Saturday, July 23, 2011
Local Gem Polishes National Treasures
We recently ventured out in the summer heat to hear a gifted pianist, singer, storyteller and musicologist present a grand tour of American popular music, a kind of "best of" sampler of Jazz, Broadway and Blues. I first heard John Eaton more than a dozen years ago when one of my basketball buddies (who grew up in Plainfield, IN) invited us to hear John perform at a local community center doing a concert called Indiana on Our Minds: The Music of Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael. He was as funny as Hoagy on the silver screen and his piano playing was as memorable as a Porter lyric.
On this recent night he began with "Lullaby of Birdland" and followed it with an anecdote about a gig in Georgetown when a guy who slipped onto the piano bench and started playing along turned out to be George Shearing. He introduced "It Might As Well Be Spring" from State Fair by saying Richard Rogers hated the jazz version. Then it was Ahmad Jamal's signature song, "Poinciana," written in 1936 and debuted by Glenn Miller.
Next up was a Jerome Kern medley from Show Boat that Eaton described as "no score ever written was greater or more melodic," a view affirmed by the fact that the musical's most recent Broadway revival came eighty years after it first opened. He began with "Make Believe," and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and by the time he got to "Ole Man River," which he slowed to a single note pace, you could feel the ghost of Paul Robeson on stage as the lyrics ran through your head.
Staying in the 1920's, Eaton made no attempt to sing Bessie Smith's version of "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out" but as he spoke the lyrics against the piano counterpoint, you got an instant lesson in what "talking blues" were all about. Ironic how those lyrics seem relevant today:
"So if I ever get my hand on a dollar again
I'm gonna hold on to it till them eagles grin"
Then it was a Bessie Smith version of "Empty Bed Blues" (When you get some sweet lovin,' don't tell no one else...they might get some lovin' too), followed by a Duke Ellington medley that brought the Steinway roaring to a toe-tapping finish. Eaton and bass player Tommy Cecil had given us a great musical ride.
Eaton (www.eatonpiano.com) has done public television shows on George Gershwin and Duke Ellington and his Smithsonian Conert Series have aired on public radio. In his introduction to the "Indiana" CD, Gary Burton described Eaton's work as "imaginative interpretations...and the keyboard wisdom of a true expert in the genre."
In another tribute to American pop music, Bob Edwards aired a July 4th interview with Philip Furia author of a number of books on Ira Gerswhin, Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer.
He has also written American Songs: The Stories Behind the Songs of Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. Sounds like the perfect beach book.