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Songbook Jam

Mos Def leads off the American Songbook concert series

Scott Gries/Getty Images

Mos Def and His Big Band

American Songbook, Lincoln Center

The view of Tin Pan Alley from Harlem was so bad during the first decades of the twentieth century, a great time for white songwriters, that the African American lyricist Andy Razaf wrote a mordant work of verse on the subject, a “prayer for the Alley.” Published in the 1930s in New York Amsterdam News, the black daily, the piece lamented the Midtown center of popular music as “lacking in soul,” a place “where something original frightens the ear” and pandering technicians produce “dull similarities, year after year.” Razaf, who died in 1973, never lived to see the glorious songs that he wrote with Fats Waller revived on Broadway in Ain’t Misbehavin’ in the 1980s. Nor, of course, did he get to see that show’s breakout star, Nell Carter, parlay her stage success into a career on television sitcoms, beginning with the now-forgotten You Take the Kids. Nor, accordingly, could Razaf have foreseen that a talented kid from Brooklyn named Dante Smith would play Carter’s son on that series, would later go into music under the professional name of Mos Def, and would, this January, lead off the current season of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series with a concert of defiantly black, genre-smashing music that challenged the standard definition of that songbook. Mos Def enacted Andy Razaf’s revenge.

Launched nine years ago under the stewardship of Jonathan Schwartz, the onetime rock deejay whose evangelical devotion to pre-rock music is the badge of the convert, the American Songbook series began as an effort to confer the legitimacy of institutionalization upon Tin Pan Alley—or, more precisely, upon the canon of popular songs and theater music created by the iconic tunesmiths Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers and his partners Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, and their acolytes, including Jonathan’s father, Arthur Schwartz: the dead white men of American song. Their music, though immeasurably rich and hardy, was, in 1998, no longer popular, in the sense of having favor with the masses of the day; rock and soul and their cousins and offspring had long supplanted it on the sales charts. The music of Tin Pan Alley had become an object of connoisseurship. Hence it qualified for protection under the auspices of Lincoln Center, which was in an expansive mode and had already accepted jazz as a constituent, alongside symphonic music, ballet, and opera.

The proposition that vintage pop tunes constitute a body of work worthy of ongoing appreciation, reconsideration, and preservation—that the songs belong in a book—was not new in the late 1990s; nor was the idea as old as Tin Pan Alley songs themselves. I remember one of the early American Songbook concerts, a tribute to Rodgers staged at Alice Tully Hall in 1999, at which Schwartz toasted the proceedings by remarking that songs of the past need to be performed “live” to stay alive. While that is true, it was not live performances but recordings that first established popular songs that were no longer popular as a repertoire; indeed, our conception of this music as a songbook is largely a secondary effect, a happy accident of a development in recording technology during the 1950s.

The current era of popular music has something in common with the first half of the last century in that the dominant form of recorded music is and was the single (today through Web-based file-sharing and downloading; then through 78-rpm acetate records). In pursuit of new hits, the singers of the 78 age, like their counterparts in pop today, sang new songs as a rule; there seemed no point in recording material that the public had heard and had decided to buy or not to buy years earlier. Popular music, then as now, was thought to derive its value from its freshness, like journalism and fruit. With the advent of the long-playing album, which rose in popularity during the 1950s, record producers and singers found themselves needing to fill twelve or so tracks on each disk, and there simply were not enough good new songs in supply to meet the LP’s demands. Billy May, the swing-band arranger who worked often with Frank Sinatra among others, recalled how Sinatra was early to suggest filling albums with songs he happened to like, regardless of their age.

Among the tunes that Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, and their peers gained the freedom to record were vintage theater songs that might have seemed too sophisticated, too character-oriented, or too situational to have been recorded with hit-making in mind. Thus, record buyers of the ‘50s found LPs full of well-wrought but already old tunes from long-gone shows and films—such as Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” from Strike Up the Band (1930); Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” from Roberta (1933); and Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” from Babes in Arms (1937). With men such as Sinatra now singing greater numbers of theater songs originally written for women, and with women such as Fitzgerald singing more tunes composed for men, both the songs and their singers seemed to deepen and to expand in emotional range.

A common repertoire of durable, adaptable songs written throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the songs we have since come to know as standards, began to coalesce. Fitzgerald, working closely with Norman Granz at Verve Records, helped give form to this repertoire through her duly revered series of LPs devoted to the canonical songwriters Kern, Berlin, Porter, and the rest—with Ellington now included, in his case as both composer and band leader—each titled as the composer’s Songbook. A recording format called the album got us thinking of the old music on those recordings in new terms, as pieces in a portfolio of treasurable mementos.

That a different sort of music for the young audience, rock and roll, was emerging simultaneously would ensure that the great American songbook would be frozen stylistically in the past that it salvaged. In the best sense of honoring a worthy legacy, then, the songbook has always been a book of the dead. Such is the body of Tin Pan Alley works that Jonathan Schwartz set out to preserve when he organized the early programs of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. Now under new management, the series has sought in recent years to break free of the standard definition of the popular songbook as the book that defines popular standards. The series has largely abandoned its charter missions of canonization and conservation, and this has been a wondrous thing to behold, something close to a miracle at Lincoln Center.

Over the past few seasons, the American Songbook series has focused mainly (though not exclusively) on interesting, venturesome composers of the present day, such as the singer-songwriters Sufjan Stevens, Nellie McKay, and Stephin Merritt, the last of whom performed with his pop-rock band The Magnetic Fields, and Fred Hersch, the jazz pianist and composer, who recently premiered a cycle of art songs concerned with the subject of photography. The aesthetic of the series has changed from one in which a song’s value was measured by its universality, its accessibility, and its durability to one that prizes singularity, surprise, and timeliness. This is a clubby, downtown approach rare even in the clubs downtown, and it is wonderfully unnerving to find it in a major New York performing-arts institution.

