The Last Balladeer: The Johnny Hartman Story
Several years ago I was riding in a car to a jazz gig with a few cohorts when "Lush Life" from the iconic John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman album began playing on the stereo.
"I heard everything on the album was recorded in one take," said my friend in the driver's seat.
"You know, Johnny Hartman was only 17 when he joined up with Earl Hines," said another.
Still one more passenger chimed in, "Hartman never got more famous because he spent most of his career overseas."
The conversation then waned into silence before shifting into a 30-minute discourse on the merits of John Coltrane's use of the Phrygian mode. That summed up nicely the situation for Hartman. There he was, the beloved vocalist on one of the most important vocal jazz records ever made and all he elicited from our small group of ardent jazz fans was three commentsand all incorrect comments at that.
Hartman had somehow escaped the glare of jazz journalism since his death in 1983 from lung cancer. In 1995, his career enjoyed a posthumous spike in popularity following the use of his recordings in Clint Eastwood's The Bridges of Madison County but at the time, the press reported on him in near mythical terms using only one or two error-ridden articles as sources. Hartman was described in ghostly, beyond-human terms which superseded reliance on the earthly reality that he might have merely been a man who worked hard, walked his daughters to school, passed out business cards with his home number, and had a wife with a day job.
Hartman had become more legend than man, and legends don't need to have their stories straight. Within the liner notes for each new CD reissue, his story got increasingly vague. The same few quotes were regurgitated, and sometimes even mutated, making their next appearance still further removed from the original intent. Suppositions reported as fact became fodder for the next writer unwilling to check the source material. Legends don't need inconvenient details to get in the way.
And now, after several decades of mostly inadvertent mythologizing, even Hartman fans with the best of intentions don't really know anything about the man they so adore when hearing his "My One and Only Love," "I'll Remember April," or "I See Your Face Before Me."
I decided in early 2010 to clarify Hartman's legacy and document the story while I could still track down enough of his family, friends, and peers. The resultant book, The Last Balladeer: The Johnny Hartman Story (Scarecrow Press "Studies in Jazz" series, 2012) is the result of two years' work, and worth every minute to me. I won't say I uncovered every fact and figure on the man, but I damn well gave it a shot. If nothing else, I came across Hartman's prized recipe for gumbo in an obscure magazine now long out of print. I'll at least get a good meal out of the effort.
To me, Hartman has grown to represent the very voice of romance in our times. The unadorned, molasses-sweet, sanguine tone of his baritone voice transcends the years to share stories of love and hope in a century he never saw and yet perfectly understood. He knew love would still fill our dreams, and hope would still keep us searching for that very love we crave. Hartman died all too young at the age of sixty, but the secrets to life were already his, and we can hear about it anytime one of his ballad recordings reaches our ears. And now you can read about it too.
Below is an excerpt from Chapter 12 of The Last Balladeer: The Johnny Hartman Story, in which Harman gets his first booking at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1975. Please visit www.johnnyhartmanbook.com to order a complete copy.]
In the summer of 1975, New York City smelled bad. The wildcat strikes of the sanitation workers caused the trash to pile up on the sidewalks and the resultant odor became front-page news. In the midst of this predicament, Johnny Hartman made his first appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, a major opportunity for him to re-connect with jazz fans and parlay a solid performance into years of gigs. But if the printed reviews are to be believed, he did little to sweeten the city air. He took the stage during the evening of July 1, as part of the "Schlitz Salute to Jazz and the American Song" at Avery Fisher Hall. Each of the various acts was expected to interpret the music of a well-known composer of popular song, and for Hartman that meant his idol, Duke Ellington.