Always Look on the Bright Side
OFAM walks the sunny side of the street
By Brett Campbell
In that most poignant of Woody Allen’s movies, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Mia Farrow’s character represented millions of actual Americans who sought solace from the travails of the Great Depression by escaping into Hollywood’s cheery fantasies, such as Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire tripping the light fantastic to Irving Berlin’s music in the movie Top Hat. While there was plenty of justified artistic teeth-gnashing, then and later, about the greed-(mis)guided policies that caused so much misery for so many, such fantasies were particularly appealing to the descendants of recent pioneers and immigrants whose journeys and triumphs were fueled by optimism. This summer’s annual Oregon Festival of American Music takes a characteristically thoughtful and compelling look at how the movies, musicals and above all the tunes of the time represented a vital, peculiarly American response to hardship. And it makes a strong case that in spite of or because of those tough times, American artists produced some of the greatest sounds of any century.
American optimism has its bright side (Franklin Roosevelt inspiring real policy change and recovery) and dark (Ronald Reagan — a one-time FDR disciple — and his handlers and political descendants playing on our optimism to camouflage exploitative economics that devastated the poor, stagnated the middle class and enriched the privileged), but it’s undeniably a characteristic feature of our culture. OFAM’s excellent summer survey uses the work of some of the century’s greatest artists to offer insights into what makes America what it is — and some fantastic music to boot.
The festival kicks off with the 1988 stage adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, which retains Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen’s magnificent songs and almost all of the screenplay. Seeing such an immortal beauty in a new outfit may force us to take a fresh look at often-heard songs whose unsurpassed glory may be obscured by seeing them performed so often in the 1939 film. Then comes the July 30 Silva Hall opening gala, featuring songs from that most fecund creative nexus: Harlem’s Cotton Club, whose legendary revues birthed so many of Duke Ellington’s early masterpieces (often unfairly eclipsed by his later, more ambitious but no more compelling works) and other classics like “Stormy Weather.”
Other top concert recommend-ations (all at the Shedd) include trumpeter Byron Stripling’s July 31 concert featuring Louis Armstrong’s legacy. Whatever its other shortcomings, the Ken Burns/Wynton Marsalis Jazz public TV series helped rescue Satchmo’s early radical progressivism from the later “entertainer” image that briefly obscured his true greatness, which this concert will demonstrate. A major highlight: that evening’s tribute to Harold Arlen, a songwriter whose music everyone knows and yet whose significance is probably still underrated. With masterpieces like “Over the Rainbow,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “One for My Baby” and so many others, his name deserves to be as recognizable as Beethoven’s. As usual, this concert will toss in some delightful rarities as well as many of the classics. Similarly, any devotee of feminism or music ought to recognize that, long before Joni Mitchell or Madonna, Dorothy Fields was one of the most important lyricists — of either gender — in American music, as the Aug. 1 concert (with such masterpieces as “The Way You Look Tonight” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”) will demonstrate. The great Harlem pianist and songwriter Fats Waller certainly belongs in the uppermost pantheon of American artists, so the Aug. 5 tribute to him, featuring singer-guitarist and Waller-wallah Marty Groz and piano legend and early jazz expert Dick Hyman is unmissable, even if it omits Fats’ terrific though decidedly unoptimistic indictment of the era’s virulent racism, “Black and Blue.”
OFAM ’08 again enlists the festival’s usual corps of excellent performers: singer Maria Jette, Stripling, actor Bill Hulings and many others. And it maintains its typically insightful (and free-of-charge) ancillary fare — a look at Max Fleischer’s wonderfully imaginative (pre-censorship) Betty Boop cartoons and their music (which OFAM calls “the 1930s version of MTV”); screenings of important films such as Shall We Dance, Casablanca and To Have and Have Not; incisive talks by academic/practitioner experts such as Steve Stone and Carl Woideck about the period’s great creative artists, such as Ellington, Armstrong, songwriters Arlen and Fields and more; and other events that put those fabulous tunes in the context of the times that spawned them. With OFAM now extended to 11 days, there’s too much to cover in a single column, so don’t wait for our Aug. 7 issue’s previews to get your tickets to the second week’s offerings.
For the festival’s full schedule, see www.ofam.org