The Disappearance of “Charm” in pop and jazz music

I’m not one to yearn for the past. And, having been born in 1964, I never knew the “good old days” of 1940s and 50s that I hear about from some of my older family members. The truth is, I’m really glad I’m alive right now and in fact, we don’t have much choice on that one, right?

But the other day when one of my kids was flipping through the stations on my car radio, I heard the briefest sound of a trumpet and asked him to turn to that station. It was my favorite radio station, WKCR-FM ( on the web), and they were playing some Swing Era jazz. I forget the specific song, but it was a jazz popular song of the 1930s and there was a vocalist who came back in after the trumpet solo. It was the kind of song we sometimes hear in old movies of that period.

I try not to “preach” to my kids, but I couldn’t resist pointing out that while I enjoy much of today’s pop music, it has almost entirely lost the kind of “charm” we were listening to in that old song from the 30s. And they agreed with me. They could hear it!

My point here isn’t that one era of music is necessarily better than the other. Rather, it’s that we humans have lots of different emotions, and yes, a light-hearted charm is among them. Unfortunately, this part of emotional lives isn’t being “fed” by the music that’s churned out by the record companies these days. To be sure, there’s some great music out there, but it’s not speaking to and nourishing this part of ourselves.

I think the fact that “charm” is inherently in all of us accounts for the use of these old songs in many movies nowadays, even those movies that are aimed at kids like The Parent Trap. All kids enjoy “Over The Rainbow” from The Wizard Of Oz, but they’re not getting anything similar from the pop music producers of their era. I don’t mean that today’s music should sound the same. I only mean that these emotions are not being spoken to. There’s a void.

As I sat down to write this, it occurred to me that the situation is the same in jazz. There are a lot of great jazz players out there today, but by and large the jazz world has lost its connection to the charm of the popular music which the jazz musicians of the 20s-50s heard all around them on a daily basis. So when a jazz musician studies Charlie Parker, for instance, they’re already one step removed from the music that led Charlie Parker to play the way he did. Parker could play with such charm and sweetness on his Bird With Strings recordings because he hear all those singers crooning pop songs of the day, along with the violin sections of the day. But when we use Charlie Parker as a starting point, we don’t necessarily pick up on this aspect of his playing in the same way. And our playing suffers as a result. We get the edginess without the underlying warmth and lyricism. And charm.

Here’s an example of the type of music we heard in the car the other day. It’s the Rodgers and Hart song “Dancing On The Ceiling” from 1932 (it‘s a different song than the Lionel Ritchie song of the same name). Just let the sounds wash over you, without thinking of “old fashioned” or anything else. Just enjoy how it makes you feel.

Ben Selvin: Dancing On The Ceiling

I was lucky enough to learn piano from two great players who came up in the 1930s and passed on some of this feeling to me because I stood right next to the piano and absorbed how they played. Billy Taylor and Hale Smith both had a lot of charm in their playing and I enjoy playing those “old” pop songs a great deal. Here’s my own version of Dancing On The Ceiling.

Ron Drotos: Dancing On The Ceiling

Whether you play jazz, blues, rock or pop music (or anything else), I hope you bring some good old-fashioned charm into your playing.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

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