Friday, September 2, 2011

Part 3: A Short Weill

He was not a tall man, this proud new American, this solid citizen immigrant. Diminutive, compact, bespectacled, he was a shy man, quietly confident--perhaps arrogant, but silently so--regarding his musical skills and his business (show business) acumen. And this is what he said, this is what Kurt Weill said:

I write for today. I don’t give a damn about writing for posterity…. I have never acknowledged the difference between “serious” music and “light” music. There is only good music and bad music.

Sound familiar? One Ducal/orchestral leader offered a similar opinion:

There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.

Asked about the Jazz elements in his opera-related, vox populi music, Weill responded:

American Jazz has influenced modern music undoubtedly. Rhythmic and harmonic freedom, simplicity of melodic material, directness—saying things as they are—these are the contributions of Jazz… I do not mean the Jazz of today, but the Jazz of the time of the “St. Louis Blues” and other pieces of that period. Today it is much more complicated and it has been influenced in turn by Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakoff, and so on… [M]odern composers did not go to Jazz to borrow its idiom. It was not the actual taking of material. It was an influence you did not feel.

Now, certainly Kurt Weill could articulate the stance of those composers who absorbed detectable aspects of Jazz, but it is also ironic that his own staying power and his place in music history owe debts of gratitude to Jazz arrangers influenced by that very impressionism, the “re-composers” who discovered useful irony and melodic invention, suspended harmonies (“notes between notes”) and tuneful changeability in Kurt’s compositions. And his indebtedness certainly extends to a certain other “St. Louis” too.

(Look out, old Satch is back!)

Throughout the War and after its end, Weill kept quietly storming the barricades… and Broadway responded, noting misses as well as hits. The Firebrand of Florence flopped like a gasping flounder, yet that failure came hard on the heels of his biggest hits, Lady in the Dark, an astonishing musical about psychoanalysis, with Gertrude Lawrence, young Danny Kaye, and Kurt’s co-writers Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin, followed by One Touch of Venus, starring Mary Martin as the earth-visiting goddess, with fine and funny lyrics by Ogden Nash. The two also featured a pair of moody ballads—one each show--that became Kurt’s second and third all-time showtune standards, “My Ship” and “Speak Low.”

The latter was taken up first, by Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, then Sonny Clark with John Coltrane, Tony Bennett, Grant Green, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Hank Jones, Boz Scaggs, and umpteen more, right up to a deep thudding bass performance by Charlie Haden—accompanying a tape of Kurt himself “Speaking Low”! Similarly, “My Ship” sailed from Sassy Sarah to Kenny Barron and Gary Bartz, with stops en route at the ports of Jeri Southern and Ella.

Other shows, other hits: “It Never Was You” (Bobby Short, Judy Garland ), “Lost in the Stars” (beautiful version by Tony Bennett with Count Basie, also Ken Peplowski, Helen Merrill, Anita O’Day), “Lonely House” (wistful June Christy, eerie and powerful Betty Carter), and more. (Both the Haden and Carter reimaginings are on producer Hal Willner's interpretive masterpiece, September Songs, from 1997; also splendid tracks by Lenya, P.J. Harvey, William Burroughs, Lou Reed, et al, and a pair from Teresa Stratas that simply exceed perfection, "Surabaya Johnny" and the unknown and impossibly lovely "Youkali.")

By the time Weill died in 1950, pretty much from overworking himself, he had begun to gain a small dual following among Jazz folk; vocalists loved his melodies and his co-writers’ poetic yet straightforward lyrics, players admired his chords (“great possibilities for reharmonization,” commented one) and the rhythmic changes. But the admirers knew only the music of his “American” years—and even the performances I’ve mentioned mostly date from the mid-Fifties on. Before the Weill deluge could begin, a couple of other planets had to align…

The still-youngish Widow Weill decided to devote her life to keeping Kurt’s music--especially his neglected or unknown European works—in the public consciousness. First she performed a concert version of The Threepenny Opera in 1952, which set the theatrical world a-buzz about both Weills, then she played the part of Jenny (stopping the show every performance with her angry, world-weary version of “Pirate Jenny”), cunningly commanding the 1954 Americanized, revised staging of the complete Threepenny… which took off like a stealth jet, eventually and inexorably holding court off-Broadway for seven years.

