Archive for the ‘jazz’ Category

Love is all around

January 11, 2016

Last night I had a marvelous dream, one of the kind that can take years to arrive and which lingers in the mind long afterward. Following a string of interactions with other people and in a decidedly public venue, a gangly man dressed in goth clothing offered to massage my aching lower back. “What do you need?” he asked my body, and while he bent to soothe its ills, he told me he’d noticed how much I gave to others without asking for anything in return. “Thank you for saying that,” I answered, allowing tears to flow. When I returned from straightening up in the ladies’ room, he was gone.  The band played “The Way You Look Tonight,” and while I was sad the man wasn’t there so I could sing the words to him as we danced, I knew it was the recognition of my best achievement – this detached expression of love and support – that had been the gift, not the person himself.

When I awoke, the night still held dawn at bay, and I dressed warmly and went out to view Venus and Saturn shining together on the eastern horizon.  Days of clouds and rain had prevented my witnessing their closest approach, but still it was a beautiful coupling of the planets associated with romantic love and stoic discipline.

When I was young, the long plodding toward a goal was the last thing I thought would make me happy. Because I was afraid of the rigidity and depression I had witnessed, I thought the only way to prevent this was to follow passion as it arose, heedlessly. My logic was immature, no more than an extension of a childish vow to avoid my parents’, and their parents’, mistakes. Still, in my own round-about manner, I searched for ecstasy, and when I found it, mistook the feeling as one generated by the person I was with. When that person left my life, when I was alone, it was impossible to feel loved, to feel love. Anger, resentment, blame – which really are more palatable versions of fear – would reside in my heart as I tried not to sink into the emotional emptiness that had always terrified me.

I like to think the dream was given to me as a sign that I’ve come out the other side of that desert. With almost seven years of solitude behind me and perhaps more to come, I know that even with no one recognizing my best (and worst) qualities, they still exist. A flower that blooms unseen is no less a flower. Two planets hidden behind dark clouds still shine. My goals, my dreams, are mine and if I don’t realize them, that failure is mine as well. But I will soldier on, with stoic discipline and love.





April 7, 2015


Billie Holiday would have hated my guts if she’d paid me any mind at all.

She bad-mouthed Mildred Bailey and envied Ella for inheriting Chick Webb’s orchestra.  How could she not have despised Peggy Lee?  White, beautiful, glammed to the nines, Peggy did her fair share of ripping off Billie’s style, like so many who never gave her credit.  Mindless songs like “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” earned her wrath.  And those white fans, who clustered around her hoping some authentic jazz experience might rub off on them, Billie manipulated mercilessly.

On the flip side, in those pictures of Billie and her dogs, the depth of her tenderness is obvious.  When it came to Lester, from the way her voice and his sax swirled around each other to the look on her face captured on “The Sound of Music” as he’s soloing in “Fine and Mellow,” it’s clear she cared.  Dinah adored her, and since that woman was no fool, it must have been mutual.   And then there were those men Billie gave her heart and soul to who dragged her down.

Anita O’Day recalled the rumor that Billie heated her fix in a tuna can and shot up in her groin.  Although Anita was a huge fan and a fellow junky, when their paths crossed, Billie gave her the cold shoulder.  Anita understood.  I understand too why Billie would hate me.  Why shouldn’t she?  All her short life, people responded not to who she was but to what they thought she represented:  a black woman, a jazz singer, a drug addict, a success, a failure.

What was different about Billie was how her art derived from the same deep place her compassion for the underdog and her resentment of the victors resided.  When she was young, the division between these was like the sharp edge of a shiny coin, giving her voice a buoyant, joyful defiance.  By the end, holding so many contradictions had worn her down.  Still, the structure remained, the beauty of the form containing all that unendurable pain.

On this her centennial birthday, I’m shying away from any tributes that might want to even out Billie’s ragged edges, to make her more palatable to a larger audience.  To me, a woman who works up a good, solid hate is a force to admire.  But also, learning to hear Billie’s rage and understand her joy has been for me a long and private journey that began with my own limited judgments and has evolved into a perspective not only wider but deeper when it comes to art, to artists, and to the human race.

Billie Holiday didn’t have to be any kinder, any wiser, any better, than she already was.  Instead, she gave anyone who listened then and who listens today the means to accomplish those difficult but essential acts:  her marvelous, mesmerizing music.


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.

Happy Birthday, Dinah

August 29, 2014

I first met Dinah Washington in a bar.  In the winter of 1995 she’d been dead for more years than I’d been alive (and almost for as long as she’d been alive).  What she shared was the wisdom of a friend who’d been there and done that. “Oh, honey, I know,” she assured me with her warm voice while I sat on a stool, letting the owner pour me free scotch.   My boyfriend waited at home, convinced I was preparing to leave him.  I wasn’t sure.  About that, about anything.  Dinah laid out for me that there was nothing pure to love, betrayal, and whatever existed in between.  Dinah knew there were aches and itches you couldn’t explain, an impulse that drove you out of your life for an hour to flirt with the slightly seedy bar owner before you went back and made dinner for the good man who loved you.

When I learned more about Dinah’s career, I realized how fitting it was to meet her in a gin joint.  In her day Dinah was known as “Queen of the Jukeboxes.” Not only did her singles spin time and again down at the corner bar, but throughout her career she sang in nightclubs, the places people came for the consolation of a drink, a darkened room, and her voice.

That first night, her version of “Unforgettable” hooked me.  I knew I would never again think of Nat’s as indisputable.  I couldn’t recall hearing such a compelling voice, one that grabbed you by the collar and made you look life straight on.  “Who is this?”  I asked the owner, and when he gave me her name, he did me a greater favor than comping the scotch.  I would have found Dinah eventually, but finding Dinah during those dark hours was a sign the Universe was on my side.

I shared Dinah with my boyfriend, who later became my husband.  We bought her “This Bitter Earth” and played those tracks down.  It is his memory that comes back to me often when I hear those songs.  I wonder if he listens to Dinah now.  I got the cd.

Mostly, though, it is myself I remember when I listen to Dinah.  When she sings “What a Difference a Day Makes,” she reminds me of that miraculous bliss of falling in love.  “I’m Through With Love” echoes the pounding disappointment.  “Crazy He Calls Me,” sung with a drum kit, a piano and a saxophone, holds the sexiness of intimacy.  At the end of that live recording, you hear Dinah’s voice end with a knowing smile, and the applause swells, a low laughter of delight rolling in from the audience like waves to the shore.

Dinah’s friendship has lasted longer than any of my romances.  Itunes tells me I have 92 of her songs, 5 hours of her music.  What a gift she left the world, 2 years before I entered it.  What great luck it was for me to find her.  We’ve traveled some distances, she and I, and who knows where else I may listen to her in the years ahead.  Tonight, I pop up her songs on my laptop as I sit poolside in the late August sunshine and drink a toast in her honor.  Truly, the best die too young.

Regretfully yours

March 10, 2014

Now man is born to go a’loving, a woman’s born to weep and fret, to stay at home and tend her oven and drown her past regrets in coffee and cigarettes.          “Black Coffee”

It’s an emotion that gets less air time today than obscene words.  Granted, it’s not uplifting to hear someone linger over their mistakes.  When it comes to music, we’re more used to Sinatra’s approach:  “Regrets?  I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”  Once he’s neatly laid those aside, he can go on to belt out unapologetically how he did it his way, the arrogant bastard.

Are we doing anyone any favors by acting as if there weren’t a few journeys we traveled too far or for too long and from which we’ve never really returned?  Who would we have been if we’d taken a different road, if the timing had been different, if we’d known the things we know now?  Piaf was 45 when she recorded “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.”  She’d be dead in three years.  You can’t tell me that she didn’t regret some things.  It’s there, isn’t it, just below her voice’s quaver.

Maybe we don’t want our art to echo despair our hearts already know  too well.  I’ll admit I’d rather hear Connie Francis’ spiteful “Who’s Sorry Now?” than Brenda Lee whiny “I’m Sorry.”  Or could it be that regret is less poetic than prosaic?  I watched a 1980 Dick Cavett interview of Richard Burton recently, and when Burton talks about alcoholism, his description pulls us hypnotically into the depths:

I think that nobody quite knows which drink it is that takes him over the edge of being merely a social or hearty, laughing drinker into a morose and hungover wretched creature who shakes and creaks and sweats and has nightmares, and it’s always November and it’s raining and it’s 3 o’clock in the morning and there’s nowhere to go and you reach out for a cigarette and smoke and think of all the horrible things you’ve done in your life and all the shames you’ve endured and suffered, and the shame you gave other people, and all the wrongs you’ve done other people.

It’s a dark place to dwell, a desperate emotion to have.  We’ve said some things, hurt some people, hurt ourselves.  In regret’s airless cellar, we store what we would prefer not to face, and in its dim light, there’s no need to pretend everything’s “all good.”