Why Harold Arlen?
Harold Arlen was a man I would have loved to have met. I would have loved to have talked at length with him about his creative process as well as the people he had worked with and met during his lifetime. In reading his biography, I felt he was a man I would have liked immensely. He was compassionate, sophisticated, witty, gentle, and capable of deep feelings.
He was admired by the great composers of his time, adored by the jazz musicians of our time, and worked with the crème de la crème of our lyrical writers-Johnny Mercer, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, even Peggy Lee.
Alec Wilder thought he was a connecting link to Stephen Foster. Johnny Mercer thought his sense of jazz was visceral compared to the “mechanical” George Gershwin. Irving Berlin, who Jerome Kern said “..is American music”, thought his writing was superior to his contemporaries, of which he was one.
His father was a very famous upstate New York cantor. And Arlen readily credits his father as his biggest influence. His family also lived next door to an African American family in Buffalo. His early work was created for The Cotton Club, where he also played. These two strains, the Jewish and the African American were masterfully blended into his music. The joy and the melancholy that he was able to fuse in a great deal of his music came from these two deeply emotional traditions. It is interesting to note that the music scales of these two traditions (the Jewish use of the minor second and the African-American use of the flatted third) both help to create that dissonant "joyful" melancholy.
His brilliance was his ability to craft his music beyond the limited 32 bar form if that what was needed. His insistence to artistically marry the music with the lyrics was always the result of a labor of love.
Finally, his music is a big part of our “lieder” or “chanson”, our “folk” music. Folk in the sense of people, like an Irish song, a German song, a Spanish song, or a French song. His is an American song. To me, his music isn’t just the urbane and witty songs of many contemporary composers but is more of the character of the American spirit. In this sense, he and Irving Berlin are those links to the American spirit of Stephen Foster. The two of them remained great friends until Arlen’s death in 1986.