The Modern Standard: What Is It?

Inspired by Spring’s indecisiveness a couple weeks ago, I decided not to brave the wind and rain this particular day, but to do some season-inspired cleaning instead. Thumbing through my music library, I settled on some classic Blue Note repertoire to help me through my chores: Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ Three Blind Mice, to be specific.  As the gorgeous and fittingly titled Freddie Hubbard waltz “Up Jumped Spring” played, it got me to thinking about the layers of musical camaraderie jazz music has always had.  Not just the cooperative nature of performing the music, but also in terms of what music was performed.  The vast landscape of jazz repertoire which includes Blues, Tin Pan Alley songs, show tunes, and pop songs, is most enriched by original compositions from jazz musicians themselves, which through the social contexts of the music, became standards in their own right.  Songs from Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Wayne Shorter had become modern jazz standards of their times because of their popularity and exposure within the jazz community.  I then started focusing on today, and my experiences at jazz performances.  Yes, the headliner is playing his or her original work, and yes the band, on some occasions, may feature a tune or two from a bandmate, but what were the odds that they would play a tune by a musical peer beyond their own band?  Slim to none, as far as I could tell.  Which got me to thinking: What is the modern jazz standard?

I began looking through the several Real Books laying around the house.  I couldn’t seem to find a song that was written in the last twenty years or so included.  With the plethora of prolific writers in jazz over this span of time, I found it odd.  What does this mean?  I started asking musicians for their take on why songs aren’t becoming popularized within the genre, and how this could affect their mark in history, if at all.

“People are so ensconced with doing their own thing, and don’t realize that it helps the music when we promote each other’s songs.  It helps the mentality,” says trumpeter Jeremy Pelt.  “For a long time, people have regarded standards as the test of one’s mettle and that tradition has stood the test of time for years and years and it was also something that was meant to rope in somebody who hadn’t heard you before, so that was the paradigm of which all modern jazz players were based off of, before you get into your own thing.”

Doing one’s own thing has never been easier.  The collapse of crucial major jazz labels, and a shift in the art of record producing has birthed a DIY era of record making which, while incredibly liberating, also has its share of considerable consequences.  “What’s interesting about the industry in any musical [genre] is that years ago — and I mean in our time — it was special to make a record,” says Pelt, who has just released his ninth album, Soul; a gorgeous blues and ballads project.  “Nowadays, I could put together a record right now on my Mac Book in an hour.  I don’t need a label to do anything for me, I just put it together, get my Logic going, and put it right up on my website and I will have a bona fide record.  So, the change in the industry and the mentality is such that it’s not a special thing anymore, and that’s, in essence, what makes it very competitive, number one.  You would think it’s less competitive now, but it’s actually more competitive because nobody’s shit is special anymore.  It’s all very ego-driven, and I think that a lot of young composers are always in a rush to push their agenda, and everyone is guilty of it at some point.  I think that with me, I made it a conscious decision, after doing records of my own material, to really cast light on some of my comtemporaries’ songs.”  Pelt, who has one of the few long-established quintets in the business, has recorded the music of Anthony Wonsey, Myron Waldon and Eric Reed. “If there was something I was drawn to in a song, I would record it and I think that it benefits the community at large.  I think people are afraid to do it because they feel like it will take the spotlight away from their compositions, which is a valid feeling if you’re insecure like that, but realistically, it’s not like there’s a whole lot of spotlight on the [jazz] industry in general [laughs].”

Pianist Orrin Evans, who is bringing a sense of community back to the jazz scene with his big band, Captain Black, is one of the few bandleaders today proactively featuring original music of not only his peers, but his proteges alike. “There’s such a need now for branding,” says Evans, “that even if you sit down with the best publicist in the business now, the word that’s going to come up is ‘branding’.  If you sit down with a manager, everyone is talking about branding, and that whole package becomes so self-serving.  A lot of people, when they get that moment, it’s like, ‘I gotta play my music, and do my stuff.’  But I honestly believe that I can still be who I am by how I interpret other people’s music.  It doesn’t need to be my music.  Who I am isn’t all about my songs or how I play my music, but also how I interpret music.”

Evans, who paid tribute to his mentor, saxophonist Bobby Watson, on his 2010 release Faith In Action, believes firmly in honoring his influences while they are still here; a philosophy which jazz has struggled to reckon with for the last several decades.  The genre seems to be contented (for better or worse) between two musical polars: an homage-obsessed one, and the other which seems, at times, completely musically isolated.

Guitarist Mike Moreno illuminates another set of possibilities of why artists’ tunes aren’t making the rounds as they did years ago.  “Today, there are far less jazz musicians being asked to record albums within a constricted period of time by record companies. Years ago, more musicians had record contracts that required them to record more often, demanding more material. So the artists might have been looking for more material if they didn’t have enough tunes written themselves for their next date. And now, for some of us, we write far more tunes than we have a chance to record. So we always end up playing what we wrote and don’t really have time on the date or gig to play so many of our peers’ original music. But another big reason, I think, is that jazz tunes have become more labor intensive to learn. Most of the music written now by musicians of my generation requires some pretty heavy rehearsing.  And there just isn’t enough time most rehearsals to rehearse your own music, and then another person’s hard music too. It’s better to just go with a standard that everyone knows to break the monotony of reading on every song during a gig or record date. Usually after about eight original tunes the band members start to hint at, ‘Yeah, and we can just throw in some standard tunes in between these.’  There is far more reading going on, on gigs now. And since most gigs today are mostly one nighters as opposed to playing for weeks at a time at the same venue, as back in 40’s 50’s and 60’s, with less sets, the opportunity is just not there to play a wider range of repertoire on gigs. But regardless, an original tune back in the day was no more than 32 bars, with maybe an intro, then the head, solo on the melody form, head out. Now a four or five page tune is no surprise. And the road maps through the sections can be really tricky. There is only so much of that, you can put in front of the band each gig.”

Moreno recently released his stunning fourth album, Another Way (World Culture Music), which features all original compositions, but is known for his uncanny ability to interpret standards, and has released two standards albums on the Criss Cross label.  “Before the Real Books came out there was a good grace period that determined what should be in there. Classic records were already classic.  The Real Book didn’t make Monk’s music popular, for example. Who would decide what should go in the newer real books if the records haven’t had a chance to become something yet? It would be nice if there was something like it, but who would buy it? I’m not sure publishers are really interested in that. After all, who buys Real Books anyway? Students who don’t really have the ear yet to learn the tunes from recordings and also need a guide of what to learn from the history of the music, or local musicians that just play background gigs with standards that they haven’t committed to memory.  That market of consumer usually buys the first editions Real Books to learn and play the “standard standard” material at their gigs.  The more advanced musicians usually have already studied that material, and then when they do want to play more modern stuff just transcribe it themselves and write out the charts rather than spending the money on a entire book to get a few tunes out of it.  I don’t think Real Books with newer music would make very much money for publishing companies, especially with current access to artist websites, in which the artists have taken their music into their own hands.  Fans or musicians who really want a newer artist’s original sheet music can just go to that person’s website and purchase the tunes they want now, or write the artist personally saying, ‘Hey, I really love this one tune, or this record, can you send me the lead sheets?’ I get those emails all the time. But, you can’t do that to Cole Porter, Miles, Monk, or even someone still current like Wayne Shorter or Herbie.  But a lot of times my favorite tunes were not in Real Books. I always transcribed myself. It might be more profitable for publishers to just put out individual songbooks by current artists. Few already exist. But, I don’t see any publishing companies really wanting to jump at this anytime soon, maybe down the line sometime. Then it might have an effect on the scene overall, making the records of today that will end up as classics documented as such. I think it is still too early.”

It just may be.  Yet, to Moreno’s point about the way the music of Monk, for example, was already popularized pre-Real Book era, I could not help but think about why and how much of the reason had to do with community and the role musicians play in getting their peers’ music out into the world.

“If you think about it, the Real Book hasn’t changed since probably 1993,” says Evans. “I haven’t bought one in a long time, but…that’s twenty years.  In that amount of time, we’ve had some monumental records, despite what people want to think or say.  We’ve got Crazy People Music from Branford [Marsalis], we’ve got Jason Moran’s records, Robert Glasper’s records, Kenny Kirkland’s records, which came out all within that time span.  Christian McBride’s first two records, during the time when the young lions — Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton — all of them had killing records, and you don’t see hardly any of those tunes in any of the Real/Fake books.  We have to keep playing the music.  Because if you stop playing it, for the next kids who come along, there’s no book.  I mean, granted, the reality is if we’re going to deal with it musically, all the old heads would say they should be learning it by ear anyway, but I’m talking about the business of it.  We’re not represented. Two decades of music is not represented in that book.”

