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The Journal Gazette

  • File Michael Feinstein holds a record of Fred Astaire singing “Change Partners” by Irving Berlin in the film “Carefree.” He salvaged it and others from a Dumpster at RKO.

  • Breen

Saturday, January 13, 2018 1:00 am

Gift is music to the ears of Songbook preservationists

Ed Breen

At the far end of four flights of stairs, high atop the grandeur that is the Palladium theater in Carmel, just off Rangeline Road, is an American treasure.

Right now it is tucked away up there. Out of the way, protected, available to those who know what they seek.

It is the collection of the Great American Songbook Foundation, a grand attempt to preserve our past nurtured by Michael Feinstein, along with Harry Connick Jr. and a few others, to keep alive the finest moments in American popular music. You've certainly seen Feinstein at one time or another on TV: the tuxedo, the charm, the voice that is ... well, let's just say that, like Sinatra, you can understand every word that he sings.

That's what the American Songbook is: words and music, carefully crafted by men like our own Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael and Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer and Jerome Kern and the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira ... and interpreted by talents like Sinatra and Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn and Rosemary Clooney with music by Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington and the Dorsey brothers. The lists of all go on and on. The collection has more than 100,000 pieces, including 40,000 pieces of sheet music.

We of our time like to think that rock 'n' roll was our gift to the world. It was not. It was, of course, jazz and the written record of all that is in the permutations in the Great American Songbook. Popular single songs, written and orchestrated to be performed on the piano in the living room or by a soloist in a saloon, or elaborate musical ensembles designed for Broadway production, or the music of the Big Bands – because “it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.”

And last week the future preservation and presentation of that Songbook became a little more – a lot more – secure with the announcement that the Simon family – mainly Bren Simon in memory of her late husband, Herb – is giving the $30 million Simon estate called Asherwood to the Great American Songbook Foundation to create a home, a museum on a grand scale even beyond the dreams of Mr. Feinstein. Simon was an owner of the Indianapolis Pacers and made his millions in the shopping mall business.

Not unlike the day when another Indianapolis woman – Ruth Lilly – forever changed American literature when she gave $100 million to the long-suffering Poetry magazine, a gesture that would ensure that the art form would flourish for another century or so. Bren Simon is doing for American popular music what Ruth Lilly did for American poetry: Give life to art forms that have faded from favor in the public arena.

No one knows just yet how the Simon bequest will play out. What is known is this: The 50,000-square-foot Simon home on 107 acres along Ditch Road is valued at about $30 million and is being given to the Songbook foundation. Whether the museum will be relocated from Carmel, or whether the estate will be sold with the proceeds going to support the cause is yet to be determined.

Feinstein, a Columbus, Ohio, native and five-time Grammy award winner, settled in Indianapolis when he struck a deal to move his archive, mainly the Ira Gershwin material, to the newly completed Palladium and Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel. Both Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard and Indianapolis business magnate Mickey Maurer were players in that drama. But its obscure location – high above the Palladium stage – hasn't generated traffic. About 6,000 people a year come either by chance or on scholarly purpose.

Said Feinstein, “Sometimes we have an idea or a thought and then another thing occurs in our lives that we never could have expected that causes a sea change in our journey.”

Or, to quote from that American Songbook, “first the tide rushes in . . .”

Ed Breen retired as assistant managing editor for photos/graphics at The Journal Gazette. He wrote this as a commentary for WBAT-AM in Marion.