Is This Jazz? My Funny Valentine

 

Many jazz standards have faded from popular memory and been usurped by newer charts, but a select few continue to be played throughout the years, never losing their luster and sounding as current as the day they were composed. In the spirit of the upcoming romantically themed holiday I’ll explore one such standard: My Funny Valentine.

Written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart for the musical Babes In Arms, this song made its debut on April 14, 1937, at the Schubert Theatre in New York City. In the play, a character named Billie Smith sings the song to Valentine “Val” LaMar, needling him about some of his faults, but by the end clarifying that these are all the things she loves him for and would never wish him to change. The show ran for 289 performances, and while there were other hits to come out of this production, nothing has had an impact equal to that of My Funny Valentine.

Compositionally, the piece is one of the most versatile in the Great American Songbook. The basic harmonic structure remains relatively static throughout the 36 bar form, settling mostly around concert C minor with a brief departure into Eb, the relative major key. This opens up the form to a wide range of interpretations, allowing musicians to add in interesting colors like passing chords or re-harmonizations. This space also allows musicians to play with the feel of the piece by performing it as a ballad, a contemporary style groove, or by changing the time signature altogether and unlocking an even larger set of rhythmic possibilities. With a mostly diatonic, linear melody that only goes to a minor third past the octave, it sits nicely within the performable range of most people  — let alone professional singers — and also makes for easy transposition into any key for various instruments.

While the notes and chords are an important part of its universality, the lyrics deserve just as much of the credit in establishing this as an essential part of our musical heritage and culture. While we now know that the phrase “my funny Valentine” pertains to a specific individual, Val LaMar, over the years the term “valentine” has been re-contextualized to apply to any person we designate as “a valentine” which is traditionally meant as the one that we love most. Additionally, as we grow to love someone and learn more about them we eventually are faced with their faults and deficiencies, but it is through that love that we accept these traits. Even in its brevity — most versions only contain 12 lines of lyric — the song arrives at, and ultimately works through, this essential conundrum faced in any relationship. This is exemplified when our protagonist sings “is your figure less than Greek, is your mouth a little weak, when you open it to speak are you smart? But don’t change a hair for me, not if you care for me. Stay little Valentine, stay.”

These characteristics make for a song that can be shaped to suit whatever adaptation the arrangers and performers need or desire, letting the chart flex and evolve with the changing musical world, as it has in the estimated 1300+ recordings that have been made in its 80 years. There are many notable versions, but the artist who is possibly most credited with the song’s lasting importance is trumpet player Chet Baker who sang a version on his 1954 album “Chet Baker Sings,” which set a new tone for the how the piece would be performed vocally. He returned to it in 1959 as part of Gerry Mulligan’s quartet, a recording that would be added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry for its “cultural, artistic and/or historical significance to American society and the nation’s audio legacy.”

I implore you to listen to these recordings, and hope you share them with your own funny Valentine.

Happening Around Town:

The John Allmark Jazz Orchestra; first Monday monthly @ The Met (Pawtucket)

Is This Jazz?; first Friday bimonthly @ AS220 (Providence) isthisjazz.tumblr.com

Allary At Arias; Sundays @ Arias Lounge (Providence)

Groove Merchants; Mondays @ Fifth Element (Newport)

Jazz JamTuesdays @ Ten Rocks (Pawtucket)

Groove E TuesdayTuesdays @ Murphy’s Law (Pawtucket)

Parlour Jazz Jam; third Sunday monthly @ The Parlour (Providence)

Jeff Platz Quartet’s Modern Sound Series; last Sunday monthly @ Tea In Sahara (Providence)

Leland Baker Quartet; Wednesdays @ Acacia Club (Providence)

To add your listing email isthisjazzri@gmail.comBen Shaw is a local composer and performer. Find him at ahueofshaw.tumblr.com or on Twitter @ahueofshaw.

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