Nowadays, Willie Nelson is the bearded, braided, grand old man of country music. He’s not only a musician and composer but also an activist and philanthropist beloved by country music fans, farmers (he established the Farm Aid movement with Neil Young and John Mellencamp in 1985), hipsters, even hip-hop artists. When he sang a pot-themed Christmas carol with Stephen Colbert on Colbert’s delightful “A Colbert Christmas” special a few years back, he was the highlight of a highly lit show. So it’s fun to see a clean-cut, clean-shaven Willie in this film clip from 1962 in which he dons a sharp suit and uses his smooth DJ voice between songs.
Willie spent several years as an actual DJ in the 1950s, first in Texas and later in the Pacific Northwest. After getting his start on the radio in Texas, he moved west to broadcast his resonant announcer’s voice from a radio station in Vancouver, Washington, just across the state line from Portland, Oregon. There he bought his first house, had his second child and wrote several songs that became big hits for other country artists. In Texas and in Washington, Willie was famous for opening his show with his signature line: “This is your ol’ cotton pickin’, snuff dippin’, tobacco chewin’, coffee pot dodgin’, dumplin’ eatin’, frog giggin’ hillbilly from Hill County!” (I’m so glad he moved beyond frog gigging.)
Once Willie started having real success in selling his songs, he moved back to Texas to resume his DJ duties while looking for recording opportunities of his own. He DJ’ed on Texas radio stations while teaching guitar classes and writing songs on the side. He moved to Nashville in 1960 hoping to get a recording contract of his own, but all his demos were rejected. He finally got his first contract in 1961 and released his first album, …And Then I Wrote, in 1962.
Well before Willie was a household name, he was writing hit songs for other country artists. His best-known composition, “Crazy,” became Patsy Cline’s biggest hit and is the most frequently played juke box song of all time. He was paid just $50 for the rights to it, but, happily, he said in one of his very enjoyable interviews with Terry Gross on her Fresh Air National Public Radio show that he did receive royalties on it later. (For more on the story behind the song, check out this piece by NPR’s Linda Wertheimer was featured on All Things Considered in 2000.)
Though Willie is a country legend, listen closely to his phrasing and you’ll recognize the huge influence that jazz has had on his performing style. Willie is always singing and swinging just a little off the beat to add interest to every measure. Despite his strong twang and the trademark nasal quality of his voice when he sings in his upper register, a warm mellowness takes over in his lower tones. There is a spare quality to his singing and beautiful guitar playing that reminds one jazz musicianship; his takes on pop standards like “Stardust” often have a dreamy quality.
Willie has recorded with many artists, and his distinctive voice blends well with all sorts of pop, rock, folk, jazz and country voices, smooth and rough, high and low. Willie has taken on a sort of everyman persona over the years, but behind the easygoing, scraggly looking fellow in jeans and bandannas is a major philanthropist, humanitarian and advocate for animal welfare; a sophisticated musical storyteller; a legendary composer; a gifted and subtle guitarist; and, at times, a mellow crooner with a voice and a vision like no one else’s.
[The following essay was originally published in July 2005. This year marks the tenth anniversary of my friend Richard’s wonderful house concert series, which began with a concert by gifted jazz pianist Jessica Williams. Last night I had the pleasure of again hearing Jessica play Richard’s glorious Steinway at another intimate house concert. She became my friend at that first concert ten years ago, and I love her and her music still. In honor of Jessica, who is a remarkable musician and a beautiful human being, I reprint this essay and I invite you to visit her website, JessicaWilliams.com.—LG ]
Two nights ago I was invited to share in a magical, memorable evening of of music. Jessica Williams, the extraordinary jazz pianist, played an intimate and elegant concert at the home of my friend Richard. He had spoken to her after her concerts in Seattle over the years, and had the good fortune to be seated next to her on a flight from San Jose to Seattle some months back, which gave them time to share a friendly conversation. Richard is a jazz pianist himself and the owner of a fine piano, and he and Jessica spoke about the idea of her performing at his home for a small group of local jazz aficionados after she finished her bigger Seattle gigs. Happily, the idea became a reality. Seattle is a great town for jazz; the jazz community is avid, active, and friendly, and small enough that everyone gets to know everyone else before too long. This little group knew Jessica’s music well, and the buzz of delight and amazement that we could all get so close to a jazz master had us all feeling a little tipsy before anyone had a drop to drink.
Jessica is well-known and loved among jazz fans and players; the frequently repeated question is, why isn’t she better known to the rest of the world? She’s noted for her improvisational brilliance, has played with jazz greats such as Dexter Gordon and Leroy Vinnegar, and has received lavish praise from the likes of Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner, and Marian McPartland, on whose NPR radio show, Piano Jazz, Jessica has performed. Her pieces have often been played between interviews on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross; Terry is a great fan of hers and Jessica was interviewed on Fresh Air and performed an in-studio concert for Terry’s listeners in 1997. I highly recommend listening to the 2002 rebroadcast, available free online, which includes pieces by Monk and Gershwin and some of Jessica’s own beautiful compositions.
What makes her playing unique and exciting is a combination of dazzling technical skill and warm, melodic, lyrical feeling. Her touch is sure, she plays with conviction, and she has the chops to knock any other player out of his socks if she wants to. Yet at the same time, she breathes warmth and life into pieces that can feel cold in other hands. She can take an atonal, dissonant piece that others might treat as an exercise to show off virtuosity and find the spirit at its core, the life force behind the string of impressive notes, the hush in the middle of the chord that a show-off performer would miss.
Jessica finds great inspiration and pleasure in playing compositions by Thelonious Monk, who’s notorious for being tricky to follow or hard to get. Despite having written the accessible but wonderful ballad “‘Round Midnight,” Monk can sometimes be rough, bouncy and dissonant. When Jessica plays him, however, she isn’t afraid to lighten him up, play up the humor behind the notes, to show the subtlety in his compositions so one can feel the thought behind the dissonances, and understand why they’re right and not random.
Jessica was classically trained, so early on she still believed that there were rules that couldn’t be broken and techniques that must be followed when playing piano. She told Terry Gross the first time she heard a record of Monk playing, she thought he sounded like he was wearing boxing gloves at the piano. But with continued listening, she grew to love his openness to new techniques. She incorporated some of them into her own playing and has developed other innovative techniques that amplify the feeling in her music without ever getting lost in tricks for the sake of tricks.
Sometimes Jessica reaches into the piano to strum the strings while playing keys, incorporating a sound like an autoharp into her playing, as she did at the beginning and end of “Getting Sentimental Over You” when she played it during her Fresh Air concert. She’s careful not to overuse it, however; she doesn’t want to become gimmicky but likes to explore the variety of sounds that a piano can make and integrate these devices into the tunes to add color. During this week’s concert, she reached into the piano to strum it at several points, and she occasionally shuffled the soles of her shoes across the wood floor to create a sound like a drummer would with a brush, or like a softshoe dancer might. She also likes to quote other jazz compositions when she plays, a common tip of the hat from one jazz musician to another, throwing a few measures of a well-known jazz standard into a piece for humor and as an homage. She improvises these surprises and tosses them as little treats for the audience, each one a lagniappe to lighten the heart when listeners get too earnest and caught up in the piece.
