No "Blues In The Night" To Bemoan
Harold Arlen Centennial Celebration Going Strong

Report by Rob Lester

Harold Arlen
Music may have become very compartmentalized, and songs from musicals may not be the hits of the day, but besides "Happy Birthday" or "Jingle Bells" it would be hard to find a song better known by all generations than "Over The Rainbow." Anyone with a heart (even a man made of tin) responds and remembers. Grow up more than a little and have that heart broken, and as a singer or instrumentalist or audience you'll connect to torch songs like "Blues In The Night" or "The Man That Got Away." In a more optimistic mood, what better love song than "Come Rain or Come Shine"? But only one person on earth can enjoy them and also say, "My father wrote those melodies." His name is Sam Arlen and, as the heir to Harold Arlen legacy, he has been spearheading the centenary celebration of the composer's birth.

A talented saxophonist, Sam also gets to show his love and understanding of the music by playing it. This has been documented on his CD Arlen Plays Arlen and in various 100-year anniversary celebration concerts throughout the year. The next is Wednesday, August 17 in Boston with Ann Hampton Callaway and the U.S. Air Force Band of Liberty. The concert is free of charge. It begins at 7 pm at Boston's City Hall Plaza. I recently had the chance to talk to Sam Arlen about his father's work and to also get some comments from Ann between her summer tour dates.

"The thing I keep hearing about the music," says Sam Arlen, "is 'Oh! I didn't know he wrote that!'" One of Sam's goals is to make sure that Harold Arlen's name becomes as known as his music. Perhaps because of their more colorful, dramatic lives and personalities, Cole Porter and George Gershwin are more "known" names. ("George Gershwin was Arlen's biggest fan," enthuses Sam, "He was a mentor.") Harold Arlen was an unassuming, quiet man who did his work but didn't seek the spotlight. Sam also hears often, "What a very nice man he was." Another word that pops up is "gentleman."

"This year has been a wonderful experience. One of the things we've been working on is getting the music into the schools, with special music arrangements. We also want to get more of the music into other countries." As his father did, Sam is quick to give credit to the lyricists, too, such as E.Y. Harburg, Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin, and Ted Koehler.

Harold Arlen grew up in Buffalo, the son of a cantor. Despite hearing the stories of Buffalo, Sam had never been to his father's hometown until last year. "The synagogue wasn't there any more, but we got a guided tour of his grade school." The children and grandchildren of Harold's Buffalo contacts were out in full force to welcome him. "He never forgot Buffalo," and they never forgot him. People brought old 78 rpm records Harold had made when he was singing with a group called The Buffalodians. Although recordings exist of Harold singing throughout the years (his original plan was to be a singer, not at all to compose), some of these were surprise treasures. The belated trip to Buffalo had a big emotional impact on Sam, which surprised him a bit ... being greeted like a long-lost friend by people sharing stories they'd heard of the city's famous son.

The 2005 centennial will continue beyond the year's end. It has included John Pizzarelli and others so good at bringing new life to old songs. And it keeps going. "The American Film Institute tribute was especially touching," Sam says, and though there have been celebrations at Carnegie Hall and all-Arlen concerts by various symphony orchestras, he's especially excited about the August 17 concert in Boston. It's partly because he gets to work with Ann Hampton Callaway, who has a special affinity for Arlen songs and is one of this generation's finest interpreters of the Great American Songbook.

Ann sent me the following comments:

"To sing Harold Arlen’s music is to sing out the heart of America. We, the children of an ever smoldering melting pot, the dreamers who are always looking just beyond the rainbow for that ephemeral possibility of a better life, find our hearts exposed, revealed and celebrated in his vast canon of songs. The seamless synthesis of his Jewish musical roots from his immigrant father, a cantor, with the sounds of jazz and blues that haunted him through life, created a unique alchemy that resulted in some of the most passionate, original, powerful songwriting of the twentieth century.

There is a sense of the ache of life in each of his songs. The yearning for something that is unseen and impossible to hold. When, as a child, I first heard the voice of the great Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow,” I felt understood. Harold knew that even children get the blues. I was no longer alone."

When she was in the Broadway musical Swing!, with music consisting mostly of great songs from the Big Band Era, Ann got the plum assignment of singing her heart out on "Blues In the Night" which, Sam agreed with me, is a sublime match. Perhaps because she's a gifted songwriter herself, Ann channels this one magnificently. She said that getting to sing it eight shows a week was one of the thrilling passages of her life.

Jazz players have always looked to Arlen, partly because (unlike some composers) he encouraged them to re-interpret the music. "He wanted people to take the music and make it their own. Young people should explore the catalogue," Sam comments. I asked about some of his own favorite Arlen songs and Sam mentioned "Moanin' In the Morning" and "Last Night When we Were Young," as well as "That Old Black Magic" and "When the Sun Comes Out." We also talked about Arlen interpretations by Tony Bennett ("the music really lends itself to his style") and Lena Horne, who has had a close association with Arlen songs from her teenage days at the Cotton Club through her trademark "Stormy Weather," and starring in Broadway's Jamaica. Sam would love to see a full-fledged revival of House Of Flowers and was pleased to see the Encores! New York concert productions of that show and St. Louis Woman. "There's still a lot more to discover!" he asserts, talking about some of the less known work.

Sam is very happy to see new recordings coming out and reissued, such as those reviewed in our Sound Advice column title Harold Arlen Celebration. Sam was happy to be a guest on Tom Wopat Sings Harold Arlen: Dissertation On The State Of Bliss and is at work on another all-Arlen album, this time with singer Martha Lorin, with whom he's been appearing in concerts. Barbara Cook's upcoming album, Tribute will have some Arlen music, and two other Barbaras have been doing Arlen tributes: Barbara Fasano's "I Had A Love Once: Arlen Songs" had a run at Danny's Skylight Room and pianist/singer Barbara Carroll has been exploring the composer's melodies as part of her concerts all year. A TV salute from the Bell Telephone Hour from years ago is being released on DVD this fall, too.

What else is in the works? Sam mentions the possibility of a film biography, long in the works, and other concerts and events. A list of them can be seen at It's quite a birthday, and Sam Arlen, a pleasure to talk to and hear playing his father's melodies, is a dedicated and delightfully determined keeper of the flame. That flame includes torch songs and hot jazz and all kinds of other great music that will keep burning its way into the hearts of anyone who loves music and real emotion. As Ann Hampton Callaway states:

"It is clear that this legacy is in excellent hands. I am looking forward to performing with him in our Boston salute called “Red, White and Blues” on August 17th with The Air Force Big Band. I look forward to learning more about the man who wrote so many of my favorite songs that I have performed and recorded. My peers and I devote ourselves to being “keepers of the flame” of the great songs of our country because in these troubling times, we believe we need great music more than ever. We need Harold Arlen. We need someone who can express what none of us can say in mere words. I am honored to share his soul, his spiritual yearning, his humor, his utterly American idealism with my fellow lovers of music. Long may this spirit live, prevail and triumph."

Thanks to Sam and Ann for their reflections and work, and thanks always to Harold Arlen for the music.

Privacy Policy