The Immeasurable Legacy of Tiny Kahn, Part II: Over the Rainbow

Posted by DannyFratina, 10.18.2013 There have been 2 comment(s)

For two weeks in September 1948, the Miles Davis Nonet, a semi-informal group of young jazz musicians coming of age in the early days of bebop, played a live set, about an hour or so long, of newly-composed music that would ultimately be a significant contribution to the evolution of jazz.


In August of 1949, Tiny Kahn wrote an arrangement of Over the Rainbow for Charlie Barnet. Barnet said it was one of the best things in his band’s book. It’s really hard to find the recording they made, but lucky for you, I have a copy. You need to listen to this.


Over the Rainbow






A lot of the sounds you’re hearing are not especially new to our modern ears, but in 1949 they were risky, they were unpredictable, and they were bold. The “Third Stream” movement, the blending of jazz and classical (jazz orchestras moving towards chamber music ensembles and away from dance or even bebop ensembles), was still a few years away. Charlie Barnet was a famous swing era bandleader who was the first to popularize Cherokee (as a dance piece, several years before Charlie Parker would crank up the tempo). And here he is letting a 25 year old Tiny Kahn bring his own sound in to cover the most popular song in music history. Past, present, and future, all in one moment.


There are a lot of cool things to talk about in this arrangement, so with a little historical context in place, let’s check out a few.

To start, listen again to that single bar before the melody finally comes in (~22 seconds in) - what the heck is that amazing, melancholy chord? The key of the tune at this point is F. The melody at [A] starts on an FMaj9 (with F in the melody, normally a no-no in arranging but it works because of the extremely strong trumpet presence). The bar before is a solid Eb-9. I’ve transcribed a ton of music from the 30s and 40s, and I can’t think of such a prominent use of bVII-7, leading to IMaj, if at all.

It’s orchestrated with spread voicings in saxes and trombones, a technique that gives more space for both the key note of F in the harmon muted trumpet and a line in the bass, bari, and one trombone, that is simply the Eb Dorian scale moving down to connect with the F chord. It is unexpected after that twisting intro and especially in retrospect after leading directly into Over the Rainbow’s well-known melody. It’s carefully constructed and seamlessly connects the intro to the melody. Sonically, it’s not a harsh sound - it’s the end of a storm clearing the way for that rainbow.

And maybe it's just me, but I'm hearing hints of Moon Dreams here.


Moving on - Right away in the 2nd bar of the melody you hear some colorful passing chords. To understand what’s happening here, look at the third bar. The target chord is BbMaj7. Here is a stripped down version (not what you hear on the recording), with the first three original chords plus the target chord in bar 3.

In theory you can preface almost any chord with it’s related V7, and in theory you can preface THAT chord with it’s related II-7. So in this case you would expect to see C-7 F7 | BbMaj7.

And in theory you can also preface any II V set of chords with a II V up a half step, an bit of modern theory well established now in 2013, but not common until the mid-50s (The half step II V idea was used liberally in the Birth of the Cool sessions). In this case you would expect to see Db-7 Gb7 C-7 F7 | BbMaj7. This completely erases the A-7, which creates an issue with the melody.

And this is a very clever reharmonization that is completely functional and completely logical. There are controlled dissonances here that work with the melody (in the 2nd half of the bar). It’s a well-crafted moment that speaks to Tiny’s amazing ear and incredible capacity to learn the quickly-evolving language of jazz.

But it’s not that simple. We have the issue of the first two beats. So, Tiny erases the two dominant chords from the rhythm section and puts the A-7 back in, BUT, he implies those missing chords with lead alto (the only player with 8th note motion). So we are left with Db-7 C-7 | BbMaj7, with the original A-7 maintaining the space it started with.

Look, there are a lot of “rules” of composition and arranging that we use as parameters to reproduce certain sounds, and it’s OK to follow them and it’s OK to not follow them. But Tiny finds a very brief moment here to push the arrangement forward, add something new, and stay totally within the boundaries of his language. The functionality of the moment is still completely intact, the melody is not obscured or destabilized, and there is a great flash of color that doesn’t hit you over the head. This is pure balance.

