James Hale recently wrote an article for the CBC titled “Is it Time for the Death of the Jazz Standard?” The standard repertoire for jazz musicians hasn’t changed much since the 70s. This is leading some critics to claim that jazz is becoming less relevant, and disconnected from contemporary society.
I squirm in my seat when we refer to ideas, styles or forms as “dead, alive or dying.” These comparisons tell nice stories, but distort the realities of performance, creativity and experience.
I’m also uncomfortable with the classification and dichotomy between “standards” and “originals.” Such a dichotomy is helpful for reference and classification, but in the performance arts, the issue’s more complicated.
Experience lies on a wide, complex, micro, macro, multi-layered, multi-dimensional spectrum. For example, imagine Dave Matthews performing a solo concert. Just Dave and his guitar. He may be writing and performing original music on one level, but at the same time, there are many non-original aspects to his music.
The guitar, for example, is a familiar instrument. Dave Matthews’ tunes are written in recognizable rock, bluesy and folk styles. Most people attending his concert would be familiar with the English language. Many of the chord structures and combinations he uses have been used millions of times before.
Dave’s performances, and his music are actually very non-original. But they ARE original – his audiences have never experienced them before.
This conflict is at the heart of any discussion about the health of jazz or of any kind of style or art form. Here’s how I address it:
First, you can’t separate the music from the performance. They are one and the same. The circumstances surrounding a performance are just as important as the music notation on the manuscript. Likewise, the music notation on the manuscript is just as important as the upholstery on the furniture. It’s all connected.
Nor can you classify a performance as simply original or non-original. Lately I haven’t been differentiating between original compositions and non-original compositions. Rather, performances are best perceived as being the establishment and exploration of “common ground.” Common ground is the foundation on which any relationship rests. Without common ground, any relationship or ritual would fall apart.
Here are some examples (assuming you’re familiar with Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer):
- I perform the published version of The Entertainer, note for note.
- I perform The Entertainer with slight note variations and inflections.
- I perform The Entertainer, with a rewritten B section.
- I perform The Entertainer in 3/4.
- I perform The Entertainer as a bossa nova.
- I perform The Entertainer very, very slowly.
- I compose and perform a tune based on the Entertainer.
- I improvise a tune in the ragtime style.
- I improvise a 12-tone tune in the ragtime style.
Hopefully these examples demonstrate some kind of spectrum, and various explorations of common ground in music. But these examples only take into account the music – common ground is experienced in all aspects of a performance. Consider these examples:
- I perform the published version of The Entertainer on the guitar.
- I perform The Entertainer on the spoons.
- I sing The Entertainer in English.
- I sing The Entertainer in Gibberish.
- I perform the published vision of The Entertainer in the dark.
- I perform the published version of The Entertainer with a gorilla on stage.
- The person next to you isn’t wearing pants.
- The concert is scheduled to begin at 4:30am.
- The concert features the local symphony at the local pub.
Common ground is explored in all these instances – interacting, playing and feeding off one another. They’re all part of a complex system that forms our routines and rituals. The music, whether “original” or “non-original,” is a small piece of a large puzzle. I mention “ritual” because these ideas of originality, non-originality, familiarity and common ground apply to activities other than music and performances. Going to a restaurant for example…but I digress.
As long as jazz standards can set common ground between two people, it’s relevant. In fact, if you create something, it’s relevant. It’s relevant to you, your audience and your circumstances. Art is connection. It’s impossible to create something that’s not relevant, or not connected to our circumstances.
The use, performance and meaning of jazz standards are so deeply connected and woven into the fabric of our culture, we mostly take it for granted. These connections may not manifest themselves in record sales or popularity, but they’re present nonetheless. Calling for their death is senseless.
All things considered though, calling for their death is relevant too! Such suggestions are themselves, part of the same complex system of establishing and exploring common ground and cultivating relationships.
So don’t take these ideas too seriously. Embrace the irrationality and move on!
If you want to play jazz standards, play them. If you don’t want to play jazz standards, don’t. If you want to mix it up, mix it up. All options are excellent, exciting, relevant and full of creative potential.