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Mack the Knife (1928)

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Origin and Chart Information
Louis Armstrong generally gets credit for the first jazz version of this tune, recorded in 1955.”

- Chris Tyle

AKAThe Ballad of Mack the Knife
AKAMoritat
Rank 110
Music Kurt Weill
Lyrics Marc Blitzstein
Bertolt Brecht

This ballad was part of composer Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera which was an adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera (1728) by John Gay, English playwright and societal satirist (1685-1732). The lead character of Gay’s opera is named Captain MacHeath, a gentleman who prefers the company of cutthroats and whores. The central theme of The Beggar’s Opera, the most popular play of the 18th century, is that the same characters inhabit prisons and governmental positions.

In the 1920’s Europe was recovering from World War I and Kurt Weill was interested in the Music for the People movement. He teamed with Marxist poet Bertolt Brecht to translate into German, adapt, and update The Beggar’s Opera with MacHeath becoming a gangster named Mackie Messier or Mack the Knife. “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” was originally entitled “Moritat,” meaning “murder song” (“mord” meaning murder and “tat” meaning deed), and it was positioned just after the Overture so as to establish Mack’s evil nature early on in the production. It was sung by a street singer who pointed to images of the crimes Mackie has committed such as arson, rape and murder.

 

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Like The Beggar’s Opera, The Threepenny Opera or Die Dreigroschenoper, as it was originally titled, dealt with corruption in modern government, contributing to its immense success when it opened in 1928. “Moritat” became a big hit in Berlin in the 1930s. After running for thousands of performances in Germany and other countries, The Threepenny Opera failed on Broadway in 1933. However, it was performed at Brandeis University in 1952 under the baton of Leonard Bernstein with new English lyrics by Marc Blitzstein. It moved off-Broadway in 1954, ran for 94 performances, reopened in 1955 and ran for 2611 more with Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya as prostitute Jenny Diver. MGM pressed the cast recording, the first for an off-Broadway production, but somewhat sanitized the “Mack” lyrics for family fare.

 

More on Marc Blitzstein at JazzBiographies.com
 

In his book Stardust Melodies Will Friedwald tells the story of how and why the song entered the jazz repertoire and became such a hit in America. An executive at Columbia Records, George Avakian, thought “Mack the Knife” would make a great jazz instrumental. After being turned down by several noted musicians, he convinced trad jazz bandleader and trombonist Turk Murphy of its potential. Turk arranged the song and, in turn, recommended Louis Armstrong as the vocalist. When MGM heard that Armstrong was going to record “Mack,” they rushed Dick Hyman into the studio to record it on his “harpsichord piano.” Avakian recorded Murphy’s instrumental version, Lotte Lenya singing it in German for the European market, and the Armstrong version. Both the Hyman and Armstrong recordings were released in 1955, but Armstrong’s jazzier version is the one that has endured. A few months after these two releases Chappell Music officially changed the name of the song to “Mack the Knife.”

Both Bing Crosby and the Les Paul/Mary Ford duo jumped on the bandwagon and successfully recorded the song. But it was Vegas showman Bobby Darin who brought “attitude” and swing to the Richard Wess arrangement and won a Grammy in 1959. Ella Fitzgerald’s 1960 rendition also won a Grammy.

Some liberties have been taken with Blitzstein’s lyrics, and Blitzstein himself made some changes in the process of translating. “Whenever he translated a line and came up a beat short, he threw in the word ‘dear,’ mostly just to take up the space,” according to Friedwald. “Dear,” of course, became “Babe” in the slangier Darin version.

Vocalists Frank Sinatra and Anita O’Day recorded “Mack” as did a variety of jazz musicians, among them saxophonist Sonny Rollins, vibist Lionel Hampton, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and violinist Stephane Grappelli . Friedwald takes particular note in his book of Eartha Kitt’s menacing version and mentions other stage revivals of the production and the use of “Mack the Knife” in several films. Dee Dee Bridgewater included it in her tribute to Ella in 1997, and most recently pianist Roger Kellaway, who was Darin’s musical director for two years, featured it on his Grammy-nominated 2005 CD Remembering Bobby Darin.

More information on this tune...

Will Friedwald
Stardust Melodies
Pantheon; 1st edition
Hardcover: 416 pages


(Friedwald thoroughly examines a dozen great songs in this book, devoting 27 pages to “Mack,” including its history, performers and recordings, background on the songwriters, and analyses of both the lyric and music.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Sandra Burlingame

Music and Lyrics Analysis

Will Friedwald, in his book Stardust Melodies, credits the popularity of “Mack the Knife” to the simplicity of the song’s structure and melody and to Weill’s familiarity with American jazz, unusual for Europeans of his day. “Although Weill chose not to end on the tonic note C (preferring instead the mediant, A), he does use the conventional harmonic progression of I-II-V-I, which perhaps explains why the song seems so at home with American pop and jazz performers.” --S. Burlingame

Musical analysis of “Mack the Knife”

Original KeyC major
Form A - B
TonalityPrimarily major; “B” shifts to relative minor for two measures
Movement“A” ascends by skips and steps; “B” descends by skips and leaps

Comments     (assumed background)

The slow melodic rhythm is based on a single motif consisting of a dotted quarter and an eight note on beats 3-4, followed by a half note and what is essentially a whole note (actually a half in beats 3-4 tied to a half in beats 1-2 in the following measure). Chord progression of “A” is I - ii7 - V7 - I, shifting to relative minor in “B” and returning to the tonic via a ii7 - V7(sus4) - I sequence. Another good jamming tune for the novice due to its slow melodic and harmonic rhythm and the absence of complicated, quickly shifting harmonies.
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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Reading and Research
Additional information for "Mack the Knife" may be found in:

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 performers.)

Thomas S. Hischak
The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 552 pages


(1 paragraph including the following types of information: Broadway productions, film productions, history, performers and style discussion.)

Will Friedwald
Stardust Melodies
Pantheon; 1st edition
Hardcover: 416 pages


(27 pages including the following types of information: history, lyric analysis, music analysis, performers, recordings and song writer discussion.)
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Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Reading & Research

Jazz History Notes
Getting Started
CD Recommendations
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Jazz History Notes

Louis Armstrong generally gets credit for the first jazz version of this tune, recorded in 1955. But his old rival from New Orleans, clarinetist/soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, beat him to the punch a year earlier, recording the tune in France, sans vocal, as “La Complainte de Mackie” (LP: Le Double Disque D’Or De Sidney Bechet, LDA 16001, 1976.) (It’s possible Bechet first heard the tune in Berlin in 1929.) Nevertheless, Armstrong had been coerced to record it by producer George Avakian and enlisted the arranging talents of friend and trombonist/bandleader Turk Murphy. Murphy, an expert in early jazz, was offered a cut on the royalties, but neither he nor Armstrong thought much of the song, and Turk chose to take a flat fee. “The biggest mistake of my life,” he was known to say in later years after Armstrong’s version sold one million plus.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian


Louis Armstrong
The Definitive Collection
Hip-O Records

iTunes
Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “Mack the Knife.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Many people associate “Mack the Knife” with Louis Armstrong, and rightfully so, given the success of his delightful 1955 recording of the tune (The Definitive Collection). Ella Fitzgerald is another definitive interpreter of the tune, which she recorded numerous times. Her 1960 live recording in France (Mack the Knife: The Complete Ella in Berlin) is an enlightening document of her approach to the tune, not to mention her most famous and perhaps most fun version. Among the many great instrumental versions, Sonny Rollins’ 1956 recording (Saxophone Colossus), which uses the alternate title “Moritat,” is a tour de force that any serious jazz student or fan should hear.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Sonny Rollins
Saxophone Colossus
Prestige
Original recording 1956

“Mack the Knife,” here referred to it by the alternate title of “Moritat,” is like putty in the hands of saxophonist Rollins. His mastery of the tune’s harmonies is comprehensive and his creativity and swing seem boundless on this classic performance.

iTunes
Paul Smith Quartet, Ella Fitzgerald
Mack the Knife: The Complete Ella in Berlin
Polygram Records
Original recording 1960

This live recording of “Mack the Knife” is one of Fitzgerald’s best-loved works and a truly classic example of her wit and creativity. Not long into the song, she forgets the lyrics and proceeds to improvise the words from there on. The results are clever and endearing, and her sense of swing does not suffer one iota from the unexpected gaffe.

iTunes
Oscar Peterson, Clark Terry
Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One
Verve
Original recording 1964

Peterson’s usual trio of the era, with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen, is augmented here by the trumpet of Clark Terry. The results, not surprisingly, are joyous and exceptionally swinging.

iTunes
Wayne Shorter
Introducing Wayne Shorter
Vee-Jay
Original recording 1959

Tenor saxophonist Shorter would have a profound impact on modern jazz in the 1960s through his work with Miles Davis and on his own recordings. This recording catches him in the early stage of his creative development, right around the time that he joined Art Blakey’s band, and one can catch glimpses of the distinct sound that he would ultimately develop. The rhythm section of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb keeps things swinging.

Andre Previn
A Touch of Elegance
Sony
Original recording 1961

Pianist Previn provides a creative, swinging solo here and the angular quartet arrangement is surprising and fun. The real significance of this recording, however, lies in the solo by trombonist J.J. Johnson. Johnson stands as perhaps the dominant influence in the jazz trombone lineage, and this is one of his greatest solos. He manipulates rhythms and develops melodic themes masterfully to create a remarkably dramatic improvisation.

iTunes

- Noah Baerman

Ella Fitzgerald
At Juan-Les Pins (Dig)
Umvd Labels
Original Recording 1964
Fitzgerald unequivocally owns this song. This live recording stands out for the intensity with which she attacks the lyrics and the support given her by trumpeter Roy Eldridge and pianist Tommy Flanagan.
iTunes
Tito Puente
Mucho Puente
2004 Sony BMG Music Norte 13616
Original recording 1957
A dreamy guitar/vibe passage leads into a full-blown Latin reading of the song. Puente’s version is quirky, energetic, and a whole lot of fun.
iTunes
Jimmy Giuffre
The Easy Way
2003 Verve 440065508
Original recording 1959
This excellent exploration of the song has Giuffre on clarinet with Jim Hall on guitar and Ray Brown on bass. The three take the song to a whole new level, and, while it remains recognizable, its improvisatory potential has been exposed.
iTunes
Roger Kellaway Trio
Remembering Bobby Darin
2005 IPO

Pianist Kellaway captures the innate quirkiness of the Weill composition by opening and closing on a toy piano. This touch suits the song perfectly.
iTunes
Jessica Williams
Higher Standards
1997 Candid Records 79736

The pianist takes “Mack” from Berlin to Bogota for a refreshing change of pace in this freewheeling version of the song.
iTunes

- Ben Maycock

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

Marc Blitzstein, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill

Year Rank Title
1928 110 Mack the Knife

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