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.

Getting In Tune with The Infinite

I have been been blessed to sing wonderful songs written by other people for many decades — as the MP3 player on the right hand sidebar of this page can attest.

And every now and then I have helped to write or co-write a song.

But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I bought my first ‘ukulele, that I started writing songs on a regular basis.

I love reading about how other songwriters have created their hits.

Composer Harry Warren and lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote “Jeepers, Creepers,” “On The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” and “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby.”

Warren gave Mercer the nickname ‘Cloud Boy’.

As Warren explained, “A lot of times when I would play a melody for John… particularly if it was after a good lunch… he’d stretch out on a couch and just lie there with his eyes closed and his hands folded across his stomach. He was way up there some place in the clouds. Of course, what came out later was just great.”

When asked by his father about his creative process, Mercer once said, “I simply get to thinking over the song — pondering over it in my mind — and all of a sudden I get in tune with the Infinite.”

Many songwriters have expressed a similar sentiment — that they feel as though they are acting as a conduit or channel for something greater than themselves.

The lyricist Ira Gershwin said that the composer Harold Arlen would never “approach the simplest musical requirement or idea without first calling upon ‘the fellow up there’ — jabbing his finger at the ceiling.”

I cannot say that I have experienced this phenomenon yet.

I have, however, noticed that lyrical themes sometimes emerge which surprise me and lead a song in a different direction than I had originally intended.

And I have had the inspiring experience of writing a song which gradually became true.

It is called “Can We Slow It Down?” — and I wrote it a couple of years ago when I was working full time at my day job in Harvard Square.

I realized recently when I was practicing it at home that my life has in fact slowed down since I began singing this song.

If you are curious, you can listen to “Can We Slow It Down?” by clicking on the audio player at the top of this page.

I will be singing it plus two other originals as part of a mini-set at a lovely open mic in Lexington — hosted by Nourish Restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue — on Tuesday, November 5, 2013, starting around 7:30 pm.

Perhaps you can join us.

Music and Spontaneity

I am at an open mic run by the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists (BACA) in an elegant UU church in Watertown, MA.

Steve Heck, a wonderful local pro, is playing the grand piano, and I am singing “Over the Rainbow.”

It is one of the songs in a new show about Harold Arlen I have recently begun performing with pianist Joe Reid.

After Steve takes a piano solo, I re-enter at the bridge of the song (“some day I’ll wish upon a star…”) and then I hear elevator doors opening behind me.

Three women — friends of Steve Heck, I later learn — appear on stage. They did not realize that the elevator would deposit them there.

I turn and, still singing, welcome them in order to escort them across the stage and down into the audience. But as I do this, I realize that they probably love music and very likely know all the words to “Over the Rainbow;” so I encourage them to stay with me onstage and sing — which they happily do.

One woman in particular catches my attention because she is singing a beautiful harmony line in a great, big, functional belting voice. We make eye contact as the song builds to a dramatic and completely spontaneous harmonic climax of “Why oh why can’t I?” — each of us singing at the top of our vocal range, my microphone completely unnecessary.

The entire series of events has lasted less than a minute, and the entire room is happily caught up in the moment.

Afterwards, during a break period, I am asked how I managed to time their arrival so perfectly. I explain that I had never met them before and that the entire experience was utterly spontaneous — unfolding moment by moment with no guidance other than the lyrics of the song and our shared love of music.

Ahh, music!

Ahh, spontaneity…

I have been experiencing a lot of spontaneous musical moments in the past few months.

Joe Reid and I put together our Harold Arlen show in one rehearsal that lasted about two hours. He is a jazz pianist who is very comfortable in the here and now.

I brought a bunch of sheet music to his house plus a rough idea of a run order. We double checked the keys for all the songs, played each one through once or twice, and Joe was ready to take it public.

So far we have performed at two retirement communities to very enthusiastic audiences (and we did get together for another hour-long rehearsal before our second performance…)

Of course, I spent many additional hours apart from Joe — making sure I know exactly how the song was originally written, reading several books about Arlen I ordered from my local library, memorizing lyrics, and writing the “patter” to lead from one song to the next.

All of which helps me to surrender to the moment when we are performing them.

I have also begun leading Music Together (MT) classes in Arlington and Belmont.

MT is a very-well-researched and very-well-planned program to introduce small children — along with their care-givers — to the joy and fun of music-making.

Although one is expected to learn 30+ new songs (carefully arranged to include a wide variety of keys and rhythms) each semester, one is also encouraged to be spontaneous and improvisatory during each class.

I am sure my training during the past six months to become a MT teacher helped me to go with the flow at the BACA open mic when those three women appeared onstage.

And I have experienced many moments of musical connection with children and parents during my first two weeks of MT classes that have given me a similar jolt of delight.

I think this might be what I am supposed to be doing here on planet earth!

I will end with a version of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer classic, “Accentuate the Positive” that I recorded with pianist Doug Hammer during a rehearsal for the “Mostly Mercer” show that he and Bobbi Carrey and I created last year.

Thanks for reading — and listening!

Singing Together

I just spent a day rehearsing for a performance in Tiverton, RI.

It’s a new show called “In Perfect Harmony” with fellow singer Bobbi Carrey and pianist/composer Doug Hammer — in which all the songs being sung include at least a partial harmony somewhere.

Since we have been performing together for ten years, and since one of our favorite things to do is sing in harmony, we have a lot of material to choose from.

The show also includes quotations and anecdotes about the process of collaboration — which for us has involved a great arranger, Mike Callahan.

From time to time we send Mike recordings from our rehearsals, along with detailed notes about which harmonic ideas we think show promise and which need help.

Invariably he sends charts back to us that both improve our ideas AND surprise us with some great new musical impulse.

Here is an MP3 of our version of Mercer/Mancini classic “Moon River” if you are curious to hear the fruits of this collaborative process.

There is something very intimate and satisfying about singing with someone else — whether in unison or harmony.

And since electricity entered our daily lives in the last century, our patterns and habits of singing have changed.

Crooning along with the radio or a CD or an MP3 is great — yet it’s different from singing with another real live human being.

I just returned from a week in upstate NY at a wonderful, ramshackle family cottage with no internet access and no TV.

One of my cousins told me about songs she heard as a child from her parents and grandparents — some of which were originally sung by people working outside in gardens and fields as a way (according to my cousin) to pass the time and remain connected with their neighbors.

What a different era of human civilization!

Thanks to my ukulele and the great “Daily Ukulele” songbooks, we sang together most nights on the beach around a camp fire — while the younger members of our family roasted marshmallows and made s’mores for all to eat.

I could do this for hours — and in fact on the last night I did play without a break for over three hours.

Music. Stars above. Friends and family all around. Lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.

Bliss.