Archive for January, 2015


January 29, 2015

My first recording of Chet Baker’s “Let’s Get Lost” was a cassette, the paper sleeve in its plastic container tape covered with ex-boyfriend’s hand-writing that listed the songs (with Syd Straw’s “Surprise” on the B side).  I played the hell out of it between 1989 to 1991 when Chet’s voice moaning those hopeless love songs was my go-to soundtrack for casting a seductive spell on the few men I managed to lure into my single girl’s apartment.

Back then, I knew nothing about Chet.  I hadn’t seen Weber’s film, and it took me while even to realize Chet was the trumpet player.  It would be years before I knew how he’d started out the golden boy of jazz and, with heroin’s help, had fallen down the ladder and had kept falling.  He’d reached the end of his journey, pancaked on an Amsterdam pavement, the year before I heard his music.

When I finally caught up with the albums he recorded in the 50’s, at first, the difference seemed too much.  Not that there wasn’t a crazy appeal in his callow, young man’s voice, but his voice in his 1987 cover of “Blame It on My Youth” sounded as full of holes and as lonesome as an abandoned barn, as splintered and cracked as a broken mirror, as smokey as scotch.  Listening to him shrug into the apologetic naïveté of Oscar Levant’s lyrics brought to mind the dignity of a well-practiced drunk murmuring his regrets politely.

If I expected love when we first we kissed

Blame it on my youth

If only just for you I did exist

Blame it on my youth

As a young woman with little experience but a untapped well of love, I was in a hurry to be someone who’d been a few places and only come back from a few (to borrow a phrase from a well-loved poet), and playing the late Chet was like a passport stamp.

Now that my life has become what I’d unwittingly wanted it to be, I can appreciate the appeal of both his early and late recordings.  Whether he’s singing a slow love song or blowing a riff, Chet swings, an inner sense of rhythm that separates a jazz musician from everyone else.  I dig his younger voice now too.  Dinah Washington dissed it once as mumbling, and it’s true that neither enunciation nor nailing the correct lyric is his strong suit.  But his voice has the same flutey sincerity that pipes out his horn, and the flattened and blurred notes sprinkled among the true ones lay down a darker chord, one that echoes a wariness that makes sense when it comes to swallowing romantic notions about love, music, life.

No doubt the man was cold, or, more accurately, what heat he possessed he poured into his music.  Yet, no matter what humiliations he suffered at the hands of his own self-defeating behaviors, he still possessed one saving grace – a talent so deep that not even heroin could erase it.  When I listen to Chet now, that’s what I hear, and it gives me a small element of hopefulness as I consider my life, its once lustrous sheen of youth now dulled.  Not that I expect any efforts of mine to approximate Chet’s achievements, but his music reminds me that in the midst of what may appear like the most appalling disaster, there’s still something beautiful that can be saved and that, in turn, saves us.

Chet Baker, photographed by William Claxton, 1954

Chet Baker, photographed by William Claxton, 1954





These Foolish Things

January 15, 2015


My journey into the heart of jazz is one life accomplishment I’m most pleased with.  In a way, finding jazz on my own resulted in too much lost time.  Wouldn’t it have been nice, I think, to have my parents, for instance, own a stack of jazz records I could rummage through at an early age?  Or a kitchen radio tuned to a jazz station so I could discover Sinatra and Ella, Peggy Lee and Billie?  Then, I imagine, I could have studied and performed and married Elvis Costello.

See how my imagination runs away with me.

Instead, I found jazz slowly but surely through my love of the American Songbook.  After my viola and clarinet lessons ended, mom wouldn’t spring for piano lessons, deciding it was my sister’s turn to find her musical self, but the poor child had little interest and even less talent.  Unwilling to let the upright in the corner be neglected, I begged my mother for sheet music, and when everyone was out of the house, I’d sound out the notes of the songs in my various books, most unheard as recordings until decades later.  I still have those music books, torn pages and all, with my childhood signature on the flyleaf, as if there was a chance someone would steal them.

Years later, my ex-husband actually did steal one of my songbooks, unwilling perhaps to confess to his soon-to-be second wife that the book was actually his first’s.  Oh well.  That was after many years of playing wonderful music together, a memory much more valuable now than his betrayals.  I can’t say what Gershwin means to him, but I can say that I never heard “The Man I Love” performed by anyone else until after I had sung it myself with the man I loved.

One song we sang was printed in a Nat King Cole songbook.  Although we’d purchased the book for “Unforgettable,” “These Foolish Things” ended up in our revolving repertoire.  Maybe it was the line “a piano tinkling in the next apartment” that hooked me, although the next – “those stumbling words that told me what your heart meant” – is pretty great too.  I remember singing the lyrics the same way my ex touched the keys, tripping lightly on each note, each detail, as if to avoid any deeper meaning until by the last line, the weight of rueful nostalgia becomes unsupportable:  “Oh how the ghost of you clings, these foolish things remind me of you.”

My ex might laugh to know that, today, one of my treasured versions of “These Foolish Things” is one Billie Holiday recorded in 1936.  He liked to repeat an observation that Billie’s singing was really just her speaking voice.  (True enough, perhaps, for the late Billie, but not for a 21 year old full of the joy of making music.)  But another, equally powerful, is Lester Young’s version in the 1952 recording with the Oscar Peterson Trio.  This is the album that’s helping me through these tough January days, as Lester’s lyricism lifts my battered heart above the struggles of life on earth.  So appropriate, now that I’m growing older and, with some luck, wiser, that Billie and Lester are two of my favorites.  Each of them managed to summon beauty despite or because of their terrible sufferings.  But, really, that’s what’s at the heart of the noblest creative expression.

Turn on this album and foxtrot across your living room floor some time.  Partner with your best self to some of the best music ever recorded.  It’s definitely a moment worth having.

This is what friends are for

January 6, 2015

As my posts here evince, I’m a woman of strong opinions, opinions I’m unashamed to share.  This trait provokes extreme reactions, anywhere from the quick establishment of rapport to an instant hostility.  Thus it has been ever so in my life.

Right before the winter solstice, a friend since undergrad came to visit.  Since we’d kept our plans loose, we checked in over the phone that morning, and in the process, he told me about a holiday party he’d attended late into the previous night.  The hosts were former work colleagues, the guests mostly their neighbors.  One consequence was that not a few of the guests were able to enjoy imbibing past the legal limit, knowing they could stumble down the block to their beds.

Before he proceeded to tell me about the alcoholic meltdown of a woman who, in declaiming her plight as a parent of a profoundly spoiled college student, unconsciously displayed her own hand in creating the problem, he prefaced it with a comment, “I thought to myself, ‘If Tamara were here, this wouldn’t go well.'”

A laugh escaped me.  “Unsurprisingly,” I assured him, “there have been other people who have had that exact thought.”

When I depart this world, I will not be leaving genetic replications behind.  It seems doubtful that I will amass enough possessions to distribute in a charitable manner to name a building or a scholarship.  And if my past actions can be any indicator of the future, few if any of my creative aspirations will have taken form.

Sometimes, to be honest, the purpose for my existence seems a mystery to me even while I’m still “above-ground.”  Maybe that’s why knowing that a handful of people have thoughts of me that approximate who I think I might be comforts.  To have left some small mark in the hearts and minds of a few worthy souls seems to me a fine accomplishment.  And no matter the distance between us, a shared thought or a laugh erases everything except love.