Saving the Songbook
By WALLACE BAINE
Sentinel staff writer
On Wednesday, the great Tony Bennett turned 79, a number that doesn’t sit well with Ron Kaplan. Yes, Kaplan is a big Tony Bennett fan, but his anxiety goes beyond that. The Aptos jazz singer is worried about the cultural legacy that Bennett represents. He’s worried about the Great American Songbook.
As a result, Kaplan is embarking on a noble and ambitious project to preserve what he calls “our gift to the world, our cultural treasure.” He’s referring to American music popular in the years between 1920 and 1950 that came out of the Tin Pan Alley tradition, Broadway and the Hollywood musical and written by such towering figures as Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and others.
The aging of Bennett, who Kaplan calls the most prominent ambassador of American song alive today, means that the “American Songbook,” as the body of work is often called, may be in cultural eclipse. Thus, Kaplan’s effort, the American Songbook Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to underwriting and presenting performances of the songs that Bennett himself has called “the classical music of our time.”
“People all over the world are familiar with this music and honor it as a true American legacy,” said Kaplan who performs tonight in a double bill with San Francisco singer Paula West at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. “In our culture, however, we don’t seem to give it the same significance.”
The Songbook also includes such great songwriters as Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Mel Torme, Jerome Kern and great songwriting teams like Rodgers & Hart, Rodgers & Hammerstein and George & Ira Gershwin, encompassing hundreds of landmark songs from “My Funny Valentine” to “Over the Rainbow.”
Kaplan does not necessarily agree with those who believe that the emergence of young, sexy jazz singers like Diana Krall and Norah Jones means new life for the classic American Songbook. In Kaplan’s view, such artists haven’t developed their craft enough to explore the full range of the Songbook and, in fact, are involved in all sorts of musical cross-pollination that have lessened the impact of the Songbook on the American musical canon.
Citing a trend in which young jazz singers are turning to the work 1970s-era singer/songwriters like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, Kaplan says that young artists too often don’t have the commitment or the attention span to carry on the legacy.
“Today, there’s young musicians coming out of places like the Berklee School of Music, and they can do all these extended chords and jazz riffs. But they don’t really know the music. My fear is that these older people who really know the music, who know how to play it and how to sing it, those people are dying out.”
What Kaplan hopes to do about that is to build an internationally recognized organization that brings jazz singers committed to the Songbook to younger audiences. Tonight’s show with Kaplan and Paula West is a kind of example of the thing Kaplan hopes to start nationwide. The ASPS will enlist a roster of jazz musicians and vocalists and underwrite their performances in high-profile venues and jazz festivals across the U.S.
Kaplan said that he would give artists absolute freedom to interpret the music as they see fit, but would insist on only performing music considered part of the Songbook canon, and the shows meet certain standards of presentation.
“I think we would go in the direction of gowns and tuxedos and elevating it, like Duke Ellington did, to a certain level of sophistication.”
Kaplan is an accomplished jazz singer in his own right, having just recorded his fifth album on his own label, Kapland Records – “Saloon” will be a simple voice-and-piano album.
But he’s also been an independent insurance agent in Aptos for years. That business experience, he said, leads him in a direction more as a executive of the new organization rather than a performer.
Kaplan’s plans come into clearer focus when it comes to his budget. He hopes to raise a whopping $25 million from individuals, corporate grants and foundations, which would give a yearly budget of about $1.25 million. He’s already gotten words of support from such prominent figures as jazz critic and writer Nat Hentoff and star trumpeter and jazz preservationist Wynton Marsalis.
In addition to constantly honing his instrument as a singer, Kaplan has also taken courses in nonprofit management, hoping to give the new organization a solid foundation. Now comes the hard part, shaking the trees.
“(Preserving the Songbook) is just such an American, patriotic thing to do, I really don’t see why anyone wouldn’t respond to it. I just have to go out now and hit the bricks. I have to make it happen.”
If You Go
WHAT: Ron Kaplan and Paula West, in a benefit concert for the American Songbook Preservation Society.
WHEN: 7 p.m., tonight.
WHERE: Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz.
COST: $14 advance; $16 at the door (with 6 p.m. dinner $25).
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