You are incited! Two days after Independence Day, Sunday July 6, 4:30 to 6:30 pm, at the Huntington Beach Central Library, our Editor in chief Vern Nelson is performing a program of all American piano music. Well, what will Vern play in this All-American program?
John-Philip Sousa: Stars and Stripes Forever.
A few years ago, Vern wanted to play a fancy-ass piano version of this great patriotic tune, like Horowitz used to do. The famous final theme that everyone remembers presented a problem though – which Horowitz seemed to cheat on, with an extra player or an overdub – you can’t do that melody in the middle range, the oom-pah march bass, and the great piccolo part all with just two hands. Several solutions suggested themselves, the best of which seemed to be to SING the melody, with Milton Berle’s silly lyrics “Be kind to your web-footed friends” … but this in turn presented a problem, as Milton ended “You may think that this is the end, well you’re right!” – which was evidently hilarious in the 1940’s or whatever, but not so much now. SO, since it was then 2011, after a stubborn Republican-controlled Congress had just caused the nation’s credit rating to be downgraded, Vern wrote the final three lines. You should help and sing along:
Be kind to our web-footed friends,
For a duck could be somebody’s mother!
Be kind to our friends in the swamp,
For they live where it’s very very damp!
You may think that this is the end –
You’d be wrong, like a million more before you:
This song’s rated Double-A-PLUS,
And after this we have a dozen more to bore you!
Andrew Imbrie: Short Story (1980)
Then we dive headlong into a spiky, extravagant, modern atonal piece composed by Vern’s Pulitzer-prize-winning Berkeley composition professor, the late Andrew Imbrie. This 13-minute Jackson Pollack-like canvas is baffling to most people when they first hear it, and they say “Short Story? Not short enough!” But then on third and fourth hearing it starts to grow on them, sounding like some sort of free jazz but with an inscrutable but stringent logic behind it. Vern is one of the only half-dozen pianists to be able to play this piece, having premiered it in 1987, and is certainly the only idiot savant who can play it by memory!
Bill Evans: Waltz For Debby (circa 1950)
This great American jazz pianist, who died young of “jazz-related conditions” (alcohol and drugs) was one of the visionary pioneers of the middle of the last century. This lovely piece, written for his infant daughter, grows a wild hair toward the middle in Vern’s half-improvised rendition. Hey, Debby is no longer an infant, yo.
Scott Joplin: The Crysanthemum / Maple Leaf Rag (1899-1902)
A medley of two pieces by the father of ragtime: the charming less-familiar Crysanthemum segueing into his biggest and first hit the Maple Leaf, which Vern defiantly plays at top speed even though Scott clearly wrote “Do not play fast. Ragtime should never be played fast.” Doesn’t that just make you think, well, what would happen if you did? Don’t you cautiously push doors that say “pull” and vice-versa, just to see why they’re marked that way? No? Well in any case it sounds BRILLIANT fast, thank you very much.
Three 20th-century “Standards”
“Everything You Are” started as the ballad “All the Things You Are” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, but it’s gone through too many changes now so Vern had to change the name. A beautiful melody but too difficult and angular for most vocalists to navigate, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker used to make an upbeat jazz tune out of it, and added the dark swingy introduction, which reminded Vern of Rachmaninov‘s C# minor Prelude, so he added part of that onto it… and it has been downhill from there.
ALSO passionately ambivalent is Cole Porter‘s standard “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” one of Sinatra’s favorites. We may have guest vocalist Bud Belsito (former Huntington Beach treasurer and 1999 runner-up in HB’s “Battle of the Sinatras”) singing that one.
And Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s beloved “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music was transformed into a seminal free “modal” jazz classic by John Coltrane in the 60’s. Vern’s version falls somewhere between Coltrane and Julie Andrews.
