Ashes To Ashes; Dust To Dust

Shalom and aloha.

I believe that Science is real; sometimes TOO real. But I’m also comfortable knowing that certain things defy having one clear explanation.  And I also don’t ascribe to many aspects of Mysticism, Spiritualism, New Age thoughts or faith-based parts of traditional religion. But, again, I’m more than willing to accept that there are all kinds of things that we can’t explain with any degree of certainty. I generally embrace what I’ll call the Healthy Skepticism of a Devout Musician.

Having said that, I’d like to relate a recent experience of an unexplained phenomenon: 

After the death of my beloved bride Mariana, her ashes (or, a new word I learned in the process: cremains) made their way to many places. These include Lake Michigan, the oceans Pacific and Atlantic, and under our yard’s yews (a Celtic symbol of death and resurrection, don’t you know). 

BUT….one incredibly obvious place that wasn’t on that list is the tree in the park at the end of our block that now bears a plaque in her memory. I just had never gotten around to it. I was finally compelled to correct that situation when I walked past the the box in the basement where the rest of her ashes resided. It seemed kind of mean that poor Mariana had been banished to such a dreary locale for these several years. 

So I took the box to the tree in the park and dug a tiny trench that would accommodate the rest of the cremains. I then stood there and reflected for a long moment before opening the box to gain access to the plastic bag that held the last of the… know.

When I opened the bag, a thick plume of dust immediately leapt out and aggressively shot skyward. It surprised the hell out of me. And it kept doing it for much longer than I thought it possibly could: a continuous and jubilant express towards the place where Mariana thought she should be. It was like she was really glad to get the hell out that bag. So, part of her did just that, and the rest was content (I hope) to help nurture her beautiful tree.

That’s my story and I’m sticking with it. I have no doubt that there are a slew of other explanations, but that’s mine. And perception is reality. 

Cubbie Blue (Not Cubbie Blues)

I am a 3rd-generation Chicago Cubs fan. My Grandma Goldie saw the Cubs play at Clark/Addison before it was called Wrigley Field (it was known as Weeghman Park). My Dad was born fifteen years after the Cubs’ 1908 World Series victory and, like so many other Cubs fans, never lived to see them repeat that glorious deed. He died at the age of 51, almost 42 years before Cubs finally emerged victorious in 2016. True Cubs fans know that those numbers add up correctly: 15 + 51 + 42= 108.

Most of the Cubs teams in the years of my fandom (1967-present) have been fairly….um….non-competitive. Regardless, I have remained their loyal fan unconditionally, and have no plans to change that status. I am a sheep, and (at present) Tom Ricketts, Jed Hoyer and David Ross are my shepherds. Do you get what I’m saying?

Somewhat problematically, the Ricketts family has proven time and again that their political views are very different from my own. Their beliefs have antagonized some of my friends, causing them to withdraw their support of the team. But I’ve remained true to the course, rationalizing this with the feeling that the politics of virtually every pro sports team’s owners are also likely in stark contrast to my own. Then, when the Cubs rolled out their Marquee Sports Network, it was found that the political agenda of its operator (the Sinclair Broadcast Group) was equally heinous. But, once again, I was able to compartmentalize, choosing to focus on my beloved Cubs and their jewel of a ballpark. 

The team’s recent era (2015-2020) has been an unparalleled one in terms of winning percentage. But it can be argued that this team, with the same basic core of very talented players, underachieved by only making it to the World Series once (not unlike the 1985 Chicago Bears, who should have made it into another Super Bowl with that core of players).  Sensing that the window for success might be closing on this roster, the Cubs parted ways with some noteworthy names (Yu Darvish, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Lester, Albert Almora Jr.) before the start of the 2021 season.

But, even with fairly low expectations, the Cubs overachieved during the initial third of the season. The high point may have been a combined no-hitter on the road against the dreaded Dodgers in the last week of June. However, reality showed up in a large way when the Cubs then proceeded to lose the next eleven games in a row. This swoon sent a signal to Cubs management that it was time to part company with some players as the trade deadline loomed, and that’s exactly what they did, to a degree that has seldom occurred in recent memory.  

Older fans (like me, I guess) long for the days when players didn’t change teams nearly as much as they do now. With the advent of free agency, players are free to test the market much more easily, so teams need to be more proactive in determining their rosters.  Three of the Cubs players recently sent packing were beloved stars from the 2016 champs: Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez. This proved particularly traumatic for Cub Nation, but the team’s thinking seemed to be that this roster (as shown by the 11-game swoon) was looking to be no more than an average team with these stars, so it was time to move on. Along with the departure of other veterans, it was painful to have ripped off the band-aid in such a dramatic way, and it was painful to instantly transform from 2016 Champs (seems like a long time ago now) to 2021 Chumps.

It’s impossible to know (in real time) whether a team has traded a player too soon (missing out on further productive years) or too late (overpaying for under-production). Even so, Rizzo, Bryant and Baez all declined new contracts that would have earned them more money than 99.99 percent of us can even imagine. So it all came down to the arcane monetary calculi to which each team devotes countless units of brainpower.

Almost without exception, Major League baseball teams lose 54 games and win 54 games each season. It’s those other 54 games in a 162-game season that separate the wheat from the chaff. So, if you come to a game, you have at least a 1 in 3 chance of seeing your team win. A batter who gets one hit out of three at bats is considered to be an elite hitter. 

We’ve seen high numbers of Cubs fans disavowing their allegiance after this remarkable purge.  To them I say: So long. We’ll see you when the Cubs are good again. You’ll be more than welcome to hop on the bandwagon again. As for me, I look forward to watching the Cubs braintrust fiddle with the pieces, trying to build a roster for the next great team.

Call me stupid, but Go Cubs!

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.