Monday, April 02, 2012

That pavilion in the rain

I've written before about jazz writer and lyricist Gene Lees, on the occasion of his death almost two years ago, but as I sat at the piano tonight, celebrating the strides--minor, but satisfying--I've made in the year I've been taking piano lessons as an adult--he came to mind. From the stack of fakebook pages I've accumulated over the past year I'd plucked "Early Autumn"--Johnny Mercer lyrics over music by Ralph Burns and Woody Herman--with its line about the "dance pavilion in the rain," and it brought to mind Lees's unforgettable essay of the same name name.

I quoted from that essay in my obituary post, but its sharply defined nostalgia, which it unquestionably earns, through serious analysis of all the elements that went into the big band world whose loss it's lamenting, seems worth sharing again:
On warm summer nights in that epoch between the wars and before air conditioning, the doors and wide wooden shutters would be open, and the music would drift out of the pavilion over the converging crowds of excited young people, through the parking lot glistening with cars, through the trees, and over the lake—or the river, or the sea. Sometimes Japanese lanterns hung in the trees, like moons caught in the branches, and sometimes little boys too hung there, observing the general excitement and sharing the sense of an event. And the visit of one of the big bands was indeed an event.
Which leads me back to Mercer's lyrics. By 1949, when Mercer wrote "Early Autumn," the big band era was over, even if many bands remained on the road and, presumably, told themselves that they were just struggling through a minor slump. The dance pavilions were, if not "all shuttered down," as Mercer has it, at least headed that way. Mercer's lyrics are written as a plaint from a lover looking back on what he's lost, and pleading for a future--"Darling, if you care, / please let me know. / I'll meet you anywhere. / I miss you so."--but the song overall can be read as an elegy for an era. "A town grown lonely," as streetcars give way to private cars, and nights out give way to nights in, warmed by television and cooled by air conditioning.

In this strange spring of 2012--which feels, today, like nothing so much as a gentle early autumn--we're living in the apotheosis of the era that the postwar boom was ushering in, with me sitting in my house and typing these words to all of you in your houses. It's a good thing, what we have, if we use it well, but so was what was being lost as Mercer was writing, a loss that he, with his tendency to melancholy, saw earlier than most. "I'll meet you anywhere," his speaker vows, but we don't ever learn what the answer was, or if there was ever any answer but silence, broken only by the sound of the rain.

In reality, the "anywhere" we'll meet is bound to be the future, and while it can't make good the losses of the past, perhaps its offerings will at least mitigate them. Noel Coward offers an antidote of sorts to the melancholy of "Early Autumn"--while no less aware of loss--in "Sail Away," from 1961:
A different sky,
New worlds to gaze upon,
The strange enchantment of an unfamiliar shore,
One more goodbye,
One more illusion gone,
Just cut your losses,
And begin once more.
If you're prone to nostalgia--especially for eras you weren't here to live through--I recommend you get a piano. If you're prone to nostalgia--especially for eras you weren't here to live through--I recommend you stay far away from pianos. I trust that you all are smart enough to take your pick.

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