Play “It Could Happen To You” for Jazz Piano
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One of the challenges of learning to play solo jazz piano is understanding how to craft a cohesive performance from a basic lead sheet. In fact, this process requires the coalescence of multiple individual jazz piano skills, such as melodic interpretation, accompaniment textures, voicings, chord substitutions and more. Thankfully, today John Proulx models this creative process for aspiring jazz pianists using the classic jazz standard “It Could Happen to You.”
In watching today’s lesson, you’ll learn how you too can creatively imagine important performance considerations. You’ll also discover everything you need to know about Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s “It Could Happen to You,” including song facts, harmonic analysis and recommended listening.
You can use the following outline to navigate to specific lesson topics:
- It Could Happen to You: Song Facts
- It Could Happen to You: Song Analysis
- It Could Happen to You: Jazz Piano Techniques
- It Could Happen to You: Recommended Listening
Jimmy Van Heusen composed the jazz standard “It Could Happen to You” in 1943, along with lyricist Johnny Burke. The song was premiered by vocalist Dorothy Lamour in the 1944 Paramount film And the Angels Sing. The tune has be recorded by countless other jazz and pop artists and continues to be a favorite jazz standard among modern listeners and gigging musicians. Other popular standards by the Van Heusen and Burke songwriting duo include “But Beautiful,” “Imagination,” “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “Like Someone In Love.”
The standard key for “It Could Happen to You” for instrumentalists is E♭ major. However, the tune is also popular among vocalists, which frequently requires transposition to other keys. For example, Chet Baker sings the tune in G major, whereas Diana Krall sings it in in B♭ major. If you’re a PWJ member, you can download the chord chart in E♭ major from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You’ll notice that the downloadable PDF contains two pages. On page one, you’ll find the tune’s basic chord changes. Then, on page two, we’ve included the chord substitutions that John Proulx demonstrates in today’s featured video. What if you need a different key? No problem! PWJ members can use our Smart Sheet Music to easily transpose the chord chart to any key.
So how does a jazz pianist transform a lead sheet into an arrangement? While this task can seem daunting, it’s also exhilarating. That’s because as you develop your jazz piano skills, your arrangements will evolve also. In other words, the way you’ll approach “It Could Happen to You” in a few years will quite different from how you play it right now.
In this section, we’ll recap the techniques that John Proulx demonstrates in today’s discussion on “It Could Happen to You.” We’ll also link to relevant PWJ resources where you can explore these concepts further.
Have you noticed how jazz introductions vary from one performer to the next…even for the same tune? In fact, intros offer substantial opportunity for individual expression and exploration. However, if you’re an early jazz pianist, it’s okay to keep it simple and play the same intro each time. To open his arrangement of “It Could Happen to You,” John presents an intro run over B♭13(♭9♯11). You can learn about this technique in our course on Jazz Intro and Outro Runs (Int/Adv).
Next, John presents an initial rubato statement of the melody. Rubato, also called tempo rubato, is a musical term that describes freely expressing a melody with an elastic sense of time. Instead of observing a strict tempo, the artist will occasionally speed up and slow down, all the while keeping the overall sense of meter intact. In fact, rubato comes from an Italian word that means “to rob.” Therefore, tempo rubato can be literally translated as “robbed time.”
When the melody contains a long tone, John demonstrates how you can obtain a more professional jazz piano sound by introducing counter lines, or counter melodies. This is usually accomplished by inserting chromatic passing tones in the inner voices. For example, in measures 7 and 8, instead of playing Gø7→C7(♭9) , John plays G13→G7(♭13)→C9(sus4)→C7(♭9). This creates a beautiful descending alto line with the notes E→E♭→D→D♭. To learn more about this technique, check out our Quick Tip on Create Inner Voice Movement for Jazz Piano (Int).
Throughout John’s rubato intro, there are several places in which he creates harmonic expression by changing the chord progression. Sometimes, this involves inserting additional chords, called passing chords. At other times, it involves replacing the original chords with chord substitutions. You can learn more about these techniques in our course on Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Int, Adv).
Transitioning into Time
When you come to the close of the melody in your rubato intro, then it’s time to introduce your medium swing tempo. Once of the most common ways to do this is with a dominant pedal. In order to explain this concept, we have to first explain what each of these words mean individually. In music theory, a pedal tone describes a fixed bass note that remains unchanging even while the overall chord progression continues to change above the bass note. Next, the term dominant can refer to either the 5th scale tone of the primary key or to the Ⅴ chord as a whole. For example, since our key is E♭ major, the dominant note is B♭ and the dominant seventh chord is B♭7. In this case, the pedal tone is the dominant note only.
The progression that John uses to introduce the tempo is the turnaround progression, a common jazz chord progression that follows the sequence Ⅰ→Ⅵ→Ⅱ→Ⅴ in the primary key. In the key of E♭ major, these chords are E♭▵7→Cm7→Fm7→B♭7. However, to create a more anticipatory effect, John places this entire progression over a dominant pedal. John also replaces the Cm7 in this progression with G♭º7. This is the ♭Ⅲº7 in E♭ major, which is a common substitute for the Ⅵ chord in the turnaround progression. The exact transition chords John plays are E♭6/B♭→G♭º7/B♭→Fm7/B♭→B♭13(♭9). In fact, you can explore an entire tutorial on this topic in our Quick Tip on 3 Must-Know Jazz Piano Intros (Int).
Jazz Swing Techniques
Once you’ve established the tempo with your dominant pedal turnaround progression, you’re ready to play “the head” (the main melody) of “It Could Happen to You” from the beginning of the lead sheet. In the left hand, John uses chord shells to support the melody. Chord shells are minimalistic chord voicings that use just a couple notes to imply the given harmony. You can take a deep dive on this topic in our course on Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones (Int).
In the right hand, John interprets the melody using characteristic swing rhythms and jazz ornamentation. To learn more about this topic, check out our Quick Tip on 7 Techniques to Spice Up a Jazz Melody (Int). John also supplies complimentary accompaniment rhythms, which jazz musicians call comping. Many of the comping figures that John uses are rhythmic stabs, which we describe as “chord pops.” To learn more about this technique, check out our Quick Tip on Jazz Articulation with Ghost Notes (Int). You can also watch Jonny May apply the chord pops technique to a jazz standard in Lesson 7 of our course on Autumn Leaves—Jazz Swing 1 (Int).
Another common swing accompaniment technique for solo jazz piano is to play a walking bass line. This left-hand technique mimics the sound of an upright bass player. In fact, you can explore this topic in detail in our full-length courses on Jazz Walking Bass Lines (Int, Adv). In addition, we have several tune specific courses that demonstrate walking bass lines, such as “Autumn Leaves,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “All the Things You Are” and “O Christmas Tree.”
Finding the Perfect Jazz Ending
While some jazz lead sheets may include a specific ending, more often than not, you’ll have to come up with your own ending. For example, in today’s discussion, John adds a tag ending in which the final melodic phrase is repeated. Afterward, he concludes his arrangement with The Sharp Four Walkdown Jazz Chord Progression.
Finding the perfect-fit ending can be difficult if you’ve never explored this topic in detail. However, once you dive into our course on 32 Colorful Jazz Endings (Int), the only hard part left is choosing which one to use!
With any jazz standard that’s as recorded as Van Heusen and Burke’s “It Could Happen to You,” it’s hard to narrow down an essential listening guide. However, the following list has been curated to include both important historical recordings as well as versions that will specifically benefit the jazz piano student.
The earliest recording of “It Could happen to You” was made by vocalist Jo Stafford on December 3, 1943. However, this original version was not released until a month after the Paramount musical comedy And the Angels Sing debuted in April of 1944. In the film, it was Dorothy Lamour who first introduced audiences to “It Could Happen to You” while serenading her co-star, Fred MacMurray. Jo Stafford, however, is credited with having the first hit version of the tune, reaching #10 on the charts in July of 1944. Bing Crosby also had early success with the tune, reaching #18 in September of 1944.¹
“It Could Happen to You” (1943)
“It Could Happen to You” (1944)
“It Could Happen to You” (1944)
While the earliest recordings of “It Could Happen to You” present the tune as a ballad, it is also frequently performed at a medium or even medium-up tempo. For example, one of the most popular recordings of the tune is found on Relaxin’ by the Miles Davis Quintet, which moves at 190 BPM. While this recording was made in 1956, it was not released until 1958. Meanwhile, Sonny Rollins’ released The Sound of Sunny in 1957, which featured a memorable unaccompanied and imaginative solo tenor version of the tune. Later, in 1962, Kenny Dorham and Jackie McLean recorded a popular version of the tune on Inta Somethin’ which moves at 165 BPM.
Miles Davis Quintet
“It Could Happen to You” (1956)
“It Could Happen to You” (1957)
Kenny Dorham & Jackie McLean
“It Could Happen to You” (1962)
It’s no secret that one of the best ways for instrumentalists to learn jazz standards is to learn them from vocalists. Therefore, we’ve included 3 vocal recordings of “It Could Happen to You” in this section. First, we have Chet Baker’s 1958 recording from (Chet Baker Sings) It Could Happen to You. On this relaxed recording at 108 BPM, Chet plays no trumpet at all. Instead, he shares a beautiful scat solo. Secondly, we have Shirley Horn’s 1989 recording that moves at 127 BPM and features joyful interplay with saxophonist Buck Hill. Finally, we’ve included a 2005 duo version featuring pianist Peter Martin and vocalist Erin Bode. The absence of additional instrumentation on this recording makes it a perfect listening example for piano students seeking to apply essential jazz piano accompaniment skills.
“It Could Happen to You” (1958)
“It Could Happen to You” (1989)
“It Could Happen to You” (2005)
Piano Trio Recordings
In this final section, we’ve include 3 additional piano trio recordings of “It Could Happen to You.” First, we have Nat King Cole’s 1952 recording which contains a piano solo that many jazz piano students will find quite accessible for early transcription studies. Next, we have Red Garland’s 1957 recording which demonstrates the melody played with meaty chords in the tenor register. Finally, we have the Keith Jarrett Trio’s 1996 recording which opens with an expressive rubato piano intro before breaking into a brisk medium swing at 194 BPM.
Nat King Cole
“It Could Happen to You” (1952)
“It Could Happen to You” (1957)
Keith Jarrett Trio
“It Could Happen to You” (1996)
Congratulations, you’ve finished today’s lesson on Play “It Could Happen to You” for Jazz Piano. In the process, you learned to identify some of the most important jazz piano skills that go into playing solo jazz piano. Even if you’re a long way away from playing solo jazz piano right now, if you consistently drill the essential skills outlined in today’s lesson, well…it could happen to you!
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
- Jazz Standard Analysis (Int, Adv)
- Jazz Intro and Outro Runs (Int/Adv)
- Create Inner Voice Movement for Jazz Piano (Int)
- Breaking Down a Jazz Solo (Int, Adv)
- Jazz Walking Bass Lines (Int, Adv)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones (Int)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with Extensions & Alterations (Int/Adv)
- Breaking Down a Jazz Solo (Int, Adv)
- 32 Colorful Jazz Endings (Int)
- 3 Must-Know Jazz Piano Intros (Int)
- Block Chord Piano Riff for Intros and Outros (Adv)
- 7 Techniques to Spice Up a Jazz Melody (Int)
- 3 Essential Techniques for Jazz Piano Walking Bass (Int/Adv)
- 7 Beautiful Endings for Jazz Tunes (Int)
- Playing Solo Jazz Piano With Jeremy Siskind (Int, Adv)
- Jazz Piano Chord Voicings–The Complete Guide (Int)
- Jazz Piano 10 Steps from Beginner to Pro (Beg-Adv)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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¹ Maycock, Ben. “It Could Happen to You (1944).” JazzStandards.com.
Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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