As longtime readers of my blog probably recall, when I was laid off from my day job as assistant director of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education seven years ago, I decided to devote my life to making music.
A few months after my lay-off, a Boston-area jazz pianist named Joe Reid reached out to see if I might like to do a gig at the retirement community where his dad lives.
I had met Joe several years earlier — when HE was in the midst of a life transition from working full-time as a lawyer to working full-time as a musician — and promptly said, “Yes!”
We needed to prepare an hour of music, and I mentioned that I had long loved many songs co-written by composer Harold Arlen — a list which includes “My Shining Hour,” “I’ve Got The World On A String,” “Accentuate The Positive,” “Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” “Blues In The Night,” “That Old Black Magic,” “If I Only Had A Brain,” “Over The Rainbow,” “Happiness is Just A Thing Called Joe,” “Let’s Fall In Love,” “Get Happy,” and “It’s Only A Paper Moon.”
I had sung a few of these songs in a program of music featuring the lyrics of Johnny Mercer with singer Bobbi Carrey and pianist Doug Hammer — because one of Mr. Arlen’s many collaborators was Mr. Mercer.
And I was familiar with others due to the movie version of The Wizard Of Oz, for which Mr. Arlen composed the music and Yip Harburg wrote lyrics (and a lot of uncredited dialogue — a topic I will explore in a future blog post dedicated to Yip).
I biked over to Joe’s house — in the town next to mine — with a bunch of sheet music.
We spent about 90 minutes running through thirteen songs — picking comfortable keys and exploring tempos/feels for each of them.
And that was it for rehearsing with Joe.
Joe (on the left) is very much a “let’s-trust-in-the-moment” kind of musician who welcomes improvisation and spontaneity.
I, too, value spontaneity — and I also appreciate structure.
So I booked time with pianist Doug Hammer at his studio north of Boston.
We recorded all of the Arlen songs once or twice so that I could have a set of piano-only tracks to play on my iPod as I walked around Arlington memorizing lyrics.
And some of the versions we recorded — such as the version of “It’s Only A Paper Moon” included in the player at the beginning of this blog post — came out surprisingly well.
“It’s Only A Paper Moon” was written for a 1932 play (not a musical) called The Great Magoo set in Coney Island which was not a big success.
It is credited to Arlen, Harburg, and impresario Billy Rose — who was somewhat infamous for adding his name to the songwriting credits of other people’s work after having contributed an idea or two during the creative process.
You may recognize Rose’s name because he was married for many years to the great performer Fanny Brice, and his character appears in the movie Funny Lady starring Barbra Streisand as Brice.
Somehow this Coney Island hot dog made me think of him…
Luckily the song was rescued from The Great Magoo and included in a movie called Take A Chance the next year — which led to successful recordings by a wide range of musicians over the past 70+ years.
I love the metaphors and imagery used in the song — all things one might encounter at an amusement park like Coney Island.
I also love the sentiment of the song — that if someone believes in and loves another person, their belief and love can be transformative.
And looking at these photos, I am struck by the way an amusement park transforms from day to night…
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and I would like to dedicate Doug’s and my version of “It’s Only A Paper Moon” to all of the folks who have at one time or another believed in me — including friends and acquaintances in the WordPress blog-o-sphere.
Your positive feedback regarding my music and my blog continues to touch and inspire me every day.
Thank you to Pixabay for the great color photographs of Coney Island and other amusement parks around the world.
Thank you to Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg and Billy Rose for writing this wonderful song.
And to Joe Reid for asking me to do a gig with him seven years ago.
Since then Joe and I have done hundreds of gigs together and created twenty five different one-hour musical programs.
Thank you to Doug Hammer for his engineering excellence and his playful virtuosity at the keyboard.
And THANK YOU for reading and listening — and even leaving a comment or two from time to time.
“I’ll Be Here With You” (on the player at the beginning of this blog post) is one of Bobbi’s and my favorite songs with which to end a performance.
And, although I do not know the details of Nancy and David’s musical partnership, I have the sense that this song may have had a strong emotional resonance for them (and might even have been inspired by their friendship…)
Perhaps people who know more about David and Nancy’s history can weigh in using the comments section at the end of this blog post.
