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But Not for Me (1930)

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Origin and Chart Information
“In 1958 Ahmad Jamal took the jazz world by storm with his release of At the Pershing. In addition to ‘Poinciana,’ his unique version of ‘But Not for Me’ became a signature tune for him.”

- Sandra Burlingame

Rank 54
Music George Gershwin
Lyrics Ira Gershwin

Ginger Rogers introduced an Alvin Theatre audience to “But Not for Me” during the first performance of Girl Crazy on October 14, 1930. Although the role of postmistress marked Rogers’ Broadway debut as a leading lady, she lost the limelight to newcomer Ethel Merman who brought down the house with her introduction of “I Got Rhythm.”


More on Ginger Rogers at JazzBiographies.com

Girl Crazy was originally written as a vehicle for Bert Lahr, but when he turned down the part for legal reasons, Willie Howard, a master of accents, was brought in to take his place. The Red Nichols band was the orchestra for the performance, a talent-laden group that included Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Dorsey, and Gene Krupa. The star-studded orchestra thrilled audiences during the intermissions with impromptu jam sessions. George Gershwin, himself, conducted the music at the premier before handing over the baton to Earl Busby. Girl Crazy would run for 272 performances in part due to its wonderful score that included “Bidin’ My Time,” “Sam and Delilah,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” “Treat Me Rough!” and “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!”

A 1932 RKO film adaptation of Girl Crazy, starring Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, relied on sophomoric comedy rather than the original Gershwin score and retained only “Bidin’ My Time,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “But Not for Me.” Variety called it “a weak sister” of the Broadway production.

A 1943 release of the film fared much better. MGM’s Girl Crazy was the eighth Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film and was generally well reviewed. The original story and score were left almost intact and all of the songs were included along with “Fascinating Rhythm” from 1924’s Lady Be Good.

MGM again visited the well in 1966 with Girl Crazy as the basis for the film, When the Boys Meet the Girls, starring Connie Francis and Harve Presnell. Suffice it to say the highlight of the musical was the songs.

Over sixty years after making its debut, Girl Crazy was once again on Broadway, this time as the basis for the 1992 hit Crazy For You. The musical opened onFebruary 19th and ran for 1622 performances. Seven of the songs from Girl Crazy were included in the score along with 13 other Gershwin songs.

Despite the song’s popularity with jazz performers, “But Not for Me” was a pop chart hit only once, rising to number twelve in 1942 for Harry James and His Orchestra with vocalist Helen Forrest.


Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

More on George Gershwin at JazzBiographies.com

More on Ira Gershwin at JazzBiographies.com

“But Not for Me” has been performed by many instrumentalists and (female) vocalists alike. Philip Furia, in his book, Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist, comments,

“But Not for Me” and “The Man That Got Away” fall in the category Ira dubbed “Ladies in Lament.”

And, indeed, ladies that have lamented include Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Carol Sloane, Chris Connor, Diana Krall, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta Jones, and Sarah Vaughan.

More information on this tune...

Ira Gershwin
Lyrics on Several Occasions
Limelight Editions
Paperback: 424 pages

(The lyricist himself discusses the song’s history and its lyric.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

“But Not for Me” is written with a 4-bar introduction, a 23-bar verse, and a 32-bar refrain in the A-B-A-B’ form. It is considered a relatively simple song, requiring a range of a little over an octave. Vocalists are further encouraged by the relatively even melody, which, with a few exceptions in the B sections, is largely stepwise.

While George Gershwin’s restrained composition is considered a minor masterpiece, Ira Gershwin’s lyrics are more often discussed and praised. His verse and clever ending draw the most attention. The refrain ends the first time through with “I guess he’s not for me.” On the second pass there is, “When every happy plot, Ends with a marriage Knot, And there’s no knot for me.” - JW

Musical analysis of “But Not for Me”

Original Key Eb major
Form A – B1 –A – B2
Tonality Major throughout
Movement Primarily step-wise, descending and ascending gently. Section “B” contains chromatic alterations and upward leaps.

