Many of your favorite jazz songs of the 30's and 40's were songs originally written for Broadway musicals. Their chord progressions were used by jazz musicians with 'rhythm changes' and these variations became known as 'jazz standards'. Cathy Markle and Mike Monroney, vocalists, accompanied by David Dyer, piano, and Steve Cole, wind instruments, will take you on a trip down memory lane with performances of songs such as "Begin the Beguine", and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" in a Grass Roots televised performance on November 19 at 5:30 pm.
Broadway musical is a term we all use when referring to a musical or musical theatre performed in New York City’s Theater District or Lincoln Center. Many popular and enduring tunes from musicals of 1920’s-30’s were songs that became jazz standards. These songs, and many others are preserved for us in a canonic collection entitled the Great American Songbook.
How does one account for the enduring popularity of show tunes that become jazz standards?
A great song has to have a tune you like—a stepwise tune with a few leaps, probably one you can whistle. George Gershwin gave us such a tune when he wrote “I Got Rhythm” from Girl Crazy.
The song has to have a good beat and a good match between lyrics and the tune. You should be able to sing along and know what the song is saying. Listen to “Blue Skies,” another song by Berlin (1926), an addition to the Rogers and Hart musical Betsy.
As Oscar Hammerstein II once remarked, “‘Star Dust’ rambles and roams like a school boy in a meadow….yet it has attained popularity that few songs can claim. What has it got? I’m not certain. I know that it is beautiful and I like to hear it.”
Songs that become the bedrock of jazz possess a timelessness that touches millions across different demographics. Successful tunes evoke the era in which they were written and resonate for years to come. The “Golden Era of Songs” (1920-1950) included the compositions of composers like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, and Johnny Green. Here is a song by Jerorme Kern that became a jazz standard entitled “Yesterdays” from the musical Roberta (1933). The melody is haunting whether sung by Ella Fitzgerald or played on the trumpet of Wynton Marsalis.
The word “jazz” was probably derived from the slang “jasm” that meant energy, vitality, spirit, pep. An academic definition of jazz is a genre of American music that originated in New Orleans, circa 1900, characterized by strong prominent meter, improvisation, distinctive tone colors, performance techniques, and dotted or syncopated rhythmic patterns.
This uniquely American music has all the elements that other music has including melody, a tune or song you will remember; rhythm, the heartbeat of a song that includes syncopation and swing notes; harmony, simultaneous sounding of notes; plus a spontaneous creation of music called improvisation. Jazz is a collective art of creation. Even though a soloist does the improvising, that musician is supported by members of the rhythmic section, called “comp.”
Here are two different interpretations of Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul” from Three is a Crowd. Note how the beauty of the song is never lost.
A jazz standard is a composition that is held in continuing esteem and is commonly used as a basis of jazz arrangements. Jazz standards evolve when a musician transforms a song through improvisation. It becomes a standard when enough other musicians do a replay. A dialogue with past great tunes occurs as tradition is reinvented. Simply said, you take a good song and make it say something new.
Earlier we listened to the song “Blue Skies” with its memorable melody, catchy rhythms, and simple chordal patterns. Thelonious Monk took the “Blue Skies” chord pattern and used it in his song “In Walked Bud” (1947), which is a classic Monk tune for many jazz musicians. In pianist Fred Hersch’s interpretation of “In Walked Bud,” that same chord pattern is reinvented once again, expressing something new.
There is extensive crossover between show tunes and jazz standards. Many jazz musicians played in the orchestra pits of Broadway theaters. Many composers of the period were writing in jazz style. And we can’t ignore the popularity of radio and the recording industry in spearheading the growth of jazz standards.
No jazz conversation can close without acknowledging the jazz inspired lullaby “Summertime,” from the opera Porgy and Bess, by composer George Gershwin, libretto by Du Bose Heyward, and lyricist Ira Gershwin. That song has been performed in every genre from its original aria format, through rock and roll, to disco and reggae. But there is no rendition that will more quickly bring tears to your eyes than listening to it sung by either Leontyne Price or Renee Fleming.
In jazz, the performers themselves are responsible for the musical matter through improvisation or orchestration. Creative and interpretive music become one. No matter the source of the song, be it Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, Hollywood films, traditional folk, gospel songs, Rock and Roll, or international folk and popular songs, the success of the musical matter lies in the hands of the performers.
Tune in to Grass Roots TV, channel 12, on November 19 at 5:30 pm to watch Broadway to Jazz, the next Music FROM the Library performance. This concert will also be available to view on YouTube and Facebook following the Thursday broadcast.