I think of David whenever someone says something along the lines of, “They don’t write great standards like they used to…”
There are, in fact, many people who are alive and well on planet earth and who are writing beautiful, wise songs.
But the ways that those songs reach — and touch — the rest of the world have changed significantly since the days of sheet music and singing around pianos in living rooms.
No longer does a new song get recorded by many, many different performers — with different recordings of the same song vying for the top spot on a few national radio networks.
The rise of the singer-songwriter — along with self-contained bands who create their own original material — marked a significant shift in our popular musical culture.
David’s songs have been recorded by pop stars including Diana Ross, Barry Manilow, and Petula Clark — but these days Diana, Barry and Petula are not dominating the charts as they once did…
However, we now have many new ways to share music — such as YouTube, Pandora, Spotify… and even personal blogs like mine.
And there are many singers still devoted to both the Great American Songbook of standards from the 1920s-1960s AND to all of the great songs that have been written since then.
So ripples of music continue to wash around our culture and around our planet…
Thank you to David Friedman for writing songs.
Thank you to Bobbi Carrey for her singing and for her musical collaboration over the past 15 years.
Thank you to Doug Hammer for his piano playing and his engineering and his production skills and his patience and his humor.
Thank you to Mike Callahan for his vocal arrangements.
Thank you to Pixabay for most of the images in this blog post (and to the world wide web for the ones of David and of Nancy).
And thank YOU for making time so that you could read and listen to another one of my blog posts!
Recently we experienced the warmest February day ever recorded in Boston according to a radio announcer on WBUR.
In the short run, I am very grateful for this lovely respite from wintry weather.
In the long run, however, I wonder what’s going on with the larger weather patterns and ocean temperatures on planet earth?
Our opposable thumbs — and seemingly insatiable desire for novelty and innovation — have helped us to create all sorts of stuff.
And much of what we have created needs power from fossil fuels (in the form of electricity, for example) to function or is actually made from fossil fuels outright in the case of plastic.
Plastic wrap. Plastic toothbrushes. Plastic containers to store leftovers. Plastic bags. Plastic bumpers on cars (one of which my sister’s dog was able to chew into pieces when he thought a small animal was hiding under it!)
Plastic plates. Plastic silverware. Plastic cups. Plastic shower curtains. Plastic bowls. Plastic bottles filled with water and laundry detergent and shampoo and apple cider.
Plastic dispensers for easy-gliding floss (which is itself made out of plastic). Plastic souvenir tchotchkes. Plastic electronic devices. Plastic credit cards.
The list goes on and on.
Today I listened to a news story about an area in Texas where we human beings have been extracting oil and gas for the past hundred years.
We’ve been blessed with an inheritance of solar energy accumulated by plants growing on planet earth for millions of years — and we are withdrawing it — and spending it — in the blink of a cosmic eye.
What an amazing inheritance!
Why are we squandering it to manufacture and then purchase stuff that doesn’t usually make us feel any better after the initial thrill of acquisition subsides?
Stuff that won’t decompose for hundreds of years — thus contaminating and altering all sorts of natural processes and feedback loops on land and in our lakes and rivers and streams and oceans.
Why have we not been taught to weigh the long-term consequences of our manufacturing and consumer choices?
I sometimes wonder what an economy would look and feel like which actually honored the long-term costs and consequences of fossil fuel-driven lives on the larger ecosystems which sustain the amazing, interconnected web of life on planet earth…
I am guessing it would be simpler and slower.
It was a growing awareness of all the stuff in my life which inspired me to write lyrics for a melody by Steve Sweeting many years ago which became the song “Stuff.”
I was visiting dear friends who had moved into a large new home on Bainbridge Island near Seattle — and reflecting upon the pros and cons of our very blessed — and privileged — lives.
She is a songwriter and singer and teacher whom I met when I participated in a week-long cabaret conference at Yale.
I — and many of my singing peers — love to perform her songs, the most famous of which is probably “The Rose,” which she wrote for the movie starring Bette Midler.
She has recently finished a new CD of her latest batch of songs called Voices.
I guessed that she might be sick of listening to herself (which one ends up doing over and over and over again when one is recording and mixing and mastering a CD) and open to the possibility of hearing something new.
And, bless her, I was right.
Here’s what she wrote back after listening to Steve’s CD:
“Thank you so much for sending the lovely CD! It was such joy to hear your voice again. AND to listen to something that wasn’t ME for a change!
The songs are terrific. Your performances are nuanced and touching and lovely.
My very favorite is STUFF.
I think I have to have it.
Feels like it would something perfect for me to put in my repertoire if your friend is willing to share.”
Needless to say I was astounded and excited and humbled that she had made time to listen to the CD, that she liked Steve’s songs, and that she liked one of the songs to which I had contributed lyrics well enough that she might end up adding it to her repertoire!
Deep breath in…
Deep breath out…
It’s funny how something as simple as someone asking for the sheet music for a song I have co-written gives me a renewed sense of validation and encouragement to continue on my (still extremely humble) path as a songwriter.
Maybe it’s another example of the power of feedback loops — in this case feedback that Amanda found the melody and chords and ideas and arrangement of “Stuff” compelling enough that she might want to learn it and then share it with others.
Another deep breath in…
And another deep breath out…
Despite all of the larger patterns of disrespect and dishonesty and disbelief which are rippling around our country and around the planet these days, I will continue to count my blessings, continue to reduce my ecological footprint, and continue to sing — and sometimes write — songs.
Thank you, as usual, to Pixabay for the lovely images in this post.
Thank you to Steve Sweeting for entrusting his melodies to me.
Thank you to Amanda McBroom, for making time in her complicated life to listen to Steve’s CD AND then to send such uplifting feedback to us.
And thank you to YOU for reading and listening to another one of my blog posts.
PS: I hope you noticed the irony of me ranting about all the plastic junk we human beings create and buy and sell on planet earth and then agreeing to make a CD recording of Steve’s songs — thus creating 250 shiny, round, flat pieces of plastic which will be obsolete junk within another decade or so…
And here in the USA we mostly don’t think about them.
And that’s just the human-to-human devastation…
There is also an extraordinary wave of extinction of other forms of life on planet earth unfolding right now… and most humans don’t want to think about that either.
We are ignorant — choosing to ignore the complicated and heart-breaking repercussions of our actions because it is too painful.
And because the challenges of how we might change some of these patterns seem too vast.
And because our media tends to give us a very limited glimpse of what is happening here on planet earth.
And because our media — which at its most basic level exists to entice human beings to BUY THINGS — has very little incentive to do anything other than reinforce the allure of fame and wealth and celebrity and insane over-consumption.
Over-consumption of cars and alcohol and clothing and accessories and medication and food products and music and fossil fuels and hair dye and eyeliner and TV shows and lipstick and sunblock and pesticides and movies and plastic bags and electronic devices and travel and “entertainment” and a myriad other things that most of us do not need.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
“When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep,” the songwriter Irving Berlin once wrote and set to music.
According to Wikipedia (and a book edited by local musical expert Ben Sears called The Irving Berlin Reader) it was based on Berlin’s real life struggle with insomnia.
He wrote in a letter to Joseph Schenck:
“I’m enclosing a lyric of a song I finished here and which I am going to publish immediately… You have always said that I commercial my emotions and many times you were wrong, but this particular song is based on what really happened… The story is in its verse, which I don’t think I’ll publish. As I say in the lyrics, sometime ago, after the worst kind of a sleepless night, my doctor came to see me and after a lot of self-pity, belly-aching and complaining about my insomnia, he looked at me and said ‘speaking of doing something about insomnia, did you ever try counting your blessings?’”
Mr. Berlin certainly had experienced many things that might have hung heavily on his heart.
He emigrated to the US when he was a small child to escape the anti-semitic pogroms unfolding in Czarist Russia.
His father died when he was young, which catalyzed Irving (or Izzy as he was called by his family) into leaving school and earning money as a paper boy on the streets of lower Manhattan.
His own son died when he was less than a month old on Christmas Day.
Mr. Berlin served in both the first and second World Wars, producing (and performing in) theatrical revues to raise money, lift the spirits of a country at war, and comfort soldiers fighting all around the planet.
