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Luca Bragalini
My Funny Valentine: The Disintegration of the Standard

We just blew the top off that place that night. It was a motherfucker the way everybody played, and I mean everybody... (Miles Davis)

So Miles Davis declared to Quincy Troupe in his autobiography, referring to a concert which took place at New York's Philharmonic Hall on the night of February 12, 1964. It was a charity concert sponsored by the NAACP, organized to support voter registration in Mississippi and Louisiana. Produced by Teo Macero, part of the concert was issued on the Columbia LP My Funny Valentine (now available as a 2-CD set, The Complete Concert 1964, Columbia Legacy C2K 48821 or COL 471246). Davis, accompanied by the youthful Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and the tenor saxophonist George Coleman, gave birth to one of his best LPs and one of the high points in his interpretation of jazz standards. The aim of this essay is to explore what makes My Funny Valentine such a brilliant and unique LP. I shall look carefully at how Davis and his quintet treat the musical forms, and how the musicians manage to create free and original forms while at the same time respecting the formal structures of the tunes.

Rather than discussing the pieces in the the order in which the they appear on the Columbia LP, I shall consider the them in two groups depending on the basic formal treatment they receive:

Group 1: Dividing the structure into parts that do not correspond to the division into 8-measure sections ("Stella by Starlight," "My Funny Valentine," "I Thought About You");

Group 2: Enriching the structure by adding tags and turnarounds ("All Blues," "All of You").

Group 1: "Stella by Starlight," "My Funny Valentine," "I Thought About You"

I shall begin with the pieces belonging to the first group. They show a particular approach to the musical form. The basic structure of all of these standards is the song form:

"Stella by Starlight": A (8) - B (8) - C (8) - D (8)
"My Funny Valentine": A (8) - A' (8) - B (8) - A" (12)
"I Thought About You": A (8) - B (8) - A (8) - C (8)

A. Sound signals.

Musicians typically use some sort of sound signals when they want the rhythm section to change the accompaniment in order to create a new mood. Davis had used this particular technique of arrangement since the 1950s -- it allowed him to adopt a looser attitude towards the structure. During the Philharmonic Hall concert Davis uses two different kinds of sound signals:

Type A: short diatonic phrases of crotchets or quavers played in half time for one or two beats; these are full of swing, and their dynamic tends to the forte. Throughout the sound signal the rhythm section plays an accompaniment in 2 or 4 with a feeling of double-time. (See examples 1a, b, c, d, e.)


Example 1.
(a) "Stella by Starlight": Davis theme, D section, measure 1 (1:53)
(b) "Stella by Starlight": Davis chorus I, B section, measure 8 (3:08)
(c) "Stella by Starlight": Davis chorus I, C section, measure 8 (3:58)
(d) "My Funny Valentine": Davis theme, A" section, measure 9 (2:45)
(e) "I Thought About You": Davis theme, A' section, measure 3 (1:20)

Type B: short chromatic ascending (and sometimes descending) phrases in irregular ternary groups. These signals are typically used to change a basic pulse into double-time. If the music is already in double time, they mark a transition into a section of 4 beats accompaniment supported by a strong walking bass. (See examples 2a, b, c, d.)


Example 2.
(a) "Stella by Starlight": Davis chorus I, D section, measure 8 (4:28)
(b) "My Funny Valentine": Davis theme, A" section, measure 7 (3:00)
(c) "My Funny Valentine": Davis chorus I, A' section, measure 7 (5:23)
(d) "I Thought About You": chorus I , C section, measure 8 (2:17)

The musicians use other techniques as well. The striking prolonging of harmonic rhythm in the double-time sections, and the continuous change of accompaniment, divide the regular song-form structure into asymmetrical segments. This gives rise to the fragmentation of the song form, as we shall see.

B. Dividing the standard into sections of different meters and accompaniments.

Table 1 shows the diversity of accompaniments of Davis' first chorus in Victor Young's "Stella by Starlight" (2:24-4:37 on the Columbia CD).

