The music world sustained a huge loss with the death of Cy Coleman last week. He wrote some world-class jazzy pop tunes (Witchcraft, The Best Is Yet To Come) and collaborated on a number of hit musicals (Sweet Charity, City Of Angels, Barnum, On The Twentieth Century), winning a slew of Tony awards in the process. A couple of things interest me about Coleman. The first is his apparent comfort level with collaboration. For practical reasons as well as icky, glory-hogging ones, I've always wished I was one of those artists who could go it alone, but the truth is that my best work has come out of working with others. Having created those hits with someone else (a variety of partners in his case) didn't make him any less-so; it just made the work even more so.
I'm also intrigued by what seems to have been his unassuming, charming nature. It's not something I grew up expecting to find in a great talent, although as I've met more of them, I've come to realize that the Difficult Genius stance is as much of a cop-out as Tortured Genius or Starving Artist. In his capacity as journalist, my multi-talented friend, Rob Kendt (one of many great friends who pitched in on my play, #1 & #2), interviewed Coleman last year. In a recent blog entry devoted to Coleman, he recaps highlights of that interview, coming up with a few great quotes, the first of which is about the importance of looking forward, or at least, not looking back:
I asked him whether he'd been approached about doing a major Broadway revue of his hits, and he said he wasn't very interested: "A lot of these things happen because the composer goes after it. I'm just one of those people who don't want to go back and look at all that; it's over. I just keep moving and looking forward; it's my nature. People ask, 'What's your favorite song?' I say, 'The one I'm writing.' They get very disgusted with me."
There's also one of those neat artists-helping-artists stories where La Fitzgerald takes on the role of wise elder further along on the path:
"I played Bop City opposite Ella Fitzgerald and Illinois Jacquet. Ella said nice things to me; she was a very sweet woman. I had to follow Illinois and her doing 'Flying Home'; I didn't even have a drum, I had guitars in my trio. And she said, 'Cy, calm down. You're never going to play louder than me and Illinois doing "Flying Home," so why don't you just cool it, do your thing? They'll come to you eventually.' It was sweet advice, the best advice I could have possibly gotten at that time."
And finally, a terrific quote on the mystic chaos that is the creative process:
"People ask, 'When you see a beautiful sunset, do you go home write some wonderful thing?' I say, 'No, I'm more like Beethoven: opus 1, 2, 3, and 4.' But that's not true exactly; I'm affected by things, but it has to come into my blender and then it comes out.
"For example, in The Life, the duet at the end between the two girls, that's a killer. I was in Scotland looking at the fog and the ducks flying and a melody came to me. Now, it's a very raw, R&B kind of score, but I decided to use that melody; it had a very rural feeling. There was a purity there."
Funky Scottish ducks. You gotta love it...