Review: A fascinating education in ‘The Jazz Standards’

The Jazz Standards
A Guide to the Repertoire

Ted Gioia
Oxford University Press: 528 pp., $39.95

I like jazz but I don’t know much about it. Or perhaps I should say that I know what I like. Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and Benny Goodman, yes, but my appreciation really kicks in with the beboppers, Monk and Bird and Dizzy, and their spiritual brethren (or descendants): Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Throw in a little Billie Holiday, some Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz, and there you have it: my autodidact’s pantheon.

And yet, as Ted Gioia points out in his monumental “The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire,” this is true in many ways for everyone. “My own education in this music was happenstance and hard earned,” the jazz historian and pianist acknowledges in a revealing introduction. "… Aspiring musicians today can hardly imagine how opaque the art form was just a few decades ago — no school I attended had a jazz program or even offered a single course on jazz.”


“The Jazz Standards” is an attempt to offer a kind of one-stop shop overview of the genre, looking not so much at the musicians as at the songs. An alphabetical survey of 252 classic pieces, it is to some extent an extrapolation of “The Real Book” — “the underground collection of jazz lead sheets that began circulating in the 1970s” that itself grew out of a series of “fake books,” bootleg compilations used by jazz players to work their way through the entire tradition. This history is fascinating, a reminder that jazz is at heart a vernacular medium in which the most essential skill for a musician may be the ability to think on his or her feet.

“I recall the lament of a friend,” Gioia writes, “who was enlisted to back up a poll-winning horn player at a jazz festival — only to discover that he wouldn’t be told what songs would be played until the musicians were already on stage in front of 6,000 people. Such instances are not unusual in the jazz world, a quirk of a subculture that prizes both spontaneity and macho bravado. Another buddy, a quite talented pianist, encountered an even more uncooperative bandleader — a famous saxophonist who wouldn’t identify the names of the songs even after the musicians were on the bandstand. The leader would simply play a short introduction on the tenor, then stamp off the beat with his foot … and my friend was expected to figure out the song and key from those meager clues.”

What makes “The Jazz Standards” so engaging is just this sort of anecdotal texture, Gioia’s ability to write as an inhabitant of both the tradition and the songs. He takes us through music that’s well known (“Beale Street Blues,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Mood Indigo,” “Embraceable You”) and not so well known (“Nardis,” “Billie’s Bounce,” “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)”), but either way, his connection is a starting point.

“When I was a very young child,” he recalls, discussing the song “I’ll Remember April,” “I saw the Abbott and Costello movie ‘Ride ‘Em Cowboy’ on several occasions on television, but I have no recollection of ‘I’ll Remember April,’ which was introduced in this unlikely film by Dick Foran. But a decade later, I encountered ‘I’ll Remember April’ again — this time in a version by pianist Erroll Garner from his landmark album ‘Concert by the Sea.’” From there, he riffs briefly about Garner (“I am convinced that a young musician could build a killing style using his tricks and techniques as a foundation”) before highlighting a dozen or so covers by artists including Getz, Keith Jarrett and Frank Sinatra, who recorded it in 1961.

Here we see Gioia’s method in microcosm: to move from the general to the specific, and in so doing, to trace the saga of the song. This is especially interesting when there’s real history to uncover; his entry on “St. James Infirmary” goes back to 16th century England, making clear “the oft-forgotten folkloric roots of jazz,” while his explication of “Shine,” first recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1931, reveals an unexpected link to gender reversal: the song had been popularized 20 years earlier by a female performer, Aida Overton Walker, who went onstage dressed as a man.

To call “The Jazz Standards” a work of history, however, is to miss at least half the point; it is also a work of criticism, and Gioia is not afraid to offer pointed commentary. He opens his discussion of “Mack the Knife” by declaring, “I often cringe when I hear this song,” and he dismisses “Tea for Two” as “monotonous and akin to a second-rate nursery song.” But here’s where Gioia’s critical acumen asserts itself, as he moves beyond his own response to conjecture about the popularity of the song.

“I suspect that the ease with which the song is adapted to ulterior purposes is what keeps it in the jazz repertoire,” he writes in reference to a pair of 1937 recordings, one “an uncharacteristically graceful and subdued performance” by Fats Waller, the other Django Reinhardt’s “impressive reworking of the song’s underlying harmonies.” Then, he fantasizes about an imaginary meeting between Thelonious Monk and the classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who recorded the song three months apart in 1963.

Monk and Horowitz, Gioia tells us, were at the same studio on the day the latter cut his “never released version,” and he ends his account by admitting that he enjoys “speculating on what might have happened if Monk had joined Horowitz in a duet to show him how it should be played.” That line gets very close to the heart of things, with the improvisational master schooling the formally trained musician, teaching him to find the spirit, if not necessarily the letter, of the song.


In a sense, of course, this is what Gioia is also doing with “The Jazz Standards.” What is the book, after all, if not an extended improvisation, beginning with its framing of the repertoire? Such a repertoire is fluid, and if in recent years it has undergone a “process of codification,” his approach can’t help but be subjective, defined by his experience and sensibility. To read “The Jazz Standards,” then, is not unlike listening to Gioia play his way through this music, sharing not just what he likes (and dislikes) but also what he knows.