Some other thoughts, engendered by the Wynton Marsalis book I reviewed yesterday.
I stopped in at a fast-food eatery this afternoon for no good reason, certainly not real hunger, but what I heard on the piped-in music brought me right back to the idea of jazz and its core canon. The restaurant was piping in 1950s pop music, most of which I find pretty uninteresting, and the stuff I heard today was no exception: I, vi, IV V, over and over and over, all the melodies basically the same, trite sentiment.
It’s the kind of music that screams that it was born for commerce, and its parents were not named Art and Eurydice. Be that as it may, it’s music that means a lot to many millions of people, though it means nothing to me.
But here’s the jazz thing. Through most of its lifetime, jazz had a core canon, essentially the Great American Songbook of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, with some later songs sneaking in there for good measure. This core canon is music composed by people who played the piano, not the guitar, and there’s a big difference. If you’re playing piano, you’re going to be writing from a different chordal perspective than the guitar, which draws from a different aquifer. Guitar-based music is wonderful in its own right, but the majority of songwriters using guitars are writing from a modal, folk-based tradition, not a piano tradition, and that’s a tradition that hearkens back to classical.
You can’t have decent jazz using the chord changes of songs such as the ones I was hearing this afternoon. It’s impossible to make those interesting, no matter how many substitutions you use. The original song has to have some melodic and harmonic interest to make jazzifying it workable. This is what restricts traditional jazz to its original canon of Gershwin, Berlin, and the other major writers.
Now that doesn’t mean there isn’t any contemporary music worth transforming into jazz (and here I’m leaving aside original jazz composition in order to make a narrower point). A case in point is Paul Anka, who surprised lots of people with his Rock Swings album of 2005. Much of that record swings, and it swings hard, but not on the weirder selections like Smells Like Teen Spirit, which gains nothing from its jazz arrangement.
The ones that work best on that record are It’s a Sin (Pet Shop Boys), which gets a light bossa nova treatment and is more easy listening than jazz, and True (Spandau Ballet), a more harmonically sophisticated song that makes a natural transition to wee-hours balladry in the Neal Hefti-Sammy Nestico-style chart it gets here. The two biggest shocks on the record were It’s My Life, the Bon Jovi anthem, and Eye of the Tiger (Survivor), both of which are actually better songs clothed in Randy Kerber’s muscular arrangements than hanging out in their original houses on the Highway of Cheese. They’re still corny as all getout, but it’s more forgivable in all-out big-band Vegas glitz, somehow.
One of the things that makes traditional jazz so moving is hearing the players comment on the old songs, and it’s best of all when you know the lyrics. As Marsalis points out, Ben Webster once stopped playing in mid-solo because he’d forgotten the words, and Lester Young used to insist that the most important thing was to know the lyrics of the song you were playing in order to craft a meaningful solo. On the Anka record, many of the songs — Wonderwall, Blackhole Sun, Eyes Without a Face, The Way You Make Me Feel — are either gibberish or underwhelming lyrically, and that basically kills the songs, no matter how interesting the arrangements are (and there’s a nice alto break on Wonderwall).
So all this means that in jazz, the new music either needs to have the same melodic, harmonic and lyrical integrity as the core songbook , or jazzers who don’t write their own music need to search for fresher contemporary material with those qualities. It might be a long search.
I have wandered around making several points here, I know, but my overall one is that jazz has a basic canon like classical does, and there’s no end to the music that can be made from it; decades from now, saxophonists will still be playing A Foggy Day. Whether there will be a large canon of newer music that offers the same sustenance remains to be seen.
Here’s a young jazz singer named Rachael Price, who’ll be coming to Lauderdale in November. There are some nice samples on the front page, especially Skylark. Here’s a young person making this older material fresh as a daisy.
And here’s Anka doing It’s My Life. I just like the full-throatedness of this thing; it must have been great to sing and play