Sometimes Being Old Fashioned Has Wonderful Benefits

When I was about 16, I played my first GB gig for adults (in the world of professional musicians, the letters “GB” stand for General Business e.g. parties, weddings, etc.). Before that, my performances were mainly for my peers-thus more rock ‘n roll oriented. In any case, on this occasion I was introduced to the joy playing standard tunes from the American Popular Songbook for an audience of grown-ups who danced to everything that the quartet performed.

After that day, I put my rock records away and started listening to jazz. The artists that I favored focused on playing and improvising on the standards (many of which I had just performed on that significant gig). The decision to focus on jazz made me seem, in a sense, old fashioned to my peers who couldn’t really understand my choice of music. Fortunately, things are different today. Several of the students (as young as 10 years old) who are enrolled in both my Natick and Hudson Piano Studio locations are into jazz and favor this repertoire.

Anyway, despite knowing many tunes, it wasn’t until I had my first lesson with composer and jazz pianist William Thomas McKinley that the Jerome Kern (1885-1945) song I’m Old Fashioned came to my attention. During the 20 years since that historic day, I have really enjoyed playing and listening to this song on a regular basis.

Jerome Kern composed more than 700 songs throughout his career, including I’m Old Fashioned, which he wrote with lyricist Johnny Mercer for the 1942 film You Were Never Lovelier.  In addition to starring in the movie, Fred Astaire sang the song’s first recording which helped to spread its popularity. However, like many of Jerome Kern’s other compositions, I’m Old Fashioned has become a jazz standard i.e. a favorite with jazz musicians.

If found it quite interesting that while Rhapsody Music Service includes several hundred recordings of holiday tunes, there were only 183 tracks of I’m Old Fashioned. The difference became obvious to me when I found myself selecting nearly 50 of these versions for my playlist (about 4 hours worth of enjoyable listening) in contrast to the dozen or so recordings of each of the Christmas tunes. Not only are there vocal and instrumental versions, but there are also a variety of tempos and styles included.

Jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney emphasize the lyrics with their gentle swing versions. Saxophonists John Coltrane and Stan Getz favor the ballad tempo before picking up the pace a bit for their improvised choruses. Another famous tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins plays the song as an up tempo swing while jazz bassist Red Mitchell, playing pizzicato, plucks the melody at a medium swing tempo backed up by piano and drums. Both pianist Alan Broadbent and vocalist Michael Camacho present I’m Old Fashioned as a Bossa Nova, and this Latin feel works beautifully.

So what is it that makes I’m Old Fashioned such popular selection for jazz musicians to perform? First of all, the harmonic (chord) structure makes excellent use of I-vi-ii-V progressions. This pattern, which I explain on my Walking Bass Music Theory website page, leaves the player room to improvise effortlessly using scales and modes. Another reason for the song’s popularity is that the melody can easily be embellished or varied because it is deceptively simple – as opposed to so many of today’s pop songs which contain melody lines that are filled with all sorts of rhythmic syncopations.

Because of this old fashioned rhythmic style of the melody, this song offers many possibilities for varying the speed and style of the artist’s musical interpretation. But lest you think that the surface simplicity of this song means that it is without substance because there are no 8th notes, take another look. Mr. Kern made use of rhythmic motives (dotted half note – quarter note; quarter note – half note – quarter note; four quarter notes), repetition and sequences to unify the piece.

Although I’m Old Fashioned is written in a basic two-part form, it contains a very unusual four measure transition (measures 21-24) at the end of the first half. This section is unique among the standards. Its ascending melodic line employs a quarter note – quarter note – half note rhythmic motive set in a sequential pattern. The accompanying chords work beautifully as the bass line goes up in a parallel direction with the melody.  When you listen to different versions of the tune, you will always notice this part of the song because it is so distinct.

At this point, I expect that I will continue to enjoy listening to and playing I’m Old Fashioned for many years to come. Hopefully, you will share my enthusiasm as you explore this marvelous piece of music. Remember, if you want to learn how to create your own version of this or any of your other favorite songs, the instructors at the Mascari Piano Studios are happy to help.

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