Porgy & Bess + Ella & Louis = Perfection

By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

“Music opens up a door, moves you through an alternative time-grid, parallel to the life of obligations and immediate needs. And so music can be a relief, or a corrective balance.“ Ben Ratliff, NY Times music writer in his book ‘Every Song Ever - Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty’ (which I highly recommend).

In his book, Mr. Ratliff discusses breaking down barriers of genre and allowing yourself to roam and experiment across musical languages, especially in the digital age when almost everything is just a click away.  And when you are open to, well, anything, its amazing what you may find. After all, we use music to help us feel things…many things; a sad song to bring out emotions and release tension, a favorite rock song to empower, or just a guilty pleasure to make us smile and give us a reprieve from the daily grind (Barry Manilow? Abba? Styx?)  But, again, if we are open, it’s amazing what we can find out there.

I’ve found, in my opinion, what may be the most-perfect recorded musical work out there.  There are many incarnations of George Gershwin’s ground-breaking masterpiece ‘Porgy & Bess’, but the one that speaks to me, takes me away, gives me chills, makes me stop what I’m doing to just listen and experience, is the Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong recording originally released in 1958.  All the parts here merge to create the perfect blend of aesthetic perfection (for me anyway).  Ella & Louis together just work in a non-traditional way, like satin and sandpaper.  Her silky smooth voice is both powerful and delicate, filled with pure emotion and is the antithesis of his giddy rasp that is unique in every possible way.  And Louis’ occasional trumpet work here is so pure, with an almost vibrato-less tone that cuts but is honey-tinged all the same.  Their voices, against the 30-piece jazz orchestra that’s filled with swaggering brass (arranged and conducted by Russell Garcia), is magical.

When a recording or a musical work has the ability to transcend one to another place and time, it’s a powerful experience. This work does it for me.  When the overture gives way to Louis’ trumpet, teasing the melody of ‘Summertime’ and then, as if pure listening pleasure is simply not enough, Ella’s voice enters the mix, I’m immediately transcended.  I can see it, feel it, smell it.  I’m suddenly sitting on a porch somewhere in the humid, 1930s South, experiencing the ease and the tension of that time and place.  Ella’s voice seems to get more beautiful with each track, almost trance inducing as it bridges the brilliance of the score, the lyrics and the orchestrations.  And Louis…well, how can you not feel good when Louis is singing.  There’s both tension and release in the orchestra, that you feel down to the core, and when the orchestra is allowed to go all out, it’s exhilarating.

This is why music is like nothing else.  Music makes us feel, it takes us places, it creates tension but soon gives resolve and it allows us to move from emotion to emotion as warranted.  Music can make us feel uncomfortable, only to modulate from minor to major and suddenly make us feel that everything is right in the world again.  This is why music is therapeutic and this is why music therapy works.

I’m thinking of a very lovely woman I met recently in the oncology unit of the hospital where I work.  I was asked to see her because she was having trouble coping with her illness and hospital stay; her frail body fighting against the cancer inside and the powerful effects of chemotherapy.  But when I played and sang ‘Georgia on my Mind’ for her, to help her relax and “get away” for a few moments, her hardened face softened with a tearful smile.  She looked at me and said it was her first favorite song and she remembered it from when she was a little girl.  She said she thought it was the most beautiful song ever written.  And at that moment, seeing her face and her smile…she was right.

The healing power of music…

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)