Capers

As someone who considers himself to be somewhat of an aficionado (aka “nerd”) with regards to the Great American Songbook, I recently watched the 1946 Jerome Kern biopic “Till The Clouds Roll By.” I found it to be predictably formulaic and clunky, but quite star-studded, and oh, those great songs!

Kern’s first hit (written as a 20 year-old in 1905) is performed in the film by a saucy 21 year-old Angela Lansbury: “How’d You Like To Spoon With Me?” For its time, it’s just as suggestive as anything you’re likely to hear today. I hadn’t thought about that song in decades, and I was immediately and intensely brought back to my first encounter with it. (Cue the blurring/distorting of the picture and underscore with the mysterious Whole Tone scale):

While in my early twenties, I had the wonderful opportunity to be the Music Director of the Atlantic Theater Company for the two summers (1980-81) that they spent in Barnstable, MA on idyllic Cape Cod. I was party to tremendous amounts of drama (only some of it was on stage) and gained tremendous insight as to how theatrical productions get mounted. Aside from myself and the interns, virtually everyone from the Company had attended the Yale Drama School.

One of the Main Stage productions was Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance Of Being Earnest.” As you may be aware, this show is not a musical, so my involvement was minimal: play the piano for the opening, closing and for a few scene changes. Piece of cake. Or, as they probably DON’T say in France, morceau de gateau. I should mention this important aspect of our production: It was cast with women playing the male roles and men playing the female roles. I know…..edgy, right? And one of the selections was the aforementioned “Spoon” song, which was my first (and only) opportunity to perform it.

As Opening Night loomed, the director approached me with a dastardly proposal: either sit at the piano for the entire show wearing basic pit black……or make my entrances and exits as needed if I was willing to cross-dress like the actors were doing. The rest of the time (about 90% of the show) I was free to chill out backstage (or wherever). What was a boy to do? For this one, it was an easy choice to take the Path of Least Resistance; for the first (and, thus far, last) time, I was hired to play the piano dressed as a woman. And I was quite the vision of beautyhood, too. The Costumer somehow came up with a pseudo-Victorian ensemble into which I could fit my 6’4″ frame, and I was good to go. I was happy to have the freedom to wander around during the time that I wasn’t needed, although I had to get used to walking up and down stairs in my full-length skirt. I remember sitting on the steps behind the theater, flirting with one of the interns. To any neighbors who may have spotted me, I belatedly apologize for any trauma that this sight may have caused. I looked like a character from an Edward Gorey story.

(SMOOTH SEGUE) Speaking of the delightfully eccentric Mr. Gorey, we were lucky enough to spend a lot of time with him that summer, as he was a Cape resident and we mounted a cabaret show based on his work: Gorey Stories. I visited my family in the Chicago suburbs before settling into the Cape for the summer, and I recited the names of our shows that season. “Edward Gorey!” my Aunt Carol said. “He was our neighbor in Wilmette. He used to cheat at Monopoly.” After taking advantage of the surprising chance to confront Mr. Gorey in person with this heinous accusation, he gave a little gasp and said “That is an absolute lie!” But he did say it with a twinkle in his eye, so who knows? Maybe there WERE some unsavory tactics involving St. James Avenue or Community Chest. We’ll never really know, will we?

Of course I have a lot of other memories from those two summers, but I’ll bore you with those some other time. Meanwhile, almost 40 years have elapsed since then. Holy steamed clams, Batman. These things happen, I guess.

My Gig With Helen Merrill

I was 24 years old in December of 1982 and thought I knew pretty much everything I needed to know. The legendary singer Helen Merrill was 52 and politely begged to differ when I was lucky enough to play with her at Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club. Ms Merrill taught me so much from this experience, and I feel immensely grateful that (decades later) a recording of our gig was discovered (albeit in fairly Low Fidelity). Here it is:

Bountiful, Indeed

This post won’t be an easy one to write, but I think that it’s worthwhile. So I’ll soldier on.

Mariana was rarely comfortable with having her capabilities brought into the spotlight, so she’d probably be pissed at me for doing so now. Nonetheless, I think that the onset of her final chapter is amazing and fascinating on so many levels. Her potential annoyance from the Beyond won’t dissuade me.

Mariana and Showbiz had a mutual parting of the ways when we had kids. She loved to rehearse, and she enjoyed the performances to a somewhat lesser degree, but she really disliked the relentless self-branding and soul-crushing lack of return from auditions, so she took a signal from the Universe and put her energies into being a great Mom.

When the boys wanted to participate in their elementary school’s Theater Club, Mariana volunteered to help with costumes and sets. This continued into the boys’ middle school years, where Mariana eventually became the full-time Costume Designer. But, it went beyond that. She had never lost her passion for the process of making theater (now rekindled), and she had strong opinions about pretty much every aspect: casting, directing choices, set design….you name it. And she had the professional resume to back them up. I’m guessing that not all of her opinions were welcomed with open arms. She was very fond of her co-workers at CAST (the middle school theater program), but she didn’t mind ruffling an occasional feather if she disagreed with certain decisions. Being right without always being nice brings to mind a certain character in a certain play. See below.

A CAST production began rehearsing in May, 2016, but this one had no middle schoolers in the show. Rather, it was meant to showcase the adult staffers, and they chose Horton Foote’s “The Trip To Bountiful”, with Mariana cast in the lead role of Callie. It was her first substantial acting gig since the 1980’s. The task of learning such a huge part was a daunting one, but Mariana’s old muscle memory kicked in as she methodically set to work, despite occasionally uttering variations on the “Why the hell did I agree to this? I have no business trying to pull this off” theme.

As the rehearsals progressed, Mariana’s insides decided to declare war. And, one by one, foods that she had always enjoyed began to disagree with her in a big way. We both attributed it to the stress of her having accepted on this huge undertaking. After all, she was genuinely concerned that she no longer had any acting chops and didn’t want to disappoint anyone who had never seen her on stage before.

In hindsight, the stress of playing the lead role after a prolonged absence was NOT the cause of her discomfort. It was ten years of cancer, chemo and radiation finally catching up to her. Her organs had begun to shut down, and this process took another seven very unpleasant months to complete. In the meantime, she strategically located her proximity to bathrooms wherever she went. And, when she was onstage for prolonged scenes, she (in addition to doing all the acting stuff to her liking) would hope to make it to her exit without soiling herself. (Sorry, Mariana…..I’m sure that you consider this to be Too Much Information, but I think that this makes what you did all the more impressive.)

There’s no way of knowing how Mariana interpreted this particular set of ailments, and there’s no way of knowing whether aspects of the plot of “Bountiful” (trying to maintain dignity in one’s final chapter; enduring what what must be endured; making a last visit to an important aspect to one’s earlier life, etc.) informed her approach to the portrayal of this character. But it certainly adds all kinds of layers to this play that already has plenty to begin with.

Mainly, though, I’m so happy that Mariana got to sink her teeth into this art form about which she cared so deeply. And I’m so happy that there is documentation of her performance (linked below).

Here are the links:

Act 1

Act 2

Solo Piano in Poland

The Jazz Institute of Chicago was kind enough to include me in their annual trip to Posnan, Poland for the “Made In Chicago” Festival (May, 2016). One of my gigs there was recorded: this solo performance (in a piano store) of songs written by Chicagoans:

1. Stella By Starlight
2. Detour Ahead
3.’Deed I Do
4. It Had To Be You/I’ll See You In My Dreams
5. Quiet Now
6. Born To Be Blue
7. Blow Up
8. As Long As There’s Music/Never Never Land

No Regrets

I’m writing this to recall the first anniversary of Mariana’s passing. It’s good get past all these milestones: the first this; the first that without her. But, trust me: I realize that there will always be a hole in my heart. I just need to try to make some nice decorations around that hole to make it presentable.

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There was a lot of discussion during the 2017 NBA Playoffs about one of the best players on the Boston Celtics. His sister had recently died in an accident, and sports pundits opined about whether or not he should feel an obligation to continue to play while dealing with his grief, or if he would want to play (regardless of whether or not he felt an obligation).

This topic resonated with me, and here is why:

My wonderful wife Mariana passed away on February 25th, 2017. She was in rough shape for the last few months of her life, and I had to make decisions about how much or how little I would (and/or could) continue to work during this time. I wanted to be with her as much as possible, but economics dictated that I work at least part of the time. This was tricky, and I felt that there were no “right” or “wrong” answers to this issue.

Backing up a few months, a new Chicago jazz venue called Winter’s opened its doors in November of 2016, and its owner Scott Stegman  was kind enough to offer me some gigs during its opening months. But I had already accepted a gig in the pit band for a show that was having a 10-week run, so I had to respectfully decline his offer in the hopes that there’d be future opportunities. I was right, and Scott offered me a bunch of gigs, the first of which was on (yes, you guessed it) 2/25/17.

As that date approached, I was clearing my schedule as Mariana’s condition worsened. But I was so looking forward to my Winter’s debut, and they were wonderfully kind about letting me make a last-minute decision. They had someone lined to take my place if I felt unable to make it.

Waking up early in the morning of February 25, I looked across the room at Mariana in her bed, and, based on her stillness, my suspicions were true: she had come to the end of her journey. I’ll spare the details, but it was a surreal (but inevitable) end to a journey of my own. And also for the journeys of our boys Charlie and Luke. We said our goodbyes and let the new reality sink in as best as we were able.

Some time that afternoon, I realized that I needed to decide about the Winter’s gig. I reflected on the questions that arose: Should I stay home and be with Luke, Charlie and close friends and family? Or, if I chose to play the gig, would it be disrespectful of Mariana’s memory so soon after her passing? And would I be able to focus (and stay awake) after this long, stressful and exhausting day?

I decided to go for it: the bandstand has long been a sanctuary for me, and the chance to make music with some of my favorite players (Andy Baker, Larry Kohut and Phil Gratteau) beckoned with the possibility of taking my mind off of what had just occurred. I’m glad that I did: making a joyful noise surrounded by friends, family and random music-lovers was a balm for my soul. That, plus a couple of cocktails.

From my extremely unreliable perspective (I recall feeling like I had dropped some LSD), the music felt much like it would have on any other night. Perhaps a bit more heartfelt. I keep meaning to find an opportune moment to ask Andy, Larry or Phil how they recall that evening. 

Is there a moral to this story? I don’t know. Maybe it’s to trust your instincts. And let the chips fall where they may.