The Greatest Recordings in Jazz History

Benjamin Schwarz shares some of the loveliest songs of all time, from Peggy Lee and Benny Goodman's haunting "Where or When" to Billy Strayhorn's enigmatic "Lush Life."

In "The End of Jazz," his essay in the November Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz looks at the Great American Songbook -- a collection that is not a physical book, but "a notional catalogue of classic popular songs" written between the 1920s and 1950s. Many of its entries are familiar to almost every American, including famous tunes by Cole Porter,  Rogers and Hart, and other masters of the musical theater.

In this video, Schwarz singles out some of the most unforgetable performances of these songs. He shows how Peggy Lee's "Where or When" — recorded with Benny Goodman and his band — captured "the quavering uncertainty" in the weeks just after Pearl Harbor. He explains that Frank Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin" transformed a little-known Cole Porter number into a staple of the Great American Songbook. And he explores the enigma of "Lush Life," a Billy Strayhorn song that Sinatra himself tried and failed to capture.

The irony, as Schwarz explains, is that the once-ebullient genre of jazz has long been frozen in time. The Great American Songbook stopped accepting new entries long ago. As Modern Jazz Quartet director John Lewis put it, "There is no reason to believe that jazz can be a living, evolving art form decades after its major source—and the source that linked it to the main currents of popular culture and sentiment—has dried up." These recordings are reminders of a time when those currents were still fluid and new.

Also see "The End of Jazz," Benjamin Schwarz's piece in the November Atlantic.

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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