Magazine article The New Yorker

Glad to Be Unhappy

Magazine article The New Yorker

Glad to Be Unhappy

Article excerpt


--David Remnick

It's the kind of late-October Sunday that they sing songs about, or did once--sunny and cool, fareless cabs plying Seventh Avenue, wordless brunchers slouching at their tables in the many varieties of morning-after. A short line of gossipers and smokers stand outside Film Forum, on Houston, waiting for "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "Tokyo Story." Around the corner, at 160 Varick, up on the eighth floor of the public-radio building, nearly vacant today, Jonathan Schwartz, a man in the melancholy blue of his years--handsome once, a little fragile now--sits alone at a microphone in a soundproof studio. He is wearing roomy jeans, a denim shirt, and a Red Sox cap.

A record ends, and the dead seconds fall away, russet leaves off an oak. The air on WNYC-FM is as silent as Miss Havisham's parlor. Schwartz, with no evident concern, lets the nothing happen. He fumbles with a jewel case. He slides the disk into a player. He clears his throat with an alarming liquid rip--ah-HEM! He locates a button on his console and punches it. And then, finally, he speaks.

"There was, in this world," he says, just a breathy notch above an Alec Baldwin whisper, "until it disappeared, an album. Called 'Bittersweet.' By Carmen McRae."

The pauses suggest an ego--or, better, an assurance that you, the listener, will wait. It is the assurance of a horn player--Miles Davis on "All Blues"--who comes in at his own sweet bidding, knowing that the waiting is as much a part of the music, the desired atmosphere, as the phrase that comes next. And that is what Schwartz is selling--not one record after another so much as the creation of an atmosphere in which the Great American Songbook is, in his view, properly tendered and absorbed. He casts the spell of steady rain at night, languorous autumn afternoons. Now it is 1964. The Stones have issued their d(c)but record. But that is elsewhere. Norman Simmons is at the piano. Carmen McRae sings "I'm Going to Laugh You Right Out of My Life."

Schwartz takes off his headphones and wheels around in his chair.

"You like Carmen?" he says.

In the late sixties and the seventies, Schwartz did a progressive-rock show on WNEW-FM in the prime evening spot. But he had to study the music; it wasn't what he loved first. Now, at seventy-five, he doesn't mind sounding out of it; hip-hop and pop sink his boat. "You know, we've reached rock bottom these days," he says. …

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