Now You Has Cole Porter
It has been forty years since Cole Porter wrote his last song, but his music has never gone out of style. His melodies have become a source of material for jazz, cabaret, rock, country-western and classical performers, in styles that are all at least one remove from the sophisticated New York musicals in which most of them originally appeared. He was more highly educated and had more musical training than most of the other songwriters, and his compositions reflect a professionalism and a flexibility for interpretation that appeals to today’s performers.
Acknowledging his skills, however, one is immediately confronted by the paradoxical qualities of Porter’s lyrics. On the one hand, his command of the English language is astounding. Calling up an incredible array of metaphors, images, rhymes, word play and a persistent use of double entendre, Porter forces the listener to attend to the words in an art form in which they are often subservient to the music. The high points of Porter’s verbal virtuosity are to be found in his “list” songs, such as “Let’s Do It”, and “You’re the Top”, in which a dazzling succession of images seek to surpass each other in cleverness.
But there is the other Porter who aspired to write love songs and ballads. Perceiving that a successful foray into the realm of the formulaic popular song would give him a status other than being merely a spokesperson for the “smart set”, Porter came up with some the most banal and melodramatic lyrics one could imagine. Many of these appear in his long ballads such as “Begin the Beguine” and “In the Still Of the Night”. But they also appear in other songs as well. In Porter’s most popular song, “Night And Day”, are these words;
Day and night, under the hide of me,
There’s an oh, such a hungry yearning
burning inside of me.
which inspired writer Ring Lardner to propose these alternative lyrics:
Night and day, under the fleece of me
There’s an oh, such a flaming furneth
burneth the grease of me,
But Porter was on the right track in many respects. “Night and Day” became very popular, as did other songs with even more turgid lyrics: “Rosalie”, “I Love You”, and, perhaps the most simplistic of all Porter songs, “True Love” (a huge hit in 1956).
Musically, Porter is consistently inspired. He can be identified by several characteristics. First, in an era when the 32-measure format was ubiquitous, he would often opt for much longer statements. Other composers such Harold Arlen did this also, but none so pervasively as Porter. Some of the longer ones, including “Begin the Beguine”, whose 108 measures holds the record, were referred to as his “tapeworm” songs. This did not keep them from becoming hits. He would also rely heavily on chromaticism (the use of half-steps) as a melodic and harmonic technique, as in “Night And Day”. But his most distinctive and pervasive trademark was the manner in which he would shift abruptly between major and minor tonalities (“What Is This Thing Called Love”, “Love For Sale”, “I Love Paris”).
It is possible that this last Porter characteristic is the one that makes him most appealing to jazz musicians, since a major-minor ambivalence is also at the heart of the blues, the major jazz vehicle. But Porter was not particularly aware of the nature of jazz performance, and he made only passing use of it in his songs until, in 1956, he was faced with the challenge of writing for Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. The result – “Now You Has Jazz” – shows a naive understanding of the style. References to the drums as “skins” and the piano as a “box” reflect a jazz argot long out of fashion. Porter evidently equates jazz with rock-’n’-roll in lyrics that also reflect a subtle New York provincialism:
From the equator up to the pole__
Through the air you hear ev’rywhere
Rock And Roll__
From the east out to the coast,
Jazz is king ‘cause jazz is the thing folks dig most.
It would seem that Porter is most appealing when he is not consciously trying to be. While preparing this program, it became obvious, in listening to all the various performances of Porter songs, that many of the best and most individual interpretations are far removed from the performance style Porter originally intended. Such performances can also differ radically in tempo, phrasing and rhythmic feel, As an example we have included transcriptions of two performances of “Begin the Beguine”, Porter’s longest song, Both are radically different from the original Latin ballad which had prompted Alec Wilder to remark, “Along about the sixtieth measure I find myself muttering another title, ‘End the Beguine’.” Yet both of our examples (not to mention Artie Shaw’s famous version) were very popular when first performed.
We have patterned our program after performances by well-known Porter interpreters. We would venture a guess that of all the composers from the era of American popular song, none is performed more frequently today than Porter. Gershwin and Ellington may be more famous, but the individual songs of Porter survive with a timelessness appealing in any era.
— Stephen Stone, Jazz Kings Director & Conductor