Fred Astaire: one of the great jazz artists of the twentieth century? Astaire is best known for his brilliant dancing in the movie musicals of the 1930s, but in Music Makes Me, Todd Decker argues that Astaire’s work as a dancer and choreographer —particularly in the realm of tap dancing—made a significant contribution to the art of jazz. Decker examines the full range of Astaire’s work in filmed and recorded media, from a 1926 recording with George Gershwin to his 1970 blues stylings on television, and analyzes Astaire’s creative relationships with the greats, including George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer. He also highlights Astaire’s collaborations with African American musicians and his work with lesser known professionals—arrangers, musicians, dance directors, and performers.
Music Makes Me Fred Astaire and Jazz
Fred Astaire filmed his first dance solo in a Hollywood musical to the sound of a live jazz jam session. The occasion, a momentous one in hindsight, was by Hollywood standards a genuine jazz encounter. The date was 7 September 1933; the film, Flying Down to Rio; the song, "Music Makes Me (Do the Things I Never Should Do)." The musical and choreographic content of this routine, when put beside archival evidence for how the number was made, provide a foretaste of Astaire's remarkable four-decade career dancing on screen. "Music Makes Me"-the finished film dance and the process behind its creation-also encapsulates the larger themes of this book, which details how music of a particular kind-for now, call it jazz-lay at the heart of Astaire's creative life as both dancer and dancemaker on film. Astaire's first film solo offers a prism for his creative life, a life as much about music as it was about dancing and filmmaking.
Astaire danced two "hot" instrumental choruses of this Vincent Youmans tune. Edward Eliscu and Gus Kahn's lyrics had been sung in an earlier scene by Ginger Rogers. The chorus describes how popular music might affect a susceptible listener.
I like music old and new,
But music makes me do the things I never should do.
Oh, I like music sweet and blue,
But music makes me do the things I never should do.
My self-control was something to brag about,
Now it's a gag about town.
The things I do are never forgiven,
And just when I'm livin' 'em down;
I hear music, then I'm through,
'Cause music makes me do the things I never should do.
Astaire's dance solo-a syncopated rhythm tap routine performed on a small dance floor-has no significant place in the film's plot. It's a specialty that says more about Astaire's already well-defined music and dance persona than it does about the film. Set against an exotic South American background, Flying Down to Rio served as a colorful excuse for a variety of musical numbers, and the reviewer for the trade paper Variety understood the merits of Astaire's work relative to the rest of the picture: "But Rio's story lets it down. It's slow and lacks laughs to the point where average business seems its groove. From the time of the opening melody ('Music Makes Me'-and hot) to the next number, 'Carioca,' almost three reels elapse and anybody can take a walk, come back and be that much ahead. Those who keep on walking, however, will muff Astaire's specialty, which is down next to closing, where it belongs." Variety describes Flying Down to Rio as if it were a vaudeville show, with "Astaire's specialty" to "Music Makes Me" "down next to closing," the best spot on any bill. By the standards of the time, the film was an excuse for the numbers. Variety's approach to the film musical as a commercially viable host genre for musical numbers operates as the norm throughout this study of Astaire's creative work. He was not a maker of film musicals: Astaire made filmed song-and-dance routines. The distinction is crucial.
The setup for the dance to "Music Makes Me" begins with Astaire's character, self-referentially named Fred Ayres, rehearsing a group of chorus girls for a nightclub show. The shooting script generally reflects what happens in the film.
At this point, Roger [played by Gene Raymond], a little bored by all this, starts the orchestra playing the vamp of Fred's number. Fred begins to get fidgety feet. He waves the orchestra to silence. It stops.
FRED: Boys wait a minute will you? Now, as I was saying, before-
The orchestra repeats the vamp. Again Fred succumbs to the music and does a few steps and then waves the Orchestra to silence.
FRED: Hey Rog-listen will you-listen girls-How do you expect me to teach these follies girls if you-if you don't keep your mind exactly on the jib, you can't do a thing-because
Orchestra begins again. Fred resigns himself and goes into his number.
