At La Zingara restaurant in Bethel, Connecticut, home to an ongoing jazz series, vocalist Noreen Mola kept the audience spellbound with a relentless program of material from the Great American Songbook. She sailed through “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” “Almost Like Being in Love,” “Autumn Leaves,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” Ain’t Misbehavin,’” “No Moon at All” and a Dave Frishberg tongue-twister I hadn’t heard before, “A Little Taste.” She concluded the evening in rousing fashion with “Everyday I Have the Blues” and “Take the A Train.”
Mola, who has been an animal rights activist and a painter of pet portraits, came late to jazz singing, but it’s as if she has been doing it her whole life. She’s not a scatter like Ella Fitzgerald, or a daring experimenter messing with time and space like Betty Carter, but as a straight-ahead, swinging interpreter of the Songbook she’s as good as it gets. And a charismatic performer, too.
Nearly all of Mola’s repertoire comes from that precious body of work created by mostly Jewish songwriters, working as teams (music and lyrics) in New York between about 1925 and 1950. They wrote for Broadway plays, for Hollywood, and—early on—for sheet music. These denizens of Tin Pan Alley didn’t realize they were creating songs that would stand the test of time and serve as the core of countless jazz and cabaret set lists, but that’s what happened. This sophisticated music is timeless, full of romantic yearning and fools either in love or wistful about the lack of it.
It happens that I’ve just been reading The B Sides by Ben Yagoda, which chronicles how Tin Pan Alley evolved, and how it all fell apart in the early 50s. It’s chief villain is the affable Mitch Miller, then A&R man for popular music at Columbia. Yagoda calls him “The Beard,” and there was a certain resemblance to cartoon depictions of the devil. Certainly, he was the nemesis of singers like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney, all of whom were made to sing novelty songs by The Beard.
The fact that they had the biggest hits of their career with this doggerel didn’t change their opinion. They didn’t Sing Along with Mitch. Miles Davis ran into Miller on a New York sidewalk years after their time at Columbia and said only, “Keep walking.” When Sinatra encountered him in Vegas, he said, “Get lost, creep.” Tony Bennett is too polite to really go after Miller in his autobiography, but he details the hitmaker’s attempts to get him to stop singing jazz.
Miller’s success with novelty material didn’t go unnoticed. So for a while, as Yagoda chronicles, the great songwriters—most of them still vigorous—couldn’t get arrested, in Hollywood or New York. Their response was to turn on the emerging rock and roll as music made by “cretinous goons” (Sinatra’s phrase). Their failure to see that rock and R&B could be great, too, is perhaps understandable. But Mitch wasn’t actually peddling rock and roll, just a kind of dumbed-down treacle that could be hummed in the supermarket.
Now the Songbook is enjoying a great renaissance, as even pop performers like Rod Stewart, Carly Simon, Boz Scaggs and Linda Ronstadt are embracing standards. Numerous albums drawing upon that bottomless well are released every week. And there’s a huge trove of undiscovered songs lurking in musicals that quickly opened and closed. Richard Rodgers, Yip Harburg, George and Ira Gershwin, Frank Loesser, Harold Arlen, Oscar Hammerstein II, Jule Styne, Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, they were all workaholics. Kudos to singers like John Pizzarelli and Catherine Russell for unearthing some of the hidden gems.
Back on the bandstand, Mola was nice enough to do my request, for “I’m Old Fashioned.” This wonderful old chestnut from 1942 has music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire danced to it in the otherwise forgotten film You Were Never Lovelier. Hayworth couldn’t sing, so Nan Wynn dubbed the vocals.
Here’s Mercer on working with the older Kern: “We hit it off right away. I was in such awe of him, I think he must have sensed that. He was very kind to me, treated me more like a son than a collaborator. And when he thought I had a great lyric he said, ‘Eva, Eva, come down here,’ and he kissed me on the cheek and he said, ‘Eva, I want you to hear this lyric.’ Well, of course I was thrilled that he liked it that much, you know. ‘I’m Old Fashioned,’ that one was.” Today, collaborating as those songwriting teams did seems to be coming back. Musicians are talking about how they get energized by bouncing their ideas off someone else. There’s not a false line in “I’m Old Fashioned,” and maybe that’s because Mercer and Kern ditched each other’s bad ideas.
With Mola in her quartet were Bill Lance on piano (sounding a bit like Errol Garner crossed with Red Garland), the snappy drummer Dave Reynolds, and ace acoustic bassist Eric Van Laer. The Bethel Jazz Series is ongoing, with lots of interesting acts coming up. Thanks to producer Tom Carruthers for the oasis of jazz in Fairfield County.