Thursday, August 25, 2011

Part 2: A Long, Long Weill

Duke Ellington was born in 1899, Louis Armstrong in 1901 though he claimed 1900--but across the Atlantic in Dessau, Germany, and actually born in 1900, was composer Kurt Weill, a true child of the century of Jazz. Son of a Jewish cantor but never particularly religious, Kurt was a musical prodigy; and by age 17, after a couple of preparatory years, he was composing, conducting various groups, and off to Berlin for academic training, where he quickly became the prize student of composer Ferruccio Busoni, caught up in the avant garde, atonal music scene soon to be associated with the heyday of Weimar Republic Germany in general and rowdy, anything-goes Berlin in particular.

But Kurt was a restless young man, always in search of something new or different; and though he had many commissions for his "serious" music, somewhere along the line, around 1925, he began to hear recordings of this exciting new music from America...

Wait. Stop. That's the way his story is usually told, the official line: Weill was knocked for a loop by Jazz, and his own music changed. That's true... in part. He did abandon concertos and symphonies in order to compose strange operas and fractious, fractured musicals. But there's more to his conversion than meets the eye in Weill biographies. (It meets the ear, in fact.) The music that Kurt heard was not the Jazz we think of--neither New Orleans two-beat, overlapping and interwoven, nor the more contemporary mixture of solo musician insouciance and syncopated swing. Moreover, he was less influenced by Jazz of any era than he actually became an influence on Jazz, especially after he moved to the United States in 1935.

By 1925 Kurt was hearing Europe's idea of American Jazz, ahead of its ballyhooed, pre-sold arrival in 1926-27 in the persons of professional, slightly Jazzier, U.S. bands (but still dance bands) led by...uh ... Whiteman (Paul) and Black man Sam Wooding--and he was observing the Continental dance bands Americanize their names and play a chopped-up, used-condiments, mixed curry of marching drums, bierstube brass bands, ragtime syncopation, hurdy-gurdy streetsingers, quick-step 4/4 fox trots, tangos called back from exotic places, cabaret with a sexy Berliner snarl, cornpone humor and critter sounds (inspired maybe by Original Dixieland Jass Band 78s), Jewish klezmer clarinets threatened with violins, and Adolphe Sax's early C-melody saxophones, and all of those ingredients subjected to a piecemeal, pick-and-choose, go-for-broke approach.

These disparate, desperate measures of music met Weill's boredom and incipient rebellion head on, just when he was reading and cultivating the iconoclast poet and budding Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, cocky, half-cocked, brazen and brilliant. Kurt had lately decided to thumb his nose at a "serious music" fest in Baden-Baden that expected him to submit another atonal opera-in-progress. Suddenly he had the words--five Brecht poems including what became the famous "Alabama Song"--plus the eccentric model of this wild, new, no-style ur-Jazz (make that Eur-Jazz), and with cowboys yet! (Talk about your Brechtian alien-nation on the hoof.)

Weill thought, "I can do that better"... and he did, creating the heady blast of Weimar freethinking called Mahagonny Songspiel. When it premiered at the '27 festival, there in the set's boxing ring stood gussied-up Lotte Lenya, proudly holding up a hand-lettered sign and shout-singing right along with the other actress and actors. Kurt had met the brash and angular brunette (later famous for her fiery orange-red hair), an ex-dancer yearning to act, nearly three years earlier. Very quickly they became the couple widely known as "Kurt and Lenya," and soon were married; but this was her debut in a Weill piece. Inspired by the quizzical but excited response to the Songspiel, the troika (Lenya, Kurt and Bert) plus Brecht's assistant Elisabeth Hauptmann soon exploded the old new Germany and compass points outward by unleashing a trio of audacious, opera-nudging stage adventures: Die Dreigroschenoper; Happy End; Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. (Threepenny immediately sported big dollar signs, Happy End didn't, and Mahagonny rose and fell with Hitler's maneuvering.)

