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How High the Moon (1940)

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Origin and Chart Information
“Ella Fitzgerald virtually owned ‘How High the Moon.’”

- Noah Baerman

AKAHow High Is the Moon
Rank 21
Music Morgan Lewis
Lyrics Nancy Hamilton

On February 8, 1940, Alfred Drake and Frances Comstock introduced “How High the Moon” during the Broadway revue Two for the Show. The musical would run at the Booth Theatre for 124 performances.

An instant hit, Benny Goodman’s recording of “How High the Moon,” featuring vocalist Helen Forrest, entered the pop charts a few weeks after the show opened, rising to number six. Subsequent hit recordings include:

  • Mitchell Ayres and His Fashions in Music (1940, Mary Ann Mercer, #18)
  • Stan Kenton and His Orchestra (1948, instrumental, #20)
  • Les Paul and Mary Ford (1951, #1)

Two for the Show comprised a series of song and dance numbers set in wartime London. It was just one of several Hamilton and Lewis collaborations which include the related One for the Money and Three to Get Ready. Two for the Show starred Alfred Drake, Keenan Wynn, Eve Arden, Richard Haydn, and Betty Hutton in her Broadway debut.


More on Alfred Drake at JazzBiographies.com

In 1951 guitar legend Les Paul and his vocalist wife Mary Ford hit the top of the charts with “How High the Moon” remaining there for nine weeks. The landmark recording was accomplished by using a multi-track tape recorder to overdub the guitar and vocals, allowing the duo to record a full instrumental sound with multi-part vocal harmonies. Paul is credited with perfecting the use of the multi-track tape recorder, a pioneering effort that changed the course of recorded music.


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

In a December 15, 2003, USATODAY.com interview Paul explained,

I created a little radio show I did every Friday where I could do anything I wanted. As the ideas progressed to do everything in multi-track (I invented the machine, the delay, the echo, all that) ...I took this idea of multi-track recording to Capitol Records and hit with “How High the Moon.”

After “Mockingbird Hill,” “How High the Moon” would become the second million-selling recording in 1951 for Les Paul and Mary Ford. Within the year Les Paul would also go on to collaborate with Gibson Guitar Corporation to create the extremely popular “Les Paul” model--a solid-body, electric guitar.


More on Morgan Lewis at JazzBiographies.com

Morgan Lewis wrote “How High the Moon” as a slow ballad. Because of its complex and interesting chord progressions, however, the song became a bebop favorite and is now almost always performed up-tempo. In his book Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs, William Zinsser refers to the song as belonging to “... the elite company of romantic ballads that generations of jazzmen have embraced for their melodic energy and harmonic interest ...” Countless jazz musicians have employed it as the basis for new compositions, notably Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” and John Coltrane’s (note the word play) “Satellite.”

For a time, “How High the Moon” contended for the honor of being the most recorded composition by jazz musicians. Today critics glorify the composition with such arguable titles as “the bop national anthem,” “the bop hymn,” or “the national anthem of the modern jazz movement.” Regardless of such nicknames, a title that is indisputable is “Towering Song,” an honor bestowed by the National Academy of Popular Music at the 1957 annual award ceremony.


More on Nancy Hamilton at JazzBiographies.com

More information on this tune...

Alec Wilder
American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Hardcover: 576 pages

(In his definitive book on American popular song, AlecWilder includes an analysis of the harmonic structure of “How High the Moon” which made it popular with improvisors.)
See the Reading and Research links on this page for additional references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Art Tatum/Lionel Hampton
The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 3
Pablo 2405426
Original recording 1955
On this spirited, up-tempo performance, Tatum is flanked by two of the rare musicians who were able to keep up with his virtuosity, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and drummer Buddy Rich.
Jaki Byard
2000 Prestige 24246
Original recording 1968
Byard absolutely burns on this performance, as does his “string” section of George Benson (guitar), Ray Nance (violin), Ron Carter (cello) and Richard Davis (bass).
Stephane Grappelli with McCoy Tyner
One On One
1990 Milestone 9189

Grappelli and Tyner find plenty of common ground on this interactive and energetic duo performance.

- Noah Baerman

Sarah Vaughan & Her Trio
...at Mr. Kelly's
2001 Polygram
Original recording, 1957
Vaughan accidentally starts the song off with “How high the ocean”’ and, without missing a beat, proceeds to make up her own words, scatting her way through to end with more of her own patter.
June Christy
The Jazz Sessions: The Best of June Christy
Blue Note Records 53922
Original Recording 1962
Backed by the Kenton band, vocalist Christy sweetly sings the lyric to “How High the Moon” in the ballad mode before picking up the tempo.

- Sandra Burlingame

Count Basie Orchestra
Basie in London
1990, Verve 833805
Original recording, 1956
While its title may be a red herring (the concert was performed in Sweden), the album and the song, in particular, are the genuine things. Basie has the orchestra in full force--invigorating, swinging with abandon, and tighter than a drum.
Ella Fitzgerald
75th Birthday Celebration
Original recording 1945
On this popular and extended re-make of her 1947 recording, Fitzgerald begins at a medium tempo before playing around with the lyrics and then adding some jaw-dropping scatting at a brighter tempo. This is a recording frequently cited as an example of her virtuosity.
Chet Baker
2000, Riverside
Original recording, 1959, Original Jazz Classics
Trumpeter Baker is joined by all-star talent for a melancholic reading of the ballad. Pianist Bill Evans, saxophonist Pepper Adams, guitarist Kenny Burrell and a strictly instrumental Baker make this a touchingly beautiful rendition.

- Ben Maycock

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