Jimmy Pankow’s Opus: “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon,” by Stephanie Carta

Every time Chicago plays “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon” live onstage, the audience is treated to hearing a rock masterpiece that is much more than just a collection of songs or a medley. It is a fully formed, seven movement, rock suite. Certainly, it is a lot of fun, and maybe that hides the complexities underneath, but understanding the musicality of Jimmy Pankow’s composition adds to truly appreciating his songwriting and the brilliance of Chicago’s repertoire. Originally recorded in 1969 and taking up most of the second side of Chicago II, Ballet represents a synthesis of the classical tradition combined with the relevance of rock and the virtuosity of jazz. While it would take a music professional, which I am not, to fully explain the theory behind Ballet, even an average Chicago fan and hobbyist musician can begin to appreciate it.      

It is amusing that even in the 1970s fans called out for the band to play “Make Me Smile.” A single was released consisting of an edit of the first movement, with part of the final movement tacked on, all reduced to 3:00 minutes. While this provided young Chicago some exposure on radio in 1970, Ballet is best appreciated when heard in its entirety. In order, the movements are: Make Me Smile; So Much To Say, So Much To Give; Anxiety’s Moment; West Virginia Fantasies; Colour My World; To Be Free; and Now More Than Ever. Fast forward to the 21st century, in our era of short attention spans, Chicago still plays Ballet in their live shows, clocking in at almost 13 minutes long, to the delight of large audiences. Clearly, Ballet has become a fan favorite as a unified suite, sounding just as urgent and passionate now as it did during their classic era.

The first question to understanding Ballet is defining “suite.” A textbook definition is a good place to start. A suite is defined as a composition “made up of a number of movements, each like a dance and all the same key or related keys.” (1) Suites originated in France in prototypical form and reached their apex in Germany during the Baroque era of the 17th century. The tempos of the movements quickened and slowed to give the dancers variety. Jimmy’s main inspiration from the Baroque era was Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. In the liner notes to Claude Bolling’s “Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano” (a very sweet album), Bobby Finn wrote about the “great fluctuation of mood within the movements” and the “constant dialogue between the jazz and classical elements which seem to fight, to interrupt, to stimulate, to mimic, and even to embrace each other.” It is easy to also think of Ballet with this description. Jimmy’s own invention and synthesis could be recognizable across the centuries if Bach could attend a Chicago concert or listen to Chicago II.   

Each movement in a suite is enhanced by the contrasting movements around it, the beauty and grace of Colour My World are made more wonderful by the intricacy and complexity of West Virginia Fantasies. Each of the movements has its own feel and identity, the whole bigger than the sum of its parts because of the contrasts and relationships. In Baroque style, movements may have changes between complementary keys. In this rock suite, key changes are handled in more than one way. Sometimes they are modulations using pivot chords (a chord that is found in both keys) or the key changes using measures with no chords as transitions. Time signature changes abound as well, a characteristic feature of many Chicago tunes. This constant dynamism of key, tempo, time signature, and texture, provides an energy that keeps ears perked and blood racing, something that everyone can feel whether or not one has any background in music theory. In essence, Jimmy makes his challenging composition accessible to a very wide audience without compromising what is complex and technical.

In Make Me Smile alone, we hear three different keys. The introduction is in the key of Ab, modulating to C minor after the chord of Absus4 acts as a pivot chord. The key shifts again to E minor in the B section. Terry’s guitar solo in this section kicks off with a fiery 16th note riff that is something that jazz fans might recognize as originating as a classic horn riff, similar to Lee Morgan’s trumpet solo in Moanin’ by the Jazz Messengers. The key changes again for the last four measures, back to Eb to segue into So Much To Say, So Much To Give. In this transition between the first two movements, the woodwinds and brass give the mood a rather forlorn quality. This second movement of the suite features Robert Lamm’s only lead vocal in the suite, his excellent performance perfectly capturing the impassioned plea of the lyrics. Throughout Ballet, the vocals and instruments express a full range of human emotion through music, perfectly symbolic considering the theme and subject of the suite.

The next two movements, Anxiety’s Moment and West Virginia Fantasies together form a mid section of the suite. The communion between Lee Loughnane’s trumpet and Walter Parazaider’s flute in West Virginia Fantasies holds a uniqueness not just in Chicago’s repertoire but in rock and roll overall. Their perfect execution exposes their formal training at DePaul University and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Lee trained on trumpet with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and Walter was a clarinet protege of the CSO’s clarinetist Jerome Stowell. (I do wonder if Lee learned his valve vibrato on his own or from one of his professors!) When Walter comes in on flute, he’s playing in harmony with Lee; then their parts diverge into counterpoint, two independent melodic lines. This approach is echoed by Terry Kath’s guitar and Robert’s organ in the next section of the movement. Writing for a band such as Chicago, a veritable rock orchestra, surely must have opened up the possibilities of what the writers, particularly Jimmy and Robert, could put on paper. Not only did a composition this technical have to be executed in the studio but on stage as well, and Ballet is no mere jam session.  

The transition to Colour My World is a dramatic one. The tempo is taken down, the time signature shifts to a triplet feel in 12/8, and the change from brass and woodwinds to a simple acoustic piano provides for a beautiful shock. Again, Jimmy’s training and instincts as a writer inform the modulation to the key of F with C7 as the pivot chord between the last measures of West Virginia Fantasies to the opening arpeggio of Fmaj7. The arpeggios flow over unexpected changes inside and outside the key. Jimmy further proves his gift for melody with his direction of the flute solo, quite different from Walter’s own sometimes avant-garde style even though it is one of his most famous solos. Still, Walter brings his own warm, breathy tone and expressiveness directly from the soul. As a whole, Colour My World, often unfairly characterized as maudlin, is sophisticated pop perfection.

The suite finishes with the grand finale of To Be Free and Now More Than Ever, featuring the highly rhythmic strumming that is quintessentially Terry Kath, the horns blowing full bore, showing just how wedded Jimmy’s horn arrangements are to the essential melodies and identities of the tunes. Now More Than Ever reprises Make Me Smile, acting as a bookend and building to a jubilant conclusion. For the final measures, Jimmy’s trombone appropriately takes the fore in a proudly accented solo, a grand finale of his epic composition.

There are some truly great songwriters already in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. If James Pankow (and Robert Lamm) are inducted this year, the Song Hall would then include the composer of a very unique work, a rock and roll era suite with no regard to the conventional formulas of songwriting, transcending any unnatural boundaries of genre or musical era. These are the songwriting ethos that makes Jimmy Pankow and Chicago so valued by their peers and fans alike.

(1) Politoske, Daniel T., Music. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1979: 120.

(Jimmy Pankow in London, December 1969)jimmylondon

(“Ballet For A Girl in Buchannon” by Chicago in 2014, featuring Robert Lamm on keys and vocals; Jimmy Pankow on trombone; Walter Parazaider on sax and flute; and Lee Loughnane on trumpet and vocals.)