The Great American Songbook isn’t really a book. Rather, it’s a notional collection of several hundred pop songs. The precise identity of the songs varies according to who is doing he collecting, but in almost all versions the bulk of them were composed, starting in the 1920s, by a small group of composers and lyricists including George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers (teaming first with Lorenz Hart and later with Oscar Hammerstein, 11), Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington and a few dozen more luminaries.
There was something about the early 20th Century – the Jazz Age of the 20s, the Great Depression, the melancholy wartime years – that conspired to create music that was truly uplifting and gloriously sentimental. the songs – sometimes called “standards” – came out of Broadway shows, Hollywood musicals, and small warren-like offices in a few Times Square office buildings, know collectively as Tin Pan Alley. It’s commonly agreed that they represent the pinnacle of American popular music. They’re sophisticated (in more than one sense of the word). They’re constructed with superior craftsmanship and, in some cases, remarkable innovation and artistry.
Jazz and The Great American Songbook are inextricably lined. The songwriters understood the genre, and its musicians, such as Lester Young, Benny Carter and Oscar Peterson, were able to bring real feeling to their interpretations of the songs. They also recorded versions with stunning improvisations – some of the best of which featured on instrumental tracks. Into this category fits Charlie Parker’s version of Porter’s ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’; John Coltrane’s hypnotic, inimitable version of “My Favorite Things”; and Thelonious Monk’s stirring bebop take on ‘Tea For Two.’
Trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong has his own successful relationship with The Great American Songbook. Bing Crosby established the sweet ballad ‘Stardust’ as a pop song in August 1931. Three months later, Armstrong responded to Crosby’s mellifluous baritone performance with an interpretation that subjected both melody and lyric to his own unique designs. The song, in these two separate versions, illustrates the Songbook’s interpretive possibilities in pop and jazz terms.
Crosby’s voice had a big influence on Frank Sinatra and it was arguably Sinatra who made many of the now classic songs popular among listeners who weren’t die-hard jazz fans. He elevated the importance of the lyrics with his powerful diction and phrasing, while some of the arrangements on his classics are sublime on every level – and Sinatra could match them because he had the ability to get inside of a song.
With the arrival of rock’n’roll, music changed fundamentally in the 50s and 60s, a period that coincided with the collapse of the sheet-music industry. Yet a stunning revival of The Great American Songbook was to come, starting with Ringo Starr, who was the first “modern” musician to try to breathe new life into the classics. The revitalised trend began with his 1970 album, Sentimental Journey. This was followed by Carmen McRae’s 1972 album and then Willie Nelson’s landmark 1978 album, Stardust.
Not all the musicians who have tackled The Great American Songbook in the past 40 years have gone for the full-on big band sound of the music’s heyday, but there have been many interesting incarnations, including albums by Luciano Pavarotti, Dinah Washington, Better Midler, Rufus Wainwright, Annie Lennox, Nina Simone, Sinead O’Connor, Harry Connick Jr, Diana Krall, Paul McCartney, Rod Steward and the 2014 collaboration between maestro Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga on the album Cheek to Cheek.
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