Dynamic Duos

A few years ago, it was my pleasure to cross paths with Jonathon Horowich. He was the Recording Engineer on a project for which I played the piano. Since then, I’ve learned that Jon has quite a collection of exotic microphones, and he likes to use them to record onto reel-to-reel tape. As such, he asked me to put together some duos for to document, and here are the results. We recorded three sessions that featured some of my very favorite Chicago-based performers: vocalist Dee Alexander, sax player Eric Schneider and harmonica player Howard Levy. It was my honor to share the studio with each of these inspiring people, and I hope that you enjoy the results. Thanks, Jonathon.

Dee Alexander/JK

Eric Schneider/JK

Howard Levy/JK

Twas The Season

The phenomenon of Snapchat was recently explained to me, and it got me to thinking: Wouldn’t it be great if you could make yourself disappear from a situation after ten seconds if seemed like something wasn’t quite right? Don’t get me wrong; I’m in the Music business and I love¬†everyone,¬†but I recently played for a party that eventually started to mess with my emotional equilibrium. It will be therapeutic for me to explain:

I got an email from a woman saying that her boss was having a Christmas party at his house, and would I be able to play the piano for it? I was indeed available, so I booked the gig; it was on the Saturday before Christmas, from 10 am to 1 pm. I’ve had long stints in both New York and Chicago, and have had the chance to play in some astoundingly opulent homes and neighborhoods, but this kind of took me by surprise because I thought I knew most of Chicagoland’s moneyed areas. This was in a suburb (but not on the North Shore) that featured several blocks of truly gorgeous old mansions.

Pulling into the client’s driveway at around 9:40, I was met at the front door by a Rich Guy straight out of Central Casting. He identified himself as the host, and pleasantly explained that the party was for his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren, who would soon be travelling to be with the daughter-in-law’s family back East, so this was to be their family’s Early Christmas celebration. There would be seven people gathered for this event. It was pleasant enough, I guess. He showed me the piano, which was shoved into the corner of his huge Living Room so that I could barely squeeze in, and had to play the gig with crocodile arms. He also pointed back towards the kitchen, telling me “That’s where you’ll go if you need a glass of water or to go to the loo.” Nice to have something to look forward to.

At around 9:50, I heard a woman coming down the stairs, saying “Is that my boy?” in a cheery and hopeful voice. Seeing that I was definitely NOT her boy, her smile vanished, and she said, “I don’t know what I could have been thinking. He’s never showed up on time to anything in his whole life.”

At around 9:55, a man showed up with an armload of gifts. He was by himself. And, judging by his impeccable presentation and a few of his mannerisms, my guess was that he was gay. This would perhaps be a reason why the host had not seen fit to include him in his description of the guest list. Just a guess.

I launched into my mega-medley of Holiday Favorites at precisely 10:00, crammed into my little corner of this unfolding saga of Rich Folks and Their Habitat. The favored son showed up and around 10:20 with his wife and children in tow, and there was much celebration. Well, correction: I assumed there was much celebration, because the family quickly went into another room. They would, in fact, go into several rooms during the time that I played for them. But, at no time did they ever sit in the room where I was playing. I could never even see them. Oh, I take that back: I was able to see half of the Grande Dame for a few minutes, but only if I leaned waaay over on my seat. And I saw one of the children wander through my lonely living room later on.

After I had dutifully provided a solid ninety minutes of vacuum-sealed Yuletide Cheer, I decided that it was time to indulge myself in the promised glass of water and trip to the loo. It was then that I encountered a servant who very graciously offered me a cookie. While nibbling on my treat in the kitchen, the Lady of the House walked in: I was afraid that I was going to get chastised for overstepping my “loo/glass of water” parameters, but instead she asked if I had eaten anything besides the cookie. Upon learning that I hadn’t, she instructed the servant to “Prepare this gentleman a hamburger.” Whoa! Jackpot!

I relished my hamburger (get it? Relished?) and then went back to assume my Position of Merry Music-Making. At about 12:45, the Master of the House came up to me and said “Thank you very much.” I thanked him for the hamburger and said that I hoped that he had enjoyed my Sonic Offerings. “Yes”, he said, “Thank you very much.” I suddenly realized that “Thank you very much” means “Please stop what you are doing immediately and get out of my house” in Rich-People-ese. So that’s what I did.

A few days later, I followed up with an email to the woman who’d hired me, saying that I hoped that her boss had been pleased with my humble Musicale. “Yes”, she replied, “They were satisfied.”

