Inside the Vail Jazz Festival: When a book isn’t a book
Inside the Vail Jazz Festival
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 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 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 which 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. This means nothing more than that they are regularly performed and recorded by many jazz musicians and are 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 instrumentalists 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 eight albums from 1956 to 1964 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.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally-renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is readapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’s 25th Anniversary season in 2019. For information about upcoming performances, visit vailjazz.org.