Writings about Music
Sinatra and Shiva
Unpredictable Connections Abound in Music
I wish to relate an amusing anecdote here. At the time I was studying privately with Lee Konitz, meeting on Saturday afternoons at his West 86th street apartment, it occurred to me during one lesson to ask Lee who he personally listened to for musical inspiration. His response left me incredulous: "Frank Sinatra," delivered with a wistful and knowing nod of admiration and respect. At the time, I was unfamiliar with that artist's music other than regarding him as commercial fluff, and felt as if Lee's choice for inspiration was some sort of inexplicable joke.
It took five or six more years for me to begin exploring Sinatra's recordings after one of my girlfriend's roommates, who was the last person in the world you would expect to have such opinions, voiced enthusiasm for his singing, playing his recordings endlessly. (Subsequently, I learned that this roommate was related to the founder of The Santa Fe Opera, John Crosby.) At first, it was a revelation to hear for the first time the lyrics from the masterful songs that become jazz standards by virtue not only of their sublime melodies and harmonies, but also for their exquisite poetry. Previously, I had only heard instrumental versions of these songs used for improvisation by jazz masters. Sinatra, I soon recognized, had a special gift for enunciating lyrics with great clarity, in addition to somehow turning each song into a distilled "opera," connecting with the individual rasa of each compositional utterance. Later, I was to learn how not only Konitz, but also Miles Davis and Lou Levy considered Frank Sinatra the preeminent jazz singer, and, no doubt, many others shared this perspective. In fact, if you compare their general approach to ballads, Sinatra and John Coltrane share certain important similarities; particularly an ability to navigate effectively unearthly slow tempos, and produce a pervasively sensual and all-enveloping tonal field, not to mention Trane's soulfully intimate rendering of Nancy (with the Laughing Face), a song by Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Burke and Phil Silvers named for Sinatra's first born child.
You see, Francis Albert Sinatra, and later, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Art Lund, Helen Forrest, Tony Bennett, and many others, demonstrated to me that these songs, many of which became jazz standards, which geniuses such as Charlie Parker, Lee Konitz, Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie never tired of (songs at once atemporal, with their ability to inspire infinite improvisatory variations), might well be compared to the bedrock that the skyscrapers of Manhattan are built upon in relationship to the improvised art form they nourished in combination with blues forms, namely jazz. One might even compare the relationship of jazz standards, blues, and other important jazz compositions that inspired improvisation to the Hindu concept of Shakti (representing the female principle) spurring Shiva (representing the male principle) into action, symbolizing not only music, but life itself.
And its unlikely that anytime soon someone will come along capable of composing the lyrics to a song like Manhattan, as Lorenz Hart once did, never failing to thrill with his uncannily inventive wit and emotional resonance perfectly wedded to the sublime music of a composer, Richard Rodgers, who in once removed collaboration, together with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, was to awaken a new direction for John Coltrane. Coltrane simultaneously heard, intuited and deployed, along with McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Steve Davis, new connections between a perfect jewel named My Favorite Things and North Indian classical music forms and procedures, proceeding to set the world in a new direction. This included inspiring Light My Fire by The Doors; a band formed by my late friend, Ray Manzarek. Another monumental song by that group, The Soft Parade, includes Jim Morrison referencing Shiva:
A cobra on my left
Jim Morrison cited Frank Sinatra as the vocalist he most admired, and it's easy to hear this profound if unexpected musical influence dwelling directly in the center of Morrison's singing voice on albums by The Doors. Equally surprising is how Ray Manzarek revealed that The Girl from Ipanema from the famous Getz/Gilberto album inspired Break On Through (To the Other Side).
Bev Getz, Stan Getz's oldest daughter, told me how her father harbored a secret desire to be called by Frank Sinatra, his favorite singer, for a session; a wish that went unfulfilled for whatever reasons. Asked if her Dad enjoyed singing himself at home - he never practiced his tenor saxophone other than to try out a new reed - Bev paused momentarily, and then recalled with considerable emotion the lullabies her father would sing at bedtime when she was a little girl.
- Michael Robinson, March 2015, Los Angeles
© 2015 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and musicologist.