Benny, Tram and My Little Dog, Too

Listening exclusively to BG, born 100 years ago today ... and being reminded that a musical organization under the direction of no other leader has provided me a more satisfying aural experience than have the many outfits captained by this incomparably dedicated instrumentalist, Benjamin David Goodman

... and thinking about Tram, born 108 years ago today ... and hoping that, some time, my music and artistic "voice" will move someone as I have been moved by such assets of the great Frank Trumbauer

... and walking about the neighborhood with Nelson, born 12 years ago today ... and watching him open, with tremendous terrier determination, his birthday presents ... and reflecting that I'm very lucky to have such a fine friend as my little canine companion, Nelson Eddy:

That's how I spent my day.

Infinite Relativities

C]ompared to the life I lead, the last man in a chain gang thoroughly enjoys himself.
Katharine Hepburn as Linda Seton in Holiday

One need not be a poor little rich girl, or even a – in the self-describing words of the character – "black sheep," to relate.

A Getz Pastorale

Making my way along in my continuous, looping chronological tour of my CD collection, I find myself cruising aurally
through the 1950's. Today, as I was mentally zipping about in my two-toned, aqua and white, tail-finned, white leather-seated affair, which runs on sonic fuel, taking in the reedy musical landscape of the early years of Eisenhower (Mom often remarked, "He never really said anything in his speeches"), I paused in my actual physical movements at the sound of The Sound, Stan Getz, who himself was pausing, "Down by the Sycamore Tree." When Stan reflects, aloud, you have to stop and listen. Really listen.

I was introduced to Getz's recording of "Down by the Sycamore Tree" several years ago through the Verve CD, "Stan Getz Plays," which is the digital version, onto which this track and three others were tacked, of the LP of the same title. Well, it just knocked me out. And I must say, I'd already been reeling from the insinuatingly socko first few bars of this stunningly lovely set's opener, the perfect "Stella by Starlight." Stan's "Down by the Sycamore Tree," one of several languid, pensive performances in this grouping of twelve 1952 and four 1954 takes, simply stands out on its own, unique terms; it's just another devastatingly beautiful, singular moment in the electronically recorded life of one of the greatest players ever to approach a musical instrument.

Stan and son, Steve

I wasn't familiar with "Down by the Sycamore Tree," before hearing Stan's tender reading, so I had no point of comparison. I was inclined to believe that the song had words; there seemed a very compelling verbal story linked to this sweet melody. The liner notes credit the song – erroneously, I discovered – to that fellow, Public Domain, indicating a very old piece, possibly of "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair" vintage. Some years after falling instantaneously in love with Getz's go at the number, I encountered the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra's treatment and, by the CD on which it appeared, had the record set straight for me. Composer Pete Wendling and lyricist Haven Gillespie, recognizable denizens of pop music's renowned Tin Pan Alley, put together the song, typical in its bucolic quality of material of its period, in 1931. Both the Bros. Dorsey, who took a whack at "Tree" 12/9/31, and the, to me, barely bearable Rudy Vallee offered contemporary impressions.

By The Sycamore Tree
Music by Pete Wendling, Words by Haven Gillespie

Heaven seemed to be a little closer,
When you smiled for me,
On the night when you gave me your love
By the sycamore tree.

There we drew a lot of pretty pictures –
Babies on my knee;
Maybe one, two or three or four,
Down by the sycamore tree.

Sweetheart, keep on dreaming,
As you did before.
We found love by dreaming.
Tell me, who could ask for more?

We will be a lucky pair of lovebirds,
Honey, can't you see?
In a cute little two-by-four,
Down by the sycamore tree.

Phrasemaker Haven Gillespie, didn't exactly outdo himself here, I have to say. In incorporating domesticity as well as the afore-mentioned rusticity, he followed rather than bucked the then current trends in churning out little songs for the hoi polloi. The two-by-four, always "cute," turned up in many an early '30's number, presumably to remind the folks facing those lean, mean times that if a couple or a family has love, they need not aspire to a palace. ('Course there's nothing wrong with that message.) For my Depression dollars, it's tunesmith Pete Wendling who made the most intriguing contribution to the finished product, with his superficially nonchalant-sounding melody, set to "sycamore" eighth notes in bars 5-6, 13-14 and 29-30 of the chorus.

The Dorseys' record, with which I, as a follower of both Tommy and Jimmy (or, respectively, Mac and Lad) and Depression-era pop, have become intimately acquainted, is elevated from a sort of mildly pleasant mediocrity by the elegant and vital muted and open statements of jazz trumpet giant, Bunny Berigan.

Twenty-two years after the Dorseys committed their interpretation to wax – by which time, by pop standards, the "Tree" had become fossilized – Stan, in company of pianist Jimmy Rowles, bassist Bob Whitlock and drummer Max Roach, took a fresh look at the song. Where did our tenor titan dig up "Sycamore Tree"? For sure, he'd already made apparent a fondness for evergreens – but this was something different, not of "Stardust" or "Night and Day" status. Did Rowles, who knew everything, famous or obscure, bring the song to the 1/23/54 session? I can't help but wonder. "Down by the Sycamore Tree" is a song about the past, present and future: what happened, what is happening and what the first-person protagonist hopes will happen as time inevitably unfolds. Unlike Bunny, who – with his impassioned full-throttle bridge – made, it appears, an importunate plea for the future, Stan chose to focus, it seems, on the irrevocable past, describing it in delicate detail. Listening to this exquisite, quiet side, I have a strong sense of what is irretrievably gone – for Stan, for me, for all of us.

Much as I love endlessly inventive, unsurpassably facile "Stanley the Steamer" (so dubbed by an admiring Oscar Peterson) swinging hard, I love even more "Stanley the Dreamer" (my humble designation) talking softly. It's fascinating to consider that one month before the "Sycamore" date, the lavishly talented tenorist had been arrested for drug possession (for which he would do six saxless months behind bars). In his Nobody Else but Me, Getz biographer Dave Gelly had these observations to make:

In the middle of all this (two days after his court appearance, in fact), Getz recorded four three-minute numbers with Rowles, Roach and bassist Bob Whitlock, which sounded as blithe and untroubled as a May morning. "Nobody Else But Me," "with The Wind And The Rain In Your Hair," "I Hadn't Anyone But You" and "Down By The Sycamore Tree" are performances as serene as any he ever recorded. They stand as a powerful caution to anyone tempted to read a musician's autobiography in his music. It all depends on the musician. Getz, it seems, stepped into a whole different world when he picked up his instrument, a world of order and light and softly breathing passion. By contrast, Lester Young's playing unfailingly betrayed his day-to-day feelings, his state of health, his forebodings, his whimsical passing thoughts and gently ironical cast of mind.

The "Down by the Sycamore Tree" of this ballad "singer" is a thing profoundly poignant in its wistful rumination. Getz, a city boy, takes you to the country.

Don't miss it.