What is Great American Songbook Music?

A typical Great American Songbook album
A typical Great American Songbook album.

The style known now as "Great American Songbook" -- a term that only came into widespread use of the last decade or so -- refers to the vast genre of pre-WWII pop music, a style influenced by but not tied down to the jazz and swing styles of the day. Coming into vogue as it did during an era where sheet music was the main standard of music transmission, Great American Songbook songs were necessarily dependent on the songwriter, the best of whom were often just as famous (and better paid) than the singers who sang their compositions.

Indeed, the outputs of these songwriters became known collectively as "songbooks," which led directly to the catchall term we use today.

The typical Great American Songbook songs -- known in jazz, then as now, simply as "standards" -- were lushly orchestrated, romantic pop numbers, heavy on balladry, which would then be "interpreted" by singers of the day. As a result, many of the genre's songs exist in hundreds if not thousands of varied vocal and instrumental versions, their only constant being the lyrics and melody (although daring jazz instrumentalists and vocalists might even taken great liberties with those).

As vinyl records had not come into their own yet, these songs largely originated from two sources: the radio star, or "crooner," a direct antecedent of the teen idols who benefited from the new advances in microphone technology that let them sing quietly and in a more intimate fashion; and also Broadway and Hollywood musicals, which provided an outlet for standards right through the early Sixties.

Though this music was largely killed off by the rock and roll explosion, it survives today in the jazz vocal world, and has recently made a pop comeback of sorts with the rise of American Idol and also Rod Stewart's string of #1 GAS albums.

Also Known As: Standards, Pop Vocal, Jazz-pop

Examples of Great American Songbook songs:

"Stardust," Hoagy Carmichael

Perhaps the quintessential pop standard, more covered than just about anything since "White Christmas," romantic and heartbreaking but buoyed by a typically gorgeous melody.

"Night and Day," Cole Porter

A dark tale of romantic obsession, which may be why Frank Sinatra revisited it no fewer than four times over the course of his life.

"Summertime," George and Ira Gershwin

This Porgy and Bess standout co-opted jazz and blues so perfectly it's been covered by everyone from Billie Holiday to Billy Stewart, from Janis Joplin to Sublime.

"The Way You Look Tonight," Jerome Kern

A perfect example of how Great American Songbook scribes could sum a relationship up in just one seemingly normal moment -- a must in musical theater.

"My Funny Valentine," Rodgers and Hart

An even more celebrated standard in jazz than in pop, mainly due to the effortlessly simple yet extremely malleable melody.

"(Somewhere) Over the Rainbow," Harold Arlen

The standout of The Wizard of Oz is the pop standard for any singer who knows how to convey longing for a better world.

"Come Fly with Me," Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn

Gently swinging and loads of fun, with the promise of romance and sex as a constant undercurrent -- there was a reason Van Heusen and Cahn were Sinatra's favorite songwriters.

"Blue Skies," Irving Berlin

As the first song heard in the first "talkie" movie ever (Al Jolson introduced it in The Jazz Singer), this was perhaps destined to be one of the master's most-covered songs.

"That Old Black Magic," Johnny Mercer

One of the more seductive numbers in the Songbook, although it's ostensibly about being seduced.

"Some Enchanted Evening," Rodgers and Hammerstein

The linchpin of South Pacific, the most popular musical of the '50s, and also a rare songbook item tailored to bass vocalists more than tenors.