Harlem to Hollywood: A Centennial Celebration of The Music of Harold Arlen


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Riverwalk Jazz celebrates the 100th birthday of Harold Arlen in 2005.

Regarding Harold Arlen’s gift for songwriting, Alec Wilder in “American Popular Song" wrote, “[Arlen] entered the field of popular music at a propitious time, one in which he could spread himself and experiment...He is fully a product of American jazz, big dance music, and American popular song."

Arlen wrote over 400 songs, mostly for stage shows, revues and motion pictures–most notably the score for the 1939 movie classic, “The Wizard of Oz." Many of his songs, such as “Get Happy,” “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” and “I’ve Got The World On A String” are still considered essential standards by jazz musicians worldwide.

Arlen’s first break-through hit in 1930, “Get Happy” led to jobs writing songs for cabaret revues at top venues like Harlem’s Cotton Club.

After a move to Hollywood, Arlen and his wife Anya enjoyed a highly active social life as part of Hollywood's elite, living the high life with their friends George Gershwin, Groucho Marx and Jack Benny.

In July 1938, Harold Arlen and his lyricist partner E.Y. Harburg were signed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer to write the score for “The Wizard of Oz." In two months, they completed the score. Surprisingly, Arlen and producer Arthur Freed had to fight the studio to keep “Over The Rainbow” in the movie.

After the success of Wizard, Arlen continued to write great music for over 40 years, collaborating with top lyricists like Johnny Mercer, on their hit tunes “Blues in the Night" and “One for My Baby." He died in 1986 at the age of 81.

Despite his towering contribution to American popular song, the name Harold Arlen today is not remembered nearly as well as other songwriters of his generation. Edward Jablonski included this story in his biography “Harold Arlen: Happy with the Blues."

One day Harold was taking a taxicab ride cross-town in Manhattan. After he had settled in his seat, he found himself confronted by a classic situation. The cabby was whistling “Stormy Weather,” an Arlen standard dating back to the Thirties. It was an opportunity for experiment that the composer could not ignore. “Do you know who wrote that song?" he asked the driver. “Sure. Irving Berlin." “Wrong," Arlen informed him, “but I'll give you two more guesses." The cabby thought hard, and at times audibly if not understandably, explaining that the name of the composer was on the tip of his tongue, but he just couldn't come up with it. Arlen prompted him: “Richard Rodgers?" “That is the name I was thinking of," the cabby admitted, “but he's not the one." “How about Cole Porter?" “That's who!" “No, you're wrong again," Arlen told him. “I wrote the song." The cab darted across an intersection before the driver, still thinking, finally asked, “Who are you?" “Harold Arlen." At this the cabby turned around in his seat and asked, “Who?"

Based on Riverwalk Jazz script ©2005 by Margaret Moos Pick

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