Jazz Profiles from NPR
The Standards
Produced by Joan Merrill and Suraya Mohamed

Michael Feinststein  

Jazz has always thrived on a bedrock of standards, tunes drawn from the blues to bossa nova, from Tin Pan Alley to contemporary rock, and from Broadway musicals to R&B. This Jazz Profiles show explores how certain songs are strong and fortunate enough to achieve "standard" status.

Listen to radio host and educator Alisa Clancy, jazz writer and lyricist Gene Lees, and pianist and singer Michael Feinstein (left) talk about the significance of the great American songbook

Between the 1920s and 1940s, before television and the rock-n-roll revolution, Broadway and Hollywood musicals provided some of the most enduring standards. These were also formative years for jazz, and the genre had a close if difficult relationship with the Great White Way and Tinsel Town, with quite a bit of cross-pollenation between scores and repertoires.

Listen to Lees and lyricist Max Morath discuss the origins of the jazz standard

Billie Holiday  

"The Golden Age of Popular Song" was roughly between 1920 and 1960, when American songwriters like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and the Gershwin brothers hit their stride, and jazz interpreters including Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Billie Holiday (left) followed the lead.

Listen to Morath, and violinist Regina Carter explain why Billie Holiday was such a powerful interpreter

One of the essential qualities of a standard is timlessness -- a tune should both evoke the era when it was writtern but also resonate for years to come. The song should also be widely popular, touching millions of listeners across all demographics.

Listen to Feinstein and Clancy talk about the endurance of standards

The 1960s were a time of great change for America and this was certainly true for the country's music with the arrival of the Beatles, the birth of Motown, and the enormous influence of music from Mexico, France, Brazil and around the world.

Listen to Lees and Clancy discuss the importance of Brazilian composers like Antonio Carlos Jobim

Stephen Sondheim  

Also during the 1960s, the popularity of Broadway and Hollywood stage plays began to wane, while movies were gaining the attention of consumers. Stephen Sondheim (left), though, had a hit triumph in 1973 with his timeless classic, "Send in the Clowns."

Listen to lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman praise Stephen Sondheim's work

With the growing dominance of rock, soul, R&B, hip-hop, and country, the jazz standard repertoire has stood the test of time, while simultaneously expanding its scope to include the compositions of great contemporary songwriters like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Elton John.

Listen to Marilyn Bergman and Clancy discuss contemporary songwriters

In today's jazz climate, there's a bit of a backslash for musicians who rely too heavily on the "Golden Age" hits without acknowledging the contemporary songs or writing original material. But a few artists, notably violinist Regina Carter and vocalists LaVern Butler and Carla Cook, have discovered just the right mix in a delicate artistic balancing act.

Listen to Alan Bergman, Lees, and Carter talk about the art of interpreting classics today

As new generations become entranced with jazz and older fans continue to yearn for yesteryear, the great American songbook will continue to be a rich source for jazz interpretation. And as practitioners in America's great songwriting tradition keep producing, the songbook will continue to grow.

Listen to Feinstein explain why the great American songbook will never die


View The Standards show playlist


ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Billie Holiday's Love Songs

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Coleman Hawkins' A Retrospective of 1929-1963

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Charlie Parker's Confirmation: Best of the Verve Years

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto's Getz/Gilberto

ListenListen to the NPR 100 entry for Coleman Hawkins' 1939 version of "Body & Soul"

ListenListen to the NPR 100 entry for Kurt Weill's "Mack The Knife"

ListenListen to the NPR 100 entry for Rodgers & Hart "My Funny Valentine"

ListenListen to the NPR 100 entry for Cole Porter's "Night & Day"

ListenListen to the NPR 100 entry for Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight"

ListenListen to the NPR 100 entry for Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust"

ListenListen to the NPR 100 entry for Louis Armstrong's version of King Oliver's "West End Blues"

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org