Jonathan 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.
And 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.