Baton Passes to a Member of the Harvard Class of ’28

Times Arts Editor

If all goes according to plan, John Green will be conducting the Boston Pops tonight in Boston, sharing the podium with the Pops’ regular conductor John Williams.

The concert is one of the events surrounding the 60th reunion of Green’s Harvard College Class of 1928. Green, who wrote “Body and Soul,” “Out of Nowhere” and several other standards, had planned the appearance with Williams months ago, not expecting that it would in the end be a sweet victory over medical adversity.

Last fall, flying to Nashville for a meeting of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), of which he is a director, Green suffered a stroke that left him with impairments of speech and motion. It seemed doubtful that he would stand again, let alone conduct.


But Green, who will be 80 on Oct. 10, has a resolve that makes steel seem tender. He fought his speech and arm and leg movements back to normal, only to fall and fracture a bone in his back. Now he has fought back from that as well and will take a well-earned salute from his classmates, who include arms negotiator Paul Nitze and a former president of Harvard, Nathan Pusey.

Green’s trademark is a carnation in his buttonhole, worn daily without fail--as a reminder, he once told me, that there is beauty in life and that we need to cherish and preserve it, and to create it if we can.

A quick finger-count suggests, surprisingly, that Green must have graduated from Harvard at 19, as indeed he did. He entered at 15 as a whiz kid from the Horace Mann School in New York and majored in economics because his wealthy father thought his piano-playing wasn’t good enough to sustain a career.

By a parent-confounding irony, Green was still a senior at Harvard when one of his songs, “Coquette,” was the No. 1 hit in the country (then measured by sheet music sales). He confesses that this success did his humility no good whatever.

He had spent the summer between his junior and senior years in Cleveland, writing arrangements for a new Canadian dance band led by a man named Guy Lombardo. One of Green’s close pals that Cleveland summer was a local teen-ager, Lew Wasserman, who was doing publicity for a local movie house and who a few years later became Green’s agent at MCA.

Being precocious lets you crowd more interesting living into your life. Green attended the premiere performance of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in May, 1924, when he was 16. Later he and Gershwin became close friends and Green scored many of Gershwin’s songs for Fred Astaire to sing in the movies.


With “Coquette” under his belt, or in his wallet, Green never thought seriously about being an economist or doing whatever else it is that economics majors do. After graduation he took a job as a rehearsal pianist at Paramount for $50 a week and told his father somebody else would have to calculate the gross national product.

Green kept on writing songs and was only 22 when he agreed to deliver four new tunes to Gertrude Lawrence by a given Wednesday, for $250. One of them had to be a ballad, and the ballad he sent her was “Body and Soul,” which has been a nicer annuity for him than any that Metropolitan sells. It has been recorded by almost everybody who records. When it is performed well it is magnificent, when it is performed badly it is still a beautiful melody.

“Somebody once asked me if I knew I’d written a classic,” Green said not long ago. “I said, ‘No, I was just relieved I had a song for Gertie for Wednesday.’ ”

During a visit to London a couple of years ago, Green sat with the English performer-writer Benny Green (no kin) and some other musical historians who hummed phrases of obscure show tunes John wrote for Jack Buchanan, a premiere British song and dance man, in the 1930s. He was astonished and delighted that anyone remembered.

His surviving classmates, who have gathered in Cambridge, Mass., this week to gaze back over 60 fairly extraordinary years in their lives and the world’s, will be familiar enough with John Green’s musical achievements.

He will conduct an orchestral suite of the songs for “West Side Story,” a film for which he won an Oscar as musical director, and his arrangement of “Strike Up the Band,” which he wrote for the Pops in Arthur Fiedler’s day and which the Pops has recorded and still plays almost as often as “The Star Spangled Banner.”


What some of his classmates may not fully appreciate is that when Green, carnation in place, lifts the baton to put the Pops through its paces, it will be a triumph of soul over body.