Like many suburban California boys of a recalcitrant nature, I spent my early teenage years in the ’80s listening to rock, metal and punk. I went to many concerts in the San Francisco Bay Area, and even started a fanzine, foreshadowing my forays into Internet publishing years later. I even got to interview Kirk Hammett, lead guitarist of Metallica, a pretty cool thing for a 15-year-old.
But change comes rapidly between the years of 14 and 18 as a boy becomes a man, and the lack of melody in the abrasive music I was listening to eventually became incapable of reflecting the turbulent emotions of adolescence, including first love. I moved on to bands such as The Cure and New Order that better accompanied a debilitating case of unrequited love. Then suddenly, almost overnight, I took a sharp 180-degree turn and began exploring the music of the past. And that’s where I’ve been ever since.
It started with my parents’ record collection, which had gathered dust since the day they became burdened with child rearing. I dug out their albums by the Beatles and Stones, plus folk-rock groups such as Peter, Paul & Mary, We Five, Chad & Jeremy, Peter & Gordon, and stuff like that. In my senior year of high school, I came into possession of my grandpa’s old gas-guzzler and set its radio dial to San Francisco’s “oldies” station, through which I discovered the great vocalists of mid-century, such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, plus instrumental hits such as Les Baxter’s “The Poor People of Paris” and Hugo Winterhalter’s “Canadian Sunset.” By the time graduation rolled around, I was wearing tailored clothing to school and had seen Mel Tormé in concert.
When my parents bought a piano for my sister, who was studying voice, I decided to learn how to play it, and it was through the keyboard that I really came to learn the Great American Songbook.
When I learned that April is Jazz Appreciation Month, I was already in the middle of a long overdue project. After years of neglect, I had begun editing and alphabetizing my collection of sheet music. Currently bursting at the seams in three large binders, it must include 500 songs. I know the lyrics to them by heart, and can usually tell you what key they’re in. I play them all, though not exactly well enough to book a residency at The Carlyle.
I have competent musical understanding but rudimentary technique, since that requires tedious hours of drills and scales. Years ago I discovered that it was easier for me to play from a “lead sheet,” which supplies merely the melody and chords, than following written arrangements. A lead sheet (or “fake book”) is what jazz musicians use. You make up the arrangement spontaneously as you go, and it comes out a little differently each time. That’s jazz. I can’t solo or do anything fast except hit rhythmic chords to accompany my equally rudimentary wannabe-hipster-lounge-lizard singing (Buddy Greco, Bobby Troup, Mark Murphy). But when I’m in the zone I can play an expressive ballad with some advanced voicings that include inversions, extensions, major 7ths, flatted 9ths, sharped 11ths and that sort of thing. In the photo above, my left hand is playing a Gm7 voiced F A Bb E, which places the 7th on the bottom, then the 9th and 3rd a half-step apart, and the 13th on top.
To give you a sense of the songs I like to play, let’s take the first letters from the phrase “Ivy Style.” Some tunes I especially enjoy are:
I Didn’t Know About You (Duke Ellington)
The Very Thought Of You (Ray Noble [OK he’s actually English])
You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me (Harry Warren & Al Dubin)
Soft Summer Breeze (Eddie Heywood)
Tea For Two (Vincent Youmans)
You Do Something To Me (Cole Porter)
L’il Darlin (Neal Hefti)
Everything Happens To Me (Adair & Dennis)
Gaining familiarity with all these songs took many years of listening to various eras of jazz and popular music. In my late twenties I began dating a woman involved in San Francisco’s Art Deco/retro scene, and I started going to events with fantastic orchestras that played ’20s and ’30s dance music. My musical investigations led me to Bix Beiderbecke, who remains, 20 years later, one of my all-time favorites. I’ve listened to his version of “I’m Coming Virginia” countless times and never tire of it. I also continue to enjoy the dance bands of interwar period, particularly the ones from Chicago and New York, led by such leaders as Ben Pollack, Jean Goldkette, Phil Napoleon and Red Nichols.
In the late ’90s, the so-called swing revival hit, and I found myself in the right place at the right time. San Francisco was the epicenter of the three-year-long national fad, whose high points included a top-40 hit for the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies with “Zoot Suit Riot,” a popular TV commercial for Gap khakis with a swing dance routine, and finally the band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, which played the Super Bowl halftime show. I was instantly hooked on the dance and the scene and will always fondly remember it as one of the best periods of my life. Ever a quick study, I soon started giving dance lessons up to seven days per week, began a weekly event in which I played DJ and host, developed a couple of school programs for kids, and eventually got a job on a small independent movie called “Swing” in which I danced with Jacqueline Bissett. As far as listening went, I became deeply familiar with all the bands from the swing era, though as time went on I found I prefered dancing to the postwar jump blues sound, such as Calvin Boze’s “Safronia B.”
In 1999 the film “The Talented Mr. Ripley” came out and captured my imagination with its mixture of Ivy and Continental style and depiction of jazz-loving Americans in Europe during the ’50s. I began exploring music that was more straight-up jazz (as opposed to swing and dance bands), an exploration that was rekindled in 2008 when I did the Miles Davis/Andover Shop story for Ralph Lauren and founded this website with the motto “soft shoulders and hard bop.”
I think most jazz fans eventually come to have an appreciation for just about everything in the genre, but lately — as with my wardrobe and everything else — I find myself refining my listening down to the sounds I like the most. These days I find I really like the West Coast sound from the ’50s. There’s a breezy lightness to it that just sounds cool (maybe because I’m a native Californian; I also adopted a more California style of swing dancing back in 2000), and the use of arrangements and experimental instrumentation certainly appeal to a listener who’s also on a steady diet of classical music. That said, Duke Ellington’s band from ’40-’42 has been a favorite for many years. That sound is on another astral plane, and includes my favorite female singer, Ivie Anderson.
Jazz and the Great American Songbook have always expressed the give and take between white and black America, Jew and Gentile. Most of the composers of the Great American Songbook were Jewish, and also gave us many of our Christmas songs, such as Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” Cole Porter (a Yalie) is one of the few WASPs. Their compositions would serve as launching pads for the jazz explorations of African American musicians.
Which brings me to a curious thing I recently realized: that my taste preferences vacillate between white and black depending on the era. American popular music for me starts in the 1890s with Scott Joplin, an African American, and ends around 1970 with Burt Bacharach, who is Jewish. For the ’20s I prefer Bix over Louis, and in the early ’30s the white dance bands over, say, Fletcher Henderson. During the swing era it’s an even split between black and white, though with Ellington on top. But after 1945 I prefer the bebop sound of black musicians such as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk (“In Walked Bud”), and the jump blues of Wynonie Harris, Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner. Then in the ’50s it’s a mix, with a nod to the mostly white West Coast sound. After 1960 it’s bossa nova and Vince Guaraldi’s “Charlie Brown” soundtrack.
Like the Ivy League Look, the Great American Songbook — and the jazz interpretations of it — is quintessential Americana. The clothing provides you with an outfit for any occasion, and the songbook a melody and lyric for every emotion. I can recommend no better style of clothing, and no better genre of music. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD