Paris; Vernon Duke & The Armour of Music

Other than people living in extremely remote areas untouched by media or technology – if they even exist anymore – I may have been one of the last to hear of the recent appalling attacks in Paris.

As my wife Anna would say, this is “not a good story for me”, although she learned of the tragedy even later than me, and only after I told her of it. But there was at least an understandable reason for our obliviousness: our three-year-old grandson Charlie came for an overnight visit starting at dinnertime on Friday. Like most kids his age, he has so much curiosity, energy and imagination that being around him is an all-consuming experience and great fun, but exhausting. What with playing and talking and eating with him, there was no time or reason to have a TV or a computer on. And when we did turn to the TV, it was to watch a kids’ movie with him, with no ad or news breaks. Afterward, I put Charlie to sleep with the sounds of a Paul Desmond record wafting upstairs from the living room, his last waking words were, “Gwandpa, that saxophone sounds weally good……zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz”. I drifted off myself for a few minutes and then woke up and watched a movie with Anna, after which we retired for good, still blissfully ignorant.

The next morning started all too early and with immediate relentlessness. It was more of the same, wall-to-wall hanging out and playing with Charlie and I noted to myself for the hundredth time that there’s a reason people have children when they’re young – you have a better chance of keeping up with them that way.

By the time I left for my 3:30 gig at The Pilot with Mike Murley on Saturday afternoon, I still had no inkling of the events in Paris. I arrived before anyone else in the band and went about setting up and so on, then stepped outside for a nourishing cigarette. Before long, Murley came ambling along Cumberland Street, tenor saxophone in tow. Friday afternoon he’d emailed me and the others in the band – guitarist Reg Schwager and drummer Frank Botos – a list of tunes he wanted to play just for fun, all of them with a Sonny Rollins connection. Rollins was, and remains, one of Mike’s prime influences and I looked forward to playing some of his repertoire. I’ve been in a “Sonny mood for two” for some weeks now.

We greeted each other and Mike said, “I thought we’d start with ‘April in Paris’, for Paris.” I thought to myself, “Paris who?” but instead asked with unintended irony, “Why?” Mike looked at me incredulously, asking “What, are you kidding me? – have you been living under a rock or something? It’s all that’s been on the news since last night.” I said that I had no idea, explaining about the vortex of Charlie’s visit and asked with some trepidation what had happened. “It’s really bad, terrible…” he answered, obliging me with the awful details we all now know: a murderous, synchronized round of bombings and/or shootings leaving at least 129 dead and many more wounded in Paris; the work of the Islamic State, the City of Light in a state of siege and turmoil.

I reacted as most everyone had earlier, with shock and horror and rage. A slew of imprecations left my mouth, all mingled with a sheepish bewilderment at being so out of touch. As I tried to process it though, I realized news like this keeps and there would be plenty of time to fully digest the destruction in the coming hours and days. I also felt relief that we hadn’t heard of the outrage with Charlie there to see it and us trying to explain it to him, with his endless and unanswerable “But why? Why? Why?” Indeed, that is the question – why? He’ll become all too familiar with how scary and ugly the world can be as he gets older, but for now, he’s an innocent kid. If we as adults can’t fathom this violent and absurd atrocity, then what is a three-year-old to make of it?

Although on a lesser scale, the dastardly and synchronized attack on a city that belongs to the world inevitably summoned the horror of 9/11 – an attack on cities like Paris or London, Rome or New York is an attack on all of us. These thoughts made me grateful I would soon be playing music with such trusties as Mike, Reg, and Frank. The intense concentration of improvising.and listening would obliterate the dread, at least temporarily. I found out much to my surprise that it was that way on 9/11.

I was booked to open a week at The Montreal Bistro on September 11, 2001, with Alex Dean, Reg, and Barry Elmes. Given the surreal horror of that day, I just assumed we wouldn’t be working that night. But the people who ran the club thought we should play, and strange as it seemed, they were right. There weren’t many people there and it took some effort to get up for playing, but the focus of doing so was intense enough that our sets were the only time the extreme angst of the day seemed to evaporate, if only temporarily. Some of the people in the club were Americans stranded because of the grounding of flights; they were in need and they were who we mostly played for. Some of them expressed their gratitude for our music, saying that it was the only time they weren’t worried about their families or glued to CNN’s around-the-clock coverage of the nightmare. I’ll never forget one guy from St. Louis who came three nights in a row, telling us that looking forward to our music was what got him through each day. Oddly, under those extreme circumstances, the seemingly small act of playing music didn’t seem less important, but rather more so. It was a lesson I won’t soon forget. For once, live music became more than a mere backdrop or just entertainment, it had a higher purpose. It seemed to lift people up and give them comfort and made us feel useful, even necessary for a change. I suppose I knew it vaguely before, but I realized then fully for the first time: this is what music is for. It forever altered my understanding about the importance of the pivotal relationship between musicians and their audience and this has stayed with me ever since, even on nights when nobody seems to be listening. Lester Young once said that even if only one person is listening you have an audience; I try to remember that and do my best, no matter what.

At any rate, we led off with “April in Paris” on Saturday at The Pilot, following it with another song associated with the city – Michel Legrand’s typically motivic “Once Upon A Summertime”. It was a small gesture on Mike’s part, but a thoughtful and noble one nonetheless. After all, we’re only musicians, we have no solutions to the current geopolitical mess, we can only offer appropriate songs as a small nod of solidarity with the victims. As it always does, playing “Paris” took me on a journey, if only in my mind. I was introduced to it fairly early in my career and thought I knew it, but it took years to fully appreciate the subtlety of its details. The key changes, from dominant to tonic, to sub-dominant, on to the relative minor and to E major, up a third from the home key, the perfect bridge and the dramatic tag in the last section. The root movement and basic chords seem relatively straightforward, but only tell part of the story. The melody is full of little suspensions, some of them non-chord tones, which are resolved in long appoggiaturas against the beat, so that the harmony is not quite what it seems. Understanding this is the key to being able to improvise on the song. It’s like a Monk tune, in that you have to know the melody and the chords, and understand the relationship between them to get anywhere.

I thought of these details and the spaciousness of the song as we played it and, as always, images of all the wonders of Paris filled my mind too, it truly is the jewel. For obvious reasons I also thought of Count Basie, never a bad thing. His band’s recording of the celebrated arrangement of “Paris” by organist Wild Bill Davis cemented the song in the jazz repertoire forever.

Count Basie’s record is great and there are many fine vocal readings by Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra and others, but here’s a favourite instrumental version by one of the giants of twentieth-century music – Thad Jones – who also happened to play on the Basie record. This is from Thad’s first of three Blue Note albums, with Billy Mitchell on tenor, Barry Harris on piano, Percy Heath on bass and Max Roach playing drums.

“April In Paris” was of course written by Vernon Duke, with a lyric by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, a frequent collaborator. Duke was not as prolific a songwriter as Gershwin, Kern, Berlin, Porter, Rodgers or Arlen, but the songs he did write really counted and lasted. Three of them – “Paris”, “Autumn In New York”, and “I Can’t Get Started With You” are among the greatest ever written and hold an imperishable place in the canon of American song. And he wrote three others just below these in standing – “Cabin In the Sky”, “What Is There to Say?”, and “Takin’ A Chance On Love”.

Some brief research into Duke revealed that he had a unique, fascinating career and was much more prolific than I had realized – he had one foot in the world of Broadway and popular music, and the other in the world of European “serious” music. He was Russian, born Vladimir Dukelsky on October 10, 1903, in Minsk. His interest and talent in music were evident early and he studied piano, composition and theory at the Kiev Conservatory from the age of 11. His family escaped Civil War-torn Russia in 1919, eventually landing in America in 1921 after spending time in Constantinople with other refugees. The young composer was soon befriended by George Gershwin, who recommended that he Anglicize his name as Gershwin himself – born Jacob Gershovitz – had done. And so was Vernon Duke born.

