Get Your Steps In: stepwise patterns time-traveling through music history, featuring Mozart, Haydn, Ella Fitzgerald and more (Emulate, Assimilate, Innovate part 1)

Trumpeter, composer and educator Clark Terry, who I got to play with briefly in the early 2000s when he visited UVM, often used the phrase ’emulate, assimilate, innovate’ to describe the process by which improvisers develop their melodic language.  In this series of blog posts, I will be presenting some theories about how great improvisers from jazz history imitated and assimilated specific ideas of earlier players and often found ways to add their own innovations.  In his book Elements of the Jazz Language, Jerry Coker titles two licks that show up in many mid-twentieth-century solos by jazz players the Cry Me A River‘ lick (after the Arthur Hamilton song) and the Gone But Not Forgotten‘ lick (after the Bob Haggart/Jack Lawrence song).  (The link to ‘Cry Me’ in the last sentence is to the version by Ella Fitzgerald, for whom the tune was written; while it has not been recorded by many pianists, Brad Mehldau has a version with the melody clearly stated and spare counterpoint in the left hand.) Coker goes on to catalog many instances in which these phrases are used by various players on various tunes.  In this series of posts I will be trying to do something similar, with a focus on how certain melodic motifs may have traveled consciously or subconsciously between composers and/or improvisers who interacted directly with each other, or at least were close enough in age and region to have crossed paths.

In a New York Times article titled ‘What Haydn Taught Mozart’, the music historian H.C. Robbins Landon quotes a number of letters by both composers that indicate the high regard these two icons of the Classical style had for each other.  In a letter to a friend, Haydn said of the younger composer: “…scarcely any man can brook comparison with the great Mozart.” Landon quotes an early Mozart biography that says the composer “often called [Haydn] his teacher.”  Landon then goes on to cite a number of examples from Mozart’s music that show Haydn’s influence, including the D minor piano concerto which ” utilized…not only the latest Haydn symphony but also that composer’s seminal String Quartet Op. 9 No. 4.”  Landon writes that Mozart and Haydn first met ‘in Vienna in the early 1780’s’, when Mozart was in his mid-twenties and Haydn in his late forties.   

In the recent movie Emma, the title character, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, rushes to a fortepiano (a predecessor of the piano originating in the 18th century) just before the visit of George Knightley, an adversarial friend and eventual love interest.  Emma briefly practices a Mozart Minuet and Trio as a way of feigning indifference to Knightley’s visit.  As piano music is a subplot of the film (based on the Jane Austen novel of the same name), it is significant that the piece Emma practices is K.1, in other words, the first piece in Mozart’s catalog and allegedly the first piece he composed in 1761 at the age of five.  As the plot goes on, we meet Jane Fairfax, a peer and sometime rival of Emma’s.  At a scene during a music recital, just after Emma sings a plaintive but rudimentary rendition of the Irish song ‘The Last Rose of Summer’, Fairfax plays a fast and technically brilliant piece composed by the mature Mozart around the time he met Haydn, the Allegro Assai from the Sonata in F KV 332.  Fairfax’s Mozart outshines both Emma’s vocal piece and the Mozart piece Emma practiced at home, leaving her feeling musically outdone.  This only adds to the ways she feels socially outdone by Fairfax.  As Fairfax blazes through the Mozart, Emma says to Knightley in an annoyed whisper, ”Ever since I can remember, I have been told I can find no better companion than Jane Fairfax, she who is so accomplished and so superior.” 

While in Emma the Minuet and Trio K. 1 symbolizes one-half of a less-than-well-matched rivalry, in the history of Mozart and Haydn it also seems to be a mysterious and perhaps inexplicable foreshadowing of their friendship.  The first phrase of the Minuet and Trio ends with a cadential phrase that descends the D major scale, completing a modulation to D major.  (The link in the last sentence is cued to the phrase I am referring to, however, after listening to it from this start point, please also go back and listen from the beginning to place it in context.)  This phrase is very similar to a phrase at the end of the first section in Haydn’s Sonatina in G Major H. XVI no. 8If you can find the timing in the video where the Haydn phrase that echoes the Mozart phrase appears, leave them in a comment in the comment section below. Although these pieces are in two different time signatures, this right-hand melodic phrase appears in in the same key in both pieces and with the same figure in the left hand accompanying.  This would seem to be another example of Haydn’s influence, except that the Mozart piece is dated five years before the Haydn piece, which is listed as being composed in 1766, five years after the Mozart piece and over a decade before Haydn and Mozart met.  One possible explanation is that Haydn may have heard Mozart play on one of the concert tours Mozart’s father arranged starting the year after Mozart composed K.1.  Another explanation is that both composers were quoting the same source, much as jazz improvisers borrow from various sources to tell their spontaneous melodic stories. 

