If you're new to jazz, go to our Getting Into Jazz primer
for some hints on how to listen.
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 Richard Rogers and lyricist Lorenz (Larry) Hart. (For more on the Great American Songbook, see the article Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook
in this "Getting Into Jazz" series.)
Like the Porter album, which was recorded in the same year, this 2-disc set is a treasure chest of classic songs, performed by singer Ella Fitzgerald when her voice was at its best. And, as with the Porter album, the arrangements by Buddy Bregman are alternately silky and swinging.
A few of Fitzgerald's renditions are simply stellar, making the set more than worth having. But with 35 songs on the two discs, there are bound to be a few strikeouts. Some of the other songs are pleasant enough, but you can find more satisfying versions by other singers. I'll note those, and provide "alternate takes"different singers, different circumstances that you can sample on YouTube. So use this Fitzgerald compilation as a must-have primer on Rogers and Hart, but also as a jumping off point for exploring the songs further.
The SongsDisc 1 , Track 8 , "Manhattan"
Success came early to Rogers & Hart. Their first hit show, "Garrick Gaieties," opened on Broadway in 1925, when Rogers was 23, Hart 30a couple of middle-class New York kids making it big, just like in the movies.
In the show's most popular song, "Manhattan," a couple of imaginary New York kids, too poor for a vacation, vow to take advantage of the city instead, turning Manhattan into "an Isle of Joy." But of course it's tongue in cheek. As in, "The subway charms us so, when balmy breezes blow." The breeze in the subwaybefore air conditioning and underarm deodorantwould have choked, not charmed. Another line asks, "And tell me what street compares with Mott Street in July, sweet pushcarts gently gliding by." The allusion to Venetian gondolas is wonderful, but in the real Mott Street, those iron wheels screeched on hot cobblestones dappled with horse droppings. Now there's charm for you.
But it's the song that charms us. On one level it's about innocence, about imagination in the face of adversity, and that's how Fitzgerald delivers it. You won't find a better version than this one, despite the cutesy violins. But because imagination can't completely obscure reality (the subway, the pushcarts), there's a wry undertone in "Manhattan," a dash of bitters to offset the sweetness of Fitzgerald's delivery. Disc 2, Track 13, "Isn't it Romantic?"
By all accounts, Larry Hart's life was mired in guilt and self-loathing. A deeply closeted homosexual and unremitting alcoholic, repulsed by his own appearance, Hart saw himself as unlovable. Yet he created some of the most beautiful evocations of love in American music, as in this song, from the 1932 movie "Love Me Tonight." Fitzgerald serves it as a sweet but bland dish, missing much of the passion in Hart's words. Alternate take:
Mel Torme, in CD Live at Marty's, New York City.
There's poetry in those words, and Torme brings them to life: "Isn't it romantic, music in the night, a dream that can be heard... Isn't it romantic, moving shadows write the oldest magic word." Magic, indeed. For just a moment, Rogers, Hart and Torme weave a spell we willingly embrace. (So does the audience. Listen to their murmur as Torme sings the first few notes of the verse.) Disc 1, Track 10, "I Wish I Were in Love Again"
To sample the range of feeling Hart could call on, listen to this song right after "Isn't it Romantic." Written for the 1937 musical "Babes in Arms," this is a really nasty piece of work, almost gleefully so. As in, "When love congeals, it soon reveals the faint aroma of performing seals..." And in "The words 'I love you till the day I die,' the self-deception that believes the lie..." Given those lines, there's a strange sprightliness to Bregman's arrangement and Fitzgerald's dulcet delivery, as though they just can't summon up the proper venom. To paraphrase the old Hollywood cliché, "What's a nice girl like you doing in a song like this?" Alternate takes:
Frank Sinatra, in CD A Swingin' Affair
There's venom to spare here. Sinatra's beautifully enunciated bitterness, enhanced by a slick Nelson Riddle arrangement, brings the nastiness to life.
Tony Bennett, in CD The Complete Improv Recordings
Recorded in a small-group jazz setting, this one may be even more satisfying than the Sinatra version. Disc 1, Track 12, "It Never Entered My Mind"
From the short-lived 1940 musical "Higher and Higher," this is one of the most poignant songs of regret in the Great American Songbook. The melody is somber, with lyrics to match. Notice how Hart paints a perfect picture of anxiety (or is it depression?) in just five words: "Uneasy in my easy chair..." And how he conveys sleeplessness and regret in a way most of us can understand: ... "That I'd awaken with the sun, and order orange juice for one, it never entered my mind..."
Fitzgerald's rendition is flawless: quiet, reflective, sad but not bitter. This one's a keeper. Disc 2, Track 9, "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered"
Another keeper, this one from the long-lasting and oft-revived show "Pal Joey." Fitzgerald is in her element here. Like "It Never Entered My Mind," "Bewitched" is a rumination on weakness and regret, and Fitzgerald paints the picture in similar shades. She also includes all the words, a rare treat. You won't do better on this one. Disc 2, Track 10, "Mountain Greenery"
Written when Rogers & Hart were a couple of kids ("Garrick Gaieties" again), this just might be the happiest, funniest, cleverest piece of work in the entire Songbook. Hart's words for "Greenery" seem to have burst from his imagination like the contents of a poetic piñata, overflowing with jokes, internal rhymes, even literary references. And best of all, the song's lightheartedness is leavened with love.
Like nearly all Rogers & Hart songs, "Greenery" is about city dwellers. In this case, a pair of them anticipate a picnic in the country, a destination they view as strange and exciting, with "scenery," mosquitoes and hard boulders. So listen and chuckle. Start with "how we love sequestering, where no pests are pestering..." and go from there.
Sadly, the Fitzgerald/Bregman version of "Greenery" omits some of Hart's best lines. For the full treatment, go straight to Mel Torme at Marty's (see below). Alternate take
Mel Torme, in CD Live at Marty's, New York City
It snaps, it cracks, it sizzles, and all the lines are intactincluding one that might recall the English Lit class you took a few (or more) years ago. Remember the poem that went "a book of verses underneath the bough, a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou beside me singing in the wilderness."? It's from a collection called "The Rubiyat of Omar Khayam." You may not remember it (I didn't) but Hart remembered, and he worked it into the lyrics: "Underneath the bough, we'll take a lesson from Mr. Omar, beneath the eyes of no Pa and no Ma, where Mother Nature is boss." (Note that the rhyme works best for New Yorkers, who say "Omah" for "Omar.")
Does a song improve when a singer embellishes it with "personal touches"? Not often. (Can you say "self-indulgent"?) Torme defies that rule with a tiny touch of rare beauty. Listen for this triplet in the first verse: "Eat and you'll grow fatter girl, s'matter girl, attagirl." He tosses off the first two in a hard, teasing tone, then, after the briefest pause, delivers the third with great tenderness. Larry Hart would have loved it.