Caterwauling Summertime Babies

June 12, 2014

PART THREE Revisions and Reclamations

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American movies have a knack for homogenizing issues into forms you can watch while you eat Goobers. “Porgy and Bess” didn’t have that kind of fortune. It was the last film produced by Samuel Goldwyn. The set and costumes were burned on the first day of rehearsals, rumors circulated that it was arson. Midway through production Otto Preminger took over as director and there was a lawsuit filed by the Director’s Guild. Harry Belafonte refused the role of Porgy, he was replaced by Sidney Poitier and the role was sung by Robert McFerrin. Sammy Davis Jr., the only performer who actually wanted to be in this production, played Sportin’Life . This only after Frank Sinatra pressured Goldwyn to cast him in spite of rumored racial slurs from the Gershwin family. Ultimately his vocals were replaced by Cab Calloway due to a recording contract dispute. The completed film has remained in litigation between factions of the Gershwin Estate and MGM who both continue contesting ownership rights. There hasn’t been a redeeming review of the film and the soundtrack was removed from distribution; that either was completed was a fruitless miracle. In many ways it typified the changing subtext of “Summertime”.

In anticipation of the film’s release and publicity several musicians produced interpretations of “Porgy & Bess”.

 

Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald 1957: http://youtu.be/LDF4_qVgbFU
In 1957 Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald produced a critically celebrated jazz version of selections from “Porgy and Bess”. Although it received a Grammy in 2001 to mark its historic significance, it seems a translation of a strange “as if “Summertime. It begins with the horn that Billie Holiday’s arrangement alluded to twenty years earlier, Louis Armstrong Hot Five. But here its tone is far from the insouciant genius of Storyville. In this recording he seems to be merely playing notes, more like an audition than an interpretation. The agile voice of Ms. Fitzgerald, sounds more like an ersatz Dinah Shore than Bess, and both Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Fitzgerald seem to casually walk away from the tune and lyrics. Ultimately they drift into scat vamps, mostly as decorations on no theme except pointless cheerfulness. It seems as removed from interpreting the possibilities of “Summertime” as television in 1957 was from interpreting life. It has replaced one set of racial stereotypes for a newer, emptier one.(Ten years later in 1968 Ella Fitzgerald recorded “Summertime” again with the Tee Carson trio. http://youtu.be/u2bigf337aUd . She seems to have reconsidered and produced a spare, more personal, emotionally felt rendering.) In spite of its apparent carelessness, this version has moved its interpretation of the original song into the milieu of popular culture.

 

That both artists publicly chose to make it seem nonchalant and workmanlike should not be undervalued. Racial segregation was an unresolved entity in America. That year Federal Troops were required to quell riots in Little Rock in an attempt to stop African-American students from entering high schools. In 41 states inter-racial marriage was illegal. Racial violence was organized and genuine. Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Fitzgerald were able to provide a coded message with the kind of disingenuousness people used to working and appearing cheerful may have understood. In my interpretation this was “Summertime” for showing up, doing the job, and getting paid. In 1958 my father, and millions of other Americans, had settled into jobs that featured long, boring shifts, managers in short sleeve white shirts, Labor Day off, and decades of cheerless smiles. They could have understood the constriction, perhaps appreciated the rebellion in performing a task correctly with complete artificiality and unspoken anger.

 

Less than a year after Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald in 1958, “Summertime” was also interpreted by Miles Davis and Gil Evans on the album “Porgy and Bess”: http://youtu.be/JN1uFMK3zZI .

 

In the Miles Davis interpretation old stereotypes were scraped away and its musical dialect was abandoned. The story remains, although retold from a different point of view. Miles Davis and Gil Evans reinvented “Porgy and Bess” from the inside out as “cool”.

 

In 1924 DuBose Heyward published a volume of poetry Jazbo Brown and Selected Poems. Jazbo is an amalgam figure based on itinerant Delta Bluesmen legends. He is the character playing a slow blues as the curtain rises on “Porgy and Bess” and his playing morphs into “Summertime”. In the Davis/Evans version the musical arrangement is reduced to echoing four bar phrase that resembles twelve bar blues. However, where Mr. Armstrong’s horn searched for a safe purchase, Mr. Davis examines the same melody as his possession.
He uses muted language as a code that sings in the double language of race, but not for protection, but celebratory display. Miles Davis took the chords, changes and melodies and voiced them into a sophisticated and aesthetically intellectual production.

