FAQ: The New Jazz Standards, Part I - History

A question I often get asked is, "What are the new jazz standards?"  In fact, I ask myself this question quite often!

If you're not a musician, or just unfamiliar with the term "standard" as it applies to jazz music, you might need some filling in. Standards usually refer to those songs written in the golden age of American songwriting, between 1920-1960.  Most of these songs are considered part of the Great American Songbook, consist of composers from Tin Pan Alley and the large majority were written for musical theater and movies.  Composers such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers and Jimmy Van Heusen are regularly associated with this field. Because these songs constituted the popular music of the day, they had a strong influence on the current musical trends of the time. Songs such as "All the Things You Are," "Summertime" and "Night and Day" are prime examples of this period. There are great lists of these compositions at the site JazzStandards.com (ranked by popularity) as well as Wikipedia (organized chronologically).

How then did we arrive at the term "jazz standards"?  It depends on who you ask.  Remember when I mentioned that these songs were the popular music of the day? Well, it's no coincidence that these popular tunes infiltrated other styles and genres, such as jazz music, which was still blossoming in the 1930s.  Also, most of these tunes were written in the jazz tradition that had grown in popularity in the previous decades. By the 1930s, many composers were interested in jazz music as a vehicle for the popular songs that they were employed to write for Broadway musicals.  This led to the development of popular songs having many jazz-influenced chords and harmonies, which in turn influenced jazz music to incorporate the popular songs into the repertoire of jazz music. It's a sordid mess, since jazz and popular music of the 1930s through the 1950s were so closely related.

However, during this same time period, there were some new compositions being written exclusively for the jazz idiom.  This is broadly defined when an instrumental tune is written first with the lyrics added later, or without lyrics at all. Although they have gained immense popularity over the years, they were originally written as instrumental vehicles for improvisation and NOT popular songs. A lot of Duke Ellington's works ("Solitude," "Caravan," and "Cottontail"), "Take the 'A' Train" by Billy Strayhorn, "'Round Midnight" by Thelonious Monk and "Take Five" by Paul Desmond fit this definition.  Each became widely popular despite starting out as jazz instrumentals.

This is why people differ on their definition of the term "standard" as it applies to music. To some, a "standard" is only one of those popular songs contained in the Great American Songbook. These people would also insist that a "jazz standard" needs to be exclusive to the jazz idiom and largely based on improvisation. Others, such as myself, put them all together. To me, if it's a popular song, instrumental or not, it's a standard.  Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You" deserves as much recognition as Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" to be considered a standard.  Of course, it must be from 1920-1960 to be really called a "standard" by my definition.

So what about after 1960?  Well, that's the whole point of this series of blog posts.  As music genres became more specialized from 1960 onward, it is harder to define what the future of the standard really is.  Before getting that far, though, I'll try to define in musical terms what a standard entails. I'll go beyond the historical significance of the topic and look into the theoretical qualities of the popular standards. Part II - Musical Analysis: for music theory geeks only!