Did the American songbook kill jazz?

Jazz has venerated its own traditions for so long that the music seems stale and the audience is gone. Now what?

Published December 24, 2012 6:00PM (EST)

   (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-667657p1.html'>Christian Bertrand</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Christian Bertrand via Shutterstock/Salon)

At first, it sounds like a mistake: The opening notes are blurred, like something has gone a bit wrong in either the playing or the recording. But after a few bars, we realize that these bent tones from a horn — with just a stark bass and drum behind them — are outlining one of the most hallowed of American standards. Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins is at the Village Vanguard, bashing through “What Is This Thing Called Love?” as if he could anticipate the punk rock that would come to this same neighborhood 20 years later. It’s an elegant song by Cole Porter, reduced to its skeleton. And “All the Things You Are” and “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” get the same kind of rough, raw, harmonically daring treatment.

It’s the kind of thing jazz can do at its best — but something the music may be doing less and less of. Or too often and not well enough. The various factions that make up the jazz world — audiences, musician, writers, plus the teachers and students who seem to be the only groups growing in number — don’t have a consensus on the matter. But the jazz fraternity seems to know two things: Despite continued artistic quality, the audience around the music is dying. And the choice of what songs jazz musicians play — and what they don’t play — may be part of the problem.

Over the past few years, Rollins — perhaps the living jazz musician with the widest knowledge and deepest feeling for standards — has experienced a change of heart. “Jazz standards don’t have the same pull on the audience,” he says now. “I love the American songbook, but people don’t recognize them any more. So I feel we need more original music. Jazz has got to keep moving: It’s important to get new music, new melodies.” During the four weeks he spent in Europe this fall, Rollins played very few standards. “They’re still powerful to me, but to audiences, they’ve lost some of their power.”

*   *   *

The issue of song selection — as central to a repertory-driven art like jazz in a way that it’s not for, say, rock ‘n’ roll, which, since the Beatles, has been about original songwriting — has been talked about for years now. But it all became more pressing lately, with the emergence of several high-profile artists who reject or ignore the tradition of Porter, the Gershwins and Jerome Kern — or even the related lineage of songs by jazz musicians, such as Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” or Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.”

There is no version of “Summertime” or “Autumn Leaves” on the latest record by bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, who is, these days, quite literally the music’s cover girl. She won a Grammy for best new artist in 2011; this year, Spalding is on the cover of DownBeat magazine as artist of the year. She also put out the magazine’s album of the year with a record of mostly originals. The king of jazz’s avant-garde edge is Robert Glasper, a hip hop-inspired pianist whose latest album, “Black Radio,” features appearances by Erykah Badu and the rapper formally known as Mos Def. His earlier, less high-profile records includes some classic jazz numbers, but the most recognizable song on the album is not something by Harold Arlen or John Coltrane, but Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Keith Jarrett — up there with Rollins as probably the only jazz artist left who can fill a big concert hall without guest stars from the rock world — helped revive the standards repertoire during the '80s and '90s but since then has moved almost entirely to his own long-form compositions. There are certainly several established musicians who sell records or fill clubs by playing standards. Diana Krall is one of them. On her latest album cover, she wears black lingerie with a subtle S&M subtext, perhaps as a sort of apology for the eight-decades-old songs inside.

The issue has symbolic meaning, because with the dropping out of a shared body of songs, jazz has lost not only its common language – for decades, musicians getting together for the first time could count on each other knowing the changes to “I Got Rhythm” or hundreds of other songs. It’s also lost its emotional connection to its mid-century heyday, when high-quality, greater visibility and a solid canon reigned: Despite all of the warring schools, each of which had its pet repertoire, many of the musicians played the same songs, even if different teams rendered them differently.

And the loss may be more than symbolic, says a controversial recent article in the Atlantic. Ben Schwarz’s “The End of Jazz,” as it was headlined, is in the simplest sense a review of Ted Gioia’s “The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire,” at press time the best-selling jazz book in the country. (Full disclosure: Gioia is a friend, and I am thanked in his book’s acknowledgements.) As its title implies, though, Schwarz aims to measure the music for its coffin, as the American songbook — which has not much budged since about 1952 — and jazz fade out like tragic lovers separated by distance. Schwarz sees “no reason to believe that jazz can be a living, evolving form decades after its major source — and the source that linked it to the main currents of popular culture and sentiment — has dried up.” Jazz, like the songbook, Schwarz writes, “is a relic.”

*   *   *

The mainstream press — which used to write much more fulsomely about jazz artists and musical developments — loves nothing more than “jazz is dead” stories. (Almost as popular, albeit with less cause these days, is the “jazz is back” story.) But Schwarz’s piece is not only intelligent and informed, it comes at a moment when jazz partisans are genuinely worried — not about the health of the music being made, but its ability to reach audiences and maintain its footprint in the culture.

The recent death of Dave Brubeck only reinforced longing for days when innovative and substantial artists were also the field’s best sellers. (Brubeck’s “Time Out” single was the first million-selling jazz recording. He also wrote the oft-covered “In Your Own Sweet Way” and performed standards like “You Go to My Head.”)

The whole record industry, of course, is ailing, but jazz has a special place in the infirmary. In 2011, jazz recordings made up a hair over 3 percent of albums sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan — and that’s counting watered-down forms like “smooth jazz.” The year before, the numbers were significantly worse. In fact, jazz record sales are so low that a pro forma Christmas record by Michael Buble — who sings over a wash of elevator music and is only a jazz artist by generous definition — made up almost a quarter of the total jazz sales in 2011, creating the illusion that the music had experienced a huge growth spurt. (The 11.1 million jazz albums that sold last year mean that, all things being equal, for every person who bought just one jazz record, 27 did not. Similarly, for everyone who bought two jazz records, 54 people purchased nothing.)

The jazz repertoire is not the only culprit — everything from fading attention spans to the decline of jazz clubs to the dominance of rock ‘n’ roll are significant. There are NFL wives who get more mainstream media coverage than every living jazz artist put together. “How do you promote this music if it’s banned from radio, banned from television — and no longer reviewed in newspapers?” asks Gary Giddins, the former Village Voice critic, who remembers when things were different.

Of course, the collapse of the infrastructure around jazz — not just the musicians, but record producers, radio deejays, club bookers, jazz critics and so on — makes it in some ways typical of the arts in the age of creative destruction.

“This is an old story of jazz musicians not having any kind of steady employment,” says Kenny Burrell, the veteran jazz guitarist who started recording in the ’50s and now runs the program at UCLA. But he’s never seen it so bad. “Some students I know have gone to New York, struggled to pay the rent.” Sometimes when he hears from old students — including talented and committed ones — they’re living in their cars.

*   *   *

The American songbook that makes up the bulk of what we consider jazz standards was written, by and large, by white men in ties who saw themselves as craftsmen. Some of them happened to be geniuses. But the original context of these songs were not always as noble as we tend to think of them now: Many of the most enduring standards came from crummy movies or Broadway shows we barely recall today.

Rodgers and Hart’s poignant “Little Girl Blue,” which Grant Green, Nina Simone and Coleman Hawkins have made magic with, came from a lame musical called "Jumbo," remembered mostly for the appearance of a live elephant. There may be no more darkly romantic song in the literature of jazz than “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” But the song was written for a minor Laurel and Hardy war movie, "Keep ‘Em Flying," to be sung by a USO hostess. The song ended up on the cutting room floor: A decade or two later, it was picked up by Chet Baker, Eric Dolphy, Coltrane and other musicians who recast it as a chilling, lonely ballad.

Many of these, then, were intricate and ingenious songs, but some required the alchemy of a jazz improviser to turn lead to gold. Other songs, like “I Got Rhythm,” persisted because their chord changes were reasonably simple, easy for musicians on any instrument to pick up in an impromptu session — the way you can always count out “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” or Hank Williams at a hootenanny — and could be adapted into memorable swing or bebop numbers.

You could probably argue that these songs came from the pop culture of their day and were not handed down from Olympus, and hence, there is nothing unique about them. Bring on jazz versions of Maroon 5! But one side of the jazz world thinks these songs must continue to play a central role in the form.

“To take a Gershwin song of a Harold Arlen tune — they fit hand in glove to a jazz song,” Giddins says. “There was a tremendous osmosis going in between jazz and pop. It’s not that the avant-garde killed that off. It’s that pop music went in a completely different direction.” And by the late '60s, jazz artists were not looking to adapt the kind of songs Sinatra sang, but to make the kind of noise that Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago were making. (The better fusion bands, of course, were looking to Hendrix, who was, incidentally, listening to jazz.)

Even the greatest songwriters of the rock era have mostly resisted jazz treatment. Herbie Hancock — one of the music’s most stylistically versatile players — made a heavily hyped record in 1996 called “The New Standard,” with songs by Kurt Cobain, Peter Gabriel, Sade, Stevie Wonder and others. It’s instantly forgettable.

“Sarah Vaughan is my favorite singer of all time,” Giddins says. “She made a record of Beatles songs, and it’s just awful.”

You don’t need to be a curmudgeon to see that the popular music of the last few decades — whether it’s rock, rap or bedroom R&B — tends to be harmonically and melodically simpler than music of the American songbook and mid-century jazz composers. An extensive Spanish study of pop music from 1955 to 2010 nicknamed “The Million Song Dataset” found that, in the words of J. Bryan Lowder of Browbeat:

Since the '50s, there has been a decrease not only in the diversity of chords in a given song, but also in the number of novel transitions, or musical pathways, between them. In other words, while it’s true that pop songs have always been far more limited in their harmonic vocabularies than, say, a classical symphony … past decades saw more inventive ways of linking their harmonies together than we hear now. It’s the difference between Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” (2012), which contains four simple chords presented one after another almost as blocks, and Alex North’s “Unchained Melody” (1955), which, though also relatively harmonically simple (it employs about six or seven chords, depending on the version), transitions smoothly from chord to chord due to more subtle orchestration.

The study also found, by the way, that instrumental timbre was getting more homogenous, and — no surprise — that the whole thing was getting louder.

The sense that the old standards are exhausted and that the new songs don’t work leads to young musicians relying on their own tunes.

“I am amazed that when a young musician gets his first record deal, they play nothing but originals,” Giddins says. “There have been many more great soloists than great composers — use them. I don’t just mean Miles or Mingus, but Bud Powell, Kenny Dorham, Herbie Hancock. If they’re all originals — boy, they better be good. And if you play ‘Body and Soul,’ which has been done 8,000 times — that better be good.”

*   *   *

We’re at Orchard Hall in Tokyo now, in a capacity house that includes the Japanese royal family. The idiosyncratic, often brilliant Keith Jarrett is onstage with his trio, playing “Last Night When We Were Young” — a Yip Harburg ballad that starts serenely but then picks up speed, seems to get lost and segues into “Caribbean Sky,” a Jarrett original that gives him the chance to riff over an islands-inspired vamp.

Geoff Dyer pretty much lives for these moments when an old song he knows too well gives way to an unfolding of an individual spirit. The similarly amphibian “The Fire Within,” recorded at New York’s Blue Note, “comes blazing out of the smoldering familiarly of ‘I Fall In Love Too Easily,’” he writes. They show more than just one heroic improviser moving from an exhausted number to something more personal. It feels to him like jazz rousing itself from its ancestor-worshipping slumber to become a living art form again.

Dyer, a polymath English novelist who writes on music, photography, sex and literary topics and has penned one sublime book and several essays about jazz, one of which — “Is Jazz Dead?” — gets at his sense that the music is just circling its past. Jazz, he says, is now part of “the heritage industry” — much as theater has been domesticated in Britain.

“In England, the longest running play is ‘The Mousetrap,’” Dyer says from Iowa, where he’s teaching this term. “People go to see it not because it’s an especially good show, but because it’s the longest running show. That’s become burdensome.”

What turns him on now are various Scandinavian and Middle Eastern offshoots, the Munich-based ECM label, and especially an Australian trio called The Necks who eschew standards for hour-long post-free freakouts. “It’s exciting to reinvent that old thing the jazz trio,” Dyer says. “It’s taken on some of the qualities of trance music — and it’s so devoid of everything we consider cliché, or convention.”

Convention is something jazz has a very long relationship to, though for a while, the conventions were changing — in some cases, rapidly, roughly every five years. That’s a story Marc Myers, Wall Street Journal contributor and blogger, tells about as clearly and persuasively as is humanly possible in a new book, “Why Jazz Happened.” From the recording ban in the early '40s to the coming of the long playing record, the baby boom, interstate highways, postwar suburbanization, the G.I. Bill and beyond, it was external forces — demographic, technological, economic — that pushed jazz in various directions. But while jazz went through enormous stylistic changes from about 1942 to 1972 — the key years of his tale — some things changed more slowly.

“Jazz holds onto acoustic instruments too long,” Myers says by phone from New York. “It holds onto old music like Tin Pan Alley. It wasn’t really until the mid-'60s that jazz realized that the '50s were over.”

And since 1972, the jazz repertoire has barely budged. “After '72, jazz seemed content to be a repertory form — only too happy to look back in an attempt to remain relevant. It's not until recently that jazz has become eager to be moving on and become more in step with what's going on now.”

For jazz to move forward without losing its core audience, he says, it will need to do a number of things — among them becoming more visual and dropping some of its insularity. And it needs to connect with popular culture through the songs its musicians play.

But how? We’re in an elusive, disorienting place right now, Myers says of the world after record stores, with the wasteland of 21st century radio and the loss of any kind of musical center. “Music has been so sliced and diced to prop up a sagging record industry that melodies barely exist any more. It's hard to think of a new melody you can hum, and jazz needs familiar melodies for invention. Jazz can't build on sand.”

If jazz has a future, musicians like Matt Mayhall could help it get there. A lanky, bespectacled Reno native and graduate of Cal Arts, where he studied with free-jazz pioneer Charlie Haden, Mayhall leads a jazz trio from behind the drum kit. He also plays in a number of rock bands, including the slowcore group Spain, helmed by Haden’s son Josh. He’d like to see the music survive, but he’s worried, too, that it’s stuck in its past.

“I think the most important thing we can do is write our own music,” says Mayhall. His generation — he’s 34 — is not interested in standards. When his trio plays, they only perform music they’ve written themselves. “It’s never ‘By Bye Blackbird,’” he says. “It’s not that I hate that music — I love that stuff. I just don’t think the world needs any more recordings or performances of it.”

Musicians need to make a statement, he says. “It’s like, ‘Who are we and what do we have to say?’”

*   *   *

It’s exciting to think that jazz can just chuck its mossy old past and move into a brave new future. And for an unpopular music to engage with popular culture makes a kind of intuitive, inevitable sense. What’s not to like? But in the almost half century since rock songwriting reached a level of sophistication, we’ve accumulated almost no enduring jazz versions of its best songwriters. Quick: Name a great jazz version of something by Dylan, the Beatles, Neil Young, Brian Wilson. (Joni Mitchell, who has serious roots in jazz, seems to be an exception, as Hancock’s tribute showed.) How about soul: Any great jazz Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield … ? Not likely. How about the songs written by brash young soloists and bandleaders, tired of the same old songs — any of them compare to the best by Mingus, Coltrane, Parker, etc.?

Partly, it’s that rock songs are stamped by their original singers and players — and often bludgeoned by overplay. Is it possible, in the 21st century, for anyone who grew up with rock radio, TV commercials, and movie soundtracks to really hear the “classic rock” canon — Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” the “Big Chill”/Motown hits, much of Hendrix, and even some of the Beatles’ best songs? Yet, “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Desafinado” barely exist in the popular culture, so they’ve retained a freshness. They’ve also got things like key changes that push and challenge jazz soloists in way that even the best rock song in 1-4-5 doesn’t. Most important: The songs that work best for jazz provide an outline, a blueprint for improvisation. The F7#9 chord that begins Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” — one of the few jazz songs adopted by rock and folk musicians — offers more intriguing melodic possibilities than, say, the straight D chord that opens the Stones’ nearly as fine “Dead Flowers.”

In 1961, Miles Davis picked up an apparently trifling song from a Disney film, “Someday My Prince Will Come” — written by a songwriter previously known for “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” — and transformed it (with help from Coltrane and Hank Mobley) into an urgent, stirring plea. Almost a quarter century later, he tackled a few popular songs — Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” It’s hard to imagine these showing up on anybody’s list of the essential Miles.

But there are signs that, if handled properly, the repertoire could open up. Chet Baker, near the end of his life in the late '80s, recorded Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue.” Jimmy Scott does a wonderful version of the Talking Heads’ “Heaven.” Cassandra Wilson’s Delta blues covers — Son House, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton — can be sublime, as are some of her versions of Van Morrison and Hank Williams. Bill Frisell can make almost anything sound like jazz. Meshell Ndegeocello has recently made Nina Simone’s decades-old repertoire sound like jazz, shot through with something else.

The trio The Bad Plus broke out by playing jazz versions of “Heart of Glass” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and while they’ve moved on to emphasizing originals, they’ve made challenging music and found the kind of younger, pop savvy audience that jazz needs. Same with pianist Vijay Iyer, who takes the most overplayed, overdetermined John Lennon song, “Imagine,” and finds new melodic and emotional possibilities in it. (On his celebrated new record — on most year-end lists — he covers Ellington, avant-garde jazz composer Henry Threadgill and the electronica artist Flying Lotus, who’s related to Alice Coltrane.)

When asked if it might just take a while to build a new repertoire that could be as powerful as the old American songbook, Rollins gives a little chuckle. “That would be a hopeful way of putting it.”

The most successful jazz artist at reconciling a sense of history with the urge for forward motion may be the pianist Brad Mehldau. Now in his early 40s, Mehldau came up in the '90s overwhelmed, like many musicians of his generation, by almost a century of styles. It was hard, he has said, not to slip into “a sort of postmodern haze that turns [young musicians] into chameleons with no identity.”

But after breaking out of Joshua Redman’s band, Mehldau began not only coming up with his own sound — albeit grounded in Bill Evans and his old teacher Fred Hersch — but getting a sense of what he wanted to play.

His first record included the usual mix of Ellington, Coltrane and Cole Porter, but within three years, he had begun to play songs by the Beatles, Nick Drake and Radiohead. (Thom Yorke and Kurt Cobain seem to have the best claim to become the new Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Will Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear be next? Indie rock has come up with fresher melodies than Grammy-endorsed mainstream genres have.) Mehldau’s clearly got a melancholy soul: He’s since interpreted songs by Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith, perhaps the finest songwriter of the indie generation. And here’s what’s interesting: He keeps playing the old stuff; he can do a mean “How Long Has This Been Going On?” So Mehldau now draws from the same well of standards that Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson played in the 1930s, but he’s also a man of the 21st century. With a few exceptions, he’s mostly avoided the obvious Boomer hit parade. And he’s managed to transform most of these songs — new or old — in almost as personal a way as a young Sonny Rollins did at the Vanguard.

The success of Mehldau and a few other artists shows that jazz needs a common language, but the language doesn’t need to be restrictive and infinitely distant from the vernacular.

“When Mozart was living,” says Robert Hurwitz, the head of the eclectic Nonesuch label, to which Mehldau is signed, “the farthest you could travel from Vienna was Turkey. So what did Mozart do? He wrote a piano sonata with a Turkish movement in it. If, in his time, he knew about Javanese gamelan music or the blues, he would have gone in those directions too. So would Art Tatum. Every generation is a sponge. Brad has absorbed everything from Rodgers and Hart to Adam Guettel” (the theater composer who is also Richard Rodger’s grandson). “That aspect has always been the same.”

Gioia himself laments that the songs included in “The Jazz Standards” are not much different from what he would have assembled two decades ago. “I have picked the songs that a fan is most likely to hear — and a musician is most likely to be asked to play — nowadays,” he writes in his introduction. He wishes there were more recent stuff in there. But the vitality of jazz — which he, like Giddins and Myers, has a lot more to do with the surrounding culture — doesn’t depend on that.

In some ways, the story of jazz is the story of any art form, or any kind of American culture. But jazz is also different. Monk can make fun of a corny old number like “Just a Gigolo” by messing with its tempo and tension; guitarist Lenny Breau can make “I’ll Remember April” sound like a whole new tune without disposing of its melody. Fred Hersch will make you think “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” is as timeless as anything by Bach. And any decent Ben Webster ballad is better makeout music than just about anything on the radio these days.

“There’s something about spontaneous, improvised music,” says Gioia. “If people are still playing this music with the right attitude, it’s always edgy, it’s always transgressive, it’s always pushing the envelope. It’s not going to sound like a museum piece.”

Maybe, after all, it really is the singer, not the song.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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