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Do Ya Think I’m Savvy? Rockers, Crooners and the Hijacking of the Great American Songbook

Rod Stewart (photo: Andrew McPherson)
Rod Stewart (photo: Andrew McPherson)

One sultry evening this June, Wynonna Judd took the stage at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, clad in DeBeers diamonds and a black evening gown. “I’m not country and western tonight,” she firmly announced, “I am jazz.” Then she flashed a smile at her backing band-one Wynton Marsalis Septet-and ventured a well-intentioned crack at “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

The occasion was Jazz at Lincoln Center’s spring gala, and Ms. Judd was one of numerous artists graciously lending star power and support. The evening, which raised more than a million dollars for JALC, hinted at the cultural capital that jazz has now amassed. But to take a more cynical view, it also confirmed a lingering impression of the music as status symbol and lifestyle accoutrement; something to slip into, like Wynonna’s gown.

Superficially speaking, jazz is high culture, which helps explain why so many would-be crooners have lately assumed its trappings for crossover purposes. These days, even Tony Danza has a standards album-like his fellow talk-show host Regis Philbin, his fellow ex-TV hunk Tom Wopat and his onetime Broadway castmate Kevin Spacey. And that’s just the beginning. If you caught the MGM motion picture De-Lovely, you saw Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette grappling with the songs of Cole Porter. If you watched this year’s Grammy Awards, you saw host Queen Latifah singing “Nature Boy,” backed by symphonic strings and a brassy big band. And while we’re on the Grammys, 2005 was the year that Rod Stewart finally got one, for Stardust: The Great American Songbook, Volume III. (Although nominated, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog did not win a Grammy for his album, Come Poop With Me.)

Some would suggest that the current crop of nu-crooners is pooping on the Great American Songbook, to borrow Triumph’s phrase. I’m not among those lamenters, despite having suffered through the Danza record. It’s true that jazz has long held a lease on the Songbook, refining and transforming it several times over; but it’s also true that the material has never stopped being, at its core, a product of pop. So the suits-and-standards gimmick isn’t quite the theft that it often seems. Moreover, the Songbook “phenomenon,” to use the phrase employed by Rod Stewart’s publicity machine, illuminates certain claims that jazz and pop have each made on this music, both separately and in collusion.

What is the Great American Songbook? The most useful definition was proposed by the composer Alec Wilder, who in the mid-’70s wrote a book called American Popular Song (Oxford). Working with the historian James T. Maher, Wilder analyzed thousands of songs from 1900 to 1950, concluding “the unique qualities synthesized in the American popular song derive continuously from the innovations of a few outstanding song composers.” In other words, Wilder and Maher were consciously constructing a canon. It’s no wonder we perceive the Songbook as received wisdom; one imagines Bing Crosby sauntering down from Mount Sinai, while Bob Hope lugs the tablets behind.

Crosby is in fact a useful totem, given his role in shaping Songbook interpretation. In the definitive biography Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, Gary Giddins convincingly positions the singer as a cornerstone of the “modern” style of American popular singing, alongside Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong. The interpretive invention that began with these progenitors has been jazz’s great gift to the Great American Songbook, and the single biggest reason for its enduring modernity.

Take, for instance, “Stardust,” which had a colorful history long before appearing on the set lists of Rod Stewart. Crosby established the Hoagy Carmichael ballad-then still known as “Star Dust”-as a pop song in August 1931 with a recording session that introduced Mitchell Parish’s lyric. Three months later, Armstrong responded to Crosby’s performance with an interpretation that subjected both melody and lyric to his own marvelous designs. The song, in these two separate versions, illustrates the Great American Songbook’s interpretive possibilities in pop and jazz terms respectively. But as Will Friedwald points out in his book Stardust Melodies, “Crosby and Armstrong further testify to the close connection between these two forms, in that ‘Stardust’ can be both things at once-sentimental love song and hot jazz stomp.” In fact, the lifelong camaraderie and collaboration between these two artists serves as a handy symbol for the close relationship between jazz and pop for the first half of the 20th century.

