Thursday, February 9, 2012

Michael Feinstein's American Songbook

Before watching the first two episodes of Michael Feinstein's American Songbook, I merely thought of him as an extremely talented singer and entertainer. After watching the first two episodes of American Songbook, I was in awe of how much Michael Feinstein has done to preserve our musical heritage. In fact, I have deemed Michael Feinstein the ambassador of America's Musical Heritage. He is the ultimate collector; a cultural conservationist and preservationist; a tireless archivist; and a cat lover. A kindred spirit! That's a whole lot of responsibility for one man, but he makes a case for his life's passion in his three-part PBS series. In the new season, which began last Friday, he shares his penchant for great music and, best of all, he opens up his personal archives.

The first episode, 'Time Machines,' weaves together Feinstein's brilliant performances and other contemporary renditions of classic songs with older (often 'lost') footage of both famous and forgotten artists into a fascinating tapestry that sheds light on the American experience whilst simultaneously telling Feinstein's story of cultural self-awareness through his discovery of our musical legacy. He introduces several interesting personalities, all collectors sharing their preference for bygone eras and endangered media. We meet a film collector with a museum devoted to Mills Panoram machines, which played Soundies, proto-music videos of jazz-era musicians. Through the passage of time, many of the faces are forgotten, and the rousing music is more like a novelty. However, a few faces that had yet to make names for themselves emerge in the collection, including a rare clip of a promising pianist named Walter Liberace.

Next, Feinstein visited the University of Michigan - Kansas City, home of the Marr Sound Archive, which includes a vast collection of orphaned formats. The Marr Archive is one of the largest of its kind outside the Library of Congress. Only 30% of its gigantic collection has been fully cataloged.

Hugh Hefner's segment was surprisingly endearing and perceptive. Apparently, he cares passionately about art, music (especially jazz), film, and preserving our cultural heritage. His 1960s syndicated television show, Playboy's Penthouse, was a landmark musical achievement at a time when segregation was still a standard. It was a gutsy move to host a show that brought many African-American entertainers into predominantly white living rooms. His show was meant to be a swanky cocktail party showcasing live jazz. He championed many unknown black performers, including an extremely charming Bobby Short singing 'The Likes Of You.' Hefner also curates his own jazz festival, and last year, his financial contribution rescued the Hollywood sign from near destruction. He is an avid collector and offered several insights on the importance of our cultural legacy. Hefner's assertion that young people no longer have a sense of cultural history is tragically spot-on. Since fewer people are interested in our past, there is less motivation towards conservation and preservation. He and Feinstein agreed that a sense of cultural history is essential to understanding oneself and that the past defines the present. For me, this was the most poignant segment of the first episode. Now, Hugh would have guessed that!?

The second episode, 'Putting On The Tail Fins,' dealt with the emergence of rock n' roll in the 1950s and how that reinvigorated the American songbook. Feinstein referred to Nelson Riddle's reinterpreting of Frank Sinatra's classic repertoire of the 1930s as 'Putting On The Tail Fins.' He illustrated the endurance of these timeless songs by exemplifying Cole Porter's 'Begin The Beguine.' The song rose to popularity as an Artie Shaw instrumental. Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell danced to a different musical arrangement in Broadway Melody of 1940. Frank Sinatra was the first to popularize a version of the song with lyrics. And, in this episode, Michael Feinstein did his own rendition in the style of Nelson Riddle. Feinstein explored how, at the time, the star was the song rather than the performer. Popular songs were performed by many artists who could all have a hit with their own version of the same song. It wasn't until the rise of pop idols like Frank Sinatra that the popularity of the singer superceded the songs.

A recurring theme in the American Songbook series is the destruction and disappearance of recorded media. As technology has progressed and few people have maintained older formats, aging media has become obsolete and often unplayable. So, as with film, instead of being archived or conserved, they are just tossed in the junk pile or, in some more hopeful cases, packed into storage units which may eventually make it to archives, preservationists, and collectors who facilitate the transfer of the priceless for posterity. This is a tragedy. They are often the only recorded document of some of the artists and their work and the only link to an era that was culturally rich and alive. As Feinstein said of the endangered media that must be saved, they 'capture a moment in time...To be able to revisit that moment fifty or one hundred years later is spectacular.' Perhaps the worst scene of the second episode was a quick shot of the 405 freeway in Los Angeles where M-G-M dumped thousands of pounds of irreplaceable records from their archives to serve as the basis for the construction of the road.

Michael Feinstein claims his motivation for performing is his fear that if he doesn't perform the songs he loves so much and bring them back to a modern public, they will become relics of the past. Performing also gives him the means to build up his own music archive. His aural repository is filled with all manner of music, personal recordings, broadcasts, and the ephemera that complements his archive. He spends much of his free time scouring markets, shops, and storage units for hidden gems; meticulously transferring recordings to modern media; and archiving and cataloging the original source material. Nothing must ever be disposed of because one must always return to the source material to transfer to the newest medium.

While other individuals have concentrated their efforts on saving our film heritage, Feinstein has concentrated on preserving music. It's an admirable labor of love. Regardless of what aspect of our cultural history one chooses to preserve, archive, and share, it is important work. There are no collections too small and no archivists too minor. Every time music, film, and other ephemera is destroyed, a little bit of our collective history is lost forever; it's as if it never existed. As we erase our past, we are slowly obliterating the present and making our own existence obsolete. Perhaps that is why I find relinquishing our past so scary and tragic. What was once so alive and vital can be snuffed out in the blink of an eye. 'Time erases many things that are important to a current generation but that becomes entirely meaningless to future generations.' American Songbook is fascinating, entertaining, and extremely urgent.

Watch Michael Feinstein's American Songbook on PBS. Check your local listings for times. The third installment, 'Lost And Found,' a musical treasure hunt uncovering the songs that almost got away, is scheduled for Friday at 9 PM EST. You can purchase a DVD of the series at the PBS shop and on Amazon. Finally, learn about Michael Feinstein's Great American Songbook Initiative.

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