Blossom Dearie, Carmen McRae, Carole King, cole porter, Dave Frishberg, Dr. Seuss, Frank Sinatra, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Leonard Cohen, Lorenz Hart, lyricists, lyrics, National Poetry Month, nursery rhymes, Oscar Hammerstein II, Rob McClure
I started working on this post on Saturday, April Fool’s Day, and was rounding up some tunes related to April and to fools – you know, “These Foolish Things,” “I’m a Fool to Want You,” – tunes along those lines when it occurred to me to go a different direction, JazzBabies.
April is National Poetry Month and since, in my other life, I’m a poet, I decided to honor the poets of jazz, the talented and often amazing lyricists who’ve put words to the tunes that have become standards or that might be on their way. Their poems/lyrics range from romantic to humorous and they are the other half of the team known as Words and Music.
Good lyrics are, after all, poems and good lyricists use poetic devices all the time – rhyme, of course, but also similes and metaphors and alliteration and meter, compression and repetition. A few of them have published poetry as well. The early troubadours, of course, turned poetry into song all the time, songs that were called “lays” or ballads. It’s a fine old tradition.
If you’re thinking you don’t like poetry for one reason or another, I’m going to try to change your mind today. Poems, after all, are among the first things we hear or learn as children – lullabies, nursery rhymes, children’s books. Think Dr. Seuss and the Cat in the Hat.
I say something similar to people who tell me they don’t like art. I suggest they look around at their coffee mugs or favorite shirts or bedspreads or any other lovely thing that someone designed, and then tell me again they don’t like art. I’m entirely open to the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One of the most beautiful things I ever owned was my red hand truck with the big black wheels. A thing of elegance and a work of art in the best sense.
I’ll never be a jazz vocalist (although I’ve written a couple of lyrics I might get set to music one of these days), but next Saturday, April 8, I’ll be reading one of my poems and receiving an award for it at an event in San Diego. In addition to poetry, there will be jazz! It’s a happy occasion, JazzBabies. The poem itself is titled, “Love Song with Flipchart and Pointer,” the lament of an affair gone wrong presented as a business report. We poets can be uncanny, you know.
Now it’s time for some music and words to pay tribute to National Poetry Month. I can’t begin to spotlight every good lyric or lyricist, but I’ve chosen a few jazzy numbers that give us at least the flavor of the matter. And we have an entire month ahead of us. Anything can happen.
I’ll start with a tune from Oklahoma! Richard Rodgers was fortunate enough to have two wonderful lyricists on his team – this time it’s the second of those partners, Oscar Hammerstein II, and the song is “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” in a lovely take by Blossom Dearie. I particularly like the tender way she interprets the message. And Oscar’s image of dawn breaking is downright poetic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tr3Qnw79e7o
Cole Porter, of course, is known for both his terrific compositions and brilliant lyrics. He was a one-man show when writing the music. A lot of Porter’s lyrics tend toward the topical and, of course, many were written specifically for revues or musicals. This next one was written for a musical that became The Gay Divorcee and performed early on by Fred Astaire, but it’s topical only if you think love and passion are topical. “Night and Day” is known as being a little different from the usual Porter fare, and there are questions about who he had in mind when he wrote it. I’m not concerned about that – poets are not required to reveal their inspirations! The best I can do is let you hear how Mr. Porter himself performed it. Like the “drip drip drip of the raindrops” Porter’s melody and lyrics work their way into our psyches. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WX_fKVWX2s
Pianist/composer/lyricist Dave Frishberg writes very smartly constructed words and music. His often funny songs belie the enormous depth of his craftsmanship, not only in the lyrics but also in the musical harmonies. This song stands as proof that anything’s fair game when it comes to the subject of a jazz tune, including “My Attorney Bernie.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNWtYtJlvwo
Jazz standards, of course, often begin their musical journey as Broadway show or movie musical tunes or sometimes just popular tunes picked up by one jazz cat or another. There are many lyricists who write for music that don’t easily cross over to the jazz world despite their ability as musical poets. Names like Leonard Cohen and Carole King and Bob Dylan come to mind. But one lyricist seems to have made it across all the lines as a man of many words, and that man is Johnny Mercer who contributed lyrics to the work of a number of composers including Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Harry Warren and Harold Arlen, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mandel. He collaborated on this one with Lionel Hampton and J Francis Burke. Beautiful words, lovely tune and poetic comparisons which we call similes. You’ll hear them. “Midnight Sun” with Carmen McRae. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4viywgvOfHE
I couldn’t talk about words and music without including the Gershwin boys, those talented kids just down the block. Who woulda thought? I really don’t have to explain to you who they were, JazzBabies, or how much they contributed, so let’s just listen to Frank Sinatra sing this ballad they created for the 1926 musical, Oh, Kay! A young Sinatra recorded it in 1945 with Axel Stordahl on the musical end of things. Poetry, indeed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E07b0SbWWFc
When I’m looking for tunes to post here, I poke around all over the web and rely on other sources, too, for inspiration. It was worth the time when I hit the jackpot with the wrap-up tune. I didn’t know about Rob McClure, but now I do and you do, too – if you didn’t before. I found this clip of him performing live at Feinstein’s/54 Below in Manhattan last year and he’s on a roll talking and singing about the importance of – you guessed it – lyrics! McClure is one of those multi-talented actor/singers who can cover the entire waterfront. He’s here with words from the legendary Lorenz Hart to a tune by the equally legendary Richard Rodgers. He offers a great performance and a worthy lesson about why the words matter. (He also includes a line about Greenwich that doesn’t show up in most recordings. Wait for it.) I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bNaBxQxAP4
And that’s a wrap, JazzBabies. Next time you’re enjoying the words to your favorite song, take a moment to thank a poet! We’ll all thank you…