Although the critics have said it, the observation remains valid: America’s only significant contribution to music has been jazz and the popular song. Both came into being at the turn of the century and reached their apotheosis in the Twenties, Thirties, and early Forties. Both held themselves at arm’s length from the “serious” composers, who, with the exception of William Grant Still, feebly echoed a European tradition, for the most part reduced to a whimper. (Today that tradition has given us what? Pierre Boulez!) Popular song moved with its most talented and ebullient composers from Tin Pan Alley, a sparkling thoroughfare, to the musical-comedy stage. Jazz, which had come to a focus in the musical melting pot of New Orleans, overflowed into the North when Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels padlocked the whorehouses in 1917. Both fell victim to television and the dismal uproar of rock.
Now gaudeamus igitur. The Smithsonian Institution, which has reissued much of our recorded legacy of music, has now devoted six LPs to American Popular Song, encompassing six decades of popular songs and singers, accompanies by an overview of the genre in a 152-page booklet (Smithsonian collection of Recordings, Wasington, D.C. 20560). Here, in a selection from an inexhaustible catalogue, is the music that rang from nightclub and stage and was echoed by a million radios: the best of Harold Arlen, Rodgers & Hart, Cole Portr, Irving Berlin, Vernon Duke, and a host of others, enunciated by singers of less embonpoint than their operatic cousins–singers once household names but now remembered only in pallid TV specials. Here the sense, the sensibility, and the sentimentality of America is expressed–a song whose modalities, when studied, are far more subtle and sophisticaterd than many would believe.
There may be some quarrel over the inclusion or exclusion of this or that song, this or that singer. I found it odd that there should be so much of Fred Astaire, whose genius lay elsewhere, and nothing of Maxine Sullivan–or that the Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson “September Song” should have been assigned to Frank Sinantra rather than heard in Walter Huston’s incomparable rendition. But there is compensation for the set’s sins of omission and commission in the inclusion of “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” that lovely juxtaposition of Duke Ellington’s music and Paul Webster’s lyrics. Gaudeamus, indeed, for American Popular Song, a glorious compendium that should be played and replayed.
DEDICATED small companies–and to a far lesser extent the recording giants–have kept alive the jazz performances of the past in reissues for the small legion of aficionados, and the Meritt Society is an honored member of this sodality. Now Meritt has issued a series of Teddy Wilson solos, never before available to the general public–only five hundred copies were pressed in 1938–which he cut for his short-lived School for Pianists. Wilson won fame and some fortune as the pianist whose solid yet elegant improvisations gave their character to the Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet. He also made innumerable recordings with a Who’s Who of great jazz sidemen, and vocalists like Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey. The solos for the School for Pianists sides are a distillation of his jazz style and demonstrate the intricacies and varieties of his improvisational genius.
But I suspect that Classic Small Groups (Meritt No. 6) will bring greater pleasure to jazz lovers. The reissues in this album offer a sampling of the music and musicians heard on New York’s 52nd Street, in basement clubs like the Famous Door and the Onyx, before and during the swing era. The small bands of that period preserved, extended, and refined the jazz of New Orleans as it was modified by the Chicago school. Unlike the stylized and often rigid “big-band” jazz, the music of these small bands relied on head arrangements, collective improvisation, and the instrumental solo. And they took this music into the recording studios, where they were limited by the three-minute stretch of the old shellacs but in which they recaptured the spirit of their nightly stints.