As a Jewish man, he must have been deeply affected by the unimaginable reality of the Holocaust… and atomic weapons… and so many other astoundingly destructive human creations of the 20th century.
Mr. Berlin used the song in the 1954 film White Christmas.
Bing Crosby’s character sings it to Rosemary Clooney’s character to comfort and (it being a Hollywood movie — perhaps to begin a romantic relationship with) her.
I join with millions of people who have sung this song in the past 62 years to restore a sense of peace and gratitude in their lives when they are tossing and turning in the middle of the night.
And as 2016 slouches towards 2017, I also count my blessings:
Clean water at the twist of a faucet…
A functioning furnace…
Fossil fuels to power the furnace and stove and water heater…
My sweetheart of almost 25 years…
One remaining parent + a wonderful step parent…
Siblings who love and communicate with each other…
Employment that involves relatively modest consumption/destruction of natural resources (CDs of music to the families in Music Together classes, electricity to play them, fossil fuels to heat and sometimes cool the karate studio where we lead classes, gasoline to power the hybrid car in which jazz pianist Joe Reid and I drive to gigs, electricity to run the PA systems where we perform)…
The magic of digital recording…
My trusty iPods for learning songs…
My ukuleles and laptop computers for creating new songs…
My rhyming dictionaries for inspiration…
The amazing interlibrary book/CD/DVD loan system for more inspiration…
How our bodies can heal themselves…
US citizen privilege….
Once one starts, the list of blessings goes on and on and on.
Thank you yet again to Pixabay photographers for the lovely images in this blog post.
Thank you to Irving Berlin for his musical and poetical genius.
Thank you to Doug Hammer for his reliable studio plus his exquisite rapport while playing the piano (and simultaneously engineering our sessions).
And thank you, brave and hardy soul, for reading — and listening to — this blog post.
Like many people in the United States — and in many other countries around the planet — I have been experiencing a wide variety of feelings since our recent election.
And a lot of denial — for which I am both grateful and apprehensive…
One of the things that I have found the oddest is how most of us have continued to do the same things that we did before the election.
I have continued to buy groceries.
I have continued to take books out from the library.
I have continued to do laundry.
I have continued to get up and lead Music Together classes on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday mornings.
I have continued to do gigs at retirement communities with jazz pianist Joe Reid.
I have continued to learn song lyrics.
I have continued to clean the toilet and wash the kitchen floor.
I have continued to draft blog posts.
I have continued to watch TV.
And I have continued to love the song “Life Goes On” written by Stephen Schwartz (a version of which is in the player at the beginning of this post with Doug Hammer on piano and Mike Callahan on clarinet which we recorded during a rehearsal for my show called Will Loves Steve several years ago).
Photo by Ralf Rühmeier
As you probably know, Stephen Schwartz is the composer and lyricist for Godspell, Pippin, The Magic Show, The Baker’s Wife, Wicked (and more) on Broadway as well as the lyricist for animated movies including Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted.
“Life Goes On” is not from one of his shows or movies, however.
I found it on Mr. Schwartz’s first solo CD release, Reluctant Pilgrim, and have been gently haunted by it ever since.
According to Mr. Schwartz’s web site, “I originally began to write the songs that make up Reluctant Pilgrim in response to a ‘challenge’ from a songwriter friend, John Bucchino. I had been encouraging John (who had always written individual and highly personal songs) to write for the theatre, and John in turned asked why I never wrote individual songs based on my own life. He said it was time to stop ‘hiding behind Hunchbacks and Indian princesses.’ So I decided to try… The first song I wrote was ‘Life Goes On.’ This was an attempt to deal with my feelings after a close friend of mine died of AIDS. Writing the song turned out to be very therapeutic for me.”
Mr. Jones was involved with the AIDS crisis from the very beginning, and he (although he is beautifully soft-spoken and articulate during the interview) reminded me of how loudly and angrily and stubbornly AIDS activists had to demonstrate and organize in order to make progress on understanding and treating this virus when our president and many of our elected officials just wanted to ignore what was happening.
Have we re-entered a time in US history when we will need to act up — regularly, passionately, strategically — in response to our government’s actions and/or inactions regarding climate change, immigration, civil liberties, the rights of the media to investigate those who hold power in our society, etc. etc. etc.?
I do believe that grass roots action is a crucial part of how things — laws, attitudes, opinions, political leadership, prejudices — change.
What might be the most important issue(s) to which I might devote myself in upcoming days/weeks/months?
I have a sense that protecting and maintaining the amazing web of interconnections which make up our various ecosystems is a fundamental priority which underlies (and, dare I say, trumps) many of our specifically human challenges.
But maybe election and campaign finance reform are more crucial in the short run, as an antidote to the oligarchic voices which increasingly dominate (and frame) our political and cultural debate?
How do we address and respond to and heal the enormous reservoirs of fear and anger and disrespect which seem to be percolating in the hearts of so many fellow human beings on planet earth these days?
How do we plant seeds of hope and trust and respect and love while simultaneously standing up with great power so that we are not run over by ignorance and ego and power and greed and fear?
How do we nurture kindness and gentleness while also standing up for justice?
I am clueless.
I hope that music can somehow play a part in whatever activism and consciousness-raising and healing are on the horizon.
Until then, life goes on…
Thank you for reading and listening!
And thank you to Pixabay for the images in this blog post.
I welcome any thoughts, feelings, ideas, and recommended actions in the comments section.
I have loved Stephen Schwartz’s music ever since I heard the cast album of Godspell in 1971.
I don’t remember how I came to own it, but I played that record over and over again.
So I was wildly excited and nervous when — at age ten — I auditioned for a new musical being directed by Bob Fosse with songs written by Mr. Schwartz.
I sang Cat Stevens’ song “Father and Son” at the audition. (My aunt had given me and my siblings many of Cat Stevens’ albums, which I also loved.)
I vaguely remember standing on a stage, singing to a few people in a darkened theater.
At one point during the audition — or maybe during a callback? — the pianist played a particular section of “Father and Son” in different keys in order to get a sense of my vocal range.
I gamely sang higher and higher until my voice finally cracked.
I must have also have read from some sort of script, but I don’t remember doing any dancing during the audition.
Much to my delight and terror, I ended up being cast as the standby for the role of Theo. I did not attend the first few weeks of rehearsals, but joined the cast midway through the creative process in NYC.
I remember that Ben Vereen was very friendly and welcoming, even though he was one of the stars and was working his butt off during rehearsals.
Mostly I watched from the sidelines and kept a low profile.
I moved with the cast and crew to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, where Pippin previewed.
The Kennedy Center had only recently been built and was enormous. I spent a lot of time exploring the different theaters and backstage areas — as well as the snack room where I often heated up a slice of pizza using an amazing new (to me at least) technology called the microwave oven.
I also spent a lot of time hanging out unobtrusively in the back of the theater, watching rehearsals and mimicking all of the dance routines to the best of my ability (which grew over time…once we were living in NYC year-round I studied tap and jazz at the Phil Black dance studios on the corner of Broadway and 50th street).
The role of Theo — Catherine’s son — was never large and grew smaller as the show was tightened up and re-written out of town.
And then, much to my parents’ surprise — since so many Broadway shows close out of town or last only a few weeks once they open in New York — Pippin proved to be a big hit.
I had to be backstage for every performance, but I never played the role of Theo on stage.
The various standbys — me, the standby for Irene Ryan, the standby for John Rubinstein, and the standby for Ben Vereen — along with the understudies for the other main roles would rehearse our parts with the stage manager on matinee days between the afternoon and evening performances.
Ben’s standby was a lovely man named Northern Calloway, whose day job was playing the role of “David” on Sesame Street, which was filmed in a converted theater on the upper west side of Manhattan.
Jill Clayburgh’s understudy was Ann Reinking, who was then a member of the chorus (but who may have begun dating Bob Fosse during Pippin and went on to all sorts of success afterwards as a performer and as a choreographer).
A boy named Shane Nickerson played the role of Theo each night.
He and I became friends.
Shane’s sister Denise had played the role of Lolita in an unsuccessful musical version of the Nabokov novel and then was cast as Violet Beauregarde in the original movie of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Except she was not really Shane’s sister. She was actually his aunt. But that is another story — and a fascinating example of how we human beings often play roles in real life as well as on stage.
Other than an ever-present anxiety that I might have to perform the role if Shane were to become ill, I had a lot of fun backstage.
I fetched hot beverages for some of the dancers before the show began at the coffee shop across 46th street (where the stage door was located).
I learned how to play chess with one of the younger stage hands.
I watched endless poker game conducted by dressers, musicians and stage hands at a big table behind the orchestra pit while the show was running.
I became friends with the back stage hair dressers and helped brush out the many different wigs which the chorus members wore during the show.
And I hung out with the wonderful animal handlers, Jack and Mary, who took care of the duck and the sheep who appeared nightly in the show.
Among other duties they had to walk the sheep up and down 46th street and along 8th avenue in order to encourage it poop before it went on stage.
The sheep liked to eat cigarette butts, which was not conducive to its health; so I would keep an eye out for them when we strolled around the theater district, chatting with surprised passersby.
I remained as a standby in the original cast until I grew too large for the role. (Theo enters in the second being carried on the Leading Player’s shoulders, and this was a very direct way to gauge my growth month by month…)
I was not the first to leave the company — that was probably Jill Clayburgh, who was replaced by Betty Buckley early in the run, and also dear Irene Ryan, who died about the same time — but it was a very sad and awkward experience for me.
Show business can be very confusing regarding matters of the heart.
A cast and crew come together to create a show or film a movie — or even just a TV commercial — and everyone strives (at least while on stage or when the cameras are running…) to be friendly and part of a team/family while they are attempting to make some magic together.
And then, when the shoot of the movie or the run of the play is over, everyone becomes a free agent again.
And one may never see any of them again.
Were any of those people my friends? Did any of them think about me when I was no longer part of the cast? I certainly thought about them for years afterwards.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
It is humbling to learn on Wikipedia how the lives of various Pippin cast members unfolded before and after their time on stage at the Imperial Theater in the early 70s.
Some are still involved with show business as performers or choreographers or teachers.
Many are dead.
And composer Stephen Schwartz, bless him, has continued to write wonderful songs for Broadway and Hollywood.
I recorded his song “Magic To Do” (the opening number in Pippin) several years ago during rehearsals for a show I put together called Will Loves Steve, which featured songs written by Stephen Schwartz, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Foster, Steve Sweeting, Stevie Wonder and Steven Georgiou — a.k.a. Cat Stevens a.k.a. Yousuf Islam.
Doug Hammer played piano — while simultaneously engineering the track — and Mike Callahan played clarinet.
For many years after Pippin I carried within me a sense that success meant starring on Broadway, or in the movies, or on TV.
Yet now I am amazed that anyone is able to perform EIGHT shows each week, month after month, repeating the same songs and dances and lines and emotions with as much authenticity and enthusiasm as they can muster on any given day.
And the life of a star — with folks asking to take selfies with them wherever they go in public, and having to repeat the same stories over and over again during media junkets while maintaining their youthfulness and beauty and fitness and marketability year after year — seems less and less appealing.
I am slightly surprised to realize that I have learned the same lesson as the title character In Pippin: that a normal life without a lot of fanfare is AOK.
And there is still plenty of humble and unpublicized magic — like what happens in my Music Together classes and during performances at retirement communities and singing along at ukulele meetup groups — to be done each day if one is so inspired…
MMG has been happening — one weekend each spring and one weekend each fall — for 25+ years at various camps around Massachusetts.
When I first started attending it was held in Becket, MA, but now we gather in the woods near Worcester from Friday night until Sunday afternoon.
At the opening circle on Friday night, someone spoke about the recent death of a beloved canine companion.
I was reminded of a wonderful song by a writer named Babbie Green called “At The Pound” (in the player at the start of this post) which I recorded with the gifted pianist Doug Hammer for a CD I did with another singer, Bobbi Carrey, called “If I Loved You.”
Although I have not had a dog in my daily life since my teenage years — when my family had a very loving and patient Corgi named Bryn — I see how invaluable they can be in the lives of my friends and family.
