The Burden of Instrumental Music
Yesterday my assistant, Marc Schwartz, who also happens to be a fantastic saxophonist, asked me what the second chord of Easy To Love is. Not having defined the key, I said the first chord is a minor 7th and the second chord is a minor chord a 5th below. Then he asked if it is a tonic minor or a minor 7th. Ooh, I had to think about that. I went over to the piano and played it. Obviously a tonic minor. This is an unusual chord progression for a standard song.
I hadn’t thought about this song in decades, so I sat down at the piano and played it through while trying out a few interesting substitute harmonies and passing chords. After we finished working for the day, I watched the Yankees almost lose to the Red Sox and tuned into MSNBC to hear about how POTRS (President of the Red States) might fire his own appointees in the justice system. But Cole Porter’s love song was still haunting me. I sat at the piano again around 2 AM and played it once more. I love this song.
When I woke up this morning, the melody was still going through my head. I can’t remember, but it might very well have been background music to my dreams last night. I opened up this morning’s paper and was about to read it, when I had this thought: could I write an instrumental arrangement of Easy To Love?
Well, of course I could, but could I write a really good instrumental arrangement of it—one that I would like? The answer is: not at this point; and here’s why. I don’t have a unique perspective on this song that is strong enough to make up for the absence of Porter’s clever, urbane lyric. This is an important concept that I have been grappling with for 50 years.
About 30 years ago I bought some Marty Paich big band records. I was (and continue to be) a fan of the vocal arrangements that Paich wrote for Sammy Davis, Jr. and Mel Tormé, but when I listened to his instrumental writing, it held little interest for me. Without the words of the songs and the personalities of the singers, his concept lacked sufficient development and character to satisfy my musical appetite.
Around that same time, I was teaching jazz arranging classes at the Manhattan School of Music. One of my star students then was saxophonist Chris Byars. His intelligence and musicality was only surpassed by his unquenchable thirst for musical knowledge and understanding. When it came time for him to write a big band chart for my class, he chose James Brown’s I Feel Good, which I thought was an odd choice for a bebopper like Chris, but I was curious to see if he could transform this well-known blues into a successful instrumental jazz arrangement. His concept was to give James Brown’s vocal line to a solo tenor sax.
We recorded the arrangement and discussed it at the next meeting of the class. I explained that although everything was technically correct in his writing, the charm of James Brown’s classic was lost. We not only needed to hear the lyric but also Brown’s inimitable, passionate way of singing it.
I remember writing an instrumental arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life.
Unlike the simplicity of James Brown’s song, Lush Life is one of the most sophisticated melodies and lyrics in the American Songbook. I was 24 or 25 when I wrote the arrangement and was working for Chuck Israels. Chuck’s criticism of my chart was that I didn’t go far enough beyond the song to justify it being an arrangement. But now that I think about it, had it been a vocal arrangement, it might have worked. So what is it about singers and lyrics?
When we hear someone sing, they are telling us their story. We relate not only to the story, but to them. We identify with them. The singer is us. Frank Sinatra is me. Joe Williams is me. Billie Holiday is me. I feel their pain and joy as if it is my own. That is some powerful stuff. When you remove the story and the person telling it, you must come up with a new concept for the piece that is so strong, that we never think of the words or wonder what it would be like if so-and-so sang it. To accomplish this feat, we need much more thematic development than is necessary to accompany vocalists. We need to establish a strong instrumental character to the piece.
This is why there is such a small audience for instrumental music. The great majority of our citizens are musically illiterate. They don’t know a trombone from a clarinet. I’m not just talking about the sounds of the instruments. They couldn’t identify pictures of musical instruments beyond guitars, drum sets and electronic keyboards. Furthermore, they can’t follow the motivic development in music—the musical story. They never really listen to the music. It is in the room as background noise. If they listen at all, it is to the words of the songs. If there are no words, there is nothing there for them, so they talk over the music. The worlds of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Ellington and Parker are lost to them. They never existed.
That makes me feel so sad. All the great music of the European and American Jazz masters is a large part of what makes my life rich. Oh, sure I love my family and friends, and have been in love at different times in my life, but what is there for me everyday, whenever I want it, is my connection with the greatest musical minds in the history of the world. Don’t get me wrong. I love great lyrics, but those lyrics are subordinate to the music. The music I love is primary and can stand on its own. Not so the lyrics.
This is where American popular songs changed in the 1950s and 60s. The rock and roll and folk music of that era was lyric driven with the music as an afterthought. When I was a young man and walked into a bank, dentist office or elevator, there was Muzak playing through speakers—unchallenging instrumental arrangements of the American Songbook. As Baby Boomers replaced the Greatest Generation, the American Songbook became irrelevant and unrecognizable to more and more of our population.
Playing instrumental versions of popular post ’60s songs has never caught on. Because those songs are lyric-driven with weak melodies, removing the lyric mostly renders them unrecognizable and without meaning or charm. Compare that with great instrumental versions of popular songs like Duke Ellington’s At the Bal Masque CD, Erroll Garner’s Concert by the Sea or Sonny Clark’s Standards CD. This is instrumental music at its finest, and we never miss the lyrics, because the music creates a fascinating and all-encompassing world of its own.
So, is instrumental music doomed? Will there be no audience for it? I hope the answer to those questions is “no.” How does someone become an intelligent, educated listener? Early exposure to great music usually works. How often have musicians and fans told me that their dad listened to jazz? In addition to listening to great music, playing an instrument as a child has a great effect.
I love to watch baseball and understand it on a pretty deep level. First I watched it as a small boy on TV with my father and grandfather, and then I played it in the street and schoolyard with my young friends. We emulated our heroes. I never became Jackie Robinson or Duke Snider, but now, when I turn on my TV and watch a baseball game, I am transported back to our tiny black and white Dumont screen and hear Red Barber coming out of the 2-inch speaker welcoming a Brooklyn homerun with, “Goodbye Mr. Spaulding.” How lucky I was to have grown up in a house with music and baseball and the people who loved them.
They never expected me to become a professional in either. They just wanted me to share their interest. Partly, they were selfish in wanting a companion, and partly they wanted me to enjoy a life beyond the boundaries of just making a living. They celebrated excellence and instilled that in me. I went beyond them in that regard. I have never been content with my music. I have always strived to be better in music and in life. Growth is what keeps me alive and in the game. I may never be as great as any of my heroes, but I’m going to keep trying to get there. It’s just what I do.