Show tunes have always been the perfect platform for jazz. The Great American Songbook - the standard repertoire - is almost entirely made up of music written for Broadway. There's a reason for that. Aside from being well known, the melodies were short, and the chord progressions strong, yet pliant... perfect for improvisation. Although it may seem strange to say now, in the beginning, jazz musicians were playing pop (read: popular) music.
In jazz today, I often see artists alienate the casual listener by treating the music as if it's for "Members Only". Some musicians act like their audience should feel honored to be present, or that they're somehow dim if they don’t naturally understand the genius in front of them. It's elitist, and it creates a notion that jazz is intellectual music. I assure you it's not. While it certainly takes skill to perform, it takes none to enjoy.
Truth be told, most people like jazz. Actually, they love it... when they can connect to it. It makes folks dance and holler and sing as much as rock & roll or hip-hop does. I've seen a whole arena get swept up in the feeling of swing. I've seen an army under the command of a trumpet solo.
So how do we make that happen?
Jazz is almost entirely an improvised music. The musicians are asking their audience to accompany them on a journey where they're guaranteed not to recognize 90% of what's going to be played, because it hasn't been written yet. The musician plays tour guide and the listener plays passenger. It's my feeling that if the listener is willing to put themselves in our hands the least we can do is pick them up and drop them off safely. We can give them a familiar tune, so that when we stretch out for some far off place, it means something to them because they know where we started. That other 10% should be "home". That's why show tunes worked so well in putting jazz on the map. Back in the day, the average Joe could go enjoy John Coltrane reaching for the stars on "My Favorite Things” without feeling lost, because everyone and their mother knew that song.
Well, it's not 1961 anymore, and although it is as popular as ever, the bright lights of Broadway have been dwarfed by the LED lights of the television screen. In 2015, the small screen reigns supreme. "Oklahoma!" has been replaced with "Dallas" and "On the Town" with "Sex and the City". Shows today are 13 episodes a season rather than 2 acts. Thankfully though, show tunes remain show tunes. Quick, catchy, malleable, and popular... Everything you want in a musical canvas.
These "show" tunes are the new standards. and I present to you, Volume 1. Enjoy the ride, we'll take you home...
Charles Ruggiero, July 2015
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