Gold standard

Till Brönner, Al Jarreau and Pepe Lienhard present the "Great American Songbook".

On a bitterly cold Monday in January 1983, four men – three Americans and a German – were sitting in an Indian restaurant in New York, talking about what they wanted to record over the next three days in a 53rd Street music studio. The meeting over vegetable curry and tandoori chicken had all the signs of a conspiracy. It was not about creating a musical revolution, however, but an aesthetic counterrevolution. Since the scheme the three artists and their German producer were plotting in total secrecy didn’t just run counter to the musical tendencies of the time. It also went against their own artistic norms.
Of all people, eccentric pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock from the avant garde circle led by Albert Ayler and Don Cherry, exceptionally sensitive modern percussionist Jack De Johnette, and uncompromising Munich producer Manfred Eicher – all of whom represented, each in their own way, the jazz of the time – came upon the idea of recording standards, the repertoire forming part of the so-called Great American Songbook.
This smorgasbord of hits, defying attempts to be narrowed down precisely and consisting of revues, Hollywood films, and Broadway musicals mostly from the 20s to 40s had, it is true, already been a significant part of jazz musicians’ repertoire. Many a free jazz rebel, however, in his quest for a musical tabula rasa, would have been perfectly happy throwing the songs to the birds, or at least banning them outright. The production from New York’s Power Station in that ice-cold winter of 1983, released shortly afterward, bore the laconic title Standards and was intended to be a one-time project. But things turned out differently. In the thirty years after the recording, no fewer than nineteen more would follow. And until they split up in 2015, the musicians who had gathered together on that frosty day in Manhattan ended up forming, with their unofficially-named Standards Trio, one of the most long-lived and successful combos in the 120-year history of jazz. Their exceptional success story, which the Festival Hall audience experienced in 2010 and 2012, demonstrates two things. On the one hand it confirms what had already been known: that in jazz, as often in entertainment, it’s not so much about the what as the how – not about the occasionally shabby or scanty sound material, but about what an improvisational genius of the likes of Louis Armstrong or a crooner of the caliber of Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin can do with it emotionally. But above all, the Standards Trio confirmed the legendary Songbook’s irrepressible attractiveness, and that no interpreter working in entertainment in the broadest sense can ignore it. The Great American Songbook is a living myth that represents the culture of America and its compelling fascination for other countries.
No one has ever edited the Songbook, no one has undertaken a collection – as Herder did for the German folk song – and no one can say for certain how many songs it contains or whether a particular song belongs to it or not. But there’s still a consensus that in the hearts of Americans, the collection begins alphabetically with “A Fine Romance” by Jerome Kern and possibly ends with “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon, but You’ve Done Broke Down” by Ragtime pianist Ben Harney. Of course no expert can offer testimony as to where this magnificent collection comes to an end, a collection that has so captivated the popular culture of the entire world and whose potential goes far beyond what usually makes a hit or evergreen song.
Out of the many thick books known to Western pop music culture, the Great American Songbook is one of the thickest, and above all, it’s an open book with no end in sight. It is preserved and expanded by the artists who never tire of continually interpreting and varying these songs, subjecting them to a musical stress test and demonstrating their suitability for our tear ducts, sociological engagement, entertainment, and memory – from New Orleans’ Buddy Bolden to Viersen’s Till Brönner, and from Duke Ellington in the roaring twenties to Pepe Lienhard’s Swiss Show Band in our day. Franz Werfel came up with the line that soothes the soul of everyone who listens to classical music and loves the popular music of the American Songbook: “What is the Fifth compared to a popular tune played by a street organ and a memory?”
But this judgement which, in recognizing its unsuitability for eliciting sentimental reactions, secretly confirms the superiority of serious music, misses the mark by a longshot as far as the Great American Songbook is concerned. We can call upon a composer of Classical-Romantic music like Johannes Brahms to bear witness, who is said to have scribbled the words “Unfortunately not by me” on the margin of a copy of Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube” Waltz. What Brahms had instinctively realized is the power of melodic inspiration that etches itself into our memory, and possibly into the collective memory of an entire people. Many of the songs from the Great American Songbook possess this quality, with the memorability of their melodies and recognizability of a characteristic interval or harmonic turn. In this regard the critic of Jerome Kern’s musical Show Boat was right when he commented, after the premiere, that none of the songs had the stuff of a great musical hit, since no one was capable of humming any of the tunes after leaving the theater. But the critic was also wrong, since melodiousness in itself is no guarantee for a successful song, and a lack of memorable tunes doesn’t necessarily disqualify it from being included in the Great American Songbook. In this respect the songs from the Book have something in common with other hits and evergreen songs: there’s no carte blanche, and certainly no recipe for musical success.
All the same, one thing can be said: that like in any form of growth, humus promotes musical creativity. When radio was still an important mass medium at the beginning of the 20th century, when the publishers of Tin Pan Alley were employing their songwriters in droves, Hollywood providing a continuous backdrop of sentimental music for its films, and swing orchestras from Duke Ellington to Benny Goodman supplying stimulating songs to mobilize their listeners, there was a truly limitless outpouring of new songs. In his magnificent book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900 – 1950, Alec Wilder states that he researched over 300,000 songs for inclusion in his book. 1000 of them met his strict criteria. If a total of only 300 had been written, the harvest would doubtless have been much scantier.
Here as well, competition enlivens business. With their incessant clattering, the songwriters of New York’s Tin Pan Alley in the 20s and 30s certainly spurred on the imagination of their colleagues in the rooms next door. There had never been a greater outburst of creativity in songwriting than in these composers’ Manhattan battery cages. The situation can be compared to the first wave of beat music in England and the subsequent development of rock music. There had never been so much creativity among young people as during those times of the rock ‘n’ roll bug, which spread to innumerable souls from the amateurs who all dreamed of being rock stars, fulfilling Kurt Schwitters’s prophecy: “The meadow is growing, woe unto him who’s got meadows inside him.”
Incidentally, Keith Jarrett, the man who invented free playing – piano playing without any prepared ideas, from the pure inspiration of the moment – still concludes his solo concerts with paraphrases on Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow,” a highlight of the Great American Songbook. And still today, Jarrett doesn’t abstract the song, divesting it of its content, but has the lyrics in mind while he plays it. Maybe he is also thinking of the young Judy Garland who, in the 1939 fairy-tale film The Wizard of Oz, sang of that magical country over the rainbow, a “land that I heard of once in a lullaby.” With these words, Harold Arlen may have described the essence of the Great American Songbook. It’s so close, yet so difficult to reach for most people. It’s more than a songbook. It’s a place of yearning, a land of our dreams.

Text: Wolfgang Sandner
Photo: Ulla Lommen

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