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'The Jazz Standards' review: Power of song

"The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire"

"The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire" by Ted Gioia (Oxford University Press, May 2012) Credit: Handout

THE JAZZ STANDARDS: A Guide to the Repertoire, by Ted Gioia. Oxford University Press, 527 pp., $39.95.

In a tense moment at the end of Annie Dillard's memoir "Encounters With Chinese Writers," nothing less than the honor of American popular music hangs in the balance. "American songs have no feeling, no depth," a visiting Chinese novelist complains to Dillard and a colleague. "They are too bouncy -- not subtle." Rising to the occasion, Dillard and her colleague break into an a cappella version of "St. James Infirmary."

Like Dillard and her colleague, I assumed "St. James Infirmary" was all-American, based on an institution that treated patients in New Orleans. Wrong town -- even wrong country -- argues jazz and blues scholar Ted Gioia in his richly informative new book, "The Jazz Standards."

The song, he writes, originated as an English ballad about St. James Hospital in London. Despite "the peculiarity . . . of a love song delivered to a corpse," the non-bouncy "St. James Infirmary" has become "a well-traveled cultural meme." In 1975, Lily Tomlin sang it on "Saturday Night Live" "while seated atop the piano with the band dressed as nurses."

Gioia takes the reader through hundreds of songs, rounding out each entry with a list of his recommended versions. Though I missed a few favorites ("Fever," for example, recorded by Little Willie John, Peggy Lee and Beyoncé, among others), it's hard to quarrel with Gioia's seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of what's still hot and what's not.

Among his choices are "All of Me," by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons, and "All of You," by Cole Porter. The latter song becomes a springboard for a discussion of censorship. As Gioia reports, the Motion Picture Association of America "found the references to making a 'tour of you' with a rest stop at the 'south of you' potentially offensive to American sensibilities." The censors relented, and Fred Astaire sang the song as written in the 1957 movie "Silk Stockings."

Gioia devotes an entry to "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields -- and deservedly so. But he says not a word about the song's prominence in "Bringing Up Baby," the great screwball comedy from 1938 with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Not only does the song mollify Baby, a leopard that has clawed its way into the plot, but the two stars' duet is far from shabby.

More often, Gioia examines a song from every angle. In discussing McHugh and Fields' "On the Sunny Side of the Street," he notes that some commentators have "conjectured that the 'sunny side' . . . refers to African-Americans who passed as white." Gioia thinks not, and surely he is right: The song seems too carefree to bear such a fraught interpretation.

Gioia closes with one last Cole Porter entry: "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." "The Jazz Standards" itself is awfully nice to dip into.

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