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This week on Jazz Spectrum – 5/10-5/12

Song of the Week – “My Blue Heaven” – music by Walter Donaldson; lyrics by George A. Whiting

Each week, Fritz exchanges thoughts with Aly Krajewski about the Song of the week featured on Jazz Spectrum Saturday.

By Fritz Byers

Hi Aly,

Yesterday the sky’s vast cloudless expanse was so striking that it set me to wondering what it was reminding me of.

Do you remember the Peanuts strip when Linus asks Lucy, “Why is the sky blue?” And she answers, “Because it isn’t green.” 

Yesterday, it was a blue on blue, like an English weave

It was very nearly one of those impossible Renoir blues we talked about a couple of weeks ago. 

It was a sweeping heartache blue that looked like yearning

But then I thought, No. Close, but not quite. 

A little while later, I thought, Now I’m beginning to see the light – so this week’s song is “My Blue Heaven.” 

The song is on the periphery of the Great American Songbook, and maybe deservedly so. As best I can tell, from my set lists and memory, I’ve not ever displayed it as SotW. But its time has come.

The melody is by Walter Donaldson, an accomplished composer of popular songs. My personal favorite is “Kansas City Kitty,” but, then, I’m a geographical chauvinist. 

His most familiar songs bear the lyrics of Gus Kahn – “Love Me or Leave Me” “Makin’ Whoopee” “My Buddy” (a tune I first encountered in Jimmy Rowles’s indelibly perfect version on the masterwork, The Peacocks), and “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” Gus DIDN’T write the lyrics to Walter’s beloved cultural meme, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)”

But the lyrics for this one are by George A. Whiting. Turns out, George’s birthname was George Edward Berhhamer, which answered my question as to whether he was related to Richard A. Whiting, who wrote the lyrics to “She’s Funny That Way.” (Although it doesn’t answer my question as to why he chose “A” for his middle initial.)

I can’t find much information about George, but I like this from his Wikipedia entry: “George A. Whiting was a vaudeville song and dance man.” Some while ago, Bob Dylan referred to himself as “a song and dance man.” So I suppose if that’s his aspiration, we should bow to George for having lastingly achieved it.

The program for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1927, a show that ran from August 16, 1927 through January 7, 1928, lists the song in Act 1. Most of the music for the show was by Irving Berlin, although I scanned the entire program in vain for a Berlin song I recognized. Still, Irving let the song in his show. Let’s you and I agree, if it made Irving’s cut, it should make ours.

I treasure a CD called Chart-Toppers of the Twenties, on the Living Era label. Any ambiguity caused by the lack of a Century reference in the title is pretty much cleared up by the cover, which sports a gorgeous red Ford Roadster.

Gene Austin’s version, which opens our first SotW set, is on that disc. According to the liner notes, it sold . . . I can barely believe it . . . 5 Million copies worldwide. There appears to be an ASCAP mandate that you have to refer to him as a “crooner,” but I’m not going to. He has a warmly inviting way with the lyric. I particularly like the way he sings the word “bloom.” And I like even more his wordless humming in counterpoint to the brief cello solo.

Next is Mary Lou Williams – I’m totally embracing the title of the album, “First Lady of the Piano.” She was that, and more. The recording quality isn’t that great, but her playing sure is. I heard her a few times in person, and she was a marvel of taste and rhythmic drive. I’ve never quite understood her 1977 collaboration with the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, one of the real odd couplings in the music’s history, but I bow to her for even making the gig, which lives on in the live recording, Embraced.

Your week’s honorarium is next – Bing, from his CBS radio prime.

The first set concludes with Don Byas. I think Don is having, as the magazines say, a moment. It’s about time, fifty years after he died. Mosaic Records recently released the Classic Don Byas Sessions 1944-1946, ten discs of Don’s playing. The tribute is long overdue. Don always said he found inspiration not in the other horn players he hung with, but in Art Tatum. You can hear in this track why I think he’s almost unique in the way he bridges swing, be-bop, and cool. His tone alone sets him apart as one of the greats.

The second starts with Lena Horne. Let’s put her on our list of things to talk about soon. She had one of the great careers in entertainment history, but still seems somehow underappreciated. We should do something about that.

Then a trio version by Red Garland. It may be enough to say of Red that he was Miles’s chosen pianist through the fifties. But let’s add that he plays entire solos using block chords of such precision and harmonic perfection that you almost think solo-note runs are, by comparison, thin and lifeless.

Carole Sloane brings swing and verve to her version, but that’s no surprise. She spent her career doing that.

And the conclusion is from a brand-new release, pairing the violinist Jason Anick and the pianist Matt Champlain. Their record is titled Reverence, a self-conscious tribute to, respectively, Stephane Grappelli and Oscar Peterson. 

I thought that since we opened with a version that includes a cello solo, we should wrap things up with some fiddle-playing.

I’ll look forward to your thoughts. In the meantime, just out my window the whippoorwills are calling.

F

Aly's Response

Hey Fritz,

A brief response for you this week– I could give you the boring truth about the responsibilities and day-to-day drivel of life preventing me from yapping as I usually do; but why don't we twist the truth a bit and say that I'm on a top secret mission that involves the king of Estonia, opera gloves, and a mysterious encoded cipher. Wish me luck.

"My Blue Heaven" is one of the standardiest standards I can think of in this genre. I don't say that in a derogatory fashion; though it's not a heavy rotation for me personally, there's plenty to be said about a century's worth of artists being able to put their own spins on the track. What makes a standard a standard? We've got Webster's go-to definition of the word: "something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model, example, or point of reference". Tried and true Wikipedia gives us a more musically inclined concept: "In music, a standard is a musical composition of established popularity, considered part of the 'standard repertoire' of one or several genres." Did you know that there is no definitive list of jazz standards? Should we drop everything and commit to making a definitive set of songs our lives' missions? Am I getting ahead of myself? Probably.

Putting this tangent aside, I scanned a (non-definitive) list of 1900-1940s jazz standards for any interesting tidbits. The only other song to mention "Heaven" in this list was the classic "Pennies from Heaven". Of course, blue" shows up much more often (I counted at least eighteen instances), though in its melancholy context more than the color connotation. Of this SotW, I did notice that Walter was under contract to Irving Berlin, working for Irving Berlin Inc. when he wrote the tune. Should we believe that Walter begged Irving to put this in the 1927 Follies, just to give him a chance, to give him his big break? Or should we lean the other way and think that Irving heard the first draft of this song's lilt and was brought to his knees, immediately moved to demand it be given a star-spotlight on the stage? 

Do you think Walter anticipated this song becoming a standard? I wonder if composers and lyricists of his time had those kinds of aspirations. When you're in the thick of it –when your head is down and you're engrossed in the creations you're making– you probably don't have much time to long for that kind of everlasting legacy. And at some level, would you even want it? You and I and many other people enjoy the charm of "My Blue Heaven", but maybe Walter didn't want this to be one of his cornerstones. How can you know what your "best work" will be until it's all said and done? Did Walter ever worry that he wouldn't get the chance to make his best work? Did he know better than that, and did he bask in the accomplishments of his catalogue while there was still time? 

Without answers to most of these questions, I think the best thing to do is to take a bit of my own advice and start to appreciate the work I do while I'm doing it. I hope you can do the same, Fritz. And Walt, if you're reading this, I hope you're happy in whatever color of the afterlife you find yourself.

From a fireplace, cozy room,

Aly

Jazz Spectrum