“There isn’t really a linear sense of the scene in terms of progression, and in terms of community,” says saxophonist John Ellis, whose southern tinged Double-Wide quintet will be a part of the Newport Jazz Festival line-up this year.  People don’t necessarily  expectantly wait for so and so’s record, like they did for Miles.  We’re not connected to that era.  The people within the scene are disconnected from each other.  And I think all of that fracturing puts people in a whole different place.  I mean, that being said, I think Terence [Blanchard] has done a great job, very similar to Blakey, of showcasing his band members’ music.  I think there are isolated instances most certainly of that: of people building community within smaller groups.  When it comes to standards, for the most part, we’re talking about the Great American Songbook.  The ideal that there was a general, cultural knowledge of this music that jazz musicians interpreted, basically everybody knew those songs.”

“I mean, when I moved here there weren’t too many incubation bands in the first place that you could learn from,” adds Pelt, sighting the importance of musicians having experience not just playing music outside of their own, but also stretching out in bands beyond their own.  “Betty Carter was still alive but was getting ill, you still had Elvin Jones, we still have Roy Haynes, so there were a handful.  But there weren’t that many bands of that calibar to where you could get in and learn something.  So even now, fast forward almost fifteen years later, it’s like well now who is there really to play with?  And it forces today’s musicians to have to come up wtih their own situations because who else are they going to play with that they’re really going to learn from?”

“With the collapse of the major record label options for jazz for most people, it has made it such that everything is so diffused and spread out and then you juxtapose that with this incredible change of everything becoming institutionalized,” says Ellis who pointed out to me through an illustration about the cultural climate of jazz when the music was in Harlem, that the audience used to play such an important role in keeping the music contemporary and popular.  This begs the question: Who is the modern musician playing for?

“I think there is definitely something about Facebook and Twitter that makes people narcissistic, or encourages there inner narcissism, like everything I’m saying and doing is so important,” says Ellis. “Social networking…there is something sort of strangely anti-social about it, but on the other hand there is real potential to organize; it’s all about how we use it, I guess.  I do think there is some tension between this crazy connectivity and access to so much information and then how kind of isolating it all is.”

I guess there’s no easy or right answer or solution to the dilemma, and in fact the subject sheds more light on just how many achilles heels our musical community is plagued from. However, I do think we could benefit from more documenting and collective publishing of modern jazz compositions.  Collectivity has always made the music what it is.  The music being more than just the sum of its parts, as NPR producer Becca Pulliam said to me in a recent interview.  I just hope that by the time my son is in college, he’s learning the music of Jason Moran alongside the music of Art Blakey.  We can’t keep using the word “modern” to describe jazz, if we’re really referring to 1965.  That being said, I think at some point, it may be worthwhile to publish an updated book of modern compositions and start creating a rightful place for our generation in the spectrum of contributions.  There’s too much at stake to be overlooked in the end.

I welcome your thoughts on the matter.

15 responses to “The Modern Standard: What Is It?

  1. I often wonder if the reason we don’t have many stable bands (personnel-wise) these days, bands that can truly build a repertoire and serve as models for others (and fodder for repeat exploration of compositions), is based more on the fact that the band “academies” of the past – Miles, the Messengers, Betty Carter, etc. – are no more, or more on what I liken to the compulsion that academy-trained musicians seem to feel towards the pull of a kind of instant bandleadership mentality. And that mentality may indeed be tied to the relative simplicity of 21st century record making. Those wise musicians who contributed to your piece Angela, seem to owe the fact that so few original compositions these days become part of the standard repertoire, has more to do with the compulsion to write, that may or may not have more to do with the training afforded these musicians, than it does to some of the other factors afoot – such as band instability. Referring back to Mike Moreno’s comments, I’m wondering if it has as much to do with the nature of what these musicians are writing as “originals,” and the fact that so few of these “originals” seem to have any true staying power. Are musicians allowing a kind of one-upsmanship compositional complexity get in the way of writing truly memorable tunes?

    • Great, great points, Willard. I think the band “academies” are so necessary, and there just aren’t as many as there used to be, and it’s scary to think about who will carry the torch as life and nature take their course.

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  3. Hey Angelika thank you so much for your piece! Great and diverse points of view. I think Mike and Willard hit on something crucial — the nature of jazz compositions has changed in the past 30 to 40 years — and not necessarily for the better, in my view. I think if you asked your average jazz fan to sing the melody to “So What” or “I Mean You”, they could do a pretty good approximation. But today’s tunes are so much more complex that they lack that catchiness or “hook”-ness of tunes in the past — which is the exact thing that makes audiences want to hear them AND other musicians want to play them. I feel that the institutionalization of jazz has made jazz compositions much more academic and less “musical”. No musician wants to play a whole gig with his head buried in sheet music, and no audience wants to see that, either. I wonder if musicians are afraid of writing “simple” tunes for fear that they’ll be judged unsophisticated?

