The Intersection of Jazz and 'The Great American Songbook'

Mar 13, 2017

The songs, or standards, known to us today as "The Great American Songbook" flourished from the mid 1920s to about 1950. Singer Carmen McRae popularized the term with her 1972 album, The Great American Songbook. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, a new book on the subject shines light on the role of jazz in the rise, fall, and rebirth of these great American songs.


Radio script:

What's a standard? "A song that is capable of being played and interpreted again and again, by different performers in creative ways. They're songs that have stood the test of time. In the 1920s to the early '50s, between 300 to 400 standards were composed." --Ben Yagoda

Susan Lewis: Fueled by Tin Pan Alley, Broadway shows, and Hollywood movies, composers and lyricists, among them Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen, wrote songs that became standards. Ben Yagoda, author of The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song, believes jazz was key.

Ben Yagoda: Most of those composers deeply understood jazz – and once they wrote a song, a great jazz musician could do new things with it.

SL: The composition of standards dried up in the years after World War II. The Big-Band era ended, and some jazz artists went in different directions, with a greater focus on instrumental jazz. Yet jazz singers, like Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae, were among those who kept the songs alive.

BY: Great vocalists...as well as jazz musicians like Oscar Peterson, realized that this is a canon, almost like of classical music – the way classical music is interpreted and reinterpreted by different performers...we can do the same thing.

SL: Yagoda says that great songs came back with the revival of that canon of jazz-based songs, and in a new trend in the '60s, coming out of rock, folk, and blues.  

The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song is now out from Riverhead Books.  

"Someone to Watch Over Me," composed in 1926 by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, is a signature standard in The Great American Songbook. Ella Fitzgerald is known for her 1959 Verve recording: