Jerome Kern was the master of pure melody, the greatest melodist in the history of American music. Ol' Man River . . . Smoke Gets in Your Eyes . . . The Song Is You . . .
Along with Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, he helped emancipate popular song from the stultifying cliche's of Tin Pan Alley.
All the Things You Are . . . The Way You Look Tonight . . .
He also revolutionized the American musical theater in 1927 with "Show Boat," a landmark work that extricated Broadway from the dominance of Viennese operettas and English revues.
Kern, who died in 1945, was born 100 years ago today. In this centennial year, he is celebrated as much for being the father of the contemporary musical as for being the first great native master of the popular song genre. He is the subject of a new 22-cent stamp, but more important, his legacy remains vibrant in a score of songs culled from the thousand that he wrote for 104 stage productions and films, including half a dozen from "Show Boat" alone.
Irving Berlin was once asked how to best describe the American musical theater. His reply was prompt and pithy: "In just two words . . . Jerome Kern."
George Gershwin had heard his first Kern song, "You're Here and I'm Here" at age 15 at an aunt's wedding. Impressed with the song's melodic and harmonic structure, he rushed to the stage to find out who had written it. Later, Gershwin left his first publisher because he wanted to be able to write "the kind of songs#) Jerome Kern was writing."
Jerome Kern was born a generation after Victor Herbert, a generation before Richard Rodgers. As such he provided the vital link between the operetta tradition Herbert embodied and the modernism of Rodgers. Herbert, the most prolific, successful and influential figure in American lyric theater at the turn of the century, always felt that Kern would inherit his mantle. And Rodgers, who as an adolescent had seen "Very Good Eddie" many times, said, "If you were at all sensitive to music, Kern had to be your idol."
Kern was a master of pure melody. He could spend hours on a single key change and often, after finishing a piece, he'd play it with one finger, or the eraser end of a pencil, to see if the basic melody could stand on its own. According to Alec Wilder, author of the landmark study, "American Popular Song," Kern's songs were "so pure they needed no harmony."
Praise for Kern came from the classical side, as well. Leonard Bernstein said he had "learned to treasure the art of Kern along with that of music's greatest melodists, including Schubert and Tchaikovsky." And Aaron Copland testified that Kern "was and remains one of our leading composers . . . a man of outstanding and memorable gifts."
Harry Truman, who was known for playing the piano now and then, said: "His melodies will live in our voices and warm our hearts for many years to come, for they are the kind of simple, honest songs that belong to no time or fashion. The man who gave them to us earned a lasting place in his nation's memory."
Jerome Kern was born Jan. 27, 1885, in New York City, to comparatively well-off parents. His mother was an accomplished pianist, his father the manager of a department store. Surprisingly little is known about his early life except that the family moved to Newark when Kern was 12 and that he had some formal musical training early on (he was described as a good but unexceptional student).
The most important early event in Kern's life may have happened on his 10th birthday. His mother took him to a Broadway show and the vital connection was made. He eventually studied piano and harmony at the New York College of Music, but his father refused to let him go to Europe for further study.
That changed several years later. Kern's father had tried to get him involved in the family business. Young Kern was sent to New York to buy two pianos but, spellbound by the sales talk, bought 200, almost ruining his father. Soon Kern was sailing for Germany, where he studied theory and harmony. He also spent some time in London. The father, incidentally, sold the pianos on an installment plan and ultimately made a profit.
Although his first published song, "At the Casino," had appeared in 1902, Kern's first job at a publishing house was as a billing clerk. His first significant success came when he signed with Max Dreyfus, who headed the T.B. Harms publishing company. Dreyfus rejected Kern's initial songs, but saw the potential of the songwriter (as he did with Rodgers, Gershwin, Sigmund Romberg, Vincent Youmans, Cole Porter and Kurt Weill, among others). Dreyfus provided a rigorous apprenticeship for Kern. He worked as a song plugger, playing new songs for performers who might add them to their repertoire, and playing songs in department stores to push sheet music sales.
Of course, as Dreyfus was showing Kern the ropes, he was also keeping him tied up. Kern would eventually become a vice president of the company.
After providing a number of American shows with songs, few of which Kern scholars feel are worth remembering, Kern got his first important assignment in 1904, providing Americanized interpolations for a British import, "Mr. Wix of Wickham." He did so in such fine fashion that one critic of the day asked, "Who is this Jerome Kern, whose music towers in an Eiffel way above the average primitive hurdy-gurdy, penny-in-the-slot primitive accompaniment to the musical show in such a way that criticism is disarmed?"
A year later, he had his first hit with "How'd You Like to Spoon With Me?" from "The Earl and the Girl." Kern's big breakthrough didn't occur until 1912, when he wrote his first complete score, "The Red Petticoat." Another prescient review of the time warned, "Let the foreign composers sit up and take notice. Mr. Kern is here to win."
Up to that time, Broadway had been dominated by light reviews imported from England or Viennese operettas. Few scores integrated music and book, and most of the plots were inane. There was less concern with plot or character than with event and cliche', and scripts were expected to do nothing more than provide a loose framework for the singing and dancing on stage.
"Follies," "Scandals" and "Vanities" were the order of the day, and the titles of the early shows that Kern wrote interpolations for suggest the mood: "The Little Cherub," "Fascinating Flora," "Fluffy Ruffles," "Little Miss Fix-It," "The Rich Mr. Hoggenheimer."
Even then, Kern was convinced American talent could produce original and invigorating musicals, but Broadway was particularly subject to America's cultural inferiority complex at the turn of the century. It would be two more years before Kern had a winner with "The Girl From Utah," which spawned his first million-selling song (in sheet music), "They Didn't Believe Me."
A year later, Kern took the first decisive, and ultimately revolutionary, step in establishing the distinction between operettas and musicals. He teamed up with P.G. Wodehouse (their first collaborations had come in England a decade earlier) and Guy Bolton to create what came to be known as the Princess Theatre shows (named after the 300-seat theater that housed them). Bolton would do the book, Wodehouse the lyrics and Kern the music.
The shows were a departure from the extravaganzas and revues then in vogue. The Princess shows used small casts and economical sets and had an informal, intimate atmosphere that was sophisticated and American. The songs were also not interjections, but flowed as part of the plots -- which were still preposterous, however. The first show, "Nobody Home," was a mild success. Three of the shows that followed were major hits: "Very Good Eddie" (also 1915), "Oh, Boy!" (1917) and "Oh Lady! Lady!" (1918); all spawned successful road shows and by the end of 1918, Kern was earning $3,000 a week from royalties, America's biggest income from songwriting alone.
Kern's Princess shows, though still structured within traditional molds, marked the beginning of the end of Europe's dominance on Broadway (even if Bolton and Wodehouse were British). In 1920, Kern told The New York Times that he was "trying to do something for the future of American music, which today has no class whatsoever and is mere barbaric mouthing." According to biographer Gerald Boardman, he was anxious to step beyond restrictions.
As far back as 1917's "Oh Boy!" Kern had insisted that "a comic opera, free from shallow characterization, obvious jests and impossible situations, and presented with a competent cast, would prove extremely popular in New York. Plausibility and reason apply to musical plays as to drama and comedies, and the sooner librettists and composers appreciate this fact, the sooner will come recognition and royalties."
In the meantime, Kern had major hits with "Sally" (1920) and "Sunny" (1925), both of which had more than 500 performances. Among the songs those shows produced: "Look for the Silver Lining" and "Who?"
The who turned out to be Edna Ferber, and the silver lining was her best-selling epic novel, "Show Boat." Kern was only halfway through it when he realized this was what he had been waiting for. He called up lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and within days they were at work on the show.
It was Kern's passion that imbued it with a sense of purpose. Producer Florenz Ziegfeld was not always happy with this somber musical that examined broken marriages, compulsive gambling, miscegenation, the harsh life style of southern blacks. And Kern must have been cautiously skeptical himself: he turned down an opportunity to invest in the show.
In order to distinguish it from operettas, Kern called "Show Boat" "an American musical play." Kern and Hammerstein (who also did the show's book), treated Ferber's novel as a legitimate piece of Americana; as a result, their work was much closer to legitimate theater than to the musical form.
While "Show Boat" was still in rehearsal, Edna Ferber was invited to hear a new song, a late addition that would serve as a Greek chorus throughout the show. Years later, she recalled her first encounter with "Ol' Man River."
"My hair stood on end, tears came to my eyes. I knew that this was a great song. This was a song that would outlast Kern and Hammerstein's day and my day and your day."
When "Show Boat" opened at Washington's National Theatre on Nov. 15, 1927, for its first tryout, it was more than four hours long. It was said that Ziegfeld's weeping, and the gnashing of his teeth, could be heard in the back of the theater. Ecstatic reviews and sellout crowds showed that the music was the show's selling point, and by the time it got to New York two months later, most of what was cut was dialogue.
