When learning jazz standards, “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”

When I was in my early 20s, I would sometimes fill in at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Greenwich, Connecticut for the pianist Norm Kubrin. Here’s Norm playing the jazz standard “I Thought About You.”

One of the best things about the gig was that I got to play for 4 hours each time with some wonderful bass players, such as Russell George.

This was in the late 1980s, when the swing-era players as well as the beboppers were older, but still very active. During our breaks from playing, Russell would tell of about his experiences playing with everyone from the jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge to Frank Sinatra. He was one of the first jazz upright bassists to also learn the electric bass, and he recorded with Paul Simon, among many other famous rock and pop musicians. (If I remember correctly, he was the bassist on Simon’s hit song, “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard.”)

Russell knew many hundreds more jazz standards than I did at the time, but he was very kind and always asked me which tunes I wanted to play. One day, he said to me, “Ron, I think it’s so difficult for someone of your generation to learn all of these songs.” This statement took me by surprise, and when I asked him to elaborate, he replied, “Well, when I was your age, we heard these songs on the radio all day. That made them very easy to learn. But since popular music is different now, you have to learn them from recordings and books, without having heard them constantly like we did.”

Wow! I had never thought of it like that! (Although it seems obvious to me now.) He was absolutely correct. Jazz standards used to be “pop music” and the melodies and lyrics were well-known to everyone at that time.

The situation is the same today, and that’s why I used the title of the Ellington tune “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” as the title of this post. (The tune is credited to Duke’s son, Mercer.)

Indeed… thing’s ain’t what they used to be.

But this doesn’t mean that we can’t learn these great songs. It just means that we have to seek them out. Make playlists. Listen to records and CDs. Play through fakebooks over and over and over and over. Memorize a song each week, or month. Slowly build a solid repertoire.

Yes, we can do it, even though the culture isn’t presenting the material to us as it did to Russell George and his contemporaries. On the positive side, we now have instant access to thousands of recordings in a way that would have astounded earlier generations.

I was lucky in that I caught the tail end of the Swing Era, in a way. I got to play with jazz musicians like Russell George and others of his generation, and I studied piano with Billy Taylor and Hale Smith, both of whom had come up in the 1930s and 40s. I absorbed the genuine swing “feeling” in their playing, and it comes through in the way I play those great old chestnuts.

You can absorb this too. Here’s my new Journey Through The Real Book video, with the jazz ballad “Don’t Blame Me” which was composed by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields in 1932. (Billy Taylor would have been 11 years old at the time!)

There’s a relaxation in relation to the underlying time feel that was unique to that era, and I think some of it comes through in the rendition. We’re all part of a musical lineage that continues through the generations, and I wish you all the best with your own musical pursuits. Let me know if I can help you in any way.

Don’t Blame Me: Journey Through The Real Book #98

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

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