From Josh: I am having a ball these days teaching a course, for mature adults, on George Gershwin for the Lifetime Learners Institute at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. The many people in my class are so engaged that they give me a special energy. In fact, we seem to energize one other.

One of the recent highlights of the class was my presenting one of Gershwin’s early hits, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” a showstopper from the George White Scandals of 1922. This was an extravaganza in the mold of The Ziegfeld Follies, with girls dressed in black patent leather strutting up a glittering staircase.

More than anything else from that show, it is this music and its lyrics –Ira Gershwin had a hand in them– that live on. The exuberant introduction to the song begins with a bold leap of an octave (“I’ll…build…”), shortly followed by a juicy, bluesy note (listen to the minor sound on the word “Para…dise”). The upward leap of an octave so often signifies great energy in music, the sense of being transported to another, better place—famously in the very first word of that classic pop song “Some…where over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. (Try singing it and you will hear what I mean.)

Listen to the catchy, bouncy rhythm of the opening verse, and the buoyant rising melodic line accompanying the words, “All you preachers who delight in panning dancing teachers….” The words that follow deliver an upbeat message to get up and move around: “It’s madness to be always sitting around in sadness, when you could be learning the steps of gladness.” Brain research these days is underscoring the importance of doing just this!

As it also underscores the importance of expanding your horizons, when the song’s chorus continues: “ I’ll build a stairway to Paradise with a new step every day.” Not only a physical step, but the openness to trying something new each day.

Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks give a rousing rendition of this old song with vocals near the beginning of the biopic The Aviator. In the plush setting of the Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles the young Howard Hughes, a man of soaring ambition, is seeking backing for his aeronautic ventures to the accompaniment of Gershwin’s music—a truly vivid aural analogue to what is to be played out in the movie.

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And for a snappy, irresistible fox trot version, nothing can match the 1922 recording made by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra shortly after the premiere of the George White Scandals earlier that year. It brings back for me happy memories of listening when I was writing my book, Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz (Yale University Press, 2004). What is also worth noting is that the George White Scandals of 1922 brought George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman together and led to a commission that forever changed music history—the writing of Rhapsody in Blue, premiered on February 12, 1924.

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Early in the morning of Friday, August 15, 2014, less than a week after the fatal shooting the previous Saturday of African-American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, rapper J. Cole ( Jermaine Lamarr Cole) posted his tribute song “Be Free” to the online audio platform SoundCloud, where users can upload tracks and share them through social media.

A little more than six hours later it had become the most talked about song on Twitter, and by afternoon it had gone viral, having been listened to over 250,000 times.

We are profoundly moved by the way the raw emotions aroused by the shooting have been sublimated and poignantly expressed in J. Cole’s song. Listen to the painful vulnerability in his breaking voice as he repeats the refrain, “All we want to do is take the chains off, All we want to do is be free.”

This certainly gives the lie to the stereotype of rap as simply loud, angry, racist gangster stuff saturated with references to misogyny and physical violence. (The complete lyrics, by the way, are available online.)

As you listen below, notice how the lyrics are greatly enhanced by the musical underpinning–an unchanging four-measure phrase stated some forty times, using three basic chords presented with a limping syncopation.

The bass line, which oscillates between the pitches of F and E, the melody itself, and two of the three chords draw entirely upon on what is called “the Phrygian mode”—a scale going back many centuries to Medieval practice.

You can try it out yourself by playing only the white piano keys from E to E. One of its distinctive features is the half-step between the first two notes, from E to F. This sound has been used by many composers to suggest the stark and the timeless.

Here is something else that might surprise you: it can be instructive to compare J. Cole’s “Be free” to two other modern examples of Phrygian- inspired music.

One is the first movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms; the other, the prayer intoned by Mahatmas Gandhi in the Philip Glass opera Satyagraha.

The Stravinsky, sung in Latin, uses Psalm 39, verses 12 and 13— an expression of human frailty and mortality in the face of Almighty power: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears; for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O spare me that I may recover strength before I go hence, and be no more.”

Satyagraha (satya= truth; agraha= firmness) celebrates Gandhi’s mode of non-violent protest. The vocal of the prayer consists of an unchanging ascending Phrygian melody sung in Sanskrit, which expresses Gandhi’s firm resolve as well as a connection to the Eternal on the eve of an Indian coal miner protest march he was to lead in the South Africa of 1913.




Alive Inside: Music and Memory

July 20, 2014

We recently saw a documentary film that is just opening now, so we want to call it to your attention. As you will read below, the film–Alive Inside–is quite novel and inspiring. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Memory is the measure of who we are as individuals. And much of our self-identity as human beings is defined by the pieces […]

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Building Bridges with Music

July 5, 2014

Our interviewee in this story, 57 years old,  is  a self-described “aging hippie and  music junkie.” Recovering from  substance abuse over the course of some seven years, he has found new serenity and joy, thanks to the grounding and centering power of certain music. Although he grew up listening to musicians like Bob Dylan, James […]

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Music and Loss – Songs that Have Helped with Grief

May 28, 2014

“To me, music is one of the things I couldn’t live without. If I were put on a desert island, I would have to have a solar-powered i-Pod.” These are the heartfelt words of a 41-year old woman, who has had more than her share of loss but, thanks to her love of music, has […]

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