Mos Def led off the spring American Songbook season with a concert that took the series as far from the antiquarian preservationism of Jonathan Schwartz as Mos Def has taken himself from You Take the Kids. When Mos Def first began acting, playing variations on the Dickensian cliché of the devilishly cute little street tough on various series and made-for-TV movies (working then under the stage name Dante Beze), he was already experimenting with music at home, making up his own words to records by 1980s rappers such as Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, and De La Soul. “They happened together,” he later said of the dual interests he has sustained throughout his career. “I started rhyming when I was nine years old, and I caught the [acting] bug in [elementary] school, so there’s no separation to the genesis of all this.” As an actor, he grew up on camera in both senses of the phrase, maturing to handle better and better roles in films, including Bamboozled, Monster’s Ball, and The Italian Job, as well as on Broadway, in Topdog/Underdog. As a musician, too, he has shown a drive to set new challenges and meet higher standards with each of the four CDs he has recorded since 1998.

The first, the collaboration Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star, was most striking for its cynical take on the violence and posturing in hip-hop culture, though its beats and aural textures were typical for the day. His debut solo album, Black on Both Sides, released the following year, built on Mos Def’s now-established strength as a lyricist with a compelling bravura rooted not in material conquest but in racial pride. Then, in 2004, came The New Danger, Mos Def’s breakthrough as a musical artist. Picking up where the black-rock movement of the 1980s left off, he constructed a hybrid of hard rock, funk, and hip-hop—power chords, dance beats, and rap. Here and there between rhymes, he did a bit of singing—crowing, more like, in a scratchy tenor, but in tune or close enough, and with a palpable exhilaration in the making of unusual music. A follow-up in this vein, True Magic, was released last December, though Mos Def was already working on a greater breakthrough, experimenting in low-profile performances with ideas that took full form at Lincoln Center in January.

That concert was held in the Allen Room, a nightclubbish theater in the cheesy mall complex that houses Jazz at Lincoln Center. The space has a stunning view of Central Park South through a floor-to-ceiling glass wall behind the stage, and the scenery served well as a diversion as the show opened with a quartet (piano, electric bass, drums, and alto sax) repeating a one-chord funk pattern for several minutes. Just as the trees and the traffic lights began to lose their interest, the sound of a New Orleans-style brass band blurted from the back of the room, and Mos Def marched the band down the aisles toward the stage. A gimmicky entrance, probably old stuff already at the turn of the last century, it always thrills. Mos Def took the center of the stage, dressed in perfectly weathered jeans, sneakers, and a hoodie, flanked by the eight players of the brass band standing in an arc, and he began to sing—well, with fervor, to what took shape as a variation on Nina Simone’s version of “I Put a Spell on You.

Then things got interesting. After singing a couple of verses, Mos Def switched to rapping over “I Put a Spell on You,” improvising twists on the song’s original lyrics interspersed with lines of his own. The piece set the scheme for the evening, an amalgam of jazz, pop, funk, and hip-hop, with bits of rock—essentially, the history of black music in America in one night. Only Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn tried something more outlandish with their number “The History of Jazz in Three Minutes,” and that was meant as a novelty. Mos Def was not joking here. He is charming and good at clowning between songs—at one point, he looked behind the stage and said, “I feel like Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate!”—but in his music, he tends to be serious to the brink of solemnity.

“This is the American Songbook series,” he reminded the audience. “So I have to do some American songs. I know some American songs.” The drummer and bassist laid a funk pattern out for him, and Mos Def started to croon “America” (“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”), singing through the line “Land where my fathers died,” which he repeated several times, emphatically. He rapped a bit and drifted into “The Star-Spangled Banner,” picking up the anthem with the couplet “And the rockets’ red glare/The bombs bursting in air,” and he repeated that—and repeated it, louder each time, as the brass band countered the phrase with a terse, dissonant riff. With a bit too heavy a hand, perhaps, Mos Def made a musical collage of images heavily loaded, in every way, to take on America of the past and the present.

Rapping, then singing, talk-singing, and sing-talking to the accompaniment of jazz instruments, Mos Def would seem to be inventing a new music with familiar materials. In fact, he is building on a tradition of mixing up spoken language, verse, and melody that dates back to ragtime and runs through the history of jazz. (Nearly every style of music has incorporated speech in some way at one time or another.) As early as 1908, Scott Joplin composed what might qualify as the first proto-rap song, “Pine Apple Rag.” In the swing era, Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, Cab Calloway, and Slim Gaillard all made specialties of recitative in tempo. In fact, Gaillard, late in his life, was recruited by a Canadian hip-hop group, Dream Warriors, to rap on a straight-ahead hip-hop record, “Very Easy to Assemble But Hard to Take Apart.

If the existence of Canadian hip-hop with Slim Gaillard at the microphone teaches us anything, it is that oddball combinations of musical, cultural, and historical elements are easier to assemble than one might think. The importance of Mos Def and His Big Band lies not in its uniqueness, but in how fine and true it sounds. The music, for all its surprise, has heart and the resonance of inevitability. It is mash-up music of a high order, the sound of the current era of recording—the iPod age—as live art. If it does not quite fit in our understanding of a songbook, so be it. Mos Def is now an icon of something else: the great American playlist.