Friday, September 20, 2013

Jazz and The Beatles

The Beatles by themselves have little reason to figure in any jazz purists’ collection, yet most of us find more than a handful of Beatles songs tucked away in albums by artists as varied as Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Wes Montgomery and Brad Mehldau. One of the reasons for this is, of course, their rising popularity at the same time that bop and free jazz were at their innovative best. The other has to be the appeal of the songs themselves. The Beatles songwriting engine was taking everything they came across and melting them into a totally new, simple, universally appealing sound.

There have been a few scholarly attempts to find jazz in The Beatles. This is not one of them, since it was not like they were not listening to jazz or were not aware of the developments in the world of jazz, but that they chose to play rock & roll, and some about of rhythm & blues. This post is a celebration of The Beatles and of Jazz, independently, and of how they speak to each other. Opinions are mine, and you are free to disagree. Do use the comments to initiate of participate in a dialog.

What The Beatles Heard

Finding The Beatles in jazz is not only easier, but as mentioned earlier, almost inevitable. In this post, we look at what The Beatles were listening to, what they played, and what jazz made of them. Though their formative years coincided with the boom period of modern jazz, there is little to suggest that they were listening to anything other than the new sound of rock and roll and rhythm and blues. But these forms themselves were born out of jazz, out of the blues, and out of the beat driven three-chord structures of American popular music.

The Beatles grew up in a musical world dominated by the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and of course, Elvis Presley. Chuck Berry was among the first to turn his stage presence into a part of the performance. Little Richards, the R&B superstar, never strayed too far from his gospel roots, and even switched entirely over to gospel at the peak of his career, only to return to R&B again.

Elvis, on the other hand, was doing the white man blues like no one had done it before, a mix of rebellion and sensuality that was hard to resist. The Beatles could not help modelling themselves on the King in terms of image, stage presence, and of course, song content and structure. It would take them a couple of years to break out of the Elvis image. This next clip is from one of those films where you clapped and shrieked in the movie theater.

The other major influence on the music of The Beatles was Buddy Holly. Elvis, Bill Haley and Buddy Holly were the main forces responsible for the creation of a white audience for black rhythm and blues music. Holly died in a plane crash in 1959 at 26 years, an event memorialized as the day the music died. Just as the blues brought the guitar into the forefront, Buddy Holly standardized the guitar band for rock. Valley of Tears is a Fats Domino song that is an unusual departure from Buddy Holly’s usual style, showing up on the second of the three albums he released in his lifetime.

Jazz in The Beatles

Now we move on to a few examples of the jazz sensibility that can be found in the music of The Beatles. I have tried to stay away from the common instances of Yer Blues and Dear Prudence in order to showcase the fact that the fab four were actually listening to and being influenced by the jazz around them as they went about creating their body of music.

Many casual listeners of Beatles might not have heard You Know My Name. It is a B-Side from the avant garde/experimental period of Let it Be, and if we can move ahead to about 4.30 on the video, we can hear some unusual Beatles jazz.

I’m So Tired (1968) is a song written in India from the Maharishi period. Very simple flowing melody, very basic chordal structure, but you can hear interesting concepts like a continuously descending bass-line, a hard to detect syncopated beat on the chorus, that speak of a great deal of compositional thoughtfulness.

And finally, a contemporary track, this one is a contemporary recording by Paul McCartney, whose recent album, Kisses on the Bottom, is really a tribute to the music that he grew up listening to. While the album won him the Grammy for The Best Traditional Pop Album, it debuted and stayed at the No 1 position on the Billboard Jazz charts.

Beatles in Jazz 

Jazz greats have played Beatles so widely that it is hard to put together a playlist that will satisfy all. So what I have done here is let go of the obvious giants and focus on interpretation in the hope that it might introduce you to new perspectives on this relationship of Jazz and The Beatles. A few interesting things came up as I was compiling this list. The first is the obvious ease with which Beatles tracks lent themselves to jazz interpretations. The second is the fact that many of these covers are from weeks and months from their original release. This tells me that jazz artistes were following the music of The Beatles very, very closely. Anyway, on to the music.

Ramsey Lewis released Mother Nature’s Son, his collection of Beatles covers back in 1968, and it is obvious he took them seriously. A Hard Day’s Night is one of the biggest hits of all times, and Ramsey Lewis adds an extra dose of swing to it.

