Most jazz lovers have had friends ask what it is about this often unapproachable-seeming music that speaks to them. For me it is closely tied to the culture of the standard: Compositions that are only very loosely attached to the artists who created them, instead belonging to a common pool – melodic resources, free-to-use.
Standards are the foundation of jazz music: Unique compositions reflecting an individual consciousness, constantly razed and reimagined. Beauty dissected, transformed, and made beautiful anew – a paradox of novelty and familiarity. An endless dance of divorce and consolation.
Jazz music is largely absent from contemporary culture. For many, it is outdated and irrelevant. For others, simply unexplored. This is partly because jazz is such an intimidatingly broad church: A concert advertised as ‘jazz’ can range from funk to bossa nova, to Dixieland and swing, to bebop and free jazz and acid jazz, piano-driven, brass-heavy, percussion-based, or all about the singer. For my parents, jazz music is random squeaks and squawks without harmonic context. For my friends, jazz is chubby geeks in matching uniforms plodding around the town square. For me, the fact that it can be all of these things and hundreds more – often at the same time – is what makes jazz music speak to me like no other art form.
In jazz, every original composition is a shipment of raw materials dropped lovingly on the doorstep of every living musician, and every musician who ever lives from that point in time onwards, into the infinite future. The materials are sometimes luxury goods, but sometimes cheap or even damaged goods. They are sometimes common ingredients that can be found in every home, and sometimes they are rare and exotic, acquired tastes, initially unpalatable or difficult to digest. Musicians pick up these materials, mix and play with them, sculpt and re-sculpt them. The results can be a collage or Dr Frankenstein’s monster, or a homage, a parody, a hot mess. This is central to the music as a form of dialog: The musician interacting with the composer across geographic space, across time, across genres. This leads to misunderstandings and twisted portrayals, hero worship and heresy, all mixed together. It gives listeners a power that I don’t think other music hands over so freely. There is so much context and interpretation to explore, with one key criteria always top of mind: It has to sound great.
One of the most astonishing elements of this is transformation and retransformation is that it frequently happens at high speed. Standards are not just a common pool of resources – they become a common language for jamming. You can probably see this at jam sessions in jazz clubs and bars near to where you live, however, these sessions are increasingly rare and tend to be dominated by cliques of musicians who have played together many times before. Genuine jam sessions that illustrate the true magic of standards and the role they play in making jazz so special are fascinating to watch. The YouTube channel Studio Jams has some great videos that include the language of standards in action: A hastily-assembled, random group of musicians throw titles of standards around until an agreement is reached on which to play. They quickly align on the style and tempo, suggest riffs, lines and hooks, and discuss how to accentuate each individual to maximise the overall effect of the band as a whole. Then they play, breathing new life into a standard in a way they had never thought about until that exact moment. You can see this process unfold in the recording of the standard Watermelon Man here.
The song Greensleeves illustrates my broader point: The tune is believed to be almost 500 years old. Its composer is unknown, myths attribute it to Henry VIII, children learn to play it on the recorder, ice cream vans terrorise neighbourhoods with it, call centres attempt to pacify irate customers with it. For generations, jazz musicians have interpreted and reinterpreted it to transport listeners to aching lands that pulse and undulate with an untouchable and divine quality beyond understanding. My favourite version is by Coleman Hawkins (you can listen to it here). John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins also made famous recordings of the song, to name just two jazz legends on the tenor saxophone alone. The song itself is free from any connotations connecting it to its original composer and the message and emotions that he or she wanted the song to convey. It is, like a jazz standard, a melody that belongs to everybody and nobody. When musicians approach the song, they are not detracting from the original composition, nor are they entering into a kind of sonic Who-Wore-It-Best. They are accepting a generously-given gift and allowing it to frame their own message. With Greensleeves, they are communicating with a composer who lived 500 years ago: But the jazz standard is about even more than this. The dynamic of nailing down a melody and then setting it free, of ownership and surrender, lending and borrowing, creation and recreation, touches on an unknowable but undeniable truth about our species. I rarely experience this feeling of connectedness when engaging with other art forms – from pop music through to visual arts or writing. Standards point us towards a shared emotional experience that extends around the world, back to the origins of humankind and forward into our shared future. They imply everything and nothing, everyone and nobody, you and me. That is why I love jazz music.