A new Harold Arlen -- the deep roots of jazz

June 30, 1996|By Richard Sudhalter | Richard Sudhalter,Special to the Sun

"Harold Arlen: Rhythm, Rainbows & Blues" by Edward Jablonski. Northeastern University Press. 490 pages. $29.95.

In 1961, historian Edward Jablonski won deserved acclaim for "Happy with the Blues," a balanced, informed biography of songwriter Harold Arlen. Subsequent discovery of a trove of Arlen letters, manuscripts, recordings, scrapbooks, photos and other memorabilia made a brand-new book essential and "Rhythm, Rainbows &Blues" is the result.

There's much to admire. New detail on Arlen's collaborations with lyricists Ted Koehler, Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, among others, should prove irresistible. With his usual insight, Jablonski widens his examinations of the great songs, often illuminating them with anecdotal material. Even his speculation on why the composer of "Over the Rainbow," "Blues in the Night," "Get Happy" and above all "Stormy Weather," remains relatively little known (compared to contemporaries Gershwin, Porter and Berlin) makes absorbing reading.

A problem here is Arlen's affinity for, and roots in, jazz. Arriving in New York in 1926 as a band pianist, he soon was drawn into hot music circles, taking likeable (if rather manic) vocals on records with Red Nichols, Benny Goodman and the violin-guitar duo of Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang. Many Arlen songs ("I've Got the World on a String" and "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" are typical) play like jazz solos.

Realizing, perhaps, that "Happy With the Blues" scanted jazz, Jablonski has now tried to adjust the balance - and stumbled badly. Ill at ease, seemingly unaware of recent scholarship, he serves up a warmed-over gumbo of misperception, half-truth and inaccuracy. He also seems to have accepted the popular, and erroneous, conflation of jazz as a black preserve, learned (or appropriated) by whites.

He assures us, for example, that two elderly Arlen heroes, Frank Signorelli and Arthur Schutt, "were not jazz or blues pianists in the mold of Jelly Roll Morton or Jimmy Yancey." Of course they weren't, any more than orange is green. But the obloquy is both clear and unjust. Able musicians both, Schutt and Signorelli belonged to an elite circle of New York-based jazzmen, who made some of the most inventive and forward-looking records of the 1920s.

Other references to groups and individuals betray lapses of perspective and evaluation. White arrangers, Jablonski asserts, followed the work of black bands "and borrowed from them freely." The reality, carefully documented (and obvious from countless records) is that traffic was always two-way, black and white musicians listening to and emulating each other's methods.

A fascinating point Jablonski misses entirely concerns the genesis of the "Stormy Weather" melody. Its familiar opening phrase opens a solo by Jack Teagarden on a blues, "That's a Serious Thing," recorded in 1929, four years before "Stormy Weather's" debut in a Cotton Club show. Arlen, hanging out regularly with jazzmen, must have heard the trombonist play it.

A glance at the author's notes reveals that his two chief jazz history sources are the highly romanticized "Jazzmen," (Ramsey and Smith, 1939) and "Shining Trumpets" (Rudi Blesh, 1946) both long since superseded by clear-eyed documentation. But why consult two books written half a century ago for information that is now a major, still-evolving area of musical inquiry? Residual musical snobbery? A hyperactive sense of social or racial justice?

Whatever its causes, the failure of "Rhythm, Rainbows & Blues," to deal responsibly with jazz is a damaging flaw in Edward Jablonski's exploration of, hence a reader's understanding of, Harold Arlen's unique musical stature.

Richard M. Sudhalter has been heard as trumpet soloist on recordings, concerts and soundtracks. He has written for magazines, newspapers and radio. His "Lost Chords" will be published by Oxford University Press this year.

` Pub date: 06/30/96

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