Tuesday, June 22, 2021

John Howland's "Hearing Luxe Pop"

John Howland is Professor of Musicology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. He is the author of Ellington Uptown and Duke Ellington Studies and cofounder of the journal Jazz Perspectives.

Howland applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Hearing Luxe Pop: Glorification, Glamour, and the Middlebrow in American Popular Music, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Another major figure in the continued commercial expansion of the 1940s big-band-plus-strings vogue was the ex-Dorsey arranger Paul Weston. By 1944, Weston was musical director for the newly formed Capitol Records. Along with Stordahl, Weston’s arrangements for Capitol singers like Jo Stafford and Peggy Lee epitomize the pop vocal arranging conventions of the day. However, it was Weston’s instrumental albums that created the successful new genre of “mood music.” This latter development has ties to earlier trends, such as the sweet-style dance orchestras of the swing era, the rise of the Muzak corporation in the mid-1930s, and the 1930s light music repertories of certain radio orchestras. The Weston mood music model favored pre-war hit songs from the 1920s through early 1940s—that is, the repertory that we now call “standards.” Weston later described his arranging and big band performance formulas for these recordings as “underplayed,” “under-arranged,” and “on-the-melody.” This approach can be heard in Weston’s 1946 arrangement of “You Go to My Head.” Here, Weston employed the sort of subdued big-band textures that were held to have fallen out of favor with postwar audiences: slower tempos, no blaring brass, and an emphasis on lush, Glenn-Milleresque five-part, close-position sax voicings. These settings further include a restrained, piano-less rhythm section. Weston’s charts also typically involve lush introductions featuring strings, harp, and reed textures. The arrangements leave only a small amount of room for ornamental impro- visation from soloists. In contrast to the design-intensive “sophistication” of the symphonic jazz tradition, Weston’s arranging routines are regularly reduced to one or two choruses with no modulation and at most only a few additional measures for either an introduction, single interlude, or tag coda.

Making a Lady of Modern Jazz

In a postwar environment that saw both the decline of the dance-band indus- try and an increase in concert-setting performances of jazz, various bandleaders and arrangers began to experiment with new harmonic and formal devices, as well as further symphonic-leaning ensemble augmentations. In contrast to the overtly commercial intent of Weston’s “underarranged” mood music, several arrangers began to explore comparatively complex textures that emulated the music of prewar modernist composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith. By the late 1940s, this new, self-consciously complex big-band music was called “progressive jazz,” but its roots lay several years earlier. In 1946, the producer Norman Granz began to commission recordings for his landmark album, The Jazz Scene (which was released in 1949). Two of the artists to use strings in this project were the arrangers Neal Hefti and George Handy, both of whom were associated with the idiom that came to be called progressive jazz. Significantly, saxophonist Charlie Parker’s first performance with strings occurred in the 1946 recording of Hefti’s composition “Repetition.”...
One book illustration that has sparked significant praise is a diagram suggesting the "six degrees of separation" between iconic luxe-pop artists. The subjects of page 99 – Paul Weston, mood music, Capitol Records, and progressive jazz – are not overtly present on this earlier figure, but their legacy is in the mid-century center of this book roadmap. As musicologist Phil Ford aptly observed, this map suggests “a way of looking at how we listen to pop music.... Even if you don’t know [this] ... long tradition ... that capitalize[s] on the juxtaposition[s] of funky, lowdown, street American vernacular and high art style, if you jump in at any point of the network ... it will conjure the rest of the network into memory.” Weston's 1946 album Music for Memories with "You Go to My Head" clearly does this – the idea is almost built into its title! Aesthetically and culturally, Weston, etc., foreshadow Barry White's disco-sheen being viewed as "Black muzak" (listen, for example, to "Love's Theme") and point backward to Paul Whiteman "making a lady of jazz" (note the subsection header).

While the music-description concerns of page 99 are a periodic element of the book's writing style (typically, these areas are offset as musical-shoptalk sidebars), this page leads directly to the ascendant, "classy," style-and-image core behind luxe pop: the Great American Songbook sound of the Capitol recordings of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and the arranger, Nelson Riddle. Riddle and Weston were colleagues in Tommy Dorsey's 1940s symphonic swing (big-band-plus-strings) orchestra. Weston subsequently became musical director of Capitol, and he gained considerable middlebrow popularity through his mood music. The latter sparked a vogue of easy-listening "Music For ..." albums. The influential Weston formula, particularly with the advent of hi-fi, was an ideal background for classy cocktail hours in the mid-century bachelor-pad lifestyle (real or imagined). This is all illustrative of the "damnably American" (Dwight Macdonald) luxe-entertainment core of the book.

Personally, Weston also conjures to mind the circuitous research history behind this book, with many primary sources that entered my life long before I knew of their importance. I encountered Weston's music in the late 1990s when I was a private recording engineer for Mike Markkula, a co-founder of Apple Computers. Markkula loved Weston's 1940s and 1950s mood music, and I remastered some of Weston’s albums for him. Later, through other connections, Weston's son shared several arrangements from this album with me.
Learn more about Hearing Luxe Pop at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue