That Was Her Jam

I met Mariana Rence in early 1986, shortly after the Challenger exploded and the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl. We did a couple of Musicals together (“Baby” and “Godspell”) at a theater in the very odd little town of Cohoes, NY (a bit north of Albany). We were together for the next 31 years, ending when she shuffled off this mortal coil in February of 2017.

Like a large percentage of actors and actresses, Mariana spent much of her time “between engagements” working as a server in a variety of restaurants. Never having done that myself, I was fascinated by the stories she would bring home after her shifts. Most of this employment was at a place called Sarabeth’s Kitchen, owned by the eponymous Sarabeth Levine. To coincide with what would have been our 34th wedding anniversary, I’m going to try to recall some of the more entertaining tidbits that Mariana brought home.

Sarabeth’s Kitchen now has many restaurants around the country, and her delicious jams and preserves can be found in many food stores. But it started as a hole-in-the-wall kind of place in the Upper West Side, only selling baked goods and jams/preserves. She eventually started serving breakfast, then opened a larger place in the same neighborhood, adding lunch (and tables!) to the fare. Another location opened in the Upper East Side, and this was around the time when I first met Mariana. 

As described to me, Sarabeth had come of age as a Hippie from Long Island and was into some non-Western philosophies that helped (only occasionally, though) diffuse a somewhat hair-trigger temper. Sara found her success reproducing her grandmother’s baked goods recipes, and her business was a family affair. Her sweet-but-addled mother ran the cash register (the numbers rarely made sense at the end of a workday) and her husband was the co-owner. 

Sara didn’t seem to care if her customers could hear every profanity-laced tirade in her small venues. Once, after spending the day at the West Side place, she stopped into the East Side location and was dismayed that (in her view) ALL of the bread was too stale to serve to her customers. So she gathered it into arms, stomped through the restaurant and out the front door, where she promptly threw all of the bread into Madison Avenue.

But she could be sweet and nurturing, too. Mariana once threw her back out in the middle of a shift and was in agonizing pain. Sarabeth said, “Honey…the best thing for a bad back is to put rising dough on the sore spot. That will absorb all of the toxins.” So she had Mariana climb onto the table in the kitchen and deposited a ton of dough on her back, laying there waiting for the toxins to be absorbed. This was very surprising to the customers who got a full view of it while walking past the kitchen on the way to the restroom.

Mariana came home once with the story of an encounter with an ultra-privileged Upper West Side Mom: it seemed that her little darling was under the weather and had stayed home from school. Mommy absolutely HAD to have some of Sarabeth’s yummy oatmeal to bring home to the patient. It was explained that the restaurant didn’t do take-outs (wow–you’d think that Sarabeth would have known that there’d be a pandemic in 35 years that would make that policy a really poor idea) and they didn’t have any to-go containers. The woman got irate, and, when it was suggested that she could go to Duane Reade and buy instant oatmeal that entailed boiling some water and ripping open the package, that didn’t seem to calm her down. 

One of Mariana’s most annoying steady customers was Peter Max, the painter who is best known for Pop Art posters and album covers from the 1960’s. Evidently, he was friends with Sarabeth and her husband, and he would show up on a regular basis, parking himself at a table for hours on end. He insisted on having a phone placed at his table (this was before cell phones) so that he could make Important Business Transactions. He also had to have all of his food prepared in very specific ways that differed from the menu, including the directive that no butter be used (in a place famous for their baked goods!). Max must have eventually sensed that he was a pain in ass for the servers, so he told them to fill in the tip amount themselves. They started giving themselves 50% tips, and he never said a word. I’m guessing that they would have happily given up his inflated tips in exchange for his absence.

There were many, many other boldface types that came into Sarabeth’s emporiums. I’ll attempt to recall some of them:

Jackie Kennedy Onassis–Very quiet. Very polite. Ate lemon pound cake with her fingers.

Yoko Ono–Very quiet. Very polite.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward–Very friendly. Newman’s famous blue eyes lived up to their reputation.

Warren Beatty and Isabelle Adjani–They came in during the making of “Ishtar” and appeared to be in the midst of a Lover’s Crisis.

Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman–They appeared to be doing damage control to the state of the Beatty/Adjani tryst.

John McEnroe, Tatum O’Neal and children–Grownups were quiet; children were messy and out of control.

Bill Murray and family–See above.

Peter Boyle (aka Young Frankenstein)–A complete asshole.

Norman Fell (character actor, Stanley Roper on “Three’s Company”)–Incredibly nice and chatty; always wanted to hear about the state of Mariana’s acting career.

I’m sure that there were many more; these are the ones that I recall. I’ve passed a lot of water under the bridge since these events took place. But they still exist if I recall them as memories. Very much like people, now that I think of it.

Scooter? I barely knew her….

I lived in NYC from 1981-93 and watched a lot of Yankees games on TV during that time. As I recall, a large percentage of those games featured Bill White and Phil Rizzuto in the broadcast booth. Rizzuto (aka “Scooter”) was a Yankee legend and a Hall of Famer, having played played shortstop on some amazing teams alongside the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. He was also like your lovable, crazy uncle. You never knew what was going to come out of his mouth. Some of his verbiage was so bizarre that it would be re-framed and published as poetry. For instance:

You know,
Some kid wrote me a letter.
You and Murcer,
I know,
Every time Murcer says
I make oh for four and two errors.
Some guy wrote,
Which I haven’t gotten yet,
He wrote it to Yankee Stadium,
But by the way,
You’re doing the play-by-play, Seaver.
So go ahead.
I was gonna tell you something,
But I forgot what it was.
Go ahead.
 
Or this candid appraisal of Rickey Henderson’s physique:
 
He has powerful legs and cute buns,
That Henderson.
That was a great shot,
Going to second base there.
There’s nothing wrong with that, White.
That’s a popular expression.
High, and it’s one and one.
His legs were churning.
 
“White” was Bill White, who had been an excellent ballplayer in his own right. His demeanor was the antithesis of Scooter’s: stoic, analytical, serious. But he seemed genuinely amused by Rizzuto’s flakiness, and was very tolerant and affectionate towards him. 
 
But I’m getting ahead of myself. One of the more enjoyable aspects of my time on the East Coast (Boston 1977-81; NYC 1981-93) was the chance to spend time with my Connecticut cousins Adam and Ben, who were (and still are) about a decade younger than me.  I would attempt to entertain them with G-rated smart aleck remarks. One such witticism was something that I had overheard about a tall person (being 6’4″, I can relate) who got sick and tired of being asked if he had been a basketball player. “No”, became his new stock response, “Did you used to be a jockey?”
 
One happy day, my Uncle Morley (Adam and Ben’s dad) called with an invitation to join him and the boys for a game at historic Yankee Stadium. As the tickets were acquired through Morley’s business, they came with the perk of having a Photo Opportunity with none other than Yankee legend (and announcer) Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto.
 
At the Photo Opportunity (pictured above), we found Scooter to be very welcoming and friendly. As he shook my hand, he said, “Holy Cow! Look at the size of you! Did you play a lot of basketball?” I immediately shot a glance at Ben (the younger brother), who had the EXACT same twinkle in his eye that you see in the photo. I knew what the twinkle meant at that moment: “Say it! SAY IT! Ask him if he used to be a jockey!”
 
I couldn’t bring myself to go there. I just smiled and chuckled politely, having made the rare choice of taking the High Road. Let me tell you, the weather is kind of weird up there.  

Colby and me

My friend Mark Colby passed away early this morning. Here are some thoughts:

Musicians are slightly different than other people (we sometimes refer to them as “civilians”). We spend tens of thousands of hours in solitude perfecting our craft. And then we occasionally emerge (more than occasionally, hopefully) to be in public with other musicians (often in seemingly random combinations) so that we can get paid for our efforts.  The hope is that these other musicians will be not only proficient at their craft, but pleasant to be around, too, because a significant portion of these opportunities will be spent on breaks, where a certain amount of socialization is called for. Over the many gigs I did with Mark (or Colby, as he was often referred to), I was relieved to learn that both his craft and “the hang” were always something to look forward to.

It’s weird to think about: Many of the relationships I’ve had with other musicians have been incredibly intense  (because of the music) and incredibly pleasant, too (because of the hang). But in very few of them do I encounter these people in non-musical situations. And, if I do, it often feels slightly awkward. It’s weird. Probably because I’m weird. So be it.

I don’t precisely recall when I first played with Mark or when I became a permanent member of his working quartet alongside bassist Eric Hochberg and drummer Bob Rummage (we’re pictured above at one of our many wonderful gigs at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase in Chicago). But there’s a lot of stuff I don’t remember. Research shows that the first of the three recordings I did with that band (Reflections, Yesterday’s Gardenias and All Or Nothing At All) was in 2008. I  loved being in that band so much. And, no offense to the many fine players who occasionally filled in for Eric or Bob, but it was never on the same level when one of the pieces was missing.

