How Jazz May Have Influenced The Beatles

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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).


The earliest officially released collection of The Beatles, their first album Please Please Me (EMI, 1963), drew primarily on the Everly Brothers' sound (for example the Everly's song "Cathy's Clown"), the "Brill Building" Goffin-King world, and also included two latin, or latin-esque, tracks (the Lennon-McCartney song "Ask Me Why," and "A Taste Of Honey"). There was also, of course, a strong rock and roll influence (the bass-line of "I Saw Her Standing There" is identical to that on a 1962 release by Chuck Berry), while "Love Me Do" stemmed largely from the innovative James Ray-style of R&B. This was the best popular chart music of the time, and it was part of The Beatles' approach to writing, in particular that of John Lennon. Jazz may therefore not seem a strong influence on the album. However, there were two ways in which jazz did have an influence on the album. One was via the occasional latin touch, the other the Ray Charles connection. The Brill world encompassed at times the Ray Charles, R&B style; for example, Goffin and King's R&B mock up/rock up "Chains" (which is the fourth track on the first side of Please Please Me).

Ray Charles, of course, was at least "half-jazz." Ray Charles is and always was closely allied to the jazz world. He began by echoing the Nat "King" Cole Trio, he taught Quincy Jones his first modern jazz chords, and so on. The Beatles were, indeed, like metal to a magnet so far as Ray Charles was concerned. The band heavily based their live act in Hamburg on Ray Charles numbers. They always sang "Hallelujah I Love Her So," "I Got A Woman" and half hour rave up/audience-participation versions of "What I'd Say." Charles is a natural bridge into jazz "proper" for those not already familiar with jazz (although, of course, The Beatles were very familiar with jazz).

A look at the numbers played in Hamburg below will illustrate the breadth of styles the Beatles played there. Charles can be visualized as the centre of the spectrum, with jazz splayed out, if you will, to the left and rock and roll out to the right. [A more oblique link to jazz also arises with the cover of the song on the album written by Burt Bacharach, the Shirelle's "Baby It's You." Bacharach studied under the French composer Milhaud, who was the creator of the famous "Le Creation du Monde" in 1924, one of the first major classical works to be modeled on and influenced by jazz. Milhaud is reported to have advised Bacharach to let the melody clearly shine. Whether this is a classical princept or something Milhaud may have picked up from the new jazz itself is perhaps open to discussion.]

The Beatles played in Hamburg, on and off, from 1960 through to the end of 1962. It was thus their main stage environment. Their stage act came to feature many jazz songs and songs popularized by famous jazz masters, as well as popular latin (and therefore, at that time, inevitably "jazzy") numbers. They had to entertain, to "mach schau" ("make show"), and that would include presenting, virtually on demand, the whole range of popular music of the time and of the previous forty years. It has been reported that the band was eager to seek out new records of all kinds, and confirmatory comments can be seen immediately below. A relaxed tune like "Moonglow" or "Falling In Love Again" will provide a welcome break to frenetic Chuck Berry. In turn, playing these older numbers will influence the nascent writer too.

George Harrison is quoted in the book The Beatles—Inside The One And Only Only Lonely Hearts' Club Band (Allen & Unwin, 1998), an oral history of the band, as saying "We had to play eight hours a night and we started building a big repertoire... we did everything. We used to play 'Moonglow' and lots of other old songs, whatever we could come up with in order to try not to repeat too many."

"Moonglow" is a main example of the mainstream swing era: both Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw recorded it in small group settings—Goodman's version is one of the best known records of the era, and was recently featured in the movie "The Aviator," about Howard Hughes. There is a part of the melody of The Beatles' third single "She Loves You" that may have been inspired by "Moonglow" (see below). It can also not be ignored that the chorus of the famous "All My Loving" has the same first two distinctive chords as the "Moonglow" main melody.

Ringo Starr's predecessor as drummer in the band, Pete Best, said of these leather-clad days and the general Liverpool band reaction against the neat, show-biz "soft-shoe shuffle" image of popular music in the UK at the time..." we were always looking for something different. We were listening to any records we could find... and it was then that people started really going through the new releases, looking for what was different—the blues and jazz type thing. Everyone was trying to get different material, to be different from everyone else."

