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Book Review: The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire by Ted Gioia

Cover Illustration: Thomas Andersen

The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire by Ted Gioia
(Oxford University Press. 544 pages. Publication date 27 September. Review by Sara Mitra)

In The Jazz Standards, Ted Gioia has created a masterwork of reference and study, an essential accompaniment to all song studies. To call it a labour of love is an understatement – you can feel his enthusiasm in detailing the minutiae of an early Louis Armstrong recording session, or charting the back-story of a so-so musical eclipsed by its star tunes (such as the now neglected Kern/Harbach Roberta featuring both Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Yesterdays). Gioia covers iconic composers, lyricists, and performers, unweaving the cause/effect popularity cycle that makes a standard stick in the repertoire.

Gioia writes in his introduction ”Aspiring musicians today can hardly imagine how opaque the art form was just a few decades ago…Just knowing the names of the songs one needed to learn represented a major step forward; getting a lead sheet was an unwonted luxury.” Nowadays, there are thousands of songs that can claim to be part of the jazz canon, Real Books galore and countless fake books and dodgy chord sheets to download – so much material that it becomes a swamping glut of music, all clamouring to be considered for your set list. For the beginner singer, the question is, Which tunes to begin with?

To see what sort of songs were included in this book, I did a quick count up of the 250-plus titles – without going into boring detail, about half I have as my mainstay of standards material, another quarter I could perform by ear with fingers crossed, and the remainder were ones I knew vaguely but really should have tackled by now. So, this book certainly helped me whittle out my new tune to-do list. I then started trying to cross-collate each song title with the relevant Real Book index but soon realised this was not going to be particularly useful except to satisfy my inner nerd. Yes, these are all classics, and yes, we should all know them. Of course there are going to be songs unfairly omitted from Gioia’s list (Wot, no It Never Entered My Mind ??) but let’s agree that a line has to be made somewhere.

I was pleased at the balance between ‘singer’ standards and ‘instrumentalist’ standards. Too often songs are shoved into either/or category, with both singers and players losing out on some choice repertoire. There are certain Miles Davis ballad recordings where I can really hear that he’s got the lyric in mind, and this book helps me back up my fancy that the best players know the words to the songs they interpret. Gioia takes care in covering the lyric content of each song, and how this might have affected the popularity of the tune, such as the rather disturbing paedo-creepy words of Cole Porter’s 1930 composition Love For Sale (which apparently prevented many singers from tackling it before the 1950’s).

Filled with anecdotal charm and the gentle debunking of jazz myths (such as the naming of Nardis), each song is covered in alphabetical rather than chronological or order, and musician or critic quotes are referenced in a notes section at the back. There is also a useful cross-reference in the index, where you can look up individual musicians (e.g. McCoy Tyner or Sonny Rollins or Frank Sinatra) and see if their particular version of a song gets a mention. However, the key to this book’s usefulness is not in its lists of personnel and trivia, but in the selection of key seminal recordings to demonstrate each song’s evolution into a standard.

Although not all of these recordings are readily available, there are various digital archives (commercial and public use) which can be accessed nowadays. In the era before licensed music streaming, such tracklists were often wishful thinking for the less collector-y minded music lover. Jim Higgins (a public-minded soul) has compiled a Spotify playlist to help readers track down these mentioned recordings, and I’m sure it would very useful. Unfortunately, it takes ages to load up on my very old OS and so I’d prefer to search for each song individually.

Gioia writes “This book aims to be…the kind of overview of the standard repertoire that I wished someone had given me back in the day.” In this aim, he succeeds admirably. This book is that rare thing in music writing, a winner in terms of both content and style.

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1 reply »

  1. Excellent review: I've already flicked through this in Foyles but at £25 will wait either for price to drop or a paperback edition.

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