New interview with author and music critic Will Friedwald
Will Friedwald is the author of the new book, A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (Pantheon Books) which has been getting rave reviews and is a must-read for any music fan. Be sure to get this book! Of course, Judy is included. We thank Will for taking time out of his busy schedule to share his unique perspective with us.
[Judy Room] Other than watching The Wizard of Oz, when did you first become aware of Judy Garland? What was your first reaction, and how did she grow on you?
[Will] It was probably watching Meet Me in St, Louis and the other movies. I don’t know that I started really listening to her records until I was in my 30s. I probably first appreciated her as a movie buff in The Pirate and Summer Stock, and probably even the Babes movies.
How has your opinion of Judy Garland changed over the years?
I went through a phase, where if something wasn’t overtly “jazzy,” like Ella Fitzgerald, I dismissed it. For a few years, I hardly listened to Garland, which, looking back now, seems strange – since I had long loved her movies. Eventually, I reacclimated to her, so to speak. One can only ignore greatness for so long.
Garland could be said to have done a certain number of recordings in a jazz style at Capitol, on her television series, and on stage. What do you think of these recordings?
I think it’s testimony to her greatness that she could fit in all kinds of settings, from very formal orchestras to something as loose and intimate as Count Basie’s organ. She worked in a wide variety of settings and sounded great in virtually all of them.
Garland never improvised. Does that not make her a jazz singer?
As a “reformed” jazz snob, I’ve increasingly come to realize that the term “jazz singer” is not a particularly useful one. The late Mel Torme was a friend of mine (no, I never talked to him about The Judy Garland Show – he certainly never said anything critical of her in my presence) and he told me many times that he never considered himself a “pure” jazz singer. In Mel’s opinion, it was all about degrees of jazziness. The only singer who could be purely jazz would be someone who improvised for chorus after chorus, the same way that a trumpeter or saxophonist did. Mel insisted that sometimes he sang jazz, but he didn’t necessarily consider himself a “jazz singer” when he was doing a ballad with strings. There are improvising singers in the folk and world music traditions who aren’t remotely jazzy. Ultimately, it probably has more to do with rhythm (and the concept of swing) than scatting and improvising. But suggesting that Garland was somehow less worthy because she wasn’t a jazz singer is a bit like castigating Joan Sutherland for not being a country-western singer. It’s an irrelevant consideration.
Ha! “Cool,” even more than “jazz,” is highly subjective – in the ear of the be-hear-er, so to speak. Some of her performances are wonderfully cool, especially some of those very subdued solos on the Garland show, and some are marvelously corny, in the best sense of the word – like “Madame Crematante.” Great art like Garland’s is above such considerations. She defines her own categories as she goes along.
Could Judy have sung in Kansas?
Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore. But I could be wrong. Actually, when the Oz screenwriters came up with that line, they obviously weren’t thinking of Kansas City – which is in Missouri anyhow. At the time Oz was being filmed, Kansas City was the party town of the Midwest, a hotbed of jazz and African American activity. And again, like New Orleans, Greenwich Village, and San Francisco, there were some pretty colorful characters there. Lions, and tigers, and bears – oh my!
Should Judy’s recordings be classified as easy listening?
I wouldn’t say the term “easy listening” is entirely useless, but it is widely misused and misunderstood. This is a term that rock-and-roll advocates (journalists, producers) increasingly applied towards older forms of music that they didn’t like. Yet it has a very specific meaning. In the early LP era, someone came up with the term “mood music” to describe a new kind of pop instrumental music that, for practically the first time, was not driven by dancing. That sort of morphed into “easily listening music,” but the term more properly describes music like Percy Faith, Ray Conniff – records that you put on in the background and which you’re not supposed to pay attention to. There are some easily listening vocalists, most notably Andy Williams, but by and large vocals are not true easy listening because, when you hear someone singing the lyrics to a song, your ear generally starts listening. Andy Williams is an exception – he sold zillions of records by perfecting a style that was soothing to the ear but which almost no one actually listened to. Garland is precisely the opposite. Like Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, she’s such a commanding performer that when she starts singing you have to stop what you’re doing and give her your full attention. It’s not even like you have any choice in the matter!
What is the one greatest song you ever heard Judy Garland sing?
For the last few years, my single favorite track is “I Happen to Like New York.” I don’t have the new book on me (I’m talking to you in the New Orleans airport) so I can’t look up what I wrote – so forgive me if this duplicates (or worse, contradicts) anything in the book. But she delivers it with such amazing conviction that it positively makes my hair stand on end (well, it would, if it weren’t for the fact that I’m bald). She sings it like a combination of national anthem and spiritual. It seems patriotic and religious. And yet, between Garland and Cole Porter, there’s an awful lot of self-deflating wit in there as well. She touches a dozens different places in the heart at once. Each time I hear it, it makes me stand up and recite the pledge of allegiance and laugh out loud at the same time. These are conflicting emotions, yet in the art of Judy Garland, they’re completely compatible.
Many singers are respected. Judy is worshiped. Is there an explanation?
Garland expressed pure emotion at such an unbelievable extreme level, it’s not surprising that people would react to her that way. Like I say, there’s nobody “worshipping” Andy Williams in quite that way! The reaction she gets is dictated by the energy she put into her art. Obviously, an artist of such strong emotional poles would inspire a reaction like that. It’s actually rather scientific when you think about it, really.
Is Judy more an actor who sings, or a singer who acts?
It’s not an entirely irrelevant question, but I think that the larger point is that Garland is a storyteller who uses both mediums – singing and acting – as if they were interchangeable. Her point is to communicate an emotion, a feeling, a point of view, to take you on a journey that’s at once musical and highly emotional. She uses words both sung (in song) and spoken (dialogue) to take you there. She uses all the resources at her disposal. She’s a singing actress and an acting singer, and in her artistry, there’s no difference between the two.