Restless, he left America for Paris in 1924 – it was no accident he wrote the greatest of all songs about that city. His reputation preceded him and he was soon at the center of the capitol’s cultural elite. In 1925, the famed dance impresario Serge Diaghilev commissioned Duke to compose a ballet, Zephyr and Flora, with choreography by Leonide Massine and scenography by the cubist painter Georges Braque. It was a great success and was very favourably received by none other than Sergei Prokofiev. Duke and Prokofiev would become very close and corresponded until 1946, when a further exchange of letters became too dangerous for Prokofiev under the Stalinist regime which attacked him at every turn. Duke was also very close to another giant of twentieth-century Russian music: Serge Koussevitzky, who, as conductor of the Boston Symphony premiered many of Duke’s works. All in all, Duke wrote three symphonies, a ballet, concertos for piano, violin and cello and a celebrated oratorio called The End of St. Petersburg, among other works. Small wonder then that he seemed less productive than the other Broadway giants, he was busy elsewhere. He did write many more songs than mentioned, which are now largely forgotten, but his most memorable ones all came from a concentrated period between 1932 and 1940.

“Autumn In New York” is to Manhattan what “April In Paris” is to the French capitol – the greatest song ever written about it and as reflective of 9/11 as “April” is of the carnage in Paris. Like “April”, “Autumn” is rife with beautiful complexity and nuances which take years to fully appreciate. Duke mostly collaborated with lyricists such as Harburg, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn and Ogden Nash, but he also wrote poetry in Russian all his life. He wrote the lyric for “Autumn” and as it shows, he should have written his own words more often. They’re very poetic, gracefully shifting moods and images from innocence and romance to world-weary nostalgia and loss in a heartbeat. The “canyons of steel” line in particular has staying power. Here they are:

Autumn in New York, why does it seem so inviting?
Autumn in New York, it spells the thrill of first-nighting

Glittering crowds and shimmering clouds, in canyons of steel
They’re making me feel, I’m home.

It’s autumn in New York, that brings the promise of new love
Autumn in New York is often mingled with pain

Dreamers with empty hands, may sigh for exotic lands
It’s autumn in New York, it’s good to live it again.

Autumn in New York, the gleaming rooftops at sundown
Autumn in New York, it lifts you up when you’re run down

Jaded roues and gay divorcees who lunch at the Ritz
Will tell you that it’s divine.

This autumn in New York, transforms the slums into Mayfair
Autumn in New York, you’ll need no castles in Spain

Lovers that bless the dark, on benches in Central Park
Greet autumn in New York, it’s good to live it again.

Even late in her career and not at her best – she misses a few syllables here – Billie Holiday still had the emotional resolve to capture all that this great song means. The vulnerability only makes her more affecting:

And a wonderful arrangement of it by Rob McConnell, performed by his band, The Boss Brass. It’s probably my favourite chart by him, featuring Jerry Toth’s alto throughout, the band answering him with contrapuntal ensemble lines in the melody chorus sans bass and drums. There’s a wonderful array of still shots here – it’s hard to believe any of us were ever that young. It’s also hard to believe that a lot of the more senior members I looked up to, many of them gone now, were younger then than I am now. I believe this is what’s called a “head-scratcher”, to put it politely.

“I Can’t Get Started” is to jazz trumpeters what Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul” is for tenor players: a favoured vehicle, an anthem and test piece. There are great recorded versions by Louis Armstrong, Buck Clayton, Dizzy Gillespie, Ruby Braff and many others. But Bunny Berigan’s 1937 hit record of it is maybe the daddy of them all and the one that established the song forever. His slightly nasal and boyish vocal is charming, contrasting with the stirring drama and gravitas of his soaring trumpet solo, both up high and down low:

Here’s a favourite version of “What Is There To Say?” from a classic album of the same name by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, with Art Farmer on trumpet, bassist Bill Crow and Dave Bailey, one of the best small-group jazz drummers ever to play. Mulligan’s deft little arranging touches – the intro, small interludes and double-time passages – illuminate this timeless song.

