Friday, June 29, 2007

The First Time I Saw Lee Wiley

I was singing in "The Big Room" of an elegant club in New York City called The Blue Angel. One night after the show, I joined some friends in the Art Deco lounge and saw a sight I'll never forget: a woman, draped in sable, seated at one of the black leather upholstered banquettes, surrounded by five or six gentlemen in black tie. The men were clearly enchanted with this glamourous creature, lighting her cigarettes, pouring her champagne, laughing ever so delicately at her witticisms, and not a one paying the slightest attention to darling Bobby Short, singing Cole Porter tunes on a little upright over in the corner with all the persuasion and enthusiasm he possesses to this day.*

"WHO is that?", I asked.

"THAT" is Lee Wiley!, I was told.

I was dazzled and thrilled to see the great Lee Wiley, and dreamed I'd one night be the center of attention in a similarly elegant setting.

Best I could do in the months following this encounter was a night backstage at the Newport Jazz Festival when a tenor player offered me a joint, a bottle of beer and a ride home in his vintage Studebaker.

* Bobby Short died March 21, 2005. R.I.P.

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


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

If that doesn't work, just go to 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.