Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The First Time I Saw Carmen

I am off to the wilds of Westchester County this weekend to visit my youngest step-grandsons, ages 7 and 5, so I thought I'd leave the following previously published piece to keep you company. It's a true story which first appeared in 2000 at the distinguished web site http://www.allaboutjazz.com/


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It was the decade of the 1960's. I had by that time lived in New York's Greenwich Village for a couple of years, and went to hear Carmen McRae when she made an appearance at one of the holy shrines of jazz located in my neighborhood, a club with a relaxed, friendly atmosphere and great Italian food. This was the Half Note, and, although it was one of the best places to nosh and listen to music, it did not provide a dressing room for any of the artists who played the room, mainly because the club's favorite headliners were men. Clark Terry, Bob Brookmeyer, Dave Bailey, Bill Crow, Dave Frishberg, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Bob Cranshaw and all the others hardly needed a room to check their appearance before going onstage. A quick comb in the Gents was adequate, and then only if they'd encountered a stiff breeze along Hudson Street. Carmen McRae arrived dressed for the gig, and like many before and since, she checked her makeup and hair in a miniscule Ladies Room.

I was mad for Carmen's sound and her interpretive skills. This fierce loyalty was born in the 1950's because a disc jockey in my home town of Providence, Rhode Island was a devoted fan. I think he also loved her from afar, and so he played her recordings almost every day. The radio: that magical device instructing a young woman fantasizing about the exotic world of jazz. I longed to be a part of it. Weekly broadcasts from Birdland nurtured the dream of places filled with the sounds of friendly laughter, musicians' laughter - intimacies exchanged in the language of the hip - and the seductive clink of glasses containing beverages guaranteed to make one feel cheerful and lightheaded.

I chose to sit in a darkened corner of the club, the better to scrutinize Carmen's every move, make note of her song selection, tempos, key changes, microphone technique ... her whole demeanor on stage. On this occasion, with her head held imperiously, she cast the famous McRae "Ray" over patrons and musicians alike. This penetrating stare had much the same effect as a sign in a field warning of the fence electrified to prevent intruders. On this night, she had been particularly haughty on stage. In spite of the fact that I might be burned to a cinder by her fiery glance, I determined I simply MUST tell her how much her singing meant to me, no matter the risk.

Cautiously, I sidled up to the bar where she stood alone near the service area. With trembling voice and weak knees, I stammered a "Pardon me, Miss McRae", and as quickly as I could, expressed my admiration and loyalty. I took a flame-thrower hit from The Ray, she mumbled "Thanks" through lips pressed tight, and turned her back to me. I managed a reasonably quick recovery, and beat a hasty retreat to my table.

Years later, by which time we had become very good friends, I asked her if she remembered the incident. She denied memory of it, adding quietly she wished she'd been nicer so that we could have begun our friendshp sooner. That precious drop of gold remains cozily embedded in my heart, along with so many other memories of a generous, funny, passionate woman.

I live with a perpetual sense of regret that she and I are no longer able to see or talk or laugh together. On any jazz station deserving the appellation, you can hear Carmen's recordings. I hope some other young singer will also hear and experience that Jolt Of Comprehension for her musical wisdom, appreciating that salty edge which distinguished Carmen from all others. That sound changed the course of my life forever so many years ago.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Opening for Lenny Bruce: Part Two

My gig opening for Lenny Bruce at The Village Vanguard began on December 4, 1962. Four days later, New York City was newspaperless. The strike brought by Local 6 of the International Typographical Union lasted until March 31, 1963. In those days, long before search engines existed, newspapers were essential to an informed populace. In a massive effort to fill the void, New York television and radio stations expanded local coverage, and many popular magazines such as TIME, NEWSWEEK, and LIFE developed supplementary sections published exclusively for the news-deprived in New York.

The 1962 New York Film Critics Circle Awards were cancelled because of the strike.

