It’s April in jazzland and spring is in the air

If you are gathering up Easter eggs today, why not do it to the sound of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing a duet of the 1936 Irving Berlin tune “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket,” from the film Follow the Fleet.

They weren’t the only duo crooning Irving Berlin tunes for Easter. The most well-known Berlin Easter song is “Easter Parade,” which musicologist David Guion discusses on his blog, “Musicology for Everyone.”

Perhaps the most popular Easter song in the English language, “Easter Parade” started out with completely different words. In 1917, Berlin wrote “Smile and Show Your Dimple” to cheer up women whose men had just been deployed to fight in the First World War. No one remembered it very long except Berlin himself.

In 1933, Berlin and playwright Moss Hart decided to collaborate on a satiric review with sketches taken from the daily newspaper. They called it As Thousands Cheer. It had sketches not only from the news sections, but also the society column, advice column, weather report, and comics. Blues singer Ethel Waters sang four of the songs, making As Thousands Cheer the first theatrical event in which black and white stars took the stage together with equal billing.

The first act closed with a big Fifth Avenue number, and Berlin wanted an old-fashioned song for it. He had trouble finding just the right kind of melody until he remembered “Smile and Show Your Dimple.” It required only some minor reworking and all new words. He later explained that a hit song was like a marriage between the music and the words; “Easter Parade,” however first required the divorce of the tune and its not particularly successful original lyric. In this second marriage, he had a winner.

Suave and sexy Billy Eckstine and “Sassy” Sarah Vaughn got together to record a studio album of Berlin tunes in 1957, reviewed at AllMusic by Stephen Cook, which included “Easter Parade.”

Sarah Vaughan’s heavenly vocalizing and Billy Eckstine’s velvety deep tone proved an ideal match during the late ’40s and throughout the ’50s. This 1957 Irving Berlin collection qualifies as the high point of that collaboration. Sometimes surpassing their splendid solo sides, Vaughan and Eckstine obviously revel in each other’s company here, seamlessly blending their voices on most every track.

Have a listen.

Trumpet player and NEA jazzmaster Roy Eldridge weighed in with his spiffy instrumental version.

Singing about spring and April has generated a host of jazz classics, almost too many to list here today, but following are a few of my favorites. Lest you think that all songs about spring are gleeful and gay, check out this Cafe Songbook discussion of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.”

Given that lyricists of The Great American Songbook are often inclined to include irony in their work, it is not surprising that spring as used in their songs is often linked to pain rather than to the sweetness, joy and light more commonly associated with that season. Richard Rodger’s two most celebrated lyricists both employ an irony related to spring. In his lyric for “Spring Is Here,” Lorenz Hart gets rattled because even though spring has arrived his heart is not dancing and the breeze does not delight him. In the song’s verse he writes, “Now April, May and June / Are sadly out of tune.” And Oscar Hammerstein in his lyric for “It Might as Well Be Spring” also finds himself discombobulated by having feelings he has always associated with spring when “it isn’t even spring.” Fran Landesman’s attention was piqued by an irony of spring in T. S. Eliot’s prototypical modernist poem “The Wasteland” of 1921, which was virtually required reading for all liberal arts students of the mid twentieth century. Eliot’s poem begins with the painfully ironic statement, “April is the cruellest month”; and Landesman having grown up  in the shadow of that poem, and her life as a poet and lyricist having begun during the  Beat period of the 1950’s found herself challenged by a desire to express Eliot’s irony in the “hip” language of her own era — and came up with “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.”

Here are versions from two of my most favorite women in jazz. First, Carmen McRae. 

Next, Betty Carter.

Since the song history above mentions Hammerstein’s “It Might As Well Be Spring,” here are two covers you may not be familiar with—the first, a 1961 instrumental version from Gene Ammons, with John Coltrane as a sideman. 

The second is rendered by Jazz Appreciation Month honoree Nina Simone, in her own inimitable style. 

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Happy Easter to those of you who celebrate it! I look forward to hearing your selections of jazz sounds of spring in the comments below.

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