    • Wow, that’s really great perspective, Jesse. I think sometimes catchiness is mistakenly paired with being corny or unsophisticated, as you mention. But it’s simply not the case. There’s room for it all, but I can’t help but wonder what audiences would look like if there were more melody-driven, “catchy” tunes.

  4. The decline of the standard in jazz coincides with the rise of the songwriter in pop. In the early days of pop, no one cared who the songwriter was- it was all about the performer. The Beatles changed that, for better or worse, so that a pop/rock band that doesn’t write their own material is looked down on. Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown in 1967. Kids who were raised in a world where a successful artist was expected to write their own material would become the jazz artists of the late seventies and early eighties.

    Couple with that the promulgation of Great American Songbook records by pop stars. Linda Ronstadt released “What’s New” in 1983. I wouldn’t want to be playing any of those songs while she was topping the charts with them. The trend continued with Rod Stewart, Carly Simon and now, bringing the songwriter-as-performer notion full circle, Paul McCartney. The value of the standard has been reduced by association with these pop acts, as well as the pseudo-jazz artists like Michael Buble, Diana Krall, etc.

    Finally, there’s a certain amount of ownership that is (wrongfully) applied when a jazz band does take a pop song and give it a twist, which is of course the root of most of the standards we know and love. Will anyone else put their spin on “Human Nature” now that Vijay Iyer has recorded it twice? What about someone else exploring Thom Yorke’s “The Eraser” the way Christian Scott did? The first steps are being taken, but the second steps are not.

  5. I think Mike Moreno hit the nail right on the head. Modern jazz involves very complex forms that aren’t overly simple to memorize (or to read cold, for that matter). That said though, I don’t think this is something extremely new. If you look in the Real Book there exists lots of complex form tunes (Corea, Brecker Bros, Eberhead Weber, etc) that are rarely called at your standard jazz gig. Obviously, this is because 12,24 and 32 bar forms allow a gateway into spontaneous improvisation in an unrehearsed environment. Are modern jazz composers writing music too complex and inaccessible to become standards? Perhaps. But there is certainly a plethora of songs written in the past 20 years that do take standard forms. It’s a very good question wondering why they haven’t taken to becoming “new” standards?

    I currently do play what I would call “modern standards. Pat Metheny, Pat Martino, Kenny Garrett, Keith Jarrett, Steve Swallow; but maybe I should look towards the immediate present. I think I’ll start with some Robert Glasper.

    Thanks for this great article.

  6. Hello Angelika,
    Thank you for a wonderful, well written blog and a very interesting piece on the lack of new standards in jazz.
    I think that the musicians you talked to on this subject are really on to something, as are the commentators above. One thing that I thought about that may or may not relate to all this, is the academization of jazz that we’ve seen during the last decades. It seems to me that this movement has made jazz more conservative and more inclined on looking backwards than onwards. Modern jazz education, I think, fosters an exaggerated worship and respect for the tradition of jazz, at the expence of creativity and innovation — the core values of jazz, aren’t they not? Mastering the old standards has become more important than finding your own unique sound.
    So it is at least, I believe, in Sweden where I live, but I would guess that the conditions at least partly apply to American jazz education as well, or what do you think?

    I took the liberty of summarizing your article on my Swedish jazz blog, hope you don’t mind!

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  8. As always, this article is on point and very insightful. I’m elated that you wrote this piece, I’ve heard folks on numerous occasions express their love, passion and dismay for the modern jazz verses classic jazz recordings in a similar context.

    It seems not long ago George Duke made a comment about artists in the seventies (although very talented) where channeling their energy around skills verse composing lyrically memorable music. I struggle with the idea of artists recording classics verses writing original music from a listeners perspective.

    Even today with artist ability, flexibility, and ego can loosely express themselves musically through the conduit of technology however they wish. Moreover, this poses a dilemma of sorts because not only the musicians but the listener base is so different these days compared to previous generations. I often hear this complain, regardless of genre R&B for example today can’t compare to soul music from previous decades.

    Perhaps people are more conservative these days, I was definitely more radical in my thought process about music, religion, politics and so forth then verses now? With that said, my hope is that artists and music enthusiasts alike will continue to learn, grow and formulate new ideas for future generations and respectfully draw from the timeless masterpieces, complexities and wisdom of veteran artists by staying relevant and equally important true to the music.

