Saturday, May 29, 2010

And all that Jazz!

I recently spent a week in steamy New Orleans with a dear friend; my first visit. We lucked out in having the room we booked at a very posh hotel be turned into a suite by some Hotel Fairy Godmother. I am going to have to send a dozen roses to my travel agent who did the booking.

We did the usual tourist things: the French Quarter, the Garden District, and so on, but what really turned us on was three nights of New Orleans jazz.

The first night we went to Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse on Bourbon Street. Irvin himself was performing with his combo that night and they were amazing. I haven't heard Dixieland Jazz like that since the 50's in New York City, when we used to go down to Nick's in the Village to hear Phil Napoleon and his Dixieland Band. Once, when we were there, someone slipped Phil a dollar or two to play 'Happy Birthday' to me in 'Two-Beat style'. I think I must have been 21. A highlight of my ill-spent youth!

Irvin is an exceptional trumpeter with an amazing technique and a vivid imagination. He made the horn sing, talk, weep and laugh. He also sang a couple of numbers very well. The trombonist was also excellent and sang, too, as did the pianist. Actually, there were two pianists. The first one had a brilliant technique and could handle anything Irvin threw at him. The second pianist was a younger man who could really play 'Stride Piano'. The bass and drums were also top notch. This was the real McCoy. From time to time Irvin would lift his glass (of water) and ask us all to make a toast: 'Jazz is back on Bourbon Street'. At the end he also toasted many of the Jazz greats who had gone before him. He is quite a guy!

The opening act was a female singer who sang with the mike between her teeth. You couldn't understand a word she sang and the voice was definitely C-. Where do these people come from?

The next night we went to hear jazz at the Ritz Hotel. Well, that was another story. It was afternoon tea time and the music was too loud to talk through (although most of the people were talking, unlike the night before at the Jazz Playhouse) and it was not good enough for people not to talk while pretending to listen. This was not authentic jazz. One couple actually got up and danced a kind of Fox Trot. Again, a trumpeter, but a mush-mouthed one, who sang in staccato snippets in a nasal whiney voice. The rest of the ensemble should have stayed at home. We left at the first break.

Then, the third night, we went back to Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse to hear Leon 'Kid Chocolate' Brown. He is a very good trumpeter, but was not up to Irvin. His ensemble was good but not great. But they made the bunch at the Ritz look like amateurs!The opening act was also a stride piano player who was great. Some woman in the audience, who had probably been drinking since about 8:00 a.m., kept trying to sing along with him in a raucous voice. Mama mia!!! She went up to him afterwards and bugged the hell out of him, as far as I could tell. He was talking on his cell the whole time.

It was fascinating to hear these three groups on three consecutive nights and find how differently Dixieland Jazz is performed in the city of it's birth. It certainly runs the gamut. I think we were spoiled the first night by the sensational Irvin Mayfield. He is a hard act to follow. He has won several Grammys.

Bourbon Street, where the Jazz Playhouse is located, is a Zoo! From every bar comes the sound of jazz, or faux jazz, amplified to the pain threshold. Ear plugs are in order when walking down the street. You may also get hit by the semi-naked woman on the swing, who sails in and out of a window from one of the clubs. This kind of jazz has nothing to do with what I learned to love in the 50's.

But Irvin and Kid Chocolate are keeping the tradition alive. I loved it!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Blue Roses are in bloom

On a wet afternoon in New York City I was transported on wings of music to the city of St. Louis of years gone by, and to the home of the Winfield Family. The wings were provided by my dear friend Nancy Ford who composed the sensitive, evocative score for her transformation of Tennessee Williams's great play The Glass Menagerie into a piece of extraordinary musical theatre. In this form it has become Blue Roses. For those of you familiar with the play, 'Blue Roses' is what Jim, the gentleman caller, called Laura, the lame, pathetic daughter of the family, when they were in school together. She had been out of school, sick with Pleurosis, and when he asked what had been the problem, he thought she replied Blue Roses. So that's what he called her from then on. Nancy's beautiful score intensifies the wonder of Williams's play, and the libretto of Mimi Turque amplifies the original dialogue, much of which is retained in this production.

An excellent, all-Equity cast, portrayed the four characters admirably in this reading of the work at Chelsea Studios. Anita Gillette was Amanda to the teeth! The aging southern belle brought low by circumstance. She sang with a lovely voice that could become harsh when necessary. She became the role. I told her afterwards that while even I am not quite old enough to have seen Laurette Taylor in the premiere of the play, I did see Helen Hayes in a revival in the 50's, and that she was a match for them. A beautiful reading.

Tom was portrayed by Jason Danieley, a handsome intense young actor who brought all the sense of Tom's frustration to bear on the role. He has a splendid singing voice and used it very well. He also impressed me with his silent participation in the drama when he was seated at one side of the stage, theoretically uninvolved in the action. He was as involved as if he had had lines to speak. It was fascinating to watch varying emotions cross his face as the other characters spoke.

Jim, the gentleman caller, who had labeled Laura as 'Blue Roses' years before, was sung and acted by the excellent Edwin Cahill. He was the overly enthusiastic ex-high school jock who had also sung in school productions. Laura had been secretly in love with him all these years. Of course, it turns out that he is already engaged to Betty, thwarting Amanda's hopes for a husband for Laura. When he breaks the horn off Laura's glass unicorn, part of her glass menagerie, he is touchingly sympathetic. He sweetly kisses her.

Laura was Piper Goodeve, who had all the shyness and embarrassment needed for this pathetic woman. She has a sweet singing voice, but needs to learn how to project low, soft sounds. (Here speaks the voice teacher.) She was appropriately brave when she learns that Jim is engaged to be married to another woman.

I feel a personal connection to the work having produced and directed the play years ago in Red Bank, NJ with an exceptional amateur cast.

The excellent music director and pianist was Jamie Schmidt, aided and abetted by the 'cellist, Summer Boggess. The reader, who kept the audience up to date on the stage directions was Adam Gerber and the stage manager was Norman Meranus.

I had heard much of the music from this show a few years ago when Nancy was studying voice with me in my New York studio. It was a treat to hear the finished product so beautifully presented.

Theatrical backers take notice! This is going to be a winner. Run, do not walk, to the nearest phone and give Nancy and Mimi a call!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Why I'm GLAD

This post is not about music. It's about life. Read it if you wish.

One of the most exciting and important things I have done with my life began in November of 2008. I was asked to become a plaintiff in the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders' lawsuit against DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed in Congress in 1996.

When my life partner, and legal spouse, John Ferris died in 2008, I became an activist for the first time in my life in some cause besides music. I felt it was necessary at age 78 to take a stand for future generations of gay people to state that DOMA is unfair, unequal, and, I think, unconstitutional.

Same sex married couples are denied over one thousand Federal benefits that other married couple have without thinking. The Federal government has never interfered with State laws concerning marriage until this time. Some states forbade marriage between persons of different races. The Feds did nothing. Some states had laws about the legal age for marriage that differed from state to state. The Feds did nothing. Some states had laws about consanguinity in marriage. The Feds did nothing.

But when it was thought that Hawaii was going to pass a law permitting same sex marriage, the Feds got busy and passed DOMA. 'Marriage is only defined as between a man and a woman'. Period. Gays keep out!

Well, the Hawaiians never did pass that law. It was Massachusetts, in 2004, that was the first state to pass a same sex marriage law. John and I took advantage of it after what we called 'our 55 year engagement'.

After John's death, I discovered that I was not eligible to receive his Social Security benefit, which was higher than mine, or the death benefit that any other married couple expects without question.

That is only one of the many Federal benefits that GLAD is trying to equalize. I have always thought that 'All men (and women) are created equal' included me. I found out, that as far as the Feds were concerned, I was apparently created very un-equal! At that moment I decided to do something about it.

My participation in this suit, along with my wonderful co-plaintiffs, is one of the proudest things I have done with my life. Our legal staff, led by the indomitable Mary Bonauto, has done a magnificent job of bringing our cause to Federal Court on May 6th of this year. I was proud to be in the courtroom with my friends from GLAD. I hope that it will bear fruit for the generations of young gay people who come along, long after I have gone to whatever reward there may be.