Five covers jazz musicians would rather not play, thank you very much
When pianist Erroll Garner penned this 1954 jazz standard, he probably had no idea how many vocalists — amateur and pro — would glom onto it as their personal anthem through the ages, like bees to honey… or flies to shit.
Poor jazz musicians, they don’t have it easy. They schlep back-breaking equipment day in and day out, work on the weekends and holidays when the rest of the 9-to-5 is out goofing around, work for minimum wage — if that — and must often back the humongous egos of grandstanding singers who think the audience showed up just for them. (Unfortunately they’re right. This is jazz we’re talking about.)
They also have to memorize and play a ton of covers. You’d think they’d get tired of playing the most popular ones. You have no idea.
The most inventive, energetic solos and trades can’t make these covers sound new for jaded jazz musicians stuck on yet another vocal takeover. Their expressions may never give away how much anguish they’re in, but they’d rather endure a rectal exam than play another round of these:
“Misty”: When pianist Erroll Garner penned this 1954 jazz standard, he probably had no idea how many vocalists — amateur and pro — would glom onto it as their personal anthem through the ages, like bees to honey. Vocalists glommed in the first place, probably because of Johnny Burke’s lyrics tacked on for Johnny Mathis’ 1959 hit. Mathis liked Garner’s song and wanted it for his own, which meant words to music. When Clint Eastwood used the song prominently in his 1971 crime thriller, “Play Misty For Me,” that was it, the song quickly became an earworm for every vocalist in and around Hollywood looking to score a Billboard Hot 100. Country singer Ray Stevens took a crack at it in 1975, scoring a Billboard Hot 100 for himself, implausibly enough. Ever since, it’s been the standard at almost every jazz gig, much to the dismay of the instrumentalists who signed on in hopes of sparking fire on Chick Corea or Steps Ahead’s songbook. Jazz musicians by and large aren’t particularly fond of the overly cloying, insipid lyrics (“Look at me, I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree”) anyway, which tend to play up more to a singer’s conceit than anything musical for the rest of the band.
“Theme from New York, New York”: Originally from Martin Scorsese’s movie, “New York, New York,” circa 1977, this Frank Sinatra hit can easily be overdone by a lesser singer. And let’s face it, everyone is a lesser singer compared to Frank. Apologies to John Kander and Fred Ebb, but this popular song is the reason why jazz musicians hate jazz singers who inspire parody with the jazz hands. To a lesser extent, like Benny Goodman’s big band instrumental, “Sing Sing Sing,” “New York, New York” is a a train wreck waiting to happen, with bombastic notes just dying to be over-complicated.
“April In Paris”: From the 1932 Broadway musical, “Walk A Little Faster,” this is another standard from the Great American Songbook that’s been done to death, instrumentally and vocally. Artists included Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Dinah Shore, Doris Day, blah blah blah. Count Basie’s 1955 recording may have enjoyed a Grammy Hall of Fame induction, but you’re no Count Basie, so stop it. The song drones on forever, with very little room for interesting inflection, much less tension-contrasting drama.
“The Girl From Ipanema”: Only Astrud Gilberto should sing Jobim’s Brazilian pop classic from the 1960s. Otherwise, it’s another chance for a bad singer — and there are plenty of those stalking the jazz jams — to destroy the delicate balance of wistful melody with impeccable, shifting time.
“What A Wonderful World”: With all due respect to Louis Armstrong, who killed it the first time in 1968, this should never be sung aloud again. Singers today are killing it still, but not in a good way. Think of this jazz standard as the equivalent of Barry Manilow’s “Mandy.” No.
Not surprisingly, both “The Girl From Ipanema” and this one made it on L.A. Weekly/Sean J. O’Connell’s July 25, 2012 “Five Song Requests Jazz Bands Wish You Would Stop Making.” “This is probably the sappiest of the regular requests. Louis Armstrong’s misty-eyed recording dates to the late 1960s but the last thing the band is going to think following your request is that the world is wonderful,” O’Connell wrote.
O’Connell had the author of “The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire” give advice to jazz bands on what else to play if the musicians plan a revolt. Ted Gioia advised, “The secret is to switch them to some other Louis. One option is ‘Hello Dolly’ which I think is probably more painful to play. I would go with a New Orleans hit like ‘When It’s Sleepy Time Down South’ or ‘Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?’ Both are beautiful songs with catchy melodies.” And probably more workable musically for the guys doing most of the work behind the scenes. You know, the actual musicians playing instruments.
Essay first appeared in Examiner April 16, 2016.