I love “At The Pound” because of the details Babbie includes in the song — such as “now my car’s got a permanent blanket of dog hair.”
I also love how it ends…
“And they praise me for saving her life, saying, ‘oh what a lucky dog she…’ but when I think of all I have learned about loving, it is Molly in fact who saved me.”
Bette Midler — you with the wind beneath your wings who sometimes looks at our planet from a distance — you need to record this song!
Thank you for reading and listening to my blog.
And thank you — yet again — to Pixabay for the lovely photographs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I was visiting friends on Toronto a couple of summer ago, I found a great article in Eating Well magazine profiling Jeff Leach, who is one of a growing number of human beings curious about the communities of bacteria which live in our digestive tract.
According to author Gretel H. Schueller, “most of our resident gut bacteria are real workhorses. Some aid in digestion and produce enzymes to break down foods. Others make vitamins, like B12 and K, and other vital compounds, such as the feel-good chemical serotonin. A few help keep the intestinal lining impenetrable. Some gut bacteria help regulate metabolism. And others boost immunity and fight pathogens.”
You can click here to read Gretel’s summaries of many medical studies exploring the astounding connections between the health of the bacteria in our digestive tract and the health of our other organ systems — including circulation, how we absorb nutrients, and our immune response.
I was amazed to learn that, according to Gretel, “gut bacteria produce HUNDREDS of different neurotransmitters, including up to 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin, a mood and sleep regulator.”
In fact many researchers have begun referring to our digestive tract as a ‘second brain’ partly because our “vagus nerve is a major communications highway which stretches from the brain to various points about the intestinal lining, and communication travels in BOTH directions.”
For example, one species of Lactobacillus bacteria “sends messages from the small intestine to the brain along this nerve. In a study led by John Cryan, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at University College Cork in Ireland, anxious mice were dosed with a proprietary strain of Lactobacillus rhamnosus.”
Gretel further explains that “these rodents then had lower stress hormone levels and an increase in brain receptors for a neurotransmitter that’s vital in curbing worry, anxiety and fear. THE EFFECTS WERE SIMILAR TO A DOSE OF VALIUM. According to a 2011 study, when mice had this bacteria in their gut, they showed less depressive behavior.”
Aside from my discomfort with human beings experimenting on other living beings, I find this an amazing idea.
Jeff Leach does a lot of HIS experimenting on himself — eating different types of foods (fats, proteins, and carbohydrates) for a 10-12 day period and then analyzing the proportions of bacteria which are stimulated to grow in his digestive tract as a result of what he has been eating.
According to him, plant foods with complex chains of carbohydrate molecules — which include Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, chicory root, beans and asparagus — are particularly healthy for us to eat.
I was so inspired by Jeff’s research and Gretel’s article that I ended up writing a song (and recording it with Doug Hammer on piano at his wonderful studio in Lynn, MA) which you can hear by clicking the play button on the top left of this post.
And I find myself right back at the heart of last month’s post — musing about how interconnected all the different forms of life on planet earth are.
Antibiotics can be a blessing which wipe out colonies of life-threatening bacteria in different parts of our body.
For example, we may take some to get rid of a lingering sinus infection.
However, we may also be unintentionally upsetting the healthy balance of bacterial colonies in our guts.
This idea reminds me of why I choose to support organic agriculture when I can.
It may be true that the nutritional value of an organically grown leek (not using pesticides and fungicides and petrochemically-derived fertilizers) is similar to a conventionally grown leek (using pesticides and fungicides and petrochemically-derived fertilizers).
However, I am interested NOT ONLY in this leek’s value to my individual health BUT ALSO in the health of the honeybees and hummingbirds and earthworms and opossums and foxes and rabbits and butterflies and bats and insects which live in and/or pass through the fields in which this leek is grown.
And I am interested in the health of the fish and frogs and newts which live in the streams and rivers into which the rain (or irrigated water) will flow from these leek fields.
And I am interested in the health and balance of the astoundingly complicated communities of bacteria which live in the soil in which this leek grows.
And some of these soil bacteria will end up in my digestive tract along with the leek if I do not wash off too much of the dirt before I eat it.
