DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Fifty years ago this month, singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry released this song "Ode To Billie Joe," her enigmatic slice of life in rural Mississippi.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")
BOBBIE GENTRY: (Singing) It was the 3 of June, another sleepy, dusty delta day. I was out chopping cotton, and my brother was baling hay. And at dinnertime, we stopped and walked back to the house to eat. And Mama hollered out the back door, y'all, remember to wipe your feet. And then she said, I got some news this morning from Choctaw Ridge. Today Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
BIANCULLI: Gentry's surprise hit prompted dozens of jazz versions. Our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, gives us a breakneck tour of a few.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")
CARLA COOK: (Singing) That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today - said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way, he said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge. And she and Billie Joe was throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Carla Cook, in the year 2000, on a rare, jazz vocal version of "Ode To Billie Joe." When that song released in July 1967, became one of those monster hits no one saw coming, jazz musicians also took to it. Bobbie Gentry's cornpone saga might seem unlikely jazz material. But its spare texture and slow changes were right in step with modern trends. For instance, trumpeter Donald Byrd's "Slow Drag" was cut two months before "Billie Joe" came out, but released later.
(SOUNDBITE OF DONALD BYRD'S "SLOW DRAG")
WHITEHEAD: Oddly enough, few jazz covers of "Ode To Billie Joe" echo that "Slow Drag" feel. Bobbie Gentry's hypnotic music reinforced the dead-end insularity that her lyric describes. But jazz musicians heard the tune's repetitions as ready-made to riff and groove on. Musicians who covered it by the end of 1967 included saxophonist Willis Jackson...
(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIS JACKSON'S "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")
WHITEHEAD: ...And guitarist Howard Roberts...
(SOUNDBITE OF HOWARD ROBERTS' "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")
WHITEHEAD: ...And, in 1968, vibraphonist Cal Tjader...
(SOUNDBITE OF CAL TJADER'S "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")
WHITEHEAD: ...And guitarist Mel Brown...
(SOUNDBITE OF MEL BROWN'S "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")
WHITEHEAD: ...And organist Jimmy Smith.
(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY SMITH'S "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")
WHITEHEAD: The bluesy kernel of melody at the heart of "Ode To Billie Joe" fit the song's Mississippi Delta setting. And Bobbie Gentry had cleverly matched that tune to blues chords played in mixed-up order. It was easy to find the funk in it or just to paint some on. Even pianist Oscar Peterson gave it a whirl.
(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")
WHITEHEAD: Jazz musicians took this tale of whispered local gossip and blasted it all over town. Buddy Rich played it in fast 6/8 time with a drum solo, King Curtis played it on electric sax and Jaco Pastorius on electric bass. That's what happens when country people move to the city. Some start talking faster, pick up new mannerisms and lose their downhome accent. But jazz musicians also take special delight in subversive remakes. They're a way to assert creative autonomy and the right to exploit any material, and possibly to assert macho dominance over a womanly story.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BARTHOLOMEW'S "ODE TO BILLY JOE")
WHITEHEAD: Trumpeter Dave Bartholomew with his New Orleans big band. It's not like everyone took "Ode To Billie Joe" over the top. Guitarist Joe Pass turned it into a bossa nova. Jaki Byard played it stride piano style like it came from the 1920s. Byard's 1981 solo version kids the tune and pays due respect at the same time. It's that kind of delicate balancing act jazz musicians practice every day.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAKI BYARD'S "ODE TO BILLY JOE")
BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" Special thanks to Chuck Stevens (ph) for helping Kevin track down some of these recordings. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Lady Macbeth." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.