Saturday, April 25, 2015

Happy Birthday Ella

I am at this moment listening to her perfect voice thanks to a mini radio tribute designed by WQXR radio host Jonathan Schwartz.  In fact (shame on me), I almost forgot her birthday.  She would have been ninety-eight years old today, and in two years' time, we will all be celebrating her centennial anniversary.   I have very precious memories of often being in her presence during the late 1970's when Jimmy Rowles became her accompanist after Tommy Flanagan relinquished his lengthy tenure.  I went along on a few of those tours to help Jimmy find his socks, and even helped zip Ella into her gown a few times.

I was in the wings for one of her more unforgettable concerts.  She usually wore high heels, and one night during a performance, one of them became lodged between the boards. While she wobbled somewhat precariously, her bass player Keter Betts, noticing her distress, tried to get Jimmy's attention, but he was new on the job, and was peering intently at the music.  In a loud stage whisper, Keter was practically shouting at Jimmy who finally looked up, saw Ella's predicament, leapt to her side, knelt down, grabbed her ankle and started to pull.  With heroic effort, he managed to release her foot, and beat a hasty retreat back to the piano.   Through every second of this Chaplin-esque routine, Ella never stopped singing.  She received a well-deserved standing ovation, and so did Jimmy when she turned and invited him to share in the applause.

Though I have told this one on more than one occasion, it always pleases me to remember the moment as if it happened yesterday.  We were sitting together in a VIP lounge in some European airport.  I simply HAD to ask: "Ella - Is it possible you have a favorite song to sing?"  Without a flicker of hesitation, she replied: "Oh yes", and began to sing the verse to Billy Strayhorn's "I Want Something To Live For".  "Do you know it?", she asked. "Yes, I do", I said, and then we began to sing the rest of the verse and the chorus together. Now, not many people have had that experience, I'll wager.

This a photograph of a small but elegant party given for Jimmy on the eve of his departure on his first European tour as Ella's accompanist.  L-R: Bob Brookmeyer, Jimmy, me seated beside Tommy Flanagan.  Photo on the piano is Jascha Heifetz, a friend of our hostess.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Happy Birthday Carmen ...



This a brief but deeply affectionate remembrance of Carmen McRae, a modest tribute on her birthdate. No discography or scholarly discourse about her vocal technique, vast repertoire, skills as a pianist, or her notoriously volatile personality.  (Speaking of which, I stood in the direct line of fire at least twice in our long relationship.  She once cut off all communication with me for over a year because I forgot to fill an ice tray taken from the freezer of her refrigerator).  But we remained fast friends in spite of it all up to the end of her life.   

Carmen was born on this date in 1920.  I will always remember her as my girl friend, confidant and Sister Singer Superior.  We shared many hours together at her home in Los Angeles, or at her gigs in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. and other American cities.   The focus these past few days has properly highlighted Billie Holiday's centennial commemoration with reams of print recalling her rise to fame and tragic life.  None of us will ever forget her sound or her influence, especially Carmen, her most ardent admirer.  She once told me that if Lady Day asked her to jump out the window of a thirty-story building, she'd have flung her life away without regret.  In a much less exaggerated form, that was the sort of devotion I developed for Carmen myself over time.

We often spoke on the telephone, usually to chat about the latest plot twists on "All My Children", a favorite soap opera she watched faithfully.  (It's common knowledge that Ella Fitzgerald was also addicted to her "stories"). Carmen was so loyal she had a satellite dish installed on the roof of her home in Beverly Hills so she could watch the show in EST, not forced to wait for the three-hour West Coast delayed telecast.  I watched it too, but only because she did.  

Often, she liked to call from some city on the road to describe the latest less than adequate hotel room accommodations or highly over-rated, sometimes non-existent amenities, snarling the whole time, until eventually we were both howling with laughter.  I once bought her a phone jack with the longest cord I could find because one such call began this way: ME: "Hello"?   CARMEN: (shouting): "Girl! Can I just tell you about this &*@$-ing hotel where the phone is on the OTHER SIDE OF THE ROOM!!!  ... nowhere near the bed where it's supposed to be!!!"  She'd  continue her diatribe, describing numerous other transgressions with unreliable room service or imbecilic chamber maids who knocked in spite of a DND hanging on the door knob. When she called, she never asked if it was an awkward moment, or if I was otherwise occupied. She usually didn't even identify herself.  She'd just launch into a flamboyant tirade, but at the end of the call, her mood was predictably less bombastic.  She probably gave a better performance that night too because she released all that tension with an eye-popping imitation of Mt. Vesuvius.


It was 1988.  I was in New York and can't remember why.  I called her hotel to say goodbye before taking the train back to Boston.  She said:  "You mean you don't want to come to my record date this afternoon?" And that's how I came to bear witness to the studio sessions which completed her ambitious, daring, and subsequently definitive essay of songs never meant to be sung: the music of  Thelonious Monk.  

In this valuable YouTube video of her Montreal Jazz Festival appearance in 1988, she sings several Monk compositions with her usual flair, at ease with perhaps the most abstract and complex melodies only she would have had the audacity and skill to challenge.  It's well worth your time to watch Carmen at play, so to speak, because she is in her element here, a glorious thing to see.  She's working with her hand-picked trio: Eric Gunnison piano, Scott Collie bass, Marc Pulice drums.  Clifford Jordan's majestic tenor sax is the perfect embellishment.   Sit back and enjoy this most distinguished artist, my girl friend Carmen.  I'm going to watch it with you, and remember her with never-ending admiration.    

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