(VIDEO) The Great American Songbook: Our Lost Melodies

Doo-wop is on its deathbed, the New York Times informed us a few weeks ago. No longer an audience for the immortal (we thought) “Only You” and “Duke of Earl” and “Rama Lama Ding Dong”? How can this be? Even more dismaying, though, is the twilight of the Great American Songbook—the witty, wistful, poignant music of Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, Berlin, Mercer, Ellington. . .  

Anne Phillips, singer, composer, arranger, and conductor, is fighting that decline with the zeal of a revivalist preacher. She holds monthly sing-ins of the good old songs in New York City, as does Judy Wolman in Los Angeles—both of them crying out, like voices in the wilderness, that this music must be kept alive.  —Ed.

I was at the piano, noodling through “Embraceable You” and “Blue Moon” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”  My 16-year-old granddaughter, Elizabeth, who was visiting from Florida, drifted over to the piano. “What are those beautiful songs?” she asked me. She sings in an excellent high-school choir, yet she’d never heard these tunes.

And my, she didn’t know what a big musical door she had just opened!  I stayed at the piano the whole evening; we sang Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, Kern, Berlin, Ellington, song after song. She was hooked. And all it took to fill her with wonder was a few minutes’ exposure to the Great American Songbook.

For Christmas I gave Elizabeth Ella Sings Gershwin and a CD of singalong tracks of the great standards. She promptly made a convert—the daughter of the head of the jazz department at the conservatory in Reykjavik, Iceland, an exchange student who was staying with her family. To my delight, the two girls have the CDs in the car and are singing their heads off—real music—great songs! The conversion was so easy. All they needed the chance to hear these melodies.

But that’s the problem: When rock ‘n’ roll took over the airwaves, the natural progression of American popular music was stopped in its tracks. There was a huge population of teenagers (the baby boomers) to sell rock to, and the music industry did it. Year by year, fewer and fewer radio stations played the music the pre-boomers had treasured. And when the visuals became more important than the song, melody and meaningful lyrics were all but gone.

Photo: Maple Shade Records

What’s the matter with kids today? They hear too few melodies. Young people are so used to 
talking a song, rather than singing it, that many of them can’t carry a tune. I discovered this with some astonishment when my husband, tenor saxophonist Bob Kindred (left), and I decided to pass our love of jazz along to a generation of kids we were sure had never heard it. For the past 12 years, our nonprofit foundation, Kindred Spirits, has been acquainting children in Brooklyn and the Bronx  (and in a summer literacy camp in Rye, New York) with the snappy and meditative songs we grew up with: “Blue Skies,”  “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Summertime,” “Jeepers Creepers, “Accentuate the Positive.” (I lead children’s jazz choirs in Washington, D.C., and Ketchikan, Alaska, too.)

The kids are immediately enthusiastic. But at first, many of them can’t follow a melody. For instance, one 13-year-old who I thought really had talent kept screwing up vocally.  He came over to the piano and said, “Please tell me where I mess up.”  He started singing  “Blue skies, smiling at me”  . . . in tune . . . and then he slipped into talking—“nothing but blue skies do I see.”  “Elijah, “ I said, “the first part was singing, but the last part was talking.” Sadly, melody has gone out of these children’s lives.

Now that I know how foreign pitch and melody are to these kids, I start every session with an explanation: “When you are singing together you all have to be on the same notes.  I will sing a note.  You listen  . . . don’t sing  . . . Now hear it in your head. And when I go like this [I make a straight motion toward them] you sing it back to me.”  Magic.  The whole room is on it—focus, concentration—even the youngest ones.

Just introduce kids to these songs and they sing them with gusto (5, 000 choir-kids later, Bob and I can attest to that). After ten rehearsals, the kids in our various Children’s Jazz Choirs appear in concert, backed by great jazz musicians. We aren’t aiming for “Vienna Boys Choir” perfection . . . just for the joy of singing. Which is what comes through below, as a 2009 choir renders “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Jeepers, Creepers.”



