by David James
At a time when racial tensions have been inflamed in America, threatening to cause the country to descend into left-wing engineered chaos, it is worth recalling a fine example of how different cultures could be combined in a fruitful way: the Great American Songbook.
This is a body of music, compiled beginning in the early 20th century and lasting to about 1960, that represents one of the great traditions in Western music. The songs that have endured, often referred to as the “standards”, are at once timeless and dated. They sound very much embedded in a particular period – especially the lyrics – yet they are so melodic that their appeal does not fade.
Most contemporary jazz singers still sing these standards because they are the bedrock of the genre; a past that informs whatever present innovation is being attempted.
The tradition attracted people from many different backgrounds. Writers such as Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and George Gershwin were immersed in the European Jewish musical heritage.
There was of course the African-American influence, especially the great Duke Ellington. Cole Porter was the white grandson of the richest man in Indiana, an alumnus of Yale University, and lived a life of supported luxury in Paris. The prolific Harry Warren was an Italian from Brooklyn. The brilliantly witty Hoagy Carmichael – his autobiography, The Stardust Road, is a wonderful read – came from a conventional middle-class white background. Vernon Duke was born in what is now called Belarus and came from a noble family of Georgian-Austrian-Spanish-Russian lineage.
There was great ethnic diversity among the performers. Great black female singers became admired in a society that for the most part tended to have the opposite attitude to African Americans at that time. In particular, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald displayed a vocal artistry that has rarely been matched since.
There were many “white-bread” performers. The most obvious example was Bing Crosby, whose tone was sumptuous but whose phrasing and rhythms were never as adventurous as the black singers.
And of course there was the greatest interpreter of all: the Italian-American Frank Sinatra. He, too, rarely varied the phrasing of the standards, but his conviction and swing had no parallel. He called himself a saloon singer because he connected with great immediacy, using his delight in the shape of the melodies as his vehicle.
It was not just the singers who profited from the Great American Songbook; it became the foundation for jazz improvisation. The most inventive was Miles Davis, who slunk around the melodies of the standards, merely hinting at the original composition, before going on his pained, exhilarating excursions. Tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, by contrast, stuck quite closely to the melody, relying on his liquid but slightly off-centre tone for musical effect.
Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker’s emphasis on speed meant that when he played standards he constantly added embellishments, fluttering around the melody. But his plangent tone and subtle vibrato on the long notes gave his interpretations a mournful quality that cuts right through the listener. Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ approach to standards might be described as rambunctious and faintly comic, although he also evokes a penetrating sadness.
What is extraordinary about this tradition is that, despite coming from a cultural and musical melting pot, the songs were fairly similar, sometimes even tritely so. The key changes and cadences tend to be predictable, which is the main reason they make good vehicles for improvisation.
The structure of the standards tends to be much the same: an eight-bar section that is repeated, a middle section of eight bars and then back to the first eight bars: AABA. There were, of course, exceptions, such as Richard Rodgers’ wonderful You’ll Never Walk Alone, but for the most part the forms were predictable.
This meant that success heavily depended on the quality of the melody in the A section, which had to make a lasting impact in a short time. The musicality of the lyrics was also paramount; one reason these songs worked so well was because the lyricists and the composers often worked collaboratively.
As Black Lives Matter gangs tear apart many American cities, it is worth remembering a period of music when there really was a fruitful interaction between different cultures and peoples. More than ever, it seems it came from another time and another country.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.