James Kaplan’s Sinatra: "…an almost operatic version of the blues"

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Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with James Kaplan (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3)

With biographer James Kaplan, we’re listening to Frank Sinatra sing “I’ll Be Around” and realizing that, of course, he kept his word. The Voice is still a believable foghorn in the mist of “your love life, your life life,” as Bono has testified. Or as Sinatra told Bono in the wee hours once in Palm Springs: “Jazz is about the moment you’re in. Being modern’s not about the future, it’s about the present.” Hearing him, Sinatra is still reliably a “modernista” (Bono’s word), a man of the now.

James Kaplan’s Frank: The Voice starts with a bang in recasting the hoary legends. About Frank and the Mob, for example, Kaplan says: understand that the effect of organized crime on the psyche of young Frank began with “his own inner godfather” — that is, with his own volcanic mother Dolly, the Hoboken precinct pol, midwife and sometime abortionist, who “scared the shit outta me,” Frank said. He grew up never knowing whether his mother was going to hug him, or hit him. She became the grandma who summoned Frank’s kids with “Hey fuck-face!” It’s been said to explain Sinatra’s perfectionism, and some of his edginess on stage, that he could see in the audience thousands of versions of his mother’s face.

The other inescapable female in Sinatra’s moods and music, and all through James Kaplan’s story, is Ava Gardner, Sinatra’s second wife for scarcely two years in the early 1950s, but the muse of his singing forever after. “Ava Gardner taught Sinatra how to sing a torch song,” as the nonpareil arranger Nelson Riddle put it, and the hard lessons stuck in the famous saloon songs we are marveling at again: “A Fool to Want You,” Sinatra’s one-take obit on the Gardner affair, and “One for my Baby” and “Here’s That Rainy Day.”

We are listening to “Sweet Lorraine,” from 1946 — Sinatra more than holding his own with the astonishing Metronome All-Stars — Nat “King” Cole on the piano, Buddy Rich on drums, Coleman Hawkins on tenor, Charlie Shavers on trumpet, and from the Ellington band, saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney and trombonist Lawrence Brown. We’re struck by the mutual affinity between Sinatra and the black jazz immortals — his obsessive study of singers like Billie Holiday and Mabel Mercer; his long and ecstatic attachment to Count Basie; the admiration shared among legends like Lester Young and Miles Davis. My friend Charlie Davidson, the tailor who “dressed” Miles’ band in its best-dressed days, likes to remember asking Miles: “Do you really like Frank Sinatra?” and Miles responding: “Charlie, if he had one tit, I’d marry him.”

James Kaplan’s may be the first of the many Sinatra “lives” that’s relentlessly detailed about both man and music and judicious about the mercurial mix of the two. Kaplan can hear “the smile in Sinatra’s voice” (when it’s there). And then in conversation he strikes a wonderful line about Sinatra’s peculiar accomplishment — “an almost operatic version of the blues.” Kaplan has dug deep into Sinatra’s diction and masterful phrasing, into his furious ambition and juggernaut drive, his lifelong reading habit, his mostly liberal and always serious politics, his genius intuition for the Zeitgeist. He is persuasive that Sinatra was a man apart in the entertainment industry: a driven popular performer, ever in hot pursuit of new sounds and the next hit, but whose standards in the end were not commercial. He explains why when we speak of Sinatra as the iconic and probably immortal performing artist of the American Century, we put more and more emphasis on that mysterious word: artist. Frank: The Voice extends this bountiful year in major musical biographies — of Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and now Sinatra. Not the least joy of these 700-plus pages, which close on Sinatra’s comeback with “From Here to Eternity” and the song “Young at Heart” in 1953, is that they’re just the first half of the story.


  • J M Worden

    Fantastic conversation. It is so good to hear about the music, and not just the tabloid fodder. Sinatra is known because of his music, and for good reason. It is nice to hear a real discussion of it.

  • Potter

    True, as James Kaplan says, that all great music occupies an even playing field. I must agree having just spent a little time listening to an amazing Pavarotti and Joe Cocker duet (on Youtube) which makes the point.

    If you let him, Sinatra gets into you deeply for life. At one point early on I did.

    Thank you for almost an hour of the most wonderful selections, (good taste!) this appreciation/analysis of the best music of Frank Sinatra focusing ( as advertised) on his artistry with deserved and maybe previously missing empathy.

    When I was barely a teen I started listening to “Frank” for hours on end spurred on by my closest friend. We eagerly awaited new LP albums and then overplayed them until they were burned into us. I did not think of this as the blues; they were songs about the loneliness, really, the essential loneliness of the human condition ultimately (“In the wee Small Hours,” “Only the Lonely”) but not like the black blues (as Albert Murray describes in “Stompin’ the Blues”). Frank had that feeling though-maybe it was depression, like Billie Holiday- and he sang it with style. This interview brings me a nostalgia, brings back that part of my life.

