George Gershwin's "Summertime": Exploring a Classic

Once in a while, a song crosses musical boundaries and becomes a classic standard.
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Once in a while, a song crosses musical boundaries and becomes a classic standard. Well written and resilient, “Summertime” has been recorded and performed countless times—by jazzers like Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, and rockers like Janis Joplin and Annie Lennox. It’s played at blues gigs, Latin gigs, jazz gigs, cabaret gigs, weddings, concerts, and jam sessions. Every bassist should know how to navigate the 16-bar form.

George Gershwin composed “Summertime” in 1934 as part of his opera Porgy and Bess. Gershwin succeeded in creating a bluesy, pentatonic-scale-based melody, echoing the sound of African-American spirituals of the day. The original operatic version is a child’s lullaby, underpinned by hip New York jazz harmony and a slow, Southern-state rocking-chair vibe.

The 16-bar form begins in a minor key, and resolves to the relative major in the last four bars, offering a satisfying cadence that musicians love to parse. Gershwin composed “Summertime” in B minor, but it’s usually played by jazzers in D minor, like the famous version by John Coltrane [My Favorite Things, 1961, Atlantic].

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The étude this month, “Bass Time in the Summertime,” begins with 16 bars of walking bass, followed by 16 bars of a solo line. Note the following:

Bar 1 The walking line begins with the Dorian minor scale. On beat four, the Bb is a passing tone leading to the 5th of the chord (the note A) in the second bar.
Bars 3 & 4 The line moves up scale-wise, with rhythmic embellishments on beat two of each measure. The note F in bar 4 is the #9 of the D7(#9) chord, followed by F# (the 3rd of the chord), which leads into the root of the Gm7 in bar 5.
Bar 6 The Gm6 chord sounds like an inversion of the Em7(b5) in bar 7.
Bar 7 Be mindful of the 5th (the note Bb) in this Em7(b5) chord. The 5th is what distinguishes the sound from an Em7 chord, which would have the note B. Since this is a turnaround back to the tonic chord Dm7, the progression uses a IIm–V move, Em7(b5) to A7(#9), in bars 7 and 8.
Bar 9 When a drop occurs, like the dotted-eighth to 16th-note figure on beat one, always aim for the bottom note of the drop. Make the F on beat two fat and solid!
Bar 11 The Ab on beat four is a chromatic leading tone into Gm7 in the following bar. The Ab is not in the Dm7 chord, but it sounds good because it’s a half-step away from our target note, the root of the Gm7.
Bar 12 Leading tones (sometimes called chromatic passing tones) on beats two and four emphasize the changing root motion of the chords in bars 11–13. Notice that these chords are all moving in intervals of 5ths (or up in 4ths): Dm7 to Gm7 to C7 to Fmaj7.
Bar 14 Watch the triplet drop on beat three. Be sure to land squarely on the C# on beat four.
Bar 15 Watch the triplet drop on beat one. Be sure to land squarely on the F on beat two.
Bar 16 The solo line starts on beats three and four of this bar. When changing from bass line to solo, you can lay back rhythmically. Don’t push as hard as when you’re playing the walking bass line, and be sure to feel the pulse when playing long notes and rests.
Bar 17 Even though the note A is held out for two beats, feel the pulse internally. The time should groove just as hard—even when you’re not actively playing notes! Be sure to cut off the A on beat three. Rests should be “played” in time accurately.
Bars 18–19 The line floats up a Dm7 arpeggio to the 9th of the chord (the note E). The 9th is always implied, even when the chord symbol indicates the more common Dm7.
Bar 20 Note the use of the altered notes of the D7(#9) chord: the #9 (F) and b9 (Eb). The four notes in this bar—D, Eb, F, F#—are the first four notes of a diminished or diminished whole-tone scale. The chord symbol D7(#9) always implies at least the use of the #9 (the note F), but may also contain the b9 (the note Eb).
Bar 23 This is a great IIm–V lick to get under your fingers! Note the G minor triad hidden in the middle of the pattern.
Bar 24 For all you theory nerds: The Eb7(#11) is a tritone substitute for the A7(#9) that would normally appear in this bar.
Bar 27 Here’s a nice blues lick, reminiscent of Oscar Pettiford’s “Bohemia After Dark.”
Bar 28 The last three eighth-notes in the bar form an enclosure. The notes Bb, G, and G# enclose the target note on beat one of the next bar: the note A (the 3rd of the Fmaj7 chord).
Bar 32 This pattern is derived from the A half–whole diminished scale [see Woodshed, July ’15]. The chord symbol A13(b9) implies the use of this scale. The symmetrical intervallic pattern ascends in minor-3rd intervals.

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JOHN GOLDSBY

John Goldsby loves to play “Summertime” in any key. Introduce yourself at
johngoldsby.com.

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