Bird Quotes: "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody"


I only know of two instances in Bird's recorded discography where he quotes from the 1919 Irving Berlin tune "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody." The first one I learned of (via Chasin' the Bird) is the January 22, 1949 performance of "Jumpin' with Symphony Sid" live from the Royal Roost in midtown Manhattan. 

(While preparing this blog post, I realized that this brief, half-minute outro from the broadcast is actually left off of the misleadingly titled The Complete Live Performances on Savoy, and isn't streamable on YouTube or online anywhere to my knowledge—but fortunately I have an LP copy of Bird At The Roost, The Savoy Years - The Complete Royal Roost Performances, Volume Two, produced by the late great Phil Schaap, so here it is, ripped from my LP copy). Quote begins at 0:08 and runs until about 0:15 (last 4 bars of first chorus into the next chorus):


The lyrics of this phrase go: "A pretty girl is like a melody / That haunts you night and day," the second line of which Bird paraphrases quickly before diving into his improvised line.


The Wikipedia page for "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" provides a helpful survey for this century-plus old song that doesn't seem to be in currency among jazz instrumentalists in the current day, including the fact that this was the theme for the Miss America pageant before 1955 and that it's referenced on the Magnetic Fields's 1999 album 69 Love Songs (Zeno Bardot notes in the comments that Stephin Merritt had a chihuahua named Irving Berlin). I would guess that Bird knew this from the 1936 Best Picture film The Great Ziegfeld, which was released when he was 15 years old. [via Twitter, Jari-Pekka Vuorela notes that Louis Armstrong was playing the tune regularly on '44 broadcasts - check out the vocal delivery and trumpet solo!]

The film was up for 7 Academy Awards and won three (the other two were Best Actress for Luise Rainer and the now-archaic Best Dance Direction for Seymour Felix specifically for this song, the latter category only running from 1935-1937 before being discontinued). I haven't watched the film, but I noticed in the summary that it also includes "My Man," which Bird quotes several times (most notably on the master take of "Just Friends" with strings). 

Thanks to the power of the internet, we can see the climactic scene from the film with the famous rotating stairwell/wedding cake:


Until yesterday, the January 1949 instance of the quote was the only one I'd found in Bird's discography, but I should have known better—in my experience, just about everything Bird plays can be found in another instance, or in other words, nothing is quite unique or singular in the discography despite it seeming so at first glance. 

On the recently released Bird in LA, the November 22, 1948 performance at the Shrine Auditorium exactly two months prior was issued commercially for the first time, and Bird quotes "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" at about the 2:13 mark on "Dizzy Atmosphere." Excerpt below, starting from the end of a chorus into the top of the new chorus, where Bird drops in the quote (here in Ab, unlike the "Symphony Sid" version in Bb):


Quotes tend to appear in clusters in the discography, presumably because certain tunes were floating around in Bird's mind for periods of his life (a few do recur over extended periods of time, but the vast majority only appear a few times before disappearing), and this newly-issued recording demonstrates exactly the above. The performance itself from November 22, 1948 is strange and revealing for the evidently suboptimal state of Bird's playing. Per Peter Losin's research:

Apparently earlier in the day he got away from his chaperones and when he was found by Teddy Edwards he was in no shape to play. 

The ending on "Dizzy Atmosphere," usually crisp and short, is completely fumbled and fizzles to the end, and elsewhere Bird seems to be barely making the tempo and form, but he quotes extensively throughout the performances, seemingly at stream of consciousness. 

Unlike the performance at the Roost two months later—where Bird also quotes "Dawn on the Desert" under Symphony Sid's introduction and then transposes the "Symphony Sid" melody out of key twice, apparently as a joke underneath the spoken proceedings—the quoting on this performance seems more out of distraction or else vague surrender to the circumstances, passing the time until the gig's over. Bird's humanity is on eminent display here, and it is haunting but also touching.

Comments

  1. Speaking of that Magnetic Fields connection, Stephin Merritt had a chihuahua named Irving Berlin back when 69 Love Songs came out. I think learning of this on Fresh Air was what pushed me past the tipping point to checking out Merritt's work, which up until that point I had not warmed to because it seemed a little heavy on the synths from my very limited acquaintance with it. (I've since made peace with the synths.) Read about little Irving here: https://www.chickfactor.com/rip-irving-berlin-merritt-1999-2013/

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    1. Wow, it goes much deeper than I thought. Thanks for the tip!

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