- Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz
At a narrative crossroads in Irving Berlin’s film Holiday Inn 1942, two male leads – one a well-known crooner, the other a hoofer by trade – discuss their futures, both personal and professional. To keep the girl he loves away from his rival, the singer (Bing Crosby) suggests that the dancer (Fred Astaire) might try going it alone for once: “I think you’re better off doing a single; you’re a born soloist, you know!” In spite of his recent jilting by the third member of their former act, Astaire quickly rejects that advice: “I’ve got to have a partner!”
In an inherently collaborative medium like the film musical, Astaire achieved great success throughout his career with a string of talented partners. However, at the end of his autobiography, Astaire writes of how ill suited he would have been to a career in ballet: “I wanted to do all my dancing my own way, in a sort of outlaw style.”1 As Todd Decker points out frequently over the course of his book, the connections between Astaire and the wealth of popular music styles that formed his lifelong soundtrack make it impossible to deny his awareness of and reverence for the potential infused in every note and beat of this career “partnership.” As Decker’s title states, music “made” him in terms of giving him material with which to work, but that influence was most definitely a two-way street; this “outlaw” gave back to American music via the power of his inventive dance and his passion for promoting the styles and players he cherished.
Decker’s book complements previous Astaire scholarship, which has dealt primarily with the dance component of his musicals. Surveys by Arlene Croce (1977) and John Mueller (1985)2 focus almost entirely on the visual aspect of Astaire films, with Mueller’s considerable study delving into frame-by-frame discussions of many signature numbers. Decker builds on these landmarks in two ways: first, by dissecting a few of Astaire’s numbers using the tools of musical (rather than choreographic) analysis; and second, by enlarging the view of Astaire’s oeuvre beyond his best-known films. Indeed, in the discussion of Astaire on television and on record Decker offers some of his most fascinating observations to underscore the idea of Astaire as ardent listener and lover of all things “jazz.” [End Page 83]
The opening section, “Astaire Among Others,” provides a comparative survey of other contemporaries who thrived in fields related to Astaire. Decker recognizes Astaire as an impressive figure even in the company of luminaries, because although each performer showed tremendous talent in one of these areas, Astaire managed to be accomplished across the board. Some were wonderful technicians who lacked creative inspiration, others took direction well as desired by the studio, but none took the lead in reshaping a style or a genre. Astaire’s filmic accomplishments resulted in an unparalleled level of control over his musical numbers—and, as Decker later notes, sequences that fell short were almost always the ones where Astaire’s input was less valued. His exclusive identification with the musical affirmed his role as a specialist whose expertise was trusted by the studio; he knew how to work within the microcosm of “the musical number” in such a way that it could be made new on a regular basis (within budget and on time, no less). Here Decker introduces the idea of Astaire as a dancer driven by sound, whose tap line formed a pivotal component of the rhythmic texture of a given musical work; having been a vaudeville pianist and a drumming enthusiast who jammed along with records at home, here was one more “instrument” he learned in order to be a part of the process of making jazz happen.
Here Decker introduces the metaphor of Astaire as a musical “tailor,” a “maker of moments,” shaping the components of now-classic songs into suitable scores for his dance routines. Though the staging of some songs retained...