 

In some sense he re-gifted “Porgy and Bess” to its African American community. Gone are what Duke Elington referred to as “troubling Negroisms”, no embarrassing sentimentality for segregation, no dropped -ings, apostophied elisions, no fumbling over Mammy/ Mama/ Mother. His interpretation reverses the setting and sense, where once “Porgy and Bess” was an awkward and pathos ridden opera of condescension to the lives of the ‘colored’, now “Summertime” is cool, hip, the object of envy, not pity. Neither does this interpretation dismiss the intimacy to drugs, pimps, prostitution and the underworld. Where the Armstrong/Fitzgerald version appeared audience friendly and nonchalant, the Davis/Evans version is intensely self-aware, disengaged and sophisticated.

 

If Mahalia Jackson’s spiritual lesson of racism was “in this world anything can be taken”, Mr. Davis understood that message as a secular lesson; he found himself capable of taking anything as well. Porgy has gone from walking on his knees to wearing Italian loafers. The muted notes imply that in his wry horn it can be transformed into the kind of cool Gershwin couldn’t imagine existed. It has transformed Catfish Row from a world white people believed they owned into a world they’re afraid they wouldn’t be hip enough to enter.

 

John Coltrane 1961: http://youtu.be/0bGqew020Zo

 

If Miles Davis “Summertime” was change by urban renewal, this is metamorphosis. The classic 1961 John Coltrane Quartet brought the same musical competence that von Karajan’s orchestra employed, but employed their virtuosity to repurpose “Summertime” into a vehicle of reflection and refraction. In this arrangement “Summertime” isn’t a lullaby about easy living in the big house. It becomes a series of extrapolations on the prepositional life near a house. Each improvisation comes close enough to acknowledge fragments of the familiar buried in a different conversations. It removes the languid time signatures, removes the fictive structures of the ionic scale and replaces them with modal short stories.

 

With John Coltrane’s interpretation the listener must imagine “Summertime” as jazz musicians do. It’s not a dialect, libretto or chord progression they’re changing, but the expectation of music.
The listener is the one who must generate the standard “Summertime” and in doing so the performed music becomes more apt, intimate and beautiful. The quartet assumes the person listening is participating at the core of the song. Try this experiment, Google lyrics for “Summertime”, start the John Coltrane recording and silently sing along. The unheard song you are singing becomes a foundation, while the sounded music of the quartet counterpoints the interior voicing. Once you understand that the actual “Summertime” requires you to participate, this interpretation comes clearer. The quartet follows a subliminal “Summertime” that acts as a conductor might. Like that conductor you must pay strict attention not only to the produced music, but also the music you must hear internally to bring about the next phrase.

 

By the time of this recording listeners had heard “Summertime” enough that it was in the bones of American culture.  In 1961 “Summertime” was presented not for the drowsy baby doing nothing but being lulled by tones, but an energetic prophetic ear. It is interpreted for someone who has the awareness and energy to go through the imaginary fourth wall. Punctuated by Elvin Jones percussion and McCoy Tyner’s left hand chording “Summertime” strides along extrapolating phrases, but it refuses to resolve them other than musically. There is no significant attempt to interpret the underlying fiction of “Porgy and Bess”.
At some moments Mr. Coltrane’s tone hearkens back to the Sidney Bechet recording in its open, realized virtuosity, but doesn’t attempt a closer connection with the spirit of the opera, since by 1961, it couldn’t be the same story. Suspension of disbelief was no longer possible, the tale of Porgy, the legless beggar and Bess, the beguiled victim, was symbolically nearly impossible to interpret without the overlay of race becoming more powerful than the dynamics of the rise and fall of any part of the libretto.

Let Porgy stand for the rising sense of power of African Americans, let Bess be white America. It could be true, but wouldn’t matter. Any musical expression would be juxtaposed next to Strom Thurman’s 24 hour filibuster on the floor of the Senate against the Civil Rights Act, or Governor Fabus, or Sheriff Bull Connor. In spite of the genius of Miles Davis revision just three years earlier, “Porgy and Bess” was a diminished language for discussing race.

 

“Summertime” had evolved into a musical prompt about describing intimacy and the tentative identity of relationships.
What John Coltrane’s interpretation of “Summertime” understood, opened, and expressed was essential to the American race dialog. The dialog Mr. Coltrane and the Quartet engage in is nearly pure music in a baroque sensibility, it’s variations on a given theme. Although it’s not without emotion, it’s largely without depiction. It’s an inner dialog focused on an internal mathematics. In an ironic sense it returned “Porgy and Bess” to the operatic warehouse where it could languish in obscure respectability.

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