The music from the radio formed the soundtrack of our lives. WABC might play a Beatles song (pick one) and then Dean Martin's "Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime," followed by a Rolling Stones song, then Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger," and finally "The Girl From Ipanema" by Stan Getz/Astrud Gilberto. I didnt' know any better - I thought it was all just...well, music. I liked it all. Such combinations of genre would never fly with kids these days. Radio is too fragmented.
In early 1964 WABC began playing an uptempo little instrumental tune called "Java" by Al Hirt. A native of New Orleans, playing professionally since he was 16, Hirt was obviously influenced by the wealth of eclectic music emanating from that city, and he frequently played with the legendary Pete Fountain with whom he was friends. That his music would be played on the nation's biggest and most influential Top-40 pop music radio station must have been quite a shock to the 42 year-old Hirt.
I hadn't thought of "Java" in a long time...perhaps decades. But since I'd put the instrumental, "Love Is Blue" on my iPod it got me thinking about other instrumentals of the day. So as I do, I went right to iTunes and downloaded the Al Hirt song. As usual, listening to an old song under headphones in stereo is profoundly enlightening. You hear things you never heard before.
"Java" is fascinating to me in so many ways. For one thing, it's short - barely two minutes long. Hirt's trumpet and a ride cymbal dominate the sound. It's a rollicking Dixieland tune with a vaguely Spanish arrangement. iTunes notes that Hirt had "...a propensity for playing far too many notes." Which is true. He plays the hell out of that trumpet. Live versions are different; Hirt crams so many notes in that you wonder where he gets the breath and stamina. If only I could blow like that!
One odd thing about the studio version is that there are no "classic" drums to keep the beat as there would be in a typical rock tune, but rather just that rolling piano underneath and the ride cymbal above, with Al's glorious trumpet providing the melody and two saxophones on harmony. There are other bandmembers, but they are kept low in the mix.
I think I must be wierd sometimes. On the way home from the airport yesterday, I listened to "Java" over and over and over, picking out the various instrumental parts, feeling how they all fit together. With songs like this, I try to put myself in the studio as it happened, as the guys were laying down the tracks. "Java" sounds like it was incredibly fun to record. In fact, it's one of those "perfect" little songs I love so much. It's awesome - there's not a bad note to be heard. All the better is that it's an instrumental, with singers only "oohing" along in the background. Vocals would have ruined it.
Please go up and click on the song. Please listen to it with your headphones on. See if you don't agree that it's an awesome gem. (And even if you hate it, you'll only have wasted two minutes of your time.) In this day of computer-generated or electronically-enhanced instruments, it's nice to hear a virtuoso creating music with nothing but his own breath and a brass instrument. I love the electro-synth pop records of the 1980's, but music like that hasn't got anywhere near the heart and soul of simple songs like "Java."
We lost Al Hirt in 1999. He continued playing in New Orleans almost right up to the end.