Emulate, Assimilate, Innovate, Part 3: echoes of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Rain Check’

On December 3rd, 1941, the Duke Ellington Orchestra made their first recording of ‘Rain Check’, a composition by Billy Strayhorn, who had joined the Ellington organization as staff composer and arranger less than three years earlier in January of 1939.  ‘Rain Check’ had a number of features that announced Strayhorn’s compositional style as distinct from that of his employer, including what Walter Van de Leur calls an ‘uncommon structure’ as well as quartal voicings (i.e. voicings built in 4ths) in its opening section.  Strayhorn contributed Rain Check to the Ellington band book as part of a group of seven tunes that include some of his best known compositions.  Among these was ‘Take The A Train’, which became the band’s theme song.  Although ‘Rain Check’ would not become as well known as ‘A Train’, it is a sign of how long it stayed in the Ellington book that the Ellington Orchestra recorded an updated version in 1967 for the album ‘And HIs Mother Called Him Bill’, which commemorated Strayhorn after his death that same year. 

The melody of ‘Rain Check’, played by trombonist Juan Tizol, opens with an ascending perfect fourth followed by a descending major triad; this four note motive is immediately repeated a perfect fourth lower, where the descending major triad is expanded into a minor seventh chord arpeggio.  The first melodic phrase is capped off with an ascending major 2nd.  The clever use of a repeated and transposed motive (what classical music theorists call a ‘sequence’) is a feature that ‘Rain Check’ has in common with at least two other songs in the group of seven tunes from 1941, ‘Chelsea Bridge’ and ‘A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing’, as well as another of Strayhorn’s best known tunes, ‘Satin Doll’.  Strayhorn was certainly a studious apprentice of Ellington as a person and as a composer, and transposing melodic patterns through various harmonic sequences is a common practice of studious musicians.  Classical players do this to develop technique, for instance in the Hanon piano exercises, while jazz players often do it to develop improvisational vocabulary in multiple keys.  Another studious apprentice in a slightly later era was the trumpeter and composer Benny Harris, who in his small number of well-known and long-lived melodic lines, transposed melodic concepts from Charlie Parker in ‘Ornithology’ and from Dizzy Gillespie in ‘Crazeology’; his compositions ‘Donby’ and ‘Reets and I’ also involve melodic sequences.

The year following the first recording of ‘Rain Check’ saw the birth of Paul McCartney in June of 1942.  McCartney was the son of a jazz musician, Jim McCartney, and went on to become a member of The Beatles, whose repertoire in their early years included a number of songs made famous by Louis Armstrong (‘When The Saints Go Marching In’, ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, ‘Sheik of Araby’).  McCartney’s affinity for the music of Ellington and Strayhorn has become evident in the later stage of his career with a live recorded version of ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ and, at one point, the inclusion of ‘Satin Doll’ in a soundcheck.  This, combined with Duke Ellington’s enduring popularity in England throughout the time of McCartney’s upbringing (indicated both by Ellington’s frequent performances in the city and his dedication of an extended composition, ‘The Queen’s Suite’, to the British matriarch), make it likely that McCartney may at some point have heard ‘Rain Check’, if only perhaps in passing.  McCartney’s song ‘I Will’, recorded on 1968’s The White Album, has a eight-note phrase which matches exactly the interval pattern (although not the rhythm) from the first phrase of Rain Check; in other words, in terms of intervals, McCartney’s phrase is Strayhorn’s phrase minus two notes. 

If you can identify one or more of the places where the ‘Rain Check’ phrase occurs in ‘I Will’, either identifying it by timing or lyrics or both, please mention it in the comments. 

The same section of the Strayhorn phrase used by McCartney also appears at the beginning in the iconic theme to the National Public Radio news program All Things Considered.  This pattern has become closely identified enough with NPR that when Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio used it in a composition, he titled the tune All Things Reconsidered.

