Celebrating the American Songbook
Maybe everyone grows up thinking that the world we knew as kids was how the world always was and how it always will be. As we learn history, we become aware that our “modern” world has only been around for a short time, but still, it’s hard to see the changes that will come in the future and blow our world out of the water.
I grew up in the 1950s. The war (everyone called World War II “the war,” as if it was the only war in history) ended less than four years before I was born. My dad didn’t get back from Europe until 1946, a year after VE Day. A month later he married my mom. He was a week shy of his 27th birthday. My mom was 21. She opted to get married that day rather than attend her college graduation. It’s sweet to think of them being that young and in love. Unlike most marriages, they never lost that love for each other. Sure, they had their flaws, like the rest of us, but I’ve really got to admire and envy their ability to keep it together for 55 years. Where did this come from?
My dad’s parents both died when he was a teenager, and he never talked about their relationship. My mother’s parents also were married 50 years and were devoted to each other, but I don’t think they had the sexual attraction that my parents had. They probably did when they were young, but by the time I knew them, they were in their 60s, and slept in twin beds. I remember thinking as a child how strange that was.
Music was always a big part of our lives back in those days. Whether my mom was playing the piano or my dad was listening to records at home or the radio in the car, there was always music. We grew up on the classics (Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Beethoven, Schubert, nothing before 1800 or after 1900), and the American Songbook. We didn’t call it the American Songbook then—it was just popular music. Gershwin was king. If my dad was home on a weekend, he would put a stack of 6 records on the changer and 4 hours later flip them over. But that was when we got LPs. Before that, it was 78s, which required a lot more flipping.
This is how I was introduced to Rhapsody In Blue—Oscar Levant’s recording. My parents didn’t really understand what made art great, but to them Gershwin was the American Beethoven. He was class. Levant was Gershwin’s buddy and greatest interpreter. We had other Levant recordings as well. I think my parents saw him as a very neurotic, extremely witty piano genius. I remember watching Levant on talk shows. While smoking a cigarette, he would light a second one and not realize his mistake until the second one reached his lips. My parents could be judgmental and unforgiving, but when it came to Levant, my mom would just say, “Yes, but just listen to him play the piano.”
About 10 years ago Wilfred Sheed wrote a seminal text on the great songwriters, The House That George Built. It’s not as musically analytical as Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song, but he gives us enough biographical and musical information to get a feeling for each of the icons of this genre.
I’ve said this many times before, but this body of songs, mostly written between 1920 and 1960 produced between 1000 and 2000 standards that everyone in America knew and loved. Most came from Broadway shows and movies. They were recorded by singers and bands. Those records were played on juke boxes and radios in every bar and diner. There were nightclubs and dance halls all over the country where bands and singers would perform these same songs night after night.
When a song became a hit, everyone would play it and record his or her own version of it. Some songs disappeared quickly, while others had a special quality that inspired new artists to come back to them year after year. We call these special songs “standards.” Some top 10 songs didn’t become standards. Some standards never made the top 10.
Originally, America’s songs came out of Tin Pan Alley, but with the advent of records and then radio, the publishers moved uptown to the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway. With Broadway show being in New York City, most of the songwriters lived in New York or the suburbs. Harry Warren was the first to move to Los Angeles to write Hollywood musicals like 42nd Street and numerous songs for non-musical pictures. His extensive song catalog for Warner Bros. movies wound up being recycled in their cartoons. When my son was 5, he didn’t know The Lady In Red. To him it was Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit In Red.
Warren was one of the few Italian-Americans in the Jewish-dominated ranks of great songwriters (Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, et al.). Other non-Jews included Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and Richard Whiting. I’m going to throw in Savannah’s favorite son, Johnny Mercer, who had to be the most prolific lyricist ever. If he never wrote another line besides “my huckleberry friend,” he’d still be in the running for greatest lyricist of all time.
Besides Mercer, my favorite lyricists are Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin. Their humor, wordplay, intelligence, and sophistication made me want to grow up, put on a tuxedo and go to nightclubs. Even more than that, growing up with all these songs, we were given a glimpse of adult love—what we had to look forward to—the agony and the ecstasy—and all told with an American accent, about Americans, with American rhythms and speech inflections, by Americans and for Americans. These are our national treasures. They are the soundtrack of our American experience for 40 years; from the end of World War I until the Kennedy assassination.
I never gave these songs much notice until I was 12 and got serious about becoming a jazz musician. Before that, I kinda knew a lot of the songs. They were just popular music, and nothing more than that to me. Once I started learning to play them, and learning the lyrics, which coincided with puberty, they took on much greater meaning in my life.
At the same time, there was a rift in pop music between adults and teens. I opted to stick with the adults. The sophistication and connection to the past appealed to me. Rock and roll was too simplistic for my taste. I remember thinking at the time that I’d rather listen to music that was written and played by musicians that knew more than I did. But when I think about it now, what I was looking for (and still am) was authenticity. Authenticity transcends styles and genres. Ray Charles was authentic. Robert Goulet was not.
For all the American-ness of those great songs, what we keep coming back to is the lyrics and the melodies. Oh, and how those words and notes combine on our tongues. We keep writing and playing new arrangements with new rhythms and orchestrations, but we don’t want to mess with the words or the pitches. When I hear Frank Sinatra say “that” instead of “the”, it’s a very small thing, but I wish he wouldn’t do that. If Cole Porter or Larry Hart thought “that” was a better word than “the,” he would have written it.
This evening I’ll be performing with my band at Birdland. We’ve got our old buddy Ron Sunshine singing with us. We call the show Celebrating the American Songbook, and it’s just that. I’ve written hundreds of arrangements of the great standards, so it was difficult to choose which ones to present. I want to represent a wide variety of songwriters. Of the 16 songs, there are 15 composers. Only Cole Porter appears twice. Sadly, I had to leave out some of my favorite composers (Warren, Kern, Carmichael, and Whiting); we play them all the time, and there just wasn’t room in this show. I promise I’ll get back to them in the next one. Also, surprisingly there’s no Mercer. How can that be? So, I’ll just end by singing to everyone I’ve left out, “You’re just too marvelous, too marvelous for words…”
If you are in the New York area and can make it down to Birdland tonight at 7 PM, I promise we will honor these songwriters by making their music and words our own. The universality and timelessness of these great artists will be on display. We rehearsed this music for three hours on Friday and at no time did we ever think that these were old songs written before we were born about a world without TV, cell phones and the internet. Somehow these long-dead men and women expressed the human condition with such perfection, that we know they are speaking to us now. Come celebrate our shared humanity with us. It’ll make you laugh. It’ll make you cry. It’ll make you feel connected.