Saturday, May 26, 2007

Bird Calls

4:10 AM: No, I did not dream a dream starring Charlie Parker. Rather, I was awakened by vigorous bird song very near my window. The sound is sunny like a bride's wedding day smile and as complex as a Bill Charlap piano solo. I listen in quiet appreciation of the song's intricate message. After a few passages, I also begin to sense an urgency, possibly a stress call of some kind?

The song lasts up to six seconds, stops, and then repeats. It is so elaborate, I'm unable to recognize any rhythmic pattern. Three or four messages, separated by stops and then repeats. Then, I hear what I believe is a distant response. My chap's apparently been attempting to contact his partner: "Harry! WHERE ARE YOU?"

"I'm over here, Ralph. In the third branch from the top on the elm tree behind the barbeque pit". Ralph flew off to join his pal and I went back to sleep, vowing to listen to my Charlap cds while writing today.

(Currently enchanted by a 1997 favorite track from Bill's cd titled "All Through The Night", Criss 1153 CD. His newest release is the dazzling "Live At The Village Vanguard" on the Blue Note label. Go ... run ... buy it!)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mel Brooks

I have been busy with life's other surprises, none involving my health. Except for the boring routine of dropping three different solutions into my left eye four times a day, it's all quickly done and no doubt necessary. My vision is so much improved that I've questioned whether my cable provider magically switched to hi-def transmission at the precise moment of the surgery. I wish you could see the Red Sox games on our hefty RCA floor model color tv. My husband's father purchased this highly collectible item in 1954, in the days when they built 'em to last.

I was going to tell you about several fun-filled meetings with Mel Brooks which occurred in the earliest days of my life in Greenwich Village. In 1958, I lived in a one-room basement apartment in a building which still exists. I know: I paid a brief nostalgia call to the address recently.

My neighbor, Charles Morgan Harris, a darling, starving illustrator, lived in an identical cramped unit beside mine. We learned quickly that we shared a love of jazz and our friendship lasted until his untimely death five years ago. Our small building contained six other tiny apartments, one of them the second-floor residence of an elderly, very patient lady named Mrs. Eleanor Biddlecomb. Perfect! Lacy, genteel, herself a cat lover.

Our digs faced an indoor courtyard, an area which softened street noises and provided my cat the opportunity to pay a Curiosity Call on neighbors who left windows open. The building which fronts West 15th Street also housed a woman who provided secretarial services. One of her clients was Mel Brooks.

On a balmy spring night, Charles and I were sitting in the couryard sipping our favorite beverages with Miles Davis sounds in the background. We recognized MB as he approached and pulled up a chair. Mr. Brooks was not as well-known as he is today, and should it be possible you know not of his accomplishments, please go here

Before long, Mel had us reeling with his jokes and hilarious takes on people and life in general. He was soon scheduled to appear on The Late Show Starring Johnny Carson, and he couldn't resist rehearsing his schtick for us: He would sit in the Number One Guest Chair and after a few minutes, Johnny would mention, feigning naive curiosity: "You like to sing, don't you Mel?" To which Mel would reply: "Well, yes ... and if I may ... I'd like to ... may I?" "Of course, please do", responds JC.

Mel: (To Skitch (Henderson, band leader): I'll sing "I've Got You Under My Skin" if that's okay ... just give me an arpeggio in C ... "

Mel begins to sing, and gets as far as " ... so deep in my heart, you're really a part of me", suddenly breaking off. "No, sorry Skitch, that key's too low ... could you take it up a half-step." Skitch complies. Mel stops in the same place. "Sorry, it's still a little too low ... another half-step please?" Mel stops at the same place again, and this time he's standing, presumably to make it easier to reach the low notes. The back-and-forth continues, taking Mel progressively into higher musical range. He's now standing ON the chair. Still no luck. Finally, Mel is standing on Johnny's desk, audience is screaming and JC looks appropriately bemused. Charles and I are now hysterical, holding our sides and gasping for air.

Before he left us, we asked about future projects. "Well, I can tell you now that I will one day produce a Broadway show called "Springtime For Hitler". We explode into tear-producing laughter: "Oh Mel! STOP ... we can't take it any more!

P.S. Please take special note next time you see it: In Mel's film "The Producers", there is a scene in which CPA Leo Bloom is carefully entering the names and amounts little old ladies have contributed to Max Bialystock's forthcoming project. One of the checks is signed "Mrs. Eleanor Biddlecomb".

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

"What A Difference A Day Makes...."

On the day after cataract surgery, the vision in my left eye is remarkably clear and bright. I am understandably startled and delighted by the improvement, requesting the same procedure for the right eye to be scheduled as soon as feasible. My brilliant opthalmologist agrees he can duplicate the miracle at the end of the summer. I am anticipating a week singing at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in New York in September and I want to visit MoMA during that visit, plus Really See my friends, the musicians in the band and the audience!

