jaPop Composers, Where Are Your Standards?!

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By Fernando Gonzalez

Special to The Washington Post

Sunday, August 26, 2001; Page G05

Throughout the history of jazz, popular songs have provided improvisers with a jumping-off point, a story line and an open ending. Not only were these tunes rich with melodic and harmonic possibilities, but also, because they were the hits of the day, they provided a shorthand for the emotions and experiences of a whole country. Songs such as "Stardust," "Body and Soul," "Blame It on My Youth," "Embraceable You," "My Funny Valentine" and "Someone to Watch Over Me" were a vocabulary shared by musicians and audiences. They became standards, "an established item in the repertory," in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz definition.

Most standards -- not all; some are pieces written by jazz composers -- started out as pop songs, numbers in Broadway musicals or movie soundtracks. But those songs are now 50, 60 years old or older. Remarkably for a genre that is characterized by change and renewal, not many pieces have entered the jazz repertoire since then, it's not happening now and, the way things look, most likely never will again.

The reasons are many, some strictly musical, some social and economic.

Rock, which has been always more about attitude than well-crafted songwriting, has proven an unlikely source of material for jazz artists. Rap, likewise, draws its raw power from words and rhythm. It would be hard to build anything upon the work of cut-and-paste artists like Beck or Moby. Also, jazz musicians -- for artistic and financial reasons, following the example of their pop and rock counterparts -- have increasingly tended to write their own music.

And as for a consensus on the great songs of the day, the fragmentation of the audience, brought about by developments ranging from radio formatting to the Internet, has made it impossible. An oldies station in 2031 might play Backstreet Boys, OutKast, Faith Hill, Radiohead, Eminem and Ricky Martin, but no single station plays them all now. Perhaps the very notion of a "standard" is obsolete.

"What makes a standard? I'll tell you what [composer] Jule Styne told me: A great song needs to be melodically simple and harmonically attractive," says pianist Bill Charlap, who released his first CD on the Blue Note label in 2000. "Now, Jule didn't say harmonically complex or even harmonically interesting, but harmonically attractive, and that's a big distinction," underscores Charlap. "He was suggesting something that is attractive to the ear and has possibilities. These songs are blueprints for the performer."

But from the 1960s on, the popular song "had to change," he continues. "You had social upheaval, you had a lot of things that needed to be talked about in music. . . . But the things that needed to be talked about maybe were not universal enough, and the songs were not sophisticated enough and simple enough to make them standards."

Saxophonist and composer Joe Lovano, at 48 one of the leading jazz musicians of his generation, says that "jazz musicians have always reinterpreted popular music and made it their own. We have developed through [playing] standards.

"The beautiful, lyrical quality of the standards, their harmonic structures, their form . . . are things we've all studied to put our music together. But right now, in the current pop scene, you don't really have songs. In the hip-hop world and rap, the more contemporary pop, you really don't have songs, you basically have rhythm and a story that goes on and on like a [saxophonist] Lester Young one-note solo."

One reason, notes Charlap, 33, is that "songs now are made to say and do different things. They don't have to do with musical theater or a movie, for example. That was important because those songs had to advance the plot and stand alone. So [lyrically] the metaphors had to be strong enough that the song can be removed from the show and you can put your own story to it," says the pianist. As the son of pop singer Sandy Stewart and Broadway composer "Moose" Charlap, who wrote the music for "Peter Pan," Bill Charlap saw important composers of popular music of the day visiting his Manhattan home.

"We're talking high art," Charlap continues. "Which is not to say someone like Kurt Cobain didn't have something to say -- he did -- but it doesn't fall into our framework: The blueprints are not strong enough; the lyrics, the melody and the harmony are not in enough balance."

Of course, jazz musicians still go to the well and try to update their songbooks. Saxophonist Michael Brecker included James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" on his recently released CD. The BeatleJazz Trio recorded "Another Bite of the Apple," its second volume of Beatles tunes. Guitarist Lee Ritenour produced a smooth-jazz set of Bob Marley songs.

