A West Side Story Story

How Bernstein’s musical entered the jazz canon (and why it took so long).

“He is strict with me, please.” “I love you.”

If pressed, you could probably hum a song or two from West Side Story. Leonard Bernstein’s musical garnered a 1961 Best Picture Oscar and a permanent place in pop culture consciousness, resurfacing most recently when OutKast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi restaged Riff and Bernado’s rumble scene in their video for “Roses.” But Bernstein’s score remains so daunting and impenetrable that, outside of orchestra pits, few musicians can play it. Bill Charlap is one exception, and his Somewhere: The Songs of Leonard Bernstein might make you wonder why “Cool” and “America” didn’t make it into the jazz canon sooner. Try being Charlap’s left hand for just a few bars and you’ll understand why.

Bernstein wrote a symphony before he ever wrote a pop song, and even his simplest tunes were composed with a deliberate precision. Tony’s emotions may be aswirl when he croons “Maria,” but Bernstein orchestrates every modulation and interval with a painstaking grandeur. Such an exacting approach can hardly be replicated by jazz “fake books,” the notoriously unreliable sketches of melody lines and chord changes that most jazz musicians rely upon. Fake books, as the name suggests, allow musicians to “fake” their way through a tune without needing to read music particularly well. These books are often cobbled together by unreliable copyists, and the sins of the transcribers are passed on from player to player.

The simpler the source material, the less chance there is for error. On many classic occasions, fake books have helped jazz artists transfigure banal sources into canonized works, revered by fans and scrutinized by music students. When the John Coltrane Quartet recorded Rogers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things“ in 1960, all they needed was a single treble clef melody line and a road map taking them from E Minor to F Sharp Minor and beyond. The groove they found was nowhere on the page.

But when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way. Even riffing off Bernstein demands precision. The songbooks of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Wayne Shorter startle and challenge anyone who tries to play them, but if you can make the changes, a good ear can compensate for scant reading ability. Making changes is no mean feat, of course—it requires a musician to create a spontaneous and original melodic idea based on mere chords. But the exacting intervals of Bernstein’s “Big Stuff” and “Cool” take musicians to a place too dense for fake books. If you don’t follow the score exactly as Bernstein wrote it, it probably won’t sound like the same song.

Of course, jazz musicians aren’t supposed to adhere to scores. They’re supposed to interpret melodies and fly into new, improvised territory. On Somewhere, you can hear that Charlap, supported by bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington (no relation), has carefully read every note on every page. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Charlap, 37, is not trying to establish a breakthrough style or push new compositions into the glutted jazz landscape—the usual strategy of younger musicians, regardless of their compositional gifts. He’s meticulously unpacking Bernstein’s songbook, unearthing the harmonic and rhythmic treasures within.

At New York’s Village Vanguard last April, Charlap called tunes most musicians would shy away from on the bandstand. His trio performed Bernstein’s trickiest songs with a kind of informed improvisation. “Cool” is a fine example. The first few bars are straightforward enough—a blues with a distinctive Diablo tone, the interval also used as the motif of “Maria”—but then it goes off into the rough harmonic waters that keep the song out of most jam sessions. In contrast to the Hollywood “Cool,” more jazzy than jazz, more camp histrionics than serious swing, Charlap takes the song’s harmonic challenge seriously and meets it head-on with hard blues and even harder harmonic abstraction. Charlap leans on that Diablo tone, making the already complex score even more complex with chord substitutions and melodic variations.

Charlap is not the first jazz musician to record Bernstein’s music, but, with the possible exception of Tommy Flanagan’s 1960 Lonely Town (maddeningly, available only on a Japanese import), he is the most successful. In the afterglow of the musical’s success, both Oscar Peterson and Dave Brubeck recorded jazz renditions of Bernstein. Both musicians were comfortable with classical and crossover, but neither produced an album as satisfying as Charlap’s. Dave Brubeck pounds his fists to “America,” and Oscar Peterson blazes through the “Jet Song,” but despite some moments of beauty and excitement, the overall effect is somewhat precious, even unnecessarily clever.

On “Somewhere,” the Aida-like finale that provides Charlap’s title track, Brubeck, Peterson, and Charlap offer three distinct approaches that demonstrate the continued challenges of a song. On Brubeck’s version, Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone plays a catch-me-if-you-can game with Brubeck’s thudding piano in a “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”-style round. Peterson’s “Somewhere” goes somewhere else, transforming the tune into a bolero. He plays the piano with a two-fisted rubato—a meandering rhythm without a steady beat—that is kept in check by bassist Ray Brown’s assertive bowing of the melody. Brown has a lyrical literalism that keeps Peterson’s rococo tendencies from getting the better of him. These flights of fancy have their charms, but Charlap’s “Somewhere” finds a place in the song itself. After stating the melody on an almost note-for-note reading, Charlap determined there was nothing in the score that demanded any bop lines, blues licks, or extra Latin tinge. There’s nothing straight about this song: A note-for-note reading turns out to be perhaps the most avant-garde and counterintuitive thing a jazz musician could do.

In the song’s chorus, Tony and Maria sing, “We’ll find a new way of living/ We’ll find a way of forgiving *.” In the 1950s, Bernstein had an inkling that it was jazz, not classical, that truly offered a new way. Half a century before Ken Burns spread the gospel on PBS, Bernstein said on his Omnibus program that jazz was America’s music. But despite his regard for the form, Bernstein retained his classical aspirations—he died regretting that he wasn’t the heir apparent to Gustav Mahler. Charlap’s Somewhere makes you wonder what would have happened if Bernstein had spent less time on bloated orchestral works like “The Age of Anxiety,” and more time on jazz masterpieces like “Big Stuff.” (The song, first immortalized by Billie Holiday, also appears on Charlap’s CD.) If the composer had swung with the changes more often, there might be an even richer Bernstein songbook to celebrate.

Correction, June 2, 2004: This piece originally misquoted the lyrics to “Somewhere.” We wrote, “We’ll find a new way of giving,” but Maria actually sings, “We’ll find a way of forgiving.” Please forgive us.(Return to corrected sentence.)