What Makes A Jazz Standard?

May 21, 2018
Originally published on May 21, 2018 6:02 pm

When does a pop song become canon — so influential, so durable, that it can be counted among the classics that make up the Great American Songbook?Christian McBride, bassist, record producer and host of NPR's Jazz Night In America, joined Audie Cornish on All Things Considered to discuss just how a jazz standard comes to be — as well the role those songs play in a young musician's development and the criteria for crowning new classics. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

Interview Highlights

On the ground rules for standards

The way a song becomes a standard in the first place is because many people record it. Coleman Hawkins recorded his version of "Body and Soul." It became a huge jazz hit and it became pretty much the standard for tenor saxophone playing. [But] I think a song has to be covered by a vocalist to become a standard, because people always connect with vocalist. So when people like Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, when a vocalist gives their interpretation of one of these great modern standards, there's more of a chance of that song becoming a standard.

On interpreting the American Songbook

I think at some point inside of the last half century, there's been more focus, particularly in the jazz world, on original composition. There was a bridge between the Great American Songbook and modern jazz where you had the bebop era — where people like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were covering standards in a very, very clever way. To get around paying royalties to these composers, they would take the harmonic progression of a particular standard and write a new melody on top of it. So you take a song like Charlie Parker's "Quasimodo" — that was actually "Embraceable You."

There used to be [an] unspoken law in the jazz world is that you had to know a significant amount of standards. Anytime any of these older jazz legends went out to hear some younger musicians and they would hear them play their music, they would say, "You know, that's great, but do you know 'Polka Dots and Moonbeams'? 'I'll Remember April'? 'Ill Wind'?" They would call these old standards, and if you didn't know them? "Hey kid, get back in the bullpen and practice." That was the way you earned your right to be a jazz musician.

On the case for a more recent standard

The last great standard, maybe, would have been "Birdland," which was composed by Joe Zawinul [for the band Weather Report in 1977]. I think I can guarantee that from the time that album was released through the 1980s, every single high school and college band played that song. And then Manhattan Transfer recorded it and it became an even bigger hit than it was when Weather Report recorded it. So yes, that song is definitely a standard.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When does a pop song become so influential, so durable that it becomes part of the Great American Songbook?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STORMY WEATHER")

ETTA JONES: (Singing) Don't know why there's no sun up in the sky, stormy weather.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEEK TO CHEEK")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Heaven, I'm in heaven.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMBRACEABLE YOU")

KEELY SMITH: (Singing) My sweet embraceable you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BODY AND SOUL")

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) I'm all for you, body and soul, yes.

CORNISH: Those are just some of the standards in the Great American Songbook, which of course is not really a book. These are the songs that were originally written for Broadway, theater and for Hollywood musicals. Since classics like "Body And Soul" came of age along with jazz, who better to talk about that relationship than Christian McBride, composer, bassist and host of Jazz Night In America? Christian, welcome back.

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE, BYLINE: Audie, it's so nice to speak with you again. It's been a while.

CORNISH: It has been a minute. "Body And Soul" - how did this composition become standard?

MCBRIDE: Well, the song was first written by Johnny Green in 1930. It debuted in the Broadway revue "Three's A Crowd." And the way a song becomes a standard in the first place is because many people record it. Coleman Hawkins recorded his version of "Body And Soul." It became a huge jazz hit. And it became pretty much the standard for tenor saxophone playing.

CORNISH: Well, let's listen to some of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLEMAN HAWKINS' "BODY AND SOUL")

CORNISH: Christian, you said tenor sax players jumped on this, but lots of vocalists did too, right?

MCBRIDE: Oh, absolutely. I think a song has to be covered by vocalists to become a standard because people always connect with the vocalists. So when people like Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan - when a vocalist gives their interpretation of one of these great modern standards, there's more of a chance of that song becoming a standard.

CORNISH: When you talk about all of these artists having to perform standards, so to speak, like what is the role of that in a career - right? - being able to, quote, unquote, "be an interpreter of the Great American Songbook"?

