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How Jazz May Have Influenced The Beatles

By Published: September 30, 2009

Latin Interlude

The influence of latin music on the Beatles was big, as foreshadowed above. Lennon's "Ask Me Why" from The Beatles first album is a latin number. Jazz, for the most part, has always known some kind of latin influence—Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton
1890 - 1941
used to speak of the "Spanish tinge" in his music—and The Beatles were also clearly devotees of the groove. At one early point, the (pre-Ringo) four even adopted stage names: McCartney was "Paul Ramon," as if to point up his latin-leanings.

"Besame Mucho" is a Mexican tune, and Latin-American guitar styles were also a large influence: the solo and other licks by George Harrison on the 1963 recorded version of "Till There Was You" is identical to guitar parts played by a backing player to a different song at the Peruvian "Cusqena" music fest presented on New York local network television in 2008. Although the quality of reproduction is not great, the clip is instructive: apart from the guitar licks, the music toward the end of the clip is reminiscent of another Beatles latin-style cover "Mister Moonlight" (sung by John Lennon), much performed in Hamburg and recorded on their fourth album Beatles For Sale (EMI, 1964):

In addition to "Ask Me Why," as noted above the first album also included "A Taste Of Honey," a song whose latin connection was amplified by the later popular '60s recording by Herb Alpert
Herb Alpert
Herb Alpert
and the Tijuana Brass. The record is an early Beatles classic.

From the point of view of composition, there is an instructive comment of McCartney: he has said that he really liked the minor to major key change in "Besame Mucho." With "Things We Said Today," from the A Hard Days Night album (EMI, 1964), he shows how much: the middle section begins with an abrupt minor to major key shift, which is very exciting—on the out of print live album The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl (EMI, 1977), the excitement level of the audience markedly goes up a notch when this part of the song is reached.

From an arranging standpoint, McCartney is said to have been completely enamored of Lee's version of "Till There Was You."

The Beatles also felt the influence of Neapolitan song: Elvis Presley had released "It's Now Or Never," i.e. the 1902-composed "O Sole Mio," in 1960, and McCartney sang the song on stage in the Hamburg clubs. This "world" music element of influence on The Beatles is potentially stronger than people may imagine: it was recently claimed on Italian television that no less a song than McCartney's "Yesterday" was copied closely from a Neapolitan song from around 1900.

The Beatles devoured all the records they could find in Hamburg, of any variety. It was a hobby of theirs to find rare records: after all, that's how you learn to write music.

In leaning at times towards latin music, The Beatles were no different from their jazz predecessors—even rock and roller Fats Domino
Fats Domino
Fats Domino
recorded an intriguing latin version of "The Sheik Of Araby" in 1962 (see below).

So this had been the daily world inhabited by The Beatles shortly before their first album.

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Harmony: Tin Pan Alley And The Beatles' First Hits

So by 1963, The Beatles' influences included rock and roll, Brill, R&B, emergent Motown, latin and world music, jazz and classical music, in short, anything that sounded good and was musically interesting. For example, their second single "Please Please Me" contains in its opening notes melodic similarities to some classical pieces. In its first notes, there are melodic similarities to no less than four relevant composers (listed above), probably familiar to the writers—Lennon is said to have listened to a lot of classical music when he was about 20, and George Harrison said in a fan interview newspaper in America in 1964 that he listened to a lot of Andre Segovia (one of whose well known records of the time was the guitar concerto by the above-mentioned Castelnuovo-Tedesco). It also appears to have been inspired, in terms of general musical sound, by Roy Orbison.