The laconic designation "his number" is about as specific as most Hollywood screenwriters got when putting the musical and choreographic content of a dance number into words. In Astaire's case, such content remained firmly under the control of Astaire himself and a trusted set of collaborators. However, differences between the lead-in to the number in the script and in the film are worth noting. All are musical in nature.
The script calls for the music to stop and start: in the film, however, the music never stops. Instead, the musical structure of the tune is integrated into the larger conceit that music compels Astaire to dance. In the lead-in to the dance the script suggests the band play a vamp, a short rhythmic idea that can be repeated indefinitely and easily started and stopped. Vamps are typically associated with vaudeville and Broadway. In the film, the band instead plays once through the chorus of Youmans's song, which is thirty-two bars long and in standard AABA form (four phrases, each eight bars long). When the band falls silent for a two-bar break at the end of the second A phrase, Astaire finds himself compelled to fill the empty space, just as any improvising jazz musician might. Being a tap dancer-a kind of jazz percussionist-Astaire fills the break with syncopated rhythms. Breaks formed an integral part of popular music and jazz for decades, making room for solo improvisation in the midst of a hummable tune. Astaire's use of the breaks-a lifelong practice deployed to varied ends-serves as but one indication that he thinks in jazz terms. Astaire the dancemaker-and not his screenwriter-used the song structure of "Music Makes Me" and the common practices of jazz musicians to express the internal narrative of the routine, which in this case nicely connects with the lyrics. Again and again in his output, the conventional structures of popular music and jazz compel Astaire to dance. Paying close attention to musical form-in effect, listening to the dance-reveals much about Astaire's approach to both dance and music making.
The Hollywood studios of Astaire's day were filmmaking factories, and, like all such monumental enterprises, the studios kept meticulous records. In some cases-and, fortunately, at RKO and MGM, the two studios where Astaire made the bulk of his films-many production records have survived. A variety of production files from the RKO collection at the University of California, Los Angeles gives a glimpse of when and how Astaire's solo to "Music Makes Me" was made. Like most of Astaire's solos, "Music Makes Me" was filmed at or near the beginning of production, or shooting, on the film. On that September day the twelve actors playing the members of the Yankee Clippers dance band reported to the set for the first time. The players on screen are faking it-they make up a fairly convincing group of what the industry called sideline musicians-while off camera a second set of players, actual musicians, made the music to which Astaire rapped out his solo. Sound and image were captured together. The very beginning of Astaire's long career overlapped with the transitional period between silent and sound film. Within months of filming this routine, live music on set would be a thing of the past and the playback system would become standard for Hollywood musicals. The playback system replaced live music with a prerecorded soundtrack captured in the more controlled environment of a recording studio. Film musical performers pretended to sing to the recording while filming the image track, and sound and image were then wedded to each other during postproduction. Film musicals, for most of Astaire's career, were entirely synthetic products, made using a methodical process and nothing like a live performance captured on film. As will be shown, Astaire was directly involved in every step in the laborious process of making moving pictures that sang and danced, and he exercised considerable control over the technical process in almost all of his films. But in September 1933, filming the image track and recording the sound track simultaneously was still a possibility, and Astaire took advantage of this practice for as long as it lasted. Coming as he did from the world of live stage performance in vaudeville and on Broadway, having actual musicians on the set-if not on-screen-may have provided one familiar element for Astaire, who found himself in the midst of a still unfamiliar technical process, lacking any audience response to gauge his overall success putting over a song-and-dance routine.
