Jazz Appreciation Month: My Great American Songbook

cc piano

Like many suburban California boys of a recalcitrant nature, I spent my early teenage years in the ’80s listening to rock, metal and punk. I went to many concerts in the San Francisco Bay Area, and even started a fanzine, foreshadowing my forays into Internet publishing years later. I even got to interview Kirk Hammett, lead guitarist of Metallica, a pretty cool thing for a 15-year-old.

But change comes rapidly between the years of 14 and 18 as a boy becomes a man, and the lack of melody in the abrasive music I was listening to eventually became incapable of reflecting the turbulent emotions of adolescence, including first love. I moved on to bands such as The Cure and New Order that better accompanied a debilitating case of unrequited love. Then suddenly, almost overnight, I took a sharp 180-degree turn and began exploring the music of the past. And that’s where I’ve been ever since.

It started with my parents’ record collection, which had gathered dust since the day they became burdened with child rearing. I dug out their albums by the Beatles and Stones, plus folk-rock groups such as Peter, Paul & Mary, We Five, Chad & Jeremy, Peter & Gordon, and stuff like that. In my senior year of high school, I came into possession of my grandpa’s old gas-guzzler and set its radio dial to San Francisco’s “oldies” station, through which I discovered the great vocalists of mid-century, such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, plus instrumental hits such as Les Baxter’s “The Poor People of Paris” and Hugo Winterhalter’s “Canadian Sunset.” By the time graduation rolled around, I was wearing tailored clothing to school and had seen Mel Tormé in concert.

When my parents bought a piano for my sister, who was studying voice, I decided to learn how to play it, and it was through the keyboard that I really came to learn the Great American Songbook.

When I learned that April is Jazz Appreciation Month, I was already in the middle of a long overdue project. After years of neglect, I had begun editing and alphabetizing my collection of sheet music. Currently bursting at the seams in three large binders, it must include 500 songs. I know the lyrics to them by heart, and can usually tell you what key they’re in. I play them all, though not exactly well enough to book a residency at The Carlyle.

I have competent musical understanding but rudimentary technique, since that requires tedious hours of drills and scales. Years ago I discovered that it was easier for me to play from a “lead sheet,” which supplies merely the melody and chords, than following written arrangements. A lead sheet (or “fake book”) is what jazz musicians use. You make up the arrangement spontaneously as you go, and it comes out a little differently each time. That’s jazz. I can’t solo or do anything fast except hit rhythmic chords to accompany my equally rudimentary wannabe-hipster-lounge-lizard singing (Buddy Greco, Bobby Troup, Mark Murphy). But when I’m in the zone I can play an expressive ballad with some advanced voicings that include inversions, extensions, major 7ths, flatted 9ths, sharped 11ths and that sort of thing. In the photo above, my left hand is playing a Gm7 voiced  F A Bb E, which places the 7th on the bottom, then the 9th and 3rd a half-step apart, and the 13th on top.

To give you a sense of the songs I like to play, let’s take the first letters from the phrase “Ivy Style.” Some tunes I especially enjoy are:

I Didn’t Know About You (Duke Ellington)
The Very Thought Of You (Ray Noble [OK he’s actually English])
You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me (Harry Warren & Al Dubin)
Soft Summer Breeze (Eddie Heywood)
Tea For Two (Vincent Youmans)
You Do Something To Me (Cole Porter)
L’il Darlin (Neal Hefti)
Everything Happens To Me (Adair & Dennis)

Gaining familiarity with all these songs took many years of listening to various eras of jazz and popular music. In my late twenties I began dating a woman involved in San Francisco’s Art Deco/retro scene, and I started going to events with fantastic orchestras that played ’20s and ’30s dance music. My musical investigations led me to Bix Beiderbecke, who remains, 20 years later, one of my all-time favorites. I’ve listened to his version of “I’m Coming Virginia” countless times and never tire of it. I also continue to enjoy the dance bands of interwar period, particularly the ones from Chicago and New York, led by such leaders as Ben Pollack, Jean Goldkette, Phil Napoleon and Red Nichols.

In the late ’90s, the so-called swing revival hit, and I found myself in the right place at the right time. San Francisco was the epicenter of the three-year-long national fad, whose high points included a top-40 hit for the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies with “Zoot Suit Riot,” a popular TV commercial for Gap khakis with a swing dance routine, and finally the band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, which played the Super Bowl halftime show. I was instantly hooked on the dance and the scene and will always fondly remember it as one of the best periods of my life. Ever a quick study, I soon started giving dance lessons up to seven days per week, began a weekly event in which I played DJ and host, developed a couple of school programs for kids, and eventually got a job on a small independent movie called “Swing” in which I danced with Jacqueline Bissett. As far as listening went, I became deeply familiar with all the bands from the swing era, though as time went on I found I prefered dancing to the postwar jump blues sound, such as Calvin Boze’s “Safronia B.”

In 1999 the film “The Talented Mr. Ripley” came out and captured my imagination with its mixture of Ivy and Continental style and depiction of jazz-loving Americans in Europe during the ’50s. I began exploring music that was more straight-up jazz (as opposed to swing and dance bands), an exploration that was rekindled in 2008 when I did the Miles Davis/Andover Shop story for Ralph Lauren and founded this website with the motto “soft shoulders and hard bop.”

I think most jazz fans eventually come to have an appreciation for just about everything in the genre, but lately — as with my wardrobe and everything else — I find myself refining my listening down to the sounds I like the most. These days I find I really like the West Coast sound from the ’50s. There’s a breezy lightness to it that just sounds cool (maybe because I’m a native Californian; I also adopted a more California style of swing dancing back in 2000), and the use of arrangements and experimental instrumentation certainly appeal to a listener who’s also on a steady diet of classical music. That said, Duke Ellington’s band from ’40-’42 has been a favorite for many years. That sound is on another astral plane, and includes my favorite female singer, Ivie Anderson.

Jazz and the Great American Songbook have always expressed the give and take between white and black America, Jew and Gentile. Most of the composers of the Great American Songbook were Jewish, and also gave us many of our Christmas songs, such as Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” Cole Porter (a Yalie) is one of the few WASPs. Their compositions would serve as launching pads for the jazz explorations of African American musicians.

Which brings me to a curious thing I recently realized: that my taste preferences vacillate between white and black depending on the era. American popular music for me starts in the 1890s with Scott Joplin, an African American, and ends around 1970 with Burt Bacharach, who is Jewish. For the ’20s I prefer Bix over Louis, and in the early ’30s the white dance bands over, say, Fletcher Henderson. During the swing era it’s an even split between black and white, though with Ellington on top. But after 1945 I prefer the bebop sound of black musicians such as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk (“In Walked Bud”), and the jump blues of Wynonie Harris, Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner. Then in the ’50s it’s a mix, with a nod to the mostly white West Coast sound. After 1960 it’s bossa nova and Vince Guaraldi’s “Charlie Brown” soundtrack.

Like the Ivy League Look, the Great American Songbook — and the jazz interpretations of it — is quintessential Americana. The clothing provides you with an outfit for any occasion, and the songbook a melody and lyric for every emotion. I can recommend no better style of clothing, and no better genre of music. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

17 Comments on "Jazz Appreciation Month: My Great American Songbook"

  1. Without the tonic present, I would have called that chord Fmaj7add11, but my theory background is more classical. I am not hip.

  2. I can assure you there’s tonic present with that gin!

    Jazz musicians/instructors will tell you there are many chords that can be interpreted different ways. Is E G A C a C6 in first inversion or Am7 in second inversion?

    It’s both.

    A lot of it depends on context.

  3. Like you, Christian, I am grateful to my younger self for having the presentience to start collecting jazz albums. Today I truly appreciate them more than I did when I first bought them. I find that I swing (no pun intend) between the poles of rock and jazz, and while I tend to linger longer on the rock pole, I always find myself back with regularity on the jazz side. Tonight we’re venturing out in the rain to see the Chet Baker movie. It seems a fitting farewell to this April.

  4. Hmm . . . . started reading this while listening to the Ella Fitzgerald Irving Berlin Songbook and by the time I finished I’d interrupted myself to put on the Gerry Mulligan Concert Band Sessions. I think that’s some sort of kismet.

  5. High school jazz band was my education on jazz and the blues, and I was a bit of a brat about it. Our band director was not happy with how middle school educated me, and disappointed that I didn’t listen to jazz in my leisure time. It took me at least a year of remedial work on theory, scales, licks, and assigned albums for him to trust me to not make a fool of myself taking a solo. I guess I was forced into appreciating jazz, but it’s for the better.

  6. G. Bruce BOyer | May 1, 2016 at 12:14 pm |

    A genuinely delightful appreciation. I wonder if the author is familiar with my favorite San Francisco group, “Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers:? Their albums contain, among other great songs, wonderful renditions of some classic Jimmy Rushing blues numbers.

  7. Lavay was a pioneer and had real veteran jazz musicians in her band, whereas a lot of the young start-up retro bands were ccmprised of former high school band geeks and punk rockers (odd combination, I know).

    Knew her casually and danced to her band at many great venues across the city.

    Bruce, I think you’d love these guys, Stompy Jones, who rose from the smallest and most obscure of SF swing bands to be the kings and longest-surviving. Their influence is all postwar jump blues and every tune has a shuffle-boogie beat:



  8. saigokun | May 1, 2016 at 5:01 pm |

    G. Bruce BOyer – That band will be playing at FiLoLi on August 7th:


    Celebrating world–renowned jazz masters and top talent from the Bay Area in 2016, our 26th year of Sunday afternoon concerts. Back by popular demand Frank Bey and Anthony Paule, The Bey Paule Band. Enjoy a lively afternoon of ‘Filoli Fun Under the Summer Sun’ in the shade of umbrellas and glorious oak trees while gracious volunteers serve you complimentary snacks, including white wine, beer, lemonade, gourmet coffee, and sparkling water. Bring a picnic lunch or order a boxed lunch in advance. Concerts begin at 1:30 in the afternoon and end at 4:00. Filoli opens on Sundays at 11:00 am and we invite you to come before the concert to see the House and Garden (included in your ticket price) and visit the Filoli Café and Garden and Gift Shop. Parking is free.

