Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Night I Received The Oscar

I've told this story numerous times, but with this Blog, perhaps it will reach a larger audience. I certainly hope so because Oscar Peterson once gave me an invaluable gift, treasured to this day.

Picture this: August, 1961. I am 24 years old and about to make my New York night club debut: a two-week engagement at The Village Vanguard, opening for Oscar Peterson and his side men, Ray Brown on bass and drummer Ed Thigpen. I had appeared at The Newport Jazz Festival the previous month, where I received a great deal of very positive press. The buzz about that, and the fact that Oscar was making a rare club appearance, assured owner Max Gordon that the joint would be jumpin' every night. And it was. Many other instantly recognizable jazz luminaries were scattered in the audience on any given night, like so many brilliant stars in a clear night's sky.

Such close proximity to world-famous Oscar Peterson intimidated me. Giant of a man: robust, gregarious, full of good humor and charm with an added devilish hint of mischief. I was paralyzed with awesome admiration, practically speechless as well. All I could manage that first week were the humble mumbles: "Good evening, Oscar", "Pardon me, Oscar", and "Goodnight, Oscar", though I was longing to share a real conversation with him. Never mind: I was being paid to sing a brief 20-minute set after which I could sit with every other of his adoring fans to watch and listen to his genius. In heaven? You needn't ask.

One of the songs I sang each night was the Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin haunting masterpiece "My Ship" from the 1941 Broadway production "Lady In The Dark", starring Gertrude Lawrence, warbling in her delicate, charming British accent. It's a gorgeous melody, deceptively simple but like any other mine field, to be approached at each step of the way with cautionary respect.

I was singing at THE Village Vanguard; I was opening for one of the world's greatest JAZZ pianists. Was I not therefore A JAZZ SINGER??? And what do jazz singers do? They improvise! To hell with a boring, simple melody. It needed some embellishment, some "jazzing up". And so I commenced to work around, above and below the line every time I sang it. After one or two of these seriously flawed attempts to improve on Mr. Weill's melody, Oscar took notice.

He'd say: "Carol. Sing "My Ship", and of course I was flattered that my rendition so impressed the Great Man. He'd sit in the shadows on the banquette just to my left. Each night I sang with my usual abandon, and each night I'd eagerly look toward him, expecting acknowledgement for my inventiveness. Instead, his was a dead-pan expression, PopEye-like biceps firmly fixed across his expansive upper torso. Buddha displeased.

I was baffled (and yes, stupid). He made the same request each night for a week, and each night I'd muck it up. Finally, I became impatient and decided to just sing the damned song without fiddle or flourish. When I finished and looked once again toward Oscar, he was smiling and applauding. Brick falls on young singer's head, a million-watt bulb illuminates the clouded brain. It was an extraordinary lesson I've carried with me ever since.

In the intervening years, I've listened more closely to singers who sing the melody while exploiting to their considerable advantage the highly effective use of space, thereby establishing his or her signature interpretative twist. Shirley Horn mastered this technique, Diana Krall adapts it beautifully, and Billie Holiday paved the way for us all.

Thank you Oscar, and long life to ye!

No comments: