Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz

By Provost, Sarah Caissie | Notes, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz


Provost, Sarah Caissie, Notes


Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz. By Todd Decker. Berkeley: Uni - versity of California Press, 2011. [xii, 375 p. ISBN 9780520268906. $29.95.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

For most, any mention of Fred Astaire conjures up an image of an impressive dancer who happened to sing popular songs on occasion. However, Todd Decker asks us to consider Astaire from another perspective. In Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz, he examines Astaire's use of jazz and his contributions to the world of jazz. Since Astaire was working at a time when jazz and popular music were so intertwined as to be indistinguishable, this project is no small order. Decker lays out how Astaire contributed to jazz by detailing how he focused on jazz throughout his career, how he worked with jazz artists, and how he reflected jazz styles in his dancing. This is his first book, though a second book, Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical (Oxford University Press, Broadway Legacies series), is expected in 2012.

Decker convincingly portrays Astaire as a performer whose main activity was not just dance and song, but who was dedicated specifically to jazz dance and music; so specifically, in fact, that if jazz were removed from Astaire's repertoire, little would remain. It is perhaps a correct assumption that fans of neither Astaire nor jazz consider him a jazz artist. While the first group may be happy to add jazz to Astaire's list of accomplishments after reading Decker's book, the second may remain reluctant.

Decker's work is divided into three parts. Part 1, "Astaire among Others," includes two chapters. The first, "There's a Differ - ence and Astaire Is It," compares him to other dancers and singers who were active during his career. The second, "I am a creator," situates him within the music-makers of the movie industry, detailing his creative collaborations with popular song makers.

In part 2, "Astaire at the Studios," Decker details how Astaire functioned and prioritized jazz within the studio system. Perhaps most interesting about this part is the glimpse afforded into the inner workings of the studio system and how Astaire was able to excel and even challenge the unwritten rules of this strict community. Chapter 3, "I Play with the Very Best Bands," looks at the settings of Astaire's films, situating many of them in jazz-like arenas (as opposed to other dancer-singers of the time, who preferred theatrical backgrounds to Astaire's nightclubs and dance bands). Chapter 4, "Tell Them to Let It Swing," details the ways in which his love of jazz influenced how screenwriters wrote lines for him. This chapter relies as much on his purging of jazz terms from his scripts as it does on their addition, and is perhaps the most problematic, though Decker navigates well the difficult motivations for purging or using the terms. Chapter 5 " 'Fixing up' Tunes," shows how Astaire oversaw the arranging of the music he danced to in order in ensure its relationship to jazz and its suitability for the type of dancing he preferred.

Part 3, "Astaire in Jazz and Popular Music," consists of the last four chapters. Chapter 6, "Keep Time with the Time and the Times" details how Astaire's long career kept current with trends in music and dance. Chapter 7, "Jazz Means the Blues," talks less about the many elements that make up the blues and more about just the blues form in Astaire's output. Chapter 8, "Something That'll Send Me," breaks down three of Astaire's most interesting routines. This is the most enjoyable chapter and the one in which Decker's close readings are at their best. The ninth and final chapter, "You Play and I'll Dance," details Astaire's use of black musicians in his films and other routines, and again, Decker's close readings reveal a layer of understanding that readers will find valuable. …

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