Melody Man

The long, unpredictable career of Irving Fields

Photograph by Michael Schmelling

Montreal, October 3, 2005. It’s the last night, the last show, of a festival that is one of the most ambitious in music today. Pop Montreal has been the launching pad for more than one international career—the bands Interpol and Arcade Fire foreshadowed global success with breakout turns at the festival. To mark the finale, festival organizers have abandoned the familiar music halls and clubs for the elegance of the Théâtre Nationale. The three acts on the bill tonight include Gonzales, hip hop’s answer to Keith Jarrett, and Socalled, the poster boy for hip hop–klezmer fusion. But it’s the opening act most are here to see. When the house lights snap off, a lone figure steps into the spotlight, then walks slowly toward the middle of the stage. He seats himself at a piano, lets his fingers graze the surface of the keys, then rolls out a single trill. With that, he turns toward his audience, a shock of white hair flashing. His smile is childlike, his eyes sparkle. He’s ninety years old and he looks fit to bury us all.

“Hello, my name is Irving Fields,” he says in a syrupy, radio-friendly voice. “The first selection I’m going to play for you, very lucky for me, is based on the r-r-r-rumba! When everybody was doing the rumba in Florida, I wrote and recorded this selection. It was very popular and sold two million copies. So, here it is, the Miami Beach Rumba!”

Fields was always good. And by good, I mean the kind of instantly undeniable talent that opens doors and keeps them open. Born Isadore Schwartz on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1915, as a young boy he sang in choirs under famous cantors like Zeidel Rovner, the Jewish Bing Crosby of Europe, and he was a featured performer in the Yiddish Theater’s production of The Galician Wedding. He began playing piano when he was eight years old, and by the age of ten, Fields had started cobbling together his own tunes. “My piano teachers found me frustrating,” he recalls. “I would never play the music the way it was meant to be played. I was always trying to play it in my own way. They would say, ‘That’s not the way the music is written. Why do you play it that way??’ And I would answer, ‘Because that’s the way I feel it.’?”

At fifteen, Fields outperformed two hundred contestants to become the youngest finalist on Fred Allen’s coast-to-coast cbs radio program. He played “The Continental,” in his own style, his own arrangement, and won. First prize was $50 and a week-long showcase at the Roxy in New York.

His professional career began inauspiciously enough, with summer stints at little New Hampshire resort hotels where the bands doubled as wait staff. Then, one particularly harsh winter day back in New York, as Fields pressed against the bitter cold, a poster caught his eye: “take cruise—west indies.” Fields says, “I thought, ‘Why can’t I do that??’ Then I thought, why can’t I do that??’?” He marched over to the cruise-line offices and fast-talked his way into the first of many gigs on the cruise-ship circuit.

Cruise-ship work gave Fields two things that would ultimately define his life: entry into the society of America’s well-to-do and, more importantly, an introduction to Latin music.

Fields’ love of Latin music deepened through the 1930s, coinciding with a United States government campaign to improve relations with Latin America. The Good Neighbor policy wasn’t just a series of political reforms; it was a cultural revolution that reached deep into American popular culture. Hollywood trotted out one pro-Latin flick after another. In 1933, Flying Down to Rio, one of the earliest and most emblematic, launched Mexican actress Dolores del Rio to international stardom. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers also got their start as partners in the film, performing a dance number called “The Carioca” that raised eyebrows for its overt sexuality. The rumba, tango, cha-cha, paso doble, merengue, and mambo all met with similar clamour. Well into the forties, Latin music had the same feisty appeal as, say, Beyoncé performing “Baby Boy.”

“I couldn’t get enough of the melodies and the rhythms. The variety and assortment astounded me,” Fields says. “Whenever I was in San Juan or Havana, I sat in with the orchestras. Then I started introducing those sounds into my sets.”

“In the 1930s, ’40s, and even into the ’50s, Latin was the top craze everywhere from the music world through Hollywood,” says Josh Kun, a professor of English at the University of California at Riverside and the author of Audiotopia, a book exploring inter-ethnic dialogues in American popular culture. “In addition to albums by authentic players like Xavier Cugat and Tito Puente, there was record after record of what Gustavo Pérez Firmat, a professor at Columbia University, has called ‘mamboids,’ faux Latin albums that came out by the dozen. It was very prevalent. It was not a marginal thing at all.”

Fields, who anticipated the wave in the 1930s and whose instinct for the Latin sound put him in a different league than most white emulators, was able to ride this craze through its early stages into a career as one of lounge culture’s reigning monarchs. Xavier Cugat, the king of rumba and Latin music’s most authentic crossover success, tried to recruit Fields for his band. “The night I met Xavier Cugat, he spoke to me in Spanish,” Fields says with a twinkle. “I had to say, ‘Mr. Cugat, I’m American.’ He couldn’t believe it. ‘I thought you were Cuban,’ he said. ‘You play like a Cuban.’?” Cugat and later Tito Puente recorded their own versions of at least two original Fields compositions, “Managua, Nicaragua” (also featured in the film The Third Man) and “Miami Beach Rumba.”

