Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Divine One

Already a strange day for coincidences. A friend from grade school (indeed, our mothers were college roommates, and her father and my grandfather were both local judges) called to say while working in Napa Valley that she was working with another friend who I know from St. Louis (and a former bartender at Hammerstone's, where the Voodoo plays, no less), who is also out in Napa, and traveling back and forth. And they both randomly attended a house concert that I gave in June 2011.

Then the kicker later on. I saw and heard the wonderful Anne Hampton-Calloway at Jazz at the Bistro tonight. She did a great tribute to the incomparable Sarah Vaughan. Incomparable is an overused word, but if it ever applied to anyone, it applied to the Divine One. Anne put on a great show, with lots of tidbits about the sassy Ms. Vaughan. Toward the end of the set, she talked about finally hearing her live, after years and years of collecting her wonderful records. She had heard her at the Blue Note in New York. During that run, Sarah was diagnosed with lung cancer. In fact she had to cut the last day of performances short because of her illness. Those were her last public performances before she died a year later, in 1990.

I had to reconstruct the timeline and refresh my memory (including a little Wikipedia), but the inescapable conclusion is: Sharon and I also attended one of those shows in Sarah Vaughan's last ever run. It was my birthday treat that year. We were not flush, to say the least, in those days, so a night in New York at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village, a few blocks from where I was to attend law school a couple years later, was a pretty dad-gummed big stretch. But she did it up right for me that night. We took the train in, ate at the club, saw the show, and in general had a total gas.   Although she was ill, you could not tell it from the performance - it was something I'll never forget - what a voice! We reveled in the whole experience - with Sarah Vaughan, you did not so much as listen to the music, but soak in its luxuriousness as it rained down on and enveloped you.  And we were absolutely determined not to be the "poor country bumpkins" for that show but rather to be "real" New Yorkers for a night - right down to the tip.  After discussion, we had decided to leave a sizable tip because we were so pumped up from the show and the night. We later figured out that I had miscalculated, and left way more than we intended (and we had intended to be generous). Our server sort of caught us on the way out and asked if we had meant to leave that much, and we smiled and said "Sure thing!" or something like that, and she gave us more than the normal level of "thank you" (hey, she flagged us down in the first place).  We only figured out later that we had goofed, and I'm 99.9% sure it was me who messed up the calculation. Although we could barely afford it, Sharon was great just chalked it up to an unforgettable night. We knew she had died shortly after we saw her, but neither of us knew (until tonight) that we had literally seen one of her very last shows on her last public engagement.

The Blue Note has been good to us over the years. I took my parents to see a stand-out performance by Arturo Sandoval there - they were blown away. I think they're expectations were that it was going to be pretty good, but it was truly spectacular. Then, just last year, on a school visit trip, Nathaniel, Sharon, Lynn and I went to see Stanley Clarke, which was mind-blowing. We've seen him twice since, including in St. Louis and then two weeks ago in DC. In short, whenver Stanley Clarke is within listening distance, we go - it's just that simple. In New York, he played with a 15 year-old phenom from Russian Georgia - we were pleased to see him again in DC (at a ripe old 16), and felt truly 'in the know' - he was also with a 17-year old drummer. We'll be able to say 'we saw them when...'  And we were able to say, "Well, when he was 15 he played this way, but now he's really grown....

Back to Ms. Vaughan: The song Anne introduced was the Sondheim classic, Send in the Clowns, which Sarah was doing at the time. I honestly don't remember if that was on the set we heard, but this clip (recorded in 1987) of Sarah singing that song really does capture what that night felt like.  Or rather, as close as a YouTube clip can - although I tried a little above, words cannot describe hearing the Divine One live - I'm glad we got the chance.  On reflection, as it turns out, that was the ABSOLUTE BEST way to have spent our limited shekels (even including my over-tip), because I still remember it nearly 25 years later like it was yesterday.  Thanks for that, Sharon!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Of a Luxurious Existence

I don't know why I clicked on my long-neglected blog, but I did and decided to write on something I'd been thinking about for some time now. In the last year and half, it's been my good fortune and pleasure to reconnect with two of my dearest friends in the world, Kevin and Caroline Flanigan. I've known Kevin since we were both high schoolers, albeit at different ends of the State of Illinois. When he started dating Caroline our junior year of college, it took about five minutes for her to be "in".

