A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from January 29, 2019
“Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He IS American music”

American composer and lyricist Irving Berlin (1888-1989) wrote many famous songs. American critic and commentator Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943) wrote the article “The Story of Irving Berlin” for The Saturday Evening Post in January 1925; a book version under the same title would be published later in 1925.

Woollcott had asked fellow composer Jerome Kern (1885-1945) about his New York songwriting colleague Irving Berlin, and Kern responded with a long letter. Almost everything about the letter is forgotten today, except for this line near the end of it:

“In short, what I really want to say, my dear Woollcott, is that Irving Berlin has no place in American music. HE IS AMERICAN MUSIC; but it will be by his verse and his lovely melodies that he will live, and not be his diabolically clever trick accents.”

“Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music” was frequently cited after Irving Berlin died (age 101) at his 17 Beekman Place town house in Manhattan on September 22, 1989.


Wikipedia: Irving Berlin
Irving Berlin (born Israel Beilin (Russian: Израиль Моисеевич Бейлин) May 23 [O.S. May 11] 1888 – September 22, 1989) was an American composer and lyricist, widely considered one of the greatest songwriters in American history. His music forms a great part of the Great American Songbook. Born in Imperial Russia, Berlin arrived in the United States at the age of five. He published his first song, “Marie from Sunny Italy”, in 1907, receiving 33 cents for the publishing rights, and had his first major international hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911. He also was an owner of the Music Box Theatre on Broadway. It is commonly believed that Berlin could not read sheet music, and was such a limited piano player that he could only play in the key of F-sharp unless using his custom piano equipped with a transposing lever.
(...)
Composer Douglas Moore sets Berlin apart from all other contemporary songwriters, and includes him instead with Stephen Foster, Walt Whitman, and Carl Sandburg, as a “great American minstrel"—someone who has “caught and immortalized in his songs what we say, what we think about, and what we believe.” Composer George Gershwin called him “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived”, and composer Jerome Kern concluded that “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.”

Wikipedia: Jerome Kern
Jerome David Kern (January 27, 1885 – November 11, 1945) was an American composer of musical theatre and popular music. One of the most important American theatre composers of the early 20th century, he wrote more than 700 songs, used in over 100 stage works, including such classics as “Ol’ Man River”, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, “A Fine Romance”, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, “The Song Is You”, “All the Things You Are”, “The Way You Look Tonight”, “Long Ago (and Far Away)” and “Who?”

Wikipedia: Alexander Woollcott
Alexander Humphreys Woollcott (January 19, 1887 – January 23, 1943) was an American critic and commentator for The New Yorker magazine and a member of the Algonquin Round Table.

31 January 1935, The Billboard (New York, NY), “Dramatic Notes,” pg. 25, col. 3:
Alexander Woollcott broke into the current issue of The Saturday Evening Post with an interesting illustrated article entitled The Story of Irving Berlin.

OCLC WorldCat record
The story of Irving Berlin : By Alexander Woollcott. With 16 illustrations, portrait by Neysa McMein.
Author: Alexander Woollcott
Publisher: New York & London G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1925.
Edition/Format: Print book : English

9 August 1925, San Francisco (CA) Examiner, “Irving Berlin Listens To Critic’s Plain Talk,” pg. 8S, cols. 3-4:
The millions of readers of the “Saturday Evening Post” have been hearing about Irving Berlin. This is what Alexander Woollcott wrote on the subject: ...
(...)
In the course of the article Woollcott quoted from a letter written by Jerome Kern. Here is part of the quotation:

“Berlin— like Wagner, an inexorable autocrat—molds and blends and ornaments his music at one and the same time, each being an outgrowth of the other, He trims and changes and refashions both many times and oft, but nearly always strives for simplicity, never elaboration. he is not bothering much with the seats of the Olympians, but he is concerned with the lore, the hearts—yes; and the dancing feet of human folk.

“The comparison between the craft of Wagner and Berlin is not a heedless one, and in anticipation of indignant protests, and now go further and say that to my mind there are phrases in Berlin’s music as noble and mighty as any clause in the works of the masters from Beethoven and Wagner down.

“When you remembered how the latter used to sit in a darkened room for hours at a time, waiting for fragments of melody, sometimes of only two or three notes, to come to him, you will agree with my notion that even Wagner would have considered the heroic first three measures in the burthen of That Mysterious Rag heaven-sent material. My openly expressed enthusiasm for these five or six notes has amused no one more than Berlin himself. he thinks the theme is pretty good, but any suggestion that it possesses a sheer musical magnificence makes him laugh himself to death.

“Much is to be said about his amazing ability in the use and manipulation of rhythms. Abler men than I in that interesting field are better equipped to speak authoritatively, but I certainly object to the absurd implication that Irving Berlin is an explorer, discoverer or pioneer in what is still childishly called ragtime.

