Welcome To The Broadway Happiness Machine
Here’s my arrangement of the Jerome Kern classic “The Way You Look Tonight” originally from the musical “Swing Time” and performed by one of the biggest stars of his day Fred Astaire.
The Broadway Musical Theatre was the happiness factory of the 20th Century.
It manufactured happiness…
People would go into the theatre, sit in the darkness while the performers put on a show with colourful costumes, energetic and skilful dancing, a feel good story acted out but above all those great songs that were the hits of the day.
When it comes to Broadway and London musicals there’s no bigger name than Jerome Kern and he was popular on both sides of the Atlantic.
Curiously, in 1915 during WW1, he was meant to sail from New York to London to oversee the premier of one of his musicals but he slept through the alarm and missed his boarding time… which actually saved his life… because the ship was the Lusitania that was famously torpedoed by a German U-Boat!
He was to sail with the producer, Charles Frohman, who tragically drowned along with nearly 2,000 passengers and crew.
So even during WW1 musicals were a popular form of entertainment.
If we think about the 20th Century we see two world wars, the Spanish Flu epidemic, the Great Depression and then the Cold War.
It sounds horrific and scary but through all this people found ways of keeping their collective chins up; the musicals and their wonderful songs were a contributing factor and played their part.
My Teacher – The Great Ike Isaacs
I first heard “The Way You Look Tonight” played by Wes Montgomery with his trio and I was bowled over by his playing.
Although Wes Montgomery is hardly a household name today the list of guitarists that he influenced and inspired is most impressive.
It includes names like Jimi Hendrix, George Benson and Pat Metheny– that’s all you need to know about Wes Montgomery!
I feel a connection with Wes Montgomery through my teacher, Ike Isaacs.
Ike was born in Burma in 1919 and he told me that in those days Burma (now Myanmar) had a bigger British population than did Australia.
When the Japanese invaded during WW2 the English left and didn’t go back.
Ike’s family spent the war years in India.
After the war Ike’s family migrated to Australia while he and two of his brothers headed to London to seek their fortunes.
One of his brothers was a violinist and made a career in music (his son is Mark Isaacs the Australian composer).
Ike then became one of the top Jazz and session guitarists in London with a career that spanned from 1948 to 1972. He joined Stephane Grappelli’s band and toured the world playing venues like Maddison Square Garden in New York and our very own Opera House before following his family to Australia where I met him in the mid 80’s.
I studied with him on and off for 10 years but more than that we became good friends.
Ike was so prolific as a session and recording guitarist that even into the 80’s here in Australia you would hear hit songs and movie soundtracks that he’d played on every day on radio and tv.
It was exciting to be around Ike and hear his stories that gave me an insight into London’s music scene.
Tracking Broadway Musical Origins & What Was “The Real Book”?
When the great American Jazz guitarists were in London they’d often stay at Ike’s place and Wes Montgomery stayed with Ike and Moira, they were great friends so I got a lot of stories and anecdotes about Wes from Ike.
What I’d work on in my lessons with Ike were the Jazz standards in “The Real Book”.
Many of those tunes were from the Broadway musicals, tunes like Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are” and “The Way You Look Tonight”.
There is so much substance in those tunes so studying any of them is a learning and growing experience.
Let’s take a look at the background to the Broadway musicals –
Firstly we need to acknowledge that all Western music traces its origin back to Classical Music.
Our harmony, system of chords and chord progressions that are used in used in any Rock, Pop, Reggae or Broadway musical song were developed over the centuries in the tradition that we call Classical music.
We call J.S. Bach “Papa Bach” not just because he had over 20 children! he did actually break ground with his compositions and later composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms built on those innovations.
The Broadway composers were classically trained so they wrote those songs based on the chord progressions that they learnt from the big classical works and on occasion they’d steal a melody.
Take, for instance, the song “Baubles, Bangles & Beads” from the musical Kismet then listen to the 2nd movement of Borodin’s 2nd String Quartet and you’ll wonder “is this legal”?
This Is How Musicals Become Favourites For Jazz Musicians
How the hit songs from the musicals came to be favourite vehicles for Jazz musicians to jam and improvise over is interesting.
In their need to earn a living they would play in the pit orchestras for the musicals in New York and when the show was over they’d go to the Jazz clubs and jam till the wee small hours and what would they jam on?
Of course the songs from those musicals!
Over the years there was clearly a body of favourite songs and later those songs would be collected and complied into “The Real Book”.
Two students at Berklee College Boston did the collecting and compiling but they remain anonymous until today because they didn’t seek permission so the book was not legal.
I’m glad they did their book because that’s what I worked on with Ike and I learnt a lot because of “The Real Book”.