It actually took me a bit to figure how best to make my playing connect up with Mark’s. As a pianist, it’s logical that my obsession with chords and harmony would be my Driving Force. The music that we play is based (in large part) on a repeated series of chords that comprise the song’s structure. My focus (sometimes neglecting other aspects) has always been to either add some goop to the song’s chords (to make them sound fancy) or figure out alternatives to these chords that will still get me to the proper destination (to make me seem clever). I was initially confused by the fact that these ideas were not high priorities for Mark. He instead took a macro approach: shapes, textures, sound quality, variations of sound color. These, plus a rock-solid time feel: these (to me) were the earmarks to Mark’s ears (clever wordplay, right?). He taught me that these were important, too, and I’m forever grateful.

There’s no arguing that Mark had a tremendous career, and I think (as does most of the world) that he was an incredible player. As a well-disguised quivering bowl of insecure jelly, I’ve often found that, in the presence of someone with an impressive pedigree like Mark’s, I feel like I’m being judged and I end up playing not to fail. But, Mark’s vibe (both musical and personal) made me feel the opposite. As he led by example and generosity, I always felt complete freedom to dig deep and explore in my own playing. It also helped that, each time I looked away from my fingers and looked at my rhythm section mates, Eric and Bob invariably had smiles on their faces, assuring me that I wasn’t ruining anything.

Mark was so serious about the music. When that horn was in his mouth, it was all business, and you could feel and admire his ability to channel his life’s work into the music being made at that moment. But, once the horn came out of his mouth, he usually (if he started looking around) reverted to Lovable Goofball mode. Even after his solos, in the middle of a tune, we’d often make stupid faces at each other. That, to me, is the desired combination: Treat the music with an almost religious devotion, but never take yourself too seriously. That’s why I loved Mark. The music is sacred. Your family is sacred. Pretty much everything else is fair game.

I really admired Mark’s desire to record on a regular basis. This is not an easy task, especially when there are plenty of other things to distract. But he clearly knew that documentation was an important part of his legacy. He also took great care to encourage the future of our music. And not just with his private lessons: he would regularly book himself as the guest clinician with a high school or college band, and then have them play at the Jazz Showcase as an opening act for our quartet. Many of these students don’t realize it now, but they’ll be able to look back and recall that they performed at one of the most famous jazz clubs in the world. And, cleverly, we (the quartet) were then assured of an audience for our 1st set, exposing these same students (and their families) to our music that (in all likelihood) they might not have sought out otherwise.      

The whole time I knew Mark (not very long, in the grand scheme of things) it seemed like he was recovering from one medical crisis or another. The cat had nine lives. But, each time I’d encounter him again, he’d still be playing his ass off and still be hilarious. It finally caught up to him, and it’s frustrating to think of how much great music and hilarious banter he still could have produced. But the world is a better place because of everything that he did leave us.

I’ll miss you, Mark. I miss you already. Yours was a life well-lived. Thank you.

2020 Hindsight (Post-George Floyd)

June 10, 2020

2020 HINDSIGHT REFLECTIONS
(POST-GEORGE FLOYD)

I need to do better. Everyone needs to do better, but this starts with me and my little world, so that’s what I’ll talk about.

I’m not an overly political person. I will say that I’ve never voted for a Republican and that my Dad was involved in the local Democratic party. He had me distribute campaign literature to all the houses in our precinct when I was a kid. My Mom marched in Montgomery in 1965 and smuggled books to Jews in the Soviet Union a decade after that. But me: I’ve never been quick to march or join causes or discuss politics. I don’t know why, really. Maybe it’s because I really don’t like confrontations. If something is burning a hole in my stomach, I’m more likely to work it out from a piano bench. That’s on me. That’s my baggage.

But what’s happening now isn’t about politics, really. It’s about humanity, and how people deal with each other when they don’t look alike. And it’s about how the playing field has been so uneven for so long, it truly blows my mind.

After living in New York for 13 years, I decided to move back to Chicago for many reasons. One of them was to get a fresh start and to play different kinds of music with different kinds of people, although I wasn’t quite sure how to make that happen. So I was completely surprised to find out how segregated Chicago was (and is); not just where people live, but also within the music scene. It still pisses me off when I hear someone refer to “a South Side guy” as a transparent reference to someone with black skin. I was lucky enough to start gigging right away, but almost never did I encounter people of color on the bandstand. But, as I said, I was pretty busy, so, even though I was disappointed about the lack of diversity, I didn’t do anything to change my situation. That’s on me. That’s my baggage.

One exception to that trend was when Dana Hall called to ask if I’d be interested in joining the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, a big band in which he and Jon Faddis had leadership roles. I said yes, and immediately noticed that the band was a very healthy mix of black and white faces, providing an environment that I’d so rarely encountered. It was a great feeling, and the band played a lot of enjoyable music at a very high level; I’m extremely grateful to Dana for offering the opportunity. Plus, it gave me the chance to make music with Chicago stalwarts like Larry Bowen, Pharez Whitted, Jarrard Harris, Bobbi Wilsyn and the legendary and recently departed Art Hoyle, in addition to Dana and Jon. My tenure with the band overlapped with a long run in the orchestra pit of “Wicked.” Oddly enough, the rather jarring disconnect between the lily white world of that orchestra pit and the “gorgeous mosaic” (ex-NYC mayor David Dinkins’s term) of the CJE provided me with a soothing sense of equilibrium.

I’m fully aware (and extremely grateful) that I owe a large percentage of my lifetime earnings to music that is born of the Black Experience, and that an even higher amount of the music that I love to play (and listen to) comes from the same source. The thought that I may have been given (because of my white face) opportunities denied to a qualified person of color (due to the “marketplace”) is a notion that truly horrifies me, and it’s one that floats through my mind every day. Struggling to know how to prevent that from happening, I reach out to anyone reading this for suggestions.

————————————————————————————————

I hope that evolution kind of works like this:

1. An early generation engages in practices that we now realize are abhorrent, but was not realized at the time.

2. The next generation starts to realize the unfairness of these practices, but strives to keep the status quo due to self-interest.

3. The generation following those in step #2 starts to realize that changes have to be made, and takes steps to implement them using the established infrastructure, making progress agonizingly slow. Two steps forward; one step back.

4. The ensuing generation, generally fueled by youthful energy, decides that enough is enough, and speaks up with a new urgency. This finally brings about long-overdue changes, aided in part by attrition and the inevitable departure of those with Old School attitudes.

I realize that it’s fairly naive to assume that people in the power structure will change merely because “it’s the right thing to do”, so let me suggest reasons coming from two different angles:

First, in the macro-universe that is dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic as I write this, the black community is suffering disproportately, largely due to economic conditions that make social distancing and telecommuting extremely difficult. Even so, the virus is color-blind and, as a result, anyone can infect anyone. If we can more evenly level the playing field so that Bezos, Gates and Buffett aren’t worth more than the combined wealth of households in our country’s bottom 50% , then we will have created a safer and healthier environment for EVERYONE.

Second, in the micro-universe that is invested in the creation of art, consider the unlimited potential when artists of different backgrounds come together to combine their unique experiences. It takes a leap of faith to venture out of one’s comfort zone at the expense of what is familiar and safe, but the upside is certainly worth the effort. In Mayor Dinkins’s Gorgeous Mosaic, each component maintains its identity, but, when in collboration with other components, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, to quote Aristotle.

So, in this Annus Horribilus 2020, let’s hope that what appears to be a tipping point leads to far better things. Everyone needs to do better. Especially me. I’ll start by calling out anyone who is still comfortable with the old intolerant and marginalizing way of looking at the world. Angela Davis articulated it far better than I can: “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

Hits After Hits

One of my students asked me about a certain chapter of my earlier life after I’d made a reference to it. Here it is:

When I lived in Brooklyn in the 1980’s, a free-form (but regular) softball gathering evolved in scenic Prospect Park. I don’t recall exactly who initiated it, but the participants were primarily jazz musicians who had their days free. There were, as I recall, a few non-musicians who joined in, but not that many.

We had a great time reliving our childhoods, having discovered a mostly-unused diamond in the park. Since we never knew how many people would show up, we had to get creative with the game’s form, as true jazzers do. We called our gathering the Reeferdome Allstars; I don’t recall why.

These games weren’t completely incident-free, though: I recall someone breaking their leg on an ill-advised slide into home plate. I also remember a drummer breaking his wrist when he muffed a grounder to shortstop. He could’t play any gigs for a couple of months. When he returned, the exact same thing happened again. That was a disappointment for him.

Some of the regulars that I recall were Chris Pasin (my roommate), Tim Horner, Ed Howard, Tim Horner, Michael Weiss, Frank Griffith, Bill Overton, Spencer McLeish, Geoff Gordon, Tardo Hammer, Pete Malinverni, Matt Finders and Ralph Hamperian. Some notable appearances were made by the likes of Branford Marsalis (I think that’s how Matt Finders landed the “Tonight Show” gig), Jim McNeely, Kenny Werner and actor D. B. Sweeny (“Eight Men Out”). I also see my old college buddies Paul Meyers and Paul Ricci in that photo.

Probably the most memorable moment for me was a game where I was patrolling center field. A lazy fly ball came to me, and I misjudged it a bit (or, my theory: a freak gust of wind made it veer from its logical path). The ball landed right on my head, sending me to the turf in a dazed heap. When I got to my feet, I noticed that everyone was howling with laughter, understandably so. But I didn’t know the half of it: the ball had bounced straight up, and fellow outfielder Tim Horner had the wherewithal to run over and make the catch. Well, at least I got an outfield assist on the play!