Like most good ideas, it’s a very simple one; an A-Z guide to the Great American Songbook from a jazz perspective – who wrote the tunes, why they wrote them and a roundup of the best versions.
Gioia, a highly respected jazz writer and author, comes up trumps with ‘The Jazz Standards’, a well-researched, witty, sometimes revelatory tome. You may think you know the compositions well but the book consistently wrongfoots with fascinating bits of trivia.
Some brief examples: Matt Henry/Earl Brent’s ‘Angel Eyes’ had an original title of ‘Have Another Beer On Me’. Also it had never really occurred to me that Frank Sinatra started his famous 1958 version with the middle eight – ‘Hey, drink up all you people’ – a revolutionary idea at the time.
Elsewhere, we learn that Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Chelsea Bridge’ was inspired by a painting of Battersea Bridge by Whistler on show at London’s Tate Gallery. Herbie Hancock’s ‘Dolphin Dance’ owes a remarkable amount to Count Basie’s ‘Shiny Stockings’, composed by Frank Foster (have a listen to compare).
There’s a great strand of Charlie Parker revelations: ‘Moose The Mooche’ was an ode to Emry Byrd, a shoeshine stand operator in LA who also moonlighted as Parker’s heroin dealer, a polio victim who could only move around on crutches or in a wheelchair; ‘Now’s The Time’ was ripped off for Paul Williams’ R’n’B hit ‘The Hucklebuck’; ‘Scrapple From The Apple’ was named for Bird’s favourite concoction of pork trimmings, cornmeal and flour, shaped into a loaf and then sliced and fried – apparently a New York speciality.
The songwriters themselves are usually no less interesting: Jimmy Van Heusen, for example, co-writer of ‘Love And Marriage’ and ‘Come Fly With Me’ amongst many other classics, was born Edward Babcock and later became a Hollywood player and Sinatra buddy by sheer force of will.
Of course Gioia’s lists of recommended versions will infuriate some with its omissions, but there are good, unexpected ones too: Lenny Breau’s ‘Days Of Wine and Roses’, Casey Abrams’ ‘Nature Boy’ (as performed on ‘American Idol’) or Sun Ra’s version of ‘My Favorite Things’.
But in general this is a hugely worthwhile study, full of superb anecdotes and factoids, surely of interest to jazz and pop fans alike – after all, ‘The Jazz Standards’ is pretty much a history of popular song from the twenties to the late sixties.