However, as stated above by reference to "Ain't She Sweet," the song is also firmly in the fine tradition of Tin Pan Alley. Tin Pan Alley was, up to the 1960s, the prime provider of jazz's staple vehicles for improvisation. The Beatles, as wanna-be hit writers, were at one with Tin Pan Alley and its past jazz-fueling products. It has been said that the first Tin Pan Alley "requirement" of a song was that the listener should be hooked in the first ten seconds, which then sells the song: "Please Please Me" has that very catchy figure at the start, so this requirement is certainly fulfilled. First impressions have a major impact. The Beatles knew this. Another "Alley" influence is the title itself: Lennon is believed to have modeled the title on the early Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby
1903 - 1977
hit "Please": Crosby sang for the opening, "Please, lend your little ear to my pleas..." Try singing the Crosby song with a Lennon accent—even the melody, though unrelated to "Please Please Me," has a Lennon-esque lilt. The overall feel (after it was sped up on producer George Martin's suggestion) being similar to "Ain't She Sweet" has already been noted. And, of course, the session that yielded the latter record was, as noted above, presided over by the producer and jazz-kitsch meister Bert Kampfaert.

"Please Please Me" also, in its melody, opens in a manner similar to the opening of Fats Waller's "Honey Hush." Waller also knew how to hook a listener "in the first ten seconds." The latter song is also discussed in other contexts below.

With The Beatles' third single "From Me To You," the template was firmly extended to include jazz elements in the song's harmony. In their writing of harmony (chord changes) the band was now beginning to reach further back into jazz and the "Great American Song Book," the font of tunes covered "all day and night" by jazz artists from the beginnings of jazz. It is as if The Beatles realized they needed a more expansive musical model: the rock and roll and even the Brill Building music, with its brief and direct chord changes (see below), didn't provide enough of a palate to paint with. Paul McCartney has been quoted as saying that you write a song by finding a good chord progression first. Obviously, he is not talking three chord blues progressions here: there are many great chord progressions in jazz "standards."

With "From Me To You," there is firstly a jazz-like lilting hook: it is not dissimilar, though certainly not the same as, the main hook of Benny Carter
Benny Carter
Benny Carter
1907 - 2003
sax, alto
's "When Lights Are Low," a very catchy tune indeed.

"From Me To You" is a powerful example of a more sophisticated use of harmony, of "finding a good chord progression." In contrast to the simpler chords of the first album's original Beatle songs, the harmony now reaches into the territory of George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, two master writers of jazz "standards." This is noticeable in the middle section, where there is a key change: the song, as recorded, is in C and the middle section begins with a smooth G minor to C7 move, which musicians will recognize as opening the piece up to the new key of F major. McCartney himself referred to this move, in this song, in a mid '60s interview. He said, it opens up "a whole new world." Indeed it does: it is a new key. This move was also repeated to brilliant effect in reaching the middle section of "I Want To Hold Your Hand," two singles later. This "whole new world" (in the middle section) thus helped sweep The Beatles into America and fully around the world.

Now, this method of changing key is one of the two main ways to change key as taught in music schools everywhere (it is the "ii, V, I progression"). It is all over the songs of the "Great American Songbook." A great example is the very deft move to the home key of Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is The Ocean (How Blue Is The Sky)?," where the piece moves from the tonal area of (if the sing is performed in, say, D), B minor, by a "side- ways" slide "down" to the chord of E minor, then the chord A7 and so on to the chord and home key of D major.

In the words of The Who's Pete Townsend—quoted in the 1970s—"The Beatles brought song-writing to rock and roll." By "song-writing," he means "Tin Pan Alley"—i.e. jazz-"Great American Songbook" writing.

Before "I Want To Hold Your Hand," however, this general smoother, jazz style of writing was magnificently brought to effect on "She Loves You," The Beatles' fourth single, where the jazz world really comes to the fore: the song appears to have many jazz influences. Firstly, on the words "with a love like that," the C minor chord behind the melody is followed by the dominant D chord (the song is in G major). This chord progression is in George Gershwin's "Embraceable You": on the words "my sweet embrace... able... you," at the conclusion of the tune (the "chorus," in "'30s speak"). It is also in Gershwin's "The Man I Love;" this, perhaps his best tune, concludes its main section with the same progression also; the IV chord is minor and the the next chord is the fifth, the dominant flattened major seventh, before you head back to the I chord; it is on the words "and though it sounds absurd, I know we both won't say a word."

