But why? Why albums?
The answer is threefold: my personal history, the music's history, and broad social/technological history, but they all come down to this: albums were the vehicle of music transmission for roughly the second half of the Twentieth Century.
LPs -- a record long enough to hold an album -- were only put on the market in 1948. They took a while to get settled as the predominant unit of musical consumption, but settle they did; and the format changed little as the medium hopped from records to cassettes to CDs. Of course, in the Twenty-First Century this has changed again, first with mp3s (legal and illegal) and now with streaming (a universe I know little about). Still, there was a long time, when the normal way music was consumed -- both in jazz specifically and in American music more broadly -- was the album. As Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux say in their useful introduction, Jazz:
From the early 1950s until the middle 1980s, the industry was dominated by the LP; many of those albums ought to be considered as integrated works.... Works such as Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain, Duke Ellington's Far East Suite, and John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, among hundreds more, should be experienced in their entirety -- no less than a Beethoven symphony or a Verdi opera or St. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album concept remained in force in the CD era, but its hold began to slacken, especially in Jazz. (p. 650)The point being, that in the era where the majority (or at least the plurality) of music I've so far preferred was made (roughly 1950 - 1970), albums were the relevant unit, and since I grew up in the album era, I am used to that as the relevant unit. So I think in terms of albums.
But, while granting Giddins and DeVeaux's point about the integrity of albums as an artistic unit, there are plenty of works for which this isn't the case -- everything before 1950 or so, and many things after 2000, but a lot of things in the intervening years. As in rock and folk, jazz musicians made albums, and consumers bought them, but radio stations played singles, and there were still plenty of cases where a song makes perfect artistic sense in isolation.
In fact, arguably, this is much more the case in jazz than in either rock or classical music.* While many of the albums post-1960 grew to have very long tracks, a great deal of jazz is based on songs. So far this is true in rock as well. But it seems that in jazz musicians are far more expected to know, to play and to record other people's songs. At least since the Beatles/Dylan revolution in rock, rock musicians have tended to compose their own works. Covers are done, of course, but they tend to be limited to one or two an album, plus some at concerts. (Albums with more covers than that -- say, one with all covers -- have the air of a stunt.) And you certainly don't have the expectation that any given rock performer would know how to play any given rock song, no matter how famous.
But this isn't true in jazz. In jazz, the idea of knowing a repertory of songs seems to be basic. A lot of performers have as some of their best-known pieces performers of others' compositions. Jazz, in other words, formed its traditions and expectations at a time when performers played tunes other than their own -- when they were expected to know them (if, for instance, they wanted work). And thus there are a lot of songs which have gotten a lot of play in jazz.
I was brought to this (belated) realization by another excellent book, Ted Gioia's useful recent work, The Jazz Standards: a Guide to the Repertoire. Honestly, I got it out of the library not really having much of a sense of what was in it. I knew that Gioia was a prominent jazz critic, author of (among many other things), one of the widely-recommended histories of jazz -- indeed, probably the one that, at this point, I'd recommend myself. (It's that or the Giddins & Deveaux volume; I hope to discuss those and more in a future post.) I think I vaguely thought it might have a detailed list of recommended albums.
But of course it doesn't. It's a list of the standards -- the songs that, as Gioia says, jazz musicians are expected to know.** (The list itself can be seen as the table of contents; you can see it in the Amazon preview, the Google books preview or (possibly simplest of all) at the Barnes and Noble site.) And that fans, presumably, either should know, or would want to know, or will come to know. Gioia helpfully provides, in addition to a brief discussion of each song (talking variously about its history, its musical qualities, classic recordings, etc.) a list of recommended recordings.
Which, of course, suggests another approach to learning about jazz.
While I have, so far, mostly been listening to jazz albums, I have also done some listening to jazz songs. It's a bit harder: given that the library is my primary source of music so far, it's a lot easier to find out if they have a particular album, and then to lay my hands on it, then it is to figure out if they have a particular recording. And they're more likely to have albums that show up on top-ten lists than Gioia's lists of recordings, which tend to deliberately include some rather obscure (and/or just contemporary, where the library is weaker) renditions in nearly every case.
Still, it's possible, and there are some advantages to it.
First, if you pick enough songs (and the right songs) and go through them, you can actually get a decent overview of jazz history, jazz styles, and so forth. Not completely -- it's not clear to me if free jazz or fusion will be adequately represented, for example. And obviously there will be holes, unless you're really thorough. (I imagine that Gioia's complete list -- all 2000 or so versions of his 252 songs -- would do it. (It's available as a spotify playlist, if that's your thing.)) Still, most of the major performers will be represented, and most of the major styles. So it's a different route in -- but one arguably as valid as albums.
Which, incidentally, is not true of any given list of songs from rock -- there's no set of songs so covered that you'd hit most of the major figures.
But it has other, more significant advantages too.
I hope that no one reading these posts has been mislead into thinking that I am in any way an informed or educated or particularly sensitive listener to jazz. I've liked a lot of what I've heard. (I've loved some of it; I've thought some of it was okay; I've hated one or two tracks.) But I don't really understand what I'm listening to, or what I'm supposed to be listening for. The entire thing is often rather obscure to me.
And it seems I'm not alone. Giddins and DeVeaux's book opens by talking about how even experienced listeners sometimes have the "what is that musician doing up there?" bafflement during a concert -- and that it's common for novices such as myself. An older (and honestly rather outdated) introduction to jazz, by Martin T. Williams (who edited the first Smithsonian jazz anthology which I mentioned in an earlier post) was frankly called Where's the Melody?: A Listener's Introduction to Jazz. A more recent introduction to jazz volume, Jonny King's What Jazz Is: An Insider's Guide to Understanding and Listening to Jazz, has an opening chapter titled "Where's the Melody?". The point is, it's a common complaint.***
And Williams's case, he starts of by telling a story of two friends, a novice and a long-time jazz fan, going to a jazz club:
The novice turns to the insider and asks, "What are they playing, do you know?"Well, I can't help but agree that it's a valid question, because it's mine, more often than not. And I too would hope for enlightenment in its answer. And while Williams has some reassurance on this score,**** I personally continue to hope for yet further enlightenment,
The master replies, "That's A Foggy Day."
At this point we can discern puzzlement, and perhaps despair, on the face of the novice. He knows perfectly well what A Foggy Day in London Town sounds like, and he hears nothing whatever like its melody coming from the musicians in front of him. Yet his friend is sure that it's A Foggy Day. Jazz must be some kind of musical puzzle.
In effect, our novice has asked a prevalent question, "Where's the melody?" Or, to put it more crudely, "What are those musicians doing up there?" It is a question that is considered so square by some jazz fans, and even some musicians, that they refuse to answer -- or even hear it. Yet I think it is a perfectly valid question, and answering it can be enlightening. (pp. 3-4)
The point is that, while the music often sounds nice, I often don't really understand what's going on.
Which is an advantage of exploring jazz sideways. If you listen to two or three versions of the same song, you get more of a sense of what is (in a jazz interpretation) what is essential and what is not. You might -- or, at least, over time I hope to (I haven't yet) -- get to better understand the relationship between the improvisations and the basic stuff of the song.
There are a number of ways to do this. One is to find a song that one knows and likes which is frequently recorded by jazz musicians, and seek out that; another way is to listen to a bunch of jazz, find a song one likes, and seek out alternate versions; a third way is to look at a list of jazz songs one has already and note duplicate titles. I've done a little of each; I hope to do more of all.
Again, in either case, one possible guide to use is Ted Gioia's The Jazz Standards: a Guide to the Repertoire. His use of recommended recordings in particular is useful, but so are his discussions of each song (sometimes including useful comments on the , to say nothing of the listing of songs itself. Frankly, it's rather irritating that the library wants its copy back.
(I do have a few complaints about Gioia's book, incidentally. First, it's indexing is not what one would want: he gives a single, 'general mention' index, without distinguishing the type of mention. For a book of this sort, it would be helpful to have separate indexes of composers, artists & albums on recommended lists, and mere mentions. Second -- and this is not a mark against his success in writing the type of book he set out to write, but simply a note about its utility for some purposes -- while a focus on current standards is obviously most useful for musicians, or those who plan to frequent jazz clubs, a list including one-time standards that have fallen out of favor would be more useful to those exploring jazz's recorded history. But obviously both of these are nitpicks; it's a very good book overall.)
Incidentally, here's where knowing some selections from the Ella and Louis album series has served me well: a number of the songs they recorded are on Gioia's list,***** and a number of others probably qualify too. Simply knowing some of those songs gave me a way in.
Other songs I already knew. Well, as Chamira, a commentator on my first jazz post noted, John Coltrane famously recorded "My Favorite Things" -- yes, from the Julie Andrews movie, although the film hadn't come out yet (it was a Broadway show first, and that's where Coltrane got it). Chamira, quoted a reviewer discussing
Trane's shocking demolition of the dainty brickwork of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favourite Things" which he stripped back to a brutal but dazzling modal exploration in E minor and E major...Indeed, it became a hit for him, and thereafter a song particularly identified with him. And, yes, it's in Gioia's book -- because Coltrane's influence made it a standard -- and Gioia includes among his recommended versions two Coltrane takes (the one from the album of the same title, and the one from a 1965 live album), as well as versions by Bill Evans, Sun Ra, and others. And, yes, Chamira's right: that would be a good second album. (That track, if not the whole album, was one of the ones I heard first this time around.) Coltrane's success with "My Favorite Things" spurred him to record "Greensleeves", which was always also a favorite of mine.
And I've used other methods, too. I encountered both Duke Ellington's "Harlem Air Shaft" and Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing" in the course of exploring jazz, liked both, and sought out other versions. Simply searching out recommended jazz albums, on the other hand, led me to encounter a lot of copies of Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train" and Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight". (And no, the duplication of those composers is not accidental: as far as jazz composers go, they're among the most important.)
So if you are a little into jazz, or decide to follow me down this crooked, happenstance highway, consider exploring it sideways.
I won't say it's a good way to use as one's sole method. Among other things, it's my sense that later on (perhaps from 1959 on?) recording standards became less central, at least for the major artists, and possibly for everyone. Partly this is because of the phenomenon Gioia laments (but acquiesces to), that fewer songs these days are becoming standards. (More on that later perhaps.) But it also seems a trend. A lot of important albums in the post-1959 period are single artistic statements -- I'm thinking of things like Coleman's Free Jazz, Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Mingus's Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Davis's In a Silent Way, Jarrett's Köln Concert -- where covering standards just wouldn't fit. In a lot of other cases (such as most if not all of the five 1959 blockbusters) those 'standards' that are on there (using Gioia's list as the criteria) are there because those initial recordings made them so. (Thus, "So What" from Kind of Blue, "Giant Steps" from Giant Steps, and "Take Five" from Time Out are all on the list because of those initial recordings.) To some degree this is probably the phenomenon that Giddins and DeVeaux discuss, that jazz was, in this period, increasingly an art of the album. Another factor might be changing notions of artistry and the importance of competition -- even, perhaps, influence from other musics (although rock wouldn't come to focus on performer-composed songs until a few years later, I believe).
Still, tracing a song out -- going sideways across albums, rather than simply feasting on one album before moving on to the next -- seems like a good additional way to approach this particular body of music. -- If that's a trip you want to make. Speaking for myself, so far I've found it one well worth taking.
* Folk is more like jazz in this regard, I think.
** Gioia argues, persuasively, that
...knowledge of the repertoire was even more important to a jazz musician than to a classical artist. The classical performer at least knows what compositions will be played before the concert begins. This is not always the case with jazz. I recall the laments of a friend who was enlisted to back up a poll-winning horn player at a jazz festival -- only to discover that he wouldn't be told what songs would be played until the musicians were already on stage in front of 6,000 people. Such instances are not unusual in the jazz world, a quirk of a subculture that prizes both spontaneity and macho bravado. Another buddy, a quite talented pianist, encountered an even more uncooperative bandleader -- a famous saxophonist who wouldn't identify the names of the songs even after the musicians were on the bandstand. The leader would simply play a short introduction on the tenor, then stamp off the beat with his foot... and my friend was expected to figure out the song and key from those meager clues. (The Jazz Standards, p. xiii; second ellipsis and emphasis in the original.)
*** See also Chuck Berry:
I've got no kick against modern jazz,
Unless they try to play it too darn fast;
They lose the beauty of the melody,
Until it sounds just like a symphony,
That's why I go for that rock and roll music...
**** These two bits, for example:
...anyone who has ever watched a group of jazz fans will be led to suspect that more than a few of them are responding to jazz rhythm -- and very little else. There is nothing invalid about such a response, for its particular way of handling rhythm is indeed one of the unique things and one of the most compelling things about jazz music.... (p. 4)And (using Miles Davis as a more general example):
What's going on is that Miles Davis is offering a new melody, one which he is improvising on the spot.... The way to listen to him now is to listen not for something we already know or have already heard, but for the music that he is making as we hear he. If we also hear, or sense unconsciously, that "outline," that related chord structure the player is using as his guide, fine. But we don't have to. Jazz is not a musical game or puzzle.... Where's the melody? The melody is the one the player is making. Hear it well, for it probably will not exist again. And it may well be extraordinary. (pp. 7, 8, 13)
***** Five of the twelve songs on the "best of" version (i.e. that I know really well) are on Gioia's list (and in four cases their version make his 'recommended recordings' list): "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You". "A Foggy Day", "Stompin' at the Savoy", "Summertime", and "They Can't Take That Away From Me". Four more tracks from the various Ella and Louis albums make his recommended recordings list; and another handful that they recorded are in Gioia's book without making his preferred recordings list for that particular song.