Gregory Cantwell, who is usually involved in more serious fare with the Philadelphia Singers, (and whose wife, Renee, sang It Might as well Be Spring here) suggested I do Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady as a weekly tune and I’m happy to oblige.
Ellington and Irving Mills wrote it in 1933 when it must have seemed pretty hip indeed. It is surely one of his best known works and it shows off what he did especially well, namely, incorporate jazz elements into his songs. This had been happening since the rise of Tin Pan Alley, of course. Gershwin, for example, frequently added “blues” notes in his songs. Think of the Man I Love ("some day he’ll come a LONG") or Somebody Loves Me ("I wonder WHO").
Even without anything jazzy written in, though, jazz-minded musicians of the 20’s and 30’s would often enrich the harmonies (and then, of course, the improvised melodies) of pop tunes to include more chromatic and dissonant elements. The chords as they were published in sheet music were often simple triads, but the chords you hear on recordings have extra “close” harmony notes added. That’s what gives the era its sound.
In Ellington’s music though, you didn’t have to add in or improvise these more sophisticated harmonies because, unlike a lot song composers of the era, Ellington integrated them in the very structure of the song. The descending chromatic chords in Sophisticated Lady are a perfect example, as is the interesting but difficult melody of the bridge, or the phrase where it goes “nonchalant”.
Ellington’s oeuvre may represent the zenith of jazz’ influence on popular music. With the dawn of bop in the late forties, jazz players and fans alike regarded widespread popularity, perversely, as a sign of pandering. Pity. Jazz has since been rewarded with the obscurity it seemed to crave.
Ellington’s legacy has been puffed up in recent years, most notably by Ken Burns and his fawning canonization of Ellington in his PBS jazz series. Still, Ellington’s influence was substantial and he wrote some iconic American tunes, and Sophisticated Lady is one of them. Click on the title below to hear it. The lyrics are below. Interestly, they were written by Irving Mills and Mitchell Parrish, the latter best known for his lyrics to StardDust.
Into your early life romance came
And in this heart of yours burned a flame,
A flame that flickered one day and died away.
With disillusion deep in your eyes,
You learned that fools in love soon grow wise.
The years have changed you, somehow;
I see you now.
Never thinking of tomorrow,
With some man in a restaurant,
Is that all you really want?
Sophisticated lady, I know,
You miss the love you lost long ago,
And when nobody is nigh