Bringing you the issues since 1986

View Online Print Edition


The keys to youth and happiness

October, 2009

If there were such a thing as a perfect art form, surely it would be the song. Short enough to learn by heart, it only needs to be whistled or hummed to be satisfying. Its lyrics appeal to the poet, its images to the visual artist, its flow to the dancer and its emotion to the actor. But perhaps it is the composer/pianist who can most profoundly experience a song, beginning with getting acquainted with the tune, colouring it with harmonies, altering it through rhythms while enjoying it all thoroughly, in a completely new way every single time.

“I love what I do; I still perform in New York six nights a week,” says Irving Fields, in town last month for a two-day gig at Ex-Centris. “I play one note I get six months younger, two notes, a year. Any more and I’m like Benjamin Button.” The 94-year old pianist no longer lies about his age. “When I was 80 I said I was 60 to get a job over the telephone. Now I flaunt my age. I’m happy, proud of what I do and it helps my career.”

Fields gets younger with every note he plays. Photos: Scott Philip

Fields, who was born on August 4, 1915 in the Lower East Side of New York, got his first break when at 15 he won first prize on the Fred Allen Radio Amateur Hour. The honour included $50 and the chance to perform for a week at the Roxy Theater.

“I knew I wanted to be in show business. People accepted me and my style of playing – they thought it was very unusual.”

Fields went on to build a solid piano technique through study at the Eastman school of music and worked on cruise ships as headline performer. It was on one of these trips that the then-18-year-old entertainer found himself in Havana and fell in love with the Latin rhythms that would determine his musical future.

Fields’ first recorded song was Managua Nicaragua, for RCA Victor. It became an international hit, as did other songs many readers may remember, like the Cugat Xavier hit Miami Beach Rhumba. Younger readers may recognize the tune from the Woody Allen film Deconstructing Harry. In 1959, Fields’s album Bagels and Bongos, on the Decca label, became instantly popular all over the world. “I pioneered a fusion of Latin rhythms and tempos with ethnic music. It started with Jewish music, followed by Italian music (Pizzas and Bongos), French music (Champagne and Bongos) and Hawaiian music (Bikinis and Bongos). Then I thought ‘Why can’t we do this with classics and jazz and ragtime? I took Blue Danube and played it as a merengue and Für Elise as a tango. Music has no language barrier; that’s its beauty.”

Fields’ songs have been recorded by artists such as Dinah Shore, Guy Lombardo and Sarah Vaughan. Gigs at the finest hotels all over the world, television appearances and Carnegie Hall (eight concerts) followed.

Pianist Irving Fields still performs six nights a week

Despite his pianistic prowess, Fields didn’t aim to be a classical musician. “I thought about it, but with classical music you have to live with the piano eight hours a day to really play. I love every kind of music, show-tunes, classical, popular. There is more versatility and I don’t have to tie myself down to one kind of music. Like this I’m diversifying. Like a good meal.” At his Ex-Centris performance, Fields served up a well-balanced musical feast, with music from Beethoven to Gershwin, and more for dessert.

Fields is renowned for his ability to improvise on any “request” his audience makes of him. He still remembers a few songs. “Thousands and thousands and thousands” he told an interviewer on his last visit here, when he was 91. Does he worry that beautiful songs are becoming extinct? “I’m sorry that we have deteriorated from melodic, beautiful, emotional, romantic music. Kids know music by the beat instead of the melody. The beat is louder than melody, louder than other instruments. There is very little romantic music. Thank goodness for the revival of Broadway shows.”

Fields’s “No. 1 favourite” composer is George Gershwin, and his favourite song the Pearl Fishers, from an opera by Bizet, in which he makes the piano sound like a mandolin. “The piano in itself is a symphony orchestra. I trill the notes. I produce shivers.”



Post a Comment