Comments     (assumed background)

Section “A” opens with a I – vi – ii7 – V7 – I progression (Gershwin’s original did not have the vi, but it is often added today), followed by a II7 – V – I sequence (due to the melody notes, a ii7actually follows the II7 here). Section “B” uses the same IV – iv – I - vi opening as Section “A” of “Star Dust,” then returns to ii7 for three measures before going to the V7 which returns the progression to the tonic of “A.” (This simplified analysis does not take into consideration the “coloristic” harmonies Gershwin used because of the chromatic embellishments of his melodic line in this section). Harmonically, the second “B” differs little from the first, but the alteration of the melody at this point tends to distract one’s ear from this fact.
K. J. McElrath - Musicologist for JazzStandards.com

Check out K. J. McElrath’s book of Jazz Standards Guide Tone Lines at his web site (www.bardicle.com).
Musicians' Comments

When I recorded “But Not for Me,” I used Trane’s changes based on “Giant Steps.” I’m fond of the changes to “Giant Steps” from an improviser’s perspective. I altered the melody to fit the changes, and it worked nicely. The difference is I played it on flugelhorn rather than tenor sax. My take is that life always likes to do it differently. What I find exciting about using lines built on “Giant Steps” is that it allows one to leave a key center and pivot back and re-enter simultaneously. It reminds me of the symbol of the dragon with its tail in its mouth.

Jay Thomas plays saxophones, trumpet, flugelhorn, and flute

The A sections lie in a narrow, low range, but in the B section each small phrase ends with an upward leap that cannot be punched. Good for lightening up the upper range. Wonderfully literate lyrics.

Marty Heresniak, Voice Teacher, Actor, Writer, Singer

Quoted from: Heresniak, Marty and Christopher Woitach, “Changing the Standards -- Alternative Teaching Materials.” Journal of Singing, vol. 58, no. 1, Sep./Oct. 2001.

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Soundtrack information
“But Not for Me” was included in these films:
  • Girl Crazy (1932, Arline Judge, Eddie Quillan, Mitzi Green)
  • Girl Crazy (1943, Judy Garland)
  • An American in Paris (1951, Benny Carter and His Orchestra)
  • But Not for Me (1959, Ella Fitzgerald)
  • When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965, Connie Francis, Harve Presnell)
  • That’s Entertainment! (1974, Judy Garland)
  • Manhattan (1979, Buffalo Philharmonic, Michael Tilson Thomas)
  • Torch Song Trilogy (1988, Billie Holiday)
  • When Harry Met Sally (1989, Harry Connick, Jr.)
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994, Elton John)
  • L.A. Confidential (1997, Jackie Gleason)
  • Return to Me (2000, Benny Carter and His Orchestra)
And on stage:
  • Girl Crazy (1930, Ginger Rogers, reprised by Willie Howard)
  • Crazy for You (1992, Jodi Benson)
And on television:
  • The Muppet Show (1980, Carol Burnett) Season 5
  • Crazy for You (1999, Stacey Logan) PBS Great Performances
Reading and Research
Additional information for "But Not for Me" may be found in:

William Zinsser
Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs
David R. Godine Publisher
Hardcover: 279 pages

(2 paragraphs including the following types of information: lyric analysis.)

Philip Furia
The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Paperback: 336 pages

(2 paragraphs including the following types of information: lyric analysis.)

David Ewen
American Songwriters: An H.W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary
H. W. Wilson
Hardcover: 489 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: history and performers.)

Thomas S. Hischak
The American Musical Theatre Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 568 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: summary and lyric analysis.)

Max Morath
The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Popular Standards
Perigee Books
Paperback: 235 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: history and performers.)

Alan Lewens
Popular Song: Soundtrack of the Century
Watson-Guptill Publications
Paperback: 192 pages

(1 page including the following types of information: history, performers, style discussion and song writer discussion.)

Ira Gershwin
Lyrics on Several Occasions
Limelight Editions
Paperback: 424 pages

(3 pages including the following types of information: history and song lyrics.)

Philip Furia
Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Paperback: 308 pages

(1 page including the following types of information: lyric analysis.)

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Hardcover: 736 pages

(Includes the following types of information: song lyrics.)
Also on This Page...

Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Reading & Research

Jazz History Notes
Getting Started
CD Recommendations
Listen and Compare
By the Same Writers...

Jazz History Notes

Gershwin’s 1930 composition was, until the 1950’s, mainly a vehicle for vocalists. Recordings by Helen Forest with Harry James’ Orchestra in 1941 and Helen Ward with Teddy Wilson in 1940 followed a 1939 session by Lee Wiley, who may have been responsible for the song’s resurgence.

