When I was a freshman at Oregon State University, I encountered the husband-and-wife piano/vocal duo William Bolcom and Joan Morris for the first time. I had wandered into a record store and bought a copy of their LP, George Gershwin: Piano Music & Songs. (Remember the hands-on excitement of rummaging through record bins and never knowing what you’d discover?) When I got it home, the first cut I played—“I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”—demanded that I keep on playing it over and over. The performance was so joyful, so infectious, that I couldn’t get enough of it. It’s still my favorite version of the song I’ve ever heard.
As I collected more and more of Bolcom and Morris’s recordings over the years, many of their performances found their way onto my most-treasurable list. A few examples: Jerome Kern’s “Cleopatterer”; Irving Berlin’s “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun”; Arthur Solman and Arthur J. Lamb’s “The Bird on Nellie’s Hat” and Paul Dresser’s “On the Banks of the Wabash.”
On December 26, I heard Bolcom and Morris, now in their seventies, in a one-night-only concert at New York’s Metropolitan Room. For me, it was a somewhat emotionally loaded evening. In another week, I will be moving to Miami, where I begin a new job. And although I will be returning to New York, and to my partner and close friends as often as possible, I’m struggling a little with the fact that thirty-four years have passed since I moved to New York. Back then, one of my hopes was that one day I would find a community of artist friends who would share my love of music, theater, film, and literature. I wanted to be around people who moved faster than I did. I was lucky: that’s just what I found. But I didn’t guess that I would ever have the chance to meet so many of the great artists I had grown up admiring.
Once, while I was on the editorial staff of Opera News, I spent an afternoon interviewing Bolcom, Morris, and their brilliant collaborator, Arnold Weinstein, at Weinstein’s apartment in the Chelsea Hotel on West Twenty-third Street. I think it was around 2004. It was an afternoon to remember: the conversation was spontaneous and wide-ranging, as they shared recollections from their remarkable careers. At this point, the New York I had fallen in love with so long ago was rapidly vanishing: the secondhand book and record shops, revival movie theaters, funky (read: affordable) restaurants and cocktail lounges, and movie memorabilia shops were all on the endangered species list. Already, the city had made a shiny present of itself to the hedge-fund geniuses and high-rolling realtors. But sitting there in the Chelsea with Bolcom, Morris and Weinstein, I had the pleasant illusion that nothing had really changed—that practicing your art to the best of your abilities was still the real, driving heartbeat of New York. I remember thinking that I wanted to send for my things and quietly move into Weinstein’s apartment and keep on talking to them—although I think they probably would have noticed and possibly even objected.
At the Metropolitan Room, it was remarkable how much of Bolcom and Morris’s old verve and airy style remains intact. They opened with a charming version of Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck,” then treated the audience to the evening’s best performance: “On the Banks of the Wabash,” with all the old yearning and melancholy fully present. There were moments when I could almost see the moonlight shining on the water. (It reminded me of Donald Gramm’s recollection of hearing Lotte Lehmann singing Schubert’s “The Crow” and swearing that he could actually see the bird flying over Lehmann’s head.) Early in the program, Bolcom seemed to be playing a bit fast for his wife’s (and his) own good, but he quickly settled down, and together they offered glorious renditions of “Just a Map” from Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s The Rothschilds and Kern and Hammerstein’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.”
Part of Bolcom and Morris’s appeal is that they don’t mine their material fiercely; by not overreaching, they somehow achieve a very high artistic level. The degree of wit and joy they bring to their music-making brings out aspects of the songs that we might miss otherwise. Morris’s way of singing English lyrics is singular. In The New Yorker, the great critic Andrew Porter once astutely observed that “her coloring or placing of a particular word is so enchanting that one needs to hear it again at once.” At the Metropolitan Room, she delighted me by the way she tossed off the line “It’s any old millionaire in a storm” in Johnny Mercer’s “When the World Was Young.” And the sense of defeat she poured into “Weary of the road that never stops descending/Of the rocky road that seems unending” in Eubie Blake’s “Weary” was something wondrous.
The audience was full of musicians and writers who know exactly what Bolcom and Morris are worth: among them, Sheldon Harnick, Steven Blier, John Corigliano, Mark Adamo, Steve Ross, the Ninety-second Street Y’s Deborah Grace Winer, and Playbill’s Harry Haun. As I left the nightclub, I felt that the New York I cherish most was still there—even if you have to look a lot harder for it these days.
Bolcom & Morris: When the World Was Young
Monday evening, December 26th at 7:00 PM
(I’ve Got) BEGINNER’S LUCK (1937)
Words by Ira Gershwin; Music by George Gershwin
ON THE BANKS OF THE WABASH, FAR AWAY (1897)
Words and Music by Paul Dresser
I DON’T WANT TO PLAY IN YOUR YARD (1894)
Words by Philip Wingate; Music by H. W. Petrie
WHEN THE WORLD WAS YOUNG (1950)
English lyrics by Johnny Mercer; Music by M. Philippe-Gerard
YOU CAN’T SEW A BUTTON ON A HEART (ca. 1930s)
Words by Dan Daugherty; Music by Jack Yellen
I HAPPEN TO LIKE NEW YORK (1931)
Words and Music by Cole Porter
EL CAMBALACHE – THE JUNK SHOP (1942)
Words and Music by Enrique Santos Discepolo; English version by William Bolcom
WHAT IT TAKES TO MAKE ME LOVE YOU—YOU’VE GOT IT (1914)
Words by J. W. Johnson; Music by James Reese Europe
Words by Andy Razaf; Music by Eubie Blake
Words and Music by Irving Berlin
JUST A MAP (1970)
Words by Sheldon Harnick; Music by Jerry Bock
THE FOLKS WHO LIVE ON THE HILL (1937)
Words by Oscar Hammerstein II; Music by Jerome Kern
HUMPHREY BOGART (1973)
Words by Jerry Leiber; Music by Mike Stoller
I ONLY DRINK CHAMPAGNE (2015)
Words and Music by Jeffrey Stock
Words by Arnold Weinstein; Music by William Bolcom
I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TIME IT WAS (1939)
Words by Lorenz Hart; Music by Richard Rodgers
JEEPERS CREEPERS (1938)
Words by Johnny Mercer; music by Harry Warren