Musicians were important collaborators for Astaire, and archival research sometimes reveals who was playing on his films. The musicians playing on "Music Makes Me"-six in all-were the responsibility of the RKO music department. Bob Morrow on violin, Gene La Franiere on trumpet, Eddie Sharpe on saxophone, A. Gifford on banjo, and Jack Barsby on tuba were hired by the hour for the gig. Joe Heindl was paid for contracting the ad hoc group. Uncredited on the film itself-typically only heads of departments were listed in the abbreviated screen credits of the studio era-some of these players left traces in the history of recorded jazz. Hal Findlay on piano joined this group of five jazz players. Astaire's rehearsal pianist on Flying Down to Rio, Findlay had been close to the dance to "Music Makes Me" from its beginnings in the rehearsal studio. Astaire's regular accompanist at RKO would be a different Hal-Hal Borne-but Findlay was on the job in this case, filling an essential role in Astaire's creative process. Rehearsal pianists played the music that made Astaire dance while he was making up his dance steps. (On occasion a drummer was also present.) Of all the musicians on the lot, Astaire's rehearsal pianists knew the musical structure and special requirements of Astaire's dances most intimately. Rehearsal pianists collaborated with Astaire and his dance assistants on the musical arrangement, and, once the dance was set, wrote out a short score indicating all the important musical points of emphasis for the arrangers and orchestrators in the music department, who would, in turn, clothe the number in the sounds Astaire wanted. In the case of "Music Makes Me," Findlay would have been the de facto leader. Only he knew when the small jazz combo should lay out in order to get out of the way of Astaire's solo breaks. Musical collaborators such as Findlay were essential to Astaire's working methods, and these behind-the-scenes creative actors play major roles here. Their expertise and experience-frequently brought directly from the worlds of jazz and popular music-inform Astaire's output in substantial, even defining, ways.
The actual music played by this small jazz combo does not survive. Instead, there is only a folder listing the name of the song, the names of the six players, and their phone numbers: essentially, a call list. This was clearly a pickup group, not a regular RKO ensemble. Did anyone bother writing out parts for Astaire's solo to "Music Makes Me"? Probably not. None of Astaire's moves are matched (or "mickey moused") by the band, and the breaks occur in predictable places. All six players would have been perfectly capable of improvising from a lead sheet or after hearing the chord changes on "Music Makes Me" a few times. The sound of the music does not suggest arrangement. It's a jam session in a popular early 1930s style, exactly as the setup suggests. The sextet swings hard, sounding like such contemporary jazz ensembles as Joe Venuti's Blue Four and Blue Five, a prominent violin-centered combo. Jazz critic and historian Gary Giddins has described Venuti's Blue Four as "white jazz at its best, providing the most distinctive alternative to the very different kind of chamber music represented by Louis Armstrong's electrifying Hot Fives and Sevens." The sideline violin player faking it on-screen plays with his bow tied around the instrument, engaging all four strings at once so that chords are played throughout. This novel approach was used often by Venuti, and violinist Morrow plays in the same style on the soundtrack. Someone on the set matched sound and image as faithfully as possible. Such care would have delighted jazz players and lovers who went to see Flying Down to Rio, and the views of such musically oriented moviegoers will be heard throughout this book. Their always musically biased opinions bring a surprising new perspective to the story of the Hollywood musical in general, and the work of Astaire in particular.
Why does Astaire start dancing in "Music Makes Me"? This is a focused version of the larger question at the center of this book. Taking my cue (and my title) from the title of the song, I will argue that music made Astaire dance. And not just any music: popular syncopated music, which for most of Astaire's long career meant some variety of jazz, whether swing, boogie-woogie, the blues, soul jazz, or, in this case, a collective improvisation aesthetic typical of the 1920s (and reaching beyond that to the roots of the music in New Orleans). Astaire's danced response to the music of a fictional jazz band, ghosted offscreen by actual jazz musicians, is joyful, seemingly involuntary, slightly out of control, and completely of its early 1930s moment. It starts in the feet, interrupts his thought process, and is not yet all that refined. In her influential book The Hollywood Musical, Jane Feuer builds a short reading of Astaire's career on "his trademark 'reflex' dancing." Feuer writes, "The involuntary dancing motif not only serves to associate dancing with utterly spontaneous impulses; it also implies that for Astaire the dance is a life process like breathing." Feuer detaches the word dancing from all historical context-there are many different kinds of dancing-and omits the key point that Astaire required music of a certain type before his "utterly spontaneous impulses" kicked in. He didn't just dance: he danced to music. And only certain kinds of music had the power to set him off. This book zeroes in on the varied musical stimuli that made Astaire dance, always with an ear and an eye to the historical context that gives specific meaning to the capacious categories of dance and music.
The internal narrative to "Music Makes Me"-syncopated popular music making the dancer dance-occurs again and again in Astaire's enormous output. It's the most common narrative device he drew upon to provide internal cohesion for his dances. In "The Continental" from The Gay Divorcee (1934), his second film and first leading role at RKO, music briefly pushes Astaire into the dance in the middle of Ginger Rogers's vocal chorus. Attentively listening to Rogers sing, Astaire suddenly starts tapping when she gets to the suggestive lyric "a certain rhythm that you can't control." Astaire embellishes the rhythm of the tune itself, tapping a pattern that matches the melody being sung, adopting a practice jazz drummers call "playing the stems." In the case of Astaire (or any tap dancer), this approach can be usefully termed "tapping the stems." The overlap between drumming and tapping can be found in such parallel practices. From the start of his screen career, Astaire was a jazz drummer without a drum kit. Several times he remedied this lack and danced with drums as his partner. All rhythm tappers were drummers in spirit, and Astaire was far from being the only tapper. Indeed, tap dance was everywhere in American popular culture between the World Wars, as ubiquitous as sampling in current popular music. Tapping the stems with a rhythm-referencing lyric in "The Continental" was no aberration. Astaire did this often, as will be shown. He gravitated toward syncopated, tappable moments in the melodies of the popular songs that came his way, and songwriters soon enough began to write songs with exactly those kinds of syncopated patterns. As singer Barbara Lea noted, "The composers who wrote for him wrote light rhythm songs, because he was a dancer, and a circular thing took effect. Their songs probably made him even more that way, which made them produce more of the same sort of songs, and so on." The chapters that follow frequently highlight Astaire's search for "light rhythm songs," as well as his songwriters' not-always-successful attempts to meet his demands.
The theme of music making the dancer dance turns up everywhere in Astaire's work. It is his most fundamental creative impulse. Following this theme also helps connect Astaire to trends in popular music and jazz, highlighting his desire to meet the changing tastes of his audience. His comic partner dance with Marjorie Reynolds to the Irving Berlin song "I Can't Tell a Lie" in Holiday Inn (1942) provides a revealing example. Performed in eighteenth-century costumes and wigs for a Washington's birthday-themed floor show, the dance is built around abrupt musical shifts between the light classical sound of flute, strings, and harpsichord and four contrasting popular music styles played on the soundtrack by Bob Crosby and His Orchestra, a popular dance band. Moderate swing, a bluesy trumpet shuffle, hot flag-waving swing, and the Conga take turns interrupting what would have been a graceful, if effete, gavotte. The script supervisor heard these contrasts on the set during filming to playback. In her notes, she used commonplace musical terms to describe the action: "going through routine to La Conga music, then music changing back and forth from minuet to jazz-cutting as he holds her hand and she whirls doing minuet." Astaire and Reynolds play professional dancers who are expected to respond correctly and instantaneously to the musical cues being given by the band. In an era when variety was a hallmark of popular music, different dance rhythms and tempos cued different dances. Competency on the dance floor meant a working knowledge of different dance styles and the ability to match these moves to the shifting musical program of the bands that played in ballrooms large and small. The constant stylistic shifts in "I Can't Tell a Lie" are all to the popular music point. The joke isn't only that the classical-sounding music that matches the couple's costumes keeps being interrupted by pop sounds; it's that the interruptions reference real varieties of popular music heard everywhere outside the movie theaters where Holiday Inn first played to capacity audiences. The routine runs through a veritable catalog of popular dance music circa 1942. The brief bit of Conga was a particularly poignant joke at the time. A huge hit in the late 1930s, the Conga during the war became an invitation to controlled mayhem, a crazy release of energy in a time of crisis when the dance floor was an important place of escape. A regular feature at servicemen's canteens, the Conga was an old novelty dance everybody knew, so its intrusion into "I Can't Tell a Lie" can perhaps be imagined as something like hearing the mid-1990s hit "Macarena" after the 2001 terrorist attacks-old party music echoing from a less complicated time. If today we miss these finer points, in 1942 audiences-who flocked to this movie-certainly got them all. "I Can't Tell a Lie" was funnier then, and for specifically musical reasons that had everything to do with the larger world of popular music and dance. As subsequent chapters will demonstrate, many such musical jokes or references can be recovered by listening to Astaire's films in the context of the popular music marketplace.
