THE MANY SOUNDS OF “SUMMERTIME”

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Summertime” is a rarity among jazz standards in that it was taken directly from an opera and suffered no changes in melody and form in moving from the classical idiom to the popular. Of course, the major reasons for these easy transitions are that “Summertime” was written by the premier song composer of the day, George Gershwin, and that the opera from which it was taken, “Porgy & Bess”, was conceived by Gershwin as an American “folk opera” rather than European grand opera. To be sure, grand opera has plenty of catchy melodies, but Gershwin’s music for “Porgy & Bess” translates to jazz and popular music so well because the composer’s roots were firmly in those styles throughout his career. While several of the songs from the score have been recorded by jazz artists, “Summertime” is the most recorded, with over 2,000 different recordings listed in Tom Lord’s “The Jazz Discography”. Here are brief summaries of 17 versions of the standard, with embedded YouTube recordings for each.

BILLIE HOLIDAY (NYC; July 10, 1936)

Billie Holiday was not the first jazz artist to record “Summertime” (Bob Crosby recorded a transcription version five months earlier) but hers was the first recorded for 78s and it probably did more than any other version to establish the song as a potential jazz standard. For any listener of the time who had heard “Summertime” in its operatic version, Holiday’s rendition was a shock—raw and dirty with the rasp of Bunny Berigan’s trumpet echoed in Holiday’s voice. Holiday jettisons nearly the entire melody, flattening out the melodic contour to fit her voice and her artistic sense, and behind her, Berigan and Artie Shaw jam away, sensing even then that this new Gershwin song with its easy harmonic sequence would be a natural for the jazz repertoire.

SIDNEY BECHET (NYC; June 8, 1939)

Sidney Bechet’s version of “Summertime” is one of the great recordings in jazz history. Bechet takes the Gershwin song’s 16-bar form and simple harmonic structure and treats it like an extension of the 12-bar blues. With Teddy Bunn providing single-string commentary on his guitar behind Bechet’s soprano, it is as if Bechet and Bunn were playing the parts of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong from a classic blues recording. Bechet solos throughout the four-minute recording (certainly one of the longest jazz solos recorded to that time), utilizing much of his unique musical vocabulary, including rasps, growls and various speeds of vibrato. Bunn’s responses are almost all from the blues vernacular, except in one spot where he quotes the familiar counter-melody from the original opera score.

BOYD RAEBURN (NYC; January 27, 1945)

Written at the dawn of the Swing Era, arrangements of “Summertime” quickly appeared in many big band libraries. Boyd Raeburn’s version was arranged by George Williams, and while many members of the band were allied with bebop (including Dizzy Gillespie, Al Cohn, Serge Chaloff and Oscar Pettiford) the arrangement reflects the long-standing swing style. After the moody introduction, alto saxophonist Johnny Bothwell plays the theme with a Johnny Hodges-inspired tone. Bothwell is now virtually forgotten, but he was a rising jazz star in the 1940s, twice landing the fourth-place spot in Downbeat popularity polls. Unfortunately, his inflated ego and surly attitude towards other musicians lead to his departure from several bands. He stopped playing by 1949, but owned several bands in the Miami area for the next few decades. The trumpet solo which follows Bothwell is played by “Little Benny” Harris, who sticks close to the melody but enriches the performance with his warm tone. Bothwell gets another short spot before a surprisingly quiet ending closes the side.

CHARLIE PARKER (Café Society, NYC; June or July 1950)

I’m sure that more than a few bebop fans will be surprised to find this rare broadcast version of Charlie Parker playing “Summertime” instead of the well-known version with strings. However, I’ve always been disappointed with the strings version because Parker never improvised on the tune. Part of the problem was the string arrangement, which was basically a reduced scoring of Gershwin’s original setting. This put Parker in the role of an operatic diva with little to do but play the song as written. This performance from about 9 months later may have been sparked by an audience request, but what Parker and his quintet do with the material is quite remarkable. Even with Al Haig playing some of the original Gershwin figures behind him, Parker liberates himself from the song with dramatic improvised lines. Kenny Dorham follows in Bird’s footsteps, moving away from the melody after a few bars, and creating a majestic solo in the second chorus. The coda comes all too soon, and to my ears, Parker cuts off Dorham before he can launch into the standard (and clichéd) “Country Gardens” ending. The coda that results retains the intensity of what came before. The sound on this recording is not the best—digital remastering can only do so much—but I’m very grateful that this version exists.

