Deepening Your Relationship to Musical Theatre

[Post for my NEC students.]

I went to see Barry Harris play last night at the Village Vanguard. Barry is nearly 90 and one of the few remaining consecrated members of a certain tradition in American music. He began his set by offering an elegy to the recently departed Harold Mabern, Larry Willis, and Richard Wyands, singing a simple ballad of his own devising that he’s sung at the funerals of many pianists since the death of Al Haig. (I had previously seen Barry sing it at the Cedar Walton memorial.)

Barry is “Mr. Bebop.” Especially when he was a bit younger, nobody played more bebop piano than Barry, except for his idol Bud Powell. Bebop is scary music. Paul Motian liked to quote Lou Donaldson as saying of the 1944-1954 cataclysm, “The real bebop could scare you to death.” Fast, loud, angular, resolutely African-American, space-age blues.

As students, many of us give up on bebop before we even begin, an understandable state of affairs.

However, part of the sound of bebop is the least scary sound in American music, musical theatre. Standards. After his elegy, Barry Harris completed the set with standards.

There are a lot of standards, but not an infinite number. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane were the most influential jazz musicians of the post-war era, so a good place to look would be in their discographies. Between the three of them they recorded about 90 pieces that I’d deem as “common practice” material. Most of these songs were written for a theatrical production of some kind: a revue, a show, a movie: Some kind of generous entertainment for a “couples night out” in mid-century, mid-brow American life.

Honeysuckle Rose
Body and Soul
I Got Rhythm
Lady Be Good
Sweet Georgia Brown
Embraceable You
All the Things You Are
Autumn Leaves
Lover Man
The Way You Look Tonight
Out of Nowhere
After You’ve Gone
Memories of You
I Can’t Get Started
How High the Moon
How Deep is the Ocean
On the Sunny Side of the Street
My Old Flame
Don’t Blame Me
East of the Sun
All God’s Children Got Rhythm
I Get a Kick Out of You
Just One of Those Things
Everything Happens To Me
April in Paris
If I Should Lose You
I Didn’t Know What Time it Was
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
What’s New
Star Eyes
Just You, Just Me
Limehouse Blues
My Melancholy Baby
Easy to Love
I’ll Remember April
The Song is You
These Foolish Things
Pennies From Heaven
Strike Up the Band
Stella By Starlight
Autumn in New York
Night and Day
You Stepped Out of Dream
My Funny Valentine
Isn’t It Romantic
Darn that Dream
Come Rain or Come Shine
It’s Only A Paper Moon
It Could Happen to You
You Don’t Know What Love Is
But Not for Me
The Man I Love
Bye Bye Blackbird
There is No Greater Love
The Surrey with the Fringe On Top
When I Fall in Love
It Never Entered My Mind
All of You
A Foggy Day
If I Were A Bell
I Could Write a Book
You’re My Everything
On Green Dolphin Street
Love For Sale
Someday My Prince Will Come
Old Folks
I Thought About You
Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise
I Fall in Love Too Easily
All of Me
Sweet Lorraine
I Hear a Rhapsody
Speak Low
They Can’t Take That Away from Me
Lover Come Back to Me
My Ideal
Spring is Here
Like Someone in Love
Angel Eyes
Three Little Words
The Night Has a Thousand Eyes
Out of This World
My Favorite Things
Every Time We Say Goodbye
All or Nothing At All

Of course there are more songs — Thelonious Monk comes to mind as a source for “old timey” things and Bill Evans for “sophisticated bachelor pad” melodies — but this list is a good place to start. In order to shake hands with older jazz cats on the bandstand, you kind of need to know most of these 90 songs, partly because they might get dismissive if they call more than two or three standards in a row that you can’t instantly play.

In my experience, once you learn 10 or 20 of them, the rest go easy. In the end, they are very similar, so all your brain needs to learn are the differences. After learning 50, almost any other standard can be learned in real time. You will never have to say, “I don’t know it,” again.

Serious jazz composers like Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk, and Wayne Shorter are different. Those pieces can’t be “faked.” But it’s no big deal to learn the general outline of a standard on the spot and omit a few details along the way.  Indeed, “faking it” is probably an esoteric kind of skill that helps prove that you are a professional.

However, for committed pianists, “faking it” was never enough when given the spotlight in trio or solo. When Barry Harris plays a standard, he lavishes love on the melody and the inner voices of the composition. The same was true of Harold Mabern, Larry Willis, and Richard Wyands — or, indeed, true of almost any pianist we deem as great.

