New York magazine's Vulture site has an ongoing feature called Vulture Recommends in which artists of different stripes (actors, comedians, directors, writers, musicians) discuss their top five works in given categories. In the past, I've done Vulture Recommends with Vijay Iyer, The Bad Plus, Neil LaBute, and Joe Lovano. Last week, I interviewed the great Sonny Rollins about a top-five category of his choosing: film music.
Each Vulture Recommends has very limited space, no more than 300 words. I spoke with Sonny for 45 minutes, which gave me a lot more than 300 words. My "...Recommends" piece is now up on Vulture. Here, with thanks to Vulture, I present my conversation with the great Sonny Rollins.
The Blue Angel
Eric Benson: What jumps out at you about The Blue Angel?
Sonny Rollins: The musical director was a fellow called Friedrich Hollaender. He’s one of my favorite popular song composers. I really put him at the top of my list with people like Jerome Kern. In The Blue Angel, he wrote that sort of Marlene Dietrich theme, "Falling in Love Again." It was a very moving song, a lot of pathos. I’m sort of fascinated by the whole German scene around the 20s and early 30s—their barroom songs and all of that stuff.
EB: Is "Falling In Love Again" a song you’ve played a lot throughout the years?
SR: Many years ago I touched on it slightly, but I don’t think I played it too much in performance. I don’t think I ever recorded it. I might have just gone over it in rehearsal a couple times, because I love Friedrich Hollaender’s music. But when I went to Germany a couple years ago, I found an opportunity to play it to a very enthusiastic reception. They still remember it there.
Cabin in the Sky
EB: Maybe we switch gears and talk about Cabin in the Sky?
SR: When I was a little boy, my father was a steward in the Navy, which was the highest rank you could attain as a black at the time. He was in charge of the officers' club at Annapolis. I had a chance to go down there during the summers when I was 10, 11, and 12, and I’d work around the officers' club as a busboy.
One afternoon when I wasn’t working, I went into town and there was this movie playing at the one little theater: Cabin in the Sky. It was great! It had all my favorite people: the great Duke Ellington and his band; Ethel Waters; Lena Horne; Eddie Rochester Anderson, everybody was familiar with him from the Jack Benny comedy show; and Buck & Bubbles—I used to see Buck & Bubbles at the Apollo Theater in New York, where we went every week to check out all the bands.
EB: And Louis Armstrong was in Cabin in the Sky, too.
SR: You’re quite correct. I think Louis had more of an acting role, along with Rex Ingram and Mantan Moreland, the famous black comedian from the Charlie Chan movies of that period. And there were some great songs: "Taking a Chance on Love," "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe." And, of course, it was a great thrill to see the Duke Ellington band.
EB: And Duke was playing his own music?
SR: Oh, yeah! They played a couple of songs. I believe Ben Webster was in the band at the time. Johnny Hodges was in the band. There were people like Lawrence Brown and Harry Carney. Their segment was really outstanding, especially the number "Things Ain’t What They Used to Be."
[A later Ellington performance of "Things..."]
EB: So what was it like for you to hear all this great music as a 12-year-old?
SR: I had already decided that I wanted to be a musician and it really confirmed my ambition. There was so much entertainment on such a high level; It was very impressive for me as a youngster. I’ll never forget that movie.
EB: How about we talk about Casablanca?
SR: Well, I was surprised to learn that Dooley Wilson who sings the famous song, “As Time Goes By,” wasn’t playing the piano. They had another person playing the piano on all of his songs; and his playing is really great, especially if you’re an aficionado of stride piano, which I am. I think that’s the definitive version of “As Time Goes By,” primarily because of the pianist [Elliot Carpenter]. Like with many songs, there are several choices of harmonics that you can use. The harmonics that the pianist played on “As Time Goes By” were really right on. And over the years I’ve heard a lot of harmonics on that song; but that to me, was the definitive way.
At Rick’s place, there was Dooley Wilson, but he also had an orchestra, and they play a lot of the soundtrack on that film. They play a lot of great songs, including one of my favorite, a World War II song called “Heaven Can Wait.” If you like American Songbook songs, that film is chock full of them. That was a big part of what made the film for me. It was a great film, but I like the parts where the music interludes. That’s what really sealed it for me.
SR: Well, ”You Were Never Lovelier” is one of Jerome Kern’s slightly more obscure songs, but the fifth bar, to me, reveals Jerome Kern.
EB: What about that fifth bar?
SR: Hahahaha. Well, you’re asking me to describe music.
EB: Well, what happens in that fifth bar? Is it a harmonic change?
SR: It’s not the lyrics, it’s the harmonics, what he does harmonically. Where he goes harmonically in bar five, it’s so Jerome Kern. It’s so pregnant with ideas. If you hear it, you might not notice anything significant about it, but now that I mention it, maybe you will.
EB: Is it a particular chord?
SR: It’s the chord, yeah.
EB: What’s the chord?
SR: I don’t really know what the chord is. It’s like a chord that’s basic. You can play it basic of course, but it has so many implications, you can do so much with that chord. I’ve always wondered why I loved that song, and then I said, “it’s, bar five!” It’s just Jerome Kern. If you like this song, if you like this type of tunes, these melodies, this is it. So I can’t put it into words what it is.
EB: Have you recorded that song?
SR: No, but maybe one day. Now, I have to make a caveat: the book is sort of silly—silly but endearing. But a lot of these movies are kind of silly; it’s the music that makes them.
SR: When I was a little boy, there was a movie house right across the street from where we lived, the Lincoln Theater on 135th Street. My parents took me over there and they had this picture, Swing Time. There’s so much about that film, those great songs. "The Way You Look Tonight," of course, which I recorded and many other people recorded. I had the privilege of recording that with Coleman Hawkins. I had the privilege of recording that with Thelonious Monk. So that song stayed with me. And there were other songs in that movie—"Pick Yourself Up, Start Right Over Again," where they dance to it. And all through my life, I’ve remembered the scene with the song “A Fine Romance,” where Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire are up in the country in the snow.
EB: So the music worked really well with the film?
SR: Oh did it ever. After I got away from thinking about that movie and started living my life, that scene always stuck in my mind. And when I saw it again, I still remembered it. Maybe I hadn’t seen it for twenty years or so, and I remembered that scene and that song.
Jerome Kern is just a master of these melodies. I still think of him as maybe my favorite. I’ve always tried to find out a lot about him. The say his music comes from European operetta type music that he may have been exposed to. I guess so, but wherever it came from, he put it together in these American songs. I’m telling you, he was something else, I like all of the American Songbook, I know a lot of standards, and Jerome Kern is a guy I can almost put at the top of the list. That’s saying a lot.