We reconnected back at the old University of Illinois, where Kev and Caroline's daughter, Abby, attends and studies classical piano. Kevin and I were both trumpet performance majors (and of course, we ended up as a doctor and lawyer - naturally!). Reconnecting in the context of Abby doing what we did (studing music at the U of I), and with the inevitable deep reflection and reminiscing about our particular "old days," made me think what a wonderful time of discovery that was for us: for a four-year period in undergrad, we got up every day and in essence had one primary goal: "How do I play the trumpet better today?" We had plenty of room for other activities, not all of which were about drinking beer (Kevin had a pretty brutal existence prepping for medical school as his interests turned elsewhere), but still, that was the prime mission, which also encompassed lots of other, related activities - learning and experiencing as much new music as we could, both as performers and listeners. Days were taken up by classes and practicing, then rehearsing with various ensembles in the late afternoon (sometimes several - some days I was tied up in rehearsals from 3 until 9), and then attending (or giving) a performance at night. At a big ol' state school, there was an interesting performance nearly every night - something you'd never heard before or that you just couldn't miss - your professor performing L'Histoire du Soldat, a visiting world-class orchestra, a student production of a Puccini opera, a "new music" ensemble - you name it, followed by a U of I big band at Treno's or a combo at Nature's Table - sometimes students, sometimes professors, sometimes NYC or Chicago jazz veterans. At times, we'd attend musical performances seven days a week, often times multiple performances.

Now, of course, time is precious and in seemingly ever-shorter supply. It seems like such a true luxury to spend a big part of every day pursuing an art that you love, trying to experience it in every way possible, drinking in everything from pre-baroque music played on original instruments, to classical, to discovering Stravinksy, to hearing and/or playing the oddest music of John Cage and Milton Babbitt, to listening to your colleagues discover for the first time the great American songbook and the hippest Wayne Shorter tunes, to hitting the music library to try to figure out why Duke Ellington's big band sounded so great on those tunes you were struggling with in your own jazz band - then get up and do it all over again the next day. And trying to do all this on a few spare nickels (back in the day when you had to plan your record purchases very carefully - did you need that Maurice Andre recording of Albinoni sonatas, or was it more important to get the next Bix Beiderbecke record, or Duke and Ella at the Côte d'Azur? Choices, choices, choices!)

So, now having had some modest success as a big firm lawyer and accumulated a few "things," it led me to wonder - when did I have the more decadent life, then or now? In some of the most meaningful ways, "then" - and not even close.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

St. Louis Archery

Nathaniel took an archery class last fall at Crossroads, and he and his classmates went to compete at the Missouri NASP (National Archery in the Schools Program) event at Seckman High School today. I had no idea such a thing existed, but his mom and I went to show the flag of support. He did extremely well. His "target mate" was exceptionally good, scoring in the 48-49 range pretty consistently (out of a total of 50). Very interesting and well-run event. When we arrived, we wondered what other event was going on at Seckman that day, but that was it - just the archery. Who knew??? Great fun.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Of Dunning-Kruger and Beer and Pizza at Papa-Del's

My sister and I were discussing our blogging last night. She is much more current and active than I, although she has fallen off the pace that she has set for herself over the last several years. I have nearly completely dropped off the map, not posting since last October (although that was a darn good post, if I do say so myself). After careful consideration, we both discovered the problem - perceived lack of content!

Actually, the inclusion of the word "perceived" is the critical element. I think we both have plenty of content, but neither of us actually believe it in our gut. We are probably far harder on ourselves than we need to be. Chalk it up to a corollary of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, recently called to my attention by Nathaniel. He stumbled upon it on StumbleUpon (check it out on the Internet if you're not aware of it). According to Wikipedia, it is a "cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes." The converse is that people who have some skills/abilities tend to underrate them, causing an illusory sense of incompetence.

I've known for a long time that I beat myself up too much on stuff, and probably worthiness of my blog content is one of those areas. Actually, I believe I suffer from a curious mixture of wild over-confidence in my abilities in some respects and severe self-doubt in others. My old college roommate, Kevin, had a wonderful turn of phrase for the former, used most devilishly on our trumpet and music colleagues whom we thought had an exaggerated view of their own musical abilities - he often said they were "suffering from delusions of adequacy."

Which leads me to my next thought in this rambling entry - I reconnected with dear old college chums Kevin and Caroline Flanigan at University of Illinois last weekend. We calculated it had been 15+ years since we'd seen each other. We vowed it would never happen again, because seeing each other was fantastic. There are some people you just connect with, and it doesn't matter how long it's been - it seems like just yesterday since we'd seen each other. Plus there were other bonuses for the weekend, like my meeting two of their three wonderful children, Abby and Liam. We are looking forward to them meeting Nathaniel (again) and me meeting Maggie (again), who are about the same age. And there was the added bonus of reconnecting with mutual friend Scott Bush. Scott was Caroline's high school friend, and Kevin had to "pass muster" with Scott when Kevin and Caroline started dating; I too remember meeting Caroline ("this great girl I met in chemistry lab") - I don't think I applied as "scientific inquiry" on Caroline as Scott did on Kevin (who likened it to presenting his c.v. to Scott), although if I had, she would have passed with an A+ from the moment Kevin introduced us.

