What follows is the Official JAZZ LIVES Love Song. It captures my feelings exactly and deeply, and the music that accompanies it is perfectly delightful.
The song is I’D RATHER BE WITH YOU — composed by Harry Akst, Lew Brown, and Elsa Maxwell for a night club “revue” for the Casino de Paree. (I have read that the New York club Studio 54 occupied the same space, decades later.)
My guess about the composition of this song is that Akst created the melody, Brown the lyrics, and that they called on Ms. Maxwell for the details of Society that would make it authentic. (I can invent the dialogue for their meeting, and I am sure you can also.) I’ve not seen the film nor a copy of the sheet music, but the song was recorded in Chicago by Charles LaVere and his Chicagoans, and we have the performance I love through a series of nearly miraculous kindnesses.
The jazz connoisseur Helen Oakley Dance arranged for this racially mixed band — not yet accepted as the norm — to record for the nearly-dead OKeh label, and the records were not issued at the time. (Thanks to hal Smith for this detail.)
Some thirty years later, Columbia Records was cleaning house and someone decided to dispose of a number of unlabeled one-sided vinyl test pressings. Helene Chmura, blessed be her name, asked collector Dan Mahony if he wanted them before they were thrown away; he agreed, and among them were the seven sides from the LaVere sessions of March 11 and April 5, 1935 — this performance comes from the latter. I read that these were “test-only” performances, which means that they were the Thirties equivalent of audition “demo” recordings. Given the circumstances, we are so lucky — beyond lucky — to have them. (Mahony passed them on to the fine UK collector and gentleman Bert Whyatt; the discs now are held by Charles LaVere’s son Stephen.)
Before I write more, you should hear the music. The video below was created by the exceedingly talented Chris Tyle (cornet, clarinet, drums, vocal, jazz scholar, bandleader, archivist, writer . . . . ) as a special commission for JAZZ LIVES. Alec Wilder would have called the song “notey,” and deplored the repeated notes; I am amused by the way the lines spin out to accommodate the lengthy lyrics . . . but it goes right to my heart.
The musicians are Charles LaVere, vocal (and possibly trumpet); Johnny Mendell and Marty Marsala, trumpets; Joe Marsala, clarinet / alto; Joe Masek, tenor; Boyce Brown, alto; Preston Jackson, trombone; Jess Stacy, piano; Joe Young, guitar; Israel Crosby, bass; Zutty Singleton, drums. That’s some band.
I find the lyrics particularly charming. Of course the notion that “I like you a lot” is a familiar refrain in love songs. “I like pie, I like cake, I like you best of all,” another. “It all depends on you” and “I wanna go where you go — then I’ll be happy,” other variations. But this song, where the singer says “I prefer your company to that of famous members of the upper class who would offer me unique experiences so far beyond the ordinary,” is offering a special kind of love-bouquet. And it is witty and sweet that the singer doesn’t say, “Mrs. Astor wanted to sleep with me but I told her NO because I like you better.” No, the lyrics advance a series of whimsical rhetorical possibilities — which must have been especially striking in the Depression: IF Mrs. Vanderbilt invited me to dine . . . and I think we are expected to know that this is a dream rather than a real invitation, and that the singer and the Beloved do operate in the world of the shared hot dog at Coney Island.
But love often is charmingly hyperbolic, and the singer insists, “My preference for you, my fidelity to you, is not a simple matter of preferring you more than your real peers. I’d rather be with you than with anyone else, no matter how rare and glittering the experience anyone else could offer.” That, to me, makes it a deep and authentic — even while whimsical — offer of love.
And the music! It might be too much for some when I say I love every note of this performance, but it’s true — from the repeated vamp capped with a Zutty accent (sounds like his pal Sidney) into Boyce’s melody statement, so sweet yet never sentimental, with that rhythm section, Stacy bubbling, beneath. Marty Marsala takes the bridge in an impassioned way, with the saxophones playing a written figure to emphasize his statement; a break from Boyce leads into an even more beautiful exposition of the melody. (If anyone doubts that Boyce was a remarkable player, soulful and precise, let the skeptic listen to that chorus a few times. It stands alongside the best alto playing I know.)
This — eighty seconds — is a fully satisfying musical offering. But there’s more. After an interlude concluded by Zutty and a two-note phrase from Preston Jackson, Charles LaVere begins to sing. (Is it Marsala or Mandell echoing and improvising around and under him?) His diction is refined; he is offering us the story in the clearest way. But the vibrato-laden way in which he ends phrases is both intense and heartfelt; his reading of “be” in the song’s title is so touching. We know he cares! On a second or third listening, we can honor Jess Stacy, stealing the show yet again. Tenorist Joe Masek brings out his best early-Thirties Hawkins, and one of the musicians (or a studio onlooker) lets out a fervent yell of approval at 2:37. I agree with the anonymous emoter. And the final eight bars are a full-band ensemble, both tender and rocking, driven on by embellishments from Preston Jackson and Zutty’s cymbal.
It’s the combination — witty lyrics without a hint of satire, delivered with the utmost feeling over a hot jazz background — that does it for me.
(In this century, James Dapogny urged Marty Grosz to record the song — which he did, splendidly, on an Arbors CD called MARTY GROSZ AND HIS HOT COMBINATION.)
I send this to performance and video to the lovers in my reading audience, and I encourage you to send it to your Beloved. If you don’t have a Beloved at the moment and would like one, play this over and over until the music and the lyrics are brilliantly resonant in your head, then hum and sing it under your breath as you go through your day. It will, I am sure, attract love to you.
May your happiness increase.