Writings About Music
A Song Born For Me
Hearing an Irving Berlin classic for the first time
Irving Berlin singing with Frank Sinatra and Jane Powell looking on.
How great is it to find a new song, one that’s among the most beautiful ever composed. That’s what happened with “The Song Is Ended” by Irving Berlin. Not only that, but the bridge of the song is the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. Typical with Berlin, the lyrics are as breathtakingly enchanting as the music.
Thanks to Jerry Sharell for introducing the song on his Frank Sinatra radio show. Sinatra's interpretation is sublime, but in this instance it was the second rendering Jerry played that captured the rasa of the "The Song Is Ended" for me; a recording by Tony Bennett accompanied by none less than Dizzy Gillespie and one of my favorite drummers, Joe LaBarbera, together with pianist Ralph Sharon and Frank Langosch on bass. I'm so taken by the performance that it skyrockets up to a place among my favorite jazz recordings of all time.
Joe LaBarbera, a musician in a class with Alan Dawson, Mel Lewis, and Joe Morello, was kind enough to share these thoughts when asked about the session: "Dizzy likes to build the arrangements in the studio. This one was very close to what Tony was already doing so Diz just filled in between Tony's vocals. For his solo, I used my Chinese cymbal because every drummer knows that is Dizzy's favorite. In fact, he owns one himself and all his drummers use it."
"This album had so many highlights because we had 3 successive days of guest jazz greats. Dizzy, Dexter Gordon and George Benson all had a day each, and each one was unique and of course a great experience. I haven't listened to this recording in decades and I am reminded once again how great an accompanist Ralph Sharon was."
Right away, I noticed that the first seven notes (!) of "The Song Is Ended" are identical to "Cherokee" by Ray Noble if with a varied rhythm. Berlin’s song was composed in 1927, and Noble’s classic was penned in 1938, so I’m convinced that Berlin’s song inspired Noble to take the opening melodic gesture in another equally compelling direction, one that became a great favorite of Charlie Parker, Lee Konitz, and myriad other jazz greats for virtuoso improvisation.
Indeed, "The Song Is Ended" was so famous that George and Ira Gershwin make reference to it in the lyrics for one of their classics, "You Can't Take That Away From Me", from 1937.
One favorite memory of "Cherokee" is hearing Lee Konitz perform it to close his appearance at a small jazz club in Bellmore, Long Island following my freshman year of college. This was the same summer I studied with Konitz, and he had invited me to attend. There was a very small turnout that night, which puzzled Lee, as if the date I had invited and myself were being given a private show of Olympian proportions. I'll never forget how the legendary alto saxophonist conjured dozens of choruses at an incredible clip with startling original invention and no repetition while accomplishing the musical equivalent of circling the globe several times in thirty minutes or so.
"Cherokee" is almost always played at a very fast tempo, but here's a version by Donna Hightower not quite so rapid.
"The Song Is Ended" captures the romantic flavor of Manhattan nights where Berlin resided for nearly all his 101 years after arriving from Russia at the age of five. At the time he wrote the song, it appears that Berlin lived close to the East River on the Upper East Side; similar to where I lived in Manhattan (if not quite so upscale) during the time I first began composing for an early incarnation of the Meruvina.
The view from my Manhattan apartment at First Avenue and 65th Street, my primary residence from 1985-1989, looking out towards Rockefeller University, the East River, the 59th Street Bridge, and the Borough of Queens. (From 1982-1984, I lived on the western edge of Queens in Long Island City.) It was here I began composing the first compositions for Meruvina, including Smokestack and Red Roof, titles taken from what you see. Many fond memories of that abode, including the time Lee Konitz visited and played along with Pictures On the Wall. Never identifying with the terms Uptown or Downtown composer, I might opt for My Town composer if asked to choose. The view at night sparkled, and the place was quiet as lake water, a fine domain for creating music.
Strangely, “The Song Is Ended” seems to have been neglected by both jazz artists and vocalists at least in terms of recordings. Here is the very first recording of the song by "Whispering" Jack Smith, including the introduction.
Berlin, who only played in the key of F sharp, and didn't read or write music notation, had a special piano that would modulate into different keys by using a customized mechanical modulation lever, so I feel a connection to that, too, given how the Meruvina is in a sense another exotic technological instrument related to the piano.
Michael Robinson with the first Meruvina in his 65th Street apartment.
Will play "The Song Is Ended" for the first time on the piano later today. The chord changes are as perfect as the melody and lyrics.
- Michael Robinson, August 2018, Los Angeles
© 2018 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).