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Favorite Standards – My old Flame – Jazz Play Along (Aebersold Vol. 22)

Favorite Standards – My old Flame – Jazz Play Along (Aebersold Vol. 22)

My old Flame sheet music

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“My Old Flame” first appeared in the 1934 film Belle of the Nineties when it was sung by Mae West, backed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Six weeks after filming wrapped with West, Ellington recorded the tune with singer Ivie Anderson, released on Commadore 585.

It became a No. 7 hit for Guy Lombardo later that year, but it was not until the early 1940s that the tune re-emerged, entering the repertoire of the orchestras of Benny Goodman and Count Basie.

“My Old Flame” is a 1934 song composed by Arthur Johnston with lyrics by Sam Coslow for the film Belle of the Nineties. It has since become a jazz standard.

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West’s brand of sexual innuendo was her stock-in-trade, and the initial version of the film was deemed morally unacceptable by a representative from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (known as the Hays office for its chief, Will Hays). After a title change and a rewrite, the film was released as Belle of the Nineties.

“My Old Flame” has since become a jazz standard, and sung by the likes of Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington and Helen Humes, with instrumental interpretations by Charlie Parker for the Dial label in 1947, Gerry Mulligan with Chet Baker in 1953, trombonist J.J. Johnson on his 1957 album Trombone Master, Sonny Rollins on his 1993 album Old Flames and many others.

The tune was also recorded by the Stan Kenton orchestra, and Zoot Sims in a “sensitive rendition” according to Jazz Improv magazine.

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Structure

The music has an AABA structure. It is written in the key of G major, and features a change to B♭ in the ‘B’ section.

As a vehicle for West, while the lyric contains “characteristically flippant lines – ‘My old flame/ I can’t even remember his name’ – it suggests that her brazen sexuality is the carapace for a lost youthful love”: ‘But their attempts at love/ Were only imitations of/ My old flame’.

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My Old Flame Composed by Arthur Johnston , with lyrics by Sam Coslow

“My Old Flame” was written for Mae West to perform in the 1934 movie Belle of the Nineties.

West is remembered today as a risqué sex symbol who tweaked the prudish sensibilities of the prewar era, rather than as a jazz vocalist; but she had paid close attention to blues singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith in crafting her own onstage demeanor. And she was a stickler for surrounding herself with the right accompanists—in the film, she is supported by Duke Ellington’s band.

The studio execs initially balked at the extra expense of bringing in a name band, but West insisted on Ellington. Even after agreeing to her request, the honchos at Paramount tried to persuade West to allow white actors to serve as stand-ins onscreen for the black musicians playing on the soundtrack, but the actress again stood her ground.

The song is an intriguing one, jolting the listener from the very start when the opening phrase drops to linger on the fl at 7 in bar two. This song may be written in a major key, yet the psychological tone of “My Old Flame” definitely tends toward the minor mode, and I wonder if the song might have been more popular if it had made its debut in some noir film that better matched its mood.

The harmonic movement is extreme, yet the song itself comes across as lazy and unrushed. This combination—of indolence and intricacy— is an odd one, but casts a certain charm over performances of the standard.

Lyrics

My old flame
I can’t even think of his name
But it’s funny now and then
How my thoughts go flashing back again
To my old flame

My old flame
My new lovers all seem so tame
For I haven’t met a gent
So magnificent or elegant
As my old flame

I’ve met so many men
With fascinating ways
A fascinating gaze in their eyes
Some who sent me up to the skies
But their attempts at love
Were only imitations of

My old flame
I can’t even think of his name
But I’ll never be the same
Untill I discover what became
Of my old flame

I’ve met so many men
With fascinating ways
A fascinating gaze in their eyes
Some who sent me up to the skies
But their attempts at love
Were only imitations of

My old flame
I can’t even think of his name
But I’ll never be the same
Until I discover what became
Of my old flame

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