A Day for Wine and Roses

By Fritz Byers

The first version I heard of “The Days of Wine and Roses” was Perry Como’s. For some reason, one of my parents – I’m being discreet here – decided the household had heard enough of Frank Sinatra, and it was time to diversify. A quick check reveals that Perry’s album, The Songs I Love, was released in 1963. So that’s probably when this downgrade occurred. As I recently told my daughter and son-in-law, who are expecting their first, “only you can keep your children off bad music.”

The song survived Perry, and a few other such insults, and it deserved to. Henry Mancini (music) and the incomparable Johnny Mercer (lyrics) wrote it for the 1962 movie of the same name. The movie, a ravaging portrait of the alcohol-and-life-despair-fueled dissolution of a marriage, is an adult dose, so be prepared. I’ve seen it a couple of times, but I doubt I will again, not even for Lee Remick’s Oscar-nominated turn, which was somehow both aligned with and against type. When I landed on the song for this week’s Song-of-the-Week installment, I briefly had the urge to watch it again, but that passed. 

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Neither Lee Remick, nor her co-lead Jack Lemmon, won the Oscars for which they were nominated, but the song did. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences takes a lot of guff for the way it surfs the zeitgeist, but the voters have done respectably in picking among Best Song nominees. It’s far too early to know which Oscar-winning movie songs from the last several decades will endure. But in the first thirty years that the award was given, beginning in 1934, the Best-Song Oscar went to some worthy compositions: “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Thanks for the Memory,” “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” “You’ll Never Know,” “It Might as Well Be Spring,” “Secret Love,” “All the Way,” and “The Shadow of Your Smile.”

“The Days of Wine and Roses” won in 1962. Andy Williams sang it on the soundtrack. You can find his version on the oddly titled 1963 album, Days of Wine and Roses and Other TV Requests. Yes, the unnamed parent I alluded to above also lobbed this album into the homefront music wars.

But even then, jazz singers and instrumentalists were recognizing the song’s intriguing intricacies. The bass-baritone vocalist Billy Eckstine, who in the 1940s had managed to bring the knotty innovations of the be-bop revolution into jazz singing, recorded it in 1963. In an achingly slow version, Billy manages to get across the richly melancholic meaning of Johnny Mercer’s lyrics. I’ve heard this song sung countless times, but I didn’t realize until just now, when I wrote out the words, that it comprises two complete sentences, which, since it’s Johnny Mercer, are perfect: literate, at once precise and allusive, and perfectly aligned with the melody. 

Billy Eckstine’s singing in front of Billy Byers’s arrangement was more than enough to establish the song in the jazz-vocal repertoire. The same year, the guitarist Wes Montgomery, already both popular and deeply respected for his unique style and subtle swing, recorded the song on Boss Guitar, surrounding his plummy sound with Melvin Rhyne’s organ. Instrumentalists took note, and since then we’ve had a steady flow of recordings of the tune.

We begin this week with Billy and Wes.  The first set follows those two performances with a torchy recording, also from 1963, by the underappreciated singer Julie London. And the set wraps up with an unimpeachable version by the pianist Cyrus Chestnut, with the bassist Christian McBride and the drummer Carl Allen, from Cyrus’s 1992 debut as a leader, The Nutman Speaks Again. Jazz Spectrum listeners have been hearing Cyrus regularly since that release, so you won’t be surprised by his strong, precise touch, his seamless blend of chords and single-note lines to embroider the melody, and the almost percussive rhythmic drive he brings to his interpretation.

The second set of versions of the tune begins with a real treasure – a live recording by the big band organized and led by Maria Schneider, captured in performance at the Jazz Standard in January 2000. By then, Maria had already established her reputation as a composer, arranger, and band leader. She has continued to rise, with pathbreaking releases such as SkyBlue (2000), The Thompson Fields (2015), and Data Lords (2020), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

This recording of her evolving and adventurous band gives us a rare glimpse of how Maria approaches a tune, since we can hear her imagination as it assays Henry Mancini’s score and respectfully reconceives the whole thing. By the way, the same live album includes her variations on two other standards, both by Harold Arlen: “Over the Rainbow” (which won the 1939 Oscar for Best Song) and “That Old Black Magic” (which was nominated in 1943; Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics to this one, too.)

After Maria, we’ll hear two gently contrasting vocal versions: Rita Reys, then Rosemary Clooney. The former has a tasty piano interlude by Lex Jasper; and Rosemary’s version, in addition to showcasing her great aging voice, features a typically refined guitar solo by Ed Bickert and a brief, immaculate tenor solo by Scott Hamilton.

If you didn’t already appreciate the thoroughgoing excellence of this composition, I hope you will now.

Happy birthday, Gertrude Stein.

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