Table 1. "Stella by Starlight," Accompaniments to Davis' solo, one chorus of improvisation (2:24-4:37)
A section, measures 1-8 (2:24) Double-time feel. Accompaniment in 4.
B section, measure 1 (2:55) Double-time feel. Accompaniment in 4.
B section, measures 2-4 (2:59) Base time. Bass plays 4 beats of the measure with the drums.
B section, measure 5 (3:10) Double-time feel. Accompaniment in 4.
B section, measures 7-8 (3:19) Double-time feel. Accompaniment on Latin pedal.
C section, measures 1-8 (3:26) Base time. Typical ballad accompaniment.
D section, measures 1-8 (3:59) Double-time feel. Accompaniment alternates between double-time feel and swing in 4.

The song form of four 8-measure sections is completely ignored; Davis recomposes it in eight different musical segments. The eight measures of the B section are subdivided into five different segments. Latin-sounding rhythms make for an unusual accompaniment of classic ballads -- they are frequently used as pedals and appear several times during the concert, e.g. in "My Funny Valentine". Here on a bossa-nova rhythm played by Tony Williams we hear the strong bass pedal of the dominant in the first four measures of the Eb major bridge. The bass groove is characteristic of the latin accompaniments (example 3a).


Example 3. "My Funny Valentine," bass groove.
(a) Davis chorus I, B section, measures 1-4 (4:08)
(b) Coleman chorus I, B section, measures 1-4 (6:24)
(c) Davis chorus I, A" section, measures 11-12 (5:16)

In the same bridge we can hear another rhythm like that just described -- Carter introduces a new ostinato (example 3b). Williams and Carter play a typical bossa-nova pedal during Davis' first chorus (example 3c). In such cases, although the form is divided into different sections, we don't hear the music as a succession of unconnected units; it appears from the first notes as a consistent sound continuum. The sudden contrast, within a project that respects the coherence of the piece, is an exceptional means of providing unity to the standard.

C. The interplay among the musicians.

The continual changing of the rhythms, accompaniment, dynamics, and moods, as well as the sound signals just mentioned, show the great interplay of the musicians and their careful reciprocal listening. Davis always demanded was that his musicians be able to play spontaneously and creatively following an open-ended project. Of his masterpiece Kind of Blue he said: "I didn't write out the music of Kind of Blue, but brought in sketches for what everybody was supposed to play because I wanted a lot of spontaneity in the playing..."

The level of interplay is closely related to the freedom in structure. In this essay I want to pay special attention to places where the interaction among the musicians influences the form of the songs. Besides the sound signals already mentioned, consider the phrase played by Davis on the tonic chord in the last two measures of the "Stella by Starlight" theme (example 4).


Example 4. "Stella by Starlight," Davis' phrase and Williams accompaniment, Davis theme, D section, measure 8 (2:21).

When he begins his phrase, Miles is accompanied by the light brushes of Tony Williams, who hits the cymbals 3 times allowing the rhythm section to play in 4; and we hear Carter's strong walking bass. Williams' first hit is made with a brush, the other two with the sticks, increasing the dynamic (forte) and dramatically changing the mood of the song. The change from the brushes to the sticks takes only a moment. Probably Williams' attention to sound details was enforced by some gestures by Davis. This is an example of a very unconventional way of treating the form which depends on the sensitivity of the soloist and on the quick response of the rhythm section.

Likewise, from the fifth measure of the B section of "Stella by Starlight," Davis' solo has an energetic double-time rhythm. During a relaxed trumpet phrase, which reinterprets the theme at the beginning of the C section, the pulse ballad returns. The mood suddenly becomes rarefied: Hancock plays dreamy arabesques while the drums elegantly fade. Two trumpet notes change the mood of the song and consequently the form.

D. The fragmentation of the standard in different and unusual moods.

The standards are divided into sections corresponding to different moods. In his biography of Davis, Ian Carr notes that by comparing the original versions of "My Funny Valentine" (October 1956) and "Stella by Starlight" (May 1958) with the live versions from 1964, we can see that the original versions are melancholic but the emotional range is fairly narrow. By contrast, in the later versions the emotional range is very wide.

Consider George Coleman's solo in "Stella by Starlight". Here the typical lyrical-romantic mood of the song is only one of several emotional dimensions of the interpretation. Table 2 shows how the sequence of moods influences the articulation of the structure.

Table 2. "Stella by Starlight," George Coleman's solo (4:37-9:30)
A section, measures 3-8 (4:37) Improvisation full of drive in double-time feel.
B section, measures 1-8 (5:00) Dynamic goes towards the forte.
C section, measures 1-8 (5:30) Abstraction from the romantic and relaxed mood of the ballad.
D section, measures 1-4 (6:00)
D section, measures 5-8 (6:30) Dynamic fades in the coming out of the pulse ballad. Solo becomes more lyrical.
A section, measures 1-8 (6:31) Double-time feel comes out again.
B section, measures 1-6 (7:02) Improvisation in the high range with blues feeling.
B section, measures 7-8 (7:25) Dissonant pedal built on polyrhythms. Coleman's phrasing becomes more dramatic.
D section, measures 1-8 (8:00) Pulse ballad reappears; phrasing becomes more cantabile, dynamic fades towards the piano.

The song's symmetrical eight-measure sections are divided into musical segments of different lengths. Moods alternate throughout those musical segments. Unusual moods are used in the interpretation of a standard ballad, for instance the dissonant polyrhythmic pedal between the C and D sections of the piece (we have already treated the unusual latin pedals appearing sporadically in the concert).

E. The role of Tony Williams.

The drumming of Tony Williams also contributes to the loosening of the form. One of his many special talents emerges as a very original one: a brilliant use of pauses and spaces in the sections during which he stops playing or accompanying. He is not bound to the 32-bar structure when he enters or leaves the song. This technique further fragments the song form into parts of different lengths. Table 3 shows the points of standstill of Williams' drumming in relation to the structure of "Stella by Starlight" (the gray horizontal bars indicate when Williams is playing).


Table 3. "Stella by Starlight": The presence of Tony Williams.

Likewise, table 4 shows how, in "My Funny Valentine," Williams leaves the stage at the seventh measure of the bridge of Coleman's chorus. He deliberately enters and leaves the scene at a different point of the song each time. In fact, the long pause in "My Funny Valentine" allows the tearing saxophone solo to fade into loneliness and a quiet dialogue between bass and piano, returning us to the melancholic notes of Richard Rodgers' theme.


Table 4. "My Funny Valentine": The presence of Tony Williams.

It's hard not to sound paradoxical, but the several points of stillness of the drums are among the most clever and effective accompaniments ever used by a drummer in a standard.

F. The irregular extension of the improvisation.

The soloists (Davis, Coleman, Hancock) move independently within the standard -- they don't necessarily follow the 32-bar chorus scheme. The extension of the improvisations depends only on the musicians' taste. Table 5 shows the independence of the extension of the improvisations from the song's basic structure. Miles' re-exposition of the theme from the fifth measure of the B section (11:24) is remarkable. This unconventional aesthetic choice further contributes to the disintegration of the song and its reassembly in a new form. Table 5 shows how the standard 32-bar structure finally comes out. It is important to consider the musical form not as a mechanical calculation of measures; otherwise we will misunderstand one of the interesting aspects of the Philharmonic Hall concert. The form is evidently only a scheme on which the musicians build a musical continuum that isn't limited to the structure of a single 32-bar chorus. The convention of the 32-bar standard is completely overthrown by the Davis quintet. They pay attention to a new overarching form that takes into account the evolution of the piece from the beginning until the final notes. What is important is not the unity of each individual chorus but that all the improvisations contribute to a coherent musical whole. The mood of Davis' improvisations is worked out by the other musicians -- especially by Coleman, who connects his solos to the last notes of the Davis' last phrase. The coherence of the new overarching form is highlighted by the internal contrasts and the segmentation of the structure.


