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Smile When You Call It Nostalgia

October 03, 1986|MARC SHULGOLD

In the last 14 years, the husband-and-wife team of William Bolcom and Joan Morris have unearthed, dusted off and revived hundreds of antiques from the American music hall.

But the pianist and mezzo-soprano, who offer an evening of high-class oldies but goodies on Sunday at Ambassador Auditorium, balk at the suggestion that they are nostalgia merchants.

"This is American lieder," Bolcom insists during a conference call from New York. Morris picks up the thought--after all that time spent together (they wed in '75), the two often tend to think and speak as one.

"It's funny," she notes, "but nobody says nostalgia when you talk about Schubert. The stuff we do is early pop music. And everyone knows pop music is supposed to die. Some of what we do is campy, but for the most part, these songs are art--they are enduring."

Morris and Bolcom more or less stumbled into the world of "After the Ball," "Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage" and the like. "This certainly wasn't planned," explains Bolcom, a respected pianist and composer when he teamed up in 1972 with Morris, a Portland-born singer with formal training in speech. "We didn't say, 'Let's try to save American music.' Basically, one thing just led to another."

Similarly, one musical treasure hunt led to another. In more than a dozen recordings, the two have explored the songs of vaudeville, the Gershwins, Eubie Blake--even rarities from those '50s hit makers, Lieber and Stoller.

"A magazine article called us 'troubadours,' Bolcom notes. Morris picks up the thought: "We're not stylists like Sarah Vaughan and we're not researchers."

"I don't know what we are," Bolcom says with total indifference.

These are two hang-loose people. In discussing their music--spontaneously humming and singing excerpts from this tune or that--the two often engage in good-natured arguments about which obscure ditty to include in their Ambassador program. There is total agreement, however, on the substance of the material.

"So many of these songs wear well because they're more than just campy," Bolcom says. "Once you've done some research, you realize how meaningful these were to audiences back then. We tend to be more blase today, but in those days they were virgin audiences.

"Look at 'Woodman, Spare That Tree,' for instance. That was a popular 'cause song.' An audience member once asked the singer in mid-concert if the tree was saved. When informed it was, he exclaimed, 'Thank God!' "

Morris points out that not all of the songs are to be taken as seriously. "We've discovered that a lot of them were written tongue-in-cheek, but the singers were instructed to do them straight. If I smirk on stage, the effect is lost."

Audience reaction remains of paramount importance to the two. "What we perform depends a lot on whether the people know who we are and what we do," says Bolcom. "One or both of us will usually talk about the songs." But, Morris quickly adds, "Sometimes people simply want to hear the music. We'll just have to see."

The Ambassador program, Morris explains, will be a collection of rarities by Gershwin and his contemporaries--Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern.

"We won't print a program," Morris begins--and Bolcom completes her thought: "Though we do work one out in advance. Joan sits down before each show and reads through every lyric. We enjoy the variety. I'll tell you, there's nothing more wearing than doing the same program all the time."

Such flexibility often extends to the actual performance itself, says Bolcom. "We'll cut a number or two midstream if that style isn't going over. There's a slight element of danger in what we do."

Morris intercedes: "Tell about that Cole Porter song we did in North Carolina." Her husband doesn't miss a beat.

"We were performing in a converted church and Joanie came out in this low-cut dress and sang 'Love for Sale.' We knew right away the audience wasn't ready for this kind of lyric. Immediately we cut all the Rodgers and Hart songs from the program."

Morris chuckles at the memory: "I spent the rest of the night singing with my hand in front of my bosom."

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

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