By Roger Crane, the Song Scout
Jazz players have an expression “too hip for the room,” meaning the music is too good to be commercial. Popularity and quality are separate attributes and, only occasionally, mesh, especially in the world of music. Hoagy Carmichael had already proven 15 years earlier with “Stardust” that he could construct a pop song from jazz phrases and still manage to create a hit. In 1941 with “Skylark” Carmichael provided another and even more complex example. He had been wanting to write a Broadway musical about his friend Bix Beiderbecke, the legendary cornetist. The project was unrealized but Carmichael did finish a piece he titled “Bix Licks,” a soaring melody that wound around itself like one of Beiderbecke’s musical “hot licks.”
Although a show was never produced Carmichael kept the melody and played it for Johnny Mercer who, maybe six months later, came up with a lyric. Mercer insisted that his lyric did not derive from Shelley’s “Ode to a Skylark,” but his text does have a similar poetic yearning and is perfectly wedded to Carmichael’s lovely melody. Just to remind you, Mercer asks the skylark if he can hear the “music of the night” that is “faint as a ‘will o’ the wisp,’ crazy as a loon, sad as a gypsy serenading the moon.” There is no verse but the song is renowned for its extraordinary middle section with quirky harmonies, from A-flat sixth to F minor, and then to G major.
Swing-era musicians took an immediate liking to “Skylark” and many versions became popular, examples include Glenn Miller with vocal by Ray Eberle, Harry James with vocal by Helen Forrest as well as versions by Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore. Carmichael’s strong melody has proven to be resistant to reconfiguring its musical personality, so the bop musicians have mostly left it intact.
Among later interpretations I would call attention to Carmichael’s performance from 1956 in which he fronts a band of noted West Coasters of the day (e.g., Sweets Edison, and Art Pepper). The unjustly overlooked pianist Jimmy Rowles (who was also on that 1956 date) performed a stellar version with Stan Getz on their 1975 not-to-be-missed recording The Peacocks. Michael Brecker’s 1997 recording is also a standout interpretation. But, grand as these horn-player versions are, “Skylark” should be heard with Mercer’s lyrics to be fully appreciated. A much neglected (and hard-to-find) vocal version is by the seldom-heard and neglected Jackie Paris who used an ascending phrase subsequently borrowed by a number of later singers.
A Few Sample Recordings
Stan Gets and Jimmy Rowles, from The Peacocks, 1975
Paul Desmond with Gene Bertoncini, from Skylark, 1973
Ruby Braff with Ellis Larkins, from The Grand Reunion, 1972
Carmen McRae, from Birds of a Feather, 1958, with Ben Webster and Mundell Lowe
Cassandra Wilson, from New Moon Daughter, 1995
Jackie Paris, 1954. It may be very hard to find (but some hip fan uploaded it)
Hoagy Carmichael (with Art Pepper on alto) from Hoagy Sings Carmichael, 1956
5) Harry James (with Helen Forrest) various compilations, 1942
You may also wish to investigate worthy recordings by the following.
Mark Murphy, Lee Konitz, Anita O’Day, Dexter Gordon, Billy Eckstine with Earl Hines,
Nancy Marano, Aretha Franklin, the Hi-Los and, of course, many more