Monday, August 8, 2016

Hoagy's in the Hall

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The August 2016 edition of Downbeat brings the news that as part of the 64th Annual Critics Poll, composer Hoagy Carmichael has been elected to the magazine’s Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee.

The significance of Hoagy’s election is explained in the following excerpts from John McDonough’s feature entitled Immortal Composer.

“... Hoagy Carmichael, the man who found "Stardust" … now takes his place in the DownBeat Hall of Fame.

It is long overdue that the Hall of Fame shift its attention from musicians—whose composing has been done largely as a self-serving avocation—to the full-time, professional songwriters who wrote for the world. They are the hidden second front of jazz history—the heroes who worked alone, found their inspiration behind the scenes and provided those musicians with the unique literary inventory on which they erected many of their greatest performances.

Carmichael is an ideal composer to open this second front. More than anyone, he wrote popular music from a jazz sensibility, which maybe why "Stardust" still endures. According to the Tom Lord Jazz Discography, it has been recorded 1,520 times since October 1927— and that includes only the jazz recordings, not the thousands of "popular" versions by artists as varied as Nat "King" Cole, Willie Nelson, Ringo Starr and Rod Stewart, and Billy Ward and the Dominos. Other Carmichael classics at I home in any jazz set include "Georgia On My Mind" (1,019 recordings), "The Nearness Of You" (828 recordings), "Skylark" (804 recordings), "Lazy River" (466 recordings) and the traditional Dixie favorite "Riverboat Shuffle."

Many of the early recordings of these standards have been interred with their time, interesting now as quaint artifacts trapped in the grooved amber of a vanished chic. They stand forever where they were planted in time, as tastes and styles move merrily along. But the work of a great composer is never finished, only latent. It slides through cycles of swing, bop, doo-wop, soul, gospel, country and come-what-may, embracing, then shedding, the characteristics of fashion like a literary Leonard Zelig. Such songs exist in the future, not the past, patiently awaiting a new generation. …

Carmichael came by his jazz instincts near their source, which in the 1920s was Chicago, where the best musicians of New Orleans and the Midwest were converging. Born in Bloomington, Indiana, Nov. 22, 1899, he came of age in the early '20s as Gennett Records in nearby Richmond began recording the first important records in jazz history — Jelly Roll Morton, the King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band with Louis Armstrong, and the Wolverines with Bix Beiderbecke. Carmichael's first composition, "Riverboat Shuffle," was recorded for Gennett by the Wolverines in May 1924. He soon felt the impact of the Beiderbecke horn and personality (so much so that he briefly tried to play the cornet). ...

His destiny was decided in Richmond in October 1927 when he recorded a peppy original called "Star Dust" (compounded soon afterward into the one-word title "Stardust"). Irving Mills, who had published "Riverboat Shuffle," signed him to a contract and printed the first sheet music run of the song as a piano piece. A Mills staff writer, Mitchell Parish, added the famous lyric—"Sometime I wonder why I spend the lonely night... "—in 1929. But early recordings persisted in treating it as a jazzy tune, and Carmichael resolved to leave the music business for investment banking after the market crash. Then, in 1931, Bing Crosby and Armstrong recorded their versions of "Stardust" as full blown love songs with the Parish lyric. Crosby
provided the romance. Armstrong gave it fire. From that point forward, Carmichael's path as a composer was clear, and few jazz artists from Ben Webster to Archie Shepp have dared tamper with the soul of "Stardust."

Today, both the song and its composer endure. "After careful study," musicologist Alec Wilder wrote in 1973, "I think it is unquestionable that Hoagy Carmichael has proven himself to be the most talented, inventive, sophisticated, and jazz-oriented of all the great craftsmen."

Hoagy passed away in 1981.

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