Thursday, April 12, 2012

Bell, Book And Cake


That clanging sound you hear is the bell I'm ringing to announce a new cd recording from a fellow Providence, R.I. native, my friend singer Frank D'Rone. The cd is called "Double Exposure" and the titles include "Pure Imagination", a great melody from the score written by Leslie Bricusse and Walter Scharf for the 1971 film "Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory". The cd is on the Whaling City Sound label. Frank's official web site is here

Frank started singing and playing the guitar on stage at the age of 5 in Providence, Rhode Island. At age 11, he had his own local radio show twice a week. At age 13, he won an Artist's Degree in classical guitar awarded him by the American Guild of Stringed Instruments. He formed his own band and played dates in the Providence area while finishing his education. Then D'Rone headed for New York where things were happening for talented people in show business. Frank worked around New York in different clubs - he had many return appearances at "The Living Room", for example.

A big break came for Frank when a club owner from Chicago heard him and hired him. The club was "Dante's Inferno." He was such a success that the management gave him an indefinite contract.

Frank stayed at Dante's for fourteen months. In that time, the name Frank D'Rone started becoming popular. People flocked to see him, including such celebrities as Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Ella Fitzgerald, Shecky Greene, Alan King, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Stan Kenton, June Christy and many more.

The last time I saw Frank in person was at least twenty years ago when he made a rare and much appreciated appearance in Boston, playing and singing for packed houses each night of his week-long engagement. He doesn't visit the Northeast as much as we would like, but one can only hope that the release of his new cd will inspire our local venues to extend an invitation to come home for a little while to entertain and delight his loyal fans in this part of the country. Congratulations Frank and also to your producer, arranger and conductor Phil Kelly.


My good West Coast friend Joan Merrill is an independent video producer who is the force behind several interesting projects including the documentary "Saying It With Jazz", featuring Carmen McRae, Etta Jones, Lorez Alexandria, Carol Sloane, Madeline Eastman, and Rebecca Parris. She has written liner notes for "How About Me?" Ernie Andrews (High Note 2005), "To Etta With Love", Houston Person (High Note 2004), "Sentimental Journey", Houston Person (High Note 2003), and "Let It Happen", Janis Mann (Pancake Records) 2003.

She has completed the first three volumes of her new series featuring the San Francisco-based PI Casey McKie. The first book (see cover above) involves jazz, jazz clubs, jazz producers, jazz singers and jazz murders. "And All That Murder" is a fast-paced story with colorful, believable characters and the authentic jargon of the jazz world. Frankly, this book was such a fast read, I almost devoured it in one go. Snappy chapters and non-stop action. Like any die-hard murder mystery fan, I speculated about the identity of the "perp", but even with some careful considerations, I was surprised by the ending. Reviews are glowing and much deserved. I am now half-way through the second Casey McKie called "And All That Sea" where the mystery unfolds aboard a Caribbean Jazz Cruise ship. Joan's web site is here


I'd love to tell you I prepared this confection just as you see it above, but that would be a half-baked truth. I made the cake but did not frost it with the incredibly enticing finishing touch pictured above. The recipe for the cake is slam-dunk easy. I had all the ingredients on the shelf, and the labor was not intense.

Recipe makes one 8" layer cake
Total time: 45 minutes + cooling

Preheat oven to 350 with rack in center
Non-stick spray two 8x2 inch cake pans

Dry Ingredients:
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
Wet Ingredients:
2 cups hot water
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 TBSP distilled white vinegar
1 TBSP instant coffee granules
1 TBSP vanilla extract

Whisk together flour, sugar, cocoa,
baking soda and salt in a large mixing bowl.

Combine hot water, oil, vinegar, instant coffee,
and vanilla in a large measuring cup. Add to the
dry ingredients and whisk just until combined. A
few lumps are OK.

Divide batter between pans and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool cakes on a rack for 15 minutes, then invert onto the rack. Leave cakes upside down (this flattens domed cakes) to cool completely.

I baked it in a 9 x 13" pan (baked for 35-40 mins), and froze half of it. This recipe for Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake can be found in my favorite cooking magazine, Cuisine At Home NO ads, beautiful photography, mostly easy to moderately time-consuming recipes. Everything I've prepared with this periodical's guidance has been as delicious as it looks.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Happy Birthday Carmen

April 8th is Carmen McRae's birthday. I knew her to be a kind, generous and often funny woman, but I can also visualize her if she had lived: a physically frail, 92-year old woman sitting in a cushioned chair, snarling, bitching and bossing people around.

She loved to be in command, and once, after she admitted how deliberately miserable she'd treated an auditioning bass player, I got up the courage to ask her why on earth she was so unkind to him. "Because they all have to know IN FRONT who's in charge!" She certainly made her point over and over again. She did what she wanted to do the way she wanted to do it. HER tempo, HER choice of song, HER choice of musician. And her fans will acknowledge the results were outstanding. I am taking the liberty of giving you the story of the first time I saw her live, a piece which has been published here and at as well.

The First Time I Saw Carmen McRae

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.

Carmen McRae: b. April 8, 1920; d. Nov. 10, 1994