Like most of my peers, I learned standards mostly from fake books. Nothing wrong with this, but I’m still playing catch up on some details. After all, each of these pieces was composed by a great composer who fought for each note they placed on the original sheet music.

A good way to deepen your relationship to any given standard is to read through that original sheet music. Charlie Parker played “Embraceable You” quite a bit; Bird also wrote a notably oblique line on the changes, “Quasimodo.” Eventually “Embraceable You” was just about the only standard Ornette Coleman ever recorded.

What did the original 1928 sheet music by George and Ira Gershwin look like? These days it can be found online or in a “Songs of Gershwin” anthology (any decent music library should be full of songbooks).

Embraceable 1

Embraceable 2

The (frequently incorrect) chord changes were added later by a drone at the publishing company and are not authentic to Gershwin.

First step to digging deep: Play through the published chart as is. If reading through this chart seems like a challenge: Well, you want to get this together. Check out a half-dozen songbooks out of the library and sight-read through them until “doing the math” is reasonably comfortable. Most working pianists are able to read at this level pretty easily. Sadly, society doesn’t pay musicians for being creative right out of the gate. However, pianists always can get paid for accompanying singers, playing in wedding bands, rehearsing shows, etc. If I never played another jazz gig, I could hang out my shingle, “I read piano music,” and survive.

By the way, the song is also quite wonderful in its original manifestation.  Update: On the Art Blakey centennial, Branford Marsalis told a relevant story:

He [Blakey] told me I had to play a ballad. I didn’t know how to play ballads. So I … did what young people always do: started changing all the chords so I could sound less sad. So he walks by and goes, “What the hell is that?”I said, “Man, I don’t wanna do this crap! You’re making me do it, I’m just trying to make it hip.” He said, “This song is written by George Gershwin. George Gershwin has written an opera; he has written symphonic pieces; he wrote some of the greatest pop songs in the history of American pop music; he does not need your sorry ass to make him hip. You will play the song as written.” At the time it was awful, but five years later, I’m like, “Boy, I’m glad he made me do that.”

(This quote was misunderstood on a FB thread. To be clear, no versions of Blakey standards have exact sheet music changes.  Horace Silver is a very different harmonist than Bobby Timmons than Cedar Walton than Joanne Brackeen than Mulgrew Miller. This Branford anecdote is gratifying by suggesting that looking at what the composer first wrote might be part of the process.)

Especially if you aren’t connecting with the song emotionally yet — if you think it is corny or whatever — I regret to say the next step is to sing the standard and accompany yourself reading the sheet music. Yep. You’ll probably sound terrible (I certainly do), but it helps to internalize the song and draw attention to the emotional reason for the song to exist in the first place. Ira Gershwin was a genius, too: I’m not sure if “Embraceable You” is his very finest hour, but it’s always good to notice the lyrics.

Then, transpose the song. “Embraceable You”  is often played in E-flat major. So try to read the song down a major third. Sing it in transposition, too! The highest and lowest notes in the song are very important for the compositional logic of the composer and for the tessitura of the singer. Gershwin’s highest note (in G major) is E-flat, the most chromatic and climatic point in the piece. Regardless of your vocal prowess, it will feel very different singing that climatic E-flat than singing a C-flat when you transpose down to E-flat. Understanding vocal range is very important when working with singers.

Now the improvisation begins: Make up your own set of jazzy changes to the melody in ballad tempo. This version should be gentle, pretty, and even ornamental, where the tune stays pretty much as is but everything else can be free.

(If this stage feels like a stretch, Fred Hersch taught me a good exercise: Accompany the melody with first one voice, the bass, then add in a second voice, the tenor, and finally a third, the alto. Normal 5-note jazz harmony is a piece of cake after that.)

The God of this “jazzy ballad” style is Art Tatum, everyone has pretty much imitated him since: Bud Powell, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Joanne Brackeen, etc…I was just listening to Sonny Clark’s wonderful trio jam session Oakland 1955. On almost every standard, Clark plays an attractive, rubato, “Tatumesque” chorus up front, a declaration of intention (and perhaps showing the bassist “his” changes) before swinging out with the band. Barry Harris also did exactly this procedure (rubato solo chorus, then trio swing) last night at the Vanguard.

