Book Review by Will Friedwald
Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal © July 9, 2011 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.
Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz
By Todd Decker
California, 375 pages, $29.95
Fred Astaire chafed at his public image as a musical matinee idol. In one 1959 television special, he appears in an old-fashioned top hat and tailcoat—the very garb that was his cinema signature—but makes a point of telling the audience how much he dislikes it. “You know, it’s a funny thing, I always hate to get into these things,” he says, “but once they’re on, I loathe them!”
Astaire (1899-1987) couldn’t stand to think of himself as the embodiment of terpsichorean romance or a pin-up boy for love-starved shopgirls. His self-image was something more like a musical athlete, in the mold of the great jazz soloists of the swing era, such as saxophonist Coleman Hawkins or trumpeter Roy Eldridge. He valued their spontaneity, individuality and musical machismo.
In Todd Decker’s “Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz,” the author explores how his subject was influenced and inspired by such artists. Mr. Decker means “jazz” in
the broadest sense, American pop music—which was, at least, heavily interconnected with jazz from the 1920s to the 1950s, the major years of Astaire’s career. The book briefly discusses “The Astaire Story,” his classic 1952 album with Oscar Peterson and the Stars of Jazz at the Philharmonic. But its primary mission is to analyze dozens of dance numbers from across Astaire’s Hollywood career, which spanned roughly 25 years and 30 musical films.
Astaire, unlike nearly every other musical performer in the Hollywood studio system, was his own auteur, not merely a choreographer (albeit one with considerable help, usually from the faithful Hermes Pan) but a genuine “dancemaker,” no less deserving of that term than George Balanchine. Mr. Decker digs deeply into Astaire’s creative process, anatomizing what went into each production.
The first thing the reader notices is that Mr. Decker pays little attention to Astaire’s most famous scenes—there’s only one with his primary romantic dance partner, Ginger Rogers, discussed at any length. Instead, Mr. Decker sheds light on lesser-known numbers by grouping them together under broader themes: One chapter explores his scenes with big bands, for instance, while the next shows how he collaborated with composers and arrangers. A particularly intriguing section explores the idea of Astaire dancing to the blues, as in his remarkable solo based on “Bugle Call Rag” (from “You’ll Never Get Rich,” 1941) and “Ritz Roll and Rock” (“Silk Stockings,” 1957)—an attempt by Astaire and Cole Porter to keep up with the latest developments in rhythm and blues.
A surprising number of Astaire’s jazziest dances, Mr. Decker points out, were not based on existing songs but instead set to instrumentals that had been, essentially, composed as musical complement to Astaire’s own original ideas. “Bouncing the Blues,” from the 1949 “Barkleys of Broadway,” is an outstanding example, as he and Rogers fly into what seems to be the dance equivalent of a jam session, accompanied by swing pianist Mel Powell and combo.
The piece evolved, Mr. Decker notes, from an unused original melody by Harry Warren. “All that survived in recognizable form was Warren’s opening right-hand lick,” he writes. “Otherwise, the music is substantially reworked on every level.” Both the dancing and the music are carefully crafted to give the illusion of spontaneity: Astaire and Rogers are primarily moving to what is meant to sound like an improvised drum solo by Frankie Carlson, tapping and turning to what Mr. Decker explains is a loose, informal melody constructed from eight-bar phrases.
The finished piece is only two minutes, but it’s fully worthy of Mr. Decker’s illuminating, richly detailed analysis. Even 60 years later, it provides enormous pleasure to everyone who watches (it’s on YouTube). The whole thing is meant to look like everyone—musicians, Astaire and Rogers alike—are doing it just for their amusement. The audience gets by far the biggest kick.
“Bouncing the Blues” is also emblematic of one of Mr. Decker’s most important themes: Astaire’s relationship with African-American jazz performers, on stage and off. This social subtext explains why, when he discusses “Shall We Dance” (1937), the scene he chooses is not the title number or the famous roller-skate dance to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” He’s more interested in “Slap That Bass,” in which Astaire’s world-traveling ballet star encounters an ad-hoc orchestra of black engine workers on a ship, playing for the sheer joy of it, who allow him to share their fun.
It is one of Astaire’s most exuberant solo dances. He and the musicians respond to each other like equals—a highly progressive attitude for 1937. He’s the one working hard to win their approval, and their music inspires one of the dancer’s most breathtaking flights of footwork. “Throughout the film Astaire studiously avoids ‘dainty ballet gestures,’ shrugging them off like a bad idea,” Mr. Decker notes. “The unquestioned masculinity of the jazz tap dancer, however, is taken for granted.”
Fred Astaire never lost his feeling for jazz and the blues. Tony Bennett once told me about a conversation he had with Astaire in the mid-1970s, during which the legend mentioned that he had recently turned down a fantastic sum of money to perform in Las Vegas. He was too old, Astaire said. He would never dance again. But after Bennett left the room to answer a phone call, he returned to find Astaire dancing to a record by blues shouter Big Joe Turner. “I can’t help it,” Astaire said. “When I hear that beat, I just have to move to it.”
Mr. Friedwald is the author of A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers.