Evanston RoundTable, May 12, 2021
The other day I shared on my Facebook page the wonderfully infectious video of Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” synchronized to amazing clips from the Golden Era of Hollywood musicals. Aside from showcasing the greatest dancers – Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller, Fred Astaire, Bill Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Judy Garland, and Gene Kelly among them – the brilliant mashup by Nerd Fest UK with 60 million views also includes Laurel and Hardy, Jerry Mouse, Mickey Rooney, and Jimmy Cagney: all hoofers! Even Groucho. Who knew?
It’s not even five minutes, but it will radiate joy throughout your day and leave your jaw deeply askew. It reveals the genius and hopefulness of a time when America was going through a devastating Depression and then a world war. This was how our parents and grandparents made it through hard times.
I mention “Uptown Funk” – the song and the video – for one reason: music, dance, and the arts in general help us get through the difficult years. We should patronize and support the arts as much as possible. Theaters, clubs, symphony halls, movie houses, recital spaces, and concert venues have all been shut down for more than a year. How do artists and promoters recover from such a long hiatus? With our help.
Life would be a mistake without music, Nietzsche said. To compensate, it seems every generation produces musical geniuses to help us endure the hard times and inspire us to strive for better ones. Beethoven and Mozart lived in Vienna at the same time! Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker were all in New York City in the 1940s and ‘50s (along with Bartok and, later on, Bernstein). Miles and Bird were even, briefly, roommates. Imagine the jam sessions.
This week we celebrate the birthdays of two of the greatest musical artists of our (or all) time. Steve Winwood (known as Stevie in his early years) was born this day (May 12) in 1947 and Stevie Wonder tomorrow (May 13) in 1950. From all accounts, they are in good health. They continue to perform. They are global treasures. See them if you have the chance.
Both were prodigies. Stevie Wonder made his recording debut at 12 and produced a No. 1 hit single (recorded live at Chicago’s Regal Theater with Marvin Gaye on drums) at 13. Stevie Winwood was playing in his father’s jazz band at nine and his pop group bumped the Beatles off the top of the British charts when he was 17. They were in their prime in the 1960s and ‘70s but they’ve both continued to create great music. Hungarian author and statesman András Simonyi credits Winwood’s band Traffic with helping launch the eastern European break from Communism.
The two Stevies performed together just once, at a 1997 concert. Fortunately it was captured on video. Backed by an all-star band, they sit stage front, side by side behind their keyboards, belting out Winwood’s No. 1 hit Gimme Some Lovin’. The visuals are poor but the sound quality is fine and to hear them together – the Mozart and Beethoven of our day (if Mozart and Beethoven had great pipes) – is a precious gift. Check it out.
It’s curious that their birthdays fall within 24 hours of each other. What is it about early May that produces such artistry? A quick search turns up an eclectic assortment of musical artists born in the first half of the month, including John Lewis, Bing Crosby, Pete Seeger, James Brown, Ron Carter, Keith Jarrett, King Oliver, Randy Travis, Red Garland, Sidney Bechet, Adele, Hank Snow, Billy Joel, Bono, Gary Peacock, Gil Evans, and Mary Lou Williams. Brahms too. Is it because this is the time of year for optimism, growth, and eternal hope, which music provides in abundance? That makes no astrological sense but (as far as I’m concerned) perfect cosmic and spiritual sense.
Nietzsche got it wrong. Life wouldn’t be a mistake without music. If there were no music, we wouldn’t know its absence. We don’t miss colors we can’t see. Still, maybe we’d sense some indefinable void, some inexplicable whiff of sadness. Thankfully we don’t have to. Music makes the hard times better and the good times roll.