We had some good times back in the day, and I'm looking forward to more years of good times to come. Kevin, I think we need to dig up your short film ("The Dip") and have a screening! Written produced and directed by Kevin, starring Caroline and me (the only people available to start shooting at 11:45 p.m. the night before the project was due).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A "Life Changing Experience"

About 10 days ago, Nathaniel had a couple of days off from school, around the Columbus Day holiday. A lot of his weekend was spent hanging with his friends. On Thursday night, with no school the next day either, he called to say he and his friends, Pete and Nick, were going to a place near Pete's, together with Pete's folks, to hear some music and did I want to come along?

The draw was this: apparently, they thought my good buddy and jazz guitarist extraordinaire, John Farrar, was playing, and that there was a chance his kid brother Jay was going to show. For those of you not in the know (as I wasn't when I first started playing with John many years ago now), John's brother Jay was in Uncle Tupelo with Jeff Tweedy, and then that band broke up and Jay and Jeff went their separate ways, Jeff forming Wilco and Jay forming Son Volt, both of which bands have had enormous commercial success. Uncle Tupelo is widely credited with creating the "alternative country" genre, and although Wilco may be more generally well-known, Son Volt has a raft of absolutely dedicated fans. They record and tour frequently and have been on Letterman, Austin City Limits and so on and so on. They're big time. And Pete's family in particular are dedicated Son Volt fans, and my son is not far behind.

So I naturally accepted the invitation. Nathaniel tells me to meet at Pete's, as it's walking distance from there. I know Pete's neighborhood, and I don't remember a lot of clubs around there. Then Nathaniel texts me that it's BYOB - and the Holohan family will hook the boys up with sodas, etc., but I might want to chuck a few beers along. And there "might be" food. Curiouser and curiouser.

When I show up to Pete's, I ask his dad Michael what's the deal with this place. He seems mildly surprised I don't know about Joe's Cafe, and says to me slyly, "Well, this is going to be a life changing experience." He wasn't kidding - or far off (or should I say "Farrar off" - sorry couldn't resist).

We walk around the corner (literally) to Joe's Cafe, and Michael is giving me the scoop. Joe's is a private club run by Bill Christman. Bill is a local artist who's had this place going for a number of years. It had in previous iterations been open to the general public, but because of

its proximity to Washington University, it morphed into more of a college hang than Bill really desired. So he shut it down, then reopened it as a private club, open only to members and their guests. Bill kind of has to know you, and who you're bringing. I think Michael even went by earlier in the day to give Bill the heads up that he was bringing three 15/16 year old boys, including his son, as a way to specially vouch for them (they are cool, if I do say so myself).

Around the corner the group encounters Bill, sitting outside the club, with a sign that says "Members - $5, Guests of Members - $10."  The boys are introduced and given the all-clear. I also pass the screening process (not a foregone conclusion, mind you, but Michael said I was a good musician - I think that helped). Michael had been explaining that this place also served as a studio for Bill's eclectic art. Bill designed Beatnik Bob's Museum of Mirth, Mystery and Mayhem at the City Museum in St. Louis. And this place is like walking in to the City Museum, except imagine it in a much smaller space, but the same amount of stuff, and everything crammed together. Everywhere you look there is something really cool. The stage is like a vaudeville stage. Neon lights glow everywhere. We nestle down to great seats, and Michael shows me around. Outside, in the side yard, there is more stuff than you can possibly imagine. Think of going to Gringo Jones near the Botanical Garden, mixed with the City Museum, and a bar with a vaudeville stage. For those who grew up in Southern Illinois, remember old "Big John" in front of the grocery store, towering 30 feet in the air? Well, I found him - he's buried up to his waist in

Bill Christman's side yard, still holding his grocery sacks, but with other stuff all around his big ol' muscular arms. Don't worry - he looks very very happy to be there (at least, he still has that same big grin). Behind him there's an old elevated train car, up on tracks. It just goes on and on. Oh, and did I mention some folks were set up outside cooking up the most delicious BBQ - not part of the club, but clearly "friends of Bill" and the community - $5 or so bought a meal that was pure heaven!

So when we go back in, Michael tells Pete he should give the guys the tour, and I say yes, you've got to see this place. Nathaniel looks up and says he's been before. Michael and I are incredulous that he could have failed to mention it to me, and he says, in absolute earnestness and seriousness, "Why? It's just a place with a bunch of stuff in it." The line of the night - and pure Nathaniel, for those who know him.

So the band filters in. It turns out John is not playing at all, but it is a country group called Colonel Ford. Jay is not the main feature, but just "one of the guys: in the band, playing pedal steel guitar. (Not to worry - there was no shortage of Farrar's - Dade Farrar plays stand up "slap" bass with Colonel Ford, and is a great singer in his own right.) Colonel Ford plays country - and I mean country, complete with fiddle player Justin Brannun who had just won the Grand Masters Fiddle Contest in Nashville earlier in the month. They were playing George Jones, Buck Owens, the whole nine yards. They describe themselves as playing in the "Hillbilly" genre on their Facebook page. I didn't even know that was a genre - I guess that's what you'd call pre-Rockabilly as I think about it. Anyway, everyone had a gas, especially the boys (interesting, as this is not "their" kind of music - but they like good stuff no matter what it is).

Here's a Youtube link to a performance at Joe's Cafe by Colonel Ford earlier this year - I can tell you this video does not do justice to the visual and audio experience of hearing these guys in this venue. You can't help but smile when you're there....

Or, as Nathaniel succinctly put it on Facebook:

"Colonel Ford + Jay Farrar = Fantastic"

Indeed, a man of fewer words than his father. But he says it all.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

So What?

So you met some more jazz musicians? So what?

I'll tell you what's what - they are not just any jazz musicians. If you could name two living jazz composers, who would they be? Chances are, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter would come to mind. Kurt Elling once called Wayne Shorter one of the three greatest jazz composers ever. Not sure who the other two were, but might be Herbie and the great Duke Ellington.

What gives? My firm had purchased a table at the annual St. Louis Symphony gala. Renee Fleming was the feature solo performer. I had gotten advance word that "La Diva" was living up to the title and bringing an entourage that included Mr. Hancock. He of the Miles Davis 1960s jazz quintet (maybe the best ever). He of an incredible collection of jazz compositional masterpieces still being played regularly today (Dolphin Dance, Maiden Voyage, Canteloupe Island, Watermelon Man, Chameleon). He of the crossover hit fame (remember "Rockit"?).

So at the event David Robertson was conducting and starts talking about Renee an Wayne Shorter, how they loved each other's music, etc. I had neglected to pick up a program and was just going with the flow. But it turns out La Diva was singing a world premier of a composition by Wayne Shorter written especially for her. And of course, Wayne was there too. Also a member of the same Miles Davis quintet (I'm batting .600 now, having heard Ron Carter (bass) from that quintet - alas, that batting average won't increase, as Mr. Davis and his wonderful drummer from that quintet, Tony Williams, are no longer with us). Wayne went on to do many other things (Weather Report, e.g.). And he had his own wonderful quintet, and wrote many jazz standards - I would say from a jazz
purists standpoint, more than Mr. Hancock (Footprints, anyone?). On the album where Mr. Elling names him as one of the three all time great composers, he then sings the classic Night Dreamer, then sings Wayne's sax solo, and then Lee Morgan's trumpet solo (Mr. Elling has some wicked skills himself).

Well, you just don't see Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter everyday, let alone together. The only thing that would have made it better is if they would have played with the after-party band. But they didn't. Oh well, so what, as Miles might say. Speaking of which, here is Miles, with the great quintet (Herbie, Wayne, Ron and Tony) doing "So What" on the Steve Allen show in the 1960s:

Monday, July 12, 2010

Radio Man

Driving home the other day and tuned in to hear what the Cardinals were doing on KTRS the other day. The Redbirds had played a day game that day (last game of a three-game set and getting out of town). John Marecek had thrown out a topic: "What's the best baseball player 'theme' song?" I wondered if anyone would call with my favorite. His favorite was Metallica's Enter Sandman for Yankee reliever Mariano Rivera. Wild Thing for Charlie Sheen's character was another notable, if fictional.

After the break, John came back and announced it was his worst topic idea ever. Only one person called in, and wouldn't go on the air ("Hell's Bells" for Trevor Hoffman was his offering, off the air apparently to John). He went on and on how he'd never drawn a big goose egg on his show.

So I ran in and googled the radio station's number, and they put me on the air. John was so happy to get any caller, but he loved my pick - he called me "the man", said I'd brought something to the table, reminded him of a theme he'd totally forgotten. He asked to stay on for a gift certificate that I'll probably never use.

What was the theme? The tune that ol' Ernie Hays used to crank out on the ballpark organ for Ken Oberkfell, the Card's third baseman throughout the '80s. Most of his RBI's seemed to come in contests where the Cards already had an 8 run lead. But he could field. We may have been slow back in the day, but it took a while to figure out why it was the Star Wars them - but it was for Obie, of course!