Last night, things were groovin’ at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Racine, thanks to a gathering of stupendously gifted jazz musicians led by the extraordinary Sam Chell. For those of you who don’t know him, Sam Chell is a retired English professor from Carthage who seems to know everything worth knowing about anybody whose ever written anything in the English language. (I kid you not.) That in and of itself would be staggering- but evidently Professor Chell has a second brain lodged someplace in his body and in that second brain resides a paperless encyclopedia of jazz, pop music, pop culture, and film that dwarfs the expertise of anyone I’ve ever met. (If Professor Chell ever went on Jeopardy – and of he managed to master that little hand-held buzzer (a rather significant “if”, I’m afraid) – he would squash his opponents like dumb bugs in the biggest mismatch since FDR beat Alf Landon in 1936.) And on top of all that knowledge and expertise, Sam also makes magic at the piano and has this amazing way of drawing musicians together in effortless, joyous collaboration.
Last night’s concert was a chamber music program presented by the Racine Symphony. The first half was rather “classical” in nature – including music of Chopin and Rameau – but there were also two chamber pieces by 20th century Frenchmen Jacques Ibert and Frances Poulenc that had a generous flavoring of jazz in them – which beautifully set the stage for the jazz presented in the second half. The theme of the second half was a centennial tribute to one of America’s greatest lyricists, Johnny Mercer. . .responsible for the words to such classics as “Jeepers, Creepers,” “Satin Doll,” “Tangerine,” “Old Black Magic,” “Autumn Leaves” “Accentuate the Positive” and many others. For the program, Sam gathered around him an array of superb local musicians – but his headliner was an incredible jazz clarinetist from L.A. named Mort Weiss, who really lit up the evening. Weiss’s story is fascinating because after enjoying some tremendous early success, Weiss laid down his clarinet for forty years. . . and for a musician to come back after that kind of hiatus and exceed their earlier greatness is unheard of. But that’s what Weiss has done, and just to be in the same room with this phenomenon was an honor and pleasure. (My “Morning Show” interview with him aired this past Thursday, in case you want to check it out on our website.)
It was mostly a program of instrumentals, but Sam did ask a frequent collaborator of his, Donna Lee, to sing several Mercer standards. . . and then in a gesture which touched me to the core, he asked if I would be willing to sing a very special Mercer song at the end of the concert.. It was called “When October Goes” and I had never ever heard of it – but he assured me that it was a gorgeous song that would suit me well . . . and as usual, the good professor was absolutely right. It turns out that these bittersweet lyrics were written towards the end of Mercer’s life and never set to music during his lifetime. Somehow singer/ composer Barry Manilow learned of the words and was able to secure permission from the Mercer estate to set these remarkable words to music:
And when October goes, the snow begins to fly.
Above the smoky roofs I watch the planes go by.
The children running home beneath a twilight sky.
Oh, for the fun of them – when I was one of them.
And when October goes, the same old dream appears.
And you are in my arms to share the happy years.
I turn my head away to hide the helpless tears.
Oh, how I hate to see October go
I should be over it now, I know.
It doesn’t matter much how old I grow.
I hate to see October go.
I think if Professor Chell had told me that he wanted me to sing a song composed by Barry Manilow, I would have worried both about my hearing and the good professor’s sanity. But in fact, this is a gorgeous song- and learning it and singing it for last night’s concert was a very rare sort of pleasure for me. And the bittersweet, melancholy lyrics were just right to draw this tribute to Mercer to a thoughtful conclusion. And then when the applause went on and on, the other musicians took the stage for an energetic encore that had people on their feet.
At one point, Mr. Weiss explained to the audience that he had not met any of these musicians until two hours before the concert – and yet, as far as any of them would have guessed, they seemed like they had to have been long time friends and colleagues. That’s one of the most amazing things about music – the connections that it can forge between people who otherwise would be complete strangers with one another. Another image comes from Vernon Sell, the long-time manager of Carthage Choir tours to Europe. “Music opens many doors,” he liked to say – and I suspect that last night’s concert managed to do that in spectacular fashion . . . with the jazz folks there surely dazzled by the Poulenc Sextet and the classical folks blown away by “Satin Doll.” Good music is Good music . . . no matter what its label may be. And great musicians are what make it happen.
pictured above: Guest clarinetist Mort Weiss is in the middle – and trumpeter Tommy Meredith is to the right. To the left is the saxophonist, whose name I don’t know – but he’s the brother of vocalist Donna Lee. There was an incredible electricity in the room when these three mighty players took the stage together for the first time.