"The Great American Songbook." This term came about to encompass the music that defined American popular music from approximately the 1920s through much of the 1960s.
Finding roots in Tin Pan Alley, Ragtime, Blues and Jazz, this melodically memorable music with sensitive, adult lyrics that celebrated love, revealed yearnings, explored real-life experiences, and imagined fanciful dreams found expression in Broadway musicals and Big Band presentations that ushered in the Golden Age of American music.
Recordings, radio (and later TV) brought this music to mainstream public, and Hollywood not only reproduced the Broadway shows and big band sounds but also created its own original musical movies. Because the music and lyrics of these stage and celluloid productions were so appealing and malleable, individual singers often quit big band crooning, went out on their own, and interpreted songs in their personal style to come out with "singles" that became American "standards" enjoyed around the world.
Think composers and lyricists: Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe. Think bands: Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Harry James, Stan Getz, Glen Miller. Think singers: Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Patti Page, Nat King Cole, Bobby Short, Tony Bennett (still singing!), Edie and Steve. Think "Satchmo." Think Ella. Think dancers: Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Cyd Chariss.
Think ballroom dancing by ordinary folks where brain and body combined to exert the effort to learn and master intricate steps from the fox trot and the waltz to the Cha Cha Cha all swinging to the "It's Wonderful" music. Think tunes that emotionally supported this country from Flappers and Prohibition through a world war that brought renewed glories of liberty and prosperity. Think Romance. Think positive.
Now think how things changed in popular music and popular culture from gyrating Elvis in the '50s, Beatle mania in the '60s, and hard "acid" rock and blasting disco in the '70s. From then on think through a mish-mash of pounding sound and wailing-fury signifying little of artistic value to today's ever escalating screech-screaming marriage of rock and gospel and the harsh drumbeats accompanied by deafening Rap-rhyme vocals. Think jerking-around single bodies with arms thrashing about that have replaced graceful couples moving with flow and finesse.
Think back again to yesteryear's "Singin' in the Rain" and "When I Fall in Love" teen sensibilities, then compare them to today's brain-assaulting MTV offerings and Rap street-rhymes of suicide and rape set to ear-splitting percussion. Think 1930s Art Deco glamour gowns, elegant men's attire, and exquisite accessories, then compare them to today's message Tshirts, torn jeans, body piercing, and tattoos.
Think songs that celebrated or hoped for (or lost) serious romantic love, then compare them to today's songs that spoon out puppy love lyrics geared to a 12-year-old mentality. Think mature or wanting-to-be-mature youngsters versus today's adolescents of all ages who never want to "grow up" to the joys and sorrows of responsibility or reality. Think reason and value-stimulated passion versus sensation and gut-purging emotionalism. Sophistication versus primitivism. In short: think.
But listen to then-breaking good news as well. Thanks to Winton Marsalis, Marian McPartland, Doc Cheatham, and Dizzy, the 1990s brought jazz back into the culture, a musical art form (like realism in painting and sculpture) that nearly had died out, opening the door for the likes of today's Chris Botti and Stephanie Nakasian. Michael Feinstein, Barbara Cook, Diana Krall and Karen Akers brought tuneful, heartfelt and clever Great Song Book tunes back to clubs that had dimmed their lights for decades or closed their doors completely.
The better half of Broadway offerings for many recent years have been revivals of popular musicals from long ago — Carousel, South Pacific, My Fair Lady, Anything Goes, The King and I — proving that musically discerning audiences still crave meaningful melodies.
Many of the best musicians and singers in New York City today (like Sandy Jordan and her circle of extraordinary instrumentalists and vocalists) re-present ever relevant songs from The Great American Songbook, artfully renewing them with their own style. Unfortunately, most others with so much talent but so little taste — even truly accomplished Gaga — still cannot seem to resist turning every finely-wrought "oldie" into a screaming gee bee or a gospel rendition bereft of the spiritual depth once heard in Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston.
Most contemporary composers of pop songs (like Adele) still rock-gospel even soft ballads or dish up another version of now-stale Andrew Lloyd Webber soup, and the newest Rap-fad started by the clever "Hamilton" production is growing on Broadway. Rock bands consisting of tremendously proficient musicians continue to assault their (largely electronic) instruments with vengeance and vocally shriek on and on about nothing of import.
The Metropolitan Opera has for years dumbed down productions to attract audiences ignorant of that grand art form but thrilled by glitzy or gutter "entertainment" — Rigoletto in Las Vegas? In addition, the most familiar arias are "rocked" by pop-opera singers (Andrea Bocelli) to appeal to throngs flocking to their concerts because musically sophisticated audiences are desperately hungry for melodic music but conditioned from babyhood to the sound of beat. All distressing, but ...
The future? Happily there may be one. A few singers, instrumentalists, and composers are finding their way to otherwise neglected listeners via streaming tech sources like Spotify. These newcomers are performing music that suggests at least a curiosity for melody with meaning. Their work is uneven in quality, but they are appearing here and there on the Internet with interesting possibilities.
But while waiting to see if these young performers mature, if not familiar with The Great American Songbook songs, get acquainted and enjoy. Plus, keep an ear out for new composers and singers who (if smart) will infuse memorable melody and adult meaning into their work. In other words, stay tuned to the past and hope for the future.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation (www.art-21.org). She has written for many publications, including "Reader's Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks." Read Alexandra York's Reports — More Here.
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