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Peter Nero and the Philly Pops Celebrate the Music of the “Greatest Generation”

Philly Pops Orchestra Revisits "The Stage Door Canteen"
Peter Nero, Artistic Director
Lynn Roberts, featured vocalist
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
Philadelphia, PA
March 27, 2010

Why a concert review of the popular music of World War II on a jazz-focused website? The very question suggests how misguided it can be to separate jazz from its past. Many of the standards that jazz groups play today come from this period. And nearly all of the innovators of modern jazz—Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Anita O'Day, Stan Getz, J.J. Johnson, to name but a few—cut their teeth in the swing bands of the period. The big bands of 1936-1945 (the period represented in this concert) were inherently jazz and blues-based, and brought the jazz idiom into the popular culture in an unprecedented way, providing the morale and respite that sustained America and England through five devastating years of World War II. There has never been the same close relationship between music and the spirit of the nation as what prevailed between the big bands and what Tom Brokaw has called "The Greatest Generation." Jazz itself has benefited ever since though, unlike the war years, it can no longer claim to be virtually synonymous with popular music.

"The Stage Door Canteen" at the Kimmel Center featuring big band vocalist Lynn Roberts—who sang with the bands of Benny Goodman, Harry James, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey (with whom she once shared the stage of New York City's Paramount Theatre with Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich)—served as testimony to the beauty, sentiment, and flair of the music that carried a generation through a world war. Pops Music Director Peter Nero made sure that the event had all the right ingredients: excellent selection of songs; spot-on arrangements based on the originals but up-scaled for orchestra; a sense of nostalgia with a modern feel; and the still-powerful vocal chords and disciplined renditions of Lynn Roberts after more than six decades of touring and recording with the big bands.

Adding to festive and vibrant program was a re-creation of the Andrews Sisters by three women of the Voices of the Pops. Wearing soldiers' caps and capturing the playful cat-like mannerisms of the popular vocal trio, they showed how much has changed musically and culturally since then. Roberts, by contrast, wore present-day trendy outfits, which she changed from white to black during the intermission (as if to symbolize the shift in public sentiment from excitement to grief as the war dragged on). The concert reached a climax with the anthems of the U.S. Armed Forces, with service men and veterans in the audience asked to stand when their specific anthem was played. The only disappointment was the scarcity of younger soldiers in the audience, and a dearth of women and African-Americans who served so nobly during WW II, not to mention Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, and Iraq. (This concern will be addressed in the form of a "social commentary" at the end of the review. The issues stirred up in this reviewer upon reflection on what was otherwise an occasion of grandeur and delight are of such significance as to deserve special attention.)

The concert began with the Count Basie arrangement of Gershwin's "Strike Up the Band," augmented superbly for full orchestra. Ron Kerber delivered a lively tenor sax solo with shades of the great Paul Quinichette. Lynn Roberts then sang Jimmy McHugh's "Sunny Side of the Street" and World War II favorite, "We Mustn't Say Goodbye," with the sweetness of the vocalists of the time, especially her stated idol, Helen Forrest. The mock "Andrews Sisters" delivered "Bei Mir Bist du Schoen" with panache. Kenny Brader spun a terrific trumpet solo with a full, melting Harry James sound on the James' hit "I Don't Want to Walk without You." (The solo improvisations throughout were superbly executed.) These nostalgic songs were then given an exclamation point by "Times Square," a rocking dance number from Leonard Bernstein's first musical, On the Town. Following two Lynn Roberts vocals, "I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen" and "I'll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time," Nero displayed his piano mastery with his typical pyrotechnics and classical music references on Jerome Kern's/Dorothy Fields' "Pick Yourself Up," written for and recorded by Fred Astaire in 1936—a Depression era song revived by Nat King Cole and, as President Obama reminded us by quoting the song's lyrics in his Inaugural address, very appropriate for our own times. A danceable Glenn Miller fox trot version of "Moonlight Serenade" was followed by Harry James' version of Harry Warren's "You'll Never Know How Much I Love You."

The music went forward with Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn's "It's Been a Long, Long Time" and the Glenn Miller arrangement, featuring the voices of Tex Beneke and the Modernaires, of "Chattanooga Choo Choo." Throughout these homages—to Miller and Harry James, in particular—the Pops regulars, notably trumpeters Ken Brader and Bob Gravener, and saxophonists Kerber, Joe Rotella, and Greg Riley, delivered rousing solos in the styles of the big band era. The set concluded with a suite from the box-office busting Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma.

The supplemental rhythm section of bassist Michael Barnett and drummer George Mazzeo provided superb driving force throughout. Considering that there were full percussion and double bass sections in the orchestra, the fact that Barnett and Mazzeo shone through was no easy accomplishment, and was partly due to Nero's outstanding "crossover" arrangements which, along with the musicians, mark the Philly Pops as arguably the best pops ensemble on the planet today.

Following the Intermission, the Pops performed a straight medley of songs from the war years. "And the Angels Sing" featured a celebratory trumpet solo by Brader. Roberts seamlessly segued from "I Had the Craziest Dream" into "You Made Me Love You." The "Andrews Sisters" rollicked "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" with a Bette Midler accent, and "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" featured a duet by Roberts and bassist Barnett serving as cameo vocalist. "I'll Walk Alone" (sung by Clint Eastwood in his film, Songs of Our Fathers) was followed by a series of songs about the end of the war: "Sentimental Journey," immortalized by Doris Day, "The White Cliffs of Dover," and "When the Lights Go On All Over the World," echoing the quiet joy mixed with sadness of the end of the war, when the troops were glad to come home and reunite with their loved ones but saddened by the sobering memories of war.

The concert concluded with rousing renditions of the anthems of each of the Armed Forces and with Mayor Michael Nutter as the surprise conductor of the "Philly Pops Clap Song," even as the Mayor is in the midst of dealing with his own "war," namely the flash mobs of rowdy youth in the South Street district of the city.

The Philly Pops, always top of the line, was at its very best on this occasion. (Thanks to Nero's tireless efforts, this esteemed musical institution remains highly successful even as its sister Philadelphia Orchestra and the Kimmel Center itself go through financial difficulties due to the current recession.) Nero narrated and conducted superbly. Lynn Roberts combined consummate big band vocal styling with orchestral concert power and show music verve, delivering more than anyone could ask for. This was a masterfully engineered concert that saw the orchestra shine, the vocalists glow, and the "Greatest Generation" honored with the very music they inspired.

Postlude: A Social Commentary

No doubt, the concert served its purpose many times over. It recapitulated a musical era with near-perfect attention to detail in a contemporary and forceful orchestral format. The singers and musicians individually and in ensemble gave outstanding performances, a fitting testimony to the veterans and their families who, as Nero pointed out, dedicated themselves at great cost to freedom and the American way of life. It was surely deeply nostalgic for those in the audience who came of age during the war years. The concert experience was unforgettable in those terms.

At the same time, this reviewer was troubled, not by the concert which, as the foregoing should attest, was superb, but by what it indirectly communicated about our society. First of all, hardly anyone in the packed-solid audience, as best as could be seen, was under the age of 60 (the reviewer himself is 69.) This alone speaks to the isolation of the different generations of our country. DJ Bob Perkins has pointed out that his generation failed to inculcate a love of jazz in their children. "Jazz Loft Project" curator Sam Stephenson has mentioned how little we seek to learn the wisdom and knowledge of the elderly, a societal failure that goes far beyond the music. The current youth culture together with the preoccupations of the media, with its emphasis on sex, thrill-seeking, and violence, suggest that better role models are needed along with examples of a community sharing its love of country and hope for the future. The music of "The Stage Door Canteen" was itself the music of youth but had a dignity and sentimentality that often seems lacking in the popular culture of today. One wishes there were younger people in the audience to hear this music and be exposed to the core values it implies.

Second, the popular jazz-based music of WW II had a distinct purpose of maintaining the morale of a people who had to muster their energy and faith to fight two enemies abroad. For that reason, it never protested the harsh, cruel realities of war. An anti-war number would never be included in the "Stage Door Canteen." Bernstein's rocking "Times Square" from On the Town was included, but not excerpts from Britten's A War Requiem. Nor could Picasso's mural "Guernica" or W. Eugene Smith's photograph of two Pacific Campaign soldiers carrying a critically injured child be shown in the background.

Finally, there was a disturbing shortage of African Americans and servicewomen in the audience. Segregation and anti-feminism were realities in America during World War II. African Americans had to serve in separate units from whites. Women were regarded largely as caretakers and sex objects. Japanese Americans were placed in detention camps due to unwarranted fear they might betray their country. Discrimination in America was and is a reality that needs to be acknowledged in terms of its past and present consequences. The music of WWII largely ignored these societal inequities.

None of these reflections takes away from what was an exceptional concert performance by the Philly Pops and featured vocalists. But as the highly decorated WWII veteran Audie Murphy said, "War is Hell." And our own hypocrisy is yet another unmentionable hell for many people. We should not be lulled by sweet music into forgetting these realities. In the words of philosopher George Santayana, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

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