Wiley was, in many respects, one of the first white, female jazz singers. She loved jazz and the musicians who played it and whenever possible worked with the best players. Her 1939 tribute to Gershwin’s music was one of the first such composer theme albums (followed closely by tributes to Cole Porter and Harold Arlen), twenty years before the more famous genre recordings by Ella Fitzgerald.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Helen Forrest, Harry James Orchestra
Complete Helen Forrest with the Harry James Orchestra
Collector's Choice

Helen Ward
Queen of Big Band Swing: Helen Ward
ASV Living Era 5289

Lee Wiley
Lee Wiley Sings the Songs of George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter
Audiophile 1

Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “But Not for Me.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Lee Wiley’s 1939 recording of “But Not for Me” (Sings the Songs of George & Ira Gershwin & Cole Porter) is one of the tunes most historically significant early jazz recordings and it has withstood the test of time musically as well. Almost twenty years later, Ahmad Jamal recorded an instrumental trio version (Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not for Me) that wound up meeting with staggering commercial success. Two years after that, John Coltrane recorded “But Not for Me” (My Favorite Things) during his first series of recording sessions with his new quartet featuring Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner. This was a landmark performance of the tune, and the harmonic innovations therein have influenced many musicians in the years since then both in performing this tune and other standards.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Ahmad Jamal
Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not for Me
1990 MCA 9108
Original recording 1958
Jamal’s trio performs “But Not for Me” at a medium tempo with characteristic swing and sparseness. Aside from the great sounds and Jamal’s influence on other jazz musicians, this recording is also significant because of its immense commercial success, even by pop standards.
John Coltrane
My Favorite Things
1990 Atlantic/WEA 1361
Original recording 1961
This performance finds Coltrane very much in a state of transition. While he was already beginning to explore the world of modal jazz at this point, here he challengingly reharmonized “But Not for Me” in a manner that relates to the harmonic terrain he had covered with “Giant Steps.”

- Noah Baerman

Buddy Defranco
Mr Clarinet (Special Packaging)
Umvd Labels

Clarinetist DeFranco rips through a fleet and frenetic bop version of the song backed by the superb rhythm section of pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Milt Hinton, and drummer Art Blakey.
Miles Davis
Bags Groove
1991, Orig. Jazz Classics 245
Original recording, 1954, Prestige
At the top of his game and surrounded by such heavyweights as Horace Silver and Sonny Rollins, trumpeter Davis is bright and energetic on two bop readings of the song.
Billie Holiday
All Or Nothing at All
Polygram Records
Original Recording 1956
In this infectious performance with the likes of Barney Kessel and Jimmy Rowles, Holiday manages to sound joyfully swinging while still evoking the song’s wistful qualities.
Modern Jazz Quartet
1991 Original Jazz Classics 57
Original recording 1953
The MJQ’s signature mix of bluesy swing and classically-influenced refinement is in very much in evidence on this performance from early in the group’s life.
Sun Ra
Holiday for Soul Dance
1992 Evidence 22011
Original recording 1960
Those who associate Sun Ra primarily with the avant-garde may be surprised by this swinging performance. The spotlight here is on Ra’s playful piano and arranging as well as the fiery, creative tenor saxophone of John Gilmore.
Dinah Washington
Swingin' Miss 'D'
Polygram Records

Vocalist Washington delivers a dynamic and heartfelt performance of the song backed by a swinging, horn-packed, Quincy Jones Orchestra.
Giacomo Gates
Fly Rite
1998, Sharp Nine Records 1011

Gates is in the tradition of vocalese masters Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks. After an up-tempo chorus of the song he sings a scat solo created by Chet Baker’s drummer, Artt Frank, but never sung by Chet Baker. The title of the album, by the way, is Monk’s “Epistrophy,” with lyrics by Gates.
Chris Connor
He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not
1999, Collectables Jazz Classics
Original recording, 1956
Connor stepped away from her usual small group setting to record with a string orchestra, tastefully arranged by Ralph Burns. Taking the tune at a very slow tempo, Connor sets the scene with the verse and invests “But Not for Me”with wistfulness.

- Ben Maycock

Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin

Year Rank Title
1924 18 The Man I Love
1924 22 Oh, Lady Be Good!
1930 24 Embraceable You
1930 54 But Not for Me
1938 57 Love Is Here to Stay
1930 73 I Got Rhythm
1926 77 Someone to Watch Over Me
1937 86 They Can't Take That Away from Me
1937 88 A Foggy Day
1927 98 'S Wonderful!
1937 158 Nice Work If You Can Get It
1937 201 Love Walked In
1927 213 How Long Has This Been Going On?
1929 320 Strike Up the Band
1924 329 Fascinating Rhythm
1929 381 Soon
1931 419 Who Cares? (So Long As You Care for Me)
1935 420 It Ain't Necessarily So
1930 487 I've Got a Crush on You
1936 766 Let's Call the Whole Thing Off
1936 927 They All Laughed
1926 983 Maybe

George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward

Year Rank Title
1935 270 I Loves You Porgy
1935 539 Bess, You Is My Woman Now

George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and Gus Kahn

Year Rank Title
1929 189 Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away)

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