Saturday, March 12, 2016

Jam Session Song of the Week (5): The Heebie Jeebies

This week's song is another that is well-known, but is not played enough to be called a standard.  But it's got a lot of history, and the recorded versions have some great lessons.

This song was written in 1925 by Boyd Atkins.  The title refers a slang expression (one that was new at that time) for a feeling of discomfort.  This song is a good example of how much misinformation there is in jazz history.  Some sources say that Atkins presented it to Armstrong as an instrumental and that Armstrong wrote the lyrics.  At least one source says that Connee Boswell wrote the lyrics.  (The simple and likely explanation is that they each wrote some lyrics.)

Many sources repeat the story that Armstrong "invented" scat singing when he dropped the paper with the lyrics during his recording session.  (This is untrue: he may have scatted on the recording because he dropped the paper.  Or because he simply wanted to.  In either case, scat singing was not invented at that moment.  It existed before.  Some argue that this was the first time it was recorded, but that can only be true if you define "scat singing" very narrowly.)

Adding to the confusing history of the song, there was a Heebie Jeebie dance, which was popularized through printed instructions.  The lyrics of Armstrong's recording refer to a "heebie jeebie dance," but it is likely that the dance was created after the recording.  Here is more about all of this history.

In any case, the song is a simple one, and it's fun to play.  I think it is worth studying because of what the recordings can teach us.  Armstrong's recording is not considered one of his greatest, but I think that his scatting in this recording is a powerful lesson for horn players.  This scatting is very simple in melody, but it is so inventive and swinging in rhythm.  It is also typical of the scat style of the 20s and 30s, which is very different from the scatting of the 50s.  Today, it is the 50s style that is widely imitated.  Here it is, from 1926:

The later versions by the Boswell Sisters are also swinging, rhythmically inventive, and make great use of dynamics (loudness changes).  I see many horn players and singers who neglect the potential of dynamics, which are a crucial ingredient.  (If you don't know the Boswell Sisters, you should!  They were the inspiration for the more famous Andrews Sisters, and they were far more interesting.)

 The Boswells recorded several versions.  Here is a filmed version (It also features Bunny Berigan, and Eddie Lang, two of the greatest musicians of the time, who often recorded with the Boswells):

Here is a recorded version which again shows the complex arrangements and extreme tempo changes that were the trademark of the Boswell Sisters:

Finally, here is the lead sheet, from the Firehouse Fakebook:

We play only the "C" section, and we play it Bb.  I don't remember why we changed the key, but probably because it is a better key for Christopher to sing.  Here is our chord chart:

As a bonus, here is a totally different song with the same name!

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