    Stereo was new then and some LP’s were still monaural. I thought of Sinatra as a “swinger”, big band, not really of the jazz I heard listening to Errol Garner and even Ella Fitzgerald. If anything Sinatra maybe was transcending such categories- unique. And at my tender age I did not think in categories anyway. You could, though, say he was a crooner if you were of my mother’s generation.

    To be honest I listened to Frank so much that I got very tired, almost sick of Frank, especially of the Nelson Riddle Reprise period: “Nice and Easy”, ring a ding, rat pack and all that. That did me in with Frank. But you play me now “Here’s that Rainy Day” now, and bring me tears. I think it was good to put all this time between us.

    I finally drifted away from Sinatra and his politics, which I strongly disagreed with, and into the era of folk, blues, bluegrass, rock and roll etc. I did think the Beatles were the beginning of something else. I knew we were not the world of Frank Sinatra or Judy Garland anymore. (We thrilled to Judy Garland too). So apparently did Sinatra know or fear this. He did have a lot to dislike about rock and roll or rock I suppose. It may have sounded like noise to him. A lot of it was and maybe still is (to me.) I wonder if he were alive today whether he would feel that Fats Domino is wonderful. He is!

    So many wonderful songs played here in this interview and so much well said. In particular, along with Sinatra’s genius for diction and amazing breath control (phrasing) it was that deep real feeling he was able to bring up because he was so serious about his music even when it might have appeared otherwise. He had the most wonderful songs to choose from too, to interpret: the great songwriters and lyricists of that period. Sinatra did have great taste-and ultimately showed a kind of “class” especially so in the light of his tough beginnings. I love the story Chris of our exchange with Frank, he saying “anybody hit choo let me know”- ( you were part of his family after that and maybe he’s still protecting you.)

    Thank you for a very enjoyable tribute to Sinatra- for prompting up my own memories- and again for the excellent selections. I listened with new ears (on my good headphones)- especially to the Road to Mandalay with Red Norvo in Australia. We are blessed with such music.

  • Potter

    “Here’s that Rainy Day” so moved me that I went to look it up. The orchestration was beautiful. But find that it was Gordon Jenkins. Kaplan says it was Nelson Riddle’s string arrangement about 18 minutes in (I never much cared for those strings- too harsh for me always). Wasn’t this Sinatra and Jenkins from during his Capital Record years ( from the album “No one Cares” )?

    Also I meant to write above:

    I love the story Chris of YOUR exchange with Frank and he responding “anybody hit choo let me know”…..

  • Tom Reney

    Chris, thanks as ever for this terrific conversation and thoughtful analysis of the Chairman. You and James Kaplan brought Sinatra alive for me like never before, and after reading David Brooks’ NYT column on Tolstoy the other day, I had to chuckle at hearing you use Isaiah Berlin’s Hedgehog and Fox analogy work in the context of Basie and Ellington. Of course, given his aversion to jazz, Isaiah would be scandalized, but who cares? Sinatra loved the African-American idiom, and something of its essence informed his art and life. To many, Sinatra is an archetype of Italian-American-ness, but in his art he was quintessentially American, informed as much by the blues as bel canto.

    His “Sweet Lorraine” is masterful, but that was Johnny Hodges, not Paul Desmond, in the cast. A what a neat sequencing of “Night and Day” and “Lorraine;” the former featuring Sinatra’s behind-the beat phrasing with Red Norvo’s vibes, whereas on the latter, he’s right on top.

  • http://www.radioopensource.org chris

    Thank you, Tom Reney — who as Sinatra would say is “much too much, and oh so very very” to ever (yes, splitting the infinitive) identify himself as the Chairman of jazz deejays, the host of “Jazz a la Mode” on WFCR, 88.5 on the FM dial in Western Massachusetts. Tom’s daily emailing of his amazingly thoughtful playlist is my guide to what’s cool, what’s hot, what’s here to stay. About the Hedgehog and the Fox, I only wish I’d emphasized the multitudinous nature of the things the fox (that’s Duke) knew — and the infinite depth and variety and meaning of tha one thing that Count Basie knew more about than anybody, which was 4/4 time. But hey, we were just winging it, and I was glad to get it in. Blessings, Tom. And to everybody else, find a way to hear “Jazz a la Mode.”

  • nother

    “See, music is about style. Like if I were to play with Frank Sinatra I would play the way he sings, or do something complementary to the way he sings. But I wouldn’t go and play with Frank Sinatra at breakneck speed. I learned a lot about phrasing back then lisening to the way Frank, Nat “King” Cole, and even Orson Welles phrased. I mean all those people are motherfuckers in the way they shape a musical line or sentence or phrase with their voice.” Eddie Randle used to tell me to play a phrase and then breathe, or play the way you breathed. So, the way you play behind a singer is like the way Harry “Sweets” Edison did with Frank. When Frank stopped singing, then Harry played. A little before and a little afterwards, but not ever over him; you never play over a singer. You play between them. And if you play the blues you just have to play a feeling; you have to feel it.”

    -MIles from “MIles The Autobiography”

  • Peter P.

    Chris, this was a wonderful analysis of the man and his music and I’m looking forward to reading Kaplan’s book. Both his – and your – recollections really bring so much depth to the craft that Sinatra brought to life. The discussion brought me back to the early 80s when I saw him with my brother in Vegas. The best was at the Golden Nugget, just two or three rows from the stage, where it really felt like being in a saloon somewhere with Frank. Sitting next to us was a school teacher from the midwest. She asked if I was Italian, which I confirmed. Then she said, “Well, will you be able to get us back stage to see Mr. Sinatra?” Needless to say, that didn’t work out!

  • nother

    My best friend (we met in the Navy and I was the best man at his wedding) died a few years after we got out of the service, he had young daughter and another daughter still in Tina’s belly. I flew to Kansas for his funeral. Derek was a man’s man, he was a thick dude – cornbread fed as we used to say. The toughest and most earnest human being I ever met. I spent those nights in Topeka Kansas drinking cheap beer with his dad in the living room. His dad was an alcoholic former postman and he had a lot of regrets, and during those nights we sat there in rocking chairs with comfortable tears and Mr. Askins wanted to say so much to make things better – I could feel that – but nothing could make this shit better. The time for that had passed. So instead the two of us just stared at the ceiling and listened to “My Way” over and over again. But the song was more than a tribute to Derek, it became a revelation to us in real time. We came to understand in those hours that Derek embodied the spirit of those lyrics and we were lucky to have played a part in his song. Mr. Askins was calling me his son after a few nights and I was happy to abide deep into the night. I told him lies about how much Derek loved him and we promised to stay close and keep talking. I left Kansas and we never spoke again. Mr. Askins died a couple of years later. Manhood is a funny thing.

    When I think about Frank and MIles I think about manhood first. I think about the depths of their ballads and how they wrestled with manhood, both of them to a fault. Yet both had the courage to expose their vulnerabilities and that says something in my book.

    Look no further then the international sensation Michael Buble. He does a great Frank impression, sells billions of records makes billions of dollars, but if someone hits you/hids you, don’t go telling him. He’s not gonna have your back like Derek Askins, or Frank Sinatra.

    Thanks for letting us in on this wonderful conversation. You made us feel like we were members of the board.

  • Avec Frites

    Very nice.

    Hearing a mention of Mel Torme, it reminds me that he would be a good subject for a show. Maybe interview his son Steve, who is also a singer.

  • Hans Suter

    I once asked the late Rudolf Mazzola, Kammersaenger at Vienna’s Staatsoper, which singer he thinks has the best singing technique, to my surprise he didn’t name Fischer-Dieskau or the like, it’s Frank Sinatra, he said, no voice, all technique, great.

  • Alain Pacowski

    Once again interviewing in the high league! Chris playing duets with James Kaplan, reacting and interjecting like the best rhythm sections in Jazz!

    As for Frank, he symbolizes perfectly the American cultural ideal, blurring the lines between high culture and pop, erasing the border between great art and entertainment. And of course added to that is a mega dose of glamour, the very American ingredient that is so fascinating and attractive when experienced from my French prism.

    If I focus on the purely musical facet of such a multi talented artist (great singer, actor and show host) I will zoom in on the one quality that grants him a place in the pantheon of jazz legends: his beautiful sense of Swing.

    He shares with all the great jazz musicians, like Satchmo, Prez, Hamps, Dex, Rabbit and so many others, this incredible elasticity and freedom with time, always going over the bar line and thus ceaselessly moving forward until the song is finally over. He possessed the aerial swing of the trapeze artist who has absolute control of space and can dance in it with a masterful grace, staying up in the air effortlessly and landing lightly on earth only on the last note of the tune.

    It is the privilege of a few within the aristocracy of Jazz to be able to demonstrate this complete absence of hesitation as when to start and end each phrase (Frank loves to start on the up beats, not the down) and as how to place themselves in regard to the beat (slightly before or after, or dead center). Frank would play freely with all this placements.

    And last but not least, as with all the best jazz artists, Frank paired his rare gift of Swing with a rich and complex tone that never completely quenches the thirst of the listener, who is left always wanting to hear more of that deep magical sound.

  • Potter

    Alain Pacowski- I remember that wonderful hour with Chris ( 2007) here “Le Jazz Hot”. Thank you for your post above on Sinatra. I just learned something: that Swing is a style of Jazz, not separate, and so that it did include Sinatra’s music and the Big Band music.

  • Eenusch

    Thank-you Chris for this delightful interview and for yet another occasion to sneak in a reference to Emerson.

    I look forward to reading Mr. Kaplan’s book.

  • http://stepno.com bob stepno

    Terrific show, Chris. And thanks for the email reminder to check in, just in time now that semester grades are in.

  • David C.

    Thanks for the great show Chris, I always felt that you excel in discussing music and culture. While I appreciated Nelson Riddle, I am more than convinced that Count Basie did more for Sinatra, much hipper arrangements (no “business men’s bop”…). Just listen to Sinatra’s recording with the Count as opposed to Nelson Riddle. And yes Mel Torme has not gotten his due either. But let us not forget a much overlooked voice, Johnny Hartman — the real “velvet fog.”