Songbook Summit: Hoagy Carmichael – “Ragtime was my Lullaby.”

Hoagland Carmichael (1899-1981), composer, pianist, singer, actor, and bandleader was named after a traveling circus act that stayed with his family during Mrs. Carmichael’s pregnancy. His mother taught him to sing and play.

At Indiana University, Carmichael befriended Bix Beiderbecke who would introduce him to Louis Armstrong, both early guides. The multifaceted artist graduated law school and practiced for a time before responding to his true calling.  In the course of a fertile career, he wrote 500 mostly stand-alone, jazz-oriented songs, including 50 hit records.

His compositions, Will Anderson tells us, arrived in contrast to popular, urbane work of such as Gershwin and Porter and were very influenced by “down home” Midwestern roots. Despite this, the songwriter’s personal sophistication and style was apparently Ian Fleming’s role model for James Bond.

Steve Ash, Molly Ryan, Clovis Nicolas (behind), Peter Anderson, Phil Stewart (behind), Will Anderson

The Anderson brothers’ Songbook Summit (in its second successful year) offers brief, entertaining biographies of honorees. Instrumentals and vocal selections are peppered with performance film clips, apt quotes, and enough information to understand context. Tonight’s clips include, in small part, Carmichael as a character in the Flintstones cartoon series, Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia in Big-dancing “Heart and Soul” on the giant keyboard at FAO Schwarz. Will Anderson’s script is lively and illuminating. Peter Anderson’s arrangements are authentic, textured, and fun.

An instrumental of “Riverboat Shuffle,” written for Beiderbecke’s Wolverines, is followed by a mid-tempo rendition of “The Nearness of You” (lyric – Ned Washington) featuring vocalist Molly Ryan. The singer’s understated delivery offers phrasing with honeyed tails which expose more or less vibrato in accordance with lyric attitude. (Judy Garland had similar back end reserves.) Only Ryan’s left arm gestures, until later in the program when full movement feels inevitable. Duo saxophones dance like mutually appreciative partners.

Steve Ash and Peter Anderson

 “…Wonderful music…” Ryan sings as shoulders rise, “…But my heart is riding on your wings…” she continues, fists opening to splayed palms  (“Skylark” – lyric – Johnny Mercer). The song was originally planned to be included in a show about the life of  Bix Beiderbecke. “Jubilee” (lyric -Carmichael) finds sax and clarinet playing musical tag. Ryan sways. Phil Stewart’s drums take off as if an extreme sport.

Like Irving Berlin, Carmichael could neither read nor write music well, but was terrifically adept at selling his songs. With the advent of microphones compensating for his soft voice, the artist emerged as a solo performer. We see glimpses of others – from The Mills Brothers to Sarah Vaughn to Willie Nelson singing his oeuvre.

Molly Ryan and Clovis Nicolas

The number of recordings of “Stardust” ( lyric – Mitchell Harris) rivaled those of “White Christmas.” “To be honest,” Will quips, “It’s just a better song.” Pianist Steve Ash and Pete offer the number in nuanced, sentimental duet – at first, unembellished but for a few tripling parentheses, then respectfully embroidering. Tenderness is palpable. “You don’t write melodies, you find them…the melody should come out of hiding…” (Carmichael)

In the late 1920s, musical theater songs improved and writers from that sector and Tin Pan Alley “met on the communal ground of Hollywood.” (Will) Carmichael married and moved to California, veering away from hot jazz with a contract from Paramount. He sang and played in 14 films self-described as “the hound-dog-faced, old philosopher.” We hear an up-tempo (his preference) “Up a Lazy River” (lyric – Sidney Arodin) featuring sax and clarinet – how do just ten fingers DO that?! Piano is stroked. Ryan’s lyric is all rounded edges.

Steve Ash and Will Anderson

Every word in “Two Sleepy People” (lyric – Frank Loesser) lands believably. Ryan steps and kicks, dancing in place. Piano has a hurry up and wait feel. 1932’s “New Orleans” (lyric – Carmichael) features piano and Will on clarinet. It’s a southern, molasses sound; a porch swing, paper fans, juleps. Piano tiptoes. Polish and ease are bywords.

Among other material on which Loesser collaborated is, according to The Guinness Book of Records, the longest title in songwriting history: “I’m a Cranky Old Yank  in a Clanky Old Tank on the Streets of Yokohama with my Honolulu Mama Doin’ Those Beat-o, Beat-o Flat-On-My-Seat-o, Hirohito Blues.” Alas, the gentlemen don’t perform that number. We are, however, treated to virtuoso piano solo of “Heart and Soul” (lyric – Frank Loesser) where every riff salutes the melody.

Carmichael made the transition to television, but in the 50s, musical tastes changed. “He accepted the passing of his era and enjoyed his retirement.” (Will) The company closes with a sweet, pithy “Georgia On My Mind” (lyric – Stuart Gorrell). Horns swing and shade but remain symbiotic. Piano takes on honky-tonk color. Smiles abound.

A recommended series.

Photos by Geri Reichgut
Opening: Peter Anderson, Will Anderson

Peter and Will Anderson present
Songbook Summit: Hoagy Carmichael
Peter Anderson- Tenor Sax/Soprano Sax/Clarinet; Arrangements
Will Anderson- Alto Sax/Clarinet/Flute
Molly Ryan- Vocals
Steve Ash-Piano, Clovis Nicolas-Bass, Phil Stewart-Drums
Through August 26, 2018
Symphony Space
NEXT: August 28-September 2: Jimmy Van Heusen

About Alix Cohen (539 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.