And that, it turns out, is a good thing.
We are all connected via many different, extraordinary, and still-to-be-discovered strands in the web of life.
And every day we can make choices — about what we buy to eat, about what we choose to wear, about how we move from point A to point B (walk? bike? public transportation? car?) that honor our precious inter-related connections with the rest of life on planet earth.
Thank you for reading, listening, and perhaps even humming along.
ps: I found the lovely photos in this post from a site called Pixabay.
I recently spent an afternoon at Doug Hammer‘s studio, recording songs by Rodgers & Hart and then working on one of my original compositions, called “A Beating Heart,” which you can play by clicking on the left side of the bar above this paragraph.
A careful reader of this blog might recall that I included a Garageband version of this song in a post on April 9, 2014… Since then Doug and I have begun creating piano/vocal versions of many of my songs so that we can perform them at places like Third Life Studio in Union Square, Somerville.
We got a lot of positive feedback after our debut performance there in December with guest vocalist Jinny Sagorin — and we’ll be returning at the end of April to reprise that show.
With so many huge and important things happening on planet earth right now — such as climate change, the loss of biodiversity, our human over-consumption of shared resources, and even the astoundingly unlikely presidential campaign here in the US — I often wonder how my original songs fit into the larger equations of life on planet earth.
Is my desire to share them with a wider audience (“Me, me, me, me! Look at me! Listen to me!”) simply another manifestation of the grossly self-oriented human trend in behavior which is currently tipping our larger ecological feedback loops further out of balance?
To re-center myself, I think of a poster in the bathroom where I get acupuncture which features some of the Dalai Lama’s wisdom:
“Ultimately, the decision to save the environment must come from the human heart. The key point is a call for a genuine sense of universal responsibility that is based on love, compassion and clear awareness.”
He has also written:
“Today more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to all other forms of life.”
However, we human beings still tend to think and plan and speak and act with human ‘tunnel vision.’
I often listen to a radio program on Friday afternoons, and last week the host, Ira Flatow, was discussing asteroids and comets. He mentioned one which flattened 770 square miles of forest in Siberia on June 30, 1908 — adding that luckily no one was hurt.
Wikipedia uses similar language in its description of what is called the Tunguska event, saying that it “caused no known casualties.”
I would modify that to read, “no HUMAN casualties.”
770 square miles is roughly the size of the entire greater Boston area.
All sorts of living beings — trees, eagles, ants, berry bushes, wolves, beetles, moose, falcons, reindeer, elk, plants, bears, storks, robins, bees, nightingales, mushrooms, bacteria, etc. — must have been hurt and/or killed.
Why do we human beings so easily ignore or dismiss non-human death and suffering?
How can we be so deeply ignorant of the profound and crucial ways our human lives are interconnected with the lives of innumerable non-human beings here on planet earth?
The most obvious example of this is the fact that we animals breathe out what plants breathe in. And vice versa. It’s an extraordinary bond between plants (trees, shrubs, phytoplankton, algae, grass, etc.) and animals (dolphins, ants, chickens, worms, orangutans, etc.)
We human beings are also animals.
We depend upon the health of the plant world for our human health.
Healthy trees and healthy forests and healthy phytoplankton and healthy oceans are not optional.
They are vital to the health of all of us.
I agree with the Dalai Lama that we human beings need to experience and understand on an open-hearted, emotional level that our daily lives ARE deeply connected to the lives of all other beings on planet earth.
And the health of those other beings IS intricately connected with our own health and survival.
This is where I see music playing a part in the larger equations unfolding on planet earth.
I know that music — both making it and listening to it — helps me re-open my heart and get in touch with my feelings.
And I see each week in my Music Together classes how singing and dancing and playing as a group can create a community of joy and humor and respect in 45 minutes which continues to ripple — gently and positively — throughout the week in the lives of the families who attend class.
So I will take a deep breath (like a whale!) and dive through my ambivalence about self-promotion into a starboard sea full of hope, love, respect, education, playfulness, creativity, compassion, song, and dance.
And occasional blog posts.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
Thank you for reading and listening!!!
ps: I found the lovely photos in this post from a site called Pixabay.