This Sunday, April 1st, marks the first anniversary of the reported death of Nick Hathaway, the genre- and taste-defying songsmith known for having the kind of talent that is truly not to be believed.
For the tens of fans of Hathaway’s music around the world and in his hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania, the past year has been as eventful as any other. Yet eventfulness is hardly the measure of Nick Hathaway’s life and work. Nor is quality, that big bugaboo of critics, artists, audiences, and others who like the arts. To fix on things like historical significance or aesthetic value is to ignore the larger inconsequence of Hathaway’s music, the essential inessentiality that makes the whole of Hathaway’s oeuvre of so little interest.
Until one hears his music and considers it critically, one could easily wonder why Nick Hathaway isn’t better known. Preserving the tenuity of his legacy, the Nick Hathaway Society of America, International (T.N.H.S.O.A.I.) has now brought to light some long-unknown and duly neglected Hathaway works. I can say today that it’s an honor to present them here as world premieres. After all, I can say something else tomorrow.
Exploiting all the musical opportunities in Chester, Jameson “Nick” Hathaway taught himself piano and eventually applied to Julliard. Immediately upon receiving the decision from this prestigious conservatory, Hathaway moved to Manhattan and started working on historic West 28th Street, the original site of Tin Pan Alley, which by this time had become the floral district. Between his deliveries, Hathaway composed—like Mozart, in his head, where, as the work itself suggests, Hathaway’s music rightfully belonged.
While Hathaway could be thought of as a composer’s composer, he would be more fairly described as a composer’s manicurist or a composer’s lawnboy. As evidence, let’s consider the composition that is surely Hathaway’s best-loved unheard piece of work: the words and music he wrote for “Man in a Mousetrap,” the conceptual production directed in 1953 by the avant-gardist Jeffrey Cordova. Here, in the piece’s debut, Theo Bleckmann, the esteemed experimental vocalist, performs “Man in a Mousetrap” at Columbia University, with Jon Weber (pianist and host of the NPR radio series “Piano Jazz Rising Stars”), Chris Washburne (respected trombonist and director of the Jazz Performance program at Columbia), and the violinist and scholar Matthew Morrison.
Hathaway had the ability to spin out both words and music with equal ease and fatuity, and he had an eye for opportunity to match not only his ears, but his socks. When he heard the first piano concerto by C. K. Dexter Haven, he decided to set it to words, creating “Choo Choo Mama,” a song that only Hathaway or other songwriters of his era could have written. Here, in the first performance yet documented, the celebrated jazz singer Allan Harris rehearses the song in his basement, accompanied by Weber and the fine saxophonist and bandleader Michael Hashim:
In the words of the critic Will Friedwald, “There never was a composer quite like Nick Hathaway.”
More on this subject a year from today, on the next April Fool’s Day.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic.