Monday, May 25, 2015

The House I Live In

I’ve written several pieces over the years about Memorial Day, a day of remembrance of the men and women who have given their very lives to preserve the democracy envisioned by our founding forefathers.  Too often we take this day for granted and I have a visceral abhorrence of making this day one of “Memorial Day sales.” 
Although my father did not die when he fought in WW II, he reluctantly talked about buddies who did.  I cannot help but think of him on this day and Veterans Day, just an average “Joe” who found himself in the maelstrom of the times, and did his best transitioning from a civilian to becoming a member of the armed forces, stationed in Europe until he returned home in 1945.

Those were different times from the shadow wars of terrorism we live with today..  The entire nation was drawn into the war.  Hollywood films of those years walked the fine line between propaganda and the literal truth.  I find myself drawn to them on Turner Classic Movies this weekend, just to get a sense of what my father and millions of men and women like him had to endure.  And what it was like on the home front.  I vaguely remember the days when my father was gone.  My great-grandmother would take me in my stroller to Jamaica Avenue to buy groceries.  There were no shopping malls, mega-stores.  Those were neighborhood stores and everyone knew your name.  My mother lived with her parents and her grandmother, waiting for the safe return of my father.  I don’t remember that day, but somehow I felt his absence.

I’ve taken many photographs of our flag over the years, having a 25 foot high flagpole in our own courtyard.  After 20 years the pulley wheel on top froze and I was no longer able to raise our flag.  The flagpole is too high for a ladder and I had to bring in a bucket truck to replace the pulley, this time with a revolving one so the flag can move more easily with the wind.  Coincidentally only days after repairing the flag pole there was a full moon.  I took this photograph, hoping to post it today.

One of the movies made during the war was a 10 minute short, “The House I Live In” staring Frank Sinatra in which he sings the song of the same title.  It encapsulates those times and it is not a song one hears very often.  I made a home piano recording of it trying out a new recording device, the TASCAM DR-05, a step up from the one I’ve used before, but complicated to use.  Therefore, it is a work in progress.  Nonetheless I post it here, and the words to the song follow.

Let us remember.

What is America to me?

A name, a map, or a flag I see?

A certain word, "democracy"?

What is America to me?

The house I live in, a plot of earth, a street

The grocer and the butcher, and the people that I meet

The children in the playground, the faces that I see

All races and religions, that's America to me

The place I work in, the worker by my side

The little town or city where my people lived and died

The "howdy" and the handshake, the air of feeling free

And the right to speak my mind out, that's America to me

The things I see about me, the big things and the small

The little corner newsstand and the house a mile tall

The wedding in the churchyard, the laughter and the tears

The dream that's been a-growin' for a hundred and fifty years

The town I live in, the street, the house, the room

The pavement of the city, or a garden all in bloom

The church, the school, the clubhouse, the millions lights I see

But especially the people

That's America to me

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Lady Day Sings and Laments at Dramaworks

The Dramaworks season has ended but on a sad and powerfully striking note.  You’re not in West Palm Beach, but at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in Philly in 1959, a kind of seedy place, emblematic of the tail end of Billie Holiday’s life.  A lonely table is in front of the bar, her audience disappearing, along with her cabaret license consigning her to gigs outside of some of the famous places and large audiences she commanded in her past.  This gig is at Dramaworks, the stage having been transformed into this south side Philly night club, the “small house” side of the club, where the locals perform, not the main stage.  Satellite lights hang over the stage as well as the first few rows of the audience while red velour padded walls float behind the performers.  Perhaps “Mad Men “came here when in Philly on business, downing a few during those late night performances.   Dramaworks has created the perfect time machine and the only thing missing from the ambiance of this place are the cocktail waitresses serving the audience and cigarette smoke heavily hanging in the air.

But we’ve come here to see Billie Holiday, or more precisely a dramatic impression of her, not an impersonation.  Tracey Conyer Lee channels Billie’s story, pain, and songs during this 80 minute, intermissionless performance.  She is an experienced actress, not a cabaret singer, although one would not know that from this evocative portrayal.  She is true to a remark once made by Billie herself: “If you copy, it means you're working without any real feeling. No two people on earth are alike, and it's got to be that way in music or it isn't music.”  During this performance we are convinced it is Billie mournfully singing to us, truthfully talking to us. She follows what Billie says in the play: “I’ve got to sing what I feel.”

Tracey Conyer Lee’s ability to pull off a legitimate gig must be credited in part to her highly experienced and extraordinarily talented piano accompanist, Brian P. Whitted who also plays the role of Billie’s manager, Jimmy Powers.  He is the musical director of the show, and is ably assisted by Phil McArthur on the bass.   There is the easy give and take between Billie and Jimmy on stage – mostly by eye contact, so typical of the cabaret scene and perhaps more typical of Billie’s routine at the end of her life.  She needed to connect on all levels.

The playwright, Lanie Robertson, opens Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill with a typical cabaret intro, a jazz piece played just by Whitted (Jimmie Powers) and McArthur before Powers introduces Billie.  You immediately know you are in the hands of a great jazz pianist and accompanist.  Once introduced, Billy sings a couple of straight up pieces before beginning to tell her story, addressing the audience, looking back at Powers from time to time, looking for his approbation as well.  Once she begins her story between songs, she strolls over to the bar for a drink, or two, then more, until the show, her songs and conversation become darker, a little more rambling, when suddenly she desperately needs to take a break  backstage, Powers covering for her with another solo.  When she finally reappears, her left elbow length glove is rolled down, bruises and track marks visible.

At this point she dons her trademark gardenia, but she is now out of control, her songs disjointed, her accompanists trying to follow and fill in.  It is simply a bravura performance by Tracey Conyer Lee, holding the audience spellbound.  Yet at all times she manages to convey a dignity that comes from true art.  As she says repeatedly in the show, even as she self destructs on stage, “singing is living to me.”  And then summing up her life as a singer, “but they won’t let me.”  

There are 14 songs in the show, with the dirge like “Strange Fruit” commanding a hushed sadness.  Her iconic “God Bless the Child” is included, as well as one of my favorites – one I play on the piano with some frequency – “Don’t Explain,” for which she wrote the music. (“God Bless the Child” was also written by her but “Strange Fruit” was not although she adopted it as her own – one does not think of the song without thinking of Billie Holiday.)  But many of the songs are ones I’ve rarely heard her sing, such as “Crazy He Calls Me” which in part she sings, very appropriately, to Powers.  She gives a tribute to Bessie Smith singing “Pig Foot (And a Bottle of Beer).”  And believe me, Tracy Conyer Lee belts it out!

Small ensemble plays like this might seem simple to put together, especially with its reliance on primarily one character.  But as J. Barry Lewis, Dramaworks experienced director explained, to pull off an evening like this requires a subtle “emotional layering” from the main character which is an extremely challenging job.  Each element, the movements, the lighting, the stage design have to be just about perfect to make the play transparent, becoming a night back in the 1950s, one in which Billie Holiday reconciles herself to the consequences of both victimization and poor choices in her personal life.  Jim Crow laws impacted her ability to perform in the south.  And then there were her own personal tragedies, being raped as a child of 10, obsessed with her first husband, Jimmy Monroe, known as “Sonny” (sometimes addressing Powers as “Sonny” as the play devolves) who turned her on to heroin early in her career.  After doing a year of jail time and losing her cabaret license, she was exiled from the big city night clubs, and ultimately consigned to gigs at out of the way places. As she says in the play, “I used to tell everybody when I die I don't care if I go to Heaven or Hell long's it ain't in Philly.” 

We see her  grateful to be performing anywhere, just months before the end of her life, standing there in her trademark white dress, a vision designed and created by Leslye Menshouse, with  her signature gardenia, a light in the darkest days of her life.  Particularly painful is when she laments about always wanting to have a little home, children, and to experience the simple joys of cooking.  At the heart of it all she is an artist and the Dramaworks team captures the moment.

Mr. Lewis is assisted by the rest of his able team of technicians.  The lighting design by Kirk Bookman is especially important in this play, a spotlight on Lady Day as she sings, stage lighting changing colors to suit the song such as dappled blue when she sings the iconic “God Bless the Child.” His focus spot on her and then diminishing in size to her face and then fade out at the end, the level of her voice in sync, is the perfect ending.  The scenic design by Jeff Cowie captures that late 50’s lounge feeling inside a large oval construct and the sound design by Richard Szczublewski completes the illusion.

As Billie once commented, “There's no damn business like show business - you have to smile to keep from throwing up.”  However, this is one performance not to be missed, a fitting end to Dramaworks’ season.  The person sitting next to me said she saw the recent NYC production of the play with Audra McDonald and Dramaworks exceeded that production in every respect.  I believe it.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Thursday Morning “Scouting Report”

Last night there was lots of hubbub at the Class A+ ballgame in Jupiter, the Hammerheads playing the Charlotte Stone Crabs, as Christian Yelich from the Miami Marlins who’s been on their DL was making a rehab appearance.  As an established major league player he drew much attention, some of the crowd not remembering he played for the Hammerheads only a few years.  When I saw him as a minor leaguer one could see the potential.  He reminded me of Jacoby Ellsbury, then with the Red Sox and now with the Yankees.  He has that lanky look, a quick left-handed bat, and speed around the bases.  He went 2 for 4 in the Hammerheads 3-2 loss to the Crabs, a double and a single – stealing 2nd base and going around to 3rd on a throwing error.  He flew.  I guess he’s ready to go off the DL

A couple of other interesting items  The Hammerheads started a lefty, Alex Burgos who seemed to have ordinary stuff, went three innings, gave up four hits but no runs and had no BB or SOs.  What I found interesting is that he was born in Regensburg, Germany, a beautiful city that we’ve been to on the Rhine. (Not many BB players can claim that distinction.) He played his college baseball here in Florida though. He’s knocked around the minors for five years now, and he’s going to have to develop some finesse pitches with pinpoint placement to make up for his lack of an overpowering fast ball.
On the other side of the coin, Esmerling De La Rosa, the losing pitcher (gave up one run in two innings, but with two SOs), was bringing heat at 95 mph, and although he has had control issues in the minors, he seems to be improving.  It helps to be able to throw in the mid 90s.  So, who knows, maybe one of these guys will make it to the majors, but there is work to be done!

I should add that Buddy Borden, who pitched for the Crabs (Tampa Bay affiliate), threw like a mature pitcher although only 23 years old, fast ball in the low 90s, a good curve ball, moving the ball around.  He gave up one run in five innings and thus far this year has shown great control with only 5 walks and 21 strikeouts in 21 innings.  Looks like Tampa might have a future starter.

Beautiful night last night for BB!


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How “Terribly Strange” To Be 70

The always erudite investment manager, Bill Gross, has turned the Big Seven Zero.  As he now observes in his recent missive, A Sense of an Ending, “a 70-year-old reads the obituaries with a self-awareness as opposed to an item of interest.”  He conflates his own end of life angst with the end of a market propped up by unsustainable central bank machinations.  He also cites Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending, which similarly caught my attention, perhaps because Bill and I are about the same age, although I reached the magic 70 mark a couple of years ago, sharing the occasion with my family on a cruise.

Barnes should be the spokesperson for our generation with his non-fiction work Nothing to be Frightened Of required reading.  I’ve already quoted one of the brilliant passages from that book in a previous entry, but it bears repeating: “It is not just pit-gazing that is hard work, but life-grazing.  It is difficult for us to contemplate, fixedly, the possibility, let alone the certainty, that life is a matter of cosmic hazard, its fundamental purpose mere self-perpetuation, that it unfolds in emptiness, that our planet will one day drift in frozen silence, and that the human species, as it has developed in all its frenzied and over-engineered complexity will completely disappear and not be missed, because there is nobody and nothing out there to miss us.  This is what growing up means.  And it is a frightening prospect for a race which has for so long relied upon its own invented gods for explanation and consolation.”

I’ve now had a couple of years to “look back” at the consequences of turning 70.  While philosophically I agree with Barnes, it is the avoidance of despair during the remaining years which is the challenge.  It’s probably why us herd of the retired “keep busy.”  But as much as we try not to think about it, for many of us turning 70 is like throwing on a light switch (or maybe, more aptly, turning it off).  Suddenly, the body rebels at being kept going beyond its normal shelf expiration date.  More parts wear out and medical technology is more than happy to figure out a way to keep us going.  As a friend of ours puts it, “I have body parts on order.”

Unquestionably the worst part of the whole process is watching friends battle unspeakable illnesses or going through invasive surgery to keep the body going, with the attendant weeks or even months of rehabilitation.  As we all joke, it’s better than the alternative. Hey, we're on the right side of the grass!  But with increasing frequency we hear about another friend, a relative, or a high school / college alumnus who has succumbed to the inevitable.

As readers of this blog know, one of the activities I’ve steeped myself in since retiring (and therefore, “keeping busy”) is playing the piano, mostly The Great American Songbook pieces.  I recently came across -- buried in my sheet music – some of the music of Paul Simon written in the 1960s.  During those days, that was the type of music I played, but have long abandoned.  So I found myself playing some again, particularly Old Friends which opens with two beautiful Major 7th chords, A-major-7 (“Old”) and then E-Major-7 (“friends”).

I’m a "serial piano player" and once I attach myself to a song, I play it over and over again, trying different adaptations.  My mind wanders sometimes and, in the case of this song, remembering my thoughts of the lyrics when I used to play it nearly 50 years ago. Today they have a significance quite different than when I was younger, particularly the phrase from the B section of the song, “Can you imagine us/Years from today/Sharing a park bench quietly?/How terribly strange/To be seventy/Old Friends “

The true meaning of lyrics when I played the song back in the 1960s seemed foreign, unthinkable.  My being 70 at the time seemed to be in a one-to-one relationship with eternity.  Eternity has arrived.

So, Bill, welcome to the club!
Fifty Years in a Flash