To the composer's work be true. Do be. Do be. Do

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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS a request on Radio 3's Jazz Record Requests recently for a record by singer Lee Wiley, requested, said a slightly unbelieving Geoffrey Smith, by the Lee Wiley-loving staff of Boots the Chemist in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Well, bully for the staff of Boots the Chemist in Newcastle-under-Lyme, I say.

Lee Wiley has always been a favourite singer of mine, partly because she sounds so sexy, partly because she liked the company of great jazz musicians, but above all because she actually seemed to like the songs she was singing enough not to improve them. That's almost unheard of in jazz.

Wayne Marshall seems to agree. He has been presenting a nice little series on Radio 2 in which he has been looking at the history of George Gershwin's music, and in the course of which he played the Billie Holiday version of "The Man I Love", all slurred and pulled out of shape into her own jazz phrasing. Afterwards he said that such a loose, dislocated version was very far from the rather precise and clipped interpretations of songs which Gershwin himself preferred.

What Wayne Marshall meant, but was too polite to say, was that Gershwin would have loathed Billie Holiday's way with his songs.

Indeed he would probably have hated the way that all jazz musicians have feasted on the carcasses of his songs.

After all, the Gershwin brothers put two great elements into their songs: words and melody.

When jazz musicians take a Gershwin song, they throw out the words, pay scant attention to the melody and keep only the harmonic sequence, which for George and Ira was just an underpinning of everything else, and they then expect the Gershwins to be grateful.

It's like taking a Bugatti car, stripping off everything else, keeping the chassis, putting a new fantasy car back on top and expecting Bugatti- lovers to be overwhelmed.

What songwriters of the great age of American popular song wanted was for their songs to be sung straight.

No messing about with the words, no messing about with the tune, and the minimum of embellishment. If this means that their ideal singer was a light tenor who wasn't good enough to get into operetta, well, tough.

The only jazz singer they ever seemed to have liked a lot was Ella Fitzgerald, who didn't muck around too much with the way things had been written, unlike Billie Holiday, who seemed to use their songs as a backdrop on which to project her own problems.

Gershwin's attitude to singers would be: Fred Astaire yes, Billie Holiday no. Not just jazz, of course; the idea that either Cole Porter or Noel Coward would have enjoyed the recent rock revampings of their songs is ludicrous.

I once got unexpected backing for this point of view - that songwriters hated being mucked around with - from an encounter with Johnny Green, who wrote three of the greatest songs in the history of popular music; "Body And Soul", "I Cover The Waterfront" and "Out Of Nowhere".

Having done that, he never wrote another song of note again and spent the rest of his life fronting radio shows, writing film scores, etc.

When I met him years ago, to interview him for for The Times, he was working as musical director on the film of Oliver! then being made over here in London.

Naturally, I wanted to meet the man who had written "Body And Soul", the version of which by tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins is reckoned to be one of the peaks of jazz history, but I found that it was not to the taste of the man who had written the song.

"What's left of my song when Hawkins has finished with it?" Green said.

"No words ... no tune ... just the chords, if you can recognise them. I like to hear "Body and Soul" sung as written, not as played by Coleman Hawkins."

Pressing him for versions of songs he did like, I could not get him to endorse any particular interpretation, until he remembered a certain recording of "Out of Nowhere".

"You know "Out Of Nowhere" has got a distinctive chord sequence?" he said.

Yes, I did know - two bars of G, two bars of E Flat ninth, two bars of G, two bars of E ninth, then A minor...

"My favourite record of "Out Of Nowhere", said the composer, "is by an old organ player who plays the tune as written and never changes the harmony throughout. He sticks to the same chords the whole way through. It's miraculous." And he roared with laughter.

"At least he stuck with the tune," he added.