A pencil cascades across a clean white page, thin lines being drawn from left to right, top to bottom. These simple marks on paper manifest in the wielder’s mind as musical notes; the tune emerging. Once the page has been filled, the sweet, melodious voices of singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra breathe life into the written notes. Read more in Euphonious Tones of The Great American Songbook
The powers of life’s simple pleasures are not to be underestimated. The impact that an uplifting song or a smile can have on a bad day is immeasurable. These days, we have many outlets for discovering these small corners of joy. We can instantly pull up our favourite feel-good movie, play our favourite songs on demand, and chat with our favourite people by just picking up our phones.
It wasn’t always this easy, but people have been seeking out small escapes from everyday lives for hundreds of years. The vivid and lively sounds of music, particularly of the jazz genre, became a major source of joy for many Americans. The popularity of the jazz classics in The Great American Songbook is a testament to this search for joy.
The jazz genre was influenced greatly by individuals in minoritised groups, the people who had been overlooked and pushed aside for much of American history. Lyricism and optimism exuded from jazz songs of this era, reflecting a chase towards the American dream. The dream was and still is that success, happiness, power, and wealth are never out of reach, no matter who you are.
The Great American Songbook is not a physical book, but an overarching, loosely-defined term coined for iconic jazz tunes or, as they are most commonly known, jazz standards. These standards began emerging mostly during the early 1900’s as The Great Depression was looming across the USA.
The period of The Great Depression, from the years 1929 to 1939, marked the most devastating financial crash in modern times. Every day Americans lost their careers, homes, livelihoods, and everything they had ever known. The stressors of this tumultuous period became nearly overwhelming.
The American public was yearning for a break from the immense stresses of their daily lives. Listening to the smooth, pleasant tunes of jazz became a temporary escape for many during this time of economic struggle and turmoil. Whether the music was soaring through the air from a radio or filling every nook and cranny of a jazz club, people were listening. Voices dripping with honey cascading through the air, this music was a beacon of light in the darkness.
Classic singers from the songbook included Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, and Billie Holiday. A bit later came showstoppers like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. These singers were able to take music written by incredible composers such as Gershwin and make them multi-dimensional. Bringing to the tunes a depth of emotion and empathy. The dulcet tones of their voices combined with the lively jazz compositions were quickly woven into the fabric of American culture.
Louis Armstrong, jazz trumpeter and vocalist
Along with the voices were impeccable instrumentalists contributing their art to the standards. Whether it was the strength and power of Louis Armstrong’s trumpeting or the smooth flow of Charlie Parker’s saxophone, there was immense musical talent to be explored. These talents made the standards so iconic that musicians throughout history return to them time and time again. All the big jazz bands know the standards by heart, ready to play them at the drop of a hat.
Puttin’ on the Ritz
Throughout this page, you will find just a handful of incredible examples of songs that are part of this collection. These songs are so iconic and integral to the global music sphere, so much so that you may not even realise when you are hearing something from The Great American Songbook.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
To this day, the songbook is still being conceptually added to by artists like Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, and Michael Bublé. The classics are referenced and built upon by modern artists to continue to shape the character of American music. One of Willie Nelson’s breakout albums, ‘Stardust’, consisted of a collection of ten favourite pop standards curated by Nelson himself. With a bit of twang and Nelson’s classic country style, these tunes were translated into an entirely different genre.
Georgia on My Mind
Similarly, vocalists throughout every generation have adopted these classic songs and made them their own. From Louis Armstrong all the way to Michael Bublé, artists of all eras and genres are keen to interpret these classics in their own style.
Pennies From Heaven
Interpretation of these classic hits is not exclusive to American artists, as musicians across the globe have taken this incredible music of the past and added their own unique twist to it. Sinead O’Connor and Paul McCartney are just two of the many who added these standards to their repertoire.
Transcending genres and diversity of music taste, the standards can and have been interpreted in hundreds of different ways. Something for everyone can be discovered within these iconic written lines. Going back to the basics of how this era of music rose to popularity, the tunes offer an unbelievably sweet escape.
Main Image Cab Calloway, jazz vocalist
If you enjoyed reading Euphonious Tones of The Great American Songbook, why not try Where to Find the Best Concerts in London
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