By Jonathan Schwartz
Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Harold Arlen wrote that lovely, plaintive melody just before World War II. Starting in the 1930s and continuing through the early 1970s, Arlen built a catalog of melancholy spirit that has survived time. Stormy Weather, Ill Wind, and I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues still speak for a cantor's son born in the glacial February of 1905 in Buffalo.
Arlen was a superb pianist and a marvelous singer. In fact, the first recording of Stormy Weather, made on a 78 rpm in 1933, is his. He sang in vaudeville, in clubs, and at parties. Early on, he became a top-tier composer in the ranks of George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern. Some of the greatest lyrics of all time, written by Yip Harburg, Ted Koelher, Johnny Mercer, and others, were set to his music.
Harold Arlen was a droll and tender fellow, and a musician of exceptional candor. His songs speak of longing and loss. Consider One for My Baby or Blues in the Night. (Arlen used to call Blues one of his "tapeworm" melodies because it didn't have the usual 32-bar structure but stretched out, wormlike, winding through two or three melodies in the same song.) These are dignified works, honest music, and easily identified as Arlen's. They are midnight thoughts born of a solitude Arlen was unafraid to reveal.
Singers worldwide have paid their respects. From jazz artist Tierney Sutton, who sings two versions of Get Happy on her new CD, On the Other Side, to Broadway and popular singer Tom Wopat, who paid tribute on a 2005 all-Arlen album, vocalists embrace his music today. They have always taken unusual care with Arlen's work. Listen to Sinatra's Ill Wind on his album In the Wee Small Hours or Judy Garland's The Man That Got Away. You can almost reach out and touch Harold Arlen after identifying him in the first three mournful notes.
As a young man I wanted to embrace him. The closest I came was a brief moment in his home while he sat at the piano playing Come Rain or Come Shine. I stood behind him and gently rested my hands on his shoulders.
Jazz musicians can infuse their own feelings into Arlen's melodies, unlike, say, Jerome Kern's, which have a formality that doesn't invite improvisation (think Ol' Man River).
Not that sorrow is Arlen's only business. Think of Get Happy and Happy as the Day is Long—my goodness, such affirmative stuff. Get Happy was the first song Arlen wrote, in 1930, when he was a rehearsal pianist. He doodled it out during a break. They're wonderful songs, but if you are really looking for Harold Arlen, lend your heart to It Was Written in the Stars, Blues in the Night, and all the others. Then you'll know him. To learn more, go to haroldarlen.com, a Web site run by his son, Samuel.
ALSO CHECK OUT THESE RECORDINGS:
FRANK SINATRA: Last Night When We Were Young on Wee Small Hours (1955) and Blues in the Night and One for My Baby on Only the Lonely (1958)
ELLA FITZGERALD: It Was Written in the Stars on Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook (1960)
TONY BENNETT: A set of Arlen songs on his Live at Carnegie Hall (1962)
NANCY LAMOTT: Out Of This World/So in Love on Listen to My Heart (1995)
SYLVIA McNAIR: The Morning After on her Come Rain or Come Shine—The Harold Arlen Songbook, made with André Previn (1996)
Jonathan Schwartz hosts High Standards, a channel on XM Satellite Radio, as well as weekend shows on WNYC-FM, a New York public radio station.