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How Jazz May Have Influenced The Beatles

AAJ Staff By

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A publication from the French general knowledge "Tu Sais..." book series ("You Know..."), entitled "Tu Sais... Jazz," contains a final chapter on rock bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It states that both the Beatles and the Stones "knew and loved old jazz and blues." From Paul McCartney's long familiarization with George Gershwin and other jazz composers to Brian Jones' affection for "trad" jazz—Mick Jagger once described him as "an old Traddy"—jazz in various ways was an integral part of the UK's rock explosion of the 1960s. The Beatles were the foremost example of this, and they were also probably the band that relied the most on jazz. By 1968, Playboy magazine appeared to think the Beatles were jazz artists! In any event, they were indivisible from the jazz greats in the general zeitgeist:

And, like another musician of broad appeal, composer Johannes Brahms, The Beatles began their serious professional musical career playing in Hamburg bars for sailors and other clientele. Crowds, varying in age range and tastes, such as these require a broad range of music to be presented to them. The Beatles were adept at this role, having grown up exposed to a great deal of older music. Some people appear to believe that the band wrote solely from the influence of rock and roll records. This is surely not at all so. The Beatles' influences were from a spread of music, from various eras and styles. They may have been fortunate in that the only source of popular radio in the '50s in the UK was BBC radio—the BBC had a classical station and a "light (music)" station. Keith Richards has said how the latter taught him music: he said that the playlists were complete variety. A Chuck Berry track might be followed by Mantovani, then by a blues, by Peggy Lee, etc. This is how the composer of "Satisfaction" could also write "Ruby Tuesday" and "As Tears Go By."

The Beatles' home city of Liverpool also provided an extra source of music for the Beatles (as has been frequently observed in Beatle biographies), the latest R&B and other records brought by sailors.

However, the real development for Paul McCartney (by way of example) began with his father teaching him songs from the 1920s, a time when McCartney Senior himself had led a band. Jim McCartney was, according to his son, always playing Gershwin's "I'll Build A Stairway To Paradise" on the family piano. "I'll Build A Stairway To Paradise" is an early and very hooky melody of Gershwin's, and is available as part of the piano music "The Gershwin Songbook," a medley of tunes. Pianist and composer William Bolcom recorded a fine example in the 1970s: Piano Music By George Gershwin (Nonesuch, 1973).

The McCartney family piano room, Liverpool (piano at right)

Direct evidence of the influence of jazz itself, and of jazz era hits, is, firstly and most clearly from cover tunes that the Beatles have played. For example, on his tour of the then Soviet Union in the late '80s, McCartney performed Duke Ellington's "I Don't Get Around Much Anymore." The sung version of the number was a major hit of the 1940s.

John Lennon was also an aficionado of jazz and his early recordings show a liking for earlier jazz: one of his favorite performance pieces in Hamburg, soon recorded by the band in June, 1961 under Bert Kampfaert's direction, was the 1920s jazz hit "Ain't She Sweet:"

There is even a version sung by the three surviving Beatles in the '90s, at the time of the release of their Anthology series:

"Ain't She Sweet," being from the '20s, is also somewhat related to skiffle, the form of music played by Lennon's first group, the famous Quarrymen, whom McCartney joined in July 1957. Skiffle was homemade music fashioned with guitars and broomstick basses, maybe even washboards, and is really just another name for '20s jug band music. There is a connection to ('20s) jazz beyond the washboards: skiffle was revived in the UK in the 1950s by varying trad jazz bands such as the Barber Jazz Band (led by Chris Barber, who also had a big hit with Sidney Bechet's "Petite Fleur," in 1959). On the day "that John met Paul" (July 6, 1957) the Quarrymen played a song called "Putting On The Style," a '20s song written by an American and former operetta singer, which was a hit in the 1950s for a guitarist and singer who played with Barber, Lonnie Donegan.

Later, in 1967, Barber and his band recorded a Lennon-McCartney jazz style number entitled "Cat Call" that The Beatles used to play at the Cavern in Liverpool. So, here is evidence that The Beatles had actually written and played specific jazz numbers from the Cavern days. In fact, the first tunes written by McCartney, at least, were all, in a sense, essentially jazz or music-hall/show music ("When I'm Sixty Four," and "I'll Follow The Sun").

The Quarrymen with "Putting On The Style," July 6, 1957:

Latin music, always strongly linked with jazz, also played an important part in The Beatles' early gigs (you can hear the influence all the way through to recordings of their late sixties rehearsals—one was eventually released on the Anthology Series in 1995. In 1962, Peggy Lee, for many the premier female jazz singer, released a superb latin version of "Till There Was You;" her style of recording the song went straight into The Beatles' repertoire, and then onto their second album. The song appeared on her album Latin Ala Lee! (Capitol, 1962).


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