MCBRIDE: That's a good question because I think at some point inside of the last - maybe the last half century there's been more focus particularly in the jazz world on original composition. And there was a bridge in between the Great American Songbook and modern jazz where you had the bebop era, where people like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were covering standards in a very, very clever way to get around paying royalties to these composers. What they would do is they would take the harmonic progression of a particular standard and write a new melody on top of it. So you take a song like Charlie Parker's "Quasimodo." That was actually "Embraceable You."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "QUASIMODO")

CORNISH: It occurs to me that understanding the architecture of a standard, being able to interpret it, learning to color in the lines of these artists that came before you is kind required proving ground maybe. Am I right about that?

MCBRIDE: Well, there used to be - the unspoken law in the jazz world was that you had to know a significant amount of standards. Anytime any of these older jazz legends went out to hear some younger musicians, they would hear them play their music. They would say, you know, that's great, but do you know "Polka Dots And Moonbeams," "I'll Remember April," "Ill Wind"? You know what I mean? They would call these old standards. And if you didn't know them, hey, kid, get back in the bullpen and practice. You know, that was the way that you earned your right to be a jazz musician.

CORNISH: Is it possible to have a new jazz standard? Or have we just moved out of that phase for that particular genre of music?

MCBRIDE: I think the way that can be answered is you just have to wait and see. There are some really great composers out there now. Will other people other than them record those songs? We have yet to see.

CORNISH: I guess a lot of it has to do with just time, right? I was thinking of Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse.

MCBRIDE: That's right. That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BODY AND SOUL")

TONY BENNETT: (Singing) My heart is sad and lonely.

MCBRIDE: Sing it, Tony.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BODY AND SOUL")

BENNETT: (Singing) For you I sigh, for you, dear, only. Why haven't you seen it?

MCBRIDE: Why haven't you seen it? Why?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BODY AND SOUL")

BENNETT: (Singing) I'm all for you, body and soul.

AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) I spend my days longing...

MCBRIDE: Come on, Amy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BODY AND SOUL")

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) ...And wondering why it's me you're wronging.

MCBRIDE: Talk to us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BODY AND SOUL")

WINEHOUSE: (Singing) I tell you I mean it. I'm all for you, body and soul.

CORNISH: So that's the late Amy Winehouse and Tony Bennett on "Body And Soul." This is on their album "Duets II," which charted in 2011, which tells how much staying power that song has.

MCBRIDE: See? Exactly. You know, all those great standards, they're indestructible. You know, people will be playing these songs and singing these songs for another hundred years. I feel that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BODY AND SOUL")

AMY WINEHOUSE AND TONY BENNETT: (Singing) Body and soul.

CORNISH: Do you have a candidate for a recent - as in the last maybe 20 years or so - a candidate for a song that's poised to join this repertoire?

MCBRIDE: Well, I would probably think, like, the last great standard maybe would've been "Birdland," which was composed by Joe Zawinul.

CORNISH: And this is Weather Report off their album "Heavy Weather" - right? - 1977.

MCBRIDE: That's correct. And I think I can guarantee you that from the time the album was released through the 1980s every single high school and college band played that song. And then Manhattan Transfer recorded it, and it became an even bigger hit than it was when Weather Report recorded it. So, yes, that song is definitely a standard.

CORNISH: So a hundred years from now, you're thinking someone is still going to bust out their version of "Birdland."

MCBRIDE: Oh, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEATHER REPORT SONG, "BIRDLAND")

CORNISH: OK, you're right. I'm bobbing my head (laughter).

MCBRIDE: See?

(LAUGHTER)

MCBRIDE: And there you go. If you're bobbing your head and you're smiling, the song has done its job.

CORNISH: Christian McBride, composer, bassist, is also host of Jazz Night In America. Christian, thanks so much.

MCBRIDE: Always a pleasure, my friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEATHER REPORT SONG, "BIRDLAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.