Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Let’s Face the Music and Dance

Riverside Park. 3:20 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, February 29, 2012. Bright and mild sunny day in New York, with temperatures in the low 50s.
May 16, 1851. Heard Jenny Lind Wednesday night with Ellen. As much pleased as I expected to be, and no more. All that I heard her sing was overloaded with fiorituri and foolery, marvelously executed, but I always find that sort of thing a bore. The low and middle notes of her voice are superb, and the high notes as good as such notes can be, but she runs too much on music written for the altitudes. No doubt she does it with perfect ease, but that don’t make it the pleasanter to hear. A man who could walk on his head as comfortably as on his feet would be a fatiguing person to look at, if he abused his faculty of locomotion and was habitually upside down. The lady’s personal appearance took me much by surprise. None of her portraits do her any justice. She is not pretty nor handsome, nor exactly fine-looking, but there’s an air about her of dignity, self-possession, modesty, and goodness that is extremely attractive.
George Templeton Strong.

Jenny Lind.
From the New York Diaries 1609 – 2009, Edited by Teresa Carpenter (Modern Library).

For the many of us who never heard of Jenny Lind – she was a Swedish opera singer known the world over as “the Swedish Nightingale,” and one of the most famous sopranos of the 19th century when popular music was grand opera. She was a favorite of composers Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. There were always stories about her close relationships with Mendelssohn and with Frederic Chopin.

In 1849, when she was just 29 years old she announced that she was retiring from opera. To this day it is not known exactly why. At the same time, she was approached by America’s most famous impresario and showman P.T. Barnum to do a tour of the United States for a year.

Lind made very exacting financial demands and Barnum met them. She made her first public appearance to a full house in New York at the Castle Garden in September 1850. The tour took her along the east coast and on to Cuba, as well as the southern states and up to Canada (the West was still being wrested from the native Americans). Barnum’s way of doing things eventually tired the lady and she withdrew from her contract, having made about $350,000 for 93 concerts (or approximately $35 million in today’s currency). Barnum netted at least $500,000 (or $50 million in today’s currency).

Lind donated the proceeds of her concerts to charities and especially the endowment of free schools in Sweden. Barnum had sold the idea of a tour to her on the precept that she could earn a lot of money for her charities. She married shortly thereafter to a man named Otto Goldschmidt and returned to Europe where she had three children and occasionally gave concerts. She and Goldschmidt settled in London where she later became a professor of singing at the Royal College of Music.
The first appearance of Jenny Lind in America at the Castle Garden on September 11, 1850.
Which, speaking of ... Last night I went over to the Café Carlyle for the Opening Night Performance of Herb Alpert and Lani Hall making their debut engagement. Ms. Hall and Mr. Alpert are Mr. and Mrs. in real life. They’ve been married since 1974 although they’ve known each other since the mid-60s when Lani was singing with Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 and recorded their first hit album on A&M Records – the label Alpert created with business partner Jerry Moss.

The room was packed. I saw Tony Danza, and also Bill and Judith Moyers who I learned are friends of the Alperts. Bill and Herb Alpert first met in 1965 when Bill was Press Secretary to President Lyndon Johnson. The Tijuana Brass were top of the charts and Bill tried to get them for a performance at the White House. Much to his surprise and pleasure Herb agreed to appear. They’ve been friends ever since.

Tony Danza.
This was one of those musical evenings that just kind of took you away to a place where the pleasure is all yours and it’s coming from the musicians on the stage. The pleasure is all theirs too. Herb Alpert is one of those guys who’s just at home riffing on his trumpet. Lani can do the Brazilian riff and the American song interpretations both comfortably and very effectively. They were accompanied by their regular band -- the man on the Piano, the man on the bass and guitar and the drums.

Herb said they (everyone on stage) never played anything the same, so it was all new to them as it was to us, with that unmistakably cool Alpert brass sound.

He introduced Lani Hall’s first song as having been written by Irving Berlin in 1936 for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “Follow the Fleet.” Herb said the words were just as relevant today as when they were first written.

Lani delivered them in a way that emphasized that:

There may be trouble ahead,
But while there’s moonlight and music
And love and romance,
Let’s Face the Music and Dance.

The song and the words kind of struck a note with the audience. We were transformed fro our worlds into their evening of song and joy and foot tapping and applause. The Berlin tune was followed by Van Morrison’s “Moondance.” Then Herb sang (and then joined the band with) “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face.”
Lani Hall and Herb Alpert and band taking their bows last night at the Cafe Carlyle (Forgive the photo handiwork).
He said that music was always déjà vu.  When you hear it, it takes you back to when your first heard it or played it. We then got a medley (not shortened, thankfully) of Tijuana Brass “’Whipped Cream,” “Lonely Bull,” “Tijuana Taxi,” “A Taste of Honey.”  He told us “Taste of Honey” was on the B side of the record until he started playing it at gigs and the audience wanted more and more. He called Jerry Moss and told him they should make it the A side of that record.

Then came Lani singing Cole Porter, with lyrics written 80 years ago and still on the mark: “Anything Goes,” then Herb soloing on the famous “Trolley Song” introduced by Garland in “Meet Me In St. Louis.” Then Lani singing Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and then “Laura” the hit song by David Raskin from the Otto Preminger film starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews and Clifton Webb.

They played for a solid hour and a half. The room was so at home and relaxed, so carried away by the pleasure of the band and the singer that it could have been in your living room.
"In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, but now, God knows, anything goes!"
Alpert and Moss started their record company in the mid-60s. In all Herb recorded more than 50 albums (and once had four on the top 10 at the same time), and more than 30 hit singles. Someone in the audience asked him who were some of his favorite performers. First thing: Sting and the Police. He loves Sting; couldn’t say enough kind things about him -- intelligent, willing to try new things, committed.
In 1987 Alpert and Moss sold A&M to Polygram for about $500 million. The partners have never had a signed agreement between themselves, to this day. The entire career was confirmed with a handshake and so it remains.

Like the aforementioned Jenny Lind, Herb Alpert has given away a lot of his fortune through his foundation to benefit young musicians and artists. For example, he and Hall gave $30 million to UCLA five years ago for the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. Another $24 million went to CalArts for similar endeavors. When asked why he was playing the Café Carlyle when he obviously didn’t need the money, he replied he didn’t need the money but he needs the energy. He also still works on recordings with a lot of singers and musicians.
Besides his music, the Alperts are art collectors and Herb is a sculptor. A native Los Angeleno who graduated from Fairfax High School, he still lives there in Malibu as well as here in New York where he produced Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and helps fund his longtime friend Bill Moyers’ PBS show.

I knew when I went over to the Café Carlyle last night what “kind” of music I was going to hear, long familiar with Herb Alpert’s sound which I was always a fan of. What I hadn’t expected was the feeling of being invited into the living room of a great musician with a great singer backed up by three other great musicians who were just there to take you away on a pleasure trip. Like the song suggested, “there may be trouble ahead, but while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance, Let’s Face ...” the music, and so we did.

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