There's a sense of deep reverence running through Souvenir of You, ASCAP jazz singer/lyricist Deborah Pearl's album of original lyrics to 13 classics by the late ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame inductee, composer/musician/bandleader Benny Carter. It was an ambitious project to complete. But as Pearl communicates so well in her interview with us, Souvenir of You was a true labor of love from conception to completion, and a heartfelt tribute to the man whose talent and years of friendship inspired Pearl in her own life and career.
I’ve been listening to Souvenir of You over the last couple days, and I can hear your artistic love affair with Benny coming through loud and clear.
Oh thanks! It’s interesting you say that. That is exactly what it’s been. I mean I loved him so as a man, you know. And I obviously didn’t discover until after his passing that our love affair ran well beyond that.
Tell me first about your personal history with Benny.
I met Benny through his wife Hilma. She and I both graduated from Barnard College in New York, the women’s college of Columbia University. And when I moved out here, I joined the Barnard College Club of Los Angeles. Hilma was, of course, one of their esteemed members. She was just a wonderful woman. She didn’t have children, and over the years we bonded, and then of course I met Benny and they actually became like surrogate parents to me. I used to go over and hang out with them whenever. As an artist in L.A. – and I was a writer and a singer, and I had two different parallel careers – there are always moments in the artist’s soul where you feel a little bit disconnected. And if I went over and hung out with Benny, he always made everything feel right with the world.
He was just this incredible, Buddah-esque figure, and he was always open and always smiling and always interested in everybody. He was a very contemporary man. And he actually said “the good ol’ days are here and now.” He was just a remarkable man, gentle and gracious, as is Hilma. The two of them are very much like that.
It’s interesting that you describe him as “contemporary.” A lot of his philosophies and achievements were definitely very progressive, whether it’s being one of the very first black composers in Hollywood or being a staunch educator…but the style of music he played didn’t really change all that much from the 1930’s until his passing.
Well it’s interesting…in films, he wrote all kinds of music. The kind of musician that he became is someone who added upon whatever his forward thinking was. It just built, it continued to build, which is what made him so unique, which is why Miles Davis said “Listening to Benny Carter is a whole musical education.” He was one of the few human beings ever to have been creative through all of that, different eras of music. So although he wrote music that might have been similar, it was somehow different, because he had all of that other influence on him. And I think that’s why, somehow, his melodies still feel relevant today. They don’t feel like old songs now.
Talk about the specific songs you chose and what their importance to you was.
I went through stacks of CDs and would just listen. Hilma had a list of things that she thought would make good songs, and my mandate was to try to get inside Benny’s head and try to put words to what his melody was trying to communicate. So I really tried to stay true to that. One of the key ways I did that was through the relationship of Benny and Hilma, their love story, because it was quite a remarkable love story. They fell in love at first sight in 1939 at the Savoy Ballroom where Benny was playing. Here was Hilma, a young girl with her sister going to Harlem from Connecticut. And they were young girls of Scandinavian descent. And there were certain songs where I just wanted to understand what that might have been like. Benny wrote extraordinarily happy tunes.
I would always take his [song] title, of course. Then I would go to Ed Berger, his biographer, and would ask what he knew of these tunes, because some of them did have historical information; he wrote them for a particular reason. For example, “Souvenir of You” he wrote when he first heard of Johnny Hodges passing. Johnny Hodges was of course the saxophone player for the Duke Ellington band. And he would play it for almost 30 more years whenever a musician would pass away, at their memorials. The title song was a slam dunk. I knew exactly what that needed to be about. So I wrote the lyric to honor Benny, and it ended up being a metaphor for the music of anyone’s life. But in particular for musicians, that song represents the power of what they leave behind being the souvenir of their lives.
It’s a beautiful image.
Yeah, I’m very proud of that line “Time takes our verses away / But melodies live on.”
It seems like it was of the utmost importance to you to try and be authentic to the spirit of Benny’s music.