    Blessings, Rob

  9. Pingback: An Uncommon ‘Riddle’: Joshua Redman Covers His Musical Peer | Drum Groove Trainer News

  10. I think the decline is because composition is in art that everyone thinks they can do, but few can master. There’s too many composers in jazz, too much “product” and not enough imaginative work or harmonic uniqueness. In my recent recordings I attempt to deal with the bigger picture of American song, and it is a complex thing – you need to know not just jazz, but the history of show music, film music, gospel music, country music, the blues, ragtime and pre-1920 African American composers like Will Marion Cook. And don’t forget Ernest Hogan and Ben Harney. Just my opinion.

  11. Angelika,

    This article is really interesting and touches on a number of growing problems in the ‘Jazz’ world. The quotes are necessary here, because that word just doesn’t mean anything anymore!

    I think that today’s musicians, being mostly churned out by college jazz programs, are struggling to find relevance in a world that does not want to hear another version of Giant Steps. When I got started, all I did was listen to Miles and Trane, etc., and study that music. I learned the tunes, I checked out the Real Books, and played the sessions. As college started to end, though, I realized that this was not going to make a career happen! Nobody today is interesting when playing what they played in 1965! Bebop scales and licks are a tired, dead sound. They have use, surely, but one cannot base themselves on those fundamentally anymore.

    So yes, like Jeremy Pelt said in your article, anyone can make a record (in an hour? Not likely!) and we have a DIY culture but there is one important asterisk to that: doing it yourself does not equate to success or a quality recording! At the end, the best quality is what gets noticed, and the DIY folks will soon realize that when they get no reaction to their ‘album’. Don’t get me wrong: I am a DIY as well, and I think that’s just a necessary evil at this point. But if you want to rise above playing in a restaurant behind loud conversations, you need to do something worth hearing.

    Another interesting question: Who is today’s modern musician playing for? That is getting lost amongst the ‘standards’ crowds. Let’s face it: if you are playing standards, you are a cover band. I don’t buy this idea of ‘self-expression’ and re-interpreting and re-imagining. Those tunes were played by the Birds and Monks, etc, because that was popular music then. The standards we have now, as mentioned in your article, were the original tunes of those times! I don’t believe they were intended to become the ‘must-learn’ and ‘must-play at a session’ song. ‘Jazz’ or whatever we are calling it evolved because of those original songs. Coltrane himself played Giant Steps for about a year (the song, not the cycle) and then moved on! It has stagnated because of people who want to stick to the head-solo-head format, and to this restrictive ‘list’ of approved songs.

    Mike Moreno mentioned an important point as well: Music today is much more complicated – my own charts average 5-10 pages per part. Why? I think that solos are not capable of sustaining audience interest as much anymore. Jazz is now an art (used to be a dance music), which is beautiful to me. But that art needs more structure than improvisation alone can provide. Solos tell an important part of the story, but they are not the story! They are reactive and propulsive. Writing 12 measures and soloing for half an hour is just plain lazy and listeners know that, on a subconscious level. I’m not saying we play music for the purposes of appeasing listeners – but this art is a shared experience, like all music. When it is a one-person solo fest, there is not much sharing there.

    My point, I suppose, is that ‘Jazz’ is a constant dichotomy between those who try to move forward (Just like Miles, Trane and all the other heroes) and those who hold it back by saying, “let’s play All the Things You Are in 17/4”. I urge everyone to understand that innovation is the underlying essence of this music, and that is the only way for it to survive. Otherwise, the music would just be a museum for the 1950’s and ’60’s. I am a proud student of Bird, Lester, and everyone else. But I cannot allow myself to do what they did. They would not do that either. They would keep pushing and so will I.

  12. Hi. Thanks for a great blog. I agree about the fact that Real books are a great educating tool (with some dodgy changes or mis-transcriptions along the way) but I despair when Jam session players do not venture outside the contents of the first volume. I take great pleasure in bringing less famous tunes to the audience – or self-penned songs in the style of what was done 60 to 70 years ago. I share Mike Moreno’s point of view in providing more written charts, even just for the sake of having some proper intros and sections to frame the solos. Ok, it’s more reading on stage but it defines the musical thought better and magnifies the solos too. Somehow bringing the concept of Big Band writing to smaller ensembles. However, I think that musicians should look towards both modernity and tradition – same applies to Classical music by the way. For as long as the vibe is there, the song will live.

    And for those of you who still share a passion for pre-1965 Jazz, please have a look at my blog, and help me build the ultimate Jazz set.

  13. Pingback: Modern Jazz Standards | Miguel Olivares

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