Gershwin, of course, composed jazz tunes, or, in the words of distinguished broadcaster and musician Karl Haas, [Gershwin's]..." (m)any memorable tunes, conceived in the manner of jazz, had established Gershwin's fame as a popular composer... In fact, his musical comedies were filled with true hit tunes, such as 'Fascinatin' Rhythm' and 'S Wonderful..." Inside Music (Doubleday, 1984). The songs of "The Great American Songbook," whether written for shows or not, are indivisible from jazz.

Gershwin was clearly a very strong source of inspiration for The Beatles, from the very first time McCartney heard "Stairway To Paradise" as a child. Indeed, McCartney senior apparently even used to train his two sons by playing a note and require that the two instantly fill in the other notes of the chord, vocally. In any event, to be trained in Gershwin is a good beginning for a writer.

Another possible clue to part of the chords in "She Loves You" is in Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." "She Loves You" (justifiably described by The Beatles' producer George Martin as "a tremendous tune") is notable for a particularly springy part where the first two chords of the verse (G and its relative minor E minor) are followed not by the usual A minor and (dominant) D7 (as was common in doo-wop, for example, and as in the classic "These Foolish Things"), but by B minor and then D7. This gives power and strong support to the tune. Now, Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" (also a significant inspiration and vehicle for Charlie Parker in shaping bebop twenty years earlier) does exactly the same thing; on the words "who could wish for anything more," (which finish off the verse section), the same two chords project you back to the tonic chord. It is, of course, conjecture whether these chords in "I Got Rhythm" lay subconsciously beneath Lennon and/or McCartney's choice of those chords, but, as with the two consecutive chords of "Embraceable You" and "The Man I Love" above, the same musical job is accomplished. The coincidence of two possible (and very clear) Gershwin-sourced examples in the same tune can't be ignored.

Lennon (frequently more blues-oriented) reportedly used to sing "Don't Blame Me," a "torch" song introduced by Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra
1915 - 1998
on his radio show in the early '50s as "a blues song"—it was also famously played by Charlie Parker on his masterpiece series of recordings, with Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
, of 1947-48.

Even the melody of "She Loves You" seems to vaguely echo Gershwin's sublime "Someone To Watch Over Me;" both songs begin with an ascending diatonic scale, a deliberative rise from the tonic note into the body of the piece. A second element of the melody of "She Loves You" may arise from "Moonglow" or even from modern jazz recordings. This is discussed below.

It is undeniable that the sound template for The Beatles came most immediately from the brilliant and bright rock sound of the American "girl groups" such as The Shirelles ("Boys," "Baby It's You," "Chains" and "Twist And Shout" were all recorded by the group). A further excellent example is a song by a group called The Donays, "Devil In His Heart," recorded by The Beatles as "Devil In Her Heart" on their second album (also, of course, in 1963). But The Beatles added composition, of the kind used in jazz tunes, to the sound. The Donays song can be used as an example: the song is infectious but has direct and simple chord progressions. The "devil" is in the detail of how the melody is twisted by the writers around the chords. The Beatles, however, took a more complex and longer-stretched harmonic approach: a tune such as Hoagy Carmichael
Hoagy Carmichael
Hoagy Carmichael
1899 - 1981
's "Stardust" travels quite a way before it makes it back to its beginning. This is a "long" tune—it has no quick route through, as does "Devil In Her Heart." And so The Beatles wrote longer chord progressions, as in "She Loves You." This is surely part of what George Martin meant when he rhapsodized about the song.

