Between the late 1920s and the early 1960s a handful of American songwriters, many of them associated with Tin Pan Alley, crafted a body of work that has proven to be an almost inexhaustible well of creativity. Among them were Harold Arlen, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, and Jimmy Van Heusen. Together – whether writing for Broadway, Hollywood, or their own bands – they created what has come to be known as the Great American Songbook, the set of acknowledged standards that formed the backbone of popular music for almost half a century. It is impossible to imagine jazz without these standards. For that matter, it is impossible to imagine the careers of Frank Sinatra or Barbra Streisand without these standards.
Or, God forbid, Rod Stewart. And therein lies the problem. At their best, the songs of the Great American Songbook were a touchstone by which we could evaluate musical innovation. Because we all knew and loved Julie Andrews, and because we could all hum “My Favorite Things” (from Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music) in our sleep, we were better able to appreciate the amazing stylistic leaps when John Coltrane played the song. The melody was there, but so too was Coltrane’s perennial searching, searing approach, exploring every musical nook and cranny in extended improvisations. It was raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and the sound of a musical pilgrim seeking mystical union with God. It was extraordinary. But at their worst – and let’s just take Rod Stewart’s four interminable standards albums as a prime example here – they represent a cynical attempt to cash in on nostalgia, an Easy Listening primer on how to eviscerate great songs and pickle them in their own sepia-tinged brine.
I don’t mean to pick on Rod. Okay, yes I do. But Rod has plenty of company. There have been great jazz singers, and they have recorded luminous, incandescent takes on these well-known standards. But the likes of Michael Bublé and Madeleine Peyroux and Jane Monheit do little to inspire hope in the future of the genre, and their pleasant, safe-as-milk interpretations are bland enough to be both unobtrusive and wildly popular. You don’t play this music in a club. You play it softly in the background at the corporate board meeting.
The reality is that these standards haven’t represented the vanguard of popular music for almost fifty years now. Elvis came along, and The Beatles, and Bob Dylan, and the focus changed from vocalists as stylistic interpreters of others’ songs to vocalists as singers of their own songs. The singer/songwriter was and still is in the ascendancy, and the vocal interpreters have been largely relegated to playing the lounge at the local Holiday Inn. But not entirely, because a funny thing happened around the turn of the millennium. Nostalgia became big business again, and countless jazz musicians rediscovered the hoary standards. So did Rod the Mod, and Bublé and Peyroux and Monheit, and Michael McDonald, and Queen Latifah, and Harry Connick Jr., and Aaron Neville, and Gladys Knight. Almost all of those albums are politely pleasant. And almost none of them are worth a damn. Would you pay to hear the clerk at your favorite retail establishment chirp “Have a nice day?” So why would you pay for fading, over-the-hill or never-been-to-the-hill musicians who chirp the same?
But maybe things are changing. There seems to be some evidence that the stranglehold of the Great American Songbook is about to be broken. When jazz pianists Brad Mehldau and Robert Glasper play Radiohead and Nick Drake (okay, we’ll allow the Brits into this songbook as well), there’s something new and exciting going on. When pianist Ethan Iverson of the decidedly unconventional The Bad Plus pummels a Black Sabbath metal anthem, or plays the changes on a Nirvana or Pixies tune, there is some evidence that the old standards are giving way to something different. It’s too early to call them new standards. And perhaps they will never be accorded that status. The music world is too fragmented for the term to have much meaning these days. But I hear the same things I heard when Coltrane first played “My Favorite Things.” The music serves as a touchstone for countless fans who wouldn’t know Hoagy Carmichael from a Hoagy sandwich, but who know Kid A and Doolittle by heart. It’s a breath of fresh air. And it leaves me feeling uncharacteristically optimistic, a feeling that may hold until Rod decides to release Interminable Standards Vol. 5.