ERROLL GARNER (NYC; January 3, 1952)

Erroll Garner’s Columbia version of “Summertime” sounds like a playful romp, but there is a lot of musical substance present below the surface. Garner’s introduction is in straight eighth notes. While doubtlessly shortened for recording time considerations, it still makes an effective contrast to the sinuous Garner strut tempo that follows. In the theme statement and his ensuing solo, Garner uses triplet patterns both as further contrast to the introduction and to add a sassy quality to his interpretation. Garner’s mastery of dynamics is on full display with the pianist bringing the group’s volume up and down through his touch at the keyboard. And as a balance to the introduction, the closing chorus uses a simple quarter note pattern (in more-or-less straight time) as a shout chorus, which replaces the restatement of the original theme. At the end, all that is left of Gershwin’s original is the opening phrase, which Garner plays over the final held chord.    

ELLA FITZGERALD & LOUIS ARMSTRONG (LA; August 18, 1957)

Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong recorded two relaxed, swinging albums for Verve before Norman Granz had the inspiration to use them in a deluxe 2-LP set featuring 16 songs from “Porgy & Bess”. While not the first “Porgy & Bess” concept album, Ella & Louis’ version is one of the best. Both were in top vocal form at the time of the recording, and while Louis’ trumpet chops were not as strong as they had been in years past, he could still perform stunning solos. On “Summertime”, Russ Garcia’s arrangement adds a few subtle touches to the original orchestration. Armstrong plays a majestic first chorus on trumpet, followed by Ella’s smooth and creamy vocal. After a subtle key change, Louis takes a solo vocal chorus. When Ella returns, she spins a beautifully conceived variation on the melody while Louis supports her with some of the tenderest scatting he ever recorded.

MILES DAVIS WITH GIL EVANS & HIS ORCHESTRA (NYC: August 4, 1958)

One of the many wonders in the Miles Davis/Gil Evans album of “Porgy & Bess” is how Evans was able to remain faithful to the spirit of Gershwin’s opera without using the original orchestrations. There is no better example of this than “Summertime”. As originally presented in the opera, “Summertime” is a lullaby (a fact seemingly forgotten in the full-voiced performances of certain divas). Evans uses a gently swinging riff that easily adapts to the harmonic changes of the song, while in front, Davis plays a solo that strays off the melody more than you think, but always stays connected with the contour of the original tune. And it’s all so quiet! Even when Miles builds the intensity of his solo, he never loses sight of the overall context of the piece.

SHELLY MANNE & HIS MEN (Black Hawk, San Francisco; September 22, 1959)

mber 1959, Lester Koenig had the good sense to record Shelly Manne & His Men for four nights at San Francisco’s Blackhawk. It was an audacious move: none of the sidemen were particularly well-known, and the band was in transition, using Victor Feldman as a temporary substitute for Russ Freeman. The resulting albums are beloved in the jazz community because the musicians played in peak form throughout and the arrangements they played were fresh takes on familiar material. “Summertime” opens the first album and it sets the stage for the five-plus hours of remarkable music to follow. Starting with Monty Budwig‘s double-stops and Manne’s light cymbal touches, trumpeter Joe Gordon intones the theme while the rhythm section creates a mood rather than states the beat. Gordon, in Harmon mute, uses a pure straight tone and his ideas are pointed and direct, with no extraneous notes or terminal vibrato to soften the edge. Tenor saxophonist Richie Kamuca’s warm tone and flowery ideas contrast Gordon’s, and Feldman builds and releases tension in his solo without sacrificing the overall mood.

JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET (NYC; October 24, 1960)

From the first note of this recording, you can tell that John Coltrane’s version of “Summertime” will be unique. Without any introduction, Coltrane kicks off the tune in D minor. While jazz versions of “Summertime” are played in a variety of keys, D minor sounds higher than the keys we usually hear for this song. When the rhythm section enters two beats later, the effect is complete, with Elvin Jones’ slashing rhythms, Steve Davis’ propulsive bass, and McCoy Tyner’s syncopated quartal harmonies. As on “My Favorite Things” (the title tune for the album from which this performance comes) Coltrane and Tyner have reduced “Summertime” to a minimal modal harmonic base and their performances focus on building emotional intensity. The performance dates from early in the Quartet’s existence, so it is not as intense as later recordings, but the recording shows that the group already knew the direction in which it would travel.

CHRIS CONNOR & MAYNARD FERGUSON (NYC; January 23, 1961)

Chris Connor and Maynard Ferguson worked together in Stan Kenton’s band, and when they both became jazz stars a few years later, they recorded two separate albums together, one for Ferguson’s label, Roulette, and the other for Connor’s label, Atlantic. Their version of “Summertime”, which kicks off the Atlantic LP, starts with a highly rhythmic duet between the nearly-slapped bass of Charlie Saunders and the tight snare of Rufus “Speedy” Jones, and things just build from there. Connor’s opening theme statement sounds defiant and rhythmically sure, holding back just slightly in the opening chorus and building as the trombones, trumpets and saxes all join in with riffs that add to the growing intensity. Ferguson’s trumpet solo continues the upward climb until the climax of the arrangement where trumpet and band exchange improvised ideas and written shout chorus passages. Then suddenly, the volume comes back down for Connor’s return. The gradual decrescendo from there to the end doesn’t work nearly as well as the crescendo that came before, but the fade-out (usually the bane of jazz fans and critics) actually gives this arrangement a needed balance. 

OSCAR PETERSON (Villigen, Germany; April 1968)

Recorded as part of the pianist’s acclaimed “Exclusively for My Friends” LPs, this outstanding version of “Summertime” finds Oscar Peterson playing on a superb piano for a small but appreciative audience. Peterson’s introduction starts quietly, but it doesn’t take long for his trio to reach a fever pitch. The theme statement is barely underway before Peterson starts to deviate from the melody with his signature runs and deeply soulful harmonies. As the performance intensifies bassist Sam Jones and drummer Bobby Durham bear down on the time, inspiring Peterson into a lengthy shout chorus in block chords. After another chorus of straight soloing, the pianist launches into another shout chorus, which suddenly diminishes to set the stage for the final abbreviated theme statement.

ELLA FITZGERALD (Germany; 1968)

This amazing clip was included in the Ella Fitzgerald documentary, “Something to Live For”, and to my ears, it is the single finest example of live Ella. The intensity speaks for itself, but notice how much of this performance seems to be an interior dialogue. Notice that Fitzgerald rarely opens her eyes, depending on her slow, deliberate delivery to connect with the audience. She sings softly through most of the piece, but when she raises her voice at the beginning of the second chorus, even her pianist Tee Carson is surprised. Speaking of dynamics, be sure to catch Fitzgerald’s subtle crescendo on the phrase that begins with till that morning. When the trio drops out for the last line, the intensity remains as Fitzgerald—the consummate professional—sings the line with a perfect balance of melody and invention. Of course, there is another element at play here: Fitzgerald loved children, but was never able to give birth. The lyrics of this tender lullaby must have struck deep in her heart, and on this extraordinary concert performance, she was able to transmit those feelings to a foreign audience. Was Ella Fitzgerald The First Lady of Song? Absolutely.

JACKIE CAIN & ROY KRAL (NYC; June 1972)

Officially, this is a recording of Dave Brubeck’s “Summer Song”, but thanks to Brubeck’s former alto saxophonist Paul Desmond—appearing here as a guest soloist—Gershwin’s “Summertime” is never too far away. Desmond is featured throughout the recording, and except for the introduction, he constantly refers back to Gershwin. Even his solo is over an adapted harmonic sequence that is primarily—but not entirely—“Summertime”. The married vocal team of Jackie Cain and Roy Kral stick to Brubeck’s song throughout, and in a surprising turn, they overdub their voices in an apparent homage to Gene Puerling and his revolutionary vocal group, the Singers Unlimited (a 4-member group which created vocal layers of up to 27 voices through overdubbing). This recording was made for Creed Taylor’s CTI label, which endured many critical brickbats for its liberal mixture of pop and jazz elements. However, this album “Time and Love” was certainly an artistic success, with Jackie and Roy providing their technically perfect vocals, superb guest artists, and an all-star orchestra arranged and conducted by Don Sebesky. Nearly 40 years after it was recorded, the music still stands up well.

MODERN JAZZ QUARTET (Lincoln Center, NYC; November 25, 1974)

Recorded on what was billed as their “Last Concert” (and thankfully, wasn’t) the Modern Jazz Quartet’s understated version of the Gershwin standard includes many of the group’s finest elements. There is the arrangement, which subtly echoes other themes from “Porgy and Bess” in the introduction, the delicate cymbals and bells from percussionist Connie Kay, the sturdy and rich bass tones of Percy Heath, the glow of Milt Jackson’s vibraharp, the crystalline (yet still bluesy) piano of John Lewis, the finely-crafted melodic interplay between Jackson and Lewis, and the expertly-controlled dynamics of the group. The MJQ was always fortunate to have Atlantic’s finest recording engineers on call, and “The Last Concert” LP still astounds with its exquisite fidelity. Careful listeners will notice that the clip below bears the tell-tale surface noise common to vinyl, but the overall sound quality reveals that the original recording was exceptionally well-recorded and mastered.

EDDIE JEFFERSON (NYC; October 9, 1977)

In the mid-1970s, Eddie Jefferson was just starting to get overdue recognition as “the Godfather of Vocalese” and his fame continued to rise until he was murdered outside a Detroit nightclub in 1979. “The Main Man” was one of Jefferson’s finest albums, featuring definitive versions of classics like “Jeannine” & “Moody’s Mood For Love”. Summertime” is unusual in Jefferson’s repertoire in that it does not appear to stem from an instrumental solo; rather, it is Jefferson’s loose interpretation of the Gershwin standard. Interestingly, it is sung in the same key as John Coltrane’s ground-breaking version—D minor—and like Coltrane, Jefferson seems interested in stripping away all the sentimentality of the original song. The tempo is medium fast and the performance is quite aggressive. On the second time through the song, Jefferson takes great liberties with the lyric (for example, “Fish are jumpin’ about on the lake, flop, flop,flop, tryin’ to give the fishermen a break”) and strongly accents the asides (the “flops” above). However, the recording does not entirely break with the past, as Slide Hampton lifts Gil Evans’ famous background riff and uses it to back up Jefferson.

ORANGE THEN BLUE, GUNTHER SCHULLER, COND. (Boston; March or May, 1988)

The recording date above is rather misleading, as it is the premiere performance of an arrangement written by Gunther Schuller in 1949. It was written for the Miles Davis Nonet, but never recorded or broadcast by that group. Gil Evans famously described the Claude Thornhill sound (which he helped create), as sound that “hung like a cloud” and Schuller’s arrangement opens with hypnotic see-sawing chords that create the same effect. An ominous counter-melody in the tuba and baritone sax leads to the theme statement with cup-muted trumpet fronting a dance-band style background that maintains the chords from the opening for awhile then gradually moves into more complex counterpoint. Then the mood breaks with a double-time chorus (with another double-time passage placed on top!). While the harmony remains Thornhill-esque, the overall style turns into straight-ahead bebop. And this passage, which seems completely unnecessary, probably did more to take this chart out of contention for recording by Davis than anything else. Still, for all it achieves, it is an amazing effort from the very talented Mr. Schuller.

JANE IRA BLOOM (NYC; July 12-14, 1995)

Recorded during a summer in New York City, Jane Ira Bloom’s version of “Summertime” is quite evocative of the season, and a brilliant example of the soprano saxophonist’s approach to standards. The recording opens with Bloom’s angular composition “Nearly Summertime” played in unison by saxophone and trumpet. Next, the rhythm section enters with drum color (Jerry Granelli), a bass solo (Rufus Reid) and a piano vamp (Fred Hersch) in dotted quarter notes which  presages what will come later. Gradually, Kenny Wheeler, Julian Priester and Bloom join into the ensemble before Bloom launches an ascending scale to introduce the Gershwin melody, set in 6/4 time. Behind the melody, the horns play long, hypnotic chords at half the speed of the piano vamp, and then when Bloom takes over for her solo, she leads with another ascending scale based on the same rhythmic pattern. Her sound grows more impassioned as she climbs higher in register and as the performance grows in intensity, you can almost feel the heat generating from the ground. The intensity doesn’t let up until the end of the theme, when the horns suddenly dissipate and Hersch plays a rippling triplet figure that might signal a much-needed summer rainstorm.

Of course, with so many wonderful versions of “Summertime”, I’ve left out many of my favorites, and (I’m sure) some of yours. Please e-mail your list of favorite “Summertime” recordings, along with YouTube clips if available, to jazzhistoryonline@nullgmail.com.  Perhaps this article will inspire a sequel!