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On Green Dolphin Street (1947)

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Origin and Chart Information
“...this definitive version, courtesy of Davis on muted trumpet, John Coltrane on sax, and Bill Evans at the piano ... unfolds at a leisurely pace.”

- Ben Maycock

AKAGreen Dolphin Street
Rank 25
Music Bronislau Kaper
Lyrics Ned Washington

“On Green Dolphin Street” was introduced as the main theme of the 1947 MGM film Green Dolphin Street. The movie was based on British novelist Elizabeth Goudge’s 1944 book Green Dolphin Country, published that same year in the United States as Green Dolphin Street.

Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984) enjoyed a prolific career writing both fiction and nonfiction, including seventeen novels for adults and children. Green Dolphin Street was her sixth effort and told the story of a young man in 1800’s New Zealand who sends to the British Isles for the woman he loves. In an act of carelessness, he addresses his letter to her sister with whom he also shares a past. The story centers on the trials of the young man and his bride as they attempt to make the marriage work. Critics routinely praise Goudge for her ability to graphically portray characters and landscapes, but, as a New York Times reviewer said, Green Dolphin Street lacked “the sterner virtues of good literature.”

Those “sterner virtues” were not at the top of the motion picture company’s list when MGM awarded Goudge $200,000 as the winner of its annual Novel Award. It was the only such winner, however, to find its way onto the silver screen.

At a lengthy two hours and twenty minutes, Green Dolphin Street starred Lana Turner, Van Heflin, Donna Reed, Richard Hart, and Frank Morgan. In his book, The MGM Story, John Douglas Eames says of the film,

It had everything, i.e. too much for a single movie: a glorious wallow in family conflict, triangle romance, Maori uprising in old New Zealand, earthquake, tidal wave, pathos and bathos.

The movie is generally panned by today’s critics, but war-weary audiences were ready for an extravaganza. It was the top box office draw of 1947 and won Academy Awards for visual and sound effects.

In 1947, with a string of successful songs and movie scores behind him, Bronislau Kaper was enlisted to write the soundtrack for the production. Suprisingly, the theme was not a hit, even with Ned Washington’s lyrics. It would be a decade before Miles Davis’ recording would establish the composition as a jazz classic.


More on Bronislau Kaper at JazzBiographies.com

More on Ned Washington at JazzBiographies.com

On Green Dolphin Street is also the title of a 2003 novel by Sebastian Faulks, in which the heroine hears Miles Davis playing the song in the background when she moves to New York’s Greenwich Village in 1960.

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

Because it is a difficult song for a singer to keep in tune, “On Green Dolphin Street” is most often performed as an instrumental. Kaper’s composition reflects the bittersweet theme of Goudge’s story. Writing lyrics for the song was undoubtedly a challenge for Ned Washington, but he supported the mood with a tale of lost love. The introductory verse describes a past romance and culminates with “I never think of this without a sigh.” The refrain wistfully recalls unforgettable nights while falling in love, memories of which lead to the declaration, “I could kiss the ground on Green Dolphin Street.” The gesture may seem a bit impulsive in the context of a failed love affair, but how else does one wind up a song written for a movie about a street? -JW

Musical analysis of “On Green Dolphin Street”

Original Key C major
Form A – B1 – A – B2
Tonality Major throughout
Movement “A” consists of a downward arpeggiated figure outlining the chord and approached by step. “B” is generally a downward skip followed by ascending step-wise movement.

Comments     (assumed background)

This tune is slow moving, melodically and harmonically. There are many sustained notes in the “A” section and harmonies that rarely change more frequently than one per measure (often, every two measures). For this reason, the song affords the novice player an opportunity to explore improvisational ideas in depth without having to worry so much about frequent chord changes. As far as traditional voice-leading, there is little evidence of this in the “A” section. Normally, a I chord that becomes a i (parallel minor) chord resolves down a step, not upwards to II, although the bII chord resolving to I in mm.10-11 could be construed as a tri-tone substitution for V7.

The first “B” section, however, uses a fairly standard progression of ii7 – V7 – I in two different keys with the second a minor third up from the first (requiring the new key only to drop half a step to a viiø7 in order to return to the original key). The second “B” uses several common tone chords to move the harmony forward for the turnaround (mm. 25-32). Most of the movement is in the bass, which can completely change the tonal characteristics of the three or four note chord above it. For example, in measure 25, the chord is Dm. By moving the bass down to B natural, the Dm triad becomes a Bm7(b5)–a ii eventually leading to A minor–after which the same thing happens again, starting a variation of the circle of fifths that gets back up to C major. Note the bass movement in the examples below:

mm. 25-26: Dm – Dm7/C – Bm7(b5) – E7(b9)

mm. 27-28: Am – Am/G – F#m7(b5) – B7(b9)

mm. 28-30: Em – A7 – Dm – G7

Thus, the “home key” of C major is easily reached in a manner that makes sense to the ear. Awareness of this will facilitate success in mastering this tune.

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

I like “Green Dolphin Street” for the easy way you can improvise on it. On a tune like this I would not get too hung up on the lyrics, because they don’t knock me out. But I love the easy flow of the changes and melody. I like the way Miles [Davis] approached it, so my improv becomes my own lyrics. Even though I am not singing new lyrics, the originals are in my heart and come out in my solo.

Sheila Jordan, jazz vocalist www.sheilajordanjazz.com

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Soundtrack information
“On Green Dolphin Street” was included in these films:
  • Green Dolphin Street (1947, Mel Torme)
  • The Prize (1963)
  • Zigzag (1970, Anita O’Day)
  • The Score (2001, Cassandra Wilson)
Free Chord Changes for this Tune
Chord changes and downloadable tracks at PlayJazzNow.com
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Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Free Chord Changes

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

Jazz History Notes

Although Miles Davis’ 1958 recording is considered by many to be the best of the earlier versions of the tune, several recordings prior to Miles’ are worthy of consideration. An interesting version by trombonist Urbie Green from 1955, taken at a ballad tempo, features his silken-toned trombone with pianist Jimmy Lyon on the seldom-heard-in-jazz instrument, the celeste.

The 1957 recording by the Poll Winners (named because each musician placed first in Downbeat magazine’s readers’ poll in 1956) with guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Shelly Manne, is almost the template version for the tune, taken at a medium tempo with a Latin feel.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Urbie Green
East Coast Jazz, Vol. 6
Rhino Records 76686

Barney Kessel, Ray Brown, Shelly Manne
The Poll Winners
Contemporary 7535
Original recording 1957
Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “On Green Dolphin Street.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

For most modern jazz musicians, the 1958 performance of “On Green Dolphin Street” by Miles Davis and his sextet (’58 Miles Featuring Stella by Starlight) provides the template for how to interpret the tune. As can be heard here, the A-sections are generally approached with some sort of vamp (often with a Latin feel, though not here), while the contrasting sections are played with a looser swing feeling. This formula works to utter perfection here, thanks to the tight, swinging rhythm section and the remarkable solos of Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Miles Davis and John Coltrane
Essential Live in Stockholm Vol.1
2000 Disk Union 739385
Original recording 1960
This recording offers a live exploration of what by this point was a warhorse for the Davis group. Coltrane really stretches out, showing the restlessness that would soon lead him to form his own group.
Joe Henderson
1994 Verve 23657
Original recording 1968
Released for the first time in 1994, this live recording is vintage Henderson, energetic and endlessly creative. He is joined by the rhythm section of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, who had by this point recorded the tune as a trio, as well as performing it countless times with Miles Davis (including the live recording listed above).
Milt Jackson and Oscar Peterson
Very Tall
1999 Verve 559830
Original recording 1961
Jackson joins forces with Peterson here for the first time on a recording. The results are predictably swinging and infectious.
Mark Murphy
1994, Original Jazz Classics 141
Original recording, 1961
Ernie Wilkins’ tasty brass arrangement sets the tone for this sly, self-assured reading by the young Murphy.
Eric Dolphy
Outward Bound
1999 Prestige 8236
Original recording 1960
Bass clarinet is the instrument of choice on this stroll down “Green Dolphy Street,” with a group also including Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and Jaki Byard on piano.

- Noah Baerman

Walter Norris
Lush Life
1990, Concord 4457

Pianist Norris, who has lived and taught in Berlin for over 20 years, was persuaded to record for Concord while visiting California. This recording led to more and to several tours, reacquainting him with American audiences. This CD, which includes five of the top standards, shows his considerable technical prowess and creative genius to advantage. His reharmonization of “On Green Dolphin Street” is just one of the highlights.

- Sandra Burlingame

Nancy Wilson, George Shearing
Swingin's Mutual
Blue Note Records

There’s great interplay on this track as vocalist Wilson and pianist Shearing deliver a swinging version of the song. Wilson’s romantically airy vocals work perfectly with Shearing’s deft piano.
Al Grey
Snap Your Fingers
2003, Verve
Original recording, 1962
Trombonist Grey leads the group through an upbeat, bop version of the song. There is a particularly bright spotlight on vibes player Bobby Hutcherson.
Miles Davis
On Green Dolphin Street
1991, Sony 47835
Original recording, 1958

The song’s popularity among the jazz set is understandable after listening to this definitive version, courtesy of Davis on muted trumpet, John Coltrane on sax, and Bill Evans at the piano. The song unfolds at a leisurely pace.

Bill Evans
On Green Dolphin Street
1995, Milestone Records 9235
Original recording, 1959
This is a concise and elegant reading by pianist Evans. Bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones round out the trio which plays with breathtaking synergy.

- Ben Maycock

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

Bronislau Kaper and Ned Washington

Year Rank Title
1947 25 On Green Dolphin Street

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