performing them in venues around the country and around the world with the highest musical integrity and interpretation from a cast of highly capable singers and musicians as ambassadors of American song.”

Very admirable; no one (save perhaps Michael Feinstein) could be more eager than I to see the brilliant work of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser and their ilk, protected and performed ad infinitum.

But I have to quibble with such restrictive parameters. If 1960 (or so) is the cutoff, is most of the marvelous work of Cy Coleman to be omitted? What of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Johnny Mandel, Bacharach & David and Stephen Sondheim?

And that’s just the tip of the post-1960 iceberg, representing composers and lyricists who, by and large, carried the torch lit by Porter, Berlin and such. What about those who, from the dawn of the rock ‘n’ roll era onward, have further defined the art of songwriting? Are they less “great” than their predecessors?

I’d argue that Lieber & Stoller, Bob Dylan, Gerry Goffin, Carole King, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Donald Fagen, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Webb, Brian Wilson, Janis Joplin and Tom Waits, to name but a few, are equally deserving of inclusion; that outstanding compositions like “American Tune,” “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” “God Only Knows,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “It’s Too Late,” “Stand By Me” and “For Once In My Life” (again, to name but a scant few) fully fit the Preservation Society’s definition of ‘standards’ as “a sort of musical thesaurus of the spectrum of human emotions; each is a miniature scene from life that can capture a wide emotional experience.”

Fortunately, of course, the vast majority of contemporary jazz singers are admirably catholic in their tastes, and their inclusiveness is vital to the progression of jazz singing. I adore Cassandra Wilson’s superb interpretations of “Blue Skies” and “The Very Thought of You,” but am equally enamored of her ability to find something fresh and enticing in Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart’s “Last Train to Clarksville.” I heartily applaud Patricia Barber’s remarkable excavation of Cole Porter classics, but must cheer just as loud for her cunning treatment of The Doors’ “Light My Fire.” I’m dazzled by Diana Krall’s renditions of “I Was Doing Alright” and “The Night We Called It A Day” but hold her “Heart of Saturday Night” in equal esteem.

Beyond the chronological strictures, there’s also the question of limiting the worthy to only Americans. At this point in the evolution of jazz singing, it seems ludicrous to exclude Michel Legrand, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joni Mitchell, let alone Leonard Cohen, Charles Aznavour and Lennon & McCartney. One listen to Carmen McRae’s “Here There and Everywhere” or Kurt Elling’s “Undun” (written by Canadian Randy Bachman and inspired both by Dylan and jazz guitarist Lenny Breau) should be enough to convince any intelligent listener of the benefits of a borderless Society.

Perhaps it’s a semantic argument. After all, for most jazz performers and likely the vast majority of fans, the walls have long since come tumbling down. But, for the record, I propose that the Great American Songbook become simply the Great Songbook, accepted as something already a full century in the making, with decades of growth and evolution still to come.

As Bill Simpson concludes before stepping down from his populist soapbox, “You want to know what theater is? A flea circus, also opera, also rodeo, carnivals, ballet, Indian tribal dances, Punch ‘n’ Judy, a one-man-band. All theater. You don’t understand them all, you don’t like them all – why should you? The theater is for everybody, you included, but not exclusively.”


If you’d like to share your thoughts on the Great American Songbook, or have ideas or suggestions for future installments of “Hearing Voices,” you can reach me at [email protected]

Originally Published