All the Things He Was

Jazz Makes Peace With Jerome Kern

While visiting Hollywood in 1946, a few months after Jerome Kern's passing, Dizzy Gillespie collaborated with arranger Johnny Richards on a Kern memorial album. They recorded four of his most famous songs—"Who?," "The Way You Look Tonight," "Why Do I Love You?," "All the Things You Are"—in a novel setting, with more than a dozen strings plus woodwinds, French horn, harp, and a state-of-the-art rhythm section (Al Haig, Ray Brown, and Roy Haynes), nearly three years before Charlie Parker's first aborted attempt to record with strings. Gillespie was in superb form, playing with exhilarating finesse on "The Way You Look Tonight." Yet those records were largely lost to history. One 78 was issued by Paramount and promptly withdrawn because of complaints from the Kern estate that Gillespie's approach was insufficiently respectful. The remaining tracks were buried until all four turned up on an underground label 30 years later. Kern's estate had no legal standing, only powers of suasion, and as a result Kern has often been presumed to be antijazz.

Putting aside the fact that Gillespie's treatments are far from irreverent (something else must have been going on behind the scenes), Kern's estate had to learn to love jazz and quick, because in succeeding years the songwriter's sumptuous harmonies and cagey key changes became a measure of jazz invention, some of it fairly radical. Kern's songs had always been popular with jazz musicians and singers because of his expressive melodies, but it took the headier precincts of modern jazz to appreciate all the harmonic possibilities, which became so much a part of bebop thinking that musicians often abandoned the melodies, superimposing what Max Roach once called "parody" tunes that they could copyright. One way or another, jazz kept much of Kern alive long after the pop world skittered away from him.

All that is remembered of Kern's 1939 flop musical, Very Warm for May, for example, is the imperishable "All the Things You Are," first recorded by Artie Shaw (vocal, Helen Forrest), Mildred Bailey, and Tommy Dorsey (vocal, Jack Leonard), and then abandoned until Gillespie and Charlie Parker tackled it in 1945. Two years later, Parker secured its place as a jazz perennial with his magnificent knockoff, "Bird of Paradise"; from the moment he intoned the dramatic intro, his vamp and Kern's harmonic plateau were mated forever. Parker loved the tune and Oscar Hammerstein II's lyric—he used to call it "YATAG," an acronym for the line "You are the angel glow." But his recording showed that a harmonic sequence can so vividly support a melody that the mind's ear registers the theme even when the musician spins nothing but variations. Kern worried that his penchant for enharmonic changes (e.g., around the bridges of "All the Things You Are" and "The Way You Look Tonight") would alienate the public, but they were and are turnback heaven for jazz musicians.

The Carnegie Hall Jazz Band tackles Kern: How much deference is due?
photo: Cary Conover
The Carnegie Hall Jazz Band tackles Kern: How much deference is due?

So the November 16 concert by Jon Faddis and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band devoted to Kern's music (no singers, no lyrics) suggested a worthy collaboration, if not a rapprochement, between jazz and a composer who—whether or not he or his heirs approved—has long since become part of jazz's DNA. As usual, the CHJB assigned songs to its team of arrangers, leaving a few to feature the guest soloist, Gary Bartz (a last-minute replacement for the ailing Jackie McLean). From the first, it was evident that the subtext of the evening was the old issue of how much deference is due a venerated songwriter. The heirs who balked at Gillespie's embellishments would have hemorrhaged in horror at some liberties taken by Faddis's writers, especially the senior scribe, Manny Albam. Yet it was also apparent that the writers had done their homework.

Whatever Kern may have thought about jazz (is he on record anywhere with an opinion?), he deeply loved traditional forms of African American music, specifically spirituals: "Look for the Silver Lining" is indebted to "My Lord, What a Morning" and "Dearly Beloved" suggests a hymn refracted by harmonic sorcery. The evening began with Michael Philip Mossman's transfiguration of "Yesterdays" into a brass and woodwinds psalm, the melody arrayed in choirlike layers—no rhythm section, no solos. Another Mossman arrangement, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," took the opposite tack, one especially suited to the dynamic strengths of the CHJB. Engineered with foursquare swing and plush reeds, the chart flamed with Basie-like brass tuttis, spare piano interjections, and the occasional drum fusillade. Faddis began a compelling solo with Dizzy half-valves and focused on his midrange, allowing his sound to spread at the release and indulging too many quotations ("As Time Goes By," "There's a Small Hotel," a Harry Edison lick) before rising to a heroic but controlled climax of the sort no one else can pull off. This was one chart the CHJB can file away for its greatest-hits retrospective.

Oddly, or not, Mossman, the youngest of the arrangers (born 1959), was also the most conservative. Michael Abene (born 1942) turned "Why Do I Love You?" into a clipped canter as played by Faddis, trombonist Steve Turre, and altoist Dick Oatts, before settling into a modernist groove for their solos, handsomely supported by the band (nice unison trombone accents) and closing smartly with ensemble variations. But Kern was accessed for his harmonies only, the tune cropping up chiefly in Turre's solo—a quote, as it were. The breach between song and arrangement was less pleasing in Abene's "Look for the Silver Lining," which opened with a brass choir hymn and devolved into head and solos in which the latter failed to sustain the feeling or tempo of the former.

Albam (born 1922) has developed a liking for high voicings, and his "Dearly Beloved" was typical, opening with a netting of flutes, soprano saxophone, and muted brasses (a bass clarinet served as ballast) that emphasized the song's hymnlike qualities and subtly parted to reveal bassist Todd Coolman bowing the tune. Coolman has a bright cellolike arco tone, but as too much depended on him and the high-register brew, the result was dilatory and flat. His version of "Old Man River" was, by contrast, almost obstreperously clever, with speedy dueling trombones, a locomotive (OK, steamboat) vamp, clamorous fours, and a Cat Anderson overlay from the leader. It was hip enough and swinging and maybe the song is too much a cliché to play straight, but Kern was left at the dock and the point of the adaptation was lost.

The second half began with arguably Kern's greatest songs, "The Way You Look Tonight" and "All the Things You Are," but this time the band, excepting the rhythm section, was nowhere to be seen. Just as well: These numbers featured Gary Bartz, who was burning with pitched lyricism. One of the things that has always distinguished jazz musicians is their determination to find signature sounds or timbres—instantly recognizable calling cards that let you know right off if Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster is playing. Yet certain timbres are now so much at the heart of jazz that other musicians, no matter how individual, eventually gravitate to them as platonic ideals. Louis Armstrong's trumpet is one and Charlie Parker's alto is another. Bartz, always an imposing technician, who began his career in the 1960s with a ragged, edgy attack and later attempted a Coltrane-like effusiveness, can now summon Parker's burnished voice without sacrificing his own. It's a fluent, opulent, blues-driven approach that contains multitudes of jazz history and speaks with complete authority.

On both pieces, Bartz balanced shadow and light, taking his time, mining the changes, employing the melodies. He served Kern as he served himself, using the enharmonic riff the songwriter inserted in "The Way You Look Tonight" as a refueling station, slowing it down before revving himself up, and turning "All the Things You Are" into an homage to Parker, beginning with his vamp and interpolating "Now's the Time." It would have been gratifying to hear more of Bartz, say in a quintet with Faddis. It would be more gratifying still to see him recording for a major label, documenting what may well prove to be the apogee of his career. Evidently due to a lack of rehearsal time, he performed only once with the band, on Mossman's spacey, Miles-ian "The Song Is You," and struggled with the arrangement, though his solo shot off like a bullet.

But there were other bright moments. Mossman's sparkling arrangement of "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star" began with a cool staccato intro and moved into an unexpectedly fitting Latin rhythm—the melody lazing over the "Manteca" beat as naturally as if it had been born on the islands. Several soloists were allowed to shine, especially the greatly underrated tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama, who leaped in with a series of breaks and pushed forward with his spacious sound, relaxed swing, and storytelling logic. Like Bartz, he suggests the history of an instrument in his knowing timbre and attack, and is another gifted player who, though not yet 50, operates beyond the radar of the record business for reasons that have nothing to do with music. Faddis, who has never quite made his high-note blasts fit the confines of a recording studio, showed how evenhanded he can play on Abene's discreetly arranged "Sure Thing" (from Cover Girl). Pianist Renee Rosnes, who was excessively featured, revealed her ample technique without quite making a point on Albam's best piece of the night, a concerto version of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," with a lambent voicing of the theme. If you're going to pay tribute, you gotta play the tune. Even Gillespie, back in those not so innocent days of 1946, knew that.

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