That on-going success coupled with healthy sales of the MGM original cast album persuaded Lenya and Columbia Records to resurrect the others, adapted slightly so sultry, low-voiced Lotte could take some major role in each: Mahagonny, Happy End, The Seven Deadly Sins, and truly brilliant collections of his best (or best-suited to Lenya’s limited but oh-so-expressive range) German and American theatre songs—dozens of classic Weill and Brecht-Weill songs to be discovered, performed, and recorded by new generations of listeners and performers.

And in the midst of all that activity, capstone of the arch as it were, there arose the spectre of murderous Mackie Messer, aka “Mack the Knife,” with sainted Jazz trumpeter and master of the second-line march Louis Armstrong leading the way, just ahead of the “Mack Pack”: Turk Murphy (his version shelved for decades to leave the door open for Satch),then Ella Fitzgerald (live in Berlin as I recall), Bobby Darin, Bing Crosby with Bob Scobey, Eartha Kitt, Kenny Dorham, even Sonny Rollins blowing a tenor sax version under its instrumental/theme title, “Moritat”).

You could say that Kurt made Mack, and then Mack made Kurt, posthumously.

Suddenly both English-speaking audiences and revived German concertgoers were thinking, “Hmmm… Kurt Weill… Interesting… Wonder what else he’s written…” Whole albums devoted to Jazz versions of Weill began to appear, the first one an Australian Jazz Quartet LP of Threepenny songs with fairly boring arrangements by Teddy Charles. In France the Jacques Loussier Trio issued an album of brief, light, miscellaneous Weill. The Andre Previn Trio backed trombonist J.J. Johnson in his bid. And in the half century since J.J.’s LP there have been a couple dozen more devoted to Weill just in the categories of Jazz and Pop—over a hundred if one adds in the historical reissues and purely Classical releases too.

Weill was unique. I can’t think of any other composer who lived and created and succeeded so convincingly in the two musical realms he named with disdain in that quotation back at the beginning: “serious” and “light.” Indeed, at his best, whether sarcastic or sentimental, caustic or comedic, from The Threepenny Opera to Street Scene, from “Surabaya Johnny” to “Speak Low,” from Der Lindburghflug to Down in the Valley, from “Berlin im Licht” to “Youkali Tango-Habanera”…whether sung by Dave van Ronk or Dagmar Krause, Teresa Stratas or Elvis Costello, Andy Williams or Nina Simone, James Brown or DeeDee Bridgewater, Lotte Lenya or Lou Reed… or played by Miles Davis or the Doors, Cal Tjader or Django Reinhardt, Eric Dolphy or David Bowie, Nat Cole or Nick Cave, The Great Jazz Trio or the equally great trio Tethered Moon…

Whatever the Berlin shocker or Broadway blast, cabaret hit or concert hall miss, rock star adventure or Firebrand failure, you could be sighing a “September Song” or savoring “Green-Up Time,” and I might be sailing “My Ship” alone or feeling “Lost out here in the stars”… through it all, “It Never Was You,” or me. It always was Kurt.

(One last part of this convoluted story still lies ahead, a fantastic triple play to wrap-up the game. You might score it as “Thornhill to Evans to Kikuchi.”)


Steve Provizer said...

Thanks for the great breakdown of Weill-iana.

I think the two sides of Weill you describe are not actually that uncommon. Other show composers, especially those with the musical chops to do their own orchestrations, used both singable tunes (often reprised many times during a show to make them become singable) and more sophisticated sections that showed off modern compositional approaches. Gershwin, Rodgers and Bernstein come to mind. Porter somewhat less and Sondheim, as composer, had little luck with the singable stuff.

I just saw Porgy and Bess here in Boston (they did a great job). Compare the incidental hurricane music in P & B with that in Mahagonny. Strikingly similar.

IWitnessEd said...

Thanks, but some dissension is possible. From your list, only Bernstein and maybe Gershwin get any Classical props. Gershwin's song structure was TPA's aaba usually, Kurt only once or twice in 25 years. Weill's oddball music actually helped open the door for West Side Story, Candide, and all of tuneless Sondheim who followed the Weill pseudo-opera songlines/character stuff. I do not deny the excellence and efficacy of all named, only the seeming attempt to lump all together. Kurt worshipped George and was ecstatic to have Ira for two musicals; being invited to a rehearsal of P&B early on was a highlight of Kurt's career, and Street Scene his attempt to match or top George. And of course Weill's hurricane music preceded Gershwin's by five years. I think one should just say that every one of the guys on your list was great, each in his own way; but, also, sometimes they clicked and sometimes they didn't.