A long-time local resident who is once again kicking off the Creative Cauldron’s summer cabaret series also happens to curate one of the most interesting home collections of the Tin Pan Alley era of music.
“What excites us is finding songs from composers that were lost for any number of reasons,” explained singer Doug Bowles. “We feel like these songs would have been great hits had they made it to the public ear or been kept in the public ear.”
Bowles will be singing alongside soprano Jennifer Timberlake with Falls Church resident Alex Hassan accompanying the pair on the piano. Bowles and Hassan, who spearhead the music selection for their concerts, will be playing a mixture of familiar tunes and songs the audience has never heard from before. The pair, who have been acquainted for 15 years, share a mutual love of the back catalogue of Tin Pan Alley which is catalogued through an extensive collection of over 50,000 pieces of sheet music from the period between the wars.
Tin Pan Alley was a commercial district of Manhattan that disseminated sheet music from the era’s most popular composers — Jerome Kern, George Gerswhin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter among others — that was popularized through the early stages of Broadway, vaudeville tours and later Hollywood musicals.
Hassan started playing the piano at the age of 8 and hails from a long line of musicians including a great-aunt who was a student of Alexander Lambert, the protégé of the immensely popular composer Franz Liszt. In his upbringing, first in Queens and then Baltimore, he was classically trained and then discovered his niche accompanying the school’s drama department for their musicals (he remembers playing “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Funny Girl.”)
Hassan initially attended the Peabody Music Conservatory in Baltimore for a year but dropped out with his parents support because he “told them what he wanted to play anyway.”
Rather than pursue a life of professional music full-time, Hassan worked in the Defense Intelligence Agency as a librarian while gigging on the side. He was also the designated piano player for ceremonies held at his agency.
“I have a house, I have a family, I have a savings account; it’s a trade-off,” said Hassan noting that his least favorite part was the drive up 395. On the bright side, however, Hassan notes “in 30 years at the defense department, no one ever stopped me from playing a gig.”
Additionally, Hassan is well-known for his vast library of sheet music. He often goes to the Library of Congress to scour treasures and is connected to fellow collectors. He even met his wife through a mutual collecting friend and the two merged catalogues when they married. Recently, a good friend of his passed away and he has tens of thousands of pieces of sheet music in his garage.
As for how he got into it in the first place, Hassan is a master at sight reading (the musical method of being able to competently play sheet music at first glance) and can now play by ear. Beyond that, Hassan took on the practice from his father and he describes collecting as something in his DNA.
“I would say it is hoarding for good reasons rather than just plain hoarding. But it is a collection that has always been of complete value and use. I could take off the shelf within seconds anything written within an era,“ said Hassan.
As for Hassan’s collaborators, Bowles is a member of the Howard University and Catholic University music department faculties and met Hassan as an audience member at a concert.
The group was originally called Three for a Song but when the group’s first Soprano dropped out, Bowles and Hassan re-branded themselves Two for a Song. Current soprano Jennifer Timberlake knew Bowles when they were students at Catholic University and they went on an international tour together back in 1991. Now that Timberlake has been singing with the group, they are now calling themselves “Two for a Song plus One.”
Timberlake recently turned to singing full-time after managing the family restaurant. Her role in the cataloguing and the library isn’t the same as her compatriots. Her primary interest, instead, is in the work of Esther Walker, who will be a large part of the program.
“I’m more of a Broadway singer, but I’m also a pretty good mimic and after listening to this one particular singer that they like, I just fell in love with her voice,” Timberlake said of Walker.
Esther Walker was a singer and minor Broadway actress who recorded 32 sides for Victor and Brunswick record label from 1919 – 1927. It was perhaps the lack of success of the Broadway shows she was attached to or her early death from cancer that didn’t make her a household name, but Two For a Song Plus One will be resurrecting her three most successful songs at their concert.
The rest of the program will feature selected rare music from the recently deceased friend of Bowles and Hassan and approximately half of the show will be recognizable songs that the audience will be able to hum along to.
“It’s a really unique form of entertainment. It’s discovery, it’s skilled musicians, it’s humor, it’s political commentary. The songs surprise you with their content,” said Bowles.