Charles Ives: The Alcotts, and Waltz-Rondo (1910)
America’s first real ORIGINAL (and insane) serious composer is best remembered for his bold dissonances and polytonality (music in two or more keys at the same time.) “The Alcotts” is one of his prettier and more popular pieces, the third movement of his “Concord Sonata.” This particular movement was dedicated to the sisters who wrote such popular novels of the time as “Little Women,” and particularly inspired by the legend of their father always banging away at Beethoven’s 5th Symphony on their parlor piano.
Then comes his terrifying or hilarious 1910 “Waltz-Rondo.” Vern is probably the only person who plays this, having discovered the manuscript in New Haven in the 80’s. A disturbingly insipid “waltz” theme alternates with six episodes of progressively more RIOTOUS character, culminating in an apocalyptic yet jolly finale which combines all the episodes; in the sixth episode and the finale you can pick out such popular tunes of the day as “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” and “Turkey in the Straw.”
Duke Ellington / Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life
Duke Ellington was the big lovable bandleader, personality and showman, but his best songs were really written by his secret boyfriend Billy Strayhorn (above.) If I’ve got this right, Ellington never did “Lush Life” because it was too complicated and depressing. But John Coltrane popularized it as a saxophone instrumental in the 60s. Vern makes it even more horrifying and decadent.
Eubie Blake: Charleston Rag (1917)
In the World War I years people WERE playing ragtime FAST, and writing it in minor keys; this piece is an example, which Vern learned transcribing off an old player piano roll in the 80s. He warns that he may have parts of it mixed up with James P Johnson’s similar “Steeplechase Rag” which he learned at the same time; it’s hard to find official versions of these. The Eubie Blake piece starts out not so much ragtime as Eubie’s trademark inside-out boogie bass (you’ll hear it.) He was known for that when he was young. The neighbors called it the “wiggly bass.” He wasn’t supposed to play in the whorehouses, but those were the only joints with pianos up in this town. He got in trouble once when the neighbor lady told his mom, “I was walking past the damn whorehouse and I heard that wiggly bass!”
Brad Mehldau: Airport Sadness (2000)
Mostly jazz these days is too mellow, especially what’s called “smooth jazz,” and doesn’t it just suck a bunch of giant donkey balls? But Vern recently discovered this gem, by this contemporary cat who seems very special. EVERY NOTE IS IMPORTANT in a Brad Mehldau piece.
Charles Griffes: Sonata (1919)
Here was a promising late-romantic dissonant composer whose life was cut short by illness at the age of 35. This three-movement sonata is actually pretty damn great and exciting. One thing that characterizes it is Charles’ fascination with American Indian melodies, as a way to distinguish his music from the European stuff of the time. A Vern specialty!
Carlos Santana: Europa, Black Magic Marker,
and Gipsy Queen (1973)
We all know the Mexican-American guitarist-composer-bandleader Carlos Santana, who had his tour cancelled by Budweiser because he smokes pot. Half the people you will ever meet have jammed with him, or claim to have. He wrote Europa for the amazing Argentine sax player Gato Barbieri. Conversely he did not write most of his own hits, including Black Magic Woman (a Fleetwood Mac song), although he made great arrangements and performances of them. Unfortunately Vern finds the words to “Black Magic Woman” to be lame and misogynistic, and had to change them. (“Gipsy Queen” is actually the name of the exciting jam that happens at the end of BMW.)
George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (1923)
Probably the most popular piece of American orchestral music ever, written by another composer taken from us at an early age, “Rhapsody in Blue” either makes people exclaim, “Hey, American Airlines!” or “Hey! Woody Allen’s Manhattan!” or “Hey! Rhapsody in Blue” or “THAT again?!?” depending on their level of hipness. This would be yet another orchestral piece that Vern, under duress but with the best of feelings and intentions, has figured out how to play on the piano. Now he won’t have to for another year.
Violent Femmes: Blister in the Sun?
Theolonious Monk: Round Midnite?
Charlie Daniels: The Devil Went down to Georgia?
Lady Gaga: Bad Romance?
Or all of those or more?
Let’s see when they kick us out.
Has to be American though, this weekend.