In spite of the hardships imposed on the business community which relied heavily on newspaper advertising, Max Gordon's Village Vanguard was able to thrive nonetheless. He decided to keep the Sloane/Bruce act indefintely since he was prevented from advertising a new show in the papers. We performed for a total of seven weeks.

The Vanguard is not a large space (capacity at SRO is not more than 150), but it was a sardine-can jam every night during Lenny's gig. Most of the people standing back near the bar were obvious members of the NY constabulary, visibly salivating in anticipation of making a bust. If anything Lenny said was interpreted by them to be lascivious, profane or perverted, they were prepared to take Lenny away in handcuffs. Made for a spy thriller sort of atmosphere.

One night between sets, Lenny and I were sitting in the area near the back stairs. He leaned over and whispered: "Carol: Would you please go back to the dressing room and bring me my socks?"

"Your socks?"

"Yes, my socks. You'll find them in the fuse box."

"That's a funny place to keep socks, isn't it?"

"Just get 'em for me, will you?"

"Okay. Be back in a minute."


The socks were indeed hidden in the fuse box and contained items I did not choose to inspect. I knew instantly they contained his "goods", and he was in need of a fix. I was young and adorable, certainly above suspicion, so I held the socks in my right hand and walked innocently but confidently through the thicket of the burly, beady-eyed detectives, who never gave me a glance.

Lenny got his desperately needed fix, and when introduced minutes later for the start of his set, fell over the drums and crashed into the front tables. He made an attempt to begin his routine, but he was so out of it, his words were indistinguishable. He rambled and stumbled while we all watched helplessly. Some people were disgusted, some tried to laugh, but most of us were shocked and sad.

I saw Lenny in San Francisco a few weeks before his death. He was very sweet and even pretended to remember the gig from hell. We joked about it. I left him, sipping coffee at a table at Enrico's North Beach restaurant, only to see him next in a horrid, gritty, b&w police photograph as he was found, slumped on the bathroom floor of his home, drug overdosed.

On August 3, 1966, Lenny was found dead at the age of 40 in his Hollywood Hills home at 8825 Hollywood Boulevard. A syringe and burned bottle cap were found nearby, along with various other narcotics paraphernalia. It was not disclosed if the articles were stuffed in a sock. His official cause of death was acute morphine poisoning caused by an accidental overdose. I felt sad about the news but proud that I'd known him, even for such a brief time.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Lenny Bruce, Part One

A man who wrote a regular column for the jazz "Bible" DownBeat Magazine in the early 1960's, invited me to accompany him to hear a rising comic who was already known for his incisive and irreverent humor. In a small basement room of The Madison Hotel in New York City, the unadorned brick wall the only backdrop, and a simple spotlight focused on a tall stool, I saw Lenny Bruce for the first time. He was a darkly handsome young man, with thick curly hair and flashing eyes full of mischief and intelligence. He proceeded to skewer political bloviates, celebrities, organized religion and certain American Puritanical attitudes regarding sex. He peppered his comments with frequent use of street lingo and hip musicians' terminology, often using language embellished with four-letter words and many phrases I'd never heard before. If I'd still been a practicing Catholic, I would surely have been heading to the Confessional because I enjoyed it all enormously.


In 1961 Lenny had been imprisoned on obscenity charges and in 1962 he was refused permission to enter Britain. "The comic, Lenny Bruce, was booed offstage in England," claimed the controversial radio journalist Walter Winchell. Eventually Bruce's show was banned both in England and Australia.

After a number of nervous nightclub owners began cancelling Bruce's show, assuming that it would only lead to police arrest, he was unable to perform his material. In 1962 the United States District Court in San Francisco, in support of a bankruptcy action, declared him a pauper. The idea for Bruce's autobiography, HOW TO TALK DIRTY AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE, was suggested by Hugh Hefner in 1963. It appeared in Playboy over the next two years and in book form in 1965.

Max Gordon, owner of The Village Vanguard, was no doubt acutely aware of the many problems and possible disruptions which might occur featuring Lenny Bruce as headliner, but he was (1) a fervent supporter of the First Amendment and (2) a shrewd business man. He knew the club would be filled with the curious, the true fans and the presumably humorless, under-cover members of the Vice Squad who would have to pay to be admitted like everybody else.


Max hired me to open for Lenny's two-week engagement beginning on December 4, 1962. The club was jammed every night, and famous comics including Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Professor Irwin Corey, Alan King, and Buddy Hackett were often found in the audience. I realized these comics were curious, maybe even hoping they would witness Lenny being busted. Obviously, Lenny was saying things on stage they also said, but only at a Friars Club Roast or in Las Vegas. I overheard one or two of them advising him to "tone it down", "cool it" and generally clean up his act. He of course did nothing of the kind.


On Saturday, December 8, 1962, the newspapers of New York City went on strike. The walk-out was initiated at the behest of Bertram Powers who led New York's Local 6 of the International Typographical Union for 29 years until his retirement in the mid- 1990s. Mr. Powers called this, the union's first strike in 88 years, against New York's eight daily newspapers over demands for higher wages and a contract to expire at all papers at the same time.

The walkout shut down four papers, led to a lockout at four others and affected 20,000 employees before a settlement ended it April 1, 1963, and landed Mr. Powers on the cover of TIME magazine.

The strike also affected Max Gordon, Lenny Bruce, Carol Sloane and hundreds of Village Vanguard patrons.

Watch for "Opening for Lenny Bruce, Part Two: Carol Fetches Lenny's Socks" coming to this space soon.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Sloane On YouTube

http://youtube.com/watch?v=Xt0RA1399lg

If that doesn't work, just go to youtube.com and type in carol sloane.

At the YouTube location above, you will find a clip of me singing a medley of the songs "Never Never Land" and "My Ship". That's the Jimmy Rowles playing piano, with Keter Betts on bass, Bobby Durham on drums. Yes: this was Ella's trio at the time. Taped in the PBS studio of WYES in New Orleans in 1979, I am now informed by Ms. Beth Utterback, Director of Broadcasting, that most sadly, the entire "Jazz Excursions" series from which the clip is taken was obliterated by Hurricane Katrina's flood waters. It happens that I do have a copy of the entire performance, in a format which is of no use to me. Ms. Utterback will soon have her 3/4" tape of the show.

My husband and I watched the vcr copy of that performance last night. It was all new to him, and frankly, I hadn't seen it myself in years. I am delighted to tell you Jimmy Rowles plays and sings What a rare treat! I am hoping these will soon be available on YouTube, and I will be sure to let all of you know when and if this happens. Watch this space!

Now back to work on the "Opening for Lenny Bruce" entry.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Opening Act: Part One

Many performers have experienced the thrill of Opening For The Headliner. In my long career, I opened for comics (Jerry) Stiller & (Anne) Meara, Phyllis Diller, Jackie Vernon, Godfrey Cambridge, Jackie Mason, The Smothers Brothers, Woody Allen, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce. In the 1960's, many successful night club formats presented a singer as opening act, followed by a headliner comic. The most prestigious venues were The Blue Angel and The Village Vanguard in New York; Mr. Kelly's in Chicago; the hungry i in San Francisco. Herewith I present a few memories of my interaction(s) with some of these diverse personalities.

Since I worked with so many comics, I'll spread these memories out over several entries. Here are three for a start:

STILLER & MEARA: Intense, focused, charming people, with oddly no discernable humor backstage. They were always very busy running over their routine before taking the stage. They were "New Stars" in the 1960's when I opened for them, but they were enjoying significant national television exposure with frequent appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Steve Allen Show, and with Jack Paar and Johnny Carson in the enormously valuable Late Show network slot. Jerry and Anne are the parents of Ben Stiller. Jerry Stiller made his mark as Mr. Costanza on the Jerry Seinfeld Show, and more recently as Ballstein in Zoolander.

