"Nice Work If You Can Get It" by George and Ira Gershwin

Tish Oney By

Sign in to view read count
George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin represent a quintessential songwriting team laying claim to several early masterpieces included in what we now call the Great American Songbook. Representing the epitome of the "Jazz Age," they worked together from 1924-1937, creating no fewer than twenty-five full musical scores for performance in Hollywood and on the Great White Way. One of their many undisputed standards, "Nice Work If You Can Get It," beautifully balances clever lyrics with an interesting interplay of melodic and harmonic surprises. This song was written for the film, A Damsel In Distress, in which it was performed by Fred Astaire (with backup vocals sung by the Stafford Sisters), and was published in 1937.

Introductory Verse

Before we get to the head, we shall begin with the introductory verse which many singers unfortunately ignore. While verses from this era are often dated and less well-written than the songs they introduce, that is not true of this worthy lead-in. On a side note, both singers and instrumentalists would do well to: 1-research and investigate whether a Great American Songbook standard has an introductory verse, 2-learn it, and 3-make the call about whether or not to include it in their rendition from an informed and well-considered point of view, rather than take the easy road and omit it as a matter of habit. It is, after all, part of the whole piece, from the composer's perspective!

The twenty-bar verse begins with an interestingly disjunct melody that includes leaps, repeated tones, and stepwise motion. Its challenging melodic contour, requiring great pitch precision (consider the descending, arpeggiated, augmented triad at measure 10), may be the primary reason many singers avoid this rewarding introduction. The verse's phrases are two bars in length starting with a perpetually moving river of eighth notes, occasionally punctuated by a few quarter notes to ease the buildup of momentum. The intro has its own characteristic form consisting of antecedent (2 measures) and consequent phrases (2 mm.). Gershwin throws a wrench into this formula at mm. 7-11 where he inserts a four measure consequent phrase, already keeping his listener guessing... The next section begins with exactly the same melody as the first, but the end of the antecedent phrase goes into unexpected tonal territory, setting up another 4 mm. consequent phrase that masterfully and sensibly proceeds to tie up the intro very nicely.


Harmonically, the verse begins with a comfortable I-vi-ii-V7 which repeats and eventually winds around to a descending chromatic bass line followed by a ii-V7 back to tonic to begin bar 11. The second half of the verse begins like the first, with a single I-vi-ii-V7-I, but then, interestingly, turns toward tonicizing iii before a circle of fifths returns the harmony back to I.

Right out of the gate, the song disturbs and unsettles even experienced jazz ears. The head begins, not on tonic or even a diatonic chord, but on an augmented V7/vi at m. 21 that leads off a string of dominant seventh chords parading around the circle of fifths before a vii dim7/iii chord (m. 24, beat 3) leads the listener back to the diatonic iii chord. This puts the harmony back into original tonic territory. Since the form of the head is AABA,' these first eight bars of the head are repeated exactly (with different lyrics of course) to bring us to the bridge. The final bar preceding the bridge (m. 36) creates a modulation into the relative minor key. The tonality plays with this tonicized vi, and then a tonicized v (still minor). A i-vi-ii-V7 progression in the minor v then undergoes a modal shift from dominant seventh to minor seventh over the same root (mm. 42-43), bringing the harmony cleanly back to the original V7 of tonic... Of course, the delivery of the tonic chord is delayed because that was Gershwin's plan all along—none of the A sections begin on tonic, but on a string of dominant chords that eventually find tonic. "Nice Work if You Can Get It" assumes a harmonic structure that emphasizes the buildup of tension before a final cadential release on the eighth bar of each of the first two A sections. In the final A,' the tension is extended two bars longer (as is A' itself). This unconventional and unique use of tension, then more tension, then finally release, yields a song whose quality and originality remain undisputed.




comments powered by Disqus

Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.

Related Articles

Read "Time After Time" by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn Anatomy of a Standard
"Time After Time" by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn
By Tish Oney
July 3, 2019
Read "Pick Yourself Up" by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields Anatomy of a Standard
"Pick Yourself Up" by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields
By Tish Oney
September 28, 2018
Read "Charade" by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer Anatomy of a Standard
"Charade" by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer
By Tish Oney
June 28, 2018
Read "It's Only a Paper Moon" by Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg and Billy Rose Anatomy of a Standard
"It's Only a Paper Moon" by Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg and Billy Rose
By Tish Oney
March 6, 2018
Read "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Frank Loesser Anatomy of a Standard
"Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Frank Loesser
By Tish Oney
December 1, 2017
Read "Georgia On My Mind" by Hoagy Carmichael Anatomy of a Standard
"Georgia On My Mind" by Hoagy Carmichael
By Tish Oney
July 28, 2017
Read "Close Your Eyes" by Bernice Petkere Anatomy of a Standard
"Close Your Eyes" by Bernice Petkere
By Tish Oney
June 7, 2017