I have recently been listening to and reading about the work of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, one of the great writing partnerships of the American Songbook. This is largely in preparation for a gig I have coming with Will Arnold-Forster and Calum Gourlay on 17th November as part of Bopfest (Alison Neale and Nat Steele’s mini festival within the EFG London Jazz Festival. Our gig is a double bill with Freddie Gavita’s tribute to Clifford Brown). But it also feeds into a general desire, on my part, to learn more about the songs that we play as jazz musicians, in the hope that knowing them in greater detail might lend more depth to my interpretations of them. I also like discovering new (to me) songs to play.
In light of this, I have been enjoying two books that deal with the songs and composers of the Great American Songbook: Alec Wilder’s American Song: The Great innovators, 1900-1950 and Easy To Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs, by William Zinsser.
Wilder analysed the sheet music for thousands up thousands of songs in the writing of his book, which traces the development of the American song in the 20th Century through the work of the major composers, and it can be quite a heavy read! He examines melodies in quite minute detail, but only some feature an accompanying extract from the relevant sheet music, so it can be quite hard to know what he’s on about, especially if you aren’t familiar with the song in question (and by no means does he stick to the famous tunes). That said, it is fascinating to hear the insights and opinions of a man who was himself a great American songwriter, and he certainly doesn’t hold back, describing Gershwin’s “Soon” as ‘almost totally a contrivance’, for example.
The Zinsser book (which of course takes its title from a Rodgers and Hart ballad) uses less technical language and is easier to digest. Written with a real sense of affection, it gives simple characterisations of the great composers and lyricists, summarising what makes them unique. For example:
Cole Porter: wrote ‘list’ songs and his lyrics were often grounded in society’s upper echelons.
Jerome Kern: pure, hymn-like songs, connected to the earlier European light opera tradition.
George Gershwin: highly rhythmic and jazz-influenced.
Harold Arlen: steeped in the blues. Quintessentially American.
Lerner and Loewe: old-fashioned, European-sounding, influenced by Gilbert and Sullivan.
Johnny Burke: schmaltzy and often celestially-themed lyrics.
Yip Harburg: politically left leaning, idealistic lyrics.
Of course, I am massively oversimplifying: there’s much more to Zinsser’s characterisations than than that, and all of those songwriters/lyricists wrote things that don’t fit with those descriptions at all, but I do find it useful to have a slightly more fleshed out sense of the differences and connections between these craftsmen. You are unlikely to get a sense of Lerner and Loewe’s work being old-fashioned or unusually European-influenced if you listen to Sonny Rollins or Kenny Dorham playing “If Ever I Would Leave You”, but that viewpoint makes a lot more sense if you listen to that song in its original form from the musical Camelot.
Rodgers and Hart are characterised by Zinsser as ‘never sound[ing] even slightly old, endlessly inventing ways to move the ear and touch the heart’. In comparing them to one of the other master songwriters of the 1920s and ’30s, he writes that ‘[i]f the young George Gershwin caught the energy of the Jazz Age, the young Rodgers and Hart caught its softer side, the innocence and credulity of first love… Rodgers was more lyrical than Gershwin, his melodies less angular, his rhythms less brittle, and when he opened the throttle for a full-bodied romantic ballad… he served notice that a composer of unusual spaciousness had arrived’.
There is a real sense of poetry and craft to Lorenz Hart’s lyrics. The songs could be sweet (“There’s a Small Hotel”, “Blue Room”), funny (“To Keep My Love Alive”) and often quite sad (“It Never Entered My Mind”, “Little Girl Blue”). As well as being cultured, urbane and witty, Hart also seems to have led a rather troubled, unhappy existence, and love-gone-wrong is a theme that crops up repeatedly in his work.
Wilder refers to Richard Rodgers’ ‘remarkable melodic sensibility’, suggesting that, ‘though capable of highly sophisticated harmony, Rodgers never became so concerned with it as to cause it to distort melodic flow’. Whilst there are Rodgers and Hart tunes that utilise more complex harmony (with its chromatically descending line, “Lover” is an obvious example), it is true that melody is often noticeably at the forefront of things. The original harmony can be quite static, so jazz musicians have tended to come up with more elaborate changes to blow over. Most jazz versions of “It Never Entered My Mind”, including those by Stan Getz/Oscar Peterson and Miles Davis, have that familiar ascending fifth motif (F, F+, F6, etc), plus various ii-Vs, but the original sheet music spends most of the A section simply moving between F major and A minor chords: Rodgers and Hart obviously decided that that pretty diatonic melody and those sad words were enough to sustain the listener’s interest, and it’s hard to disagree if you hear a more ‘authentic’ version of this song, although of course I love Getz and Miles’ respective interpretations.
Perhaps this is the ‘spaciousness’ that Zinsser refers to. Of course, most show tunes leave some room for harmonic interpretation, but Rodgers’ compositions do seem to have a particular openness about them in this respect. “Where Or When” is another prime example: what do you do with all that chord I in the first four bars, and all that chord ii (or chord IV in many jazz versions) in the following four ?
“Little Girl Blue” is another beautiful ballad with fairly miserable lyrics, and jazz musicians have come up with a multitude of solutions to the harmonic questions posed by the melody. To take one single bar, the 8th bar of the (12 bar) A section: the lyrics are ‘count your little’, with the melody descending from the fourth to the root; Bb to F in the key of F major. Over those four beats, the sheet music I have for this (which at least claims to be authentic) has the chords D7b13, D7, Db9#11, Db7. Hank Jones, meanwhile creates an ascending, rather than descending, bass line with Gm7, F/A, Bb6, B diminished. Keith Jarrett’s solution is simplest: A7b9 for two beats and Dm for two beats.
“Little Girl Blue” is also one of those tunes (like “Lush Life” and “Stardust”) where the verse is virtually as important as the chorus or refrain (check). In this case, it goes into 3/4 time (‘When I was very young…’), typically appearing between statements of the chorus, rather than at the very beginning as is often the case with verses.
My own favourite Rodgers and Hart songs include “There’s a Small Hotel”, “Dancing on the Ceiling” and “My Heart Stood Still”. They all have a sweetness and intimacy about them, and they’ve all been interpreted by great jazz artists. “My Heart Stood Still” makes me think of Barry Harris and Bill Evans; “Dancing on the Ceiling” brings Chet Baker and Bird to mind; I love Hank Jones’ and Ella Fitzgerald’s versions of “Small Hotel”. (In fact, most of the songs mentioned here feature on the Rodgers and Hart album from Ella’s Songbook series.)
Lorenz Hart would die at the age of 48, while Rodgers went on to even greater success: he and his new lyricist partner, Oscar Hammerstein II, changed the face of musical theatre with shows like Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music. I really like a lot of those songs (“People Will Say We’re In Love”,”It Might As Well Be Spring” and “The Surrey with the Fringe On Top” spring to mind), but the consensus amongst the cognoscenti seems to be that Rodgers’ earlier work with Hart carries the most depth and beauty. Both Zinsser and Wilder agree, with the latter referring to the ‘almost too comfortable armchair philosophy in Hammerstein’s lyrics’.
Still, Rodgers is one of 20th Century America’s supreme melodists who, along with two of its most important lyricists, crafted dozens of well-loved, evergreen songs. (And he wrote some words of his own, too: this comes from a show for which he was both composer and lyricist). I’m looking forward to learning more of these songs as well as discovering more about the individual characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the other major American Songbook composers.