Harold Arlen, composer of "Stormy Weather", "Ill Wind", and "I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues", all with lyricist Ted Koehler, has been perhaps overly identified with such songs of despair, often categorized as "the blues". Actually, a more accurate definition of a blues would be a specific chord sequence taking place in 12 measures of music. Of American origin, the blues have been used not only for expressions of sorrow but of gaiety and humor. "Bluesy" might be more on the mark to describe these Arlen songs.
In fact, Arlen's musical palette was considerably broader. One might cite merely the score of The Wizard of Oz, which he wrote with E. Y. "Yip" Harburg, to be in touch with very different sorts of songs. The melody of "Over The Rainbow", supported by Harburg's optimistic words, would not be out of place in a Puccini opera, and the songs of the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion are altogether cheerful. Nor did Arlen have a lock on those bluesy pieces which used to be called "torch songs", although perhaps he wrote more of them. Consider Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is The Ocean" and Victor Young's "I Don't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You" for other examples of the genre.
Although Arlen could write standard 32 measure pop songs, such as "Get Happy", reputedly improvised as a dance riff as the composer was playing rehearsal piano, he increasingly seemed to relish longer forms. "The Man That Got Away" and "Blues In The Night" are examples.
Arlen's catalogue has proven to be particularly strong in jazz-flavored pieces, no doubt because early in his career he wrote many of them for African-American artists to perform in the Cotton Club, the legendary Harlem establishment. Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, Bill Robinson, and Duke Ellington introduced many of them.
Another characteristic of Arlen's output was referred to by two of his later collaborators, as noted by author William Zinsser. He quotes Ira Gershwin: "To me the Hebraic influence is the big one in Harold's music…" and Johnny Mercer: "Harold's melodies are way out because Jewish melodies are way out…they take unexpected twists and turns." Arlen's father was a cantor in Buffalo, New York, and not doubt the music of the synagogue made an early impression on him. The theory seems plausible except when we take into consideration those minor melodies of Cole Porter, "I Love Paris", "My Heart Belongs To Daddy", and "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" and are forced to the unavoidable conclusion that, cultural predisposition or not, both men were adaptable, professional songsmiths whose melodies were capable, as Johnny Mercer put it, of taking unexpected twists and turns.
Even more unexpected are the arrangements and improvisations of pianist Bill Charlap, who casts the Arlen songs in settings which allow us to hear them as though they were fresh from the composer's keyboard. - D. Hyman