What set "Show Boat" apart was immediately evident to Alan Dale, a Kern champion from before the Princess shows. "Here at last we have a story that was not submerged in the trough of musical molasses; here we had a 'book' the humor of which emerged naturally and the unusual quality of which struck one as something peculiarly different."
All the songs were integrated into the dramatic action and usually revealed something about the characters who sang them.
Little wonder then that "Show Boat" produced an unheard of (and still ummatched) six hits: "Ol' Man River," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Make Believe," "Bill," "You Are Love" and "Why Do I Love You?" Each had a distinct personality that confirmed Kern's goals of dramatic truth, fully realized characterizations, realistic atmosphere, a logical story line and a score integral to the play.
"Show Boat," immediately identified as a masterpiece, revolutionized America's musical theater. It ran for almost 600 shows. Eventually, there would be five Broadway revivals, three motion pictures and countless road shows. But the stock market crash in October of 1929 would have a debilitating effect on Broadway, as would the advent of "talkies," which virtually killed the road shows that had been a major source of income.
As a result, in terms of serious subject matter and integrated dramatic development, there would be no immediate successor to "Show Boat" ("Porgy and Bess" did poorly in 1935) until Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma" in 1943.
Kern took the crash well, though he lost a small fortune.
"I was just too rich, too fat, too prosperous," he said in 1930. "Well, Wall Street blew up. Now I'm working and I've regained my soul."
His shows would come to be known more for their songs than their impact on American theater.
"Show Boat's" follow-ups were "Sweet Adeline" (1929, with Hammerstein), "The Cat and the Fiddle" (1931, with Otto Harbach); "Music in the Air" (1932, again with Hammerstein), and "Roberta" (1933, with Harbach). These shows featured songs including "The Night Was Made for Love," "She Didn't Say Yes," "The Song Is You," "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star," "Why Was I Born," "Here Am I," "Yesterdays," "The Touch of Your Hand" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," the most popular song of 1933.
Though he spent most of his last 12 years in Hollywood, Kern had one last encounter with Broadway in 1939, with "Very Warm for May" (Hammerstein was the lyricist). A box-office fiasco -- it closed after 59 performances -- it did produce "All the Things You Are," which Arthur Schwartz has called the "best song ever written."
Although he had very little luck with his Broadway shows being adapted by Hollywood -- the first "Show Boat" used only one song, Kern nonetheless made the westward trek in 1934, lured by both cash and climate (he had numerous health problems). In 1933, the success of "42nd Street" proved that there was an audience for musical fantasies that was no longer being served by Broadway. Singing and dancing were once again perceived as essential entertainment.
Excluding adaptations of his own shows and his screen biography "Till the Clouds Roll By," Kern contributed to a dozen films. The most memorable was "Cover Girl" (1944, with Ira Gershwin), but once again, a slew of songs would emerge: "A Fine Romance" and "The Way You Look Tonight" (with Dorothy Fields, later an Academy Award winner in 1936); "Long Ago and Far Away" (with Gershwin); "All Through the Night" and "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" (with Hammerstein).
Ironically, Kern's second Oscar-winning song was not only the only song he ever wrote without a show or film in mind, it was also one of the few where the lyrics came first. It was in 1941 and Oscar Hammerstein, deeply moved by the fall of Paris to the Germans, had written a poem. He called Kern and over the phone, Kern wrote the melody for "The Last Time I Saw Paris." It won an Oscar even through the rest of "Lady Be Good" featured the music of George Gershwin.
In Hollywood, Kern was never as involved with the day-to-day creative process as he had been on Broadway. His entire output from the last decade of his life never equaled what he had created in a busy year on Broadway, where for 13 years he averaged four shows a year.
Though he worked exclusively in Hollywood after 1939, Kern was more than ready when Rodgers and Hammerstein invited him back to Broadway to provide the music for a new musical that eventually became "Annie Get Your Gun." In November of 1945, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on the streets of New York. Ten days later, without having come out of a coma, Jerome Kern died. He was 60 years old.
He left behind more than 100 scores for stage shows and movies; more than 1,000 songs written with more than 60 collaborators. Admittedly, many of these songs were inconsequential and unexceptional. Kern himself said, "To me a hit is something that will endure." Certainly, what has endured is impressive.
The late Alec Wilder wrote in "American Popular Song," that Kern exemplifies "the pure, uncontrived melodic line more characteristically than any other writer of American theatre music. Long before I knew the first thing about music, I knew his melodies. They pleased me, they even haunted me. Even when he did use more elaborate harmony, and I had become involved myself with the excitement of lush harmonic pattern, I didn't need to know or hear his harmony in order to enjoy thoroughly his lovely melodic flights."