My 96-year old friend, Ben Lubitz, still plays piano most days at the Jewish Home, but not as much as before. His age is finally catching up with him. When I first arrived three and a half years ago and starting playing “his” piano, I was a bit nervous about stepping on his toes. He had a well-deserved reputation at the “house pianist” and I certainly didn’t want to steal his thunder. But perhaps because our styles are quite distinct and we genuinely appreciated each other’s playing, he soon welcomed me and told me many times that he loved my playing, a compliment that meant the world to me—and still does. Imagine how touched I felt when he recently began giving me gifts of some of this old piano books—one of Big Band songs, another of Jerome Kern songs.
I particularly appreciated the latter, as Jerome Kern has a special place in my heart. One of the elders and founding members of American musical theater music, he is well-respected amongst the songwriters and jazz musicians today still enjoy working their way through such classics as All the Things You Are, The Way You Look Tonight, The Song Is You, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and a host of other great tunes. My special affection comes from a book of his songs for organ that I played as a child. (I still have the book with the gold stars, penciled comments from my teacher Mrs. Lutz and those dates that sound further and further away—4/27/ ’59!!!) Without the slightest idea of how these songs would re-surface in my jazz playing so many years later, I grew to love the melodies and still today, they fall most easily under my fingers and sing most naturally in my ear. I particularly admire his intriguing bridges connecting the opening and closing A sections, never clichéd and often with an intriguing harmonic passage that find its way home through the back door.
I looked through Ben’s book and found some intriguing songs I didn’t know—How’d You Like to Spoon with Me?, Cleopatterer, Ka-lu-a, She Didn’t Say Yes, You Couldn’t Be Cuter. It was fascinating to read some details of his move from Vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood, the precise progression I’m investigating with my 8th grade Jazz History class. I discovered he went to high school in Newark, New Jersey, two towns away from my own hometown of Roselle. He worked as a song-plugger on Tin Pan Alley and made his way up through the ranks, with the usual breaks that we read retrospectively in biographies that seem pre-destined to occur (including being scheduled to take a trip on the ill-fated Lusitania and changing his mind just before boarding!). Some of his life story is told in a movie titled “Till the Clouds Roll By,” a good view on a rainy night.
At the end of the book is a 1985 letter by Ronald Reagan celebrating Kern’s centenary and proclaiming January 27th “Jerome Kern Day.” I’ve never seen that on any calendars, but will make a note to celebrate it next year. Meanwhile, "Happy Belated Jerome Kern Day" to all! (Is there a similar day for George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin? And what about Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, etc.? If we paid attention to our own national heroes, every day would be a holiday!)
Like many of his fellow songwriters (Cole Porter excepted), he teamed with lyricists, most notably Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein. The latter wrote a moving eulogy included in the book in which he described Kern thus:
“He was alert and alive. He ‘bounced.’ He stimulated everyone. He annoyed some, never bored anyone at anytime. There was a sharp edge to everything he thought or said.” My kind of guy!
I went on to read about how and when he died. Cerebral thrombosis. November 11, 1945. And then the next sentence: “He was sixty-years old.” My age.
I haven’t taken to reading obituaries in the daily paper, but that sentence hit me over the head. And what have I done lately?