Editor’s Choice November 2012

The End of Jazz

How America’s most vibrant music became a relic
Duke Ellington with his close collaborator Billy Strayhorn (Underwood & Underwood/Corbis)

Musician, composer, scholar, teacher, perhaps a bit of an operator—albeit of a distinctly nerdy variety—Ted Gioia is also the sort of compulsive, encyclopedically knowledgeable enthusiast the jazz world engenders. (Dan Morgenstern, Will Friedwald, and the winningly neurotic savant and broadcaster Phil Schaap immediately come to mind as other examples of the type.) The author of eight books on jazz, including West Coast Jazz, a subtle and sweeping masterpiece of historical reconstruction and musical analysis, Gioia here offers a guide to more than 250 key jazz compositions—the “building blocks of the jazz art form,” as he puts it. He intends that this volume, made up of two-to-four-page entries for each song, will serve as a reference work for jazz lovers and as a practical handbook for musicians: “I have picked the compositions that … a musician is most frequently asked to play,” Gioia writes. “Not learning these songs puts a jazz player on a quick path to unemployment.” But in meeting those modest goals, Gioia has done nothing less than define what he considers to be the jazz repertoire—that is, the pieces of enduring popularity and significance that form the basis of most jazz arrangements and improvisations.

Although he suggests in his introduction that this book satisfies an unfilled need, in fact the Web site JazzStandards.com already provides a similar guide, written by a variety of contributors. But The Jazz Standards—issued by Oxford University Press, the world’s preeminent publisher of jazz titles, and informed by a single and esteemed critical sensibility—canonizes the selected works in a fashion that a Web site cannot. The value of such a work, of course, depends on the acumen of the author. In virtually every instance, Gioia delivers.

Take his entry on Billy Strayhorn’s bitter, lovely, transcendent “Lush Life” (1936). It’s clear from Gioia’s out-on-a-limb encomium (“If I were allowed to steal a single song from the twentieth century and make it my own, without a question it would be ‘Lush Life’ ”) that he grasps the singularity of Strayhorn’s triumph (a triumph achieved before the composer was 21), and his characterization of that triumph—“the sheer audacity of … a love song that denounces romance with such vehemence”—is at once spot-on and as eccentric as the song itself. For his handful of recommended recordings, he naturally enough lists the classic covers, the most famous of which are John Coltrane’s two versions, including his celebrated (and to my mind overpraised) recording with the singer Johnny Hartman. But Gioia also astutely selects Carmen McRae’s relatively obscure rendition, one of the finest vocal versions, and in fact rightly elevates it above the far-better-known versions by Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Moreover, with great discernment he singles out Stan Getz’s brief, understated, overlooked recording.


VIDEO: Benjamin Schwarz shares some of the greatest jazz recordings of all time, from Frank Sinatra to Billy Strayhorn.

Still, the most impressive aspect of the entry is Gioia’s assessment of a single word. Strayhorn was openly homosexual, a fact that has led many commentators to somewhat reductively define him as a gay composer, and to congratulate themselves on their knowingness by seizing upon the first lines of “Lush Life” (“I used to visit all the very gay places”) as evidence of supposedly hidden messages in his work. But in a sensible, mild, elegant corrective, Gioia, who studied English at Stanford and is undoubtedly familiar with William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, observes:

Scholars have debated the semantic resonance of the term “gay” back in the Great Depression … In a song already rich with multiple meanings—even the title “Lush Life” can be taken two ways—the hypothesis that a coded additional level of signification resides in the lyrics cannot be resolved with any finality; yet even if Strayhorn intended this, I suspect he also felt confident that his song lost little in its overall impact when heard by audiences who missed the innuendo.

This perforce thumbnail appraisal of the song can’t match the depth and sophistication of the definitive analysis—Friedwald’s 23-page chapter devoted to “Lush Life” in Stardust Melodies (in which Friedwald amply proves his thesis that “it’s hard to think of another piece of music that has anything at all in common with ‘Lush Life’ ”). Yet Gioia’s entry, in its own way definitive, is but one of a quarter-thousand assessments in this monument to taste and scholarship.

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantics literary editor and national editor.

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