Sunday, March 22, 2009

Supporting Turns: The guy who plays the piano


There is a dominant body of opinion which cites Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust as the greatest popular song ever written.
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I rarely see eye to eye with dominant bodies of opinion, but this could be the exception. It is a fascinating, gorgeous song. I know nothing at all about music, but even I can hear it shunning the expected choices and taking surprising turns: it sort of goes down when you expect it to go up, and sideways when you think it’s going to do a circuit. (Sorry about the technical language.) It is eerie, somehow, as well as beautiful, it seems to kind of drift by, as if you are remembering it rather than hearing it afresh: the perfect match, in other words, of lyric to setting. Even instrumental versions seem pregnant with the same meaning; in fact, having once heard and digested the lyric you may find you’ll then only ever need instrumental versions. The music does all the work.

Best version? God knows. It would probably take a lifetime to hear them all. There are many recordings of Hoagy himself playing it, sometimes as an instrumental, sometimes singing along in what he called his “shaggy dog voice”, delivering the line “and though I dream in vain” as if ‘vain’ had three syllables, rising on the second and swooping back down on the third. I love the instrumental recorded by Isham Jones and his Orchestra in 1930. Not as keen on the celebrated Louis Armstrong version; great thought it is, it sacrifices meaning to mood. I love the one Bing Crosby did in 1939: Crosby has exactly the voice for it, and this recording has an especially spooky introduction that sounds, somehow, like a summer night.
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In the movies as on record as in life, Carmichael is the guy who plays the piano. He plays the piano in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) with real handless war veteran Harold Russell. He plays the piano for Bogie and Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944) and for Jane Russell and Victor Mature in The Las Vegas Story (1952). In Topper (1937) he plays the piano for Cary Grant, who says "Goodnight, Hoagy" as he leaves.
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Hoagy plays for Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not
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He was a natural supporting actor. Had he been gorgeous he would have been a natural star. He's fully as cool as Bogart; he just doesn't look like Bogart. (Though oddly enough Ian Fleming describes James Bond as resembling him facially in the novels.) He was one of those people born with the good fortune, and it was good fortune, to look exactly as he sounded, exactly as he should.
Carmichael’s personality is as much a part of his appeal as his talent. His movie persona is always the exact same as his musical persona; laid back, easy-going, incredibly talented but never showy or pushy; just there, in the background, doing his thing.
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There are some great stories about his Hollywood days in his autobiography. Of him challenging Bogart to a fight after he “shouted a tirade of abuse at my Republican stand”; Bogie was “a bit confused politically” and “not a tough man off-screen at all, in my opinion.”
And of him upstaging actors by doing some innocuous but distracting business in the background; once, shooting The Las Vegas Story, he was behind Vincent Price “holding two silver dollars in one hand and quickly flicking one over on top of the other” until Price, without turning around once, stopped and said “I will not proceed until you get rid of that clickety-clackety scene-stealer behind me. Something tells me his name is Hoagy Carmichael.”
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Hoagy owned several different pianos. This one had Virginia Mayo sat on it.
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Carmichael's popularity faded as musical tastes changed. He had once recorded a poignant song called The Old Music Master, that tells of a classical composer being visited by a “little coloured boy” from a hundred years in the future, instructing him that if he doesn’t want his work to become corny he must “play that rhythm faster”. Otherwise he’ll never “get it played on the happy cat hit parade”.
It’s sad because Carmichael’s generation really did think that popular music had come as far as it could and would want to go, and that humans would spend the rest of their existence writing and listening to songs substantially like his:
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Along about 1917
Jazz’ll come upon the scene.
Then about 1935
You’ll begin to hear swing, boogie-woogie and jive.
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Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Soon rock and roll would begin its fatal transformation of popular music as a form, and Carmichael, like so many others, was left floundering and alienated, and a little bitter to judge from Richard M. Sudhalter’s engrossing biography Stardust Melody. He tells a heartbreaking story about Hoagy giving an impromptu performance at a restaurant where he had gone to dine in 1970. In the past, such things had transfixed a rapturously appreciative audience of fellow-diners; this time they didn’t even stop talking. He did a couple of great songs, then gave up. He also notes ominously that: “Among his personal papers are songs written between the mid-1950’s and early 1970’s… attempting to capitalise on emergent trends. A good many are little short of embarrassing.”
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In his final years Hoagy became disenchanted and stopped writing and performing. He said in an interview: “ I could write anything, any time I wanted to. But I let other things get in the way… I just quit almost on account of rock and roll… I haven’t had a hit since In The Cool, Cool of the Evening… I’ve just been floating around in the breeze, I guess.” He started a campaign to outlaw telegraph poles, among other things, while floating around in the breeze.
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His autobiography Sometimes I Wonder, though written ‘with’ a professional writer, speaks both eloquently and in something like the man’s own tone of voice about how seriously he took jazz, and his own contributions to it:
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Jazz never retreats into the nihilism of just noise, or the sterile world of the mere sound-benders. The true jazzman is introspective, tough and oblique. He will continue to be so, to remember that both seed-time and harvest in music are not a matter of the usual sowing and reaping. It’s real, and it says something…
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Jazz isn’t dead, just some of the great players and inventors. There’s a hassle about what was right and what was wrong with jazz, but the reasons don’t matter if you can turn up a Louis Armstrong; turn up a lot of him and turn him loose.
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They should have turned Hoagy loose more often at the movies.