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Jazz: the “Standard Repertoire”

Jazz standards are musical compositions that form a fundamental part of the repertoire and language of jazz. They are often performed and recorded, and are therefore widely known to listeners. They are also used within education to introduce key musical concepts such as certain chord progressions and modes. 

Most of the compositions that become standards have their roots in popular culture.  The 1959 song My Favourite Things first appeared in The Sound of Music, but it wasn’t long before jazz musicians began producing their own stylistically diverse versions of the melody. John Coltrane’s approach (1960) was to play extended modal sections around the tune with such high intensity that it turned into an almost hypnotic dance: 

Whilst Sarah Vaughn’s version (1961) was slow, mournful, and forced a new emotional twist onto the unaltered lyrics:

The original:

The majority of jazz standards originate in the first half of the 20th century. Each decade brought its own set of standards, and this can provide a useful snapshot of the changing musical style of the period. Here’s a whistle-stop tour through some of the standards that defined the first part of the last century…

The 1920s saw the beginnings of the Jazz age in America and the first songs that would become standards. These songs often contained simple harmonies:

Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin

Some interesting facts about Fats:

Fats Waller was kidnapped while leaving a performance in Chicago in 1926. He was bundled into a car and taken to the Hawthorne Inn, which was owned by the notorious gangster Al Capone. Waller was ordered inside the building where a party was in full swing. With a gun to his back he was pushed towards a piano and ordered to play. Terrified, he realised that he was the ‘surprise guest’ at Capone’s birthday party. Capone released him after three days.

Waller died on December 15, 1943, while traveling aboard a Los Angeles to Chicago train near Kansas City, Missouri. He was just 39 years old.

The 1930s is considered to be the start of the “Great American Songbook” era. Many of the standards from this decade came from Broadway, such as George Gershwin’s hit, Summertime:

1940s

The 1940s was the era when improvising musicians began writing their own songs. Theloneous Monk’s Round Midnight shows off the developing complexity of the jazz repertoire during this period:

Learning to play jazz standards

Learning a standard will help develop any student’s understanding of the language of jazz. The process goes far beyond scales, modes and chord progressions. Too much time spent on technical exercises without improvising on tunes can quickly become boring. Conversely, simply playing tunes without infusing the new vocabulary that accrues from practicing exercises can hold the student back. It’s a question of balance, curiosity and immersion.

When learning jazz standards, it is always helpful to memorise the melodies and chords. The act of note reading can interfere with listening and the intuitive improvisation process. The jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz suggested playing the melody over and over, embellishing it slightly each time. Eventually it will no longer sound like the melody but an improvisation. This method also gives the student the opportunity to experiment with notes that maybe outside the expected scales or chord, enabling them to begin to develop a unique style of their own. 

This blog is published with thanks to Ed Alton who furnished us with his extensive knowledge of jazz. Ed is part of the MWC workshop team.

Feature image with thanks to Mick Haupt at UnSplash


Celebrating the Centenary of Two Jazz Greats: Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie

October 2017 marks what would have been the 100th birthday of two jazz legends: Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.

Born 11 days apart on October 10 and 21, 1917, pianist, Monk and trumpeter, Gillespie, shaped the landscape of jazz composition and improvisation, each exploring harmonies with a complexity previously unheard in jazz, leaving behind an immense legacy of music.

Anyone familiar with jazz music knows the tune Round Midnight. That was written by Monk, as were standards including Blue Monk, Straight, No Chaser, Ruby, My Dear, Well, You Needn’t, and In Walked Bud.

Round Midnight, Thelonious Monk

Monk had an unorthodox approach to the piano. In fact, he was pretty unorthodox all round. Musically, his compositions and improvisations feature dissonances and angular melodic twists, which combined a highly percussive attack with sudden, dramatic use of silence, switched key releases and hesitations. The unusual contours of his music led the jazz critic Whitney Balliett to describe them as rippling,

with dissonances and rhythms that often give one the sensation of missing the bottom step in the dark.

Apparently, on one occasion, when Monk was a guest at a jazz class at Columbia University, the lecturer turned to him and asked if he would ”play some of your weird chords for the class.”

