Keeping the GAS (Great American Songbook) Flame Burning: “Darn That Dream”

By Roger Crane, the Song Scout

Background/Discussion
Jimmy Van Heusen wrote “Darn That Dream” for the unsuccessful Broadway production Swingin’ the Dream. The original show incorporated artwork and sets by Walt Disney, music by the Benny Goodman Sextet, and an extravagant cast of 150 people, including Louis Armstrong, Maxine Sullivan and the Dandridge Sisters. Despite the lavish production, Swingin’ the Dream was notoriously unpopular. It was canceled after only 13 performances and lost $100,000 (serious money back in 1939.) The show, set in 1890 New Orleans, was a reworking of Shakespeare’s comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Give the illustrious performers and music one could surmise that the show deserved a better audience. Perhaps it was not ready for a fully integrated cast.

However Van Heusen’s unusual and lovely “Darn That Dream” survived and has become a staple of the Great American Songbook, particularly among jazz-influenced performers. Just a year before the opening of Swingin’ the Dream, the 25 year old Van Heusen had been working as a staff pianist in the famous “Tin Pan Alley” and had shown little of the talent that eventually garnered him 14 Oscar nominations. But “Darn That Dream” has become more popular with jazz performers than any of his movie hits. Even before the show closed, two leading swing bands – Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey – recorded it and both versions sold well. In fact, Goodman’s, which featured a vocal by Mildred Bailey, reached the top of the chart. The song fell out of circulation during the 1940s but Miles Davis later revived it for his famous Birth of the Cool recording and it has stayed in the jazz repertoire ever since. Other memorable jazz-informed versions include Billie Holiday, Ahmad Jamal, Thelonius Monk, Ella Fitzgerald and Bill Evans (with guitarist Jim Hall).

Typical of many Van Heusen’s compositions the melody of “Darn That Dream” is built around the harmony. That melody is complex in that its chromatic character makes the notes hard to find. After an exotic, winding trip down tonal paths seldom heard, the contrasting simplicity of the bridge, which moves instantly into E flat from the parent key of G, is almost a relief. The well-written lyric is by band-leader Eddie DeLange. The singer dreams of her beloved but upon awakening he is not there and she curses the dream. The melody effectively matches the yearning sentiments of DeLange’s words. In closing the bridge, his text makes light of the entire situation saying, “Just to change the mood I’m in, I’d welcome a nice old nightmare.” The reference to the change of mood is clever, using the turn from frustration to wry humor to coincide perfectly with Van Heusen’s change of key.

A Few Sample Recordings

One of earliest recordings by Benny Goodman with vocal by Mildred Bailey, 1939

Dianne Reeves delivers a beautiful rendition with accompaniment by guitarist Romero Lubambo. This is from Reeves’ 2003 A Little Moonlight recording.

Miles Davis from his Birth of the Cool collection of recordings made in 1949 and 1950. . Interestingly the featured voice is that of vocalist Kenny “Pancho” Hagood, whose singing is lushly backed by Gerry Mulligan’s arrangement.

Ahmad Jamal trio (piano, bass, guitar) from his 1955 Chamber Music of the New Jazz recording,

Billie Holiday in 1957 with Ben Webster, tenor, Jimmy Rowles, piano and Barney Kessel on guitar. This recording is on various compilations.

Bill Evans with Jim Hall from their beautiful 1963 Undercurrent CD

* * * * * * * * * * * *
You may also wish to investigate worthy recordings by the following – Dexter Gordon, Joe Wilder (with Hank Jones), Stan Kenton (with arrangement by Lennie Niehaus), Patti Page, Chet Baker, Charles McPherson, Sarah Vaughan (with Thad Jones), Tony Bennett, Art Pepper (one of his final recordings), Clifford Brown and many more.

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