There is a treasure in America music called “The Great American Songbook.” The title might sound familiar, but you can’t find it in a bookstore or online. The writers who were the geniuses who wrote the Songbook included Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen, to name just a few.
In reality, the Songbook is not a book at all, but is in fact a collection of popular songs that were written from the 1920s to the 1950s, the golden age of American song. The songs included in the Songbook are considered the most important artistically, but also reflective of our cultural heritage and music history.
While there is a general agreement about what songs deserve to be included in the Songbook, there is no official Songbook and there is no final arbiter of what deserves recognition. The source for these songs were Broadway theatrical productions, Hollywood films and the popular songs crafted for general consumption from “Tin Pan Alley” — originally a locale in New York City where music publishers and songwriters congregated, the term became synonymous with “popular music.” The canon of songs comprising the Songbook number in the hundreds, and in many instances the composers and lyricists were men (and a few women) who partnered to craft a song, but in many instances one person did both.
Most of the songs included in the Songbook were not written as “jazz songs,” but instead as popular music; however, many of the songs in the Songbook have been embraced by jazz musicians — singers and instrumentalists — and are regularly performed as “jazz standards,” which means nothing more than it is regularly performed and recorded by many jazz musicians and is well known to the jazz audience. There is no sanctioned list that purports to be the last word on jazz standards. Many of the tunes that are part of the Songbook have become jazz standards, but unlike the tunes in the Songbook, the list of jazz standards changes and tunes fall in and out of favor. It should be noted that songs that are in the Songbook and become jazz standards may be performed as instrumental pieces, and in many instances, they are rarely sung today; however, many dedicated jazz instrumentalist believe you still need to learn the lyrics as a means of conveying the story contained in the song, even though you are playing the song on an instrument. It has been reported that the great tenorist Ben Webster was in the midst of a solo when he suddenly stopped playing. When asked what happened, he responded, “I forgot the lyrics.”
Ella Fitzgerald, one of the world’s most popular vocalists during the mid-20th century, recorded a series of eighth albums (from 1956 to ’64) containing 252 songs paying tribute to the composers and lyricists who crafted the Songbook and is probably the one vocalist who is most responsible for the public’s awareness of these American musical gems.
Each generation has had its gifted interpreters of the Songbook. Two of the most talented are Roberta Gambarini and Ann Hampton Callaway. As part of the 20th anniversary celebration of the Vail Jazz Festival, we are pleased to present these two great vocalists in concert on Thursday at Jazz @ Vail Square and Aug. 30.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 20th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.