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Tunes for All Times: The Durable Great American Songbook

Why jazz artists continue to draw from the classics of the 20th century

Tony Bennett in performance on November 4, 2011 at Academy of Music in Philadelphia
Michael Feinstein (r.) with Ira Gershwin in 1982, photo courtesy of Michael Feinstein

The late theater composer Irving Caesar was once asked in the early 1970s why the songs he and his peers had written decades earlier still resonated with listeners. Caesar, then in his 70s and the author of “Tea for Two,” “Swanee” and dozens of other standards, responded briefly but emphatically: “We make contact!”

It was as simple as that. What we now call the Great American Songbook has enjoyed its enormous staying power because the words and music crafted by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart/Hammerstein, Harold Arlen, Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne, etc., continue to speak directly to the audience. As alternately deep, romantic, zany and hilarious as these songs are, they’re almost always crafted using smart yet accessible lyrics and a hummable melody.

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