Have You Met Miss Jones?

I'm not a jazz musician but I've spent my whole adult life listening to it and have done lots of jazz-adjacent music and occasionally dabbled in bit of capital-J Jazz. I'm thinking a lot about what "repertoire" means in my current practice and although it surely doesn't mean a list of Great American Songbook tunes I might still be able to learn from the way I've interacted with those in the past. (I promise there are Actual Ideas included alongside the navel-gazing.)

"Have You Met Miss Jones" is a Rodgers & Hart tune from 1937, the same year (but not the same show) as "My Funny Valentine" and "The Lady is a Tramp". It's played today because the bridge contains the same movement as Coltrane's "Giant Steps", which people think is cute for some reason. We'll get to that. What I want out of thinking about it just now is to think about a wider question: What use is a jazz tune to me, if any?

So we're all on the same page, let's write down the changes. It's a 32-bar AABA song. Everyone writes out the B section the same way: it's BbMaj7-GbMaj7-DMaj7-GbMaj7, with each chord preceded by the appropriate ii-V. The A section in the Real Book is given as

FMaj 7  |  F#°  |  Gm7  |  C7  |

Am7  |  D7  |  Gm7  |  C7  |

This isn't the only way it's played but it'll do for us. By the way, here's Adam Rodgers (no relation, AFAIK) taking the A section of the tune for a walk -- NB this is a demonstration as part of a masterclass, not a performance:

So how might I approach the A section of HYMMJ? The first thing I notice is that F#° can be thought of as D7b9, so that's just another D7 (resolving to the Gm that comes after). And Am7 (A-C-E-G) and FMaj7 (F-A-C-E) share three out of their four notes. Plus, the melody doesn't include the F and sounds fine on Am7. So we might try to rewrite this as

Am7  |  D7  |  Gm7  |  C7  |

Am7  |  D7  |  Gm7  |  C7  |

which is a very small change that appears to completely transform it. Now the entire A section looks like a very simple, almost modal structure. It's just A minor and G minor alternating (or D7 and C7, if you prefer). We can even play over the whole thing with our old friend the A minor pentatonic scale and it sounds absolutely fine, although obviously it gets boring pretty fast. Honestly, I think I hear this kind of bluesy approach being used on some classic jazz recordings such as this one with Gene Harris on piano:

He isn't only playing A minor pentatonic -- why would anyone think that would work? -- but I suspect he's at least thinking of playing blues licks rather than "running the changes".

So "the A section is just A minor pentatonic", at least if you know the melody and the bassline well enough to keep your improvised lines on track. Of course you need to know a standard set of chords if you're going to comp but that's another thing. For all these approaches having the song "in your ears" is probably more important.

It looks on paper as if you could just play F Major on the whole thing and be fine as well (A minor pentatonic is a subset of F Major). But that feels a bit too "thick". This tune needs room to flirt with the key of G Major (where the Am7-D7 lives). F Major sounds "off" in those parts but G major sounds very off on the Gm7-C7 parts. The pentatonic gives you room to breathe and to interpolate extra notes where your ears want to put them.

So what about the famous B section? As I've mentioned before I like to play the "Coltrane Cycle" quite freely, without the propulsive forward motion of the ii-V-Is (I wonder when the last time I played a ii-V-I was?). So I could think of this as just eight bars of "that sound" and in fact you can sort of carry that off, even with a backing track bullishly plodding through the changes alongside you. Again, if you have the melody and the bassline in your ears while you do it.

But here's a more radical idea. The most important of the three tonal centres in the B section is surely Gb, since that appears twice. I really like the resolution downwards from Gb to F, which you can get quite elegantly by transforming the GbMaj7 into a Gb7 at the end of the bridge. So why not just play Gb major or, again to thin things out, Gb major pentatonic throughout? And that works fine too, again if you do it with sensitivity and respect for whatever else is going on. Gb major pentatonic is Eb minor pentatonic.

So now we reach what might be a nugget that I can use. The A section is A minor pentatonic; the B section is the same shifted by a tritone. Those are disjoint pentatonics, so they cover 10 of the 12 available notes and, even more deliciously, upgrading either one into its corresponding natural minor scale keeps them disjoint and covers all 12 notes. For example, you can play A Natural Minor (A-B-C-D-E-F-G) and Eb minor pentatonic (Eb-Gb-Ab-Bb-Db) -- all the white keys and all the black keys. We turned a Rodgers & Hart tune into Schoenberg.

Well, not really, of course. But this very schematic view of things then becomes interesting, at least to me, if I try to imagine it as a way of playing the tune. Because yes, you can play AABA where A is A minor and B is Eb minor, but is there anything of HYMMJ left? Surely the final A section, at least, has to start with an F Maj 7 to keep that down-a-halfstep resolution. Surely some of the outline of the melody needs to be recovered too: the jump down a fifth (from root to 11, then from 11 down to b7, if you're thinking A minor), the slow alternation of a whole tone and the scalar climb back up in the A section, for example.

I can't be doing with barlines and "chord progressions" these days, but this seems like it might be a way to capture an essence -- not the essence, mind you -- of a tune in a way that promotes improvisation. For an improvisor, a tune needs to give you enough to work with without getting in your way: how much and what that is will depend on the individual and their tradition. Something like this seems like it might be enough for my needs, but we'll see.

Note that none of this should be taken as advice for jazz musicians. I'll repeat what I said up top: I'm not one of those. I'm interested in finding forms for improvisation and I happen to know a lot of jazz tunes, so that's a natural thing for me to reach for. None of this will win friends at your local jam session.