By the late 1950s, Fields had been living large for nearly three decades. He held court at venues like the Waldorf?’s Crest Room, the Versailles in Miami Beach, and the Sahara in Vegas. Ava Gardner danced barefoot beside his piano and Meyer Lansky casually “insisted” he play three weeks at his Reno casino. He was a celebrated veteran of cocktail chic, jet-setting between stints at Caesar’s Palace, the Surf Club in Virginia Beach, and the St. Moritz in New York. He had toured the best rooms from London to Japan, played Carnegie Hall more than once, and shared the stage with the likes of Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Tommy and Jimmy Dor-sey, Artie Shaw, Louis Prima, and Harry James. But he felt cramped creatively. His record label, rca Victor, wasn’t allowing him any room to experiment. “Latin is a pet love,” Fields admits. “But I’m a melody man foremost and always. Latin melodies aren’t the only ones available. I like all types of music—jazz, classical, operatic, anything where the nature of the music is strong with melody. I felt constrained.” Fields broke his contract and became an independent producer.

In 1959, while playing an extended engagement at the Sherry Biltmore Hotel in Boston, Fields went into a studio and recorded a series of songs that blended Jewish melodies from his childhood with the rhythms and tempos of his Latin influences. He was just toying around, but that album, Bagels and Bongos, and the innovations it contained would end up being the defining statement of his career.

Fields never denied his Jewish roots but didn’t draw attention to them either. Even as he was spinning classic Jewish melodies like “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon” and “Raisins and Almonds” over rumba and paso-doble beats, Fields was only partially aware of what he was doing. Wittingly or not, he was the pioneer of Jewish-Latin fusion, which Kun calls “the Jewish Latin craze of the 1950s.” And Bagels and Bongos not only led the trend toward Jewish-inflected Latin sounds but also opened the field to all manner of fusion experiments. Avant-garde pianist Anthony Coleman has likened Fields’ knack for blending sounds to that of fusion standard-bearer Ahmad Jamal. He writes, “How could I have found the perfect soupçon of Romantic Irony to counterpoise the weight of the mournful Sephardic songs in my Sephardic Tinge project if it wasn’t for the revelation of Irving Fields’ Bagels and Bongos??”

Initially, Bagels and Bongos seems inconsequential and light, but if you pay close attention, you can hear just how much is going on: the subtle way Fields waggles a finger over a key, the little trill, or the insertion of a Latin, Jewish, French, classical, or Polynesian element. He coaxes the keyboard as though it were an orchestra, playing the highs like woodwinds or strings and the lows like horns. He improvises, but he’s not an iconoclast like Bud Powell—Bagels and Bongos isn’t jazz. He was influenced by Gershwin, but he doesn’t compose elaborate symphonic masterpieces. Fields is a lounge pianist, and he knows it. His mastery is not of singular artistic invention but rather of an uncanny ability to adapt across styles. It’s his technique, his control of the instrument, and his feel that are singular.

And what is his feel?? An intangible balance of interpretation, melodic phrasing, rhythmic sense, and beat? The emotional connection between the music and the musician, the earnestness of his expression? The sense of humour he brings to his music, a knack for tossing comic jabs into otherwise rapturous melodies? These little gestures elevate his oeuvre from the forgettable lounge kitsch it could be mistaken for. We are accustomed to thinking that important musical moments are based on self-conscious aesthetic choices, but Fields didn’t have a master plan to meld Latin and Jewish music or to be seen as a grand innovator. He was just winging it, squirrelling around for a fresh gimmick to hook an audience. He broke moulds as an afterthought, almost by accident.

Through the 1970s and ’80s, Fields continued to secure jobs—he had standing engagements at the Plaza Hotel and played private parties for the likes of Donald Trump and Candice Bergen—but he never again attained the happy glut of the 1950s. Fields remained steadfast, embittered only when he couldn’t play. Even past the age of seventy, his huckster charm and indomitable good humour kept him going. Still, as the twentieth century crested into the twenty-first, Fields was in recession. Hotels were divesting themselves of their pianos, and nightclubs were catering to rock shows and DJ nights. Then the unexpected happened.

Out of the blue, a young man called to ask Fields if he would be interested in recording with him. Fields invited him over on the spot. At the same time as Josh Dolgin, otherwise known as Socalled, was sitting in Fields’ Central Park South apartment, Josh Kun was teaming up with Roger Bennett, publisher of the Jewish magazine Guilt & Pleasure, documentary filmmaker Jules Shell, and music industry types David Katznelson and Courtney Holt to liberate Fields’ 1959 classic from the archives of Universal Music. “When we first heard Bagels and Bongos, it just blew us away,” Bennett says. “We couldn’t understand why we hadn’t heard it before.” Their efforts eventually evolved into Reboot Stereophonic, a non-profit venture for reissuing what Bennett calls “the lost history of electrifying and challenging music” mined from the Jewish past. In 2005, Bagels and Bongos served as their inaugural release.

These two boons set off a chain of related events, including write-ups in the New York Times and hip magazines like Flaunt, an appearance on Barbara Walters’ The View, DJ remixes of Fields’ songs, and not least, his performance at Pop Montreal. “He’s more popular at ninety-one than he was at sixty,” says Dan Seligman, Pop Montreal’s creative director and the man who put Fields on the bill. “He’s an incredible musician and creative force. That he decided to express it through cocktail lounges and society hotels doesn’t diminish that.”

A few weeks after Pop Montreal, Fields is casually sipping a stinger and winking at diners from behind his piano in the wood-panelled coziness of Nino’s Tuscany, the chic Manhattan eatery where he has a gig five nights a week. Fields seems in his element.

“I have a joke for you,” he says to no one in particular. “Three notes walk into a bar—a C, an E-flat, and a G. ‘I’m sorry,’ the bartender says. ‘We don’t serve minors.’?” Fields pauses. “So the E-flat leaves and the C and the G have a fifth between them.” Laughter rings out across the room, and the piano player, grinning like a kid, starts into the first resplendent bars of “Glow Worm.”?•

Dylan Young