If you're new to jazz, go to our Getting Into Jazz primer
for some hints on how to listen. Background
The Great American Songbooksongs written from the 1920's to the 1950's by giants such as Cole Porter, Rogers & Hart, Duke Ellington and the Gershwin brothershas inspired jazz musicians and singers for generations, supplying the raw material for endless improvisation. In listening to jazz, a good rule of thumb is "Know the song and you're halfway there." So for jazz newcomers unfamiliar with the Songbook, here's an introduction to the work of composer-lyricist Cole Porter. The CD
This classic 2-disc set is an aural encyclopedia of Porter's songs, beautifully performed in 1956 by singer Ella Fitzgerald when her voice was at its best, with slick orchestral arrangements by Buddy Bregman. Although Bregman's violin-laden treatment works with some of the songs, it has a numbing effect on others. I'll note those in some of the track descriptions below, and suggest a few "alternate takes"different singers, different circumstancesthat you may find more satisfying and that you can sample on YouTube. So use this Fitzgerald compilation as a must-have primer on Cole Porter, but also as a jumping off point for exploring the songs further. The songs Disc 1, Track 5, "In the Still of the Night"
Porter, an Ivy-educated son of privilege and lifelong member of the transatlantic smart set, is best remembered for sophisticated, urbane, witty songsfor cleverness above all. But, as you'll hear in this track, he could evoke the pangs of love and longing like no one else. Given the words, the arrangement, the strings (yes, the strings) and Fitzgerald's voice, this is the best version of the song you're likely to hear.
Although the lyrics are brief, notice how Porter evokes three successive moods using just a few phrases. At first the singer is hopeful, reaching out to the loved one ("my thoughts all stray to you"). Then doubt settles in ("Do you love me as I love you"), and finally the singer's thoughts turn dark ("Or will this dream of mine fade out of sight"). Notice too how Porter, in a quiet touch of genius, adds just one extra word at the end of the song, the one that clinches the dark mood. The line now reads "in the chill, still of the night." You can feel it in your bones. Disc 1, Track 2, "Anything Goes"
Here the Fitzgerald-Bregman team falls flat. This is a lighthearted, funny song, written in 1934, about permissiveness gone awry and lives upturned by The Great Depression. But in this version the strings add needless weight and Porter's bawdy, laugh-out-loud lines have been excised, presumably in the name of 1950's propriety.
Alternate take: Nancy Harrow, 1978, in CD Anything Goes
Accompanied by just a plucked double-bass, Harrow does the song with a light, slyly wicked touch, perfect for Porter's naughtier laugh lines ("If Mae West you like, if me undressed you like, well no one will oppose"). Listen too for his wonderful reversal-of-fortune line, written at a time when many wealthy Americans lost everything they had ("and that gent you gave a cent today once had several chateaux"). Porter was known for adding or changing words and lines in a song long after it was written, so there are no doubt more comprehensive versions of "Anything Goes" available somewhere. But this is a good start. Disc 1, Track 6, "I Get a Kick Out of You"
This is an odd one. Fitzgerald is accompanied by only a jazz combo (not a violin within earshot), yet even without the strings she takes the song at such a leisurely pace, and with so little verve, it might have been called "I Get a Snooze Out of You." Other singers have traditionally performed this song as an up-tempo, swinging piece, which accentuates the strangeness of the Fitzgerald-Bregman approach.
Alternate take: Frank Sinatra, 1954, in CD Songs for Young Lovers
Sinatra swings effortlessly on this one, in his first album for Capitol Records. Listen for the signature Sinatra touches: his sliding on a single syllable, as in "le...ave me totally cold," or his lagging behind the beat and then catching up, as in "terr...if...ically too." He wasn't the only one to nail the song, as you can hear in an outstanding 1946 recording by Peggy Lee.
But swinging wasn't always the approach to the Great American Songbook. We've become so accustomed to a jazz inflection in these songs that it's startling to hear them as they were sung on the stage (or in the movies). Listen to the straight-arrow version of "I Get a Kick Out of You" belted out in a 1934 recording by Ethel Merman, who performed it on stage in Porter's show "Anything Goes." The folks in the last row of the balcony could get every syllable, but without the sizzle. Disc 1, Track 9, "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love"