Still, there is a clear and crucial difference between these two epochal renditions of the song. Crosby’s “Stardust” puts forth a mode of direct emotional expression that later resurfaces via Frank Sinatra (who air-checked the song in 1940), Nat “King” Cole (who recorded it in 1956) and, if we’re being honest, Rod the Mod. Satchmo’s “Stardust,” on the other hand, feeds the artery of jazz singing that places primacy on performance-the lifeblood that sustained Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Anita O’Day and Ella Fitzgerald, when she wasn’t in the studio with Norman Granz.

The jazz world has never made a secret of which lineage it prefers. To cite a recent example, the June 2004 issue of Down Beat-the one with Norah Jones on the cover-included a list of “30 All-Time Favorite Jazz Vocal Recordings,” decided by polling a cross-section of present-day jazz singers. Like all poll results, these should be regarded warily, but it’s hard not to draw certain conclusions from a list that culminates in John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman at No. 2 and Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley at No. 1. Both of these albums hail from the early-’60s, after the ascendancy of rock ‘n’ roll, and both involve a vocalist stepping into a working band-in essence, behaving like a jazz musician.

This is not an accident. Within jazz, there’s nothing that validates a singer more than meaningful contact with musicians. Civilians discuss Billie Holiday’s artistry in terms of her hard life and her gift for inhabiting emotions in song; jazz fans emphasize the roll call of Teddy Wilson, Buck Clayton and, of course, Lester Young. No wonder every jazz singer of prominence today comes with a musician-laden backstory. Among the many contemporary examples, none resounds more emphatically than Cassandra Wilson, who first emerged as the vocal representative of Steve Coleman’s enigmatic M-BASE collective. During the mid-to-late ’80s, Wilson wasn’t a jazz singer as much as an improvising artist whose instrument happened to be the human voice-and whose albums, on the German JMT label, reflected more than a little ambivalence about the whole standards idea. (After Billboard hailed Blues Skies as jazz album of the year in 1988, Wilson responded with Jumpworld, a tangle of sci-fi and street funk unfit for popular digestion.)

Wilson hails from a generation that saw the Great American Songbook complemented (some would say usurped) by another kind of Songbook, the one that so comfortably suited Rod Stewart. So, drifting away from M-BASE and its offshoots, Wilson turned not only to Hoagy Carmichael but also Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and U2. That catholic approach to repertoire, introduced on the 1993 Blue Note album Blue Light Til Dawn, turned out to be rewarding both commercially and artistically. “It’s the music of my time,” Wilson has said of her roots-and-rock song choices, voicing a sentiment shared by most jazz singers of our era. At its most sublimely ridiculous, this line of thought brings us a curio like the recent Rock Swings-a big-band recasting of Van Halen, Oasis and Nirvana hits by Paul Anka, who’s not a jazz singer but plays one on TV.

At the same time, the Great American Songbook’s legacy in jazz has been genetically altered by so many variations-some of which, like Holiday’s “Some Other Spring,” are indelible-that it has to be tough for newcomers to claim it as their own. Early this year I had a long conversation with Loren Schoenberg, the saxophonist, pianist and historian who served for years as musical director for the late Bobby Short. Schoenberg surprised me somewhat by saying that he’d “rather hear Rod Stewart sing ‘Stardust’ than most contemporary jazz singers. I don’t think that most of them can really sing the melody straight. I don’t know how many of them know the original melody and harmony; in my experience, they don’t. The difference is that Holiday and Armstrong and Sinatra grew up in a world in which those things were taken for granted. Everybody knew those tunes and songs and melodies because that’s all they heard.”

While jazz singers have distanced themselves from the Great American Songbook-by abstracting it beyond coherence, diluting it with other sources or avoiding it when they have the chance-others have swooped in, seemingly from all directions. And because this music has become unimaginable without jazz’s interpretative touch, superficial traces of jazz have stuck to even the least credible interpretations. Despite the shining example of one more “Stardust,” by the incorruptible Willie Nelson, nu-crooners have overwhelmingly borrowed a jazz mask when approaching standard fare.