Judy Garland singing “Come Rain or Come Shine” is not Billie Holiday singing “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Do you have a preference?
I think that Garland was at her peak when she did the Arlen-Mercer standard, whereas Holiday was already in decline. However, I once wrote a whole book about how the Great American Songbook is unique in that it’s the only medium where two artists can approach the same piece of material and make it sound completely different. I mean, both Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein could play the Mozart Jupiter Symphony and there would be obvious differences, but at the same time, it’s the same piece of music interpreted slightly differently. But Garland and Holiday doing the same song – it’s just so different that it really might as well be a completely different song. There’s not a lot of forms of music, anywhere in the world, where that’s true.
“Over the Rainbow” is, of course, Judy’s signature song, and a great song. But, is it her song? That is, how do you react when you hear Sarah Vaughan, or anyone else, singing it? Is Judy’s shadow too long in this case?
Mel Torme observed that Garland regarded it as something almost sacred, that she refused to play with it or let it be parodied (although there a few rare examples of her doing that – I don’t have the JSP box with me to check). I think Garland’s contemporaries, by and large, felt the same way, that the song was her property and they could only sing it in deference to her. It’s said that Ella Fitzgerald practically had to be forced to sing “Rainbow” on her Harold Arlen Songbook. Certainly, a lot of singers went out of their way to add the verse, just to make their versions less like Garland’s. But personally, I enjoy other interpretations. One that leaps to mind is a very sweet, very early rendition by the great British crooner Al Bowlly (which does include the verse, although I don’t think he was trying to avoid the comparison to Garland, in this case.)
When Judy sings “Last Night When We Were Young,” does it entertain you?
That’s entertainment! I find it very moving – her’s and Sinatra’s equally so. This is the cut number from In The Good Old Summertime, right? (Cut this if I’m wrong, I can’t check this where I am…) The only thing odd is that it’s such a heavy, dramatic number in the middle of such an otherwise innocuous movie. It’s not surprising that the studio deleted it. In and of itself, of course, it’s an amazingly moving performance.
Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra all continued to record until the end of their lives. Do you find it odd that Judy never made an album during the last nine years of her life?
You haven’t even mentioned Tony Bennett – obviously because his life is nowhere near its end. He’s probably the only living legend of his generation to keep going, stronger than ever, into his ’80s. But getting back to Garland, it’s tragic that somehow she couldn’t get her act together enough at that point. Even Billie Holiday, who was hardly a paragon of functionality, recorded in the last few months of her life (and some of her work in 1958 and 1959 is among her all-time greatest). The late Alan Livingston, who ran Capitol Records in the ’60s, told me how Garland would call him up, obviously slightly stoned, and talk about all the albums she wanted to keep making with Capitol. Alan’s story was that Garland would ask for exorbitant amounts of money – well beyond what Capitol or anyone else would consider – and that she was just too much of a mess to get into the studio in any case. It’s a tragedy, yes. The entire Garland catalog is very small, much more so when compared to any of the major pop singers you’ve mentioned. Nat King Cole died slightly younger than Garland, and his output is enormous.
Knowing how much you appreciate Garland, what is your reaction when you hear and see her at the end of her life?
You look for the good moments and try to forget the bad. She’s often like a friend or a dear relative that you see at a party – you spend the whole time praying that nothing really terrible will happen. In the end, you’re often rewarded in that something completely magical happens. You can’t ever count her out. Even near the end, there are moments when the magic is there.
What is the one song she never recorded that you would like to have heard her sing?
Can you imagine her doing “Lush Life?” Heavy, right? I also sometimes think about songs written after she left us. “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd is a perfect Judy Garland song. Maybe Tommy Femia or one of the other Garland impersonators has done it. And what about Garland doing Gospel? With her, “Over the Rainbow” is a religious experience. It makes you wonder what she would do with “The Lord’s Prayer.” By the same token, I can hear her doing “Turn, Turn, Turn” by Pete Seeger, or even “Rainy Day Women” by Bob Dylan. Think about that sometime – it would be kind of an absurdist, carnival-like follow up to “I Will Come Back.”
What is the one song you regret she recorded?
I was going to say “Purple People Eater,” but even that I find enjoyable, in a goofy way. It’s hard to think of any song that was so God-forsaken that even Garland couldn’t work her magic on it.
What is the one recording of hers that needs to be rediscovered?
I don’t know if it counts – it’s hardly obscure – but I love the Decca single of “Smilin’ Through.” It’s a wonderful old song, old even when Garland was young, and she sings it amazingly. A few years ago, the great postmodern jazz musician Wayne Shorter did a record of that song, and I’m convinced he learned it from her. Great musicians influence great musicians. It doesn’t matter what genre they’re in. Duke Ellington famously described Ella Fitzgerald as “beyond category,” and clearly the same term applies to Garland. She transcends all categories and stylistic boundaries.
Would you like to have met Judy?
Well, maybe not after reading John Meyer’s book, but certainly yes after looking at her in Ziegfeld Follies or the CBS series. Tony Bennett put it very well and very succinctly (as he often does) when he told me, “She was a great friend, but she couldn’t be helped.” It was almost part of her destiny to be self-destructive, like she was beyond saving, that there was only so much you could do for her. Maybe that was, by definition, part of the emotional make-up of anyone who was capable of producing that much emotion. Not just feeling it herself, mind you, but communicating it to an audience, making everyone in the room feel all along with her. Maybe there’s a price to be paid for such a gift. Maybe we’re all the recipients of what is, in the end, her incredible generosity.
Will Friedwald writes about jazz for the Wall Street Journal, and is the author of eight books about music and popular culture, including the new A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (Pantheon Books).
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