Monday Notes

Pennies From Heaven, Teddy Wilson and Bille Holiday

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[Monday Notes] Teddy Wilson was a piano virtuoso but rarely showed off his skills, always playing elegantly and simply. We hear him with Billie Holiday in a lovely song called Pennies From Heaven.

Teddy Wilson was a much less flamboyant pianist than his contemporaries Jelly Roll Morton, Art Tatum and Fats Waller. For this reason, he is remembered more as a great accompanist than as a soloist. Among his most important collaborations are those with great performers such as Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter.

Teddy Wilson’s qualities in fact made him an ideal accompanist, from this point of view we can consider him as the first of an extraordinary series of accompanist pianists such as Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan. Like Teddy Wilson, these pianists passionately fulfilled the important role of the sideman, often remaining in the shadows but making a valuable contribution to jazz music.

In Pennies from Heaven we can appreciate some characteristics of Teddy Wilson. At minute 0’17” the pianist exposes the theme enriching it with typical arpeggio volatas, very characteristic of his personal style. We can observe for example the descending sextuplet at measure 6, the series of ascending triplets at measure 9, the ascending-descending-ascending passage at measures 15-16.

Teddy Wilson, embellishments on Pennies From Heaven
Teddy Wilson, embellishments on Pennies From Heaven

In this performance he exhibits a great sense of proportion, relaxation and simplicity, all typical of Teddy Wilson’s pianism. The second half of the theme is played by Ben Webster’s tenor sax (0’53”), followed by Billie Holiday (1’28”) who as usual interprets the song in her own way.

Billie Holiday simplifies the melodies she sings, with her inimitable ability to pick out the really essential notes of a theme and insist on just those. She is a true specialist in thematic variation, and her variations always operate by subtraction, removing notes instead of adding more.

The influence that Louis Armstrong had on her can be heard very clearly in this performance. After all, it was Billie Holiday herself who said that as a young girl she listened to Louis Armstrong’s records and learnt them by heart. Imagine hearing Satchmo’s gravelly voice instead of Billie Holiday’s, the notes could easily remain the same.

The theme of money is recurrent in the songs of the 1930s, following the severe American economic crisis that began in 1929. In Pennies From Heaven, raindrops are transformed into pennies that the lucky people collect by tipping over their umbrella, instead of using it to defend themselves.

It is not a particularly inspired lyric, but the idea of coins falling from the sky must have been particularly consoling and welcome in a difficult time like the 1930s. This joyful and optimistic image must have contributed in no small part to the success of Pennies From Heaven.

Until next monday!

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