Table 5: "Stella by Starlight," extension of the improvisations in the structure.

In the second half of this essay I shall examine the other two pieces of the concert, "All Blues" and "All of You," in which the structural innovations involve the use of tags and turnarounds.

"All Blues" (base structure: blues form, 12 measures).

Tags are added between the theme exposition and at the ends of every improvisation, and they can be considered a kind of interpolation within the 12-bar blues chorus. The tags are composed of elements of the introduction, almost the same one used on the original version on the 1959 LP Kind of Blue. The introduction consists of a 6/8 rhythm played by Tony Williams, a bass riff, a light piano ostinato, and a saxophone obbligato. This tonic pedal allows the widening of the song's general structure.


Table 6. "All Blues".

Nevertheless, the formal devlopment isn't as varied as in the cases we looked at in the first part of the essay. In the case of "All Blues," the 12-bar chorus represents the model for the formal construction: all of the improvisations end after an integral number of choruses; and the 12-measure structure of the piece isn't subdivided further. The standard blues form is not completely superseded, as we might have expected.

"All of You" (base structure: A (8) - B (8) - A' (8) - C (8)).

Because of its extraordinary way of treating the form of Cole Porter's composition, this tune deserves particular attention. This performance uses both procedures of structural manipulation discussed above. Points (A)-(F) discussed in the context of Group 1 are relevant, and as with "All Blues," the base structure of the piece is elaborated with turnarounds (Group 2). I won't offer detailed analyses of the points discussed for Group 1; but I'll make several quick observations apropos of (A)-(F) above:

  1. sound signals of both types A and B, which didn't appear in "All Blues," are used throughout "All of You";
  2. the subdivision of the standard into sections of different meters and accompaniment sections is very complex;
  3. as a result, the interplay among the musicians reaches a level rarely heard before;
  4. the standard moves through several unusual and expressive moods, and the quintet combines dramatic and dissonant sections -- often including complex polyrhythms (as in the beginning of Hancock's solo, 10:06-10:39) and relaxed moments (as when from Davis' trumpet come the refined notes of Porter's theme);
  5. Williams shows his surest command of pauses and space in this piece;
  6. the improvisations are irregularly extended throughout, particularly by the use of turnarounds.

Consider a few examples:

Davis' theme begins on a dominant pedal of Bb 11 measures long, which begins on the second measure of the A section (in the first measure we hear only the trumpet). The pedal is unusual not only in its irregular length of 11 measures but also because it is composed of a two-measure ostinato -- which means that the last repetition is cut off. This arrangement is not spontaneous but carefully prepared -- we hear the same pedal in the A section of Davis' first chorus (1:21). Example 5 shows Carter's bass line during the pedal in relation to the obbligato of piano and drums.


Example 5. "All of You," bass pedal.

Another arrangement appears in the last four measures of the B section, in which the rhythm section plays obbligati between two Coleman choruses. I've transcribed the two obbligati in the examples 6a and 6b.


Example 6: "All of You".
(a) obbligato 1. Coleman chorus II, B section, measure 5-8 (5:46); Hancock chorus I, B section, measures 5-8 (8:31)
(b) obbligato 2: Coleman chorus II, B section, measures 5-8 (6:07); Hancock chorus II, B section, measures 5-8 (9:26)

Finally, we can hear an impressive chromatic movement of the bass during Davis' first chorus in the first four measures of the A section (0:54). It reappears in the A section at 8:10, after Hancock's turnaround.

These devices allow the quintet to move freely through a standard that has a fairly rigid song form.

A revolutionary structure.

Consider an especially novel device in the quintet's interpretation of "All of You": in the last two measures of the C section, a harmonic substitution for the tonic chord allows a turnaround of four chords in the last four measures of the base structure.