In 1930, Moises Simon’s song The Peanut Vendor became a best-seller in the sheet music world as well as a hit record by Don Azpiazu and His Havana Casino Orchestra.  It was recorded by a number of jazz artists, including Louis Armstrong in 1931 (who provided his own combination of English lyrics and scat syllables in place of the Spanish lyrics) , Stan Kenton in 1947 and Duke Ellington in 1958.  On her 1958 album Anita O’Day Sings The Winners, Jazz singer Anita O’Day recorded a version of the Peanut Vendor with English lyrics by Marion Sunshine and L. Wolfe Gilbert. The first phrase of the melody (‘If you haven’t got bananas don’t be blue / peanuts in a little bag are calling you’) mostly moves in stepwise motion (i.e. major and minor seconds. Leave a comment in the comment section if you can identify the syllables in these two lines of lyrics where the melody moves in skips (i.e. leaps, i.e. intervals wider than a second) rather than in steps.

1960 saw the release of Ella Fitzgerald’s classic album ‘Mack The Knife: Ella in Berlin’.  The album was named after the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill song that became best known on the album after Fitzgerald forgot Brecht’s lyrics and improvised her own.  Following ‘Mack the Knife’, and closing the album, is Fitzgerald’s epic rendition of ‘How High The Moon’, in which she begins with the scat choruses from her 1947 recording of the song and adds an additional four minutes of improvisation, this time including a quote from The Peanut Vendor.  If you can find the timing in the video for Ella’s Peanut Vendor quote, leave them in a comment in the comment section below.

In his solo on the tune Dr. Jackle from the 1958 album Milestones, Miles Davis uses the opening bars of ‘When The Saints Go Marching’ as the basis of a whole chorus of the 12 bar blues form. Following this, in two different places he uses the melodic rhythm from the second bar of the main theme in ‘The Peanut Vendor’ (i.e. the second of bar of the section that Ella Fitzgerald quotes.) Although Miles alters the melodic pattern from this bar, he keeps the basic descending shape, and the pattern of two pairs of repeated notes followed by a single note a step lower. The intervals between the notes are different, which is how Miles both disguises this borrowing and makes the pattern his own. If you can find the timing in the video for either of the Peanut Vendor quotes or the quote from ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’, leave them in a comment in the comment section below.

The melody of the Beatles song Penny Lane, like the melodic phrases mentioned above, moves largely in stepwise motion. Leave a comment in the comment section if you can identify the lyrics where the melody moves in skips (i.e. leaps, i.e. intervals wider than a second) rather than in steps.

copyright 2021 Tom Cleary

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4 Responses to Get Your Steps In: stepwise patterns time-traveling through music history, featuring Mozart, Haydn, Ella Fitzgerald and more (Emulate, Assimilate, Innovate part 1)

  1. Pigeon Purdue says:

    In Dr. Jackle, Miles Davis quotes “When the Saints Go Marching In” at 0:44, and the Peanut Vender at 1:45 in the recording. I was really impressed by his solo in total — I don’t play the trumpet, but I imagine that producing clear, clean notes at that tempo is very difficult to achieve. Along with the steady rhythm provided by the bass and the drums, despite the fast tempo the solo is incredibly smooth and steady. A real pleasure to listen to!

  2. Josie says:

    The phrase in Haydn’s sonata similar to the one in Mozart’s K.1 is found at 0:25. I honestly wouldn’t have thought much about a phrase like this one, as it makes so much sense that a cadence like this one would include a stepwise motion to a root, in this case, the root of a D major chord, which becomes the tonic at this point in the piece. As the pieces are in the same key and the rhythm of the phrase is simple, I wouldn’t think to make a connection if I didn’t know their careers were intertwined, especially because the left-hand voicing uses the root of the chord being played. These are all things I feel like I hear very often in classical music. It’s interesting to see that two artists who influenced each other came up with similar phrases, whatever the point of inspiration was.

  3. tgcleary says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed Ella’s classic How High The Moon solo. There’s more where that came from in terms of her long form, tour de force solos. Check out her solo on C Jam Blues with the Count Basie Orchestra from 1972. I did a transcription of this that will become a blog post at some point. In this she trades with (in order) trombonist Al Grey, tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, trumpeter Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, tenor saxophonist Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis and trumpeter Roy Eldridge:
    This 1969 version of One Note Samba with Tommy Flanagan on piano has an amazing cadenza:
    There is a live version of Cottontail with the Duke Ellington orchestra where she goes toe-to-toe with the band’s most famously long-winded soloist, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves:

  4. Irene Choi says:

    Ella quotes Peanut Vendor at 3:48 of the Live in Berlin recording. As a whole, Ella’s solo is absolutely jaw-dropping on so many levels. Her tone, her control and precision, her musical integrity, and her creativity are all on such a high level that it makes me have heart palpitations when I listen to her (I’m exaggerating, but still). That part at 5:19 where it’s just her and the drummer together– I don’t know what else to say other than it’s magical. The texture of the moment changes instantly. It’s art at the highest level. Ella remains one of my favorite jazz vocalists of all time. It’s not hard to see why.

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