“‘What do you mean, weird?” Monk bridled. ”They’re perfectly logical.”

He thought of jazz as an adventure and was always looking for ways to use notes differently: New chords, new ways of syncopating, new figurations and new runs.

Personally, he was known for his distinctive dress sense – suits, hats and sunglasses. He was also unusual in his performance style. Often, during a gig, while the band carried on, he would stop playing, stand up from the keyboard, and dance for a few moments before returning to the piano. He was frequently labelled as aloof, eccentric and weird, with even his son, drummer T.S. Monk, describing his father as an, “unusual guy”, while critic and writer Stanley Crouch called Monk “an abstracted stride piano player… he played it in a way that made it funny.”

As a testament to his musicianship and character, Monk is the second most-recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington. This is particularly remarkable as Ellington composed more than 1000 pieces, whereas Monk wrote only around 70. He is also one of only five jazz musicians to have ever been featured on the cover of Time Magazine, alongside Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington and, more recently, Wynton Marsalis,

According to an obituary of Monk by John S Wilson, Randy Weston, a pianist who studied with Mr. Monk, called him: “As complete an original as it is possible to be.”

Alongside Dizzy Gillespie, Monk led a generation of jazz musicians through the bebop era. Dubbed the “The High Priest of Bop,” he refused to conform to expectations.

For years, they were telling me to play commercial, be commercial. I’m not commercial. I say, play your own way. You play what you want, and let the public pick up on what you were doing, even if it takes 15, 20 years.

Monk Performs with his Quartet in 1969:

By the 1960s, Monk had achieved recognition. He worked regularly with a quartet featuring tenor saxophonist, Charlie Rouse until in the 1970’s, his public appearances became infrequent because of illness. His last official performance was at Carnegie Hall in 1976.

John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, along with Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, ushered in the era of Bebop in the American jazz tradition. The youngest of nine children, Gillespie began playing piano at the age of four and received a music scholarship to the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina. Noted for his trademark ‘swollen cheeks,’ he admitted to copying the style of trumpeter Roy Eldridge early in his career.

It was when Gillespie began experimenting with his own style that he eventually came to the attention of Mario Bauza, the godfather of Afro-Cuban jazz who was then a member of the Cap Calloway Orchestra. Gillespie joined the band in 1939.

The following story is recorded in Playing the Changes: Milt Hinton’s Life in Stories and Photographs, by Milt Hinton, David G. Berger, and Holly Maxson,

Diz’s music was revolutionary. Even back then he was playing way ahead of the times. But only a couple of us who had our ears open listened. I knew he’d take music to a new place. So did Chu, Cozy [Cole], and a couple of the others.

Diz’s biggest musical problem was that he’d try playing things he couldn’t technically handle. I’d often hear him start a solo he just couldn’t finish. Whenever that happened, some of the older guys would look over at him and make ugly faces. Cab usually showed the same kind of disgust and often scolded Diz at rehearsals or after a performance. He’s say things like, “Why in hell can’t you play like everybody else? Why d’ya make all those mistakes and have all those funny sounds come outta your horn? Play it like the other guys do!”

Diz would sit quietly, with his head hung down. He looked like a little school kid being scolded by the teacher.

Gillespie continued to develop as one of the founding fathers of the Afro-Cuban/Latin jazz tradition. Influenced by Bauza, known as Gillespie’s musical father, he fused Afro-American jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms to form a burgeoning Cubop sound.

He toured Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America under the sponsorship of the US State Department, frequently returning with new musical ideas, and with musicians who would eventually go on to achieve world recognition.

Dizzy Gillespie, On the Sunny Side of the Street 1958

With a strong sense of pride in his Afro-American heritage, Gillespie left a legacy of musical excellence that embraced and fused the music of Africa, the Caribbean, Cuba and other Latin American countries. He also left behind a legacy of humour and good will that infused jazz musicians and fans throughout the world with the genuine sense of jazz’s ability to transcend national and ethnic boundaries.

Dizzy Gillespie, Salt Peanuts:


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