The Brecht-Weill team composed scores of angular, angst-denying, angrily sarcastic songs, of which at least a dozen (a few of them thanks to Lenya's unique delivery) quickly became classics of the new modern theatre, from "Alabama-," "Barbara-" and "Bilbao-" songs, to "Pirate Jenny," "Surabaya Johnny" and "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" Kurt's music was quirky, unpredictable, and instrumentally inventive, employing stops-and-starts, tempo and key changes, even "blue" notes, and he often chose to compose against the words rather than reinforce them. Since he always did his own orchestrations too, he could cheerfully call for such unexpected additions as banjo, hurdy-gurdy, trap drums, barrel organ, concertina, bandoneon, tenor viola, ricky-tick piano, and kitchen sink… and did. (A nice Weill story says he even required Hawaiian slack key guitar for one tune, but I'm dubious--Hawaiian guitar, yes, but slack-key tuning began decades later.)

On the verge of rich and famous, the three were much in demand, busily pursuing separate opportunities in opera, film, literature, theatre, and more, but by 1933 were all fleeing Hitler's Germany as designated enemies of the state (Bert the Communist, Kurt the Jew, and Lenya the pain in Adolf's skinny rump, guilty by association!), forced to abandon houses, lovers, money, and sheet music to the winds of no-chance. The Weills had already been through separation and divorce, but they kept regaling each other with wonderful letters; and so they decided to reunite in Paris for one last Euro project with Brecht ("The Seven Deadly Sins" ballet), realized they were meant to be together after all, and steamshipped on to America in 1935—where few knew of or gave a falling fig for their German fame and European successes.

Kurt had turned his back on Germany for good. He sought work in musical theater, on and off Broadway, and soon got it. He also pursued U.S. citizenship with his usual fixated shy seriousness. That took a little longer, but Kurt was determined to become more American than the Americans themselves. Hit shows and hit tunes soon guaranteed it...

Which brings us to the American viewpoint. Kurt and Lenya were unknown quantities. No matter what had occurred over there, the word had not traveled well. A few New York theater people had heard of The Threepenny Opera, but it closed almost immediately when presented in 1933, long before the couple ever considered immigrating. Nor were the great Brecht/Weill songs yet known. (As Bert might have said, "Work first, then food.")

Kurt cultivated an acquaintance with playwright Maxwell Anderson, and soon he and Lenya were edging into the musical theater's upper echelon...slight notice for minor antiwar musical Johnny Johnson... better reviews for an odd but entertaining, American history piece titled Knickerbocker Holiday, with knockout tune "September Song" performed in the play, and eventually twice on hit recordings, by aging actor Walter Huston.

Suddenly the days weren't dwindling down, they were stretching out, on a red carpet. More than the politically awkward play, "September Song" alone served as Weill's entree to the inner circle of musical theater creators; it showed his unique talent for coolly emotive music--sad but not overly sentimental, strange without sounding strained, immediately familiar even when tailored to one singer. And the song was taken up by dozens of vocalists, from Ella, Bing and Nat, to Jimmy Durante (a great performance) and Frank Sinatra (two versions waxed decades apart), to Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson, and Lenya herself (after Kurt's death). Sarah Vaughan recorded it on three separate occasions--with Teddy Wilson in 1946, Hal Mooney’s orchestra a decade later, and finally a December-of-her-years performance with Wynton Marsalis.

Jazz musicians heard its beauty too, among them orchestra leaders Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington, pianists Art Tatum and George Shearing, Jacques Loussier and John Bunch, and frontline soloists ranging from Chet Baker and J.J. Johnson to Al Hirt and Illinois Jacquet (with Ben Webster). Eventually even cabaret-ish rocker Lou Reed fell under its spell long enough to shred it quietly via his pick-and-slide, electric guitar version--not quite “Metal Music” unlistenable, but a challenge to Weill’s fans nonetheless.

Kurt would live long enough to become the still-youngish master of a new kind of Broadway musical, and to write the gracefully odd tunes for other hit songs lamenting the fragility of life and the evanescence of love. When he died suddenly in 1950, Jazz musicians were just beginning to take serious notice.

(Part 3 will pursue his influence on Jazz.)

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