This week on Riverwalk Jazz, in rare archival interview clips, Harold Arlen speaks about his career and how he wrote some of his most enduring songs, performed by the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and their guests: Nina Ferro, Dick Hyman, Rebecca Kilgore and Carol Woods.
The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International. You can also drop in on a continuous stream of shows at the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound.
Critic Alec Wilder wrote of Harold Arlen’s gift for songwriting, “Arlen… is fully a product of American jazz, big band music, and American popular song.”
Harold Arlen might have earned his place in the history of American music by writing only “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the signature song in his score for the 1939 movie classic The Wizard of Oz, widely considered to be the number one pop song of the 20th century.
From the very early days of his career, Arlen wrote riff" and rhythm" tunes which proved popular with jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. All of his work is infused with elements of blues-y melodic fragments and blue tonality—even though he was quick to point out that he didn’t really write formal 12-bar blues. Working on Harlem’s Cotton Club revues in the '20s, Arlen composed for the Duke Ellington Orchestra and vocalist Ethel Waters.
By the '30s, Harold Arlen had followed the migration of New York songwriters west to Hollywood where he found himself in demand as a composer of movie musical scores. It was July, 1938, when Arlen and his lyricist partner E.Y. Yip" Harburg signed with Metro Goldwyn Mayer to write the music for The Wizard of Oz. In only two months they completed the score. Surprisingly, Arlen and producer Arthur Freed had to fight studio bosses to keep “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the movie.
After the success of Wizard, Arlen continued to write hit songs for 40 years. He composed some 400 pieces for Broadway stage shows, Harlem revues and major motion pictures. Many, including “Get Happy,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” and “I’ve Got the World on a String” are considered essential standards by jazz musicians today.
Guests Dick Hyman, Carol Woods, Rebecca Kilgore and Nina Ferro join The Jim Cullum Jazz Band in a concert of Arlen’s best-known songs and little-known gems, such as ”Blues in the Night,” “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” A Sleepin' Bee," Come Rain or Come Shine" and “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.”
Despite his great critical success, Arlen never acheived the fame of other songwriters like his friends Irving Berlin or George Gershwin. The story goes that Arlen hailed a Manhattan taxi one rainy day only to have the cab driver serenade him with “Stormy Weather.” “Do you know who wrote that?” Arlen inquired. “Sure, Irving Berlin,” answered the driver. “Try again.” “Richard Rodgers.” “Nope.” “Cole Porter?” “Actually, I wrote it.” “Who are you?” asked the skeptical driver. “Harold Arlen.” “Harold who?”
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