The most practical explanation for Tiny's choice here of erasing the two chords entirely is probably to avoid having the rhythm section play 8th note chords that jump around the circle of 5ths. The most artistic explanation is that by emphasizing the II-7 chords instead of the V7s, he squeezes fresh colors out of a familiar tune. He gets something slightly more ambiguous and something that verges on predicting the sound of the hybrid chord, which would not become popular for almost two more decades (obviously he cannot foresee the future of harmony, but his ears surely understand the many reasons why this sounds good).

Kahn uses this little technique 4-5 more times in the arrangement.


My favorite moment of this arrangement, that solidifies it as one of my favorite arrangements of all time, is the peak moment 2 minutes and 10 seconds in. You finally get a modulation to the key of Bb with huge concerted horns giving you that melody for a solid three beats. And then it modulates mid-phrase, mid-bar, to the key of C. Using only -7 chords.




At the start of the phrase we get Bb6, cementing the modulation. On beat 3 we get G-7. This is totally normal. Check out the trumpets:

Now look at the trumpets and saxes going forward:

Using the chords at the bottom, follow along with me.

When Tiny hits that G-7, the normal VI-7 of the composition, he immediately starts to move the harmony chromatically. He’s taking the chromatic II-7 idea from before and going backwards with it. Bar 2 dovetails cleverly with bar 1, with Tpt 1 finally catching ahold of the chords (he’s got the only tension note as well, the 9th). Bar 3 has our the target chord (FMaj9) and beats 3 and 4 of bar 2 reuse the familiar reharmonization trick we looked at before. Beat 2 of bar 2 is simply a constant structure to match the trumpet melody, locking into the familiar reharm. I've written out the two dominant chords in bar 2 for clearer reference. Everything so far locks together perfectly.

By bar 3, we are in the key of C. We never get a C chord, but we are in the key of C. FMaj7 is the IVMaj7 of the standard tune, plus the trumpet melody takes is into the melody as it appears in the key of C.

By bar 6 we are definitely back in F, the original key of the arrangement. So in 6 bars we get a modulation to Bb, C, and F. The keys of Bb and C are both related to F (sub-dominant and dominant), making it easier to pull off this series of incredibly mature transitions. We also have the loudest point in the entire performance here, signifying a true peak. Ironically it happens in the midst of these seemingly-unstable key changes.

Simply put, this is outrageous and spectacular. This is the self-taught Tiny Kahn taking everything he had heard around him, in 1950, around the age of 25, and elevating technique into pure progressive musical expression. He worked within the boundaries of the jazz orchestra, and gave us this. It's perfectly functional and will give me chills for the rest of my life. I’ve transcribed the entire arrangement, and a bar doesn’t go by where you can’t find incredible attention to detail and an unbelievable ear at work.


I have no way of knowing if Tiny Kahn ever caught a set of the Davis Nonet at the Royal Roost. I have no way of knowing if Tiny Kahn listened to the studio recordings that were released by Capitol throughout the first half of 1949. It’s possible that the connection I’m trying to make here is tenuous and presumptive. With or without the connection, Kahn's contribution to jazz arranging by 1950 is outstanding, and a brighter spotlight deserves to be shone on it.

That said, I believe there is a stronger case to be made looking in the other direction. Stay tuned for Part III, a look at the connection between Tiny Kahn and legendary composer/arranger Bill Holman.

See also:

The Immeasurable Legacy of Tiny Kahn, Part I

This post was posted in Notes from the Arranger and was tagged with Arranging, Birth of the Cool, Charlie Barnet, Jazz, Lessons, Miles Davis, Tiny Kahn

2 Responses to The Immeasurable Legacy of Tiny Kahn, Part II: Over the Rainbow

  • Al Porcino was my uncle. One of the very first recordings he left for us when I was a little girl was this arrangement of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". I am so glad to have found it again.


    Posted on 03.17.2014 at 6:27 PM

  • Danny says:

    Wow, thank you for that comment Gerri! Yes, this track seems to be particularly elusive. The source I originally got it from over the summer has disappeared, so this is probably one of the only places you can listen to it now.

    I don't think I knew that Al Porcino was on this recording until your comment. I was sorry to hear of his passing, he was a fabulous musician and his impact is still being felt, and will absolutely be felt for generations to come. I wrote a short article about him in January if you haven't already seen it.

    Posted on 03.18.2014 at 1:45 PM