Music Makes the Memoir-With Hollywood Harmonies

All in Good Time: A Memoir, by Jonathan Schwartz. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 283 pages, $13.95.

The title of All in Good Time, a memoir by Jonathan Schwartz-short-story writer, novelist and the most well-respected radio D.J.-connoisseur of American popular song in the world-is perfectly tuned to the wavelength of his book, which is being republished in paperback this month. The author is the son of the Broadway and Hollywood songwriter Arthur (“Dancing in the Dark”) Schwartz and his beautiful songbird first wife, Katherine Carrington, whose “malignant” (pulmonary?) hypertension, diagnosed before their son was conceived, made her a permanent semi-invalid and their child an effective outsider to his own family.

Jonathan was born in 1938, a year before the release of The Wizard of Oz, and one of the earliest stories he tells here is of Judy Garland momentarily leaving one of his parents’ parties to sing him to sleep with a lullaby in his bedroom. Garland’s personal life, derailed by a variety of factors beginning with alcoholism, isn’t rehashed; still, Mr. Schwartz counts on us to remember the tragic details-especially when we learn that young Jonathan, a lonely voyeur of a boy suffering from gross, if privileged, neglect, was spiking his colas with Scotch by the time he was 10 years old.

Indeed, much of his life as a child seems to have been a matter of adding ingredients to experience. Consider Mr. Schwartz’s boyhood remembrance of the lyricist Ira Gershwin, a Hollywood neighbor. He paints us a portrait of the living subject, “revered for his authentic modesty, for the brilliance and bulk of his work,” and also of the lingering presence of Ira’s brother, George, who’d died some years before and whose absence, for those who had eyes to see and the willingness to admit it, modulated the sunshine of the survivor’s success:

“The evasion at Ira’s house was the only occasionally acknowledged shadow of his brother by his side, close to the easy chair, near his racquet on the tennis court, at poolside next to his glass of orange juice, in the constant sway of the wind. I felt it as a child. Everyone else did, too: The blood rushes to the neck and cheeks. Hands and feet grow warm, though clouds have obscured the sun. Ira survives in the mist, sedentary. The chuckle. The lack of grandiloquence, the soft uncertainty of self, the conviction that the magic lay elsewhere, deceased, silenced well before the war, and, in dying, cutting down everyone’s chances, chopping years off the far end of their futures.”

“All in good time,” the line cackled by Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz as a mortal threat to Garland’s Dorothy, has a foreground meaning here of catastrophe in general and catastrophe endemic to showbiz kids in particular. And there’s a latent meaning as well: “all in good time” in the sense of musical timing. Beyond the miseries of Jonathan’s childhood, and those that the morbidly watchful child sensed in adults, are the deep bonds to his parents and to his own gifts as a writer, a singer and a critic-historian-bonds forged by a family passion for song and, later on, by Mr. Schwartz’s exploration of the larger landscape of classical and popular music.

Music saved Jonathan Schwartz’s life: It gave his intellect and emotions a focus, it stoked his imagination, it provided him with lines of communication to the world, and, even more than writing, it represented a standard of integrity and purity. Absent any religious upbringing (“My father’s Jewishness went unacknowledged. I had no idea I was considered a Jew until high school …. My mother, so clearly Christian, had no idea in the world what she was”), he developed an attachment to music that went far beyond a performer’s ambition or a critic’s intellect: Music became his repository of the sacred.

When he tells his radio audience-as he did on a recent edition of his radio program The Sunday Show (carried in New York on WNYC-FM)-that the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “If I Loved You,” from Carousel, is “for me … the greatest moment in musical theater,” his audience knows that he means it. He’s listened to the panoply of songs over the history of musical theater, considered them and chosen this one: a double solo that becomes a duet as Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow sing it to one another. Part of his choice can be reasoned, part is entirely intuitive personal taste, and he can both make the distinction for himself and explain it to an audience that doesn’t have his mastery of the field.

The amazing thing about his memoir, though, is that all of its seriousness is latent. The actual narrative flies by, conversational in tone, inflected with humor, shockingly open about the author’s mishaps and flaws, yet charmingly elusive about such matters as the physical particulars of his lovers-a simple beach read, it would seem. However, when one takes it apart to see how it’s made, there’s nothing simple about it.

The apparently casual transition between a phone call from his idol, Frank Sinatra, inviting him to come on over for a drink and his analysis of the way Sinatra attempted to exert control over his friends and colleagues has been prepared for 100 pages back: As a boy, Mr. Schwartz himself attempted to control his circle of family and friends with the invention of a primitive yet effective technology to achieve a radio broadcast in his apartment house.

This is a man who’s able to wear his heart on his sleeve in middle age-who’s comfortable with the idea that flowers are for the living-because, having written a suicide note in youth to his father, he didn’t send it but instead filed it in the sleeve of a Sinatra LP. Underneath his response to “Ring-a-Ding-Ding” are the seething emotions of Tosca.

At one point, Mr. Schwartz says to his friend Lester Davis, “I am a disc jockey …. I wish you to feel music the way I do.” Mr. Davis: “But Jonno, that’s impossible. Your level of excitement is way out of my casual league.” Mr. Schwartz counters, “That may very well be … but at least you could have the common decency to listen.” And, speaking for Jonathan Schwartz’s readers and listeners, Mr. Davis responds, “Oh, but I do.”

Mindy Aloff’s anthology, Dance Anecdotes, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2006.