Music triggers a particular area of the brain to release dopamine, the feel-good hormone, researchers have found—the very same area of the brain that’s stimulated by food, sex, and recreational drugs. That accounts for the exhilaration that ensues when we older folks get together to sing the old songs at Sing! Sing! Sing! at the Triad Café in New York City.  (Our monthly sessions are an offshoot of the Great American Songbook sessions, started 20 years ago in Los Angeles by my friend Judy Wolman; they are still going strong).

I and my friend Michael Shepley, an American Songbook maven, print out lyrics packets; he introduces the songs with (often wry) anecdotes and I supply the occasional obscure verse and the piano accompaniment. Then 40 to 60 of us belt out the likes of “The Man I Love” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and—in a hilarious male/female competition— “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better.”  On March 20, our theme is “Songs We Want Our Kids to Know,” featuring 20 of the 60 suggestions that aficionados have sent in.

Alas, almost all of the singers are gray-haired. But one evening an 8-year-old arrived with her grandmother. I kept sneaking looks at her—and saw that she was singing every song, and lustily; she picked up the tunes right away. These songs are irresistible. But until our children and grandchildren get introduced to them, they can have no idea of the happiness they’re missing.

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  • Liz Robbins March 17, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    What a great article, Anne. Not long ago, my grandchildren, at age 10, completely surprised me when they launched into a lyrical “Blue Moon” followed by song after classic song which, to my delight, they’re learning in school. And, knowing that I’m part of a sing-a-long group in New York City, they love suggesting songs for the group to sing and get so excited when we do. (The group is comprised of women of a certain age who are indeed ageless– the joy of this music keeps all of us forever young.) Many thanks to you Anne for everything you’re doing to pass this special torch to future generations.

  • Ellen Creane March 16, 2012 at 9:50 am

    For six years, I replicated Sing!Sing!Sing! in Greenwich, Connecticut several times a year under the sponsorship of Connecticut Playmakers, a 60-year-old community theatre group. We attracted audiences of 60 – 120 in the audience lustily singing their hearts out. Alas, they, too, were the “older generation.”

    A group of eight singers from Playmakers introduced the verses to “set up” the songs. Our original pianist was Bob Button, known as the Music Man of Greenwich. He led his own Bob Button Orchestra into his 90s after a career that included leading the Voice of America and starting cable television in Connecticut. Bob’s first dance band was in the 1930s while a student at Darmouth. His wife, Decima Button, delivered the delightful commentary on each song — a script generously loaned by Howard Lewis with Judy Wolman’s Los Angeles Sing!Sing!Sing! group. (I sang with Judy’s group for seven years until moving to Connecticut. Judy Wolman, my inspritation, shared her songsheets — cleverly designed with notations for pauses and holding the note — very original!)

    After Bob, our pianist was Dave Sayer, a talented cabaret performer whose Day Job was as vice-president at Publishers Clearning House — you’ll still see him handing out those big checks on TV!

    We had a great run in Greenwich . . . until the demographics caught up with us before Bob passed away. Anne’s concept of introducing the Great American Songbook to younger generations is brilliant!

  • Phyllis Behar March 16, 2012 at 8:31 am

    Thank you Anne for such a wonderful article and those classic and lovely performances. Your jazz kids made me smile all the way through. What a delight. I look forward to my first Sing!Sing!Sing! this Tuesday and seeing you and Michael in action.

  • Barbara Buoncristiano March 16, 2012 at 7:30 am

    A fine article on a subject dear to my heart. How grand to hear Kiri te Kanawa sing “Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine”..
    Thanks Anne – looking forward to Tuesday’s Sing!Sing!Sing! with you and our good friend Michael Shepley.
    Keep up the good work – these treasures must not be lost.

  • Paul March 15, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    Listening to these singing videos is a wonderful experience and so different from the normal intense Internet experience.

    The video sound quality is great and listening to Ella and then “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man” brought me back to when I heard them live so many years ago.

  • Sharon March 15, 2012 at 9:26 am

    A wonderful article on such an important subject! As a young woman just out of college, I began selling radio time for a big band station. I was always a fan of jazz and even sang with a quartet for a few years in my 20 & 30’s. These songs are a huge part of my life and I appreciate the reminder that they must be shared with my grand-daughters who love to sing everything they hear! Now I hope to find a chorus in or near the Lehigh Valley, PA where they might be able to practice these tunes weekly!