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I Didn't Know What Time It Was (1939)

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Origin and Chart Information
“Tatum’s piano playing is so rich and colorful that the listener tends to forget that this is a solo effort.”

- Ben Maycock

Rank 82
Music Richard Rodgers
Lyrics Lorenz Hart

This Rodgers and Hart song was introduced by Benny Goodman, with vocalist Louise Tobin, on the Columbia label on September 13, 1939. It entered the charts on October 28, lasting for 13 weeks and peaking at sixth position. On December 23, Jimmy Dorsey & His Orchestra’s version hit the charts for 2 weeks and rose to thirteenth position.


More on Benny Goodman at JazzBiographies.com

More on Louise Tobin at JazzBiographies.com

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

Around the same time, Marcy Westcott and Richard Kollmar sang “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” in the Broadway musical for which it was written, Too Many Girls, which opened at the Imperial Theater on October 18, 1939, and ran for 249 performances.

In 1940, Rodgers and Hart wrote the score for another musical, Higher and Higher, which included the song “It Never Entered My Mind.” The lyrics for both of these songs have two things in common: both are examples of the then current trend to use a common expression as the key phrase or song title; and the subject of the lyrics of both songs are said to reflect Lorenz Hart’s alcoholism.

According to Rodgers, Hart would write his lyrics after Rodgers had written the music, whereas Oscar Hammerstein would present the lyrics to Rodgers before the music was written. Getting Hart to write was not often easy. After Hart missed several meetings, Rodgers would sometimes go to Hart’s apartment and start playing the piano in an attempt to coax lyrics from the reticent Hart.


More on Richard Rodgers at JazzBiographies.com

More on Lorenz Hart at JazzBiographies.com

In Listening to Classic American Popular Songs Allen Forte says of Rodger’s music, “This temporal wandering in the tonal space directly corresponds to the confusion expressed in the lyric, ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.’” It is a matter of conjecture, then, whether the confusion reflects Hart’s alcoholism, Rodgers’ tonal wandering, or both.

The successful Broadway musical was ripe for screen adaptation. In the 1940 film, Too Many Girls, Lucille Ball replaced Broadway’s Marcy Westcott, although Ball’s voice was dubbed by Trudy Erwin. A Cuban drummer named Desi Arnaz was recruited from the Broadway cast, and it was on the movie set that Lucy and Desi met.

More information on this tune...

Allen Forte
Listening to Classic American Popular Songs
Yale University Press; Book & CD edition
Hardcover: 219 pages

(Author/educator Forte devotes eight pages to the Rodgers & Hart song, including its history and analyses of the both the music and the lyric which is reprinted in the book. It also has a companion CD.)

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” has long been a favorite of jazz instrumentalists and vocalists. In his book Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs William Zinsser states, “The contrapuntal bass line … invites an instrumentalist or singer to improvise the melody, secure in the elegant safety net below.” -JW

Musical analysis of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”

Original Key One sharp. Great ambiguity between E minor and G major through much of the song. Ends in G major.
Form A1 – A2 – B – A2 with four measure extension
Tonality Swings back and forth between major and minor
Movement “A” contains many rhythmic repeated notes with upper, lower and passing embellishing tones. “B” is a descending tetrachord followed by descending minor-third figure; this sequence repeats.

Comments     (assumed background)

Part of what keeps this song from becoming “tonicized” is Rodger’s choice of the 11th as the important melody note over several minor chords. Since the 11th is closely related to the interval of a fourth (being the fourth an octave higher), it is inherently unstable from a harmonic standpoint. In the “B” section, the G major harmony is heard, but the important sustained melodic tone turns out to be the 6th. While more stable than the 11th, it is less stable than the root, 3rd or 5th, and what follows (a descending scale over Am, going to B7 and ending on Em) does not serve to strengthen the sense of G tonality. It is especially important to have a thorough knowledge of the tune’s “head” and to find as many guide tone lines as possible.
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).
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Soundtrack information
“I Didn't Know What Time It Was” was included in these films:
  • Too Many Girls (1940, Lucille Ball dubbed by Trudy Erwin)
  • Pal Joey (1959, Frank Sinatra)
  • A League of Their Own (1992, James Taylor)
Reading and Research
Additional information for "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" may be found in:

Allen Forte
Listening to Classic American Popular Songs
Yale University Press; Book & CD edition
Hardcover: 219 pages

(8 pages including the following types of information: history, lyric analysis, music analysis and song lyrics. (Book includes CD).)

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.)

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

(3 paragraphs including the following types of information: music analysis.)

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

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

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

By the advent of the long-playing record in the 1950s, record producers were exploring the potential of the medium by recording longer works. No longer constrained to creating a performance in a mere three minutes, musicians were allowed to explore a piece in a more detailed and relaxed manner.

Record producer and jazz impresario Norman Granz brought together a remarkable group of musicians for his Verve label in 1956. Aptly named “The Jazz Giants,” the group was an ensemble of swing-era greats: Roy Eldridge (trumpet); Lester Young (tenor saxophone); Vic Dickenson (trombone); Teddy Wilson (piano); Jo Jones (drums). One of the highlights of the recording is the splendid version of “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was.” Taken at a ballad tempo, it is one of Lester Young’s best performances.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Vic Dickenson, et al.
The Jazz Giants, 1956
Polygram Records 825672

Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “I Didn't Know What Time It Was.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Billie Holiday’s world-weary 1957 version of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” (All or Nothing at All) stands out as one of the tune’s most noteworthy ballad interpretations and one of its greatest vocal renditions. Nowadays, the tune just as often performed at a medium tempo, Sonny Clark’s classic trio version, also from 1957 (Sonny Clark Trio), is the definitive performance in this vein.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
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Sonny Clark
Sonny Clark Trio
2002 Blue Note 33774
Original recording 1957
Until his untimely death, pianist Clark was poised to become a major heir to Bud Powell as a dominant bebop-inspired pianist. One of his most influential and enduring moments can be found on this tight, swinging recording of this tune along with bassist Paul Chambers and drummer “Philly” Joe Jones.
Billie Holiday
All Or Nothing at All
Polygram Records
Original Recording 1956
Holiday’s later years are well-documented on this performance featuring the stellar backing of a group including pianist Jimmy Rowles and saxophonist Ben Webster. Her voice is scratchy, but the command and emotion are striking, as she injects a great deal of pathos into the tune.
Art Blakey
1991 Original Jazz Classics 90
Original recording 1963
In the mid-1960s, saxophonist Wayne Shorter would exert a tremendous influence with his interpretations of his own harmonically modern ballads. Here we rewind a couple years to the height of his tenure in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers to hear his interpretation of a standard ballad. The results are both beautiful and historically enlightening.

- Noah Baerman

Benny Golson
Groovin' With Golson
1991, Original Jazz Classics 226
Original recording, 1959
Tenor saxophonist Golson leads a quintet featuring trombonist Curtis Fuller and drummer Art Blakey on a spirited rendition of the song which allows the horn men some valuable time in the forefront.
Art Tatum
Best of Solo Masterpieces
2003, Pablo Records
Original recording, 1955
Tatum’s piano playing is so rich and colorful that the listener tends to forget that this is a solo effort. The pianist’s reading allows an insightful look into the nuts and bolts of the song.
Cassandra Wilson
Blue Skies
2002 Winter & Winter 919018
Original recording 1988
Vocalist Wilson shows her versatility and interpretive skill with this delightful performance. Mulgrew Miller is the star behind the scenes, contributing some modern, soulful piano and a very hip arrangement.
Cedar Sweet Basil Trio: Walton, Carter, Higgins
St Thomas

This performance is a definitive example of the Sweet Basil Trio, a name given to pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Billy Higgins, who often played together at the New York club by that name. The tight arrangement and dramatic transition from a relaxed, open groove to full-on swing are irresistible and are trademarks of this highly sympathetic unit.
Buster Williams
Something More
1995 In + Out 7004
Original recording 1989
Bassist Williams presents a spirited performance here of one of his signature tunes. The clever and moody arrangement is helped along by an all-star band featuring saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock.
Brad Mehldau
The Art of the Trio Vol.1
1997 Warner Bros. 46260

In the hands of pianist Mehldau and trio the song takes on a whole new life. Mehldau’s improvisation is wildly imaginative while remaining grounded, and the group plays with a symbiosis that is stunning. The tune is interpreted in 5/4 time, yet feels totally relaxed.
Dorothy Dandridge
Smooth Operator
1999, Polygram
Original recording, 1961
While not the strongest singer Dandridge’s voice is suited to the song, giving it a late-night, gin-joint feel. The real treat here is her “backing band” of Oscar Peterson on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and Alvin Stoller on drums.

- Ben Maycock

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

Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers

Year Rank Title
1937 6 My Funny Valentine
1939 82 I Didn't Know What Time It Was
1935 91 My Romance
1934 94 Blue Moon
1932 118 Lover
1938 123 This Can't Be Love
1935 124 Little Girl Blue
1940 181 It Never Entered My Mind
1937 208 Where or When
1937 222 Have You Met Miss Jones
1938 228 Spring Is Here
1927 246 My Heart Stood Still
1927 278 Thou Swell
1936 284 There's a Small Hotel
1938 289 Falling in Love with Love
1928 310 You Took Advantage of Me
1941 335 Bewitched
1937 336 The Lady Is a Tramp
1932 337 Isn't It Romantic
1926 429 Blue Room
1932 449 You Are Too Beautiful
1940 455 I Could Write a Book
1925 489 Manhattan
1935 527 It's Easy to Remember (and so Hard to Forget)
1929 536 With a Song in My Heart
1930 671 Dancing on the Ceiling
1936 825 Glad to Be Unhappy
1942 842 Ev'rything I've Got (Belongs to You)
1942 908 Wait Till You See Her

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