Table 7. "All of You," (a) tonic chord; (b) turnaround, II-V-I substitution.

Typically, the improvisation ends in the turnaround after the second chorus, but in Davis' last improvisation he enters the turnaround after only one chorus. How do the musicians know when a soloist gets to the turnaround when the number of measures isn't fixed? The soloists use the sound signal device already discussed to let the others know when they are leaving the turnaround and the end of their improvisation. All of them play a "signal phrase" at the end of their improvisations. This phrase is a free paraphrase of the last measure of the melody of the theme -- what remains of the latter is only the rhythmic design and the resolution of the VII to the tonic (I):


Example 7: "All of You".
(a) signal phrase; (b) original melody

This appeal to the melody is made in almost the same way by Davis, Coleman, and Hancock. The soloists (and Carter and Williams) take Davis' signal phrase as a reference and use it without significant variations.


Table 8. "All of You," relation between chorus and turnarounds.

The signal phrase.

Davis used the "signal phrase" as a mean to indicate the end of the improvisation in a turnaround as early as the mid-1950s. For example, in "If I Were a Bell," the opening piece of the 1956 Prestige album Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, this technique is used to enter and exit from a turnaround, the tag of the last chorus. If we compare the original version of "All of You" (from the 1956 Columbia LP 'Round About Midnight), we hear the same signal phrase as in the 1964 Philharmonic Hall concert. In the original version, the phrase marks the end of an improvisation based on a turnaround of undetermined length. This comparison suggests two conclusions. First, that what seems to be a spontaneous sound signal improvised at the moment of the concert is really the result of a long development of a technique of arrangement born almost ten years earlier. Davis used this phrase for a long time and in different group settings. Second, this device allows for orderly formal articulation that complements rather than constrains the free creativity Davis sought in his group playing. In fact, two different factors coexist in Davis' interpretation of "All of You": great care for the formal aspect strictly conceived, and yet, at the same time, widespread use of procedures allowing a free and extemporaneous treatment of the form (e.g. in the turnarounds ad lib within the 32-bar chorus structure). The signal phrase as it appears in the 1956 version was a device to mark off a limited number of turnarounds that widened and adorned the last chorus, and was used by the soloist as a short tag to conclude his improvisation. It was less important within the interpretation of the standard in comparison than the previous choruses. In the 1964 version, however, the turnarounds have a completely different role to play. For consider:

  1. the extension of the turnarounds covers 60% of the whole execution; as a result they are very important in the architecture of "All of You" (table 9);

  2. the ingenuity of the soloists is made evident in the turnarounds: Davis showcases his improvisation by including 28 turnarounds, and Hancock's solo shows a generous use of the sequences;

  3. at the end of the song Davis plays the theme on the harmonic progression of the turnaround and not on the harmonic progression of the 32-bar chorus!

Table 9. "All of You," length of the turnarounds.
Soloist No. of turnarounds Duration Length of the tune
Davis 28 3:11
Coleman 14 1:36
Hancock 22 2:27
Davis 15 1:42
Total 79 8:56 15:09

Turnaround as a form.

To follow up this study we would have to compare the function of the turnaround in this version of "All of You" with Miles' use of it in the 1950s. By 1964, it is no longer a device to decorate a musical form -- it has become the musical form itself. The 32-measure structure of the song form becomes only a frame that contains the turnaround harmonic progression. The disintegration of the standard is complete. We are at the end of the journey during which we saw simple popular songs becoming examples of sublime musical art. Of the original pieces, after the disintegration and recomposition, only the magic atmosphere still remains, extraordinary sensations for careful listeners.

Luca Bragalini (
If you have any suggestions, question, or comments, please send e-mail to me at this address.

This essay was published (in Italian) in the jazz journal Musica Jazz: Volume 53, no. 8/9 (August-September 1997), pp. 52-55; Volume 53, no. 10 (October 1997), pp. 52-55.