Judith Weir CBE, Master of the King's Music
David Matthews

In Praise of the Jazz Standard

By Michael Regan

Which is a popular song, or occasionally an instrumental number, frequently used as the basis for improvisation by jazz groups of varying sizes from trios to bands. Usually, the complete song or piece is performed as written followed by solo improvised treatments of it and often concluding with the original melody and harmonies plus a short coda.

Some well-known examples are Autumn Leaves, Georgia on My Mind, Lullaby of Birdland etc.

The heyday of the jazz standard was from c1920 to c1960, but there are examples from earlier and later dates. The identities of the composers of these songs and pieces hardly matter – jazz standards are best known by their titles.

I admire them as much for their nostalgia-value as for any purely musical interest or inventiveness. To the over 70s they conjure up those tranquil post-war years c1947- 59 of ration-books, the E1 London tramcar, and Players Navy Cut, now almost forgotten even by us oldies.

As a composer of music meant to be performed as accurately as possible  from detailed notation,  I have a certain regard for, and envy of, the composer of jazz and popular music who can present all the information that performers need on one sheet of paper (the lead-sheet) that will show usually only the melody, chords, tempo and style of rhythm,  and from which, according to the talents of the performers (or arrangers) a convincing performance can be given. 

We, as composers of so-called serious music, habitually assume that the notes and instructions we give to performers are sacrosanct and not to be tampered with. For the composer of jazz and popular music there is no such assumption on their part; they normally provide only a framework on which the improvising performer, possibly assisted by an arranger, will flesh out deliberately sketchy ideas. And I find this a refreshing counterbalance to the ingrained dedication to notating the minutest interpretative details we see in so many contemporary pieces.

The best jazz standards are probably the simplest and those with memorable chord progressions. It has been remarked that seasoned jazz musicians can tell the title of a song by its chord progression alone – if it is in the usual key.  E.g., Cm7, Fm7, Dm7 b5, G7, Cm7, Ebm7, Ab7, Dbmaj7, Dm7 b5, G7, Cm = Blue Bossa by Kenny Dorham, an admirably simple melody over a distinctive chord progression and in bossa nova style.

MJR 12/22