The Cockeyed Optimist

The Cockeyed Optimist
by Robert McMurray

I grew up in a house with two older sisters who were simply crazy about musicals. I remember ‘Oklahoma!’ as being a particular favorite although I never really “got” that. They forever swooned over Yul Brynner in ‘The King and I’ but as a young boy the only king I cared about was home run champ Hank Aaron. ‘The Sound of Music’ was the first movie that I ever saw and it made a much stronger impression on me. It wasn’t until I grew up a little, though, that I recognized the common thread of composer Richard Rodgers. It is astounding to view the Rodgers legacy in its entirety and its impact on American music – over 900 songs and 40 years revolutionizing Broadway shows. It wasn’t until much later that I saw the common thread between two apparently disparate musical forces: jazz and an American master of the Broadway musical.

I’ve heard it said that the blues is about feeling bad because of life and jazz is about feeling good despite life. Put another way jazz is a very optimistic music. Optimism and romance, central to Rodgers’ view of life, are the heart and soul of the Rodgers message from melody to cheerful melody. Nearly all of his shows, songs, and stories extol the poetry of perseverance and hope in daily life. It’s no wonder they brought pleasure to millions and millions of people!

Rodgers’ optimism extended to his ideal view of how life should be as well. His shows were often bold and daring for their time and showed us how we should act toward each other. Jazz pianist Dr. Billy Taylor immediately sensed the parallels between Rodgers’ vision and the civil rights movements in our country when he saw ‘South Pacific’ for the first time. Buried in the middle of the show is the song, ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’ which describes that hatred of any kind, including racial prejudice, is not something people are born with. It is taught and can be untaught. An extraordinary message for any time especially the late 1940s. Jazz has also served in this role delivering similar themes of acceptance during jazz artists’ freedom suite periods in the 1960s for example.

But it is as the vehicle of the jazz standard where jazz and Rodgers cross paths time and time again. One interesting way to walk through the garden of jazz is by stepping on one Rodgers stepping-stone at a time. So deep is the Rodgers songbook that virtually every jazz instrumentalist or vocalist in the last 60 years has tried their hand at the Rodgers waltz form. The most famous example is John Coltrane discovering the soprano saxophone on ‘My Favorite Things’. If you have never heard this jazz classic, run, don’t walk to your nearest record store! Another Rodgers tune that serves as signature song for a jazzman is ‘My Funny Valentine’ for trumpeter Chet Baker. ‘I Could Write A Book’ from ‘Relaxin With the Miles Davis Quintet’ is classic 1950s bebop. Another great example of the perfect marriage of virtuoso musicianship and beautiful song composition is Clifford Brown playing ‘Where or When’ on ‘Clifford Brown with Strings’. Of course who could ever forget Frank Sinatra and ‘The Lady is a Tramp’.

The magic of Richard Rodgers continues to live on as contemporary jazz musicians find inspiration in his simple and enthusiastic melodies. My favorite may be ‘Hello Young Lovers’ from Everett ‘The Voice’ Greene’s CD, ‘My Foolish Heart’ – another must in your CD collection for you hopeless romantics out there! The title track from Kevin Mahogany’s, ‘My Romance’ furthers that same legacy just as Brad Mehldau does with ‘I Didn’t Know What Time it Was’ on ‘The Art of the Trio, Vol 1’. If your music collection is a little light in the Richard Rodgers songbook I highly recommend any of these selections.

Perhaps in these troubled times it can become difficult to embrace life with the same innocence and spirit that we all once knew. When that is the case we should all turn to the upbeat view of the music of Richard Rodgers, ‘The Cockeyed Optimist’, who even at the end of his long and gloriously illustrious career still recognized that “the sweetest sounds I’ll ever hear are still inside my head”!