Exploring Jazz Standards

In his book “The Jazz Standards,” Ted Gioia, a well-known American author, jazz pianist, and music historian, stated that during his own journey of learning jazz, there existed a core set of 200 to 300 compositions that “served as the cornerstone” of the jazz repertoire. By emphasizing the importance of these compositions, Gioia underscores their pivotal role in shaping the evolution of jazz music over time. He explains that a jazz performer needed to learn these songs the same way a classical musician studied the works of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart.

Jazz standards are musical compositions that have gained widespread recognition and have been performed and recorded by jazz musicians over the years. One defining characteristic of jazz standards is their harmonic structure. They often have a simple, memorable melody that is accompanied by a complex, sophisticated harmonic progression. These progressions provide ample opportunities for jazz musicians to improvise and explore different variations of the melody and harmony.

This article explores the captivating universe of jazz standards throughout the decades and presents a few classic examples for your listening pleasure. I’ll include a playlist as a reference so you can enjoy the songs while you read through the article.

1920s and Before

The origins of jazz standards can be traced back to the American songbook of the early 1900s when musicians primarily intended their music to be used for dancing. Musical traditions of New Orleans at the turn of the century included brass bands, blues, ragtime, and spirituals. Many of the popular jazz standards from that time were influenced by these styles. For instance, jazz musicians frequently play ragtime songs such as “Twelfth Street Rag” and “Tiger Rag,” as well as blues tunes like “St. Louis Blues” and “St. James Infirmary.”

Record companies also played a role in shaping the selection of songs recorded by jazz artists. Recording executives pushed certain songs that quickly achieved a “standard” status. As a result, early jazz groups like King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and others incorporated a significant number of Tin Pan Alley popular songs into their repertoire, these are songs written by a collective of songwriters and publishers based in New York City.

A timeless classic from this era is the American blues song and acclaimed standard, “St. James Infirmary Blues.” It’s a traditional American folkloric song with an uncertain origin. The song includes phrases from early blues recordings and has over 120 versions by various artists, with more than 20 versions of the lyrics. The versions by Louis Armstrong (1928), King Oliver (1930), Duke Ellington (1930), and Cab Calloway (1930) are among the most highly regarded. Various musicians continue to record the song, and my preferred versions are those by Dee Dee Bridgewater and Hugh Laurie.

Another noteworthy inclusion is the traditional psalm “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which may have originated in the Bahamas in the 19th century and was frequently played by brass bands in New Orleans during funeral processions. Many artists have recorded the song, but it was Louis Armstrong who truly popularized it with his 1938 recording. Other noteworthy versions include those by Bunk Johnson (1945) and Sidney Bechet (1949).

Additional recommended jazz standards:

TitleRecommended Version
King Porter StompJelly Roll Morton
Tea for TwoArt Tatum
Blue SkiesElla Fitzgerald
Basin Street BluesLouis Armstrong
Ain’t Misbehavin’Billie Holiday

1930s and 1940s

Swing jazz emerged as the predominant musical genre in America during the late 1920s and early 1930s, producing plenty of renowned swing-era hits that have since become jazz standards. Among the most significant contributors was Duke Ellington, who either composed or collaborated on over one thousand compositions, including “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)“, “Sophisticated Lady“, and “Caravan“,

Also, the Broadway theater produced some of the most popular standards that remain widely recognized today. Compositions such as George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime“, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “My Funny Valentine“, and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “All the Things You Are” continue to be among the most frequently recorded jazz standards.

In the early 1940s, Bebop was introduced with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk taking the lead. This form of jazz was more distinctive compared to earlier versions, as it appealed to a more specialized audience due to its complex harmonies, fast tempos, and virtuoso musicianship. Bebop musicians frequently included songs from Broadway musicals, particularly 1930s standards, in their repertoire.

Numerous bebop standards have gained widespread popularity over the years. For instance, “Salt Peanuts,” a scat/bebop composition by Kenny Clarke and Dizzy Gillespie, “Take the A Train” by Billy Strayhorn, which gained critical acclaim and became the signature tune of Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, “Scrapple from the Apple” by Charlie Parker, which is an improvisation over the chord progression of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “‘‘Round Midnight” composed by Thelonious Monk and Cootie Williams, which Miles Davis later performed at the Newport Jazz in 1955.

Additional recommended jazz standards:

TitleRecommended Version
Body and SoulColeman Hawkins
All of MeBillie Holiday
Autumn in New YorkElla Fitzgerald
Blue MoonBillie Holiday
In a Sentimental MoodDuke Ellington & John Coltrane
How High the MoonElla Fitzgerald
A Night in TunisiaDizzy Gillespie
Yardbird SuiteCharlie Parker
Autumn LeavesCannonball Adderley
Lady BirdTadd Dameron Sextet

1950s and After

The 1950s was a decade of significant evolution and innovation for jazz music. It was a time when jazz musicians broke free from traditional constraints and experimented with new sounds, rhythms, and structures. This period is often referred to as the “golden age of jazz,” and it saw the rise of several influential jazz musicians who composed or reimagined jazz standards.

At the forefront was trumpeter Miles Davis, whose cool and model jazz pieces quickly gained a standard status. “Milestones,” a composition he recorded in 1958 with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, is an early exploration of the model jazz style. The piece ultimately led Miles Davis to create “So What,” the most well-known example of model jazz, which opened his 1959 studio album “Kind of Blue.” The album, also featuring John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, is widely regarded as the greatest jazz album ever made.

The same year Miles Davis released “Kind of Blue,” The Dave Brubeck Quartet recorded and released their signature piece “Take Five.” In the jazz standard Take Five, composed by Paul Desmond, the quartet uses the uncommon time signature 5/4. It was the first jazz composition using another signature other than the standard 4/4 or 3/4 times. The song’s iconic drum and piano introduction, followed by the alto saxophone melody, helped it become a well-known and best-selling jazz classic of all time.

John Coltrane’s hard bop masterpiece, “Giant Steps,” was released in February 1960 and is also regarded as one of the most influential jazz albums ever. It features various Coltrane compositions such as the opening and title track “Giant Steps,” which includes unusual harmonic chord patterns known as the “Coltrane changes”, and the homage “Naima,” named after his then-wife, Juanita Naima Grubbs.

Bobby Timmons, a prominent member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, composed “Moanin’“, which was recorded and released by the ensemble. The recording featured Art Blakey on drums, Lee Morgan on trumpet, and Benny Golson on tenor sax, along with Timmons’ piano. The song features a call-and-response structure led by Timmons’ piano. Jazz critic Gary Giddins has noted that “Moaning” was “part of the funky, back-to-roots movement popularized by Horace Silver, Mingus, and Ray Charles in different ways.

Additional recommended jazz standards:

TitleRecommended Version
Afro BlueDee Dee Bridgewater
The SidewinderLee Morgan
ImpressionsJohn Coltrane
BluesetteToots Thielemans
The Girl from IpanemaStan Getz & Astrud Gilberto
Blue TrainJohn Coltrane
My Favorite ThingsJohn Coltrane
Watermelon ManHerbie Hancock
FootprintsWayne Shorter
SpainChick Corea

Disclaimer: I would like to clarify that the jazz recommendations I provide are based on my individual taste and preferences. It’s important to note that the versions of the songs I suggest may not necessarily be the original recordings by the composer, but rather renditions by other artists.

Listen to all the songs from the article:

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