18 June 2015


It started when I noticed what a terrific tune I'm Living In a Great Big Way is. In the streets of New Orleans, the best dancers and bands make quite something of it. See this video for example: CLICK HERE TO VIEW.

I wondered who composed this song. I found it was one of the batch of compositions by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields that traditional jazz bands have taken to their hearts.
Jimmy and Dorothy

You hardly ever hear a traditional jazz programme that does not include something by the formidable Fields and McHugh team. Jimmy McHugh wrote the music; and Dorothy Fields provided the lyrics.

Think of these, for example:

I Can't Give You Anything But Love
Exactly Like You
Magnolia's Wedding Day
On the Sunny Side of the Street
Don't Blame Me
I'm in the Mood for Love
I'm Living in a Great Big Way
Diga Diga Doo

And then there are some good numbers rarely played these days, even though they were recorded by the likes of Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller:

Take It 'Way
Blue Again
Raisin' the Roof

And there were plenty more songs from the partnership, some of which would still make good material for our bands. Examples are:

Cuban Love Song
I Must Have That Man
I Feel a Song Coming On
I Won't Dance
Thank You For a Lovely Evening
The Way You Look Tonight
Lost in a Fog

All these - and many more tunes - were produced by the pair over a period of just seven years. Quite remarkable. At other times in their lives, they both composed with other partners. Jimmy wrote many songs in collaboration with Ted Koehler, Al Dubin and Harold Adamson. Dorothy went on to set lyrics to the music of such luminaries as Jerome Kern and Cole Porter. With Kern, she gave us the unforgettable advice: 'Pick yourself up; dust yourself off; start all over again.' 
Dorothy Fields
Jimmy and Dorothy wrote their songs mostly for revues and shows. For example, I Can't Give You Anything But Love comes from their score for the Broadway Musical Blackbirds of 1928. On the Sunny Side of the Street and Exactly Like You both come from the same show - Lew Leslie's International Revue. They also provided title songs for films.

Who exactly were Jimmy and Dorothy?

James Francis McHugh from Boston was born in 1894. His father - a plumber - at first wanted Jimmy to join him in the business. But the family was quite musical too. In his early years Jimmy worked as rehearsal pianist for Boston Opera House and then as a demonstrator for Irving Berlin's publishing company. In 1921 he settled in New York as professional manager to the Jack Mills music publishing business (where he also found a job later for Dorothy). He went on to compose over 500 songs, including many for stage shows and films, and they were performed by pretty well all the big singing stars from 1930 onwards. McHugh lived until 1969.

Dorothy Fields - eleven years younger than McHugh - was the daughter of a Polish immigrant (Lewis Maurice Schoenfeld) who was in show business - first as a comedian and then as a Broadway producer. Her brothers Joseph and Herbert were also in the entertainment industry, mainly as writers. So show business was in the family's blood. Dorothy grew up in New Jersey and New York. While at school, she started regularly writing poems. She worked for a short time as a teacher and laboratory assistant. According to one source, Dorothy appeared on the stage in London, where she was said to have acted in the Midnight Follies at the Metropole in the 1920s.

At the age of 18, Dorothy married Dr. Jack. J. Wiener of New York. She was soon noticed as a talented lyric-writer; and her seven-year collaboration with McHugh began when she was only 23 years old. She went on to write the lyrics for about 400 songs. In the final years of their collaboration, they worked in Hollywood.

Dorothy's second marriage, in 1938, produced two children. Dorothy died at the age of 68, in 1974.

Why is it that the work of the Fields-McHugh partnership lends itself so well to interpretation by traditional jazz bands? I think these are the three reasons:

(1) McHugh composed good, simple, catchy melodies and structured them in such a way (usually 32 bars, based on the pattern  a - a - b - a) that they could easily be caught and memorised after a couple of hearings.

(2) His harmonic structures are relatively simple. There's not too much of a challenge in most of his (often basic and repetitive) chord progressions, so they are not difficult for jazzers to improvise on.

(3) Dorothy Fields - whether writing lyrics for comic or whimsical settings, or for more heartfelt and emotional songs - manages to find lyrics that strike us as 'just right'. You wouldn't want to change a word. She could skilfully express sophisticated and complex notions in idiomatic and colloquial language and sharp images.

So let's carry on, as the elephant said, Livin' in a Great Big Way!