The results are uneven at best. More important, though, those songs have not been picked up by enough other jazz players to achieve standard status. The consensus just isn't there. But if the book of standards hasn't been revised, it isn't for lack of trying.

Perhaps most notably in recent years, the great pianist Bill Evans included in his late-'70s repertoire "Theme From M*A*S*H," from the movie and television series, and Paul Simon's "I Do It for Your Love." Evans was, and remains, a revered point of reference for jazz musicians and fans -- but neither song became a standard.

Miles Davis tweaked purists in the 1980s, when he included Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" and Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" on an album. They became favorites in his live show -- but haven't entered the jazz canon.

In 1996, pianist Herbie Hancock released "The New Standard." It included Nirvana's "All Apologies," Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street," the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," Prince's "Thieves in The Temple" and Stevie Wonder's "You've Got It Bad Girl." It was a bold move, although the program reportedly was chosen not by Hancock but by executives of the record label. It flopped badly, commercially and artistically.

In fact, except for a half-dozen songs by the late great Brazilian bossa nova composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, who was jazz-influenced to begin with, and the occasional track from a movie (Michel Legrand's "What Are You Doing the Rest Of Your Life?" from the obscure 1969 film "The Happy Ending" comes to mind), the past 40 years of popular music have added almost nothing to the jazz repertoire.

Think about it. There is nothing by the Beatles, Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye; nothing by Bob Dylan, Elton John or Neil Diamond; nothing by Public Enemy, Billy Joel, Prince or Bruce Springsteen. And don't count on anything by Snoop Dogg, Eminem or Madonna. Jazz musicians occasionally try these artists' songs on for size, but they don't fit.

It's not just the songs themselves. As Dominican jazz pianist and composer Michel Camilo points out, standards are, in essence, "points of reference, agreements among musicians and among musicians and the audience. Basically, it's a tune that is interesting to play, that we all enjoy and so it becomes part of the tradition," says Camilo, at 47 a young veteran who has seen a couple of his jazz pieces edge into the repertoire. "As musicians, what we are looking for is something to express ourselves. Since these pieces are well known, what you want is for people to tune into your head and hear what you can do that is different. But for that, always, the audience has to agree that this is a standard."

That familiarity is now increasingly unlikely, partly because of the greater number of choices. "Years ago there were . . . a handful of recording artists and they all did the same tunes," says Lovano. "Today thousands of records come out every month and nobody does anybody else's music. It's a different kind of musician nowadays. They couldn't do somebody else's song. It's a different kind of pop scene."

And again, unavoidably, it's the small matter of the songs themselves. "I did Marvin Gaye tunes, I grew up in the '60s with the Beatles, Motown, and I've played in a lot of bands that played those things," says Lovano. "Elton John's? Billy Joel's? None of those tunes harmonically ever got to me. It's not just the melody and the story of the song, it's the harmony that really made songs interesting for everyone to want to play it.

"Every time you play through a tune like 'The Song Is You,' it's a new journey," says Lovano, who for his next album is exploring the music of the Italian opera legend Enrico Caruso. "That's the beauty of the classics."

But Charlap, a champion of the standard repertoire, warns against comparing musical eras, styles and composers.

The Great American Songbook, he says, was "great popular music. Popular music with a capital P. When we talk about the great songwriters, we're maybe talking about 50 people in history. In history. You have the big six: Berlin, Porter, Kern, Gershwin, Rodgers and Arlen. Then you have [Frank] Loesser, [Arthur] Schwartz, Johnny Mandel, Stephen Sondheim. And now you name me another 40 -- and you are going to run out of names.

"I wouldn't compare anyone with anyone, because they shouldn't be Cole Porter. Rap is speaking about something else, and it's 'forget your melody . . . here's how I feel and I'll put it to you point-blank.' Stevie Wonder is a genius. Everything by Marvin Gaye is beautiful -- he had such feeling, such soul -- but it comes out of a different tradition, R&B."

"There are very, very fine composers out there," Charlap concludes, "but we're toiling in a different field."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company