Recently, I had an exchange with a jazz impresario about a fan’s preference for jazz standards over original material — a preference, I believe, shared by many other jazz fans. I have no statistical data to support that assumption, but I do have a wealth of empirical knowledge gained from years spent following jazz as a fan and many more years spent playing the music professionally. From my perspective, it’s safe to say that standards occupy a special place in the jazz canon, as well as in the hearts and minds of fans. No piece of music will ever acquire the same nostalgic value as a standard unless it becomes popular enough to itself be performed by jazz musicians with regularity.
For the sake of clarity, let’s define “jazz standard” as a popular song that is frequently played — interpreted and reinterpreted — by jazz musicians. Sometimes these songs are penned by jazz artists themselves. For example, Thelonious Monk left us many, including Straight, No Chaser and Round Midnight. There’s John Coltrane’s Impressions and Giant Steps, and Wes Montgomery’s Road Song and West Coast Blues. (Actually, I’ve always thought of standards written by jazz musicians as the indelible mark of their legacy.) In any case, jazz musicians have all learned to play jazz by performing these popular songs. Through that process, they become familiar with improvisation and interpretation. Furthermore, the knowledge they glean from practicing and playing standards helps to both validate and develop their musical aesthetic, gives them the ability to use that awareness as a tool, and informs their improvisational and compositional skills. Non-musicians who listen closely to standards develop a finer appreciation of jazz.
Jazz standards allow both non-musicians and musicians to contrast and compare the playing styles and techniques of different performers in familiar musical environments. They also help to set general and specific guidelines for songs and styles in the minds of musicians and listeners. Without rules, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to establish or codify any art based on individual expression. In jazz, rules facilitate communication and understanding among musicians. On the common ground where musicians meet, compositional and improvisational reference points have been established and transferred from one generation to the next over the last hundred years. Likewise, certain songs have become “standards” because of a time-tested general consensus of their worth. They are not the only valid jazz material, but they are essential to the learning and development of jazz students — and they provide a rich proving ground for professional jazz musicians. I know that my ability to play jazz is a result of the value I placed on learning and continually practicing standards.
For young musicians, a strong familiarity with jazz standards breeds a deep appreciation for pleasingly simple and memorable melodies. Maybe it’s corny, old-school or simply passé for musicians today to want their melodies to be memorable and their songs to draw the attention of as many people as possible, but I don’t think so. Jazz musicians from all eras — including this one — have wanted people to embrace their music.
If musicians can continue to create music as compelling and captivating as the timeless standards that currently constitute a significant portion of the jazz canon, such as Benny Golson’s Stablemates and Dizzy Gillespie’s Con Alma, then jazz will surely continue to live and thrive.