Monday Notes

All the Things You Are, the refined music of Jerome Kern

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[Monday Notes No. 175] It is a curious fact that one of the most played jazz pieces ever, All the Things You Are, had such a disastrous start. The song was composed by Jerome Kern and has become one of the most played and most studied jazz standards. After hearing the song in Sarah Vaughan’s wonderful version, we will proceed to a brief analysis of the song.

All the Things You Are is part of the last show Jerome Kern wrote for Broadway, entitled Very Warm For May. The show’s debut was such a failure that on the second night there were only twenty people in the audience to see it.

On the song in particular, Jerome Kern himself narrated a funny anecdote. While telling a friend that All the Things You Are was too difficult a song to be successful, the two of them overheard a passer-by humming the melody!

This was not false modesty on the part of the composer because the song is harmonically daring and it was difficult to imagine it would ever reach the general public. Instead, the song was already appreciated at the time and has remained in the repertoire of jazz musicians precisely because of its harmonic complexity, which makes it stimulating for improvisation.

Therefore, let us analyse the harmony of All the Things You Are. The piece is in the key of A flat and opens with a VI II V I progression. At measure 6, however, we see a bold modulation to the key of C major. The two keys are very far apart, in fact the first has four flats in the key signature, the second none.

All the Things You Are - parte A

The modulation takes place in a daring manner, passing from the IV degree of A flat, chord of Dbmaj7, to the V degree of C major, chord of G7. The two chords are exactly three tones apart (a tritone) and are melodically linked by the note F, which is both the third of Db and the seventh of G7.

The piece continues by repeating exactly the same melody and chords a fifth above, between the keys of E flat major and G major. There is therefore total symmetry between part A and part B.

All the Things You Are - parte B

Part C introduces a new key, that of E major, and also contains the most daring passage in the entire song. To return from E major (which has four sharps) to A flat major (with its four flats), Jerome Kern uses the procedure of enharmony.

All the Things You Are - parte C

The note G sharp, which is part of Emaj7, changes to A flat, which is part of C7(b13). With this very tense and dissonant chord, the song returns to the initial key. This passage is both daring and effective.

The last section of the song presents yet another surprise: instead of being 8 measures like the other three, it lasts 12 bars. The song thus has a duration of 36 measures, which is not a rare occurrence but nevertheless unusual in the jazz repertoire that prefers songs of 32 measures.

All the Things You Are - parte D

The piece is thus lacking any real repetition, even though the D part partly takes up the initial A section. There are no less than five keys touched, and they are very far apart: A-flat, C, E-flat, G, E, A-flat again. To connect these different sections, Jerome Kern uses a very simple, long-notes melody, which particularly emphasises the third of each chord.

All the Things You Are is a very ingenious song that jazz musicians quickly got hold of. For example, Warne Marsh used the song’s harmony to create a bebop-flavoured theme entitled Dixie’s Dilemma.

Jerome Kern died in 1945 and therefore could not hear this elaboration of All the Things You Are. Who knows what he would have thought of it, and whether the astonishment would have been equal to that felt when he heard a passer-by humming his most difficult song.

Until next Monday!

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