Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fern bars (4)

But here are some of music's pioneers
That time will not allow us to forget
For there's Basie, Miller, Sachimo
And the king of all Sir Duke
And with a voice like Ella's ringing out
There's no way the band can lose
That's from Stevie Wonder's Sir Duke. I like the stylized spelling of "Sachimo" here. That is the way Stevie says it I suppose. It got a lot of play everywhere not just in Fern bars but it is a good example of the sort of music that got played in Fern bars.

The people who picked the music for these places couldn't just pop a tape of Top 40 music of the day in the player because a lot of it wouldn't fit. It had to feel sophisticated to the people who frequented these places and 1970s pop music—1970s just about everything—was the opposite of sophisticated. The people who went to fern bars weren't sophisticated either but we wanted to be.

Even people who eat nothing but junk food have some notions of what gourmet food is like. And even people in the 1970s who'd grown up on the Led Zeppelin and Elton John had some notions about sophisticated music. There were two choices really: classical and jazz. Jazz was the choice. Well, not really jazz because really jazz meant John Coltrane and that wasn't music to socialize with. But there was music that, while not really jazz. was sort of "jazzy".

The music in fern bars was jazzy music and it came with a certain attitude about jazz. You can see it in the pantheon of greats that Stevie Wonder selected above. I think of Glen Miller as jazz but lots of jazz purists would not. In any case, if those are the names that matter: Basie, Miller, Satchmo. Duke and Ella, then you can be sure you are in jazzy world where John Coltrane. Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins need not apply. And, while she is welcome, Ella Fitzgerald would be well-advised not to scat.

The jazziness of the fern bar owes most not to Stevie Wonder, however, but to Van Morrison. He was the guy who put a jazzy veneer on pop music in 1970 with his record Moondance. That record was the soundtrack for fern bars and restaurants in the style. Only the first side of it. I never heard the second side played anywhere and even when I bought my own copy, I don't remember ever listening to the second side beyond the first disappointing listen. But you couldn't get away from the first tracks: And it Stoned Me, Moondance, Crazy Love, Caravan and Into the Mystic.

It produced a style that, while never intended for anything like a fern bar, fit in perfectly. It expanded to include all sorts of stuff. Stevie Wonder, Boz Scaggs, George Benson, Seals and Crofts, King Harvest, Jimmy Buffet, Chuck Mangione, Weather Report and Rashan Roland Kirk. It was, like the decor elements, stuff that was just lying around waiting to be put together almost like a soundtrack that someone might assemble for a period movie only we were actually living in the period.

The style extended not in any direct way from jazz but sounded like it had been suggested by it, as Phillip Larkin said of other jazz-like music. And I think it had echoes of an era that we (I mean those of us who rejected youth rebellion and aspired to adulthood) were nostalgic for even though we'd never lived it.

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