Time to make room for pre-rock pop roll over, Beethoven

April 11, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

"Alot of times people will say, 'Why do you sing these old songs?' " Michael Feinstein said in an interview recently. "I say, 'Why do we listen to Beethoven?' Because it's the same reason. [This music] has transcended its time. It may have been created earlier, but it still has a quality and value for today.

"The songs still speak to us. Beethoven still speaks to us. It's the same thing, in a certain way."

Actually, it's becoming the same thing in more ways than even Feinstein dreamed, because the music he talks about -- the work of such composers as Jerome Kern, Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin -- is rapidly acquiring the sort of high-culture reputation once reserved for the likes of Beethoven, Bach and Brahms.

It isn't that anyone is saying Cole Porter was as great as Beethoven -- yet. But just look at the way this once-popular music is being approached and appreciated by rock-bred baby boomers. Not only was Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable" an enormous success, but young sophisticates have also been flocking to Harry Connick Jr.'s concerts of Sinatra-style jazz pop. Nouveau cabaret artists like Feinstein and Ute Lemper have brought the music out of the bistros and into the concert halls. And where young jazzmen used to be long-haired guitar whizzes trying to meld jazz and rock, today's new talent is clean-cut and well-tailored, with a sound straight out of the '50s.

Could it be that baby boomers, as they head into middle-aged maturity, are forsaking rock for the music of their parents' generation? Not really. No matter how much classic pop partisans may hope to the contrary, rock and roll still rules for most Americans under 50.

But boomers definitely do appreciate pre-rock popular music. In fact, "appreciate" is perhaps the perfect word to describe this new phenomenon, because what we're seeing has less to do with a change in popular tastes than with a subtle shift in the kind of music we consider art.

Remember music appreciation courses? What they taught, to a large extent, was not music history but cultural reverence -- the idea that certain works are "great art," and audiences will be elevated by respectful contact with them. It didn't matter what we knew of counterpoint or sonata form, so long as we remembered that the music of Beethoven, Bach and Brahms was worth hearing because it was complicated, refined and old.

That's pretty much the way boomers see Porter, Kern and Ellington. They don't just like this music; they respect it. To them, it speaks of a past full of great art and lost sophistication. They barely think of it as "pop music" anymore. These aren't show tunes and jazz charts anymore; they're art songs and improvisational compositions.

Say hello to the new classical music.

Curator culture

Surprised? Don't be. For some time now certain kinds of pre-rock pop -- be it musical theater, big-band jazz or what enthusiasts call "the Great American Popular Song" -- have been working their way into the curator culture that protects and maintains classical music. Consider:

* Pop recordings by opera singers, once seen as commercially canny kitsch, are now being treated as a respectable part of the repertoire -- provided that they draw from the right class of songs. Burt Bacharach, the Beatles and Andrew Lloyd Webber are still considered camp, but Kern, Porter and the Gershwins are appropriate fare for divas like Kiri Te Kanawa and Frederica Von Stade.

* Jazz repertory orchestras are springing up all over. Unlike the big bands of old, whose books were built around a personal set of contemporary compositions, these groups exist for the sole purpose of reviving and maintaining the work of past masters. There's something downright symphonic about the reverence with which groups like the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the New England Conservatory Jazz Repertory Orchestra or the New Orleans Classic Jazz Orchestra treat scores by Ellington, ,, Morton, Charles Mingus and Fletcher Henderson.

* Musicals of the '20s and '30s are being revived in the recording studio, where they receive the same sort of respectful presentation usually reserved for opera albums. Unlike stage productions, which stress the story above the music, these recordings emphasize the music above all, with some, like John McGlinn's rendition of Kern's "Showboat," paying as much attention to manuscript scholarship as any Mozart or Monteverdi production.

* Even symphony orchestras are getting into the act. It used to be that concert seasons rarely got any more "low brow" than the occasional show tune performed at symphonic pops concerts. Now, however, it's not uncommon to find jazz musicians as featured soloists -- or even to have symphony-sponsored jazz shows, like the Wynton Marsalis concert the BSO is presenting April 19. Desperate attempt?

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