Johnny Mercer comes on the stereo of the rental car. The music transports; this could be the soundtrack of some New York story anywhere between Canal Street and 135th. It’s one-thirty in the morning; there’s a late October zephyr; people are leaning in close.
Except it’s not one-thirty. It’s a little after four in the afternoon on Highway 470 East, a few miles outside of Boulder, Colorado. A golden August sun polishes the Front Range prairie. Thick slabs of pharaonic light slice through pewter clouds. Pick-up trucks with mud-splattered flanks do-si-do with sleek German sedans as the off-ramp leads into a low-slung, gentrifying neighborhood.
Ironically, the road sign says “Broadway”.
Johnny Mercer doesn’t really fit the western Colorado vibe. Even after the songwriter left the Center of the Universe for Hollywood horizons, Mercer’s music continues to be late night staples of singers at Cafe Carlyle, Birdland, and The Jazz Standard. He suggests a street smart erudition, cultivated sui generis by the distance he traveled from his unlikely, culturally diverse Georgia roots. Come rain, come shine; high as a mountain, deep as a river; he became a New Yorker, but here we are in the Rockies, all mountains and rivers everywhere.
Nonetheless, this is the music that makes sense to me right now. It’s not that I can’t leave my urban roots for a few days, my nostalgia for a sweet turn of phrase, a spicy rhythm, a saucy simile. But I’m traveling across American this week. I’m working on a challenging assignment, facing hard-to-accomplish goals, pressed by a relentless clock. I’m on the road, traveling alone, a state of being that becomes more and more comfortable as I age. That inevitably sends my thoughts backwards in time.
If you’re trying to live a creative life you’re always ruminating about the projects you want to make, the ones you haven’t made yet, the ones you’re wondering if you’re ever going to get to do the way you want to do them. You’re always taking stock of your past, the decisions you’ve made that got you to this moment, and you wonder if you’re on a trajectory that’s still climbing or already settled sneakily into a long slow descent. You look back to look forward.
When I look back, I always think of those people who helped me get where I am. I think of my grandparents, people who would have been proud of what I’ve made of my life, even if they might not recognize the mechanics of it very much. I think of them in their later years—the only years I knew them, of course. When I hear the music that they liked, the tunes that made them think of their own youths, I don’t change the song. I stay and listen.
That’s Johnny Mercer, for starters.
I don’t often wear wingtips. My life has gone a different direction. The guys sitting in the imagined New York hotel piano lounge of an era (let’s be honest) that didn’t really exist the way we imagine, wore wingtips. They didn’t know Rocky Mountain peaks and dry, mile high air. They certainly didn’t know mountain bikes and wi-fi and four dollar coffees in paper cups.
I’m out here in the mountains and points beyond this week, but on this trip my soundtrack springs from the great American songbook. Those guys weren’t writing about spacecraft or science. They weren't singing about geopolitics or cultural divides, corporate HR policies, or maximizing credit card points. They were writing about leaning in close to someone else, somewhere in an unrecoverable, eternal present.
Days and nights--they went flying by.
The world was new.
That’s my song.