In 1964, it was even possible to locate a "tag" in a Beatles-written song—a tag is the "sign-off" brief repeated final phrase of the tune used to wrap up a typical jazz AABA format song, in a balanced way (for example, where the original Broadway "verse," if any, is omitted). Lennon wrote a song called "Bad To Me," generally considered the best unrecorded (by the Beatles) Lennon-McCartney song. The tune has a neat tag, in typical swing fashion. It was recorded by another artist, but The Beatles' demo is on Youtube:

There may also even be an indirect jazz influence on the general Beatles' early sound itself, at least their "country" sound. The famous Sun Sessions first single that Elvis Presley recorded had as its flipside "Blue Moon Of Kentucky"—the guitar sound is very much like the 1964 Beatles country records such as those on Beatles For Sale: the guitarist on the Elvis record was Scotty Moore, who is said to have listened to Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
1916 - 1942
guitar, electric
. He certainly grew up in jazz as well as country.

Returning to harmony, a rich example of certain (and probably conscious) harmonic appropriation is the opening track from The Beatles' late '63 second album, With The Beatles (EMI, 1963). The song is the faintly Motown-styled rocker "It Won't Be Long." It has a great, original riff, probably a Lennon invention (he sings the song) and which was clearly varied by McCartney later to write "Helter Skelter," from the "White Album" (EMI, 1968). However, the release section of the tune runs over the same chords that Duke Ellington used for the main section of his 1928 masterpiece "Black Beauty."

In his book Duke Ellington: Restless Genius of Jazz, the well known author and jazz writer James Lincoln Collier supposes that Ellington may have written "Black Beauty" by letting the lower fingers of his hand fall down chromatically to lower notes on, say, a Bb major chord (root triad) on the keyboard, while keeping his top digit on the same note (if in Bb, the third, D), thus coming up with the simple and pleasing descending chord progression Bb major, F+, Bb9 and G flattened seventh (G7). Comparing each part of both tunes, seems as though Lennon (assuming this part of the tune was also written by him, and not McCartney) might have thought this a good idea too.

"Black Beauty" is a very well known piece of "early Ellingtonia," and would certainly have been on albums that Lennon found (he probably knew it as a child anyway). It is the first of Ellington's clearly recognizable "songs." Indeed, it is a tremendously interesting tune, one of the earliest clear and modern, sharply-etched tunes in popular music history. It stands out from the crowd in the 1920s, and probably has more in common with Burt Bacharach's tunes than the standard '20s music (as, indeed, do the the songs of the time by Gershwin).

Black Beauty:

To see the point on a guitar, simply strum only the top three strings (the G, B and E strings), and drop the two fingers on the G and B strings down a fret, then down another, then leave the G and B strings open. You have now reached a G flattened seventh chord. Ellington's piece then (essentially) moves along on top of Eb and F+ to return to Bb. Lennon's moves from G7 also to Eb and then F, repeating these last two chords before returning to Bb (of course, the Beatle song is actually in the key of E, not Bb). Played on a guitar, its chords even sound quite like Lennon sonically. In any event, the chordal similarity is so precise that it can't not be mentioned.

The investigation of "It Won't Be Long" gets even more interesting when it is noticed that in the verse of the song, an angular and sudden melodic change from a tune written by a friend of Gershwin, Nathaniel Shilkret ("Make Believe"), is inserted. This is on the words..." everybody has fun." The underlying chord is an abrupt C major, before the return to the tonic key chord of E major. At this point, Gershwin's tune's chord change and melody above it is identical to The Beatles tune. "Make Believe" is available on a CD compilation of piano roll recordings that Gershwin made of his earlier compositions and other songs, such as "Make Believe" that he was paid to hawk in his very early days.

It may be that, in the rush to write new songs for the next album, Lennon might have had more in common with renowned magpie Noel Gallagher (of Oasis) than may have been previously thought. But don't forget that, if so, it shows Lennon was very well-listened. How else do you learn to write great tunes?

