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.    

P.S.  Please feel free to comment.  Just click that Comments button ... even if it says "No comments". Click it anyway.  


Monday, February 2, 2015

A New Yorker Reminiscense

Today's issue of The New Yorker tells us of the re-location of the magazine's offices which have occupied hallowed space in mid-town Manhattan for ninety years.  As I too am moving yet again, buried quite uncomfortably under my own version of the Collyer brothers' fabulous collection of rubble, I found some solace in the brief description of the emotions felt by the magazine staff as they took their leave of the rooms, desks, files and assorted paraphernalia required to meet the weekly deadline.  

For a time in the 1960's, I took the subway uptown from my tiny Greenwich Village basement apartment to my secretarial job in the Tishman Building at 666 Fifth Avenue.  In good or not so good weather, it was a pleasure to walk along West 44th Street past the Algonquin Hotel, fantasizing an image of myself sipping a very dry martini while seated in a chintz-covered cozy chair in the oak-paneled lobby. After work, I'd often make a deliberate pass by the 43rd Street location of The New Yorker offices. I ambled around that neighborhood hoping I might see one or two of my heroes like James Thurber or Brendan Gill or even more unlikely, a glimpse of E.B. White if he just happened to be in town on a rare visit away from his beloved rural property in Maine. I idolized these writers and others who contributed pages of elegant prose and sophisticated commentary, not to mention the brilliant cartoons of Charles Addams, Peter Arno and George Price among others.  And then there were those hilarious items appropriately called "fillers" which caught out some well-intentioned copy-writer who had got it all wrong.  Occasionally, a hapless translator fell face down coming out of the gate:

The Mysterious East
[Message on a coaster from
a bar in Tokyo]
You should relax your truss up day
And, the ennui is killing everybody
That! We will give you
Heart warming dream story,
Eating and drink
Here we go! *

In fact, I never spotted any of the writers I admired, (although I did eventually see James Thurber in one of his eighty-eight appearances as himself in a successful Broadway production of A Thurber Carnival in 1961). Even more astonishing to me is the fact that another fantasy came true in the April 6, 1987 issue. Whitney Balliett wrote about the ever-radiant, legendary cabaret singer Julie Wilson and myself in a rare Joint Profile. 

Mr. Balliett, a music scholar and jazz journalist of luminous reputation, interviewed me at a friend's Upper West Side apartment where I offered to make tea.  He asked for a cup of hot water and withdrew a single tea bag from the inside pocket of his jacket.  He dipped the same bag in two subsequent cups of hot water.

Bursting with curiosity about his method for notating his subject, I was delighted to see the yellow legal pad he withdrew from his briefcase.  At one point, on the pretext of having to fill the pot with more hot water, I took a peek over his shoulder as I made for the kitchen.  His was a tiny, cramped-together handwriting, totally illegible from my angle.  Many days after the interview of more than three hours' duration and ahead of publication, I was engaged in a telephone chat with a member of the famous Fact Checking Department who took me through the draft line by line, verifying situations, chronology, quotes, names, locations, all demanding authentication from me to prevent the slightest discrepancy of any sort appearing in the final text.

As the release date of "my" issue approached, Buck and I spent an early Spring afternoon at the Boston Museum of Science watching extraordinary footage of the earth from an orbiting space capsule.  The technology and the views were so spectacular and exciting, we felt the need of a calming libation.  In the bar of a near-by hotel, we ordered cocktails and talked about the film. Then, Buck went to the lobby news-stand to check if the April 6 issue was available. He returned with a half-dozen copies.  With a wide smile, he announced to the bartender and others seated nearby: "There's an article about my wife in here!"  He made certain everyone saw the cover to avoid any confusion: This was the prestigious New Yorker after all, and not to be confused with say Extraterrestrials Among Us.

The New Yorker is always within easy reach around here, and always will be as long as it and I exist.

* The Japanese have become very adept translators since this item appeared, more's the pity.