Benny Goodman not only performed and recorded as a classical clarinetist with the likes of Bernstein, Stravinsky and Bartok, but also was responsible for reviving modern interest in classical clarinet by commissioning several of the modern standards of our times. Here you can hear him do a New-Orleansy cover of one of the rare Ringo compositions - Octopus’s Garden.  This is from 1969.

Something is acknowledged by many as the greatest Beatles love songs. Though Shirley Bassey cannot be strictly called a jazz artiste, this particular cover showcases her improvisational skills. For those of you who enjoy her style, you may want to look at how she has interpreted this particular song over the years. This Harrison composition is also the most covered Beatles song after Yesterday.

The Beatles created a sound that defined rock and roll so acutely for years to come that it is easy to overlook at their compositional adventures. Harrison songs like Only a Northern Song or Savoy Truffle reflects a sensibility that goes far beyond mainstream rock. Ella Fitzgerald’s version of Savoy Truffle makes you realize how jazzy the song really is.

Eleanor Rigby is one of the few tracks where the Beatles did not play any instruments and recorded to the backing of a string ensemble. Written by McCartney but credited to both Paul and John, the song has inspired many jazz performers to do their interpretation.  Here is Wes Montgomery doing his version of it. I will be featuring another version of this song later in the post.

Come Together is one of the more covertly political songs of The Beatles and it has been a favorite cover track for artistes as varied as Diana Ross and Guns N Roses.  I would strongly recommend that you look up the origin and subtext of this song for yourself. This is a fun version of it by Count Basie.

Structurally Come Together is a major deviation from the rock and roll songwriting standards of the time. This version showcases how well it lends to improvisation. And incidentally, this act was a discovery as I was looking around the music that has been part of this post.

Though Jaco Pastorius’s Live at NYC album has an electrifying (and much more popular) fretless solo version of the classic Blackbird, here is a version with Toots Thielman, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter backing him up on the Word of Mouth album.

Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and John McLaughlin were part of the amazing Bitches Brew experiment of Miles Davis at the same time that the Beatles were at the peak of their fame. Corea straddles the worlds of funk, jazz, rock and avant garde with an ease all his own. Gary Burton is a vibes pioneer who is most famous for heralding the four mallet technique, turning the vibes into a much more versatile frontman instrument. Both are intrepid collaborators, and this track is an example of what the Beatles can sound like in their hands.

The Beatles continue to remain a top favorite for contemporary jazz improvisation. I hope this post has helped you find threads that connect the two seemingly different worlds. Let me leave you with a performer who it is difficult to do a Beatles and jazz playlist without. Brad Mehldau has a Beatles track in almost every album of his in addition to his live shows. His versions of Dear Prudence and Blackbird are masterpieces. As is this rendition of Martha My Dear.

Do let me know what you thought of this post, which was built out of the notes for a talk on The Beatles and Jazz for The Hyderabad Western Music Foundation (HWMF). The HWMF organizes fortnightly music appreciation sessions at Lamakaan which are open to all. Do look them up and drop by.


  1. Wow!! You made my day Subhorup!!! Loved your dissertation and the song selection was the cherry on top!! Took me back to my teens and boy am I enjoying it!!

    1. Thanks, Deepakbhai. I had a lot of fun putting this together.

  2. Good to revisit this blog after a long time. I always thought Beatles as a sponge, absorbing the influences all around them, but I have to admit the jazz thing pretty much went over my head until I read this post. I am especially fond of one of Beatles longer songs 'I want you (she's so heavy)' with some cool blues licks in the middle section. Fantastic post.

    1. You are right, Sandeep. The Beatles, in spite of growing up in a world of jazz, were quite indifferent to it in their body of work. Of course, songs like yer blues and i want you are exceptions, but largely they walked the path between R&B and progressive.

  3. The heading had caught my eye..never thought of the Beatles & Jazz..but what a lovely read..& the songs made my morn..thanks!

    1. Really nice to see you here, Maitreyee. I am so glad you liked it.

  4. You know what I like about the Beatles? That no matter how many books I read about them or how many documentaries I see that try to capture everything they were, there is always something new, that I did not know, round the corner. Cheers!

    1. Thanks to this post, it is like a meeting of old friends out here in the comments. :) The Beatles were more than just their music, more than the sum of their individual personalities, and more than a social movement. It is impossible to try and capture any facet of theirs in its entirety. Really glad that you enjoyed the post.


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