Saturday, May 12, 2007

Katherine Hepburn and Irving Berlin

If you were at the new bar at the BFI yesterday, you might have wondered why the pianist played, a little too loudly, 'Cheek to Cheek' followed by 'Let's Face The Music and Dance' followed by 'Stepping Out' followed by 'Happy Birthday'.

Well, it's because the pianist was me, and yesterday was the anniversary of Irving Berlin's birth. I rate Irving Berlin as the greatest songwriter of all time. In fact, I credit him with writing the very first pop song, 'Alexander's Ragtime Band', back in 1911.

Another great songwriter, Jerome Kern, said, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He IS American music."

My favourite piece of trivia about Irving Berlin is that he taught himself to play the piano, but played using only the black notes. In fact, if you sit at a piano and play a few black notes in a random order, eventually you'll be playing a selection of Irving Berlin melodies.

He had to have a special piano constructed, with a lever that transposed the black notes into other keys, so that he could accompany singers when they needed his songs to cover a different vocal range.

Cool guy.

The trouble is, though, that his songs don't get played as often as they should by jazz musicians. And there's a reason for this. Irving Berlin was smart, and kept control of all of his songs by setting up his own music publishing company. I think he was the first songwriter to do this. It means that to this day his songs aren't included in the books of jazz standards that musicians use at gigs (known as 'fake books' or 'real books'). You can only get Irving Berlin sheet music in books of Irving Berlin songs, published by the Irving Berlin Music Company.

So I play his tunes as often as I can.

And today is the 100th anniversary of Katherine Hepburn's birth. But I've ranted enough for today, so I'll have to rant about her next year.


James Casey said...

Don't think I'd argue with the assessment of Berlin.

Chris said...

I absolutely agree with what you say about Irving Berlin. He's my favourite songwriter/composer/lyricist and I deeply admire him.