[Monday's Notes No. 100] Santa Claus Is Coming To Town is a Christmas piece from the 1930s. Its harmonic structure is typically jazzy in that it combines the beginning of the Rhythm Changes, a musical form widely used by jazz musicians, with a second part that is common to many songs of the time. To wish you a Merry Christmas, I offer you a recording I made with the vocalist Anna D'Acunto.
The Rhythm Changes has a typical AABA form and is derived from the song I've Got Rhythm by George Gershwin. The [A] part moves all around the tonic chord, with steps on the various degrees of the scale that always lead back to the starting key, in this case Bb.
Along with the 12-measure blues, this harmonic progression is the form most played by jazz musicians and hundreds of songs have been composed on these same chords. Charlie Parker alone has written several dozen.
In the second part, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town abandons the typical Rhythm Changes form, modulates instead to 4th degree Eb and then one more tone above, to F major.
The IV degree modulation in part [B] is itself a very common formula in jazz standards. Some songs that perform it are for example It Don't Mean a Thing by Duke Ellington, That's All by Bob Haymes, So Danço Samba by Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town is therefore not an original piece: it takes up harmonic solutions already heard in dozens of other tracks. It is, however, an effective and amusing tune, which is why we chose it and dedicate it to our friends.
I will conclude this analysis with a riddle: there is something strange in our interpretation, a major change that makes the song very different from the classic versions, for example that of Frank Sinatra. Can you tell me what we changed?
Until next Monday, Merry Christmas!