Ok, it may be time to play the tune with your own personality. If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve probably already heard the tune played by the jazz greats. Sometimes a given song has taken on a particular set of changes as common practice: Tom Harrell told me these changes were the “coin of the realm,” a nice phrase. On “Embraceable You,” hardly any jazzer would play all of Gershwin’s inversions with a full band, but those inversions might be interesting to know about on the way to finding a truly personal interpretation of the song.

(I try to keep an open mind, there’s no one path to great music. One time Charlie Haden asked me to play “My Old Flame,” a song I didn’t know well. I dutifully did my research (it was quite difficult to find the original sheet of “My Old Flame”) before showing up at the gig — but then Charlie handed me a rather cheap lead sheet with utterly normalized changes. Charlie’s chart kind of invalidated the work I did in advance (not that Charlie didn’t sound incredible on that song on the gig). On the other hand, I saved my private “Old Flame” discoveries for a rainy day, a day that finally arrived last month on tour with Joe Sanders and Jorge Rossy.)

Asking you to do all the above steps for 90 songs is absurd. Just try it with a few and see what happens. I’m also not saying to never learn a standard from a lead sheet, of course you will (and should).

It’s just good to know that many of the master jazz musicians had songbooks, and not just the comparatively conservative. Paul Motian had them all. Masabumi Kikuchi had them all. Charles McPherson suggested to me that the songbooks are generally how jazz musicians learned European harmony, and I suspect he’s right. Indeed, before fakebooks, the piano players had to have the sheet music. In the pictures from the John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman session, McCoy Tyner’s piano is overflowing with pages of music. McCoy is looking at the original musical theatre sheets and making up a version of the harmony to suit the style of the Coltrane quartet.


In addition to all the older songbooks, I’ve learned a lot playing through volumes of Burt Bacharach, Stevie Wonder, and Joni Mitchell. When I was young I loved the easy vocal folios from West Side Story and Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s all just tunes and harmonies. The more you know, the more you know.

For extra credit, you could watch film version of the great musicals: not as research, exactly, but simply for entertainment, and perhaps as a way to absorb something about the era that created the greatest jazz. Oklahoma! (1955) and West Side Story (1961) come to mind, especially with those astonishing dance sequences by Agnes De Mille and Jerome Robbins.

Probably many of the jazz greats learned standards just by going to the movies, taking in that generous entertainment for a “couples night out” in mid-century, mid-brow American life. Ron Carter told me that when Eddie Harris wanted to use Johnny Mandel’s brand new “The Shadow of Your Smile” for a record date, Ron went to The Sandpiper and transcribed it straight from the screen.

Nowadays the first movie versions of familiar standards are a click away on YouTube. I was recently struck by the 1936 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers sequence around Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’s “The Way You Look Tonight.” Like everyone else, I usually stomp this tune off as a barnburner. After seeing this clip, I might play it a little differently in the future.

The musical theatre ethos was understood by all the jazz masters. They didn’t play musical theatre themselves, but that ethos was part of what made jazz jazz. Even in that abstract Ornette Coleman rendition of “Embraceable You,” there is a hint of something mellow, friendly and obvious in the grand songbag tradition.

Update 2: This has been a popular post, and I have received a fair amount of private correspondence asking for clarity about which edition of the songbooks to get. Others have suggested that there were heavy-handed arrangers involved in the piano/vocal scores. I turned to an expert, Mike Kanan, and he wrote:

Over the years, I’ve stopped wondering if the sheet music I have acquired is truly the composer’s notes. I don’t think that I’ll ever know for sure, and it matters less to me now than it used to. For me, reading lots of sheet music over the years has given me a sense of the sounds that were in the air from the 20s into the 30s. If I see a copyright on the music, I trust that the melody and the words are correct (as we know, not necessarily the case with lead sheets). That’s enough. Harmony is always changing and being reinterpreted but the melody is clear and everlasting. I think the books I have give me a close enough idea of what Gershwin might be up to, even if there might be an editor involved.

The books have given me a some particular values:

1. Melody comes FIRST, harmony should serve melody, and not distract from it.
2. Use simple elements well – triads, inversions, and good bass lines.
3. Always be moving horizontally beneath the melody.

If the material I have isn’t the composer’s exact notes, the books still serve a great purpose. I don’t want to get too hung up if I can’t find the exact notes.

Mike’s practical attitude seems entirely correct to me. Thanks Mike!!

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