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