Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"Do you teach?"

I'm often asked this question. Since I have never had formal training, cannot play the piano or read music, I feel stunningly unqualified to teach. Disclaimer: I did, for a brief period conduct a series of classes at The New England Conservatory Of Music, but it was a temporary assignment. My students were eight young women, each convinced hers was a directive from On High to demonstrate her amazing capacity to emulate if not surpass Ella Fitzgerald's scat singing. I was sympathetic to their zealousness, but I posted the following message on the classroom blackboard with the invitation:

"Choose one as your focus for this semester:

In A Sentimental Mood
Prelude To A Kiss
Sophisticated Lady
Day Dream
Lush Life"

Any one of these melodies presents exquisite challenges to any singer: graceful, logical, and seemingly easy to maneuver. That's where the beauty of these carefully constructed songs shines through. It's not at all easy to place the notes correctly. But practicing the technique will pay off handsomely in the final analysis. My young students were unable to discern the wisdom of my method, and grumbled accordingly. My argument was and is simple: You should not attempt Advanced Calculus (scat singing) until a firm grasp of basic math (chord structure) is achieved. My students much preferred the bungee-jump thrill of diving into wordless versions of "Joy Spring" or "Ornithology". Yes, I certainly understand the desire to explore improvisational jazz since so many singers with impeccable credentials express themselves in this manner, thereby suggesting to the not-so talented that this activity is easy and without peril. My argument is that scat singing is an acquired attribute developed and nurtured over time. Listening to some blatantly confident but thoroughly unskilled scat singing can be harmful to your health, or (if you're lucky) hysterically funny.

Throughout my earliest years, I listened to and learned from the voices of the popular singers on the radio. There were so many but here are some I remember: Fran Warren, Helens Ward, O'Connell and Forrest, Anita O'Day, Francis Faye, Doris Day, Ruth Olay, Johnnie Ray and even Dennis Day! (Mr. Day was the singer on The Jack Benny Program and so far as I know, no relation to Doris). Also, Kay Starr, Kay Armin and Beatrice Kaye; Peggy Lee and Lee Wiley; Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday, Bea Wain and Francis Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Billy Eckstine, Jack Jones, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Vic Damone, Dick Haymes, Judy Garland, Francis Langford and Jo Stafford; Andy Russell and Andy Williams; Rosemary Clooney, Maxine Sullivan, Margaret Whiting, Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Al Hibbler, Chris Connor and June Christy; Bill Henderson, and Johnny Hartman; Andy Bey and The Bey Sisters, The Andrews Sisters, The McGuire Sisters, The Four Freshman and The Four Lads; The Ames Brothers and The Mills Brothers and The Ink Spots. Learned from them all; sang along and knew every melody and lyric by heart.

I listened all the time and learned everything I know about singing from these instructors.

I guess, when asked if I teach, I might say: "Yes. Everytime I sing".

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Sound of Silence

Dear Readers: I wish to apologize for the absence of entries in the past few weeks. Health-related problems have consumed my days and nights, but I am persuaded that we will emerge from this thorny patch unscathed and rejuvenated.

I want to explain the events which led to the release of my new cd titled "Dearest Duke", and to thank Ken Peplowski in particular since he was instrumental in bringing the project to life. I will post that yarn in the next few days.

Thank you for your patience.

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.