Here’s a lovely version of “Cabin In the Sky” by Jimmy Giuffre, overdubbing four tenor saxophone parts, with Bob Brookmeyer on piano and Jim Hall on guitar. The first two bars of its melody are very similar to Duke Ellington’s “All Too Soon”, but then the song veers off in its own direction. There are many ways the tenor saxophone can be made to sound beautiful, but it’s hard to argue with this one:

And finally, a soft-shoe version of “Takin’ A Chance on Love” by Lester Young and Teddy Wilson that exemplifies the dancing grace and elegance of Paris. Though shy and sensitive, Pres was no cream-puff – more than any jazz musician I can think of, he showed the singular courage needed to stare down the bullying intolerance of terrorist thinking. Or, as he might have put it, “feeling a draft from Von Hangman.” As all of these wonderful performances show, the jazz repertoire would have been far poorer without Vernon Duke.

                                                                   ***

I had just turned six when the Cuban missile crisis struck and even in Canada, the incomprehensible shadow of nuclear doom spread to the primary school level. I can remember our teachers talking to us about it, the drills in case the unthinkable should happen, the discussions of bomb shelters and the panicked headlines of the newspapers, screaming Armageddon in bold block capitals. As the deadline of the standoff drew nearer on a Saturday afternoon, I was watching my father paint a picture in his makeshift basement studio, something I often did. I always found this calming and fascinating, but the looming dread proved too much for me and I suddenly blurted out, “Dad, what’s going to happen? Are they gonna drop a bomb and kill us all?”

My father took this in stride and reasoned to himself that maybe a clearer understanding of the background behind the crisis might allay my fears. He had a unique and great gift of explaining complex things to young people in clear and simple terms they could understand, without ducking anything; it’s one of the things that made him the great schoolteacher he later became. So he gave me a very brief and simple historical rundown of the events following WWII – the realignment of nations, NATO, the Communist revolution in China, the Cold War and Soviet expansion. This was all well and good, but still the big question remained: “Yeah, but Dad, are we all gonna die soon?” He answered that he didn’t think so, that Kennedy was calling Khrushchev’s bluff and that neither man was crazy enough to want millions dead in a flash. But he admitted he wasn’t sure and that nobody really knew what was going to happen. And then he said something I’ll never forget. “Let me ask you this, Stevie: if somebody told you that you were going to die tomorrow and there was nothing you could do about it, would you believe them and spend the rest of the day worrying about it, or would you watch the Leafs-Canadiens game with us tonight?” This was easy, there was nothing more important to me at the time than the Leafs and the Canadiens, so I watched them play that night, feeling a little more easy about things. In the morning I awoke and the sun rose, just as it has every day since.

That has stayed with me for the rest of my life, it’s my clearest and fondest memory of my father. He saved me from despair that day by telling me to simply turn away from it toward something I loved, and it worked. (Truth be told, it also made me one of the world’s great procrastinators.) But my father was right, I think. The appropriate response to the despair left by a tragedy such as Paris is to mourn and grieve, yes, but then to return to the things we value in life with a vengeance, with a renewed vigour, commitment and appreciation, in the company of those we love. The fight against darkness is a long, constant one and we need all the light we can get. For me and many others, music is the light, one of the candles that shows the way ahead.

                                                         ***

To some, it may seen frivolous and even distasteful to discuss the niceties of pretty songs in the wake of the momentous and bloody tragedy of Paris. After all, songs are small things, so what do they matter? But I would argue that classic songs and the great performances they inspire can never be trivial or irrelevant, they matter deeply, they help give our lives meaning. As my 9/11 story shows – and I’m sure there are many more like it – music is not just a diverting frill, it has real power. The power to renew, inspire and steel us, to provide reflection and solace, and we need these now more than ever. Music asks only that we open our hearts and minds and simply listen and it gives us so much more in return. An immediate connection to truth and beauty, to something bigger than our lives, to something magic and eternal.

I know we can’t defeat terrorists by throwing “All the Things You Are” at them, just as I know that if one of their bullets or bombs has our names on it, “Body and Soul” won’t save us. But that’s hardly the point. Great songs won’t bring back the dead, but they can bring back the survivors and we owe it to the dead to return to life with some passion, joy and, yes, courage. The courage to face unknown terror with less fear. I can’t speak for others but, just as becoming a musician converted me from being an extremely shy introvert to a fairly blabby extrovert, music has provided me with the emotional armour to overcome my fear, to keep going, to never give in. My point is that violent attacks like the one on Paris seek not only to kill or maim people and destroy neighbourhoods, they also aim to undermine our belief in the community of our civilization, to weaken us on a psychological and spiritual level. Violent atrocities like the Paris attacks leave us reeling in dread, panic, chaos, hatred and disbelief, make us feel powerless and alone and very afraid. Ultimately, they almost rob us of faith and hope, so we must always remember that music, the most immediate of all art forms, can be a potent force in restoring these precious things to us.

Or, to put it another way, the terrorists may have Kalashnikovs, but we have Sinatra, and I’ll take swing over guns any day……

 

© 2015 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

18 thoughts on “Paris; Vernon Duke & The Armour of Music

  1. Splendid as usual, Steve. Thank you. Incidentally, I agree with you that AUTUMN IN NEW YORK is among the best of Rob’s charts (along with SPEAK LOW, with its unusual bass obligatto by you). In a different tone but just as effective to my ears was ((of all people) Jeff Healey’s vocal version – a fine example of superb expression overriding formal technical qualities.

  2. Wonderful article Steve. Can relate to Charley and energy sapping grandchildren, but they sure are fun. She’d a little tear while reading.
    Thanks,
    Peter

  3. Steve,
    That was great!

    One more thought
    RE: Vernon Duke
    So in 1921 Vernon Duke comes to NY (Ellis Island) and in 1924 goes back to Europe (Paris…second language French? spending some time in London)….
    Then comes back to New York in 1929 and somehow learns English (3rd language?)…well enough to, in 1934, write not only the melody and changes but the LYRICS to Autumn in New York.
    Now, we should all go back and read the lyrics that Russian immigrant wrote, whose THIRD language was English, and reconsider our attitude to refugees and immigrants.

  4. I remember having a similar conversation with my Dad too Steve on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis. I must admit, sometime your posts get me a little misty.

  5. “Couldn’t put the book down”…excellent story centered on a terrible disaster but set beautifully to some great jazz .. Playing in a quartet in Florida with Gordie Fleming we often did Can’t Get Started and added the following “Canadian” lyric..”In 1989 we finished the dome…We hope the Jays will play better with a home…etc. Also many different feelings of nostalgia watching the pictures of the Boss Brass players going by…some of whom I am very proud to say…I had a chance to know and play with…warm memories. This made my week Steve ….yesterday I hit pay dirt at the thrift store..Pavarotti DVD with 2 CDs, a CD “The Best of Stan Getz” and a CD, “Frank Sinatra Sings Ballads” 22 tracks of standards….. I am heading out the door to buy a lottery ticket!…. Thanks!….Jack

  6. Steve that’s probably the best essay on “Paris ” of all the many.. But the City means more to musicians than to most people. Is there one who doesn’t know the Basie- Chad “April”? –and The Paris Concert (s). You have a good point that for events like this music serves a higher purpose. “We need all the light we can get ” and you’ve turned some on. Thanks Terry

  7. A wonderful piece Steve. it did a perfect job of demonstrating how jazz can serve as a comfort to many people while around us many terrible events are taking place.

  8. Steve — addendum — thanks also for thegreat music and those great pictures of Rarely seen photos of Toth and even my friend and sometime Partner Phil Sheridan. I hope you hear from Guido too. Terry

  9. “To mourn and grieve, yes, but then to return to the things we value in life with a vengeance, with a renewed vigour, commitment and appreciation, in the company of those we love.” Doesn’t get more finely tuned than that, Steve. Thank you for sharing this with me.
    -Stewart

  10. A heartfelt and thought provoking article.Always something in Steve’s writing to interest me,particularly the tune Autumn in New York,which after its performance in the revue “Thumbs Up” didn’t catch on for many years.I never cease to be amazed that the east Europeans, who came to America to escape persecution in their own countries, wrote such wonderful tunes.The nebulous “they” don’t write songs like this anymore.

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