THANKS, JONATHAN SCHWARTZ (and FRANK SINATRA, too)

jonathan-schwartz-wnyc1Jonathan Schwartz has been broadcasting on WNYC-FM (New York City’s NPR station) for a long time now, offering remarkable music and deeply informed commentary.    Every Saturday and Sunday from 12-4, Jonathan plays a large variety of moving and intriguing music — Fred Astaire, Ruby Braff, Becky Kilgore, Tony Bennett and many others.   

Jonathan’s program also appears on Sirius satellite radio and his WNYC shows can be heard online, but I am listening live as I write this. 

Unlike other radio personalities who delve deeply into American popular song and jazz, Jonathan is more interested in presenting the music than a barrage of archival data.  And his program isn’t a museum, for he plays recordings by young performers who keep traditions vigorous. 

When I first heard his WNYC program, years ago, my musical range was deep but narrow.  I knew as much as I could about 1938 Billie Holiday, about the partnership of Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden, about the sounds of Jo Jones and George Wettling.  I loved Bing Crosby.  But I was an impatient listener, fidgeting until Jonathan played a song or a musician of whom I approved. 

sinatraAnd I didn’t understand Jonathan’s deep fascination with Frank Sinatra.  Sinatra was everywhere in my childhood and adolescence, and he seemed one-dimensional, someone trying to be hip for the young’uns and a sad tough guy for the people who watched the Ed Sullivan Show.  Louis was always Louis, no matter what he sang or played.  Sinatra seemed so busy selling repackaged versions of himself.  When “Ol’ Blue Eyes” came back, it meant nothing to me — had he ever been away?  The performances I saw on television seemed consciously mannered: “Look how deeply I feel,” he seemed to be saying, which I did not find convincing.   

But I am writing this to say that even our most cherished artistic convictions need to be reinspected now and again, to see if they are valid.  Or if they ever were.  The Beloved listens to Jonathan’s WNYC program faithfully, so I have heard him more often and more regularly than ever before.

More than a year ago, Jonathan played a Sinatra recording I had never heard, from the Capitol sessions with the Hollywood String Quartet, which appered on vinyl and CD as CLOSE TO YOU.  The song was a collaboration of Gordon Jenkins and Johnny Mercer, “P.S., I Love You.”  I had heard Billie Holiday’s sweet-sour Verve version — but Sinatra’s singing, tender, unaffected, wistful — brought tears to my eyes.  The next day, I bought the CD and still think of it as supremely romantic music, superbly realized.  That singer in the Capitol studio didn’t care whether he struck the best I-don’t-care pose for the photographers.  He was inside the music, selling nothing but conveying everything. 

I was suspicious.  I looked into the mirror while shaving.  Was I turning into a Sinatra-phile, one of those people who reveled in every note their hero had sung?  I already had enough musical obsessions, thank you.  So I kept close watch on myself and played CLOSE TO YOU in the car, thinking that it was one atypical occasion when Sinatra had allowed himself to merge with the music. 

But it happened again when Jonathan played another Capitol Sinatra, the arrangement by Gordon Jenkins.  Perhaps it was “Where Are You?”  And, against my more suspicious self, I was staggered by the depth of feeling in that record.  I bought it and played it.  And then there was the slightly angry “Oh, You Crazy Moon,” from THE MOONLIGHT SINATRA.  And the tragically world-weary Sinatra of “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.”

So this is to say, “Thank you!” to Jonathan Schwartz for enriching my musical and emotional experience.  I now think it is possible to play a great Sinatra recording alongside one of the Billie Holiday Verves and to hear that both singers are — in their own way — considering the mysteries of the human heart. 

Some readers might be thinking, “Isn’t this a jazz blog?  Sinatra wasn’t a jazz singer!”  Those categories don’t matter when the art moves us.  As he was in mourning for his life, drinking cognac, Lester Young  played those mournful Sinatra records over and over.  “Frankie-boy,” Pres called him.  If Sinatra moved Lester Young, who knew everything about elation and despair, that’s good enough for me.  I am sorry that it took me this long to find the inward-looking Sinatra, but I am deeply indebted to Jonathan Schwartz for making it happen.

12 responses to “THANKS, JONATHAN SCHWARTZ (and FRANK SINATRA, too)

  1. Bill Gallagher

    Wasn’t it Ellington who said, “Good music is beyond category.”

  2. For depth of emotion, try Ol’ Blue Eyes’ ’50s version of “I’ll Be Around”, which is tied with those of Helen Merrill (from the same era) & Scott Hamilton (on Radio City, ’90) on my all-time heart-rending Top 10. And if you & yours are listening to Jonathan Schwartz’s Sunday afternoon show on WNYC, when it ends at 4:00 pm, log onto WCNY.org for Bill Shedden’s Classic Sinatra right afterward, as of 1/4/09 (moving from Friday nights at 7:00 with the new year).

  3. Jonathan Schwartz more than deserves your stylish tribute, and not just for Sinatra (not to mention the Sinatra super-rarities). He consistently unearths musical gems that are unknown to me, but that I cannot imagine being without. (Barbarba Cook’s “Something You Never Had Before,” Joy Bryan’s “You’re My Everything,” and Rob McConnell’s “Everything I Love,” to name just three.)

  4. Lovely post, Michael – as usual. I never have a problem with Sinatra’s music ‘not’ being jazz. It is seasoned with the best of jazz – Sweets Edison’s obligatti (?), the tenor of Plas Johnson; Sinatra’s work with Ellington and Basie. I suppose Sinatra sang ‘straight’, really – but so, too, did Nat ‘King’ Cole – a peerless jazz musician if ever there was one. Actually, I prefer ‘straight’ singing in a jazz setting to jazz singing in a jazz setting. Much (most) of Sinatra’s is top flight music – and that’s the only distinction that really matters.

    I love reading this blog – and many thanks for name-checking (and posting at) the Sinatra Music Society webpage.

  5. Donna Torrisi

    Dear Johathan,
    I have been emailing and calling the station to find out who the female artist was on your show on Sat., July 25who sang Time after time. I would really like to explore her work. thanks. Donna Torrisi

  6. Jonathan Swartz is the best, most knowledgable radio personality I’ve ever heard. I hear him on Sirius/XM. His taste is impeccable. As an semi-retired cabaret singer/pianist, I really appreciate Jonathan, and through him I hear new singers and tunes you just can’t hear anywhere else. Bless you Jonathan, you are the best. Dick Smith

  7. Joseph Aglialoro

    Jonathan read a piece written by Alan Jay Lerner about Frank Sinatra and his Art last week on the air, would love to have a copy.

  8. stella tawfik cooperman

    I have been eagerly listening to your weekend music program for many years. I absolutely love the music. However, I am a bit irked today as I listen.
    It is Hanukkah and I have yet to hear one song applicable to this holiday. I have heard many songs concerning Christmas and it is only the 4th of the month. I love Christmas carols, but could you please recognize that we are in the middle of Hannukah and play some Hannukah music as well?? Thank you.

  9. Sidney Cohn

    Yes, Jonathan is the best, and I heard a recording of him just today singing the not-often-heard standard “I’m Old Fashioned” and it was terrific. What a pleasant voice that told this characterization and the softly swinging, but tasteful tag ending. He’s a gem.

  10. Pingback: Schmoozing with Jonathan Schwartz « Re-bop 21

  11. Pingback: Ol’ Blue Eyes Sings ‘Bein’ Green’ | Sinatra Club

  12. Javier Rodríguez de la Reta

    Jonathan Schwartz is the voice you expect to hear with his crisp comments on the records he broadcasts. Both toghether, voice and records, should be considered as a unique piece of art. That’s the way of acquiring listeners from all over the world like me. Thank you, Jonathan.

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