A standard is a criterion by which things are measured.
In music, a standard is a song that represents enduring quality, an example of artistic perfection. We admire the particular blend of structure, originality, craftsmanship, creativity and popular appeal that makes the song a “standard.”
Some standards have also become signposts along the way for musicians learning their craft. Jazz standards usually contain chords that require a bit of intellectual effort to master. A great example is “All the Things You Are,” an ingenious musical structure composed by Jerome Kern for a 1939 musical. That particular song has become a ritual for demonstrating one’s ability to “play changes,”
Other standards that display the rich harmonic language of jazz would be Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Girl From Ipanema,” and, since it’s currently the season, Mel Tormé’s “Christmas Song.”
Jazz standards are part of American culture, representing an unplanned but very productive partnership between two different subcultures - the Tin Pan Alley songwriters like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, et al., and the Jazz musicians, from Louis Armstrong, through Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, all of whom played those songs, turning them into jazz classics.
It was a mutually beneficial relationship: the songwriters and the jazz musicians each gained increased legitimacy, creative excitement and larger audiences.
Jazz in Nashville: an Anomaly
Nashville is a songwriting town, but the songwriting honored in Nashville is almost entirely from the country idiom - “three chords and the truth.” That tradition has its own illustrious history, from founding fathers Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, on down through Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kristofferson. Those are great songwriters, but the essentially New York phenomena of Broadway songs and jazz musicians remain outside the Nashville tradition.
So Jazz in Nashville is a bit of an anomaly, at least in the context of the city’s traditional image.
But Nashville is growing, and there are plenty of jazz musicians here, and songwriters, and singers. There are jazz standards being written and performed in Nashville, even if they are still mostly invisible. Their invisibility makes them that much more valuable.
That is, the writers in Nashville who write in the jazz idiom are more valuable for doing what they do without any immediate rewards or recognition. Their work is more directly connected to their motivating passion for the art, and a quest for beauty and truth, without the encumbrances of commercial considerations.
At any rate, Jazz standards are still being written today, and that’s my way of saying I’m proud to have Allison Kerr on Studio 23 Nashville.
“Mr. Handy’s Blues” is not only fun to play, and fun to listen to, it sticks in my head. I find its captivating chord changes going through my head, satisfying my musical imagination just like older songs by Richard Rogers or Jerome Kern. That’s the sign of a standard.
Allison’s song “Everybody’s Got Their Thing” opens quietly with a guitar chord, a minor seventh sustained for an entire bar, setting up a sultry groove for her voice, and the philosophical observations about human nature the lyrics provide.
Allison wrote these songs with Alan Reitano, who also produced her first album. The songs are already built like classic jazz songs, but they come to life with Allison’s performance. She brings a smokey Texas flavor in her voice, graceful phrasing that occasionally lags confidently behind the beat, a perfect match for the rich chords she strums on guitar.
Allison Kerr is a musical treasure. She’s writing Jazz Standards in Nashville.
Enjoy the music, and the historic significance of the style, as a vital part of what America has to offer the world, by clicking the link:
Thanks to Vince Pinkerton for creating and directing this show, and thanks to Jennifer Herron for co-hosting. And thanks, Allison, for being who you are.
Blogging Bryan 12December2017
Last night I met Ronnie McDowell. His first hit was “The King Is Gone,” his 1977 tribute to Elvis, which got played on country and pop radio, reaching thirteen on Billboard’s Hot 100. With that hit, he could buy a house for his Mama, like Elvis did for his.
Ronnie never met Elvis, but he was hired to sing a number of his songs for the 1979 tv movie “Elvis,” starring Kurt Russell. There were other movies later, like “Elvis and the Beauty Queen” and the 1988 tv miniseries “Elvis and Me,” for which he sang as Elvis.
Ronnie had agreed to appear on our show, Studio 23 Nashville. The show is recorded each week in my studio, produced by Vince Pinkerton, and co-hosted by Jennifer Herron. Ronnie is managed by Debbie Grisham, who had recently brought Jim Glaser in as a guest. That episode of the show worked out great, so we’re happy to work with Debbie.
Ronnie arrived in his white Cadillac SUV, which contained a huge framed oil painting in the back. It was his own original, a highly realistic depiction of a specific historical moment: the morning Walt Disney boarded the California Limited in the Kansas City Union Station, heading to Hollywood. (Or, Hollywoodland, as it was then called - the original name of the real estate development that erected the famous sign with white letters in the hillside. It became “the Hollywood sign” when the last four letters were removed. Ronnie speculates that Walt Disney got his idea for the name Disneyland from seeing Hollywoodland when he first arrived in Los Angeles.)
There’s one actually commissioned by George Jones, depicting a famous incident where he got arrested for drunk driving in his John Deere tractor on Dickerson Pike. The way Ronnie tells it, Tammy Wynette answered the door when the police came, telling them George couldn’t possibly be out driving, because she had taken his keys away from him. But a resourceful Ol’ Possum, in the garage, found the keys to the tractor, and now the event is captured in loving detail by Ronnie McDowell.
Ronnie talked a lot about Conway Twitty, who had been an inspiration to him as a kid, along with Elvis. Ronnie talked about hearing Conway’s breakthrough 1958 hit “It’s Only Make Believe” as a boy, and being drawn to the power of that voice. Nearly three decades later, he teamed up with Conway to sing a new version of the same song, which hit the top ten in 1986.
“It’s Only Make Believe” is one of the songs we recorded on the show. Since there was no one else but me playing with Ronnie, I was the only available choice to do Conway’s part, if Ronnie didn’t want to do it. I wanted to give Ronnie the option of having someone else besides him sing that last verse, so I typed up the lyrics that Conway sang and kept them on the music stand, so I’d be ready.
And when that moment came, I got to sing Conway’s part on the song, along with adding spontaneous harmony to Ronnie’s chorus. He liked it!
Ronnie was loaded with stories. He was friends with Conway, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Dick Clark, and tons of others we heard about in his stories. One story was being invited by Dick Clark to give Michael Jackson his award for “Thriller” on the televised American Music Awards in 1982.
Another story he told reveals how heartache and greed can go along with talent and dreams. Dolly Parton had wanted Elvis to sing her famous song “I’ll Always Love You,” written as a farewell to Porter Wagner. She had the chance to play it for him. Elvis liked it, but his hard nosed manager “Colonel” Tom Parker asked for the publishing rights to the song. Dolly, according to Ronnie, said that she couldn’t give up her publishing on that song. It was a business decision - and a wise one. But also a sad one, as she told Ronnie, because she really wanted Elvis to do her song.
Before his music career, Ronnie was stationed in Vietnam, in the U.S. Navy. He worked as a barber in the Officer’s Barber Shop on the ship, cutting the hair of the admiral, whose name was Morrison. He remembers the admiral saying his son had done something he shouldn’t have done, and had been arrested in Miami. That turned out to be Jim Morrison, in a famous indecent exposure incident, and it was his father’s intervention that got him out of jail.
You can’t make this stuff up. Meeting Ronnie McDowell was a great experience. And you can enjoy the show when we put it online. Thanks, Ronnie, for being our guest. You brought a lot, and we enjoyed it.
-Blogging Bryan, 7 December 2017