Absolutely. As I said, I wanted to get inside his head. And again, I place them historically in my mind to find my way in, where for example “Sky Dance for Two” is when they re-met after all those years and were still in love. Because they did re-meet in the 70’s. They went off and married other people, because the interracial thing was not happening in 1939; it was illegal. They went off, eventually Benny moved to California and they went off and married others, and she was getting a divorce and so was he. In 1975, she wrote to [jazz critic] Nat Hentoff. He had written a review of a Carnegie Hall concert Benny had done, and she said “I'm an old friend of Benny’s. Would you mind forwarding a letter?” Benny told me this himself, and he would get this twinkle in his eye whenever he talked about Hilma. He leaned to me and said “I’m the luckiest man on the planet that Nat didn’t throw that letter in the garbage.” He said “Because when I saw it was from Hilma, I said to myself ‘If she’s free, I’m going to marry her.’” And he did! I mean it was really powerful. He spent the last 25 years of his life with her, and so in love.
“Wonderland” was the night Benny and Hilma met, you know - “What a stumble / Happy tumbling in love with you.” And that’s kind of the image. Not only the musical image – the melody sort of “tumbled” down – but what that must have been like for the two of them to be struck. it’s like a Romeo and Juliet thing, you know. It does happen to people.
From a conceptual level, that’s really cool that you start off with “Happy Feet (At the Savoy),” which is where they met, and then go on to the story of them meeting at the Savoy on the next track “Wonderland.”
Right. And also with “Happy Feet,” Benny use to say that the people [at the Savoy] had the happiest feet in the world, which is why I added “At the Savoy” to the title. Because of derivative copyright, the titles had to altered just slightly. Benny also plays on that first cut. It seemed important to me that that be the introduction. He’s the only horn on the record. We got to go in and out of that old recording on “Happy Feet.” I’m very proud how that turned out because I wanted to make it seamless. I mean the whole issue of time was also a very important one for me, the timelessness of the theme, the timelessness of love, the timelessness of music. The impact that this kind of music has. And I played with that [idea] on “Doozy Blues,” where you have an old-fashioned big band blues with a contemporary lyric about cell phones and love.
You know, I had this theory for a long time that it would be impossible to write a respectable love song about modern conveniences, like e-mail and the internet. But then you come along with “Doozy Blues,” which still feels classic even though you’re talking about ringtones and texting. Did it feel natural to you to write a such contemporary lyric to an old-style big band arrangements?
A lot of times I get the idea and then I allow that to marry to the music. Sometimes, and I can’t explain why or how, it will just spring out from somewhere. I mean a lot of these lyrics just poured out of me. In the instance of this, I think the idea was that I wanted to make this more contemporary. Again, playing on the issue of time, in honoring Benny’s style and in honoring the fact that these were saxophone melodies, there was just a certain reference to the word section of my intellect that had to marry right. And on “Doozy,” it was just so playful. There was room to really go for it. And I was so pleased on how that came out, because the emotions don’t change. The notion of somebody wanting to, you know, make it with a chick. It’s not different significantly, no matter what style of music you’re singing.
Now this can start a spiritual discussion about music, the overall nature of music itself and the ability to move the human heart and soul. I’ll digress here for a moment with a wonderful story I recently heard. It turns out Benny created the first interracial, international big band in the 1930’s in Europe when he was conducting for the BBC orchestra. Benny was doing a state department tour in the 80’s with his band, and he was in a jazz club in, of all places, Pakistan. I mean, like, who knew? And there was a picture of him and his band on the wall of this club, and he said to the people there, “Where did you get this?” Of course nobody knew because it’d been 50 years! They gave it to him, and it’s now at the Smithsonian. I mean it’s stuff like that when you look at the international impact that he had, and that jazz has…I mean, in Japan it’s huge. It cuts straight across local custom.
I also remember going to a jazz festival as a kid, and I got to hear Count Basie at the Roseland in New York, and I remember thinking, “Oh my god, this is what my mother did as a child.” And yet everyone was bopping to the music. And like “Doozy Blues,” it defies you to sit still, same thing with “Happy Feet.” It wasn’t the music that I necessarily grew up on, but it’s still mine.
I’ve heard it said that jazz is the one uniquely American contribution to music.
I think that is completely correct. It is the complete metaphor for what the establishment of the United States was, versus leaving Europe and all that. It’s the freedom that we sought, and it came out of the African-American community that was in bondage. It expresses freedom no matter what else is going on. I think that is really a profound impact that music has, and jazz in particular. I’ve said this before that when I see jazz musicians really in the zone, they look like the happiest people on the planet. And it’s like you sit there and you go “I want to get me some of that.” And it’s true! When I’m performing there is nothing more joyous.
So tell me, did any of these songs have lyrics in their original form?
I think “Doozy” did have a set.
And Benny performed that one with the lyric?
I don’t know…I think there were two that had lyrics. All the rest did not. They were strictly instrumental.
Do you remember going through those two that had lyrics and thinking “I think I could do this a little bit differently?”
No, in fact “Doozy” I thought did not have a lyric, and I did it not knowing. It was an obscure lyric because it had not really been widely done. So that song had been mainly played instrumentally. How it actually happened is funny. We had done the first eight [songs] and we were doing them as publishing demos. Then I got a chance to perform them live for a seniors group, a really seniors group. And I could see [the effects of] these languid melodies…they had a luncheon and had eaten a lot and their heads start bobbing and the eyes start closing, and I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve created a CD that will replace Ambien!”
I had gotten a call from Ira Nepus. Ira was a well know trombone player who had played with Benny. His dad actually had known Benny in the 30’s when Benny was playing with Django Reinhardt. Anyway, I got a call from him. He had gotten the first eight that Hilma had sent him. And he said to me “I love these, they are just wonderful, but I think you should get some up tunes.” So I was like, “Yeah I think so, if I’m going to do this I better get them up tunes.” So he had suggested “Doozy,” and I went to that and that’s why I wrote it. And then I later found out that there had been [a lyric].
The whole project started when Hilma asked you to evaluate this unsolicited lyric to “People Time,” which you also included a version of on Souvenir of You. When you first read the lyric, was the thought process “Oh I can do better than this?” Or did you think it didn’t quit get at who Benny was as a musical soul?
To tell you the truth I had not heard the melody when I read the lyric. Not to cast aspersions on the other person, but they changed the title for one thing. This could not have honored what he did, because it didn’t even look at his title, it didn’t even reference what he called this, which to me is a key component of what the lyric should be. So off the bat, it didn’t resonate with me as saying anything particularly interesting. And Benny’s melodies always did. You know, he would flat one note in the next phrase just because, and you really have to be one your toes when learning these songs because he goes sometimes to not particularly obvious places. Which is why everything feels so wonderful and fresh. Anyway, that’s where I was coming from. It wasn’t a remarkable [lyric]. Then I heard the melody, and I was like “O-M-G.” And “People Time” was particularly challenging because it was a concept. I had to find a way to express that – that meant something. Because I’m a writer and that’s what I do. I tell stories. I mean, I tell stories in scripts that are 100 pages long, and this is really nice when it’s one page, and you have to reduce it down and make a credible story about something that’s emotional and moving.
I’m interested in that idea, the influence of your writing career on your lyric writing. It seems that there are two opposing impulses that must be in the head of someone who is a screenwriter, who’s essentially writing prose, and a singer, who’s used to these very singable lines that can be poetic but usually aren’t as dense or wordy as prose can be.
It’s interesting, because I’m not a big prose lover. I don’t write prose. It’s like I get anxiety if I see too many words on a page. I need more white on a page, because I write dialogue, and for me dialogue is music. I hear people talk in my head and I just take dictation.
So do you feel that this love of dialogue and your background as a singer affected the way you wrote these lyrics?
Without question. Even initially, what came out was really functionally forged by my rehearsing them as a singer and finding out if they fit right in my mouth. Sometimes I’ve had to change things in the rehearsal process, learning them for myself for performance. I’ll make an adjustment because it’s just too difficult to sing, or it doesn’t feel right to sing. And that was a great advantage. For those who don’t sing they might not have that understanding.
Do you know who Ray Charles is? Not the R&B singer. Ray Charles is a vocal arranger and he worked with Perry Como and he still works in his nineties. He does the Kennedy Center Honors still, a wonderful vocal arranger, and he’s been in the business for many years. He had given me the Stephen Sondheim book called Finishing the Hat.
It’s all about lyric writing. After he heard my lyrics, he goes “You know, you should really read this book.” It was wonderful, and in it Sondheim made some comment about the difference between a poem and a lyric. That the idea of a lyric is that it can read very simple, but the melody, the marriage to the melody makes it something special. Sometimes when you write a poem and you set it to music it’s too much.
They are two really unique forms. That was something that I would run up against even though I hadn’t heard it articulated. You can have a really wonderful line, but it can’t eclipse the music. It has to somehow be followed by the music. Because of my being a singer it’s incredibly important to me that it comes from a place within my machinery such that I can actually execute it. I think it had a lot to do with it.
Well you also had the great luxury of working with melodies that seem remarkably singable. I was surprised when I listened to Souvenir of You that the majority of these songs didn’t have lyrics already, because they just seemed so naturally given to some kind of human interpretation.
I know, isn’t it interesting? I heard someone else record “People Time,” it was done by Phil Woods and Grace Kelly. When I heard it, it brought tears to my eyes because it actually sounded like a standard. As if it has already existed as a song, and I was really proud of that. I think it also has to do with my really being slavish to try to get inside Benny, listening over and over to these melodies. They’re singable, but also, it’s the brilliance of his melodies. I think Wynton Marsalis would play “Again and Again” on his tour, and those were horns doing these melodies, and it actually makes the singer have to sing more like a saxophone or a trumpet or whatever was doing that lead. On “Again and Again,” that reaching, longing in it – you have to sing it in a way, you know what I mean?
The way he conceived it, it’s challenging and exciting for a singer, and that’s why I can’t wait to hear other people do this material, and why it’s so important to me that it gets out there. These are kind of new, “standardy” kind of songs that people should not only hear but singers should have an opportunity to sing. They’ve got octave leaps; they’re not necessarily all that easy. Because what you can play on a horn is a little bit more challenging for the human voice, but the jazz singers will be able to have a picnic, they’ll be eating it up with a spoon! And I love the scatting stuff. It’s been great fun for me, very freeing.
In fact, here’s an interesting story about “Scattin’ Back to Harlem.” That was one of the few ones where I did go away from the title. Because Benny’s original title was “Sugar Hill Slow Drag.” And I was like “What the hell does that mean?” I didn’t know what to do with it! And I went to Ed, and there was no information about it, except that it was from Benny's Harlem Renaissance suite. So I knew I wanted to write about Harlem, and it turns out Sugar Hill is a neighborhood in Harlem.
Isn’t it what Sugar Hill Records is named after?
Yes, that’s correct. And “slow drag” was a dance from the ragtime era, which was Benny’s youth. It was, you know, like pelvic thrusting time. Quite a scandalous dance. So then I knew that I needed to write about Harlem. And I would always go to their relationship. Then I thought about that first night that Hilma and her sister went to see Benny, and I thought “Ooh, what was that about?” And I followed it through to the notion of somebody saying “Let’s go scattin’ back to Harlem. Let’s go there.” And the whole song is about the pull to Harlem, the pull to go there. And of course I’m very proud of this line, and I know Benny would love it, the last verse: “Anywhere is Harlem / It’s just a cool state of mind / Everywhere is Harlem / Tunes are the ties that will bind / Harlem’s in you / And you can go any time.” This gets back to our discussion about music, and about jazz, and it being a uniquely American contribution.
Other than “Happy Feet” and “Anniversary Dance,” which literally found you collaborating with Benny through these original recordings that you incorporated, did working on Souvenir of You feel like you were actively collaborating with Benny?
Oh my goodness. I cannot tell you the number of conversations I had with him in my head. I have a couple of pictures of him in my office with him smiling. And I would turn to those pictures and I’d say “Benny, what? What should I put here?” I often talked to him. And I still do, sometimes. And it’s interesting, because answers will come. In my mind, I will hear something when I do ask.
And then there were times where, for example, Hilma would read the lyrics, and Ed Berger did, and I would find out interesting, very specific things. I knew that he was very anti-drug. In his bands back in the day, when his guys were getting messed up, he had none of that. You had to be punctual. He was very professional. It’s also why the guys loved working with him. And so there were a couple places where I’d put “I feel high / High as the sky” or something, and Hilma would go “You know, Benny was very anti-drug, and he probably wouldn’t like the idea of that being construed in a different way.” So I would make adjustments if that were the case.
In another instance, there was a place where, in “Johnny True,” I wanted to put in a little reference. That melody is so beautiful, and it just sort of grabbed me. And I was listening to NPR on the radio, and I heard a piece about Afghanistan. We didn’t know who “Johnny” was, and I thought “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” which of course is a Civil War song. And I thought “It’s still happening.” I can’t believe, in all these years, we haven’t got past this war business. So I wrote [the lyric] to honor the people who are left behind, and what their experience might be. And I wanted to put in a little ::sings opening phrase of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”:: in the music, and Ed Berger said “Oh don’t do that. Benny hated when anybody put somebody else’s music in his music.” And I was like “Well okay!” So it was really good that I got to find out those things, whatever prejudices he might have had as a performer. That he didn’t appreciate certain things. And it’s interesting, I’d been in a particular bind, because I’m the first person of the song, therefore I couldn’t play with the melody. I had to be quite slavish to it, because I’m the one establishing it. Benny would say that once he gave a song to a singer, it was theirs. They could do what they wanted. But he was very particular about people playing what it is he intended. And I really understand that, so that’s what I tried to do on the recording. And then in performance, I can take a little liberty here or there, and as Benny would have no problem with that.
Were “Happy Feet (At the Savoy)” and “Anniversary Dance” technically more difficult to pull off, with the splicing of the original recordings and your recordings?
The real challenge was in “Happy Feet.” “Anniversary Dance” was easier, technically, because we just did the piano/vocal, brought up the track and that was it. We just went through with me and the track. And that was fairly routine. But with “Happy Feet,” the challenge was going in and out. We start off with the big band, then we cut right to the trio, then we bring Benny in for his solo, and then I sing with Benny and the solo, and then we go out and bring the trio soloing in, and then at the end – and I was really particular about wanting this to happen – we bring them in so the horns come in at the end and it lifts. It has that big finish feel. And that was the trickier part of it, bringing them back in at the end, and having me sing out, and have this woven together in such a way that you weren’t really noticing. We ended up doing some little technical stuff at the end. There were some issues with the sound of the drum, and the hi-hat…this was a live recording vs. a studio recording. But we were able to accomplish it, and I was really proud of how it came out. Jimmy Branly did the engineering on it, and he did a great job. And then the mastering at Capitol – we got what I was seeking.
How does Hilma respond to the whole project?
She’s over the moon about it. She was very pleased. Really wanting this to happen for me also, as an artist. Because I would love to be singing again, and with the state of the recording industry now, the revenue streams for making a living have really been reduced. I’m sure you well know that. It’s really hard. We’re out to radio, and that’s also been a challenge. I think now we’re being played at KJAZZ here [in Los Angeles], but it’s really tough. To get someone to really go on it, it takes some doing today. It’s a small market, the jazz market, but I know there is a tremendous amount of Benny fans out there who would really love to know about it.
And that’s my mandate now, to see that we get the material to people that will appreciate it, and continue pulling his legacy through to more generations. It really is timeless music, and belongs here, today, now. And that’s what I’m hoping - now that singers can sing them, that they can start popping up in cabarets, and on people’s records, that [Benny’s music] will be able to live on with that little kickstart at this point. And then give me something to do until my old age! You can be an alter kocker jazz singer, you know? It’s great!
Deborah Pearl on the web: www.deborahpearl.com
Benny Carter on the web: www.bennycarter.com