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.