Dec 30, 2016

That "A Train" Lick, Part 2 - Jimmie Rodgers!

Don't blame me. My friend Adam (last name withheld) just came up with this one. Adam is the one who started our tune-detective project on earlier use of "that A Train lick" (see Part 1 here),

Adam's new example is Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel No. 1," a big hit in 1928 - before any of the other tunes listed in my previous post.

Ridiculous? A year-end joke? Maybe! But...

The A Train lick -

Jimmie Rodgers, "Blue Yodel #1," 1928. The yodeling lick is at 0:30 -

The yodeling phrase actually does resemble "that A Train lick" in several ways: a leap up to the third of the key, back down to the fifth, then chromatically down to the fourth, leap to the second, moving to the tonic (delayed by several notes in "Blue Yodel"). It is similarly placed, at the end of the musical phrase.

Here's the Wikipedia page for Blue Yodel #1 (AKA "T for Texas"). Jimmie's recording sold half a million copies. He built on the success of "Blue Yodel #1," recording eight more Blue Yodels for Victor between 1928 and 1930, as well as many other titles. Louis Armstrong and Lil Hardin Armstrong were featured on the last one, "Blue Yodel #9." All the Blue Yodels are on YouTube.

Of course, Jimmie didn't invent yodeling, either. It was not just an alpine thing, but was part of "Western" music in the 1920s-1930s. Roy Rogers was pretty accomplished too; supposedly as a youth he used yodeling to communicate on the family farm.

However, from what I can find on the web, there seems to be disagreement over whether yodeling was actually something cowboys did to communicate on the range, or whether it was just a showbiz gimmick, perhaps inspired by alpine yodeling in vaudeville.

You'd have to at least concede that this yodeling lick was "in the air" by the 1930s, when most of the other tunes on our list were written. Maybe the lick just sort of floated into Harold Arlen's creative mind, and so on, down the line:

Blue Yodel #1 - 1928
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea - Harold Arlen, 1931
Shuffle Off to Buffalo - Harry Warren, 1933
I've Put all My Eggs In One Basket - Irving Berlin, 1936
Take the A Train - Billy Strayhorn, 1939
Tiny's Tempo - Tiny Grimes, 1946

I know - you are thinking, "Give me a break!" - right? But like I said, you can't blame me for this one.

Happy New Year!

Dec 25, 2016

That "A Train" Lick, Part 1 - Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Billy Strayhorn, and Tiny Grimes

My friend Adam called my attention to the Irving Berlin song "I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket" (1936), which contains a phrase that strongly resembles one in the A section of Billy Strayhorn's "Take The 'A' Train" (1939). Adam wondered where that lick might have originally come from.

Here's the lick from "Eggs":

Berlin wrote "Eggs" for the Fred Astaire movie "Follow the Fleet":

I'm sure you already know the "A Train" lick:

Duke Ellington's classic 1941 recording:

I didn't have a good answer for Adam about the origin of the lick, but I did recall another tune with a similar lick, "Tiny's Tempo." Guitarist Tiny Grimes recorded this one in 1946, with Charlie Parker as a sideman:

This week I've been re-reading Alec Wilder's landmark book, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950(1972). If you are at all interested in jazz standards, you owe it to yourself to read it. It's extensively researched, authoritative, and amusingly opinionated. Wilder's opinions are pretty well-informed - he was himself a successful composer, both classical and popular, and personally knew some of the composers he wrote about.

In his Harold Arlen chapter, Wilder mentions an early Arlen tune, "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" (1931), calling this phrase "a marvelous riff which I must believe was written before the lyric":

That's the piano part, from the published sheet music, copied from Wilder's book. "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" was written for a 1931 Cotton Club show, "Rhyth-mania." Arlen was familiar, and comfortable, with the jazz world. He was adept at incorporating blues licks and blues harmonies into his compositions - I've always enjoyed that aspect of Arlen's work. Note the Ab in bar 2, a moment of a b3 blue note. As Wilder notes, Arlen was pretty advanced for his time.

Here are the dates of the songs mentioned:

"Between the Devil" - 1931
"Eggs" - 1936
"A Train" - 1939
"Tiny's Tempo" - 1946

Harry Warren's Shuffle Off to Buffalo (1933) has a related lick - a simpler version, without the initial reach to the higher note, but with the chromatic movement from the fifth to the fourth, followed by a reach up, to the second and the tonic. As in the first 3 tunes above, the lick comes at the end of the musical phrase.

"Between the Devil" is the earliest instance that I can find of any lick resembling this one. I have to wonder if it was a part of the jazz vocabulary of the day, even before Arlen wrote the song.

If any blog readers can think of an earlier example, please leave a comment at the end of this post!

Update 12/27/16:

Here's a similar sequence from 1929. I was just reading Wilder's chapter on Hoagy Carmichael. I'm not sure if this counts, as the melodic sequence is placed differently, both harmonically and in its placement in the measure, but I'd be remiss not to mention it:

About this musical example, Wilder comments, "If ever there was an instrumental phrase, as if improvised at that..."

Update 12/30/16: Click here for That A Train Lick, Part 2 - Jimmie Rodgers!

As a side note, this post led me to check out Tiny Grimes' biography. Tiny played with Art Tatum in the early 1940s, recorded four tunes with Charlie Parker in 1946, and later recorded with Johnny Hodges, Coleman Hawkins, Illinois Jacquet, Pepper Adams, Roy Eldridge, and Earl Hines. Tiny Grimes is also regarded as a contributor to the origins of rock and roll:

Trivia: According to Wikipedia,
In the late 1940s, he had a hit on a jazzed-up version of "Loch Lomond", with the band billed as Tiny "Mac" Grimes and the Rocking Highlanders and appearing in kilts. This group included top tenor saxman Red Prysock and singer Screaming Jay Hawkins.
Screaming Jay (remembered for his 1956 hit, I Put a Spell On You) was featured on vocals, sax, and keyboards with the Rocking Highlanders. Jay doesn't sing on the "Loch Lomond" track, but if you want to check it out, "Loch Lomond" is from 8:00 to 11:05 in the first recording below. The saxophones get an interesting bagpipe effect in the intro:

Here's one last one - Tiny Grimes with Art Tatum and Slam Stewart:

Dec 16, 2016

"I Didn't Know What Time It Was" - A Few Observations

A few months ago I picked up a copy of the original sheet music to the 1939 Rodgers and Hart song "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," at a book sale. I finally got around to taking a closer look at it last week, and noticed some interesting things about the harmony.

Below are the first eight bars of the "chorus" (main body of the tune, after the introductory "verse"), first as shown in the Standards Real Book(Sher Music), and then as shown in the 1939 sheet music.

Sher's fakebooks are a sort of gold standard; they are well-researched and generally will give you an intelligent, mainstream-jazz version. This chart is pretty representative of modern fakebook versions of this song. Click to enlarge.

Here are a few observations about the harmony, sticking just to the first 8 measures.

It's best to look at the piano part, not just the guitar chord symbols. Chord symbols in many older sheet music charts are not always well-considered. The piano part is likely to be a better representation of what the composer originally had in mind.

1) The first chord in the sheet music's piano part is not F#m7 (as in Sher, and every other fakebook version I could find), but rather F#7sus4 (the chord symbol in the sheet music calls it "F#7 add B"). The melody note B is anticipating the B7 chord that follows. The F# chord has no third.

2) The second bar of the sheet music shows just Em, not Em7 A7 as in the Sher version (and other fakebooks).

3) Bar 4 of the sheet music shows just an A triad, not Em7 A7 as in Sher (and other fakebooks).

4) Bar 5 of the sheet music shows just Am, not Am7 D7 as in the Sher chart.


The differences reflect the tendency of current jazz lead sheets to frame harmonies in terms of II V sequences, and other standard concepts that constitute "jazz theory" as it is taught today. In bars 2 and 4 of this tune, the fake book editors have overdone it a little.

1) I do think that turning the first chord of bar 1 into F#m7 makes sense. Functionally, F#m7 isn't too different from F#7 with no third. F#m7 is II in E major, followed by B7b9, a V with minor-key color, resolving to Em. This conforms to standard jazz harmonic practice.

2) Showing Em7 A7 in bars 2 and 4 is misleading. This looks too much like a II V in D, and I'm quite sure that was not Rodgers' intention. Jazz recording artists don't play these measures as II V, but rather as a simple resolution to a tonic Em. I think the A7 found its way into fake books because it incorporates the note C# as part of a voice-leading line that threads through bars 1 and 2 in half notes: E, D#, D, C#. You can hear this voice-leading line in the Sarah Vaughan track below (this version is down a fifth from the sheet music key, so the line is A, G#, G, F#):

I suppose you could look at Em7 A7 as a sequence in E dorian, but that's fussy and misleading too. It's really just E minor.

3) The A triad in bar 4 of the sheet music is a nice twist by Richard Rodgers, but doesn't seem to have been picked up by jazz players. An A triad has a rather different harmonic meaning here than the Em7 A7 shown in most fakebooks (again, the Em7 A7 here is not actually a II V, and most players play lines in this measure that just convey a tonic E minor).

4) In showing Am7 D7 in bar 5, the fakebook version indicates a II V where Rodgers wrote simply Am. This II V works, though, setting up the Em in the next bar (or Sher's alternate chord here, G6).

These differences don't mean that the modern fakebooks are "wrong"; it just goes to show how a tune's harmonic setting can change in the course of 70+ years in the jazz repertoire. I will say, though, that you probably won't want to plug in II V licks in soloing over bars 2 and 4. The rhythm section can play Em7 A7 if they like, but if you use your ear, you'll probably end up playing tonic Em ideas over the whole measure.

Following are two more more great recordings of "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." The Ella Fitzgerald version includes the introductory verse. Ella delivers the lyrics perfectly. Shirley Horn's version is more modern and harmonically spare.