On Monday night, she began with a piece by John Coltrane, “Wise One,” followed by “The Very Thought of You” by Ray Noble, “Paul’s Pal” by Sonny Rollins, and two pieces by Monk, “Ugly Beauty” and “Nutty.” I’ve never enjoyed Monk as much as I did that evening. She has said that record producers have often pushed her to show off more of her impressive technique, focusing on speed and flash, and playing Monk certainly allows her that, but she plays him with more subtlety and insight. There’s intelligence in her playing without cold intellectualism, an awareness of exactly what note, what chord, what sense of space is necessary to make a phrase work while still holding the meaning of the song, its essence, the point of it all, in her heart. For her, the most satisfying playing involves a spiritual element. As she told me, she can emphasize flash and technique when she’s playing in a wild or distracted venue or on a bad piano that can’t hold up to subtlety; she can adapt and please the audience when that’s what’s called for. But when she is in the right space with a good instrument and a receptive audience, this nuanced and spiritual essence of her playing emerges, and a thrilling pleasure in being right there, right then, with her, in the palm of her hand, fills the audience, or, in the case of someone lucky enough to own her CDs, fills the listener sitting alone at home if she or he gives her pieces the attention they deserve.
Jessica’s playing is so lovely and lyrical that it’s more accessible than many jazz pianists without ever crossing over into that scary “lite jazz” territory. She began her second set with Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful” from the musical Annie Get Your Gun—songs don’t come much more accessible than that. And yet in her hands it was anything but trite; it was fresh again, and as pure as it was when Berlin wrote it. One of my favorite moments in the evening came when she played Dexter Gordon’s “Don’t Explain.” I’ve always loved Billie Holiday’s version, so it’s hard for me to give other artists due credit when they play it, it’s so associated with Lady Day in my mind. But I was right there with Jessica, note for note. Her love for Dexter Gordon the man, as well as for his music was evident in her playing, and it was an emotionally rich piece.
She followed it with her own eloquent ode to her friend, “I Remember Dexter,” and two more of her elegant compositions, “Poem in G minor” and “Sheikh.” She ended with a gorgeous rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” that left me so touched I had to compose myself before I could shake her hand and tell her what a wonderful evening it had been. Ellington himself would have pronounced her performance “beyond category.” At the end of that second set, I realized I’d been staring rapt at her hands the whole time and hadn’t even looked up once to see the faces of the other people sitting around me. At the end of the concert I saw the same grateful wonder in their eyes that I felt, that we could be sitting 10 feet from greatness and share in this experience.
Before the concert, I had the pleasure of talking with Jessica in the kitchen. For all her skill and mastery, and despite all the swooning and kudos afforded her by fans and fellow artists, she is anything but a diva. She was humble and gracious, and she spoke of the pleasure she takes in her art and in sharing life with friends, of the places around the world in which she’s lived, of the kindnesses shown her by several jazz artists, like Dexter Gordon and his wife. She’d never met me before, but asked me about myself as well, and listened and cared about what I had to say. She was there, standing in a kitchen with a stranger, present in the moment and open to the experience. She showed a respectful, commonsense kindness with me and everyone present which I wish was shared by all people of such accomplishment and fame.
Jessica’s lived courageously and taken risks, turned corners when she was told what a mistake it was and been true to her heart, her music, and her passions. She’s been open to new techniques, to new styles, to resurrecting older ideas or creating new sounds that resonate with her heart. The result is a lovely, gracious, multifaceted woman who creates beauty and cares about the world around her and the people in it.
Andrew Gilbert wrote beautifully of Jessica and her art for the San Jose Mercury News: “A tremendously assured musician, Williams marks her style with ravishing lyricism and daring improvisational flights. But what really sets her solo performances apart is her gift for seamlessly weaving together various jazz keyboard styles, encompassing the highly syncopated stride school of the ’20s and ’30s, the light, effortlessly dancing approach of the swing era, the jagged single-note runs of bebop and the rhythmically diffuse sound perfected by Bill Evans in the ’60s, all integrated into an organic whole by her compelling sense of narrative flow.”
Jessica’s well-put-together and satisfying eponymous website, www.jessicawilliams.com, features links to some of her pieces, to interviews, photographs, and, best of all, allows one to order her CDs, some of which are only available through the site. On her homepage she quotes one of her favorite musicians and people, John Coltrane: “I want to be a force for good. I know there are bad forces here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the force which is truly good.” This quotation is so apt for Jessica; she lives her life in a way that brings pleasure to others, and shares her remarkable talents and hopes with others through her musical gifts. She lives her values and speaks through her art. What an extraordinary person.