“He doesn’t attempt to stuff the public’s ears with pseudo-original ultra modernism, but he honestly absorbs the vibrations emanating from the people, manners and life of his time, and in turn gives these impressions back to the world, simplified, clarified, glorified.

“In short, what I really want to say, my dear Woollcott, is that Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He IS American music; but it will be by his verse and his lovely melodies that he will live, and not be his diabolically clever trick accents.”

5 June 1932, New York (NY) Herald Tribune, pt. 7, pg. 6, col. 3:
Jerome Kern Says Some Kind Words About Irving Berlin
And Discloses Himself as an Ardent Admirer of His Contemporary’s Art

(...)
A delver into personal archives unearthed the other day a letter to which Mr. Kern wrote not long ago to Alexander Woollcott in which he expressed in picturesque style his opinion on Mr. Berlin’s contribution to American music. Among other things, he said:

“I one delivered myself of a nifty. It was at a dinner in London and I was asked what, in my opinion, were the chief characteristics of the American nation. I replied that the average United States citizen was perfectly epitomized in Irving Berlin’s music. I remember I got this off quite glibly, just as if I had thought of it on the spur of the moment. of course, I enlarged upon the notion, and went on to explain that both the typical Yankee and the Berlin tune had humor, originality, pace and popularity; both were wideawake and both sometimes a little loud—but what might unsympathetically be taken for brass was really gold.

“Since then columns have been written about Berlin and his music. Learned expressions like ‘genre,’ ‘con arcune licenza, melodic architecture,’ ‘rhythmic pulsations,’ etc., have been hurled at the head of the modest shy little Irving, to his utter bewilderment.

“A critical appraisement of his technical ability as a lyricist must be left to my literary superiors, but I, here and now, bend the knee in recognition of Berlin’s genius in providing himself with his own lyrical inspiration for melodic invention. For, almost invariably, it is after his word phrases and rhymes occur to him, not before, that he tackles his music. Then ensues real composition in the fullest sense of that much-abused word; and Berlin has certainly mastered the art of making an integral whole by uniting two different elements.

“The comparison between the craft of Wagner and Berlin is not a heedless one, and in anticipation of indignant protests, and now go further and say that to my mind there are phrases in Berlin’s music as noble and mighty as any clause in the works of the masters from Beethoven and Wagner down.

“When you remembered how the latter used to sit in a darkened room for hours at a time, waiting for fragments of melody, sometimes of only two or three notes, to come to him, you will agree with my notion that even Wagner would have considered the heroic first three measures in the burthen of That Mysterious Rag heaven-sent material. My openly expressed enthusiasm for these five or six notes has amused no one more than Berlin himself. he thinks the theme is pretty good, but any suggestion that it possesses a sheer musical magnificence makes him laugh himself to death.

“Much is to be said about his amazing ability in the use and manipulation of rhythms. Abler men than I in that interesting field are better equipped to speak authoritatively, but I certainly object to the absurd implication that Irving Berlin is an explorer, discoverer or pioneer in what is still childishly called ‘ragtime.’

“He doesn’t attempt to stuff the public’s ears with pseudo-original ultra modernism, but he honestly absorbs the vibrations emanating from the people, manners and life of his time, and in turn gives these impressions back to the world, simplified, clarified, glorified.

“In short, what I really want to say is that Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music; but it will be by his verse and his lovely melodies that he will live, and not be his diabolically clever trick accents.”

Google Books
The Irving Berlin Reader
Edited by Benjamin Sears
New York, NY: Oxford University Press
2012
Pg. 81:
Letter from Jerome Kern to Alexander Woollcott, from The Story of Irving Berlin
(...)
The famous quote comes at the end of the letter; the entire letter is largely forgotten now and is reprinted here in full.
Pg. 83:
In short, what I really want to say, my dear Woollcott, is that Irving Berlin has no place in American music. HE IS AMERICAN MUSIC; but it will be by his verse and his lovely melodies that he will live, and not be his diabolically clever trick accents.

I hope to goodness he never asks me what the Pythagorean theory is, because I don’t know much about it myself.

Twitter
Cladrite Industries
@cladrite
Here are 10 things you should know about the immortal Irving Berlin, born 130 years ago today. The great Jerome Kern once said of Berlin, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music,” and we couldn’t agree more. @WarnerArchive @tcm #greatamericansongbook
1:50
10:00 AM - 11 May 2018

Twitter
Elaine Goy
@EG140Z
✨Irving Berlin died on this day 1989 (B: 23/5/ 1888). An American composer and lyricist. He wrote 1,500 songs including music for Broadway shows and Hollywood Films. Jerome Kern said “Irving Berlin has no place in American music, he is American music.”
5:19 AM - 22 Sep 2018

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityMusic/Dance/Theatre/Film/Circus • Tuesday, January 29, 2019 • Permalink