Writings About Music
Into a Newborn Day: Words Inspiring Jazz
Because it is predominantly an instrumental art form, all of us sometimes forget how central lyrics are to the development of jazz. Without those lyrics, most, if not all jazz standards would not exist, and jazz, without those perfected forms used for improvisation is inconceivable, referring mostly to swing and modern jazz, or the years roughly between 1930 and 1970.
Arguably the two most harmonically advanced jazz standards, displaying inspired modulations rivaling anything composed by Bach, Chopin, or Debussy, are All the Things You Are and The Song is You both composed by Jerome Kern, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Indeed, the lyrics for these songs are as soaring and ingenious as the music with exquisite poetry that still thrills every time we hear the words.
Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern
Great jazz artists are intimate with the lyrics of the songs they chose to devote their improvisational artistry to, finding layers of expression and inspiration that transcend music, reflecting how their unique sonic profiles and personal and collective histories reinterpret those songs, leading them to new melodic, rhythmic, timbral, and emotive realms.
Composer George Gershwin and lyricist Ira Gershwin
Their song, I Got Rhythm, became the most commonly used form for jazz improvisation after the blues form itself. A number of their other songs became jazz musician favorites too.
Two of Charlie Parker’s most precious and monumental accomplishments stem from his extemporizations using All the Things You Are and The Song Is You, demonstrating what phenomenal musical treasure results when composers and lyricists of genius synergize with improvisers of genius. The rasa (expression) of Parker’s surviving recordings of these songs are steeped in unique shadings of Shringara Rasa (romantic) with broad strokes and subtleties pertaining to all the elements of music that continually astonish us to this day.
Two of John Coltrane’s most prodigious and far-reaching musical explorations have a common central denominator with the Charlie Parker examples given above, sharing the same lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein II: My Favorite Things, with music by Richard Rodgers, and Softly As In A Morning Sunrise, with music by Sigmund Romberg; the title of this writing distilled from the latter song's lyrics.
Coltrane’s earthshaking interpretation of My Favorite Things – there is no other way to describe it’s enormous effect – appeared before the famous film, The Sound of Music, and after the original Broadway show, which includes this most beautiful song; an utterance myriad musicians enjoyed playing and singing at the piano soon after it was published, utterly charmed by its pristine and limpid melody, harmony and words, including dramatically effective shifts from minor to major modalities. Great songs that appear simple are perhaps the most difficult and elusive to compose, as are the moves of the greatest chess master of all time, Bobby Fischer.
Aware of the context of the song, either literally or intuitively, or both, including possibly attending a performance of the show after he was first introduced to the song, Coltrane seized upon My Favorite Things as a song of Innocence and Experience, depicted by those major and minor modalities. And by linking those musical modes with Bilaval and Kafi Thaats from the Hindustani music simultaneously inspiring him, notably sitarist Ravi Shankar, and shahnaist Bismillah Khan, he forged a New World for not only jazz, but also the finest rock, and composers of what had been termed Western classical music before it was superseded by jazz around the time of early Charlie Parker.
Don’t allow the musical and lyrical surface of the original My Favorite Things to lull you into allowing its full import to pass over your head as it has become shallowly fashionable to do sometimes! It is perfectly acceptable to enjoy the song as something delightful and charming for children, and I absolutely do not wish to detract from those who hear My Favorite Things this way only. However, the song also depicts an admirable attempt to allay fear by evoking the innocence of childhood in the picturesque mountain villages of Austria, sung by an orphan who became a cloistered nun, soon transitioning into the outside world because she doesn’t conform to the strictures of her surroundings, again, attempting to comfort herself.
And beyond that immediate scenario, there is a subtle, yet dynamic foreshadowing of a greatly larger specter that John Coltrane magnified in his recording and performances of My Favorite Things: the terror of a rapidly spreading fascism and genocidal ideology that slaughtered children among everyone else outside its evil, insane doctrines; a racism that in another form, time and place also moved Coltrane to compose and record a powerful tribute to four young girls who perished when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed, titled Alabama. The little girls had entered Sunday School that morning "unoffending, innocent and beautiful" and were brought out as "martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity" in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is believed that Dr. King's eulogy for the girls influenced John Coltrane's musical response.
Related to my thoughts about My Favorite Things, and supporting my analysis, I subsequently found that Wikipedia states: “The song’s main melody seems derivative of Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, particularly in its repetitive simplicity and its minor-key sense of dread. Put simply, the melody conveys terror. The happy, optimistic lyrics–“Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudel”–are just a counterpoint and cover-up to this undercurrent of fear.”
With his visionary, inspirational recorded and live interpretations of My Favorite Things, which exponentially expand upon the music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, set in the context of memoirs by Maria von Trapp (whose experiences included encountering Adolf Hitler in a restaurant), with a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, Coltrane excises and slays the demons of fascism and racism in the non-violent metaphysical domain of music, telling us they will eventually be eradicated in life as humanity educates itself and evolves into higher forms of common caring. And it was this ongoing supreme effort born from love, including subsequent musical evolutions, which eventually drained his life force, leaving us at such a tender age.
Musically exquisite and tremendously exciting, without the identical cathartic intensity as My Favorite Things, Coltrane’s rendering of Softly As In A Morning Sunrise also suggests an extra-musical element as well, if we consider how he moved away from his first wife to his second wife around the time the song was performed and recorded. (See a link for the complete song lyrics below, including the introduction.) Also performed on soprano saxophone, rather than his traditional tenor saxophone, it would appear that for a brief period Coltrane used the soprano for especially challenging traumas and transcendent celebrations in his life that reached closer to the spirit world he so clearly identified with by accessing a higher tessitura.
To this day, Interstellar Space, a very late collection of duet recordings with Coltrane on tenor and percussion, and Rashied Ali on drums, remains for me among the most advanced musical forms ever created.
In closing, please note that it is far from my intentions to ignore another great tenor saxophonist, Sonny Rollins. In this present context, perhaps his most sublime and unexpected ballad recording was also inspired by the superlative lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II: We Kiss In the Shadows, with music once more by Richard Rodgers.
- Michael Robinson, November 2014, Los Angeles
© 2014 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).
All the Things You Are lyrics
The Song Is You lyrics
My Favorite Things lyrics
Softly As In a Morning Sunrise lyrics
We Kiss In the Shadows lyrics
Eulogy for the Martyred Children