"A Jazzy Rhythmic Lilt": Eric Adler on Hoagy Carmichael

It was my first trip to the Bimhuis, Amsterdam’s famous avant-garde jazz club, and I was desperately attempting to stay awake.  I had just flown to the Netherlands earlier that morning; congenitally incapable of snoozing on a flight, I had spent the last day-and-a-half without sleep.

Under these less-than-perfect conditions I first heard “My Resistance Is Low,” a Hoagy Carmichael tune composed for the unheralded film The Las Vegas Story.  The Willem Breuker Kollektief, a manic, Kurt Weill-esque ten-piece band, played a rousing rendition of the song as one of its novelty tunes.  Breuker himself sang the lead vocal, while the rest of the Kollektief warbled lyrics in the background with a heavy Dutch twang.

I was immediately captivated by the song, a quirky little waltz with some clever verses.  If this was typical of Hoagy Carmichael’s writing, I would have to hear more.  Soon I was to become a diehard devotee of the songsmith, singer, piano player, and sometime actor.

As a jazz fan, I had naturally been exposed to plenty of renditions of Carmichael originals: John Coltrane’s gorgeous version of “Stardust” on his Prestige album of the same name; Eddie Harris’ soul-jazz rendition of “Georgia On My Mind;” and Louis Armstrong’s crowd-pleasing cover of “Rockin’ Chair.”

Yet there was something indescribably fetching about Breuker’s “My Resistance Is Low” (the original of which was a minor hit in the UK during the 1950s) that launched my Carmichael mania.  And such a mania was—and is—not typical of my taste. A fan of hard bop, avant-garde, and Cool School jazz, I have always had little interest in vocalists.

As such, it was surprising that, having purchased my first Hoagy Carmichael CD, I could ignore the irksome Hit Parade orchestral fluff that marred some of the tunes and delight in the songs themselves—some of the greatest songs in the annals of American popular music. The snappy “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” the moody “Baltimore Oriole,” the jubilant “Lazy River”: no doubt about it, Hoagy Carmichael was a master songwriter.  Although there are characteristic elements of his tunes—a relaxed Midwestern feel, a jazzy rhythmic lilt—he successfully crafted songs in a variety of styles, from hot jazz to children’s music.

Not long after purchasing my first Carmichael album, I picked up a copy of Richard Sudhalter’s Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael.  Sudhalter, a music critic who is also a trumpet player of modest accomplishments, has penned a fascinating look into Carmichael’s career.  And the biography does not focus on Carmichael alone: the beginning of the work offers a vivid portrait of early twentieth-century Indiana, which served as the stomping grounds for the young Carmichael.  The book also dilates on one of the key musical influences on Carmichael: his friend Bix Beiderbecke, a seminal figure in early jazz.

It was during Carmichael’s early years in the Midwest that the fledgling young songwriter (who almost traded in his musical career for a job as a lawyer) composed some of his most famous tunes.  And it was in Indiana that Carmichael, a piano player and vocalist with a limited range, became inspired by the hot jazz that was all the rage in college towns such as Carmichael’s Bloomington.

Sudhalter gives the reader an intimate look at the life of the songwriter: Carmichael may have affected a breezy, laid back attitude on stage and screen, but he was actually a tad obsessive, and micro-managed his career with deep anxiety.  Stardust Melody, moreover, offers much useful commentary on the songs that made Hoagy Carmichael famous.  His discussion of “Washboard Blues,” a disarming masterpiece of early jazz, is a good example: the young Carmichael nervously crooned the tune under the leadership of big-band impresario Paul Whiteman, amazed that such a band would play one of his songs.

If the book does not prove sufficient to turn prospective fans straight to the entire Hoagy Carmichael discography, a snippet or two of the music itself sure should.  Jazz enthusiasts should get their hands on Hoagy Sings Carmichael With the Pacific Jazzmen, a 1956 recording of some of Carmichael’s most beloved tunes bereft of the production values that mar many of his other records.  Carmichael, who was close to 60 years old at the time of the album’s recording, may have been vocally past his prime, but he offers admirable performances with a hint of nostalgia.  Solos by saxophonist Art Pepper make the album all the more compelling.

This should prove a valuable introduction to the music of Hoagy Carmichael, a collection of songs that amounts to one of the highpoints of American popular music.     

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