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.

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