One for Friday: Mel Tormé and George Shearing, “I’m Hip”

In writing about my time at the college radio station, I focus almost exclusively on my interactions with the music piled into the library that lined the walls of our main studio. All those records and CDs contained of wealth of music that we called modern rock before begrudgingly starting to call it alternative. While WWSP 90FM had and has, to its credit, a stronger focus than most college radio stations, there was a significant amount of programming centered on different styles of music than that which topped the college charts. There were programs that made weekly forays into blues, reggae and new age, but the other genre that was best represented was jazz. Jazzsides ran in the evenings Monday through Friday, and the entire schedule was upended once a year for a full weekend of jazz programming and live performances on campus.

Given my various positions of responsibility at the station, I wound up logging an awful lot of hours in those programming slots. I’d love to report that it helped me developed a deep and nuanced appreciation for “America’s Classical Music,” but I admit that I wasn’t an especially dedicated programmer during those shifts, often selecting the longest songs I could find so I could easily distract myself with other tasks around the station. It’s not just a mild obsession with Miles Davis that caused me to regularly play the song “Bitches Brew.” It’s too bad, because the station’s jazz library was impressive–by some accounts, it was one of the best in the state–and I could have learned a lot by digging into it with the same resolve and curiosity I brought to the rest of the station’s music. I did have my odd little favorites, though, tracks I regularly returned to when I approached those jazz shift with the proper vigor.

One of those was introduced to me by the Program Director at the station when I started. He’d slip this album out of its battered black cover and play it, giggling like a gregarious madman the whole time his favored song played. I thought of the song earlier this week when I read that jazz pianist George Shearing died. At one point in his illustrious career (filled with a truly staggering number of releases), Shearing regularly collaborating with the Velvet Fog himself, Mel Tormé. One result was a live album that included the song “I’m Hip.” In his inimitable way, Tormé delivers a litany of supposed reasons he’s hip, including regularly reading People magazine, knowing someone who knows John Travolta and a preference for “digging arty French flicks with my shades on.” All the while, Shearing tickles the ivories with graceful ease.

It’s not world-changing music, by any means, but it’s funny, charming and, above all else, entertaining. That’s actually the strongest sense I get from this track: these guys were entertainers, stolidly dedicated to the art and craft of beguiling an audience. It’s a quality that seems entirely absent from the current popular culture, fixated on the pursuit of celebrity at all costs. These were guys who lived to get on a stage and make the people on the other side of the lights feel a little bit better about their night. There’s a loopy joy in this song that’s hard to come by, and gets harder as Shearing’s generation of performers continues to slip away.

Mel Tormé and George Shearing, “I’m Hip”

(Disclaimer: Honestly, I am not about to dig aggressively through the discographies of either of the performers on this track to discover if this song resides on some easily purchasable album or box set somewhere. It looks like the album I know it from is out of print and, in this instance, that’s good enough for me. However, if anyone with due authority to regulate and enforce its copyright contacts me and insists upon it’s removal, I will gladly and cravenly comply.)

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