My piano education has progressed recently. A mention in a Wall Street Journal piece of the "I Got Rhythm" chord sequence, the basis for many jazz songs, led me to a Google search and an outline of the sequence. The sequence, in the key of C major on the piece I printed out from the Internet, is great for improvising. And, I love the sound of the chords. Also, with help of a fakebook, I've been going through many of the great old standards of the so-called "American Songbook."
On a recent visit to the library, I found an old George Gershwin musical book, and looked up "I Got Rhythm." The piece, in the key of E (not E flat as I had exprected - many of the standards are in that key, easy for singers, I suppose), followed the seminal chord sequence, but the music looked a bit too daunting for me. Instead, I picked up an instructional book and a collection of Beatles songs. Despite their ability to rock hard, the Beatles often followed the tradition of writers like Gershwin and Cole Porter, especially in wistful tunes like "Michelle" and "Yesterday." I've been wanting to learn "Penny Lane" for quite some time.
As with the Beatles, so many of the standards of the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s depended on the lyrics. Some composers, like Gershwin and Richard Rodgers, needed someone to write the words. Gershwin's brother Ira did a commendable job, especially with numbers like "Summertime," and Rodgers partnered with the witty Lorenzo Hart and then the more operatic and sentimental Oscar Hammerstein. One odd fact I remember: With Hart, Rodgers wrote the music first, and with Hammerstein, he wrote the music to Hammerstein's words. Composers like Porter and Irving Berlin wrote music and words.
In the last few years, book publishers have been printing the words of famous lyricists, as if they were poetry. I've looked at several of these collections. With all of their wit and verbal sophistication, such lyrics generally lose something on the page. Without the music, they can appear flat and wooden. But the best of them retain their power and lilt. When I read work like Ira Gershwin's "Summertime," my inner mind recalls the music and restores it to the words. It's as if the words are lost ghosts, calling for their soulmates to join them.