Hurrah for Jerome Kern

 

I love Jerome Kern’s melodies.

I love his chord changes.

I am not sure if I would have loved him had I had the opportunity to meet him, but I am very grateful he co-wrote so many wonderful songs.

Kern1

Jerome David Kern was short and a very snappy dresser.

He loved the color green — including wearing bright green, custom-tailored trousers.

He could be quite critical and bossy — and he did not suffer fools gladly.

He was also very funny with friends.

And he knew bird calls well — and was sometimes melodically inspired by them.

Kern was the composer whom George Gershwin and Harold Arlen  — and many other composers of what we now call the Great American Songbook — looked up to and strived to emulate.

He was older than they were, having been born in New York City on January 27, 1885 — the youngest of seven children (four of whom died before the age of six…)

His family moved from apartment to apartment around Manhattan before settling into a house across the river in Newark, New Jersey, which is where Jerry went to high school and where he began writing songs for musical events.

His nickname in high school was “Romie.”

Kern’s first job in the music business was doing accounts payable and accounts receivable for a music publishing company run by the uncle of a friend.

He rose to become a song plugger, eventually earning a shift at Wanamaker’s, which was one of the first — and very grandest — department stores in New York City.

He proved to be a savvy businessman, investing money he received as an inheritance in his early 20s to become a shareholder in the second music publishing company he worked for, TB Harms.

Harms started getting Jerry’s songs interpolated into musical productions.

I learned from reading various Kern biographies that in the early days of musical theater, it was very common for individual songs to be added to a show by another composer.

These interpolated songs could freshen up a show during a long run — and also provided great opportunities for unknown and up-and-coming songwriters.

Harms let him work as a rehearsal pianist for Broadway reviews and shows, which he did on and off for ten years.

Being a rehearsal pianist meant that Kern became well-acquainted with the movers and shakers in the New York theater world — and it also meant he could be on hand to help create a new number if needed.

He also was allowed to accompany singers on short tours, which provided more opportunities to incorporate Harms and/or Kern tunes into their performances as needed.

I was surprised to learn that Kern was very well acquainted with the theater world in London.

Part of the reason Jerry went to London so many times as a young man was to check on TB Harms’ publishing partners in England.

He saw all of the latest shows and schmoozed as many London theater people as possible, pitching his songs for interpolation into London shows as well.

This is when he first met the author, humorist and lyricist P. G. “Plum” Wodehouse, with whom he began collaborating on songs in 1906.

Nine years later — when Wodehouse was living in New York — Kern introduced him to librettist Guy Bolton, who became one of Kern and Wodehouse’s lifelong friends.

Kern and Bolton had worked together on a musical called Nobody Home which was presented at the intimate, 300-seat Princess Theatre. Wodehouse contributed some lyrics to their next Princess musical, Very Good Eddie, and officially joined their creative team for Oh, Boy! — which ran for 463 performances (and according to Wikipedia was one of the first American musicals to have a successful London run).

The three men collaborated upon what became a very successful series of musical comedies — most of them presented at the Princess Theatre — during and after the First World War.

These shows were inspirational to many songwriters and librettists, partly because the songs and dances and script were well integrated to advance the storyline of the show.

And no songs by other writers were arbitrarily interpolated into the plot!

In an interview following the success of Oh, Boy, Kern explained, “It is my opinion that the musical numbers should carry on the action of the play, and should be representative of the personalities of the characters who sing them….Songs must be suited to the action and mood of the play.”

Kern collaborated with a wide variety of lyricists during his long career on Broadway and in Hollywood.

One of my favorite songs, “I’m Old Fashioned” was written with lyricist Johnny Mercer for a 1942 film called You Were Never Lovelier, which paired Fred Astaire with Rita Hayworth.

Partly as a result of a dear friend’s uncle giving me a Kern songbook when I left college, I became aware of Kern’s body of work early in my singing life.

KernSongbook

I recorded three Kern songs with jazz pianist and composer Steve Sweeting when Steve lived above an ice cream store in Brighton, MA — “I’m Old Fashioned,” The Way You Look Tonight,” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” — which I have included in this blog post.

 

Jerome Kern was very successful during the 1910’s and 20’s on Broadway and in London.

In fact one newspaper at the time estimated that he was earning as much as $5000 (which would be the equivalent of $63,000 in 2016) each WEEK from sheet music and ticket sales.

He created what is considered to be his masterwork, Show Boat, in 1927 in collaboration with lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II and producer Florenz Ziegfeld.

Ziegfeld had made his reputation with huge revues on Broadway filled with beautiful chorus girls, extravagant costumes, and colossal sets.

Thus many people were surprised that he agreed to produce Show Boat — which featured an integrated cast of black and white performers and dove deeply into painful human phenomena including prejudice, gambling and alcoholism (which were not the usual topics for a night’s entertainment on Broadway).

Ziegfeld, in fact, remained very doubtful about the success of Show Boat — postponing the start of production several times.

Hammerstein and Kern

Although this was very frustrating to Jerry and Oscar, it also gave them extra time to fine-tune their songs and script before casting and rehearsals finally began.

Many of Kern’s Broadway musicals were adapted into movies, including Show Boat — which was filmed three different times — and his 1933 hit Roberta, with a book and lyrics by Otto Harbach.

The Broadway cast included many performers who went on to become stars including Fred MacMurray and Bob Hope — and Roberta also introduced the musical gem “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.”

Along with many other Broadway songwriters, Kern moved with his family to California during the 1930s.

Although the Great Depression was in full swing, the movie industry was making lots of money.

Mr. Kern wrote “The Way You Look Tonight” with another favorite collaborator — lyricist/librettist Dorothy Fields — for the film Swing Time, where it was introduced by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, who in this movie was cast as a dance instructor.

“The Way You Look Tonight” won Best Song in a Motion Picture in 1936.

Dorothy Fields later remarked, “The first time Jerry played the melody for me I went out and started to cry. The release absolutely killed me. I couldn’t stop, it was so beautiful.”

 

In addition to being a composer, Kern was also a collector.

He started collecting books when he first visited London in his early 20s, and ten years later had amassed a collection which — when he auctioned it off in 1929 — earned him almost two million dollars (which would be worth more than $27 million dollars in 2016).

He also collected real estate, antique silver and furniture.

The home he built in Bronxville, NY (north of New York City) was decorated with beautiful paintings, Colonial, Jacobean and Italian furniture, rare vases, lamps with Buddha bases, and books which he had bought during his travels to Europe and around the USA.

And whatever he became curious about, he would soon become an expert in.

As a small example of this, when they were living in Bronxville, Kern and his wife Eva took a trip with their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Newman, to Canada to visit an asbestos plant that Mr. Newman owned.

Jerry asked lots of questions and was particularly concerned about the large amounts of asbestos waste.

After they got home, he did some independent research and wrote a 40-page report — detailing several possible uses for the wasted asbestos — which he gave to his neighbor.

After the huge success of Show Boat in 1927, Kern developed the habit of playing “Old Man River” the last thing before he left his house on a trip and the first thing upon arriving back home.

In fact, during his final trip to New York City from California in 1945  — when he was overseeing yet another revival of Show Boat with Hammerstein and beginning work on a new show with lyricist/librettist Dorothy Fields (produced by Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers) about a sharp-shooting phenomenon named Annie Oakley — he was apparently worried because he had forgotten to play this song before he left his home in California.

Much to everyone’s shock — since he was only 60 years old — Jerome Kern collapsed from a stroke while browsing on the east side of Manhattan.

He died a few days later with his wife and Hammerstein at his hospital bedside.

I would like to end this post with something president Harry Truman said upon hearing Kern had died:

“I am among the grateful millions who have played and listened to the music of Jerome Kern. His melodies will live in our voices and warm our hearts for many years to come.”

Thank you, Jerome Kern, for your wonderful songs — and thank YOU for reading and listening to yet another blog post.

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8 thoughts on “Hurrah for Jerome Kern

  1. Will, thank you for this piece about Jerome Kern. The mention of Jerome Kern’s friendship with P. G. Wodehouse reminds me that they collaborated on the song, “Bill”, from “ShowBoat” (originally written for an earlier musical). Very lovely and deeply touching music. And how beautifully are your sung offerings on this blog. Thank you. In appreciation, Jeanne Cronin

    • I love hearing from you, Jeanne! Jazz pianist Joe Reid and I perform “Bill” near the end of an hour-long program of Kern songs that we have put together for libraries and retirement communities. As you write in your comment, “Bill” was originally written with Wodehouse for a Princess theatre show they did with librettist Guy Bolton called “Oh, Lady! Lady!” — but it was cut two days before they opened on February 1, 1918. Kern next included “Bill” in a Ziegfeld-produced show called “Sally” starring Marilyn Miller in 1920, but it was again cut before “Sally” opened in NYC. It ended up being included in “Show Boat” — with a slightly re-written melody by Kern and respectfully modified lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. Kern was apparently an avid re-cycler/re-user/re-claimer of melodies from earlier shows which had (for various reasons) been cut during out-of-town previews or which hadn’t been hits… THANK YOU for reading and listening!!!

  2. Will, I am deeply grateful for this post on the great Jerome Kern, as I am for your other blogs.
    This music has sustained me all during my life. It is the most profound expression of the beauty and sacredness of life and love. Something magical was in the air when these songs were written. At 80, I treasure them and your versions of them all the more.

  3. I heartily agree Justin. I sometimes wonder if part of the magic that was in the air during this gold age of songwriting had to do with the fact that plays and musicals were not amplified electrically until general mics (hidden near the footlights) began to be used in the 50s… Songs had to be written with syllables and words and melodies which could be projected by one human larynx/throat/heart over an orchestra to a theater full of hundreds of audience members. And the audience members had to listen very carefully. I am guessing the experience of audience members in the ’10s, ’20s, ’30s and ’40s was more of a “leaning-forward-to-catch-every-nuance” experience than a “blasted-backwards-and-need-to-wear-my-earplugs” experience… which was my experience a few years ago at a Sondheim show in NYC. Hurrah for Kern and Gershwin and Porter and Berlin and Arlen and Mercer and Hammerstein and Hart and Rodgers and Youmans and Field and Styne and all the other terrific songwriters from the first half of the 19th century!

    • Joe Reid and I have been performing an hour-long Kern program for the past year at retirement communities. His melodies are very satisfying and fun to sing. Now we’re working on a Hammerstein show to debut this fall (Hammerstein having written many great songs with Kern before teaming up with Rodgers…) Thanks for listening (and sharing!!!) ps: I love these arrangements with Steve Sweeting at the piano…

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