Fragments or complete statements of the ‘Rain Check’ motive can also be found in the following places:

– the first eight notes of ‘Rain Check’ can be heard within the first eight seconds of Oliver Nelson’s piece Blues and the Abstract Truth (the title song from his album of the same name). Leave a comment if you can identify the pitches (note names) of the ‘Rain Check’ motive in this melody line. Nelson made use of perfect fourths in many contexts, including his tenor sax solo on Stolen Moments from from the same album and the opening theme to the 1970s TV show The Six Million Dollar Man which he composed. Leave a comment if you can identify the note names in the melodic patterns where perfect fourths are used in these melodies, and the timings in the videos where these patterns occur.

–  near the beginning of Eddie Harris’ ‘Freedom Jazz Dance‘ (which uses four notes of the motive in its first phrase – can you identify the pitches in the middle of Harris’ first phrase that use the first four notes of ‘Rain Check’, and the timing where this occurs in the recording?)

– near the end of the song ‘Meditation‘ by the rap/jazz supergroup August Greene, which combines rapper Common and drummer Kareem Riggins with keyboardist/composer/producer Robert Glasper (can you identify the timing in the recording where Glasper uses a motive that could be described as the ‘Rain Check’ lick with one note subtracted and one note added?)

The ‘Rain Check’ motive also appears in the melodic vocabulary of a number of improvisers.  In his version of Rodgers and Hart’s ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’, the jazz pianist Mike Longo uses the motive a number of times during his solo – if you can identify timings for any of the places where Longo uses the ‘Rain Check’ lick, please leave them in the comment section.  I’d particularly appreciate any other uses of the ‘Rain Check’ motive you can find in improvised solos, or examples of other melodic lines that prominently feature ascending perfect fourths. 

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5 Responses to Emulate, Assimilate, Innovate, Part 3: echoes of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Rain Check’

  1. Woody Laidlaw says:

    I hear the Rain Check melody starting at around 0:33 in the Freedom Jazz Dance video.

  2. Griffin DeMatteo says:

    In the Beatles song “I Will”, the Strayhorn lick can be heard right at the beginning between 9 and 13 seconds into the song. Like the Strayhorn song, McCartney’s is in F Major, and features the exact same intervals and notes as the first eight found in Rain Check, set to a different rhythm.

    In August Greene’s song “Meditation”, the modified Rain Check lick occurs first at 1:22 where it is featured in the background, and then comes back louder during the instrumental outro at 2:31. Glasper’s lick is A F# D B, E C# A G#, which ends on the 2nd scale degree of the key F# unlike Strayhorn’s lick.
    On a non-melodic note, I found Common’s phrases to be very impressive, and chuckled at the line, “They say time’s on our side like a hip replacement”.

  3. Connor Davis says:

    When I first heard the opening motif(s) of Billy Strayhorn’s song ‘Raincheck’, it brought me back to being a kid and sitting in the backseat while my dad was driving and listening to the radio. It sounded so familiar to me because my dad would listen to NPR, specifically he would listen to a show called ‘All Things Considered’. The opening theme song to this radio show used the same lick from Billy Strayhorn’s song RainCheck. I always took it for granted but thought it was really interesting to hear this same song in a different context and learn that it was more than just the theme song for this radio show.

  4. Josie Gillen says:

    I listened to “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” And heard the motif for the second time around 2:42. I also checked out I will again with this motif in mind. Despite being in a class about the Beatles and listening to their music regularly, I didn’t know much about Paul McCartney’s connection to Jazz, so this was really cool!

  5. Irene Choi says:

    Hi Tom!

    I listened to Mike Longo’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”. The first time I heard the motif is around 2:08. I really enjoyed this performance. I’m not familiar with this standard, but I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more renditions from now on. Jazz trios have a special place in my heart, probably thanks to the Vince Guaraldi Trio. What can I say, something about Charlie Brown Christmas just makes me feel good inside! I’m also a fan of the Bill Evans Trio. It’s amazing how much you can convey with only three instruments. It’s intimate and cozy in a way that’s difficult to describe.

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