Thinking about this gig made me a little sad, and I figured it out after doing some thinking: Despite the opulence of the setting, the Human-ness on display that morning was about the size of a rabbit turd. It doesn’t have to be that way.

My Mom Was A Marcher

MOMPICThis is a recently-discovered letter that my Mom wrote, describing her decision to march (along with my aunt) alongside Dr. King in Montogomery, Alabama. I was around six years old when this all went down, and really have no memory of it. Reading this gives me a clear snapshot of a whole other era, and makes me very proud of these women.

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Dear Rose,

You asked me to write about our impressions in Montgomery so I will jot them down, not in any journalese, but just as they pop into my mind. We both feel that this was a very small thing, quite personal and a matter of our consciences and ourselves. Since neither of us is a professional anything and unused to sharing feelings with a subscription list, we prefer that whatever parts of this you wish to use, you use without our names. I don’t think that it will diminish its usefulness to you.

The decision to to go on such a march is easy for some. I envy those for whom such a decision is simple and clear. For us it was difficult and painful. We wrestled with our separate angels and spent a few sleepless nights doing it. I wonder, now that we’ve marched and returned–and it seems so simple now–why all the problems. Was it really fear of possible injury or even death–a plane crash, a bomb tossed, a sniper’s shot (we found ourselves scanning the buildings along the Montgomery main street for a possible Lee Oswald)? Or was it a feeling of inadequacy or even, of all things, intrusion? Perhaps, even a reluctance to stand up and be counted, and to put all of our cards on the table for all to see. Or, was it that this was a little removed from our daily lives–it wasn’t a League of Women Voters meeting to which “all the girls are going.”

Here were two, almost-forty suburban housewives whose daily occupation focused on whether it will be chicken or hamburgers for dinner. We play tennis, go to dancing classes, dabble in a few civic activities. We do not belong to CORE, SNCC, NAACP and we don’t even know the words to the freedom songs. We aren’t leaders, or even followers of the movement in our own backyard; and yet we spent a sleepless night when the UAHC bus left for Selma and we weren’t on it. Maybe it was giant chutzpah or, we prefer to believe, social consciousness pecking through our own conformity, or fear. Whatever it was, when the bus left for Selma we both knew that we’d be on the plane going to Montgomery that same week.

From then on it was easy. A few inquiries, and plane seats were reserved. A few phone calls, some of which we wish we hadn’t made (the friend who said, “They don’t want you, they don’t need you and you might get killed”) and some phone calls we glad we made–the Catholic friend who told us that we have nothing to fear because God will be with us on this mission, and she will pray for us. And we took comfort knowing that her prayers were with us.

We arrived at the airport by 7:00 in the morning. People were talking about whether or not we’d have mud in Montgomery. We did not see any beatnik types. We saw a couple of Highland Park housewives, one of whom said, “I didn’t think I’d see YOU here…” We must remember to return the compliment next time we bump into her at a PTA meeting or Saks Fifth Avenue.

We were delayed in taking off by a bomb scare which I had expected, and to which nobody paid any particular notice. We boarded the plane, and Alderman Chew, who had chartered the flight, asked if someone would volunteer to relinquish his place on the plane for a member of the press. Someone did. “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Off the plane at the Montgomery airport and onto waiting buses to take us to what we thought would be the assembling ground. Our bomb scare had cost us an hour, however, and we drove past St. Jude’s, and down the Montgomery highway where I caught a glimpse of a sign saying, “Get the United States out of the United Nations.” Sitting on the bus near us was a minister with a wonderful, serene expression on his face, an expression we noticed on most of the clergy; a woman in a handsome black suit wearing white gloves which she wore during the march. (She told me later that her grandmother in Tuscaloosa used to tell her that a lady isn’t really “dressed” if she’s not wearing white gloves); some college-age people; some men looking as if they were being driven to the 8:08.

We got off the buses in the Negro neighborhood and caught up with the rest of the marchers, assembled in rows of eight abreast, and were told that men must be on the outside of the line. All along the streets we saw the National Guardsmen, and above, the helicopters.

And so the march began. There was little singing. Each one of us seemed to be sifting many thoughts and feelings at the moment and were too preoccupied, really, for singing. Through the Negro section we went, and when the people on the sidewalks waved, we waved back, a little self-consciously, since neither of us had ever even marched in the Highland Park Fourth of July parade as Den Mothers.

The Negro community sent non-verbal messages to us all along the way. I think at that moment I was finally comfortable in the march. I had two nuns from Barat College on my right; a lay leader from St. Louis on my left; our lady with the white gloves behind me; and “friends” lining the sidewalks waving. It wasn’t me or you or we or they anymore. It was us. and I felt it.

Then through the white neighborhoods. No waving. No smiles. Here were people whose world is crumbling and they are scared to death. My minister on the outside of the line said that in that group there were many people who would be willing to “cross over” but they needed every bit of moral support they could get. And, he added, that’s why we’re here. One white American Gothic type did wave and smile and we were sure she’d be stoned that night.

Out of the poor white neighborhood and onto the broad, heavily patrolled main street of the downtown section. The parade’s marshals, still stationed at intervals along the line had small signs in their hands, which read “keep smiling”, and we did. Along the street were faces I had seen before in newspapers or on television, hostile faces, ignorant faces. There was a group of business school students jammed into a second floor room overlooking the street. Seventeen and eighteen year old kids filled with hate. A knot of fat, bleached-blond women standing on the street corner laughing hysterically as they pointed to the clergy and screamed, “there’s one…and there’s one…and there’s a black one…and there’s a white one.”

We reached a crest of a hill along the route, and finally saw the mass of marchers. Finally we stopped and there was the state capitol, with its flags flying (Confederate and Alabama). We heard the speeches, sang the songs–The Star Spangled Banner and the words, “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” sent a tingle up the back of my neck which I had never felt before…and “We Shall Overcome”, which I’d never sung before.

We were thirsty, but were afraid of going into a gas station with a tantalizing Coke machine. We were told by a group nearby that “they were looking for trouble.” We thought of taking a cab back to the airport, but were afraid and decided to go with the group on the buses which were two hours late in coming, thanks to the “splendid” cooperation of the City of Montgomery.

Finally back to the airport. Lots of people waiting line for the phones, the bathroom, the restaurant. Dr. King came in with a group around him and I was surprised to see that he is small in stature. A Negro took a drink of water at the fountain and said to those of us in a nearby telephone line that “these integrated drinking fountains aren’t what they’re cracked up to be-the water is grey.” I remembered only then that the last time I had been in a Southern airport I saw for the first time and the last time the “colored” and “white” signs.

Let me sum up. I see I’ve rambled longer than I thought I would. We were gone for 24 hours. We left Highland Park at 5:45 on Thursday morning and pulled into Highland Park on 5:45 on Friday morning. We had been witnesses to a moment in history. We acted according to our consciences, whose still, small voices finally got through to us. We had made a decision to do something which some of our friends and families thought either odd-ball, foolish or brave.

When we pulled into Highland Park we didn’t feel odd-ball, foolish or brave at all. We gave up one 24-hour period, $80 and one night’s sleep. This was in the “out” basket. Into the “in” basket flowed more love and brotherhood and devotion than we had ever in our lives witnessed. We gave very little and received much.

Spitting Image

A couple of fellow ten year-olds and I were coming home from school one afternoon in 1968 when we spontaneously decided to see who could spit the furthest, in a kind of round-robin tournament as we walked. A car drove past us and then pulled over to the curb. A guy got out and stood on the sidewalk, waiting for us as we approached. He was in his twenties, and he was black. As we nervously got within a few feet of him, we could see that he was upset, but maintaining his composure. “A lot of things that used to be funny aren’t funny any more”, he told us. At first, we briefly (and feebly) tried to explain that our spitting contest had been misinterpreted by him, but we quickly just offered our regrets and all parties continued with their day. I have never forgotten that encounter, and I suspect that Chris Conroy and Larry Ponsi never forgot it either.

Thanks, Dr. Martin Luther King. You did your level best to show that a few carefully chosen words can have as great an impact as actions dictated by blind rage.

Not That You Asked…..

Here’s what I have decided:

If I am going to enjoy an artist’s work, it is essential that they be good at what they do. Seems obvious, yes? But, to elaborate, I really want to be able to detect a certain amount of craftsmanship. I want to know that this person makes the requisite commitment and sacrifice to the constant development and refinement of the ability to cleanly display ideas. It’s not enough to try and win me over with the weight of your Life’s Experiences or the charm of your Winning Personality.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for the proliferation of Technobots; I’m equally turned off by those who place a disproportionate amount of effort into the development of technique at the expense of their humanity. I find that to be tremendously boring and unrewarding when presented with stuff that is one-dimensional in that way.

Call me a Centrist if you like, but my sweet spot lies somewhere between those extremes: I want to hear your voice and your ideas executed in a way that shows that you put some time into the ability to do so. I like to be made to feel that you are both an artist and an artisan.