    2016 Concert Dates and Musicians
    June 19 — The Bey Paule Band
    July 10 — Mads Tolling and the Mads Men
    July 24 — Geoffrey Keezer Trio featuring Kenny Washington
    August 7 — Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers
    August 21 — The Anton Schwartz Quintet featuring Terell Stafford
    September 11 — Poncho Sanchez and His Latin Jazz Band

  9. saigokun | May 1, 2016 at 5:23 pm |

    By the way, Christian, I appreciate that you’ve shared your personal story of evolution of style and taste. I wonder if we crossed paths at the Farm or somewhere else?

    In my case, reggae was the escape from punk / crossover. I learned to hear percussion (my brother played drums) and bass (played bass).

    And for his birthday, I recorded many of my dad’s LPs hidden in built-in cabinets in an unused living room onto cassettes, labelling and writing the song titles. I’m sure that sowed the seed for my appreciation of jazz today.

    Probably one moment that influenced me regarding how ‘hardcore’ the past was: watching Blackboard Jungle and hearing Bill Haley and the Comet’s song opening associated with something other than Happy Days, and hearing it’s intensity for the firs time. Then, of course, listening to the Jazz in the lounge where the teacher Glen Ford ‘relaxed’ after dealing with the punks. His music struck me as just as ‘hardcore’.

  10. Roger C. Russell II | May 2, 2016 at 12:38 am |

    Nice post, and I dig the pinky ring.

  11. B-flat Maj7 #11. Isn’t it fun! Please do not neglect technique. Over time it will help you.

  12. carmelo pugliatti | May 2, 2016 at 2:57 pm |

    Great article Chris.
    I have always loved the great American songbook,swing music and jazz.
    I love too Italian swing and jazz .




  13. Charlottesville | May 2, 2016 at 3:56 pm |

    Great reminiscence, Christian. I share much of your path, musical and sartorial, although since I am older, mine probably started 10 or 15 years earlier. Rock to blues (and bluegrass) to swing and jazz. Now I rarely listen to anything other than jazz or classical, and have a special fondness for bossa nova and other Latin music of the 60s about which I would like to learn more. Canadian Sunset is a beautiful tune, and if it does not qualify as jazz in everyone’s book, please count me in for whatever genre it may be. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Brian Setzer Orchestra and other swing bands that occasionally came through DC in the 80s and 90s were favorites, along with Diana Krall, Dizzy Gillespie and others who performed at Blues Alley and the 9:30 Club, and Tony Bennett at the National Theater, but I am sorry that I missed Mel Tormé , Ella, Sinatra and so many others that I could probably have seen if I had tried. Charlie Byrd, Stan Getz, Bill (and Gil) Evans … the list goes and on and on.

  14. Rick Woodward | May 3, 2016 at 3:31 pm |

    Great essay Christian. It brought back memories of my musical ride. My parents were not much into music except as background for numerous ‘50s cocktail parties. I still remember many of the great instrumentals of the era including Canadian Sunset, which you mentioned, and Moonglow by Morris Stoloff from the movie Picnic. I have a sister about five years older and she was up on and listened to all the big hits of the late 50s/early 60s and I just went happily along for the ride. I used to buy my own 45s; the first I can remember was Houndog when I was five, and later Great Balls of Fire among others. I was ready when the Beatles and Stones showed up and was crazy about Motown and Memphis soul in the 60s. Otis Redding was my favorite singer. Graduated to rock in the 70s and became and still am a big Steely Dan fan. There is a fair amount of jazz in SD. After the mid 80s, there was not a whole lot that interested me. Rap, hip hop, what is now called R&B, ugh! Finally, I got interested in Frank Sinatra about the time he died. I have become a big Frank fan for someone who was so late to the party. I like Ella, Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Diana Krall and others and still have a lot to learn about jazz. I still listen to a wide variety of music going back to the 50s and tend to get on artist of genre jags.

    All that said, I rarely hear current music that does anything for me. For instance, I think Adele has a great voice but I just don’t care much for the songs she sings. I have discovered a group I do like that is currently putting out new records and is touring. They’re called Lake Street Dive and are four graduates of the New England Conservatory of Music and all studied jazz, though they lean toward pop now. Watch this YouTube of their jazzy cover of I Want You Back. It’s about three years old but I saw it a month or so ago and it blew me away.


    Keep these essays coming. I love the clothes and the music.

  15. So glad many of you liked this, and may I complement you all on your fine taste in music. Great to hear your own stories about concerts and albums.

  16. BTW, CC, B-flat Maj7#1, the Lydian scale, is the “IV” chord in F. Very clever of you. This dawned on me quite early this morning.

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