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the man that got away

23 july 2016

I play jazz standards on my piano every day, working my way through my songbooks and then going back to the front of the books and starting over. The easiest composer in the American songbook to play is Richard Rodgers, many of whose tunes are like scale exercises – not that there's anything facile about knowing which scale exercises are going to sound inevitable for a singer or pianist. The hardest to play is Cole Porter, though he also gives you the most instruction. Irving Berlin is surprisingly complex. Jerome Kern isn't easy. George Gershwin is somewhere in the middle.

Harold Arlen wrote some of the simpler of the great American tunes: "Come Rain or Come Shine," "One for My Baby," "Over the Rainbow." Yet even at their simplest, there's a deceptive quality to Arlen's songs. "Come Rain or Come Shine" is literally monotonous. Even if you're an ultra-basic pianist, you realize that you have to phrase and modulate the tune if you want it to sound like a song instead of a hitting of the same key over and over. This means engaging the pedals, which are often alien territory to me. "One for My Baby" involves a key change that seems to demand an increase in volume. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow": well, that one is like a scale exercise. But it jumps an octave right at the start, which is not easy on the fingers or the voice. These songs are not as basic as they look on the page.

And then Arlen wrote some songs, like "That Old Black Magic" and "Blues in the Night," I don't even try to play: they're too complex, they change too fast on the fly, their tempos and harmonies are too subtle. A theme in Walter Rimler's fascinating biography The Man That Got Away is Arlen's continual pushing of the envelope of pop composition. In some tentative ways Arlen aspired to emulate his friend George Gershwin, who realized some of his ambitions to contribute to the symphonic and operatic repertoire. But Arlen seemed to lack both the resources and the obsessive drive to "start suffering and write that symphony," as Donald O'Connor puts it in Singin' in the Rain. That lack of drive may have made him all the greater a songwriter. Flitting from project to project, Arlen kept trying new things. He lacked great fame because he lacked a brand; but freedom from the constraints of a brand made him a great artist.

Much of The Man That Got Away follows the pattern of "and then he wrote," which I suppose is inevitable. It's also digressive. Pages at a time will be about the Gershwins or Jerome Kern, whose connection to Arlen is somewhat at second hand. Even sections on Arlen's collaborators, like Johnny Mercer and E.Y. Harburg, are tangential to the central subject. Yet Arlen was dependent on his lyricists, and I suppose it would be hard to tell his story without them. Ted Koehler, who wrote the words to "Get Happy" and "Stormy Weather," basically discovered and promoted Arlen – back when he was Hyman Arluck, a cantor's son from Buffalo. Harburg, who wrote the lyrics for "It's Only a Paper Moon" and The Wizard of Oz, was a born producer and promoter, was always trying to rope Arlen into a new show that was going to be the big one.

Johnny Mercer ("One for My Baby," "Blues in the Night," "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive") was less of a mover and shaker. In fact his career resembles Arlen's, from the other side of the piano. Both Mercer and Arlen worked with many different partners. Both were functional alcoholics. Both spent a lot of time semi-employed (though if you wrote hits that became standards, it was difficult to go definitively broke). Both were in strained marriages. Both were wannabe crooners, though Mercer had somewhat more success (founding his own record company helped, though he soon tired of the day-to-day of Capitol). But Mercer seemed less depressive, by Rimler's account, and led more of a charmed life in the business. Arlen, for all his wondrous successes, sustained a great deal of failure. He got through it by drinking and playing golf, and trying not to think about the demons that beset his beloved wife Anya.

Much of Rimler's book is about the bigotry that afflicted Jewish families in Arlen's America. The bigotry came from both sides: anti-Semitism, surely, but also anti-Gentile prejudices. Anya Arlen was a Gentile and never accepted by Arlen's family; the ensuing unpleasantness seems to have torn the songwriter apart.

Harold Arlen comes across in Rimler's book as a genuinely nice person: self-effacing, appealing, admired by all. Rimler presents the community of songwriters who created American standards as a close-knit, supportive group. But perhaps they were that way from Arlen's perspective. He appears to have been close to his lyricists, to Harry Warren, to Jimmy Van Heusen, to Jerome Kern, to Irving Berlin (who survived them all, and late in life called Arlen continually to keep in touch) – and to George and Ira Gershwin. If those men perhaps sometimes squabbled among one another, they apparently did not fight with, or over, Harold Arlen.

Ira Gershwin would write the song that Rimler uses as his title, "The Man That Got Away." Much of the book thus seems to drive toward this standard from A Star is Born (1954), and deservedly so. Gershwin retired after writing it. Arlen would do one more significant show ("House of Flowers," with lyrics by Truman Capote) and a number of lesser projects, but A Star is Born was his last big hurrah, "The Man That Got Away" his last Oscar nomination (there were eight altogether, and he and Harburg won for "Over the Rainbow").

Rimler's book led me to get out the lead sheet for "The Man That Got Away" and start playing it, probably driving my partner, certainly my cat, to temporary distraction. It's not hard to play – the great initial hook is inevitable, and its tempo ("slow but insistent") something an amateur can manage. But there are unforeseen shifts in the middle of the song, pauses where it turns on its heel and launches in a new direction. Arlen and Gershwin wrote the song for Judy Garland, who promptly ignored Arlen's dynamics and key signature, belting the song in a higher register than he intended. But that's what standards are like: they change with every interpreter. Dinah Washington sang it with bitterly precise diction, taking even fewer prisoners than Garland. Ella Fitzgerald did it with Billy May's backing for her Arlen Songbook, with a warmer, more plaintive feel. Julie Andrews shouldn't have tried it at all. But that's the other thing about a truly great standard: it's in the center of the repertoire, and a great singer (as Andrews was) has to attempt it. Harold Arlen wrote dozens of songs like that.

Rimler, Walter. The Man That Got Away. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. ML 410 .A76R56