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How Jazz May Have Influenced The Beatles

By Published: September 30, 2009

Riff Interlude

Beatles riffs (mostly written by Lennon), as in "It Won't Be Long," the fill in "She Loves You," and up to and including the muscular riff of "Day Tripper," appear to derive from rock and roll/R&B stylists like Larry Williams: William's classic "Bony Moronie" has a great model riff, as does his "Slow Down"—The Beatles covered three of Williams hits ("Slow Down," "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" and "Bad Boy"). Yet a riff like the riff in "Bony Moronie" harks back to thirties jazz: it is, for example, similar to the riff in the big Artie Shaw hit "Back Bay Shuffle," of 1939. The latter record is a made-for-jukebox number: the climbing riffs of the saxophones sound exciting and uplifting today. Shaw co-wrote the number, which was probably a reply to the classic Count Basie riffs such as in the timeless "One O'Clock Jump" (1937):

The riff in "Bony Moronie" begins on the tonic and climbs to the same note an octave higher before descending back again; so does the riff from "Backbay Shuffle." The two riffs have the same broad shape. The later one is simply over a different beat, duple time whereas the earlier is over 6/8 time. So octave-wide electrifying sax riffs blasted from juke boxes in 1939, and similar riffs, but this time literally electric, did so in 1965, with "Day Tripper." So, whether via Larry Williams or directly, the jazz riffs of the 1930s came through in John Lennon's writing.

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Beyond Jazz?

With Revolver, and certainly from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles started to step away from direct jazz influence as they moved beyond their primary influences, in really forging a whole, a classical world of their own. The music was now extremely cohesive, and original, for example "Strawberry Fields," "With A Little Help From My friends," "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," and "A Day In The Life" (even if the second phrase of the verse, when syncopated, has a slight reference to a swing music sax section). New non-jazz influences had already arisen in 1965, with the folk influence of Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
, the experiments of the Byrds and in 1966 with Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds (Capitol, 1966). Soul had shown its influence on Rubber Soul and Revolver. More modern songwriters like Burt Bacharach and Michelle Legrand can perhaps also be heard in songs like "Fool On The Hill." Other leading artists of the 1960s were thus contributing their own influence on The Beatles, even where that influence was itself sourced in jazz (like Brian Wilson).

Yet, jazz still appeared at times. In addition to the obvious "You Know My Name, Look Up The Number," there is the solo scat of McCartney in "Rocky Raccoon"—from The White Album (EMI, 1968); it sounds like a flying Parker solo. Part of the melody of "Bungalow Bill" echoes a '30s swing tune. Also in 1968, McCartney is believed to have pitched an unrecorded cocktail-style song to Frank Sinatra.

After The Beatles, signs of a close affinity to jazz tunes and jazz composers continued to appear. For example, when recording Cole Porter's "True Love" on his album 33 1/3 (Dark Horse, 1976), George Harrison varied some of the chords, explaining at the time... "but he (Cole Porter) got the chords wrong!" Harrison effectively recomposed some of the song, and it is an effective presentation.

As McCartney said of the American artists and the early Beatles, "We just copied what they did." For his part, Lennon said "It sounds different in a British (and male) voice"—he was referring to the 'girl groups.'" And of course the Beatles referenced jazz as much as they did the '60s "girl groups."

And now jazz plays the Beatles. See, for example, albums such as Blue Note Plays The Beatles (Blue Note, 2003), or Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner
1921 - 1977
's jazz-rhythmed version of "Yesterday" (where the descending bass note between the words ..."all my troubles seemed so far away" and "now I need a place to hideaway" is brought midway between the two phrases instead of being left to just before the second of these phrases, as the Beatles recorded it). And almost immediately, some writers began to adapt The Beatles "back into" jazz and related popular music. For example, blues guitarist Freddie King released his first album since 1961— Bonanza Of Instrumentals (Federal, 1965)—with a track called "Remington Ride" which has the same chord progression as Lennon's "I'll Cry Instead" from a Hard Day's Night. Burt Bacharach wrote "What The World Needs Now," which essentially has the same chorus hook as "Can't Buy Me Love," from the same album. Sinatra recorded "Yesterday," and Ray Charles recorded "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby." There are also jazz-arranged piano books of Beatles tunes. Another French book, on the history of jazz tunes, ended with a chapter on the Beatles and a large photograph of John Lennon, "jazz composer."

So it is in these ways, at least, that jazz influenced The Beatles.

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