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How "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" Went from Show Tune to Jazz Standard

“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’, ” “My Funny Valentine,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “The Sound of Music." With over 900 songs to his name, composer Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) left an indelible mark on American musical theater. His songs became an important part of the Great American Songbook, in part because jazz artists and singers loved to re-invent them. If Rodgers had had his way, though, he wouldn’t have let anyone else change a note. Why not?

Rodgers adored classical music, especially Brahms, and was an avid symphony concert-goer. Perhaps that's why he famously hated other musicians tampering with his tunes — nobody would tamper with Brahms, would they? But his songs’ enormous popularity meant they were constantly in the ether, and in other musicians’ consciousness. Even though he didn't like it, his songs became perfect vehicles for the musical transformations that occur in jazz.

One vehicle in particular sparked other musicians' imaginations; jazz people couldn't stop tinkering with  a certain surrey, topped with silk fringe.

WRTI's Debra Lew Harder and Bob Craig look at the ingenious ways jazz musicians transformed Rodgers and Hammerstein's “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” These newer models show how improvisation drives and defines the essence of jazz.

Radio script:

[MUSIC: Clip-Clop intro, "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," original movie soundtrack from Oklahoma!]

Debra Lew Harder: In 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein teamed up to write their first show together. For a song in Act One of Oklahoma! Hammerstein handed Rodgers lyrics whose words... 

Bob Craig: ...suggested to him clip-clop...

DLH: ...and inspired a melody...

BC: ...that was based on the repetition of one note.

[MUSIC: Verse, "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," original movie soundtrack from Oklahoma! sung by Gordon MacCrae]

DLH: The show became a hit, and so did the song "The Surrey with the Fringe on the Top." Eight years later, jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal turned that repeated note into a cheeky trill on his 1951 debut album.

[MUSIC: Ahmad Jamal, "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top."]

Not to be outdone, Miles Davis... 

BC: ...who loved what Ahmad Jamal was doing, would go on to record a lot of the same songs, including Surrey With the Fringe on Top.

[MUSIC: Miles Davis, "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top."]

DLH: Jazz vocalists took their turn with it too, including Beverly Kenney:

[MUSIC: Beverly Kenney, "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top"]

DLH: AndBlossom Dearie took the clip-clop down to a slow tempo.

[MUSIC: Blossom Dearie, "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top"]

DLH: Was Rodgers flattered by all the versions of "Surrey?" No -- he famously hated people tampering with his melodies, but...

BC: It was a losing battle, because once people got a hold of it, they said, let's face it, we're going to do some creative things with it.

DLH: Rodgers thought his Broadway tune with seven repeated notes could not be improved upon, but improvisations proved something else: the art of jazz. As Miles put it, "don't play what's there, play what's not there."

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.