John Eaton: Pianist of the Great American Songbook
For me, it’s hard to interview John Eaton. You get to talking.
Eaton, who has appeared at the Barns at Wolf Trap for years bringing his special brand of talk-chat, keyboard playing and bottomless knowledge, has a singular passion. He loves the music of what’s loosely known as "The Great American Songbook": the great American composers, the great lyricists, the Gershwins, the Porters, the Rodgers, the Harts, the Parrishes, the Cahns, the Hammersteins, the Arlens, the Weills, the men, for the most part, who wrote uniquely American music that was also the country’s most enduringly popular music in a parade of unforgettable works and songs.
You get to talking. As you go along, Eaton, who is anything but an academic, works at it. For him, all that music which he has played for 50 years now in one setting another, from hotels to clubs, to jazz joints and juke joints, to the White House, for the Smithsonian, and touring all over the country is as alive as the latest rap lyric—and with a richer pedigree.
He’ll be doing two appearances at the Barns—on Saturday, Feb. 16, with “A Salute to the One-Hit Wonders of American Popular Music” and on Saturday, March 30, joined by bassist Tommy Cecil in “A Juke Joint Jam Session.”
The one-hit wonders are probably not going to be the kind of rock and or country songs done by people who hit and achieve their 15 minutes of musical fame like “The Banana Boat Song,” the very good “Since I Met You Baby” or “Harper Valley PTA.” What you’ll get will be the classic “As Time Goes By,” written by a fellow by the name of Herman Hupfeld, a song that eventually ended up being done by Dooley Wilson in the film “Casablanca”—with a melancholy Humphrey Bogart urging him on with “You can play it for her. You can play it for me” along with songs like “Willow Weep For Me" and others.
“These are songs that became classics, they’re part of the Great American Songbook, ranging through the early 1960s,” Eaton said. “It’s the authors who are unfamiliar to the general but the song—we can all sing them, or at least several generations of people can.” If you look it up, you see strange names with great songs: Ann Ronell, who wrote “ Willow Weep for Me,” or Irene Higgenbottom, who wrote the Billie Holiday classic “Good Morning Heartbreak.”
Eaton—now 78 years old and still playing regularly and no doubt will do so sitting down or standing up forever—has the two Barns concerts as well as a four-part seminar, “A Salute to Great American Song Writers” that features the music and discussions about Irving Berlin, Franke Loesser, Vernon Duke, Kurt Weill and George Gershwin on Feb. 26, March 5, March 12 and March 19 at the Smithsonian Institution, where he has conducted series on the songbook for years.
As a Washington native, Yale graduate and member of the literary society St. Anthony Hall, Eaton talks about music with passion and humor. He is unassuming with a Garrison Keller kind of drollness. But get him to talking about the value of the music, and you’re on a roll. “Part of the problem sometimes becomes that this music—the Gershwin music, the Ellington music, the Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter music—was every bit as much a part of the popular scene as rock and all of its relatives are now. That music came from jazz and the blues, and made its way into all parts of society.” The songbook was the stuff of MGM and other musicals, such as “Oklahama!” and “Anything Goes” of Broadway, the Vaudeville circuits and New York concert halls.
Among these scenes—the hotel bars of swells, the jazz joints and clubs—were places Eaton grew to know well. “Once I started playing the piano, that was it for me,” he said. “I knew who I was, what I was going to do with my life.” He played for the Reagans at the White House, he has played at Blues Alley and at the Bayou before it became a legendary rock venue.
He played with such legendary jazz folks as Zoot Sims, Benny Carter and Clark Terry. “We always think of classical music—the European variety of Mozart and Beethoven and so on as a high art form. But this—Gershwin and Ellington, especially, and all the rest of them, too—they are America’s classical composers. You could say that easily, as in “Rhapsody in Blue” or “An American In Paris” or in Ellington’s work. But if you take the songbook as a whole, all that music, you have essentially homegrown, American music—made in America. And that’s what I do—to me it’s now, and yesterday, but it’s as fresh and great as any music every written.”
Never having had the pleasure of being in the presence of an Eaton performance, I did have the pleasure of an Eaton conversation. When he talks about the songs, the music and the songbook, there’s a lot of love coming out. We tell our stories to each other: for me being at the Metropole on Times Square in New York, hearing Lionel Hampton and jazz for the first time; for him, all the notes on the keyboard, resurrecting songs.
“You know, when the music revolution really hit in the 1960s, some of us, like me, didn’t know what to do, we thought it was over, rock and roll, the British invasion, the Beatles and Dylan,” he said. “But that hasn’t been the case. Today, I notice something—now the audiences are diverse, young, older and old, men and women, black and white. The music is a part of our lives today.”
In no small part, that’s thanks to a guy named John Eaton, story teller, piano man, talker and player.
*John Eaton, the Barns at Wolf Trap: Saturday, Feb. 16, 7:30 p.m., “A Salute to the One-Hit Wonders of American Popular Music”; Saturday, March 30, 7:30 p.m., “A Juke Joint Jam Session”— www.WolfTrap.org.