Wednesday, June 1, 2011

June Is Bustin' Out All Over

Well, not quite. The roses are in full blossom, the bougainvillea are bursting with color. the lettuce plants grown from seed on the deck are poking their heads out. But still I wake up with that San Francisco chill in the air. And it rained today. On June 1st. Memo to the San Francisco Weather Gods—“Rainy Season Ends in April!!”

And then there’s the dark clouds of report cards standing between me and the light of summer sunshine. But hey, we’ve officially crossed into June and that sings of graduations, weddings, peaches on their way and summer’s freedom. All those notable cycles of closing and opening, the satisfaction of completion and the promise of new beginnings. It’s an exciting time. Though right now I feel far from a day at the beach, I can catch the faint scent of it in the air.

I thought I might write about summer here, but my fingers had other plans. After writing today’s title, I paused and wondered, “Would all my readers know where today’s title came from? Would they instantly recognize that song from Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein? Would they know that Rodgers first teamed with Lorenz Hart? Would they know something about the relationship between jazz and musical theater? Would they have heard Sonny Rollins’ version of The Surrey With the Fringe on Top or John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things? Would they be familiar with Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ Porgy and Bess album, heard Dave Brubeck’s renditions of West Side Story tunes?”

In the midst of the many pointless things children captive in school have to spend their time learning, has anyone considered the treasured subjects no school ever teaches? For example, the history of musical theater in the United States of America. I think I could make a pretty good case that a thorough study of musical theater would reveal more about our country’s history and culture than just about any other subject—with the added perk of great music, great lyrics, great dancing, stories ranging from the silly to the sublime, the evolution of media technologies…well, really I don’t see any stopping point.

In fact, I started to tell the story in the rough draft of this Blog and saw that it would run for pages beyond pages. From the Minstrel Shows of the 1800’s to the Vaudeville of the turn of the century to the New York Broadway revues of the 20’s to the Hollywood musicals in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and yes, on through the 60’s until today—it really is quite a remarkable story. (By the by, the 60’s are where I would stop the bus, the decade that ended the jazz-popular song-Broadway show connection. You can find just about any jazz artist today still performing and recording Bye Bye Blackbird from 1928, but none working with the material from Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Mis or High School Musical.) Stitched into the fabric of the hundreds of songs penned and played in a half-century of musical theater is the entire bizarre, twisted and occasionally inspirational history of race relations, the blurred lines between folk, popular and classical music, the evolution of an American culture distinct from both its European and African roots.

But it’s not just about history. The music, especially in the hands of sophisticated jazz artists, holds up—no period pieces or mere dip back to nostalgia, but the constant re-working of evocative harmonies, swinging and haunting melodies and memorable poetic lyrics by each new generation of jazz artists. The distance between Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanian’s rendition of Cole Porter’s Love for Sale, Billie Holiday’s version with Oscar Peterson and Denny Zeitlin’s solo piano version is considerable, in itself a microcosm of jazz history.

I didn’t grow up as a Musicals buff, but I saw my share—The Wizard of OzOklahoma, South Pacific, The Music ManThe King and I, The Sound of Music, West Side Story and more. And though I mostly played Bach on the organ and Beethoven on the piano, I did have a book of Jerome Kern songs (which I still have, complete with gold stars from my piano teacher) that I enjoyed playing. Who could have imagined that all these many years later, this repertoire of songs would become such intimate friends? When I’m not playing them for my Mom and friends at the Jewish Home, I’m back in my living room trying to figure out the next song they requested that I didn’t know. The Vocal Real Book is as close to my daily Bible reading as I can imagine and my goal to memorize some 300 songs is the horizon I gaze at from the piano bench. Not only is the music itself a daily balm for the ears, but the invitation to fill in the spaces and find the notes not written, the improvisation that is the bread-and-butter of jazz playing, makes them ever fresh and intriguing.

And then there’s the lyrics. I’ve discovered that as much as I love poetry and reading and writing, the music swallows the text hide and hair in my brain. I have to make a special effort to pay attention and learn the words—and when I do, the rewards are considerable (except for the terribly unsatisfying lines in It Never Entered My Mind with “orange juice for one,” “saying the maiden’s prayer again” and “ scratching my back myself). I really can’t get started on this without another 25 pages, but just to give one of my favorite couplets from Love Is Just Around the Corner:

“Venus de Milo, was known for all her charms.
But strictly between us, you’re cuter than Venus,
And what’s more, you’ve got arms!”

See what I mean? Not only funny and clever, but now we have to study a bit of art history to get it.

Though a thousand ways to say “I Love You” in 32 bars (and all the variants of “I did love you, I didn’t, you didn’t, we did and then we didn’t, we should have, we shouldn’t have, etc. etc. and yet again, etc.") is the subject of 95% of the songs, there are many themes of the human experience not only spoken poetically, but coupled with memorable melodies to keep us company in our joy, sorrow, amazement or despair. Right now, I’m doing my repertoire of “Happy Songs” with the kids at school and how they love it. “Side by Side, Sunnyside of the Street, Accentuate the Positive, Pick Yourself Up, High Hopes, The Best Things in Life Are Free, Put on a Happy Face, When You’re Smiling” and more. 

At our Grandparent’s Day, we sang some of these songs and I told the story of the 2nd graders who were all frustrated by a math problem. One threw down his paper and sighed in despair, “This is impossible!!” Then one of the girls started singing, “Nothing’s impossible I have found…” and they all chimed in. Inspired by the song, they got back to work. The girl who sang was now in 5th grade and she exclaimed to the grandparents, “I remember that!” And then her friend chimed in and said, “And we solved it, too!”

And so on June 1st, I woke up singing “June is bustin’ out all over…” and when it rained, I could have sung Stormy Weather or Gentle Rain or Garden in the Rain or Come Rain or Come Shine or Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to get lost in a storm). I did some contra dance with the 2nd grade today and though the style is different, I could have told them which way to turn by singing Let’s Face the Music and Dance
I had my last pre-school singing time for the year today (big sad face here!) and I could have sung The Song Is Ended (But the Melody Lingers On). You get the idea. A song for every occasion.

But there is one subject I’ve never heard addressed in the entire history of popular jazz standards. 

Report cards. 

So on a chilly June San Francisco evening, I better start writing mine.

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