A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Once In Love With Amy” is a Broadway show tune from composer Frank Loesser’s 1948 musical Where’s Charley? (It was sung on stage by Ray Bolger, who, earlier in his career, had played the scarecrow in the movie The Wizard Of Oz.

It’s a wonderful, charming song when sung in a Broadway style or as a popular standard. In terms of jazz, it sounds great when played in an light swing style, with the bass in ‘2.’ I’m not sure if it would work as a bebop or post-bop piece but I’m sure someone could find a way to make it work if it suits their musical personality.

Recommended videos/recordings:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, you may find recordings of the song on music streaming services, etc.)

Ray Bolger (TV show, 1955)

Bolger was the original interpreter of the song, having sung it on the Broadway stage.

Frank Sinatra

This is “early” Sinatra, from 1948

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Once In Love With Amy” is more of a Broadway song than a jazz standard, so I recommend finding a jazz style that stays true to the charm and rhythmic bounce of the original. For me, this would mean a light left hand stride pattern with the melody in the right hand. I wouldn’t improvise a whole new solo as much as I would have fun exploring ways to embellish and phrase the melody. The great Art Tatum did this all the time on the songs he played, so there’s some precedent in the world of jazz. But, on the other hand, if you can come up with a great bebop arrangement of the song, then I’d love to hear it!

Looking at the leadsheet, of course, there’s nothing that prevents us from playing it in any jazz style we like. There’s a nice melody with some chromaticism, and a chord progression that’s typical of many songs that have become bona fide jazz standards. But I guess I find the song’s lyric so charming that I want to think of that and enjoy it while I’m playing, even if there’s no vocalist.

Thinking about the song in this way reminds me of something that happened in 1988, when I was assistant to the famous jazz baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. Gerry was playing an “All-Star” jazz concert and took me along for the weekend. (I didn’t have to do anything except to hang out with musical legends like Cab Calloway and Dave Brubeck. It was wonderful!!!)

Anyway, someone had done a big brassy arrangement of a song from the 1940s. I thought it sounded great but Gerry completely hated it. Backstage, he kept shaking his head and telling me that the only way he could explain it to himself was that the arranger must have disliked the song, but had to arrange it anyway. This didn’t make any sense to me since the arrangement sounded so good. But I was interested in why Mulligan would think this way so I kept pondering it to myself. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I understood what Gerry meant. He was thinking about the song’s lyrics. The instrumental arrangement was big and exciting while the lyrics were tender and intimate. So for Gerry Mulligan, the arrangement didn’t work, even though it sounded “good” as an instrumental. Even though I don't necessarily agree with Gerry on this particular point, his reaction made me think deeply about how to interpret songs from The Great American Songbook.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
An interesting story about the song’s origin

Frank Loesser – Biography
A biography of the great composer

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively

Take a Free Jazz Piano Lesson

Mastering The Real Book: A 10-week Skype Intensive for Jazz Pianists

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