The second track of Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley, the so-called greatest jazz vocal album of all time, is Frank Loesser’s “Never Will I Marry.” A remnant from a 1960 Broadway flop called Greenwillow, the song never really stuck as a standard. But it did turn up last year, as the second track of Linda Ronstadt’s small-group jazz album Hummin’ to Myself. Backed by the likes of drummer Peter Erskine and bassist Christian McBride, Ronstadt delivered a rendition of the song that faithfully shadowed Wilson’s: same track number, same key, same tempo and basically the same horn arrangement (in place of the Adderley brothers, picture trumpeter Steven Bernstein and saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman). And this bit of mimicry is probably the highlight of the record. But give Ronstadt a little credit: She puts herself in good company, and she’s pushing herself. The album’s official press release begins with a bit of singer’s modesty: “I couldn’t have made this record 20 years ago.”

It’s a casual but significant comment. Twenty years ago, Ronstadt was releasing Songbook albums too, but they were of a strikingly different temperament-more Crosby than Armstrong, to keep using our crude parallel. It was in 1983 that the singer released What’s New?, a flagrant facsimile of the Frank Sinatra oeuvre, featuring orchestrations by Nelson Riddle. Riddle, of course, scored the Sinatra concept albums that some still consider the apex of Songbook sophistication; What’s New? consisted entirely of songs from that era. And so, at a time when the Chairman himself was issuing flotsam like “Here’s to the Band,” Ronstadt swept into the boardroom and took over the meeting. Remember that 1983 was the year that Wynton Marsalis became the first person to win Grammy Awards for both jazz and classical music in the same year. (The following year he did it again; no one has done it since.) What ensued was a neoconservative jazz movement that yielded not only a decade’s worth of instrumental Young Lions, but also a rallying cry for jazz as “America’s Classical Music.” So jazz was beginning to receive the highbrow consideration previously afforded only European classical music. And in an interesting twist, this Reagan-era renaissance was largely credited to younger artists who had rejected the perceived indulgences of their generation for the discipline and tradition of a bygone era.

It’s obvious now that Ronstadt’s Songbook records presaged Rod Stewart’s. What’s New? reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200; two successive titles, Lush Life and For Sentimental Reasons, hit the chart as well. Each of these albums would be certified at least platinum, with total sales exceeding six million. And this was just the start of the Great American Songbook’s move back into the American mainstream, after a period of rock-era obsolescence. A few years after Ronstadt’s trifecta, Rob Reiner’s movie When Harry Met Sally turned the 22-year-old Harry Connick Jr. into a platinum-selling pop sensation. Then came the album Unforgettable: With Love, which most memorably featured Natalie Cole and her father in a seamless seance of a duet. That album garnered six Grammy Awards-including record, song and album of the year-and sold 14 million copies worldwide. It’s no wonder Natalie teamed up with Nat again five years later for “When I Fall in Love,” another Grammy-winning duet, on an album called, fittingly, Stardust (Elektra).

The same studio magic that reunited the Coles was responsible for one of the biggest music stories of 1993, Frank Sinatra’s Duets (Capitol). Produced by the Pope of Pop, Phil Ramone, that album paired Sinatra fiber optically with a dozen singers from across the adult pop spectrum, like Luther Vandross, Julio Iglesias, Babs Streisand and Bono. Duets became the first multiplatinum record of Sinatra’s career; Duets II followed a year later and won a Grammy. Both albums invited pop stars to elevate themselves by association with the Great American Songbook and, more crucially, with Sinatra. The irony is that Sinatra had made his career by putting a personal stamp on standards, and the stamp itself had become the object reified. (It was no coincidence that Concord’s advance press release for Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company made an explicit reference to Duets.)

Duets II shared retail space with Tony Bennett’s MTV Unplugged (Columbia)-the album that revitalized that crooner’s mainstream appeal and scored a 1994 Grammy for album of the year. Bennett’s resurgence, which may not have been possible without the preliminary successes of Unforgettable and Duets, ultimately did more than either of those albums to bring the Songbook back into play. Certainly it demonstrated a more vibrant understanding of how to bring standards to life: Bennett may have been a stylistic descendant of Crosby, but he also had a sincere affinity for the liberties of Armstrong.

This was a quality he’d share with Diana Krall, whose pop ascendancy dovetails with Bennett’s late-career triumph. Krall made her major-label debut in 1995, and it wasn’t long before Bennett was using her as an opener on tour. In the 10 years since, Krall and Bennett have been the Songbook’s most steadfast champions, drawing inspiration from both jazz and pop traditions. In their twin-propeller wake, you find a crop of jazz-pop crooners-like Jane Monheit, Jamie Cullum, Peter Cincotti and Michael Buble-who make up a sort of Songbook brat pack rewarded for emulating the interpreters. Precocity is their gift and burden; it’s hard to shake the impression that they’re playing dress-up, even though they’ve started taking their own strides.

Which finally brings us to Rod Stewart, whose Songbook album-cover photos suggest a high-rent wedding singer nearing the end of the gig. This impression is not dispelled by the production on those albums, which favors electric pianos, innocuous rhythms and the lightest slick of strings. But Stewart’s producers know what they’re doing. Phil Ramone, who worked on the first two Songbook titles, is the man responsible for Duets. Steve Tyrell, who coproduced Stardust, is a former A&R man who stumbled into the standards game himself after singing a reference track for the movie Father of the Bride. Richard Perry, a coproducer on the first three albums, more recently teamed up with his old friend Carly Simon for Moonlight Serenade; it has three songs in common with the Stewart albums, in similar tempos, arrangements and keys.

Stewart, like any good crooner in the Crosby descent, favors material over mannerism. Like Ronstadt and Cole, he utilizes standards as a showcase for his maturity and range. The temptation is to assume that the man who gave us “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” has foreseen the folly of prowling a stage, Jagger-esque, as he enters his sixth decade. But to his credit, Stewart himself has never supported a claim of rehabilitation. Late last year, Ellen DeGeneres and Jay Leno separately attempted to embarrass him with photos from his spandex youth, suggesting that he’s now put foolish things aside. On both occasions, Stewart refused to take the bait: He wouldn’t pretend that Rod the Crooner was anything more than another costume change. This is the way he presented himself in concert last year-on a tour called “From Maggie Mae to the Great American Songbook.” Compare that matter-of-fact language to the latest from Tom Wopat: Dissertation on the State of Bliss, which literally sounds like homework. Or better yet, compare it to Queen Latifah’s Dana Owens Album, which implies a stripping of artifice, a suggestion that standards were her calling all along.

Given that Stewart’s Stardust entered the Billboard 200 at No. 1, and given that his previous two Songbook albums have sold 10 million units combined, this phenomenon isn’t likely to let up anytime soon-in fact, a fourth album in what was supposed to be just a trilogy is due on store shelves October 18. But despite what the jazz police might say, this ain’t necessarily a bad thing. By putting his albums under the Great American Songbook banner, Stewart not only elevates himself but also acknowledges the wardrobe he’s trying on-and playfully implies that it could be yours to borrow, too.

As Friedwald and others have pointed out, the Great American Songbook is expansive enough to allow for all sorts of interpretations. Certainly jazz is far from finished with it: Coming home from Seattle, where I originally presented a version of this article at the Experience Music Project’s Pop Conference, I switched planes in Chicago and found myself four rows behind Andy Bey, whose 2004 album American Song makes that point about as eloquently as possible. There are also a few standouts among the pop appropriations; I’m personally fond of the Songbook forays of k.d. lang and Joni Mitchell, which show a basic comfort with the jazz process without getting too worked up about the jazz pose. (Tellingly, Mitchell claims that Both Sides Now, her exquisite Reprise release, was a standards album only because she had stopped writing new songs and had to fulfill a contract.)

In the end, it helps to return to Alec Wilder. Evaluating “Stardust” in his book, Wilder concluded that it was “a most unusual song indeed,” adding “the public deserves great credit for having accepted it so enthusiastically and for so many years.” In a perfect world, of course, the public might supplement Rod Stewart’s Stardust with, say, Frank Sinatra: Best of the Columbia Years: 1943-52 and Kurt Elling’s This Time It’s Love, along with dozens of other albums that jazz fans rightfully adore. But as it stands, we can give record buyers at least a scrap of credit, in this day and age, for taking consolation in the stardust of a song. The real credit, of course, goes to the Songbook itself, for proving once again that there’s something vital in what Parish called “the music of the years gone by.”

Pop Songbooks

Rockers and otherwise have been mining the Great American Songbook for quite a while. Here are 10 albums, new and old, that have made a splash for one reason or another.

Debby Boone Reflections of Rosemary (Concord)

It’s a long way from “You Light Up My Life” to Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Moonlight Becomes You,” but Boone survives the transition. As a singer, she’s a pale shadow of her mother-in-law Rosemary Clooney, this album’s inspiration. Thankfully, Boone is well aware of this and enjoys herself anyway.

Queen Latifah The Dana Owens Album (Interscope)

There’s a lot to like about this cosmopolitan confection, which includes touchstones from jazz, R&B and soul. Unfortunately, Latifah is at her least convincing singing jazz; “If I Had You” and “Moody’s Mood for Love” both fall flat. Decent “Lush Life,” though.

Cyndi Lauper At Last (Daylight/Epic)

Fittingly, this 2003 release is an unusual standards album, with entries by Dionne Warwick and Jacques Brel. In fact, the only Songbook chestnuts here are Gus Kahn’s “Makin’ Whoopee,” on which she hams it up with Tony Bennett, and Jimmy McHugh’s “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” which she sensibly turns into a reggae tune.

Joni Mitchell Both Sides Now (Reprise)

Released in 2000, it’s the finest of recent crossover efforts, with uncommonly rich orchestrations by Vince Mendoza. Mitchell’s voice has been stained a smoky hue, and she phrases with the thoughtful pliancy of a well-seasoned jazz singer. Wayne Shorter makes multiple cameos, including the album’s highlight, a heartbreaking “You’ve Changed.”

Willie Nelson Stardust (Columbia/Legacy)

Deservedly a classic, this 1978 album finds the Texas bard doing standards his way. Western swing and straight-up country offer refreshingly unassuming settings for Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind,” Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

Sinead O’Connor Am I Not Your Girl? (Ensign/Chrysalis)

This 1992 release was an obvious plea for respect, and while there are a few interesting moments (notably Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s “Secret Love”), O’Connor is not, in fact, our girl.

Carly Simon Moonlight Serenade (Columbia)

Simon made Songbook forays as early as 1981 (with Torch), but this one nevertheless feels like a hop aboard the bandwagon; in a behind-the-scenes movie on the DualDisc release, she can be seen sipping the requisite martini. But her voice has an appealingly luscious timbre, and she generally manages to get the material across.

Rod Stewart Stardust… The Great American Songbook, Vol. III (J)

Say what you will about these albums; so far, each one’s been better than the last. The arrangements are fairly disposable, but Stewart sounds quite at home; on Rodgers and Hart’s often neglected “Manhattan,” he even playfully holds his own with a radiant Bette Midler.

Steve Tyrell This Guy’s In Love (Columbia)

Tyrell’s grainy, wise-guy baritone is not the stuff standards were made for, but it works most of the time. There’s nothing wrong with his fourth Songbook album, which includes cameos by Clark Terry and Michael Brecker; in some ways, it’s actually the jazziest album on this list.

Tom Wopat Sings Harold Arlen: Dissertation on the State of Bliss (Hyena)

Pianist Gil Goldstein arranged much of what’s heard here, including the Monkish “Old Black Magic” intro that originally graced a James Moody CD. The rest of the album features similarly jazzy touches, which helps compensate for Wopat’s steadfast mediocrity as a singer. Originally Published

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).