It's not so easy to miss the musical jokes in Astaire's last big solo, a recasting of his signature tune "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" in a late-1960s rock style that closed his final television special in 1968. Astaire danced on television for a full decade after the film musical in its studio-era incarnation disappeared. His four television specials (1958, 1959, 1960, and 1968) were consistently acclaimed by the television industry and critics. In the mid-1960s, Astaire guest hosted several episodes of The Hollywood Palace, a revival of vaudeville entertainment values that gave him further opportunities to make dance routines for television. All his TV dances looked to the popular music moment, giving Astaire the chance to engage creatively with contemporary musicians whose music made him want to dance. Often these were African American jazz players, some with roots in the swing era, others exploring newer but still popular jazz styles. For the 1968 "Top Hat" finale, Astaire went out on a limb musically and brought in The Gordian Knot, a rock band enjoying a brief season of popularity on the Hollywood scene. After doing a bit of "Top Hat" in his understated manner to a swinging beat provided by the Neal Hefti Orchestra, the house band on the special, Astaire pulled the proceedings into the pop music present, saying, "That was then. But now, if we were to turn on with that groovy sound of The Gordian Knot ..." A dissolve put Astaire-still with top hat and cane but now wearing a turtleneck and trendy medallion-in a brightly colored cube-shaped set with a group of similarly attired male dancers. Perched high above on a scaffold, The Gordian Knot wore beads and flowing garb echoing The Beatles' contemporary fascination with all things Indian. The band plays a simplified version of Irving Berlin's sophisticated tune. Moving across the pre- and post-rock divide, the musical contrast between then and now is extreme. And unlike the shifts back and forth between classical and popular styles that worked to comic effect in "I Can't Tell a Lie," once "Top Hat" lands in the land of rock and roll, there's no going back to swing time.
Astaire's initial sung version presents "Top Hat" in an articulate and complete manner, respecting the structure of the tune. The Gordian Knot-working with Astaire, of course-takes a much freer approach, in the end reducing the melody to a two-chord groove and singing a largely incomprehensible lyric.
I'm putting on my top hat (yes I am)
Brushing off my tails
I'm putting on my top hat (yes I am)
Really gonna wail
This transformation of a well-known song-done with the permission of the still very much alive Berlin-demonstrates the extent to which Astaire's songwriters let him do absolutely anything he wanted with their songs. However, Astaire's rock version of "Top Hat" carefully preserves one element of Berlin's tune: the bridge (see example 1). Every time Astaire danced "Top Hat," he tapped the stems on Berlin's syncopated bridge (also known as the release and the B in this AABA tune). Astaire tapped the bridge on all three dance choruses in the original 1935 film version and on the pop record made the same year for release with the film. The bridge ends up being the only syncopated moment in the 1968 rock version. The roots of Astaire's creative identity in a pre-rock, jazz-oriented, syncopated rhythmic style briefly rise to the surface.
Astaire tries hard to be "with it" while dancing with The Gordian Knot and the routine is not played for laughs. He had the idea of bringing the band onto the special, and this shared production number was meant to be taken at face value as the big finish to the show. The original "Top Hat" production number would have been familiar to many viewers in Astaire's 1968 audience from television and revival cinema showings of Top Hat. Indeed, without this reference point the rock version would have lacked resonance. And what Astaire proclaims about his musical identity in the 1968 version is essentially the same message he delivered in the more iconic 1935 version, in his solo to "Music Makes Me," and in virtually all the dances described in the pages that follow. This dancing man moves to the beat of the times while remaining faithful to an underlying syncopated rhythmic sensibility. He makes music-makes rhythm while dancing-and responds to the sounds of the moment. Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz examines Astaire's identity as a rhythm- and dancemaker attuned to the changing beat of American popular music from the 1920s to the 1960s. For most of that time, jazz was in the ascendant as popular music. The high point for jazz as popular music-the so-called swing era, narrowly defined as the mid- to late 1930s and early 1940s-coincided with Astaire's prime. After the coming of rock and roll in the mid-1950s, jazz did not leave the popular music mainstream-and neither did Astaire. In enduringly popular forms, jazz tunes, techniques, rhythms, and sensibilities from the swing era maintained their presence-albeit a diminishing one-in all parts of the popular culture establishment, on film, television, records, and radio. With the inevitable impediment of his advancing age, Astaire survived the rock-and-roll transition along with several other swing-era jazz figures who found a way to stay both in the groove and true to the wellsprings of their art. Among these survivors were Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Buddy Rich, and Frank Sinatra. This study places Astaire in these performers' eminent company, surrounding him with the many creative individuals with jazz credentials who made specifically musical contributions to his work as a dancemaker on film, television, and records.
Music Makes Me considers the full breadth of Astaire's "camera career" as a singer and dancer on film and television, plus his work on record. (Table 1 is a quick reference guide to the span of Astaire's career encompassed by this book.) The earliest example drawn upon is a 1926 record, on which Astaire sang and tapped with George Gershwin at the piano; the latest is Astaire's dance to three choruses of the twelve-bar blues on The Dick Cavett Show on television in 1970. I do not delve deeply into the sources of Astaire's creative persona in the early phases of his career on vaudeville, Broadway, and West End stages. Nor is this a conventional biography. Beyond Astaire's 1959 autobiography Steps in Time, a cluster of popular biographies from the 1970s and 1980s and Peter J. Levinson's recent Puttin' on the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache (2009) all provide fairly reliable narratives of the events of Astaire's life. John Mueller's extraordinary Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films (1985) is the essential monument of Astaire scholarship. Mueller's meticulous parsing of every dance number in every film provides uniformly detailed coverage of Astaire's cinematic output, and his introductory chapter remains the best summary of the facts of Astaire's career. What I hope to add to Mueller's work, beyond integrating Astaire's television dances and recordings into the story, is a specifically musical perspective that is, inevitably, selective where Mueller's dance-oriented analysis is comprehensive.
Astaire has often been characterized as inimitable, and I have no intention of denying this. But I want to describe his uniqueness in historical rather than critical terms. Part 1-"Astaire among Others"-provides the broadest comparative context for Astaire's career. Chapter 1 places Astaire among four types of show business peers. In such varied company, Astaire's uniqueness can be seen to flow from specific industrial, social, and aesthetic contexts, extraordinary opportunities enjoyed by no other figure, and personal creative sensibilities shaped by the times in which he lived and came of age as a dancemaker and musician. Astaire was an entertainer by profession, working near the center of a vibrant entertainment economy. The many performers laboring in the same commercial vineyard were doing substantially different work from Astaire. Defining his differences from his peers is a needful first step before Astaire's work can be discussed on its own terms, a task that occupies the remainder of the book. Astaire was a popular entertainer, and chapter 2 defines the product he sold and how he made it. Astaire worked within a popular music culture that relied on songs, originating as sheet music and presented to the public in a variety of routined forms. From Astaire's position in Hollywood, the entertainment industry was a realm where songs both old and new were sold by professionals with distinctive, personal styles who were eager to please their audiences and keep them wanting more. In an interview with Joseph McBride in 1981, Astaire described his life's work as "trying to make a buck and make it look good and knock a lot of people on their ass in the aisle." Chapter 2 considers in general terms how he went about doing this, looking briefly at Astaire's relationships with the songwriters who wrote specifically for him and his collaborative work with several kinds of show business professionals who assisted him in routining songs for film, television, and records. Astaire's primary creative focus on making musical numbers, rather than musical films, is laid out in chapter 2 as well.
Part 2-chapters 3, 4, and 5-locates Astaire as maker of musical numbers within the studio-era production system. Connections to popular music and jazz prove important wherever one looks. Films set against jazz-friendly backgrounds outnumber those in theatrical contexts. Jazz bands, real and imagined, play a major role both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Draft scripts contain clues to how musical style was understood by Astaire's screenwriters. And music department archives reveal the extent to which the arrangements and orchestrations for Astaire's routines drew upon popular music and jazz trends and talent. Hollywood was never deaf to popular music. There was tremendous overlap between popular music and the film musical. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to understand what is happening musically in an Astaire number without situating the number within a specific historical popular music context.
Part 3 contains four chapters, each taking up a different pattern or theme in Astaire's output relating to jazz and popular music. Chapter 6 looks at Astaire the maker of partner dances. Links between Astaire and his various partners in the idealized realm of the film musical and real-life couples in actual American ballrooms are explored through the named dances Astaire frequently introduced in his films. Named dances were intertextual by design, intended to translate beyond the screen. By looking behind and around the screen image, we can gain a sense of how Astaire tried, often with little success, to insert himself into the realm of social dance. In 1952, Astaire remarked that "jazz means the blues," and chapter 7 explores this comment in practical terms by detailing Astaire's varied use of the twelve-bar blues progression as a musical scaffold for dance making. All the important popular blues-based idioms turn up in Astaire's work, from boogie-woogie and swing blues (use of the blues progression by big bands) to 1950s rock and roll and 1960s soul jazz. Chapter 8 analyzes three idiosyncratic routines from the late forties, a period of aesthetic and commercial uncertainty in popular music, jazz, and the film musical alike. Insights from production documents and close analysis of musical and choreographic content reveal how these three routines express Astaire's creative sensibilities with particular sharpness. This triptych also demonstrates his ability to work without the formal "net" of conventional song forms. Chapter 9 moves to questions of casting and content by examining Astaire's film and television routines made in partnership with African American musicians. I read this substantial body of work as an ongoing project in Astaire's creative life, placing five representative examples in historical context. Spanning more than a thirty-year period, these dances trace not only Astaire's ongoing engagement with black jazz and popular musicians, but also the changing possibilities for interracial performance on big and small screen alike. While each can be read on its own, the chapters in part 3 are ordered with a purpose. Details and references accumulate from chapter to chapter, with the last in the group-chapter 9, concerning Astaire's work with African American musicians-offering the broadest perspective on the span of American life covered in this book. In all four, close analysis of musical, choreographic, and visual content helps bring out a pattern of bright threads tying Astaire to jazz and popular music. The book concludes with a portrait of Astaire as sideman, surveying select recordings made with jazz musicians that put Astaire as both dancer and singer into thoroughgoing jazz contexts.
Many books have been written about Astaire, and many of his collaborators, friends, and admirers have been interviewed. Interviews can provide much in the way of useful information, but memories of the past are not the same as evidence from the past. As far as possible, my conclusions are grounded in sources from the period: studio production files, musical scores, correspondence, and contemporary print media. These sources afford a fresh look behind the scenes at the Hollywood studios where Astaire did his creative work. By putting musical, cinematic, and production matters of a sometimes technical nature at the center of my story, I have endeavored to reconstruct as fully as possible the process behind Astaire's work, gaining some measure of access to his closely guarded rehearsal studio. In this way, I hope to place Astaire's body of work in a rich historical context that reveals the inevitably intertwined industrial, social, and aesthetic origins of his singular contribution to American popular culture from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Along the way, Astaire's engagement with varied jazzmakers suggests an inclusive view of the music, one that brings jazz into the too often separately told histories of popular music, the film musical, and variety television. I view these narratives as one big story, a tale with much to say about how American artists worked out the complexities of race relations in the twentieth century in the creative realm of commercial popular culture. Astaire's creative life forms an important chapter in that larger story, and it is my hope that any reader with an interest in how the process of racial reconciliation played out in American popular culture will find something of value in the story of Fred Astaire told here.
About the Book
“Mr. Decker digs deeply into Astaire's creative process, anatomizing what went into each production. . . . Illuminating, richly detailed analysis.”—Wall Street Journal
“Delving into production schedules, credit sheets, cast lists, and other studio paraphernalia, Decker gives us a good look at Astaire-related activity behind the scenes.”—New York Review Of Books
“Fascinating. . . . To many for whom that composure, the seemingly effortless debonaire dance-floor partnership with Ginger Rogers and urbane delivery of the Great American Songbook, is the only abiding image of a Hollywood treasure, much in Decker’s account of Astaire’s musicianship and the range of this talents in Music Makes Me may come as a surprise.”—Times Literary Supplement (TLS)
“With so much original research and observation, Music Makes Me is a worthy addition to the books that have been inspired by the genius of Fred Astaire.”—Reelzchannel Maltin On Movies
“A worthy resource. . . . Highly Recommended.”—C. Wadsworth Walker Choice
“Decker convincingly portrays Astaire as a performer whose main activity was not just dance and song, but who was dedicated specifically to jazz dance and music. . . . He is covering films and recordings that have been viewed time and time again by critics and consumers of popular music alike. However, Decker’s approach is fresh and thorough, and the behind-the-scenes look at Astaire’s manipulations of the studio system and the popular music industry is worthwhile even separated from the jazz framework. Decker uses much archival material to back up his claims, and every detail is illuminating. . . . There is something of an unabashed joy in watching and hearing Astaire’s routines, and Decker’s book reflects that joy.”—Sarah Caissie Provost Clark University Notes (Music Library Assoc)
“Decker’s book complements previous Astaire scholarship. . . . [He] offers . . . fascinating observations to underscore the idea of Astaire as ardent listener and lover of all things ‘jazz.’”—Jennifer R. Jenkins Film & History“Music Makes Me is a bold, engaging, and utterly original take on Fred Astaire’s incomparable artistry, his musical legacy, and his stature as a true Hollywood auteur. In this bold, fresh, and endlessly insightful study, Decker takes us inside the creative process, describing how Hollywood provided Astaire with the resources to reinvent the musical genre in his own inimitable style—a jazz-infused, dance-obsessed style that found expression when, and only when, Astaire ‘let it swing.’”
—Thomas Schatz, author of The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era
“Decker defines Astaire-the-dancer as a kind of musician—and specifically a jazz musician—attuned to the most recent inflections of American popular music. With perceptive readings of films, songs, and ‘routines’ informed by an impressive array of archival material, he is able to analyze and describe Astaire’s artistry with unprecedented precision across his entire career. This is an outstanding book marking an important and unique intersection of music, dance, film, and race.”
—Jeffrey Magee, author of The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz
“Any residual hair-splitting about Fred Astaire’s relationship to jazz, as an incomparable dancer and engaging singer, has been deftly and resoundingly settled by Todd Decker. His deep research and authoritative writing aimed at fans of jazz and Astaire as well as musicians and musicologists elucidate the underpinnings of Astaire’s bond with jazz over a half-century. Add to the iconic songs Astaire performed (and that his career was song-driven), the perfect timing of his career, ability to adapt in film and later television and Decker’s thesis stands on Astaire’s magical feet and transcendent feat.”
—Tad Hershorn, author of Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice
“Music Makes Me is an important contribution in a much underexplored area, well researched, engagingly written, and insightful. It applies first rate scholarship informed by a warm and well informed (but not uncritical) empathy for its subject. A valuable contribution not only to studies of Fred Astaire and of the musical film, but of jazz and of twentieth-century American musical culture.”
—John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films
- Best First Book Award, Society for Cinema and Media Studies