Recently I’ve been listening to a song that’s been around for a half-century but which was made fresh and new to me when I heard Alan Cumming sing it last June in the latest Broadway revival of the musical Cabaret. It’s a jaded, cynical song sung by a character who pretends to feel no pain and who appears to be inured to the ugliness of the world. But the power of the performance comes from the realization that, while the prostitute singing the song may no longer seem to care what he (or she) has to do to get by, that purported apathy comes after years of suffering and having experienced so much pain and loss that no longer caring almost seems like a blessing:
I don’t care much Go or stay I don’t care very much Either way Hearts grow hard On a windy street Lips grow cold With the rent to meet So if you kiss me If we touch Warning’s fair I don’t care very much
“I Don’t Care Much,” like other songs in that brilliant musical, underscores the desperation and fear that led people living in Berlin under Nazi rule to try to blot out reality with a bit of naughty pleasure, and sometimes to lose their hearts (and maybe souls) to apathy or pretense in order to try to imagine away evils that they couldn’t bear to fight or even face.
When performed in the 1993, 1998 and 2014-15 Sam Mendes-directed Broadway productions of Cabaret, the song is sung with great bravado by an actor in drag. When I sit down to sing it at the piano, I like to do it more quietly, with restraint and softness, to underscore the fact that the singer may no longer feel so much, but she or he recognizes the tragedy in the loss of caring. The person telling the story may not feel whole and complete anymore, but he does remember that once there was a heart beating within him that could care. There is still a soul within that registers the loss. I can never be a person who does not care much, so when I sing the song, I must be a person who pretends not to care.
After singing the song so much this week, I got to thinking about some of the classic popular songs I love that are sung by or about prostitutes. It seems an odd theme for a pop song, I know, but really, aren’t a vast number of popular songs about lost love and the pain that comes from longing? Think about how many songs are about people’s desperate search for an escape from loneliness, or about the bliss that comes from feeling a deep and true connection to another person after a tormented period of hopelessness. People often think of prostitutes as dirty, dangerous and jaded, but their profession exists to offer the promise of pleasure and escape from the pain of the world. Their job is to sell a bit of themselves for a little while to people who are desperate to connect, to feel something deep and real, to feel cared for and soothed and satisfied for a sliver of time before they go back out into the freezing night, rushing to their homes, hoping to avoid being seen by those who would crush and destroy them for having the audacity to believe in whatever pleasure and happiness they can find (or pretend to find) in a dark and dirty world.
Guilt, shame and social ostracism are braided into the fiber of their lives; they exist to provide comfort and to satisfy elemental longings, but they are despised and punished for providing services that are both desperately sought after and deeply reviled. Theirs is a jaded, bitter corner of the world of longing and desire, and that is what makes their songs and stories so dramatic and powerful a counterpoint to the light and airy songs we usually associate with love. Drama comes from contrasts. In order for the spotlight to shimmer brightly, it must be surrounded by dark shadows to set it off.
I first saw the film version of the musical Cabaret when I was just nine. My outgoing mother liked to take me along with her as often as possible when she socialized, so despite the adult nature of the film, she and a friend brought me along to see Cabaret. I dutifully covered my ears and closed my eyes on command whenever Mom turned to me and whispered “PG! PG!” or “Parental guidance time!” The whole film was infused with a bawdy, mysterious sexuality far beyond my understanding, but it was compelling and fascinating enough that I enjoyed every lurid, intoxicating moment of it. It cleverly incorporated stories within stories, and it was full of great Bob Fosse dance numbers and catchy, seemingly lighthearted nightclub songs that were invested with deeper, uglier meanings. The songs reflected and expanded on the stories of the main characters and had scary parallels to the Nazi-inflicted horrors going on in the streets of Berlin just outside the doors of the cabaret.
The story is essentially about the unwillingness of many Germans (and many foreigners then living in Berlin) to acknowledge the growing danger of Hitler’s leadership in the early 1930s, and about the political apathy and, ultimately, the fear that fueled German society’s acceptance of inhumanity and depravity. The musical play, which is based on John van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera and Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 book of stories called Goodbye to Berlin, is about the sickness that grows in a culture and in the hearts of its citizens when they refuse to see what is going on around them and refuse to look after each other out of fear for their own welfare. The musical numbers by John Kander and Fred Ebb are perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist of 1930s Berlin, and are gems in and of themselves. They also expand on, deepen and enrich the power of the story in ways that few composers for musical theater ever achieve.
The team of Kander and Ebb had a wonderful knack for drinking in the style and feel of the music of the past and then creating their own versions of those songs so that they felt completely authentic but were also entirely original. John Kander has said that when he was preparing to compose the music for plays like Chicago (which takes place in the 1920s) or Cabaret (which is set in the 1930s), he liked to immerse himself in the music of the time and listen to it so fully, deeply and constantly that it filled his brain. He then put it aside completely for a while and let it marinate and stew, and then when he began to write, the influences and motifs of that time period would wend their ways into his songs naturally, so he could compose comfortably in a fashion that had gone out of style forty years before. He was so masterful at it that a number of his songs, which seem so appropriate in the context of their original plays, went on to be popular standards that can stand on their own—songs like “Mein Herr,” “Cabaret,” Wilkommen,” “New York, New York” and “All That Jazz.”
The song “I Don’t Care Much” was written for the original Broadway production of Cabaret, but it was cut from the film version. I saw a stage production of the show featuring Joel Grey (the Tony- and Oscar-winning original Emcee) over 25 years ago, but the song never stuck with me until I saw Alan Cumming sing it last June in full drag in the astounding revival of Cabaret that is currently finishing up its run at Studio 54. When he stood at the microphone in his shimmering dress and heavy makeup, he was mesmerizing. Previous Sam Mendes-directed revivals of Cabaret starring Alan Cumming were staged in London in 1993 and in New York in 1998; the video above was excerpted from the 1993 production. Mendes’s dark, lurid style of staging the show works splendidly to underscore the tatty, raw, dangerous quality of life lived by those who spent their time in Berlin’s dark underbelly during the 1930s. The costumes are ripped, the makeup is smeared, the voices are gritty and the desperate quality of the characters is more evident and affecting than in the prettier, cleaner film version and earlier stage productions.
Alan Cumming said in his excellent interview with Terry Gross on her NPR radio show “Fresh Air” that he came up with a back story for his Emcee character in which he started off as a young male prostitute and worked his way into the cabaret life, so as a former rent-boy he has no fancy graces, and no desire to hide his voracious sexual appetites or comfort with the seedier side of life. In earlier productions of the show, Joel Grey held every eye and commanded attention with his strange, sexless, voyeuristic portrayal of the Emcee: he was an outsider laughing and smirking at the performers and the audience in a detached, amoral way. Alan Cumming’s version is immersed in the world of the cabaret, reveling in it, tainted by it, and ravaged by sex and drugs and decadence. The outsider Emcee of Joel Grey acted like a Greek chorus, pointing us at the depths of degradation others went to to shield their eyes from the ugliness of the outside world. Alan Cumming’s Emcee is drenched in underworld decadence and is ultimately pulled down and destroyed by it, as are all the others who could not escape from the decadent, dangerous world they were trapped in.