Moving to recording artists and composers prominent in the 1930s , the Beatles were obviously big fans of Fats Waller. Waller's "Honey Hush" (from 1939) is, in its entirety (less one extra key change in the middle section—see below), a model or template for The Beatles' biggest single, "I Want to Hold Your Hand": the whole feel of this late Waller composition is indeed "all Beatles." It could be said that The Beatles' sound, over 1963 to 1965, was Fats Waller on top of electric instruments and a rock beat (or, compositionally, "Cole Porter tunes over a Buddy Holly sound"!). If there is one pre-Beatles tune you could reference that would describe The Beatles, in sound and in composition, to a person who had never heard them, it would, or could, be "Honey Hush:"

The melody of "Honey Hush" has an unmistakable "Beatles" flavor, not dissimilar to the chorus, for example, of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" or the verse of "Penny Lane," two of The Beatles most important records (note that the trumpet at the beginning of Mahler's 5th Symphony is also very close to the first notes of "Penny Lane").

An interesting aspect of "Honey Hush" is the middle section: Waller almost literally strides out, harmonically-speaking, with a clear, massive sounding "ii V I" change (F minor to Bb major to Eb major) to the new key of Eb (the song is in C major). It is a neat lesson for anyone working out the song on, say a guitar, of the power of a big key shift to a new region, just as the Beatles did so clearly in "From Me To You" and, very importantly, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." The tune then changes key to G major, before abruptly jumping sideways and up, to A7, before continuing with the main verse. Assuming his likely familiarity with the tune, this sideways jump of a whole tone may even have stuck in McCartney's mind for "Penny Lane," as the signature feature of "Penny Lane" (perhaps his brightest composition) is the downwards key change (down a whole tone) for the chorus.

It is also extremely interesting that Waller begins singing the middle section's melody over the chords making the key change, the F minor and the Bb major chords (the ii and the V). This is relatively unusual in popular music: songs are either essentially through-composed, such as "Stardust," or the melody of the middle section begins once the new tonal area has been fully reached (save for perhaps a brief syncopated "appoggiatura," as in, for example, "Ain't She Sweet"). Examples include "Embraceable You," most of Waller's other famous compositions, and of course many, many others. It is rare for the new key to be preceded by words sung on the strong beat of the preceding two or more ("transitional" bars). Yet, it occurs in "Honey Hush" and in a brilliant song from the '60s, McCartney's "Yesterday." "Yesterday" sees the words "Why she," beginning the song's famous middle section ("Why she... had to go," etc) being sung on, again, the ii V chords (E minor 7 and A7) setting up the song's key change to the middle section (beginning in the key of D minor). In this context, "Honey Hush" and "Yesterday" are two trains running on parallel, close tracks. They do not have many well known companions in this. The Beatles also wrote this way with "From Me To You," in 1963, and "I Want To Hold Your Hand" two singles later. So, it may be no exaggeration to advance the suggestion that "Honey Hush" (and Fats Waller and so jazz) could be single-handedly responsible for showing the Beatles the way to their rocking-yet-swinging revolution.

"Honey Hush" may thus have influenced The Beatles both melodically and harmonically—it seems a "given" that they would have known the record. They seem to have known virtually all his others, actually performing some for a living in Hamburg.

A stand-out feature of their Hamburg shows was a rousing version of Waller's (aforementioned) "Your Feet's Too Big," "Up in Harlem, at a table for two, there were four of us, me, your big feet and you..." The number is of course on the Star Club album. The tune was presumably great for audience participation too.

Waller also arose when The Beatles made their 1962 demos for the Decca label, when they were trying for a record deal. The band recorded several swing era/crooner tunes in addition to Goffin-King, latin and other numbers recorded, including "The Sheik of Araby," a classic show tune. Waller's popular cover is perhaps the most definitive—Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman also made a brilliant version with the Benny Goodman Sextet. Interestingly enough, Fats Domino recorded a latin-tinged version in 1960.

George Harrison was the nominated singer on the record on The Beatles' demo version. Presumably both Lennon and McCartney thought it a bit corny for them to sing formally. Here is The Beatles' version of "The Sheik Of Araby:"

Another interesting track recorded on these 1962 sessions was a rocked-up version of the classic "September In The Rain."

September In The Rain:

Show tunes and jazz were everywhere for the Beatles.

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