A Hoagy is more than a
sandwich -- much more
Here are some steps to follow to enjoy a perfect summer's day:
1) Place a wheatstraw firmly between your teeth.
2) Find a tree growing on the banks of a slowly flowing river.
3) Plant your backside against the trunk.
4) Don the earphones of your Walkman.
5) Spend an hour listening to the music of Hoagy Carmichael as the world passes you by.
For baby boomers, Hoagy represents a period in popular music that fascinated our parents.
Many of us grew up listening to an older generation's equivalent of rock 'n' roll in the
music of Hoagy Carmichael and we have a tendency to think of it as old people's music.
But now that we are becoming old people ourselves, and now that so much of what had seemed
enduring to us in our own generation's music has turned out to be dross, Hoagy, like many
of his generation, is worth much more than another listen.
We jazz fans sometimes forget, in our zeal for new sounds, how reliant popular songwriting
is upon the sweat and teeth of craft. But Hoagy knew all about that, and he learned it
like an apprentice. Starting a long recording career in 1927, he worked with the earliest
of jazz greats, revered names like Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden.
His resume puts him among the first wave of jazz composers and he wore his experience
well. Making use of that laborious thing called craft, Hoagy put together a canon of work
perhaps unrivalled for its across-the-board appeal to jazzers and non-jazzers alike.
Not all his pieces were gems. But the ones he mined from the depths of his creativity have
provided enjoyment and much improvisatory raw material for several generations of music
lovers and musicians.
Has anyone attended a prom or wedding reception or jazz club and failed to hear
"Stardust"? Remember all the times you laughed about the corniness as your
parents hummed "Up A Lazy River" or "In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The
Evening"? As eccentric a talent as Leon Redbone saw the humor in
"Lazybones" and he also discerned the natural parallel between his laconic vocal
style and the piano style of the composer. In live performance, Jack Teagarden and Satchmo
milked "Rocking Chair" for laughs, a good example of which can be seen in Bert
Stern's classic 1959 film, "Jazz On A Summer's Day," and there are myriad
treatments of that chestnut by a legion of jazz artists, so many, in fact, that it seems
sometimes as if others began experimenting with Hoagy's tune as soon as the ink was dry on
the lead sheets.
And, finally, the jewel in the Carmichael crown: "Georgia On My Mind." What, you
say? You didn't know that was a Hoagy tune? I'm constantly surprised to realize how many
jazz and blues lovers haven't discovered that fact in the decades since Ray Charles staked
his claim on the song and made it his own. Now that I've let the not-very-well-concealed
secret out, there'll be no more free beer for me in the inevitable trivia contests at the
pub. But I can find comfort in helping give credit where credit's due.
Meantime, if the weather ever warms up again, I'm planning a little Hoagy-fest down on the
bank of a stream I know that flows near here. You come, too; wheatstraws and rocking
chairs optional. I'll bring the beer.