Cumming stands at the microphone in the dark and sings the song of a weary, degraded prostitute stripped of feeling by a sick and dangerous world, no longer caring what he must do to make enough money to eat or pay the rent or buy a coat thick enough to keep out winter’s chill. At first, as he stands in a dress and full makeup, the audience sometimes laughs at his outlandishness, thinking this is just another lark, a humorous way to remind us of the fluid and open sexuality of decadent pre-World-War-II Berliners. But in short order, his rough voice tells us that his kisses mean nothing. His comforts can be bought as a way to keep shoes on his feet and food in his stomach, but they mean little more to him:
Words sound false When your coat’s too thin Feet don’t waltz When the roof caves in So if you kiss me If we touch Warning’s fair I don’t care very much
Love for sale, Appetizing young love for sale. Love that’s fresh and still unspoiled, Love that’s only slightly soiled, Love for sale. Who will buy? Who would like to sample my supply? Who’s prepared to pay the price, For a trip to paradise? Love for sale.
The song was banned from the radio in the 1930s, but it became a hit for multiple artists in the following two years nonetheless, and it has been recorded by scores of major singers in the decades since. Even k.d. lang and Fine Young Cannibals put their stamp on the song. The faded, jaded quality deepens as the song progresses:
Let the poets pipe of love in their childish way, I know every type of love Better far than they. If you want the thrill of love, I’ve been through the mill of love; Old love, new love Every love but true love.
During her 2011 tour, Broadway star Idina Menzel sang the song as a bored-sounding, lite-jazz mashup with another prostitution-related song, “Roxanne,” by The Police. Most of us know the driving, original version of the plaintive call by a lover to his streetwalker sweetheart to give up her career to be with him and him alone. However, my favorite version is a gorgeous, stripped down solo version sung by Sting in the filmed version of the 1981 Amnesty International benefit concert called The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. In it, Sting, accompanied only but his own spare, loose guitar playing, wails with so much more hopeless yearning than in the original song. His pain is greater, and his angst is so thick it hangs in the air and echoes along with his desperate voice. The performance is a tour de force that still gives me chills.
Elvis Costello is not the only musician in his family who can sing despairingly of the shattered dreams and desperate acts of those who walk the streets for money. His wife, jazz pianist and chanteuse Diana Krall, does a stunning version of the 1933 hit song “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” No, not the song by Green Day—I mean the Harry Warren/Al Dubin classic that starts like this:
I walk along the street of sorrow The boulevard of broken dreams Where gigolo and gigolette Can take a kiss without regret So they forget their broken dreams You laugh tonight and cry tomorrow When you behold your shattered schemes Gigolo and gigolette Wake up to find their eyes are wet With tears that tell of broken dreams
Gigolos and gigolettes were considered just one step, if that, from prostitution. A gigolo is, by definition, a man who seeks the company and monetary support of wealthy people (usually women) who pay him for his charms. The term came about in the 1920s as a back-formation from the term “gigolette,” which then referred to a woman hired to be a dancing partner (and sometimes something more). This song is often sung with swelling passion and force, such as in the 1952 version by Tony Bennett, but I think the slow, melting version sung by crackle-voiced alto Diana Krall is the most haunting version of them all. Its restraint is more inviting and much sexier than the bolder, brighter Tony Bennett version. As famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee said, always leave your audience wanting more.
It may seem contrarian of me to write about the darker, sadder side of love and desire just in time for Valentine’s Day, but so many of the richest, deepest songs about love are the ones based on loss and longing. If you find yourself feeling scarred or let down by life and love over the Valentine’s Day weekend, know this: you are not alone, and the pain of lost love will heal. Skip the new film about the sadist whose stalking, assault and abuse of a young virgin are painted as “romantic” by a passion-starved populace. Instead, drown your sorrows in a few of these songs about the darker side of love, and then get up, go out and be the loving, kind and openhearted sort of person you’re looking for. Acts of loving kindness set in motion by good-hearted people reverberate through time; they are carried in the hearts of the people whom we touch with our love long after we ourselves are gone. Enjoy these angst-filled musical gems, but don’t let yourself become jaded. Be your best self and keep loving.