WASHINGTON, February 6, 2013 – As far as jazz pianist, musicologist, vocalist, and humorist John Eaton is concerned, the American Songbook includes the very best of American tunesmithing, ranging from hit Broadway songs to popular melodies and lyrics penned by the likes of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Richard Rogers.
“The unspoken philosophy of the Gershwin era was strong melody,” says Eaton, who next appears at Wolf Trap’s Barns on February 16. “The reason the music has lasted to this day is the melody, the foundation of the song,” he says. “A great many of these songs are played as instrumentals, and are instantly recognizable and memorable without the lyrics.”
Arguably, composers like those Eaton singles out, rather than stuffy conservatory academics, are responsible for crafting that uniquely recognizable American brand of popular music and song—a body of work that can easily hold its own against any international standard.
Eaton has been playing the piano and entertaining audiences inside and around the Beltway for over fifty years, including performances for President and Mrs. Regan and, in 2010, for the Supreme Court of the United States. Eaton launched his current mini-series on popular song at The Barns last fall with a program that included classes on The American Songbook in October and a November performance highlighting music his from his latest CD release, “John Eaton Presents The American Popular Song: The Classical Connection, Vol. 6.”
Not surprisingly, Eaton’s 2012 appearances here proved popular with area audiences.
“John’s insights into American popular music are the result of many years of contemplation. As a pianist and raconteur, he’s a delight and indispensable,” Rob Bamberger, host of WAMU’s long-running “Hot Jazz Saturday Night” has noted.
Eaton’s upcoming Barns performances launch with a quirky February program that features music from the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Its self-explanatory title is “A Salute to the One-Hit Wonders of American Popular Music.” That program is followed by Eaton’s March 30 “A Juke Joint Jazz Session” during which the pianist will be joined by bassist Tommy Cecil for improvisations on popular American Song Book tunes.
For concert goers, both evenings promise to be filled with great music and lyrics. Influenced by Negro spirituals and Delta blues as well as the unique brands of jazz that developed in New Orleans and Chicago, the music created during the 1920s through 1940s was often the product of composers who embraced the U.S. as immigrants, like Russian born songwriter Irving Berlin..
“Irving Berlin invented the American Popular Song in the 20’s when he wrote his first international hit, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band,’ Eaton says. “What people don’t always know is that his father was a cantor, the person who leads the congregation in prayer. And the melody of that prayer plays a huge role in the service.”
According to Eaton, melody proved such a compelling influence in young Irving Berlin’s life, that it determined his compositional style. First, he came up with the tune. Then, he followed with the lyrics. The words were written to fit the music and not the other way around.
Other composers had their own methodologies. Johnny Mercer (1909-1976), for example was a lyricist, songwriter and singer. But today, he’s perhaps best remembered for his lyrics, and that’s no surprise. He penned lyrics to more than 1,500 songs for Broadway and, eventually, the movies, an astounding career output. But his efforts didn’t go without recognition. Mercer was a nineteen-time Academy Award nominee, copping the Oscar on four occasions.
Born in Savannah in 1909, Mercer, as a young child, was exposed first-hand to Negro spirituals as well as the sentimental and Scottish ballads his parents often sang at home. All proved influential on his later output. Later on, Mercer also fell under the spell Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and the jazz and blues music that came out of Harlem.
Mercer decamped for New York in the late 1920s, working at a brokerage by day and trying his hand at writing music and lyrics at night. Eventually, he was able to devote his full time to music. Some of Mercer’s lyrics, like those for “Jeepers Creepers” (1938, music by Harry Warren), “Fools Rush In” (1940, Rube Bloom), “That Old Black Magic” (1942, Harold Arlen), and “Moon River” (1961, Henry Mancini), may spring from Mr. Eaton’s keyboard in February and March, particularly the latter song, which is one of his favorites. All, no doubt, will be introduced with either an entertaining story or a delightful music history tidbit.
“There are many great artists to perform,” Eaton notes, “and I am organizing the shows to include the great standards, as well as the music of some of the lesser known, at least by name, artists.” He also plans to take a look at the music of women from the era like “Ann Ronell, who wrote ‘Willow Weep for Me’ (1932), a song recorded by artists ranging from Billie Holiday and Eta James to Chad & Jeremy, Tony Bennett and Barbara Streisand, to name a few.”
“Then there is Irene Higgenbottom (1918-1988) who wrote Good Morning Heartbreak, originally recorded by Billie Holiday (1946), among many others,” he says. We will have a set of songs organized around geographical heritage – the blues and jazz songs of Chicago and the sentimental songs of the south,” he adds.
The shows will likely include the well known songs popularized by artists like Nat King Cole (1919 – 1965), whose first mainstream hit, in 1943, was “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” a song he composed and that was written from a black folk tale his father would tell from the pulpit and a song that Johnny Mercer had him record for Capitol Records.
Other popular songs from Nat King Cole include “Nature Boy” (1948), “Mona Lisa” (1950) and the always unforgettable “Unforgettable” (1951).
Eaton’s shows will introduce, or reintroduce, the great music composers, songwriters and singers from the early 1900s through the 1960s, a time when he saw music changing as the lyric replaced the music as the catalyst for the total composition.
“I remember in 1964, when I first realized the musical world had really changed,” says Eaton. “I was 30 years old and the repertoire was the Great American Songbook and I was a jazz pianist. Then, seemingly all of a sudden, I was playing at the Shadows, a Georgetown café, accompanying Scott McKenzie (1939-2012), best known for his song ‘San Francisco’ (1967). At the same time, the singer/songwriters of that era, like Bob Dylan, began emerging.”
“If I had one last song to sing, to perform, it would be ‘Georgia On My Mind’ (Hoagy Carmichael / Stuart Gorrell, 1930),” Eaton says. “Carmichael (1899-1981) was one of the great composers, and his popularity continued through the 1960s when Ray Charles recorded his song, making it his own.”
Eaton adds a couple of little known fun facts about Carmichael to his bag of historical tricks. Carmichael actually appeared as his cartoon self in an episode of TV’s “The Flintstones,” creating a song for the occasion entitled “Yabba-Dabba-Dabba-Do.” And Beatle George Harrison liked Carmichael’s tunes, recording two of them—“Baltimore Oriole” and “Hong Kong Blues”—for his 1981 solo album, “Somewhere in England.”
An equal opportunity teacher and entertainer, Eaton’s musical programs are bound to please. Whatever your age, or popular musical taste, spending an evening at The Barns at Wolf Trap is virtually guaranteed to be entertaining, educational—and fun.
Visit Wolf Trap online for ticket information and performance times. The following information was provided by Wolf Trap and is deemed reliable.
Saturday, February 16:
A Salute to the One-Hit Wonders of American Popular Music
Relive timeless standards from the ’20s to the ’40s including “As Time Goes By,” “Willow Weep for Me,” and “East of the Sun.”
Saturday, March 30:
A Juke Joint Jam Session
John Eaton is joined by bassist Tommy Cecil for an evening of their unique jazz improvisations on the great American song book.
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