Jazz in Song: The Standard Jazz has always thrived on a bedrock of popular songs — tunes drawn from the blues and bossa nova, from Tin Pan Alley and rock, from Broadway and R&B. Over time, certain songs have the strength and popularity to become standards.
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Jazz in Song: The Standard

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Jazz in Song: The Standard

Jazz in Song: The Standard

Jazz in Song: The Standard

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George Gershwin. Evening Standard/Getty Images hide caption

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Evening Standard/Getty Images

George Gershwin.

Evening Standard/Getty Images

Jazz has always thrived on a bedrock of popular songs — tunes drawn from the blues and bossa nova, from Tin Pan Alley and contemporary rock, from Broadway musicals and R&B. Over time, certain songs prove strong and popular enough to earn a place in the standard jazz repertoire.

Between the 1920s and 1940s, before television and the rock 'n' roll revolution, Broadway and Hollywood musicals provided many of the most enduring standards. These were also formative years for jazz, which had a close, if difficult, relationship with the Great White Way and Tinseltown, with significant cross-pollination between genres.

Cole Porter was among the most prolific composers of standards during the heyday of musical theatre in the first half of the 20th century. Sasha/Getty Images hide caption

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Cole Porter was among the most prolific composers of standards during the heyday of musical theatre in the first half of the 20th century.

Sasha/Getty Images

"The Golden Age of Popular Song" was roughly between 1920 and 1960; during that time, American songwriters such as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and the Gershwin brothers hit their stride, and jazz interpreters including Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Billie Holiday followed the lead.

One essential quality of a standard is timelessness. Good tunes often evoke the era in which they were written, and then resonate for years to come. Many were widely popular right from the start, touching millions of listeners across all demographics.

The 1960s were a time of great change for the U.S., and this was certainly true for the country's music. The decade marked the arrival of The Beatles and rock music, the birth of Motown, and an enormous influx of sounds from Mexico, France, Brazil, and around the world. Meanwhile, the popularity of Broadway and Hollywood stage plays began to wane.

Despite the growing dominance of rock, soul, R&B, hip-hop, and country in American popular music, jazz's standard repertoire has stood the test of time, while simultaneously expanding its scope to include the compositions of great pop songwriters such as John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Elton John.

In today's jazz climate, there is a bit of a backlash for musicians who rely too heavily on "Golden Age" hits without acknowledging contemporary songs or writing original material. But a few artists have discovered just the right mix in a delicate artistic balancing act.

As new generations are entranced by jazz, and older fans yearn for yesteryear, the great American songbook will remain a rich source for jazz interpretation. And as practitioners in America's great songwriting tradition keep creating new works, that songbook will continue to grow.

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