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Music Makes Me

Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz

Todd Decker
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    Music Makes Me
    Book Description:

    Fred Astaire: one of the great jazz artists of the twentieth century? Astaire is best known for his brilliant dancing in the movie musicals of the 1930s, but inMusic Makes Me, Todd Decker argues that Astaire's work as a dancer and choreographer -particularly in the realm of tap dancing-made a significant contribution to the art of jazz. Decker examines the full range of Astaire's work in filmed and recorded media, from a 1926 recording with George Gershwin to his 1970 blues stylings on television, and analyzes Astaire's creative relationships with the greats, including George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer. He also highlights Astaire's collaborations with African American musicians and his work with lesser known professionals-arrangers, musicians, dance directors, and performers.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95006-1
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    Fred Astaire filmed his first dance solo in a Hollywood musical to the sound of a live jazz jam session. The occasion, a momentous one in hindsight, was by Hollywood standards a genuine jazz encounter. The date was 7 September 1933; the film,Flying Down to Rio;the song, “Music Makes Me (Do the Things I Never Should Do).” The musical and choreographic content of this routine, when put beside archival evidence for how the number was made, provide a foretaste of Astaire’s remarkable four-decade career dancing on screen. “Music Makes Me”—the finished film dance and the process behind...

  5. PART ONE. Astaire among Others

    • CHAPTER 1 “There’s a difference and Astaire is it”
      (pp. 21-52)

      Fred Astaire was incomparable. There’s no more succinct way to describe him or his career. He arrived in Hollywood an established Broadway star and almost immediately became a legend, movie business jargon for an irreplaceable screen presence with indefinable magic. It didn’t hurt that Astaire did something no one else was doing in any comparable way: he danced. Astaire stayed at or near the top for a quarter century, never dropping off the radar entirely or experiencing a genuine slump. The critics generally adored him and he was admired by men and women alike (not an easy feat, especially for...

    • CHAPTER 2 “I am a creator”
      (pp. 53-96)

      Astaire wrote out his own autobiography in longhand at the end of the 1950s. Published in 1959,Steps in Timeis a bland recitation of one success after another. Always an admittedly uninteresting interview subject, Astaire, when telling his own tale, was polite and distant. But the published book bears almost no resemblance to Astaire’s first draft, which was cantankerous, colloquial, and often technical about the pro cess of movie making. In one lengthy chapter that was cut entirely from the book, Astaire took on the major film critics one by one, revisiting a quarter century of reviews (mostly positive,...

  6. PART TWO. Astaire at the Studios

    • CHAPTER 3 “I play with the very best bands”
      (pp. 99-114)

      TheNew York Timesreviewer forBroadway Melody of 1940excused himself from the task of dealing with the plot. That wasn’t why he or Astaire’s audiences were there in the first place. “It is always the sincerest form of sabotage to analyze the plot of a musical production, and in this case it might be doing an active disfavor to the reader himself, if thereby he might be deprived of the sheer, unmental plea sure of following the intricate arabesques of sophisticated rhythm which the startling Astaire still manages to tap out with his not yet superannuated toes.”¹ Few...

    • CHAPTER 4 “Tell them to let it swing”
      (pp. 115-127)

      The production of musical films brought together two, normally separate studio departments: writers in the writing department conceived of the story and wrote the dialogue; composers, lyricists, dance directors, arrangers, and orchestrators loosely allied in an expanded music department created the musical numbers. The archival traces left by these two departments offer different, often complementary perspectives on the filmmaking process. Scripts were the blueprints for the studio system production process. These story-centered documents were essential to the system’s rational approach to making an expensive, inherently risky product like the feature film. Beyond the final shooting script, draft scripts, outlines, and...

    • CHAPTER 5 “Fixing up” tunes
      (pp. 128-166)

      Writing and music department staffs at the Hollywood studios did not normally mix. Astaire worked closely with the musicians, and it is to their specialized task of making musical numbers that we now turn.

      Synchronized sound films confronted studio music departments with a diverse set of creative and technical tasks demanding a division of responsibilities, with one man—and these were all male preserves¹—doing the composing in a sketched-out fashion, others orchestrating and laying out the details, teams of copyists turning out parts, and conductors (sometimes the composer) leading the staff musicians in the studio’s own recording studios, where...

  7. PART THREE. Astaire in Jazz and Popular Music

    • CHAPTER 6 “Keep time with the time and with the times”
      (pp. 169-216)

      Popular music has almost always been dance music.¹ The dance bands’ primary economic role was playing for dancing, and the film musical—especially during the era of the band pix—reached out to dancers in particular. This chapter considers how Astaire’s films bridged the gap between dancing couples on-screen and real social dancers moving to the changing beat of popular music. This connection is easiest to see and hear in the named partner dances Astaire created and introduced across his career.

      Named dances embody a specific marketing strategy: create a buzz around a new dance that generates interest in a...

    • CHAPTER 7 “Jazz means the blues”
      (pp. 217-245)

      Charles Emge spent most of the 1940s on the Hollywood beat forDown Beat.Emge joined the Chicago-based publication when the Los Angeles–basedTempowas absorbed intoDown Beatin 1940, and he introduced himself to a national readership in a self-deprecating manner that nonetheless staked a claim to insider status as a musician. “I’m still a musician to the extent that I have a small, very lousy band at a small neighborhood ballroom. At present I am masquerading as a sax player but it’s pretty general knowledge around Los Angeles that I’m a reformed banjo player who had...

    • CHAPTER 8 “Something that’ll send me”
      (pp. 246-270)

      Astaire worked on a relatively small scale, trying always to stay within what he once called the “welcome limit.”¹ But while he never showed an interest in making longer forms (such as dream ballets) or choreographing groups of dancers, Astaire’s routines were more than miniatures. As he told an interviewer in 1937, “Working out the actual steps is a very complicated process—something like writing music. You must think of some step that flows into the next one, and the whole dance must have a pattern. If the dance is right, there shouldn’t be a single superfluous movement. It should...

    • CHAPTER 9 “You play and I’ll dance”
      (pp. 271-310)

      In 1935 Astaire gave an interview toThe Chicago Defender,an African American newspaper with national reach. Like all black newspapers, theDefenderfollowed entertainment news closely: it was an area where black individuals excelled on the national stage. Prominent use of black performers in “The Carioca” suggested to some in the African American community that Astaire’s future films might provide further openings for black song-and-dance talent on the big screen. Going to the source, theDefender’sreporter wanted to know if Astaire’s ascendant star promised more possibilities for “Race” performers.

      “Flying Down to Rio,” RKO’s big 1933 sensation, did...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 311-326)

    Jazz records had a meaningful place in Astaire’s musical life. More than just a means to play drums with a big band at home or a shortcut to collaboration with his television guest stars, jazz records could goad Astaire on as a dance creator, as shown by his oft-told story of why he came out of retirement in 1948. Astaire announced his retirement in 1946, symbolically ending his career with a solo dance to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” inBlue Skies.But after a year spent traveling, watching his race horse Triplicate rack up wins, and launching the Fred Astaire...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 327-346)
  10. References
    (pp. 347-356)
  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 357-360)
  12. Permissions
    (pp. 361-362)
  13. Index
    (pp. 363-375)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 376-376)