In other words, the band played a great range of music, not just Chuck Berry or even the broader-flavored Ray Charles. They played show tunes like "September In The Rain" and "I Remember You" (recorded by Charlie Parker on his last significant small group sessions), Marlene Dietrich's 1930 hit "Falling In Love Again," and sentimental classics like "Red Sails In The Sunset." The line between Broadway and jazz is of course very transparent. There were the latin hits like "Besame Mucho" and "Mister Moonlight." There were also novelty songs, (some jazz), such as "Lend Me Your Comb," and Fats Waller's "Your Feet's Too Big."

Examples of these songs can be heard on the recording made by Teddy "Kingsize" Taylor at The Beatles' gig at the Star Club in December, 1962, and later released as the double album The Beatles Live At The Star Club (Lingasong, 1977)—Ringo is on drums by this stage, of course. Half of the album "set" is jazz and latin or novelty songs, and the other half of the set is rock and roll and songs from the Brill writers (there are a Goffin-King song and a Mann-Weil song, as well as an Everly Brothers number).

"Your Feet's Too Big:"

The main source of tunes for jazz (apart from music composed by jazz artists themselves) had always been New York's Tin Pan Alley and its gallery of song-writers such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and so on. An example of a '20s Tin Pan Alley tune is the Lennon specialty, "Ain't She Sweet" (above). The connection (even in the choice of key (E major), to their second single (and first "number one") "Please Please Me" is obvious. The music is different—the Beatles song contains far more colors and also has a large classical music influence (in particular, possibly Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Charles Ives and Castelnuovo-Tedesco —not discussed here)—but the overall feel is the same: it is a beat-driven musical vehicle with rich melody. "Ain't She Sweet" may be perhaps the clearest and simplest indicator of how show music/jazz drove the Beatles engine. And it was sung by Lennon, often not even usually associated by some people with jazz at all. "Please Please Me" thus has a lineage to jazz after all, despite the lack of any real jazz flavor in the album of the same name itself.

There was also a latin craze at the beginning of the sixties—for example, Stan Getz and his brilliant bossa nova recordings. Of the latin numbers, "Besame Mucho" has a great jazz pedigree: Artie Shaw inventively recorded it with his Gramercy Five in the early '50s. Paul McCartney is said to have wanted to record the song for The Beatles' first album, but producer George Martin apparently vetoed it as too showbiz! But The Beatles couldn't have written their music without the knowledge and feeling of this music. McCartney persisted, and the Meredith Willson Broadway classic "Till There Was You" made it onto their second album—With The Beatles (EMI, 1963)—and very successfully too. Indeed, Ray Charles performed it at the 1995 MTV Europe Awards in Monte Carlo, as if to confirm the jazz credibility of the song. Of course, played as a slower number (than The Beatles' version) it is a jazz staple anyway.

Fortunately for the Beatles, the Peggy Lee version of the song constituted an exotic updated fusion of jazz and latin music. It was released in 1962, thus during The Beatles' last year as Hamburg performers. This intoxicating version was a big influence on The Beatles. The inflections and feel added immeasurably to The Beatles themselves. There is a bootleg of The Beatles live at The Cavern Club in Liverpool during the week their second album was released (i.e. in November, 1963), and Lennon can be heard introducing the number..." here's a number by Peggy Lee... Paul singin,' 'Till There Was You.'" And so, in the hands of The Beatles, the number became fused with rock music also.

"Till There Was You" (Peggy Lee):

McCartney is also said to have wanted to record, on their first or second album, the 1930 song "Falling In Love Again" by Marlene Dietrich, but Martin again opposed the suggestion.

The world of jazz and show business was so familiar to The Beatles that Lennon was able to call Lee "Peggy Leg" on stage in front of Liverpudlian teenagers. Of course, the [British] charts were different at that time. There were many crooner-style records in the charts, and for the next two or three years also. There was a stronger showbiz influence in the popular charts than in America: the English singer Cilla Black, for example, (who came to prominence at the same time as the Beatles—she later recorded a hit version of Bacharach's "Alfie") was more a show singer than a Goffin-King "girl group" style of performer. She was also from Liverpool, and recorded an early extra-Beatles McCartney song, "The Love Of The Loved," a faintly Motown number. In the next few years, she would record and have big hits with two McCartney show/jazz tunes "It's For You" and "Step Inside Love."
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