The current exhibit at Boston's MFA features works by Edward Hopper through August 19 and I'm willing to face the hordes even more bravely now that the haze and fuzz are no longer a bother.

Coming this week: Meeting Mel Brooks in New York, pre-"2,000 Year Old Man".

Friday, May 11, 2007

I Remember, Mama

Here's deep gratitude to my mother, who dreamed of living in the most beautful home in our little town. When I was five years old, her dream came true. My parents, my sister and I became The Folks Who Live On The Hill. The house rested midst four acres of meadow and woods, bordering Mr. Bailey's farm where he kept dairy cows. Times were enlivened considerably whenever one of the heifers took advantage of an unlocked gate, casually wandering into our back garden. Summers found me quietly reading my Nancy Drew books under the tall trees. Could my childhood surroundings have been more idyllic? Well, yes: there was a small lake just across the road, down a path filled with wild blueberry bushes.

Thinking of my mother this Sunday and all the happy years I spent in that house (where, among other things, my sister and I invented a clever rainy-day diversion we called "Name That Tune"), I knew from the moment I heard it, the song "Looking Back" by Jimmy Rowles perfectly describes those days. The startling thing is that the lyric was written by a then amazingly mature nineteen year-old named Cheryl Ernst.

This is the house where I grew up, followed by the lyric:

I still see the meadow come alive with the morning
From the house where I lived as a child
And the sun as he lifted his lazy head
Shining down where the clover grows wild

The nights that I slept with all the windows wide open
The rain coming in through the screen
And the pale silvery mist draped around the moon
Was the loveliest sight I have seen

Then I left and I wandered
Through the world on my own
But that old house on the hill
The only home I have known

The shelter of tall grass
Was made for young lovers
To lie down and dream upon
Though the years and the worries
Have changed my life
All the memories of then still live on

And wherever I go
And the grayer I grow
I'll remember my home in the country

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

In The Middle Of A Buffalo Herd

I mentioned in a previous post (see Friday, April 27 "Coming Attractions") that Jimmy Rowles was an animal lover of the first magnitude. Here is yet another example of his undying devotion and fascination.

Jimmy told me there was a modest-sized Zoo located not far from his childhood home in Spokane, Washington. One of the exhibits featured a small herd of North American Bison. These shaggy creatures can reach up to 6½ feet tall, grow to ten feet long and weigh 900 to 2,000 lbs. The heads and forequarters are massive, and both sexes have short, curved horns, which they use when fighting for status within the herd and for defense.

At age seven, Jimmy loved to stand beside the buffalo enclosure, gazing at the huge beasties. He, however, craved intimate contact, so when he discovered a vulnerable spot in the fence, he used his trusty little pail and shovel to dig a hole deep enough to accomodate his slender child's body. He quietly seated himself on the ground near the herd, hoping one or two would be curious enough to give him the once-over. Before he was subjected to such spine-tingling scrutiny, his presence was discovered by a horrified Zoo employee who whisked him out of harm's way. Jimmy never forgave the man.

Fast forward to LA and a jazz club where an adult Jimmy is featured pianist. As he approaches the bar after a set, he sees a large man with long, luxurious hair and a full beard. Jimmy: "Man! You look just like a buffalo"! The man in question laughs and introduces himself. He's Bill Holman, the multi-talented arranger/composer. From that day to his last, Jimmy always called Holman "The Buffalo" and introduced me to him in that manner once when Bill was visiting New York. His hairy countenance suggested he was still on low scissors maintenance, and I could see why Jimmy saw the resemblance. At the time, we failed to appreciate the irony of it all: Buffalo invited us to join him to see a performance of Stephen Sondheim's brilliant production of "Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street".

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Weekend For Sports

For those of us who relish sitting around, watching others exert themselves, this was a terrific weekend. A major golf tournament in Charlotte, NC provided Tiger Woods with yet another victory, although it wasn't exactly like eating a box of chocolates for him. The Red Sox took two out of three from the Minnesota Twins. A 20-horse field at The Kentucky Derby stymied all but the best handicappers. My personal, In-House Equine Counsellor (aka my husband) confidently persuaded me to place my faith and money on Street Sense. The horse paid $11.80 to win and I had him across the board and in combinations. I took him out to dinner. My husband, not the horse.

The coming week finds me flitting about to various doctors' offices, preparing for cataract surgery May 15th. But before that, I am looking forward to Tuesday night's performance by my friend Daryl Sherman, a singer-pianist I much admire, who will be a treat to hear even if she appears but a blurry figure on stage. She's at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston.

While I tend to these matters, I will also take some time to work on various drafts for posting which I hope will amuse you. Watch this space.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Jimmy Rowles ATO, Part Two

(Please see April Archives on Monday, April 30 for JRATO Part One)

It was a dark and stormy night making it quite difficult to find a cab. We were to make the journey to Lincoln Center from the corner of Bleeker and Thompson. Jimmy seemed to have some second thoughts about attending a 3-act opera, even if his was a personal invitation from the world-famous tenor Placido Domingo. (Please refer to J.R. At The Opera, Part I). He had been drinking since he got out of bed at 4:30 PM (jazz musicians occasionally stay up all night), decidedly uninterested in solid food.

Cab approaches LC in the rain and the wind. Beside me, I hear Jimmy grumble, growl, snark and gurgle, throat now parched for a drink because the cab took 45 minutes to get up-town. "Jimmy, don't worry", says I. "Look at those fantastic Chagalls!" "Fuck Chagall. Where's the bar"? It's going to be a long night.

There is a God and she has provided an aisle seat for J.R. Easy escape if he becomes restless, a predictable expectation. The Met is full to the back of the stalls, house lights come down, Maestro James Levine enters, bows and takes up the baton for the overture to Verdi's "Luisa Miller". Suddenly, in this vast space, there is the clear and gorgeous sound of a solo reed, executing a complicated passage. Jimmy turns to me, saying in what for him passes as a whisper: "The clarinet player's a BITCH"!!!! People all around us squirm uncomfortably, hurumphing "well REALLY" and shuffling programs. Jimmy exited the theatre before Rodolpho's first entrance.

We found him sitting in a sort of holding area where he remained throughout the night, fast asleep. When we went to fetch him, he was desperate for a drink and he got one. (Anticipating emergency measures might be required, I'd brought a flask of Stoli). "We are now going backstage to thank Placido/Pablo for an exceptional evening, okay"? Splat, snark, grumble, growl.

We arrive in the area just in time to see Maestro Domingo emerge from his dressing room, still flushed and a bit damp after his brilliant exertions. Wearing a huge, flowing robe of red and black velvet with a quilted collar, he spots Rowles. Sweeping our boy up into his giant embrace, he shouts: "JEE-MEE! Now you know where JAZZ comes from"!!!

Cannonball Meets Slava

On April 27, 2007, Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich died in Moscow. I am familiar with his gigantic talent thanks to a friend who shared a coveted ticket to a Carnegie Hall recital in the late 1950's. I remember a man walking on stage quickly, and seating himself at the concert grand piano. He was settled in seconds, and then another man, tall, and distinguished looking, with military stride and bearing, advanced to the chair in front of the piano, flipped the tails of his formal attire, sat down with his cello, and without fanfare, launched into the first selection. I was as mesmerized as every other devoted fan in the packed-out house.

My memory records that soon after that extraordinary experience, I purchased the LP of The Concerto for Cello And Orchestra No. 1 in E-Flat Major Opus 107 composed by Dmitri Shostakovitch for "Slava", a loving soubriquet meaning "glory" in Russian. The LP never left the turn-table for weeks on end, particuarly since the Second Movement tore my heart out. Still does.

Stay with me now: It is summer 1961, and I am witnessing a legendary record date in Webster Hall, NYC, invited to attend by the soloist Oscar Peterson. Oscar, Ray Brown, Ed Thigpen augmented by a large all-star orchestra led by Quincy Jones, the album will be called "Bursting Out". It's still available and sounds as fresh as ever.

Some of the members of the band are Phil Woods, Jerome Richardson, Bernie Glow and Julian "Cannonball" Adderly. I know most of these gentlemen, jazz club habitue that I am, frequently meeting and greeting them. After the session, Julian invites me to share a spot of lunch with him, and since I am also howling to anyone who will listen that the Shostakovich Cello Concerto is such tremendously exciting music it MUST be heard, he agrees to come back to my place to enjoy a sample.

The haunting Second Movement works its magic on me, but Cannonball falls into a deep sleep on the sofa. I retreat to the other room to allow him at least an hour of uninterrupted rest, and then wake him. I re-played the Second Movement for him, his reaction much like my own. To prove his enthusiasm, he insists we head directly to the nearest record emporium so that he may buy his own copy of the work. We did and he did.

Everytime I saw Julian thereafter, he made a point of telling me the Concerto remained one of his favorite recordings of all time.

R.I.P. dear Slava ...

Friday, April 27, 2007

Coming Attractions ...

This is yet another momentous baseball weekend starring the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, with confrontations scheduled to be played in the Bronx, weather permitting. Meantime, I am busy writing "Jimmy Rowles At The Opera", a lurid tale in two parts which will begin on Monday. For those who do not know the name, Jimmy Rowles was a most respected West Coast pianist who also found a home in New York City jazz clubs and recording studios in the 1970's. A true jazz "cat", Jimmy was the most unique individual I ever met. He was considered the most sensitive of accompanists, and proved his worth playing for Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald. He was also a caricaturist and fanatical lover of animals. In an airport one day, I watched him chase and verbally assault a woman because she was wearing a fox coat. He frightened her half to death, long before the inception of PETA. Jimmy would have been a Charter Member if not Honorary President.

Look for Part One of "Jimmy Rowles At The (Metropolitan) Opera" on Monday.