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What's New? (1939)

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Origin and Chart Information
“When I finally met Mr. Haggart with the letter from Warner-Chappell and photos of my meeting with them, he was really surprised...”

- Catherine O’Brien

AKAI'm Free
Rank 14
Music Bob Haggart
Lyrics Johnny Burke

Bass player and arranger Bob Haggart composed the song “I’m Free” in October of 1938 while a member of Bob Crosby’s Orchestra. Haggart wrote the solo within the song with fellow band mate, trumpeter Billy Butterfield, in mind. The band would record “I’m Free” that very day.


More on Bob Haggart at JazzBiographies.com

More on Billy Butterfield at JazzBiographies.com

The following year the publishers of the song decided “I’m Free” had potential as a vocal hit, and Johnny Burke was enlisted to write the lyrics. In an era when cute and romantic had given way to urbane, Burke devised a clever gimmick to tell a love story: casual conversational lyrics telling only one side of the conversation. The result was “What’s New?”


More on Johnny Burke at JazzBiographies.com

The song’s evolution doesn’t end there. In the 1990’s Australian jazz vocalist Catherine O’Brien was visited by piano player, journalist, and historian Dick Hughes, who told her that in his opinion, “the best trumpet solo of all time was Billy Butterfield playing the Bob Haggart composition ‘I’m Free’ recorded with the Bob Crosby Band in 1938.” O’Brien suggested Hughes write lyrics to the original title, and when he declined she spent the course of an evening and night writing her own. After tackling another Haggart song, “My Inspiration,” and gaining encouragement from local veteran jazz musicians, O’Brien contacted Bob Haggart and delighted him by singing her lyrics over the phone:

I’m free
You’ve said goodbye and I’m free

© 1994 Catherine O’Brien. All rights reserved.
(Used by permission)

It took O’Brien a couple of years to finance a trip to the United States, but in 1996 she crossed the Pacific. The singer obtained copyright permissions for publishing “What’s New?” as “I’m Free” with her lyrics and, with paperwork in hand, met with Haggart at a jazz festival and again when he was playing at Zinno’s in Greenwich Village. O’Brien explains “When I finally met Mr. Haggart with the letter from Warner-Chappell and photos of my meeting with them, he was really surprised and impressed that I had met with them and he took the letter. He told me the history of the songs and their recordings over lunch - fascinating stuff!” Catherine O’Brien recorded both “I’m Free” and “My Inspiration” on her 1996 CD LA or Busk. To see her work, visit www.catherineobrien.com.

“What’s New?” was introduced by Bob Crosby and His Orchestra with vocalist Teddy Grace in 1939, rising to number ten on the pop charts. Recordings to make the pop charts include:


More on Teddy Grace at JazzBiographies.com

More on Bob Crosby at JazzBiographies.com

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

And in 1983, “What’s New?” was the title track for Linda Ronstadt’s first of three standards CD’s with arrangements by Nelson Riddle.

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 Alec Wilder devotes two paragraphs to a musical analysis of the song.)

- Jeremy Wilson

Recommendations for This Tune
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Anthony Braxton
What's New In the Tradition
1995 Steeplechase 37003
Original recording 1974
Those unaccustomed to hearing Braxton play straight-ahead jazz will be struck by this swinging collaboration with Tete Montoliu, Neils-Henning Orsted Pedersen and Albert “Tootie” Heath. It is quirky, to be sure, but also displays his command of the jazz tradition.
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson
1997 Verve 539060
Original recording 1957
Armstrong, on vocals only, and Peterson perform this tune as a duet. Peterson’s accompaniment is unimpeachable and Armstrong shows, with little embellishment, his stunning mastery of the jazz standard.
Wes Montgomery, Wynton Kelly
Smokin' at the Half Note
Original recording 1965
Montgomery’s lyrical use of octaves makes for a wonderfully gentle and melodic version of “What’s New.” He is aided by Wynton Kelly’s trio with Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb.
Billie Holiday
Music For Torching
1995 Verve 527455
Original recording 1955
Holiday, late in her career, offers a world-weary and achingly beautiful “What’s New,” featuring the alto saxophone of Benny Carter.
Stan Kenton
Contemporary Concepts
2003 Blue Note 42310
Original recording 1955
Arranger Bill Holman’s influential style is heard here in its early peak on this exciting arrangement of “What’s New.” This is one of the Kenton band’s most swinging performances, thanks in no small part to the propulsive drumming of Mel Lewis.

- Noah Baerman

Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra Sings Only for the Lonely
Capitol 94756
Original recording, 1958
Whether or not you consider Sinatra a jazz singer is beside the point. This early “concept” album with Nelson Riddle deserves mention for its excellence.

- Sandra Burlingame

Milt Jackson
Wizard of the Vibes
Blue Note Records 32140
Original recording 1952
Vibraphone master Milt Jackson makes the difficult look easy with this wonderful bop rendition of the song.

- Ben Maycock

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