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CRITIC AT LARGE

Remembering A Master Of Melody: Jerome Kern

February 02, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

I've spent several recent evenings in the warm, ambrosial glow of the music of Jerome Kern, being awed all over again, as you have to be, at his miraculous gift of melody.

Lyric-writing I understand; it is its own miraculous gift, especially when it takes you soaring beyond "moon/June" to "the promised kiss of springtime that makes the lonely winter seem long." But it's a gift within a medium I think I understand a little.

Seizing melodies, fresh and unduplicated despite the tens of thousands created since the dawn of song, from the vacant air is something else again, and by the judgment of some of the best of his peers, no one in this century has done it better than Kern.

Kern would have been a century old on Jan. 27 (he died in 1945) and the Welk Music Group in Santa Monica, which now publishes virtually all his songs, has been extensively reminding the world of the man and his music, distributing among other items some not-for-sale albums that demonstrate what a wide range of talents and styles have found Kern congenial, from Sinatra to Shearing to Stan Kenton. A couple of the sides further prove that Kern's lovely melodies are indestructible, even "The Last Time I Saw Paris" played at something between a disco and a mambo beat.

One of the albums contains some charming medleys of Kern songs, arranged for two voices and piano by a local couple, Lynne Jackson and Mike Palter, who, long before the centenary observations, have been zealous propagandists in favor of melody and lyric in the Kern tradition, and against what they regard as the noisy banality of much contemporary music. They prove the case that Kern is time-defying, sublimely listenable in any age, by any age.

Except in his earliest days, Kern left the lyrics to others. When it came to doing both words and music, Cole Porter and Noel Coward stood atop a class by themselves. But Kern worked with most of the best lyricists in anybody's town, commencing with P. G. (Plum) Wodehouse, whom he met in London in 1906 and who collaborated on the immortal "Cleopatterer," which argues in part that:

When out with Cleopatterer

Men always made their wills,

They knew there was no time to waste

When the gumbo had that funny taste.

In subsequent years Kern wrote with Du Bose Heyward (a lovely forgotten tune called "Lonesome Walls," among others), Otto Harbach ("Yesterdays," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"), Buddy De Sylva ("Look for the Silver Lining"), Dorothy Fields ("A Fine Romance," "The Way You Look Tonight"), Johnny Mercer ("Dearly Beloved," "You Were Never Lovelier"), Ira Gershwin ("Long Ago and Far Away") and, most numerously, Oscar Hammerstein II.

It was Hammerstein who wrote that ebullient lyric for the long melodic line of Kern's "All the Things You Are," no easy task, because Kern evidently wrote his melodies first and did not take kindly to revising them. (At his death, as recalled in Gerald Bordman's fine and definitive biography, published by Oxford in 1980, Kern was described as both impish and imperious.)

With Hammerstein, Kern also wrote--among dozens of tunes--"All Through the Day," "I've Told Every Little Star," "Make Believe," "Ol' Man River," "The Song Is You" and the song Helen Morgan introduced, "Why Was I Born?"

Even a sampling of the titles suggests how much of the foreground and background music of our lives we owe to Kern. I'm not sure even he could have said how many songs he wrote, beginning in high school when he wrote a whole musical.

Out fishing with Hammerstein one afternoon, Kern said the pastime was not unlike writing songs: "You get a nibble, but you don't know whether it's a minnow or a marlin until you reel it in. You write 20 tunes to get two good ones."

In all, music journalist Dave Dexter calculates, Kern wrote 104 scores for stage and screen musicals and worked with 60 lyricists. He did more than anyone in his time to redefine the horizons of musical theater, moving it from romantic silliness and dancing girls to a form of popular opera, with his "Show Boat" in 1927.

His songs, starting with his first palpable hit, "They Didn't Believe Me" in 1914, were innovative in structure, and biographer Bordman admits the temptation to use technical terms like enharmonic modulation, a device Kern was fond of.

It has been a fine few days, listening at length to the Kern magic, and it's been a reminder that in toting up your balance sheet, you have legacies of excellence you might have half forgotten.

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