Johnny Mercer And The Future Of Jazz Standards

Johnny Mercer. i

Johnny Mercer wrote lyrics for over 1,500 songs. That is ridiculous. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library hide caption

itoggle caption Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library
Johnny Mercer.

Johnny Mercer wrote lyrics for over 1,500 songs. That is ridiculous.

Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library

Songwriter (and singer, and composer) Johnny Mercer would have been 100 on Wednesday. NPR, first-draft cultural historians that we are, was on the case. Twice, even: here's a profile of the man's career, with plenty of bonus online-only listening, from All Things Considered; and here's a studio performance of Mercer music with Dave Frishberg and Rebecca Kilgore on Fresh Air.

Mercer, of course, wrote lyrics for many jazz standards: "Skylark," "Come Rain Or Come Shine," "I'm Old Fashioned," "The Days Of Wine And Roses," "Satin Doll," the English version of "Autumn Leaves" ... it keeps going. And in thinking about his incredible accomplishments, it struck me then that we may never again have any new jazz standards.

Sure, there will be songs, from within jazz or apart from it, which may be covered a number of times by jazz musicians. But will those covers ever amount to a critical mass where they become standard repertoire? A jazz artist today has to be responsible for a good deal of the existing songbook even before listening for new additions to it. All this in an age where so many more recordings exist than ever before — jazz and otherwise — making the sheer selection of music which one could possibly cover endlessly vast. There are almost too many muses for any one to catch on widely.

Of course, some modern songwriters lend themselves to being covered more than others. Radiohead songs are popular with jazz folk; so are Bjork's. At least three of the more acclaimed (and personal favorite) CD releases this year have Stevie Wonder tunes on them: Vijay Iyer's Historicity covers "Big Brother," from Talking Book; Stefon Harris' Urbanus takes on "They Won't Go (When I Go)," from Fulfillingness' First Finale; and Gretchen Parlato's In A Dream leads off with "I Can't Help It," first recorded by Michael Jackson on Off The Wall. I asked Parlato about Stevie Wonder in an interview which I'm currently preparing:

He's definitely a pop artist who jazz musicians can — they can see and hear and feel how his music can be performed in a different way. It's a pop song, but it's so classic that it can almost be treated as a jazz standard.

And yes, certain modern pop songs still have a wide cultural echo. (There are certainly young musical talents today who will be remembered on their centennials like Mercer, I would think.) Rihanna's "Umbrella" certainly inspired scores of covers during and after the summer of 2007; it even resulted in an album for one such YouTube submitter. (The tune has been on my mind, since I wrote about it recently for NPR's Song Of The Day Decade In Review.) I can easily see how a jazz artist might invert (subvert?) "Umbrella" for his or her own twisted purposes.

Then again, I can't think of any jazz musicians taking it on so far. (And no, some random sophomore vocal major at the New School doesn't count.) Nor have any single Bjork, Radiohead or even Stevie songs become jam session regulars. You could try to track jazz covers of pop music (or even jazz covers of jazz music) in hopes of compiling a new songbook, but it would be far too broad and too diffuse to even know where to start looking.

Or am I way off about this?



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