A Place for Standards-Type Songs Today
As a composer, I have always been fascinated, interested, intrigued by the music of the American popular standard song. Of course, to simply lump it all together, is to deny a wealth of diverse eras, compositional perspectives, and lyricists’s points of view. But, regardless of the varying dynamics that were changing eras and distinct artistic idiosyncrasies , “standards” have inspired musicians and captivated listeners. Generally, most standards share connecting tissue consisting of humor, optimism, frankness, play on words, imaginative bending of grammatical rules, and harmonic movement that illustrates the emotion, or transition to and from an emotion, in the text. But with the age of rock ‘n’ roll and the introduction of soul music, contemporary rhythm and blues, and the like, what is now indeed popular and could be considered a standard tune you are a contemporary popular singer toiling away at a piano bar, is of a different musical form and construction. What was popular when Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini wrote “Days of Wine and Roses”, or approximately thirty years prior, when Eubie Blake wrote “Love Will Find a Way”, does not resemble what is popular now. But relevence to the public it could be argued, is in substance and feeling. It could be considered superficial to simply assume a type of song is anachronistic simply because it is an A-A-B-A structure, build as I Got Rhythm is, with a beginning section (A), that repeats the same melody but with different lyrics, is followed by a BRIDGE section (B), and then ends with the A section. Perhaps the fashion in which a composer utilizes a particular song form, with an interesting melody, vibrant chord progressions and descriptive, well placed lyrics is what ultimately makes a song relevant for all times, regardless of whether its in the structure of most standard songs of the past, (A-A-B-A); or a blues, or what-have-you. I believe exposure to styles, forms, musical traditions, is what finally makes them “accessible”.
But the difference with popular songs, even into the beginning of the rock ‘n’ roll craze was, there was still a possibility that songs written with that standard song type structure, could still be popular hits. During the time of soul music’s infancy, Ray Charles had the number one song in the country, with a Hoagy Charmicael song, Georgia, written in 1930. And considering the musical idiosyncrasies of the time, it is noteworthy that Charles did this without a heavy backbeat, or a particularly “poppish” sounding ballad feel. His orchestration is typical of quite a few singers, at least up until the mid 1960’s, who attracted listeners with a string section, a choir executing what was essentially four-part harmony, in a song constructed with a repeating A section, connected to a bridge section. And well known it many, is Louis Armstrong’s usurping of the Beatles from No.1 on the Billboard charts with a banjo and New Orleans trad’ band instrumentation accompaniment on “Hello Dolly”. It may have been an unusal circumstance, but the popularity of this recording threatened by Armstrong’s age, (62 or 63, depending on which of his birthdays you honor), or the instrumentation, which had no electronic instruments.
In 2018, the landscape of popular music is, naturally, different. There are no longer any pop artist renditions of what could be considered standard songs, whether literal standard songs, or new songs written with similar structural aspects, to standard -type repertoire. There are some current vocalists who pattern themselves after the male singers of the big band era, who had to change their image after the end of the big band’s popularity. Soon those singers were labeled as ‘crooners’, which came with a particular image and ‘branding’ (though the term branding would not have been used at the time for ‘image’).
Today, young singers inspired by those singers are motivated more by the aesthetics of the crooner’s appearance, than an actual sympatico feeling for the repertoire. Jazz vocalist Cecile Mclorin Salvant is one of the few who writes material that often has a structure similar to standards, and seems to be pulling that type of song into the sensiblilities of the present day. (It should be noted however, that the jazz singer and instrumentalist, with the use of swing and improvisation, with the drummer playing variations on a groove in swing, pulls a song into the present anyway.) Salvant does not write songs that sound top 40-ish. They are closer to ‘art song’ tradition, or cabaret songs, or standards than top 40. But they are modern sounding in her way. Interestingly enough, there is also a potential for new music written in the spirit of standard songs, with some of the material familiar to musical theater artists.
The hey day of the American popular standard consisted of songs mostly out of musical theater. And today, even though quite a bit of musical theater repertoire is closer to the idiosyncrasies of pop music of the past 40 years, (disco, 70’s r&b, rap, etc), there are some pieces of contemporary theater repertoire that share characteristics with standards, and still have the potential to enjoy some level of popularity. They may not be jazz type material, but some can be made new by jazz musicians. And as far as singers who can live somewhere in the popular music vein, it is conceivable to think of a vocalist like Audra McDonald singing some of the material written for musical theater today that shares textural similarities with standard songs. It is not a stretch to think of some of some of the theater trained vocalists like McDonald, performing such repertoire, for a pop audience. We’re not talking about jazz artists, or music with jazz in mind, but some of those songs can be utilized by both artists like McDonald, and jazz musicians. My point is, maintaining a spotlight for some songs that are in the spirit of standards could in the long run, prove to be a potential resource for jazz artists, who typically have been the figures keeping alive songs that once were popular. Very few people know Johnny Green, Edward Heyman and Robert Sour wrote “Body and Soul” for Gertrude Lawrence to sing but most jazz fans know the most iconic instrumental recording of it was by Coleman Hawkins. Not bad for a recording over 80 years old.
One of my objectives as a composer, is to write songs that have that kind of feeling like the standards. I know the likelihood of my music being “popular” is unlikely. But that is not my goal, nor is it my expectation. Success is relative. And my daydreams include singers and instrumentalists wanting to perform and record my songs. That is what I deem “success”. And whether a niche or something for the masses there is room for everything and everyone. Someday, perhaps I’ll have my own little humble corner of those who say, “Mboya, play ‘And Mountains Bow’. I like that song…”