One for my baby, the piano solo way

Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958) is one of the Chairman’s finest albums, as he himself admitted, and the 1943 Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer song “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” is among the highlights of the album. Since then it’s been recognized as one of the masterpieces of the Great American Songbook, and certainly one of Sinatra’s.

The version arranged by the great Nelson Riddle for orchestra and solo piano is the version that’s justly entered the pantheon, but in some ways I very much prefer the version below, a rehearsal performance recorded on June 24, 1958, a day before Sinatra and Riddle laid down the track for the album itself. This recording was discovered in 1990 by Ron Furmanek as he was compiling the three-CD collection The Capitol Years, and to my knowledge has not had the reach of the album recording. With only pianist Bill Miller accompanying him, Sinatra achieves a closer intimacy with the listener, the bartender to whom the woozy, half-inebriated singer is disclosing his woes; in this rendition, the song becomes a pained epiphany about the transience of all things, not just a lost love, and the two bars of “You gotta be true to your code” insist upon the value of stoicism and individual integrity in the face of that transience — far more simply and effectively, I think, than the later anthem “My Way.”

Perhaps you’ll agree. In any case, check it out.

Thumbs up

I’m delighted to report that my wife Marilyn Nonken‘s album of music by Scott Joplin and his collaborators, Syncopated Musings from Divine Art, is beginning to garner attention, and not just because I wrote the album notes. (Marilyn will be playing some of these rags — along with a few surprises — in June at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, MO. A few years ago I wrote about the peculiar role of Sedalia and Hannibal in American culture.)

Joplin biographer and ragtime authority Edward A. Berlin‘s review appears in the new issue of Syncopated Times, and he’s got nothing but good things to say. Quoth Mr. Berlin:

Classical artists may differentiate and personalize their performances with subtleties, highlighting features that might otherwise go unnoticed, using touch and dynamics to separate distinctive lines and to adjust expressiveness. Nonken follows these principles and excels in their execution; her playing is always ultra clean, precise, and well considered. …

Most classical pianists whose Joplin performances I’ve heard play [“Stoptime Rag”] slightly percussively; Nonken plays it generally legato, and in the final strain presents an even smoother legato that’s both unexpected and delicious. …

Not all classical pianists who perform Joplin’s music produce a satisfactory result. I’ve heard recordings and live performances in which the pianist, taking to an extreme Joplin’s caution against playing ragtime fast, ignore its dance music function and adopt a dirge-like tempo that destroys its toe-tapping nature. Others play it with the bombast of a late Romantic piano concerto, a course that overwhelms the music. Nonken joins the group of classicists who understand the character of ragtime and have the skill and temperament to enhance it in performance. I expect that Joplin would have been thrilled to hear Nonken play his music; I know that I am.

I’m not sure you can get much better than that. Berlin’s lengthy review, which also considers the provenance and performance practice of this music through the years, can be found here.

Below, a taste of the album (available on all major streaming platforms and on CD from Amazon) with Marilyn’s performance of the lovely “Reflection Rag”:

Bad news, worse news

American cities are getting to be pretty grim places, and Philadelphia is no exception according to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ 2022 “State of the City” report, just released yesterday. “Two years into the pandemic, Philadelphia is showing signs of an economic and public health recovery, yet some serious challenges remain,” runs the introduction, and boy, they ain’t kidding:

The pandemic interrupted a period of unprecedented growth for Philadelphia, but some harsher realities underlaid that success story. For example, before COVID-19, the city’s economy was expanding, with an impressive increase in total jobs. However, those employment gains were not equally distributed. Opportunities for city residents tended to be low-wage positions in low-paying sectors of the economy; as a result, wages for Philadelphians working in the city declined by 5% over almost a decade. The loss of jobs from the pandemic, concentrated in lower-wage sectors such as the retail and leisure and hospitality sectors, had a disproportionate impact on city workers in those positions — especially Black and female workers.

And in recent months, safety remained a major concern for Philadelphians, threatening all aspects of Philadelphia’s return to pre-pandemic life. In a 2022 poll by The Pew Charitable Trusts, 70% of residents cited the combination of crime, drugs, and public safety as the biggest issue facing the city. At the center of this challenge is gun violence, which rose throughout the country in 2021, with Philadelphia alone reporting 2,326 shootings that year. Despite a slight decrease in total violent crime in the city, gun violence soared — including a 28% increase in robberies with a firearm in the past year.

In addition, the number of homicides in Philadelphia has been rising each year for the past eight years; in 2021, it reached 562, a historic high — and more than double the number recorded in 2013.

On the other hand, the Phils are still second from the basement in the NL East ten games into the season. So there’s nowhere to go but up (except last place itself).

Read more about the Pew report here.

Say hello to Blob

“Do I have to become a Philadelphia Stars fan because of this exceedingly stupid mascot? The answer is not no”: Welcome, Blob

While I was in Philadelphia this past weekend, the big sports news, apart from the launch of another disastrous season for the Phillies, was the debut of Blob, the mascot of the Philadelphia Stars, the new United States Football League soccer team. The unlikely name, chosen via an online poll a la that for Boaty McBoatface, does seem appropriate: Those narcoleptic drooping eyelids and insipid slackjawed smile over a pile of red velour protoplasm suggest a vaguely disconcerting oversized globule of apathy. Not that Philadelphians themselves will have a chance to see Blob meandering around the field in a marijuana-induced haze any time soon; all of the eight games the Stars will play this season will take place in Birmingham, Alabama. The excellent Billy Penn web site has the whole story.

Sports mascots have had a pretty ambivalent history in Philadelphia since the introduction of the Phillie Phanatic at Veterans Stadium in 1978 to attract more children and families to home games; unlike the cheery, coked-up, but kid-friendly Mr. Met, there’s something disturbing about all of them. The frantic, oversized green Big Bird mutant, for all his appeal to youngsters, has been called “the most-sued mascot in the majors,” having been dragged into court several times on personal injury charges, leading the Philadelphia Daily News to dub it the “big green litigation machine” in 2010. Once memorably described as “the mascot version of a stab wound,” Gritty, the mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers, is just as frantic as the Phanatic, but exhibits more than a touch of a bug-eyed, amphetamine-fuelled sociopath as well, and I have no doubt he’ll also end up in a courtroom sometime soon.

All sports mascots have a bit of the stupid in them, and in a way the Phanatic, Gritty, and now Blob — together the cast of a nightmarish acid trip — are allowing Philadelphians to provide something of a metacommentary on that stupidity. By christening Blob with his weird name and embracing the psychotic antics of Gritty, Philly sports fans indulge in a little comic hostility to the whole idea of giant furries traipsing about a stadium, getting in the way of the game and generally wreaking dumb havoc.

You can keep your Mr. Met. I’ll throw my lot in with the sociopaths and Philadelphians. As the Billy Penn reporter concludes, “All hail Blob. Go Stars!”

Philadelphia: The saving grace of modesty

Agnes Repplier and her friend Robert in 1916. Photo: Mathilde Weil.

I’ve just gotten back from a visit to Philadelphia, my first in eight months, which was far too long. Though only in town for a long weekend, I managed to take care of some unfinished business — a first drink at the Pen & Pencil Club, introducing my wife to Dirty Frank’s — and perhaps even inspired myself to write more about the City of Brotherly Love in the near future.

But where to begin? Philadelphia’s charms are hard to define, but Philly native Agnes Repplier, one of the most celebrated essayists of bygone days, took a stab at it in the introduction to her 1898 Philadelphia: The Place and the People, and for now I’ll let her offer it in her own words, which might be mine had I her talent for elegance:

And now, after two centuries have rolled slowly by, something of [Philadelphia founder Quaker William Penn’s] spirit lingers in the quiet city which preserves the decorum of those early years, which does not jostle her sister cities in the race of life, nor shout loud cries of triumph in their ears, nor flaunt magnificent streamers in the breeze to bid the world take note of each pace she advances.

Every community, like every man, carries to old age the traditions of its childhood, the inheritance derived from those who bade it live. And Philadelphia, though she has suffered sorely from rude and alien hands, still bears in her tranquil streets the impress of the Founder’s touch. Simplicity, dignity, reserve, characterize her now as in Colonial days. She remembers those days with silent self-respect, placing a high value upon names which then were honoured, and are honoured still. The pride of the past mingles and is one with the pride of the present. The stainless record borne by her citizens a hundred and fifty years ago flowers anew in the stainless record their great-great-grandsons bear to-day; and the city cherishes in her cold heart the long annals of the centuries, softening the austerity of her presence for these favoured inheritors of her best traditions. She is not eager for the unknown; she is not keen after excitement; she is not enamoured of noise. Her least noticeable characteristic is enthusiasm. Her mental balance cannot lightly be disturbed. Surtout pas trop de zêle, she says with Talleyrand; and the slow, sure process by which her persuasions harden into convictions does not leave her, like a derelict, at the mercy of wind and wave. She spares herself the arduous labour of forming new opinions every morning, by recollecting and cherishing her opinions of yesterday. It is a habit which promotes solidity of thought.

To those who by right of heritage call themselves her sons, and even to such step-children as are, by nature or grace, attuned to the chill tranquillity of their foster mother, Philadelphia has a subtle charm that endures to the end of life. In the restful atmosphere of her sincere indifference, men and women gain clearness of perspective, and the saving grace of modesty. Few pedestals are erected for their accommodation. They walk the level ground, and, in the healthy absence of local standards, have no alternative save to accept the broad disheartening standards of the world. Philadelphians are every whit as mediocre as their neighbours, but they seldom encourage each other in mediocrity by giving it a more agreeable name. Something of the old Quaker directness, something of the old Quaker candour, — a robust candour not easily subdued, — still lingers in the city founded by the “white truth-teller,” whose word was not as the words of other men, — spoken to conceal his thoughts, and the secret purpose of his soul.