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!

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.