The Magazine

The Hit Parade

Why these melodies linger on.

Sep 10, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 48 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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Gioia, who also prizes the tune, writes that in his twenties he would play it almost every day, and that he found “constant solace in constructing melodic variations over its chord changes.” That he wasn’t alone in sensing its improvisatory potential for jazz treatment is testified to by the fact that, as with “It Could Happen to You,” hundreds of versions have been recorded, the only one I’m familiar with being the terrific Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker version from bebop’s early days. Like Wilder, Gioia notes the unusual modulations, and says that after 1940 the song never again showed up on pop charts. For him, “All the Things You Are” is a tune he loves “less for what it is than for the exciting possibilities it presents to jazz interpretations.”

Gioia is an agreeable host throughout, never patronizing his readers, but unafraid to make discriminations about the song he’s considering. (He hates the line in “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” about kissing the “pug-nosed dream.”) He is right to include (which Wilder doesn’t) Cole Porter’s gorgeous “I Love You,” as sung by Bing Crosby in 1944, and with later jazz treatments by Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eck-stine, Coltrane, and Art Pepper among others. He judges the song to be not among Porter’s best because its lyrics are weak—“familiar prattle about birds, daffodils, the dawn—and none of the clever turns of phrase that were his trademark.” But what immediately floats into my mind are some of Porter’s words from the song’s bridge about how It’s spring again / And birds on the wing again / Start to sing again / The old melody, and I think how clever of Porter to stay on that “again” without straining for rhyme words. 

So I don’t think the lyrics are weak (even though I agree with Gioia about its “sweet modulation in the bridge”), just the words for that downward melodic sequence.

Naturally, any listener will have favorites that are excluded, whether by reason of the infrequency with which they’ve been treated over the years, or just possibly because the compiler forgot about the song. Although I don’t remember “I Remember Clifford” (about the trumpet player Clifford Brown), I do remember “I Remember You” and regret its absence. And where is “Where or When,” which might have been included on the sole basis of Benny Goodman’s clarinet introducing Peggy Lee? Or “They Didn’t Believe Me,” believed by this listener worthy of a place? But as Robert Frost once wrote, one poem implies another and each is best read in light of all the other poems ever written: “The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do.”  

The great distinction of Ted Gioia’s book is that it helps us remember what we’ve heard, and maybe why we were moved by what we heard: to get among the songs and hear how they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.