At times, I find the world of 2018 terribly destabilizing and cold. I live in the middle of an insular community, so the percentage of people who will respond to “Good morning,” a smile, and eye contact, is small.
I understand the reasons: I am not of the tribe (and there are many tribes from which one might be excluded); I am not known; I am male; I might very well say something inappropriate after that salutation. “Don’t talk to strangers!” is still strong.
But I think in this world, full of sharp edges, we might do worse than smile at people we don’t know.
The essential soundtrack is a song that used to be familiar and easy: Chris Tyle says that he used to play it as the first tune on a gig: that shows characteristic good taste. It is, on the surface, a love song — your love shows through in the way you smile at me — but it is also a song about the possibility of a love that is less specific, more embracing. That might save us.
There are many versions of SMILES on YouTube — pretty and respectful performances from 1918, with the verse, to more recent ones by swing / New Orleans bands. But the latter are too speedy for me, as if the bands are trying to show how well and hot they play by increasing the tempo. As a smile might grow gradually and naturally, this song — to me — needs to be played at a singable tempo, to let the feeling emerge as it would in a real encounter.
I am happy that I can share the version that has stayed with me for thirty-plus years, one of John Hammond’s best but unheralded ideas, of merging “pop” vocalists Eddy Howard and Chick Bullock with superb small bands.
Once it was fashionable to sneer at Chick as dull and overly earnest. Yes, he can sound like Uncle Charles deciding to sing, but he is much more subtle than that, and his homemade quality is eminently appealing on material like this. Without doing too much, he sounds as if he believes the lyrics and he believes in the song, and his gentle affectionate conviction is warming.
Here, on December 6, 1940, he was accompanied by Bill Coleman, trumpet; Benny Morton, trombone; Edmond Hall, clarinet; Bud Freeman, tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Eddie Gibbs, guitar; Billy Taylor, Sr., string bass; Yank Porter, drums. With the exception of Freeman, so inspired here, this was one version of the band Wilson led at Cafe Society Downtown. I’ve always listened to this record several times, once for Chick, once for the band, and more. How much music they fit into this 78 through split choruses and obbligati!
I hope this music inspires some readers to smile in general, and to try this radically humane act in the larger world. The worst thing that can happen is that one might be greeted with an emotionless stare or suspicion, but I’ve found that there are kindred souls in the universe who will — even shyly — make eye contact. Such connections might be all we have, and they are worth cherishing.
May your happiness increase!