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PHYLLIS DILLER: Phyllis was riding high in the 50's and 60's, guesting on tv shows hosted by Merv Griffin, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Sid Caesar, as well as numerous Late Show appearances with Jack Paar and later with Johnny Carson. You could hardly turn on the tv and NOT see her. An outrageously camp figure, she wore gloves and flamboyuant, over-the-top costumes, she had skinny legs and wore fashionable little boots. She frequently embellished her dress with ostrich feathers. She sported a fabulous wig and carried an over-sized cigarette holder. She laughed raucously at her own jokes, often made at the expense of her husband "Fang".

We shared a dressing room at The Blue Angel in New York when I opened for her. One night she sported a heavy cast on her leg, rehab gear after a nasty fall. As she made her way to the stage for her first entrance of the night, she cheerfully bellowed "I look like Chester* in drag"! Phyllis also told me she had made "A Life Plan" which set specific career and personal goals she expected to achieve. I think she succeeded with each one.

*TV character Chester Goode who walked with a decided limp, was played by Dennis Weaver. He was a featured player in the "Gunsmoke" western series starring James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon.

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BILL COSBY: My first appearance at the hungry i in San Francisco occurred in the early 1960's when I opened for one John Gary who was enjoying a wave of popularity. His was a very sweet tenor voice, perfect for lyrics such as "Come to me, bend to me ... " The house was filled with his fans: ladies of a certain age who reacted with genteel enthusiasm (smiles, swoons, sighs) whenever Mr. Gary sang his drippingly sentimental melodies. I was nervous because I'd been receiving a lot of positive press in New York, and I knew that the renowned critic Ralph Gleason reviewed most if not all the jazz acts for The San Francisco Chronicle. Mainly, I knew of his deep appreciation for Carmen McRae and felt justifiably apprehensive about how I'd measure up.

Ralph Gleason's review panned the tenor and raved for me. Filled with glee and delight, I bought 25 copies of The SF Chronicle and telephoned several really good friends in New York, reading the review out loud. John Gary fussed and fumed that night, shouting he wanted .. NO. He would demand a retraction. I tried to stay out of his way.

Enrico Banducci, hungry i proprietor/founder extended my engagement so that I could open for Bill Cosby the following week. The audience demographic changed instantly and my sets were received warmly, thanks to Mr. Gleason's review. Also, Cosby was riding a very huge crest of popularity with his comedy albums, one of which featured the hilarious fantasy of a contemporary Noah receiving a directive from the Lord to build an ark. The bit is still available on Cosby compilation recordings of the 1960's.

Bill was very sweet to me and insisted I leave my downtown hotel and move to a houseboat in Sausalito, one of six watery homes available for rental. I'd never lived in such a structure, and on the morning of my first day in it, I became slightly nauseated as the "house" rocked and rolled in the turbulent waters of the Bay. I heard heavy footsteps on the deck and saw my landlord braving the wind and the waves as he worked to shore up the piling to which the house was tethered. He told me later that if he hadn't fortified my moorings, I'd have awakened to find me and my boat slipping under the Golden Gate Bridge, headed for Oahu.

Coming Next: Opening for Lenny Bruce!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

"Air Piano"

"Air Guitar" has been the rage for some time since the spread of the virulent Rock n'Roll virus. My niece in Florida used to play "Air Violin" but now practices with the real thing. "Air Conducting" is another favorite pastime for those who prefer Bartok to Buddy Holly or Stravinsky over Rod Stewart.

During my teenage years, when jazz disc jockeys and their careful selections formed the basis of my education in jazz, I often bought the recordings they played. Jazz pianists were fascinating and still are. I memorized where the low, middle and high notes occured, the fast, dazzling passages as well. Kneeling beside my single bed, I'd play AP for an hour or two every day. Art Tatum, Dave Brubeck, Meade Lux Lewis (!), Fats Waller, Oscar Peterson, Marian McPartland, Teddy Wilson, George Shearing and Barbara Carroll were some of my favorites. "Playing" along with Erroll Garner was the most fun. (If some Hollywood stars had adopted my method, the results would not have been as hilarious as when I watched their hands poised over the low end of the keyboard while the music played a passage at the high end.)

