September 19th was the birthday of two old friends of the Music Division. Jazz pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams was born September 19, 1930 in Chicago. He worked as a sideman behind such luminaries as Dexter Gordon and Max Roach, and was part of the 1970s jazz loft scene in New York, so named because of the loft spaces in which the musicians performed. Abrams went on to form the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, whose ranks included Anthony Braxton (whose music has graced the Coolidge stage), Roscoe Mitchell and other members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. In 1996, The McKim Foundation commissioned a piece by Abrams entitled Duet for Violin and Piano , which was part of the program performed by the 19-piece Muhal Richard Abrams Orchestra for the opening night of the Music Division’s 1996-1997 concert season.
Our other celebrant has been a welcome and regular presence on the Coolidge stage for the past three years. As President of ASCAP, Paul Williams, born September 19, 1940, has presided over the popular series We Write the Songs , which enters its fourth year at the Library of Congress this season. In the Muse has covered the last two years of the program, in 2010 and 2011, the latter of which Williams opened with a rendition of ”Just an old fashioned love song,” which he offered to The Carpenters but was instead made a hit by Three Dog Night. The Carpenters did not turn down Williams’ ”We’ve only just begun,” one of their biggest hits and one of William’s greatest songs.
Paul Williams recorded a wonderful 1970 solo album, Someday Man, with famed soft-rock producer Roger Nichols, and his songs have been performed by artists from the Monkees (“Someday man”) to Kermit the Frog (“Rainbow connection”) to the team of Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. Wait a minute, you might ask – when did that happen? Beatty and Hoffman starred as a pair of struggling New York songwriters in Elaine May’s 1987 film Ishtar. The film went over budget and flopped at the box office, and is often held up as an example of Hollywood at it’s most indulgent. But a reassessment of the film is at hand. I recently watched the film and found the early scenes in New York especially charming and funny, and a lot of the credit goes to the songs Paul Williams wrote for the leading actors. To depict the struggles of secon-rate songwriters, Williams used his gift for wit to churn out lines like, “If you admit that you can play the accordion/You’ll never make it in a rock and roll band” ( “Dangerous business”).
Williams recently told Wired Magazine, of the songs he wrote for Ishtar, ”If I live to be 100, maybe the world will embrace it.” Speaking personally, he won’t have to wait that long.