Standards as Memes

In teaching a student a jazz standard in a voice lesson yesterday, we listened to Sarah Vaughan. In her performance of “I Could Write A Book”, Sarah barely touches on the melody from the opening bars.

How, I asked my student, could she get away with that?

The answer is that her audience a half-century ago knew these tunes as well as people today know memes. Think of Grumpy Cat, Rickrolling, The Most Interesting Man In The World, “One Does Not Simply…”

Memes have evolved into a common language, and reference to a popular meme can be made without most of the original context, because our prior knowledge fills in the blanks. Change the text, change the picture, as long as there is some small strand of connection, the right neurons fire and we get it.

It’s hard to comprehend, but that’s exactly what jazz standards used to be. Ella Fitzgerald will generally state the melody of “How High The Moon” before departing from it, but singers like Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, or Mark Murphy know that you “get it,” and immediately head off for more interesting melodic terrain.

It was a beautiful era, and it empowered singers to create remarkable art using the common language of American Popular Song.

Ella Mack The Knife