Most cocktail jazz gigs are not particularly rewarding on an artistic level, but they aren't supposed to be. They pay well but they usually go on for too long and most people there aren't listening to you. Of course, there are benefits. I once played a solo gig on a white piano surrounded by roses while Rosario Dawson, in a gravity-defying dress, conversed with a handful of other beautiful people at the other end of the strings.
But the hard part comes when someone makes a request. And there are always requests. Of the tens of thousands of available standards, the following five songs come up more than any other and there isn't a jazz band in the world that wouldn't mind if they never had to play them again.
To help provide alternative suggestions to these five overplayed standards is Hawthorne, California raised author Ted Gioia who aside from working his share of cocktail piano gigs, released his eighth book, The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, earlier this month.
Understandably, people who request songs probably aren't looking for an alternative suggestion but if this list prevents one person from requesting these songs then our job is done. If you absolutely have to hear “Take Five,” tip generously.
“Sweet Georgia Brown”
Ben Bernie Orchestra (1925)
Can anyone hear this song without whistling or trying to spin their drink on the tip of their finger? This jazz standard goes back to the mid 1920s and has been sung by everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Minnie Mouse, but the only people it's appropriate to play for would be members of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Gioia suggests: “The changes are similar to a blues change. You might be able to sneak in a fast blues or some other fast swing number like 'Perdido' or 'I Got Rhythm.' The only other basketball song I can think of is that Cheech and Chong song 'Basketball Jones' but that probably isn't going to sound too good.”
Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)
Paul Desmond's tune is famous for its time signature. The odd-metered 5/4 tempo mostly served as a vehicle for drummer Joe Morello to highlight his chops. Asking a solo piano player to play this one is especially confusing.
Gioia suggests: “Up until recently there wasn't another option. The Mission Impossible theme? Brad Mehldau has been doing a cover of Nick Drake's 'River Man' and that is the same time signature. The only other option would be another Brubeck song like 'In Your Own Sweet Way' or 'The Duke.' If you wanted to be really daring you could do 'Blue Rondo a la Turk' but that probably wouldn't go over too well.”
“What a Wonderful World”
Louis Armstrong (1968)
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.
Gioia suggests: “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.”
“The Girl From Ipanema”
Stan Getz/Astrud Gilberto (1968)
Antonio Carlos Jobim's light-hearted tune conjures sand-swept beaches and consequence-free tans for the people requesting the song. The piano player is mostly reminded of his most recent elevator ride.
Gioia suggests: “Even Stan Getz didn't play this in concert. He would usually play 'Desafinado.' If you want to get really daring I would try another Brazilian composer. Milton Nascimiento. Ivan Lins. They never got to that level of Jobim but they were extraordinary songwriters. Djavan's 'Oceano' is one of my favorite Brazilian songs. I tend to think Brazil has the best popular music in the world. I'd love to expose people to that music.”
“Linus & Lucy”
Vince Guaraldi Trio (1964)
It is my belief that every person who requests “Linus & Lucy” can probably play it themselves. For most people, Vince Guaraldi's simplistic theme song reminds people of their youth and failed persistence with learning the piano. The piano player is thinking about his regrettable insistence on continuing to play the piano.
Gioia suggests: “What I generally do is switch to another Guaraldi song, 'Christmas Time is Here.' If you play that instead, it's more fun and people will dig it. You should probably only play it around Christmas but you could probably get away with it year round. Guaraldi was one of the best slow-to-medium tempo jazz/blues players. He was a great comping pianist. 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind' could be good too. It's catchy with a good beat and it might be vaguely familiar to people.”