If my aging knees would permit it, I'd be joyously flailing away in front of the bed, trying to imitate the brilliant technique of Bill Charlap.

"Air Piano". Ever tried it?

PS ... I am working on a lengthy entry which will attempt to answer the persistent question: "Do you teach?"

Monday, June 4, 2007

Scullers Weekend

Boston was a very busy place this past weekend: Numerous college reunions, commencements, high school proms, a Yankees-Red Sox three-game series at Fenway Park and my own Friday and Saturday engagements at Scullers Jazz Club. The quartet led by Norman Simmons consistently played Happy Jazz***, the audiences were attentive and generous, and I was pleased to sign copies of "Dearest Duke" after my shows. As for the baseball contests, they were intense for players and fans. The series split, with the Yankees taking two from the Red Sox: On Friday, 9-5, Saturday Red Sox prevailed 11-6, and last night's significantly stressful go-round ended in a narrow 6-5 victory for the Yankees. I am feeling justifiably spent.

***When the quartet is having fun, when we're all loose and enjoying our combined communication, it can only be described as Happy Jazz. No angst, no ego trips, no grumbling. I like to think it's the sort of ambience Ella Fitzgerald created every time she appeared, rewarded for her artistry by demands for more. Hers was A Perfect Voice! We loved her, smiled with her and generally had a good time sharing the music, toes tapping, bodies moving rhythmically just as they would to the pulsating drive of a Count Basie concert or the playfulness and swing of a Louis Armstrong performance. In a very real sense, this same sort of buoyancy occured at Scullers on Friday and Saturday night. I like to keep it light, mingled with one or more ballads containing classic lyrics. At least, that's my method.

I would be extraordinarily remiss if I failed to mention that Rebecca Parris, one of this country's finest jazz singers, graciously agreed to join me for a bit of fun on Friday night. I could never compete with Becca in the scat singing department, but she very tactfully chose not to issue the challenge. Also on Friday night, Ray Santisi, one of Boston's most respected jazz pianists and Berklee College of Music professor, joined me for a tune. Fun night.

AND THE ENVELOPE PLEASE! The First Ever Knucklehead Award goes to the unknown gentleman who guided his young sons (nephews?), approximate ages 6, 4 and 2-1/2, through the lobby of my hotel, cheerfully suggesting: "Okay guys! Let's go play on the escalator!" Familial love personified. Maybe he's the person who originated the idea of sending obstreperous children out to play in traffic. The boys completed two circuits on the moving stairs and were about to embark on the third go when my husband, grandfather of five equally young boys, made his move. Placing his hand firmly on the man's shoulder, he said quietly: "This is NOT a good idea", pointing out the very obvious dangers for the kids, information this Knucklehead seemed surprised to learn.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Work Takes Precedence

I am singing this weekend (June 1 & 2) at the-absolutely-wonderful-in-every-way jazz club Scullers in Boston. Backed by a superb quartet led by Norman Simmons, I expect to have a wonderful time. Copies of the new Arbors CD "Dearest Duke" will be available for purchase, copies of which I will happily sign if requested to do so.

Norman Simmons, piano; Steve LaSpina, bass; Paul Bollenback, guitar; Sheila Early, drums. I am submitting links to their web sites for your further edification. I am very proud to work with these musicians at any time, and have been fortunate to find them all available to join me when I am offered work.

Norman Simmons

Steve LaSpina

Paul Bollenback

Sheila Early: (Check Norman Simmons' site)

Hope everyone stays cool and calm this week, and that the Red Sox will continue their exciting string of victories. At this writing, the dear lads are leading the Eastern Division of the American League, ahead of the Baltimore Orioles by 11-1/2 games, Toronto Blue Jays by 12, and The New York Yankees and Tampa Bay tied at 13-1/2 games out each. Ah, the bliss of it all. May it last the season!

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!)