Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Yogi Berra On Jazz

Interviewer: Can you explain jazz? 

Yogi Berra: I can't, but I will. 90% of all jazz is half improvisation. The other half is the part people play while others are playing something they never played with anyone who played that part. So if you play the wrong part, its right. If you play the right part, it might be right if you play it wrong enough. But if you play it too right, it's wrong.

Interviewer: I don't understand. 

Yogi Berra: Anyone who understands jazz knows that you can't understand it. It's too complicated. That's whats so simple about it.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Memorable Meetings: Justin Bieber

About five or six years ago, I had a summer job playing piano at a restaurant in Atlanta called "The Tasting Room." There were a few nights that summer when a group of teenagers would come in and the staff would whisper that it was hip-hop producer Dallas Austin's son and his friends. On one of those nights, one of the waitresses pointed out the youngest one of the bunch, a blonde haired 13 or 14 year old kid. She told me that he had recently been signed to Def-Jam Records and that he was a great singer and fast becoming a "YouTube sensation".

I found that hard to believe considering how young he looked, and I just continued to play. A few minutes later, I noticed that that kid was standing behind me watching me play. I didn't really think anything of it, especially at the end of the song when he began to ask me questions; they were all very typical questions of a young person who had just begun to play the piano.

However, I was immediately struck by his sensitivity. He was very shy and seemed extremely hesitant to say anything about his own music; in fact, I felt that he seemed a little un-confident and even a bit nervous. However, I remember thinking that those qualities worked in favor of his sincerity, with which he seemed filled. I could tell that he was extremely interested in learning about music; he seemed to also be was very enthusiastic and excited about being at the beginning of his musical journey.

I mentioned nothing of the rumors I'd heard and asked more about him. He told me that he played a little piano ("Just a little," he laughed, pointing at my hands.) and that he also wrote a few songs. After a little coaxing on my part, he finally asked me if I wanted to hear one.

As soon as he began to sing, I realized that my decision to let him play might have been a bad one, and actually by mid-song I began to panic, thinking that it might cost me my job. It's not the he was bad, because he wasn't; however, he wasn't sensitive to the environment (a small restaurant), and he began banging loudly on the piano and literally belting the song as loud as he could.

Everything about it was very "beginner" to me; his piano playing was way too loud to complement his singing and it was obvious to me that he couldn't hear the music well enough yet to know when, or how, to be sensitive in his playing or singing. It was obvious too that he couldn't quite reach some of the notes in his singing that he was aiming for. However, I remember thinking to myself that the song was extremely catchy and I was very impressed with him that he had wrote it; I remember thinking to myself that "this song could actually be a hit." I was right, hah! The song he played for me that night was "Baby". Of course, at the time, I had no way of knowing that the song would become one of the biggest selling songs of all-time; I do remember us laughing when I commented that "there's a lot of 'baby's in that song".

Although he was THE Justin Bieber, he wasn't famous then, and I saw him as I would see most 12/13 year-old beginner piano students. However, I do remember thinking to myself that he did have a lot of charisma, and that after a few years of practicing more, he would be great.

He finished the song and asked me a few questions about it. (I can't quite remember what they were, but I remember showing him some chord voicings.) Then he asked if I'd play something else. I did, and I'll never forget his look of astonishment when I finished. He sort of blushed, and said "Now, I'm embarrassed to have played before you." We laughed and he said something like, "Wow. You can play real music," which, in retrospect, is very interesting to think about when considering where he is now.

I told him that he will too, one day, and was very confident in saying that when I did. I realized that this kid really did have a lot of potential and charisma, and after really getting it together musically, he'd be a complete package.

He came in a few more times that summer and each time he'd come in, he'd always spend a good bit  of time standing behind me watching me play. The job ended at the end of the summer when I had to go back to school, and after that I never saw him again. After a little while, my Dad began bugging me about some kid he'd just read about in the New York Times; he had saved the article for me to read. Finally, I picked it up and was shocked at who I saw: that kid!

Considering the things he said to me and the way he acted on those nights that I saw him, the immediate success of Justin Bieber is a very interesting thing for me to think about; here was a kid who was obviously talented and had great potential -and was recognized for that at a very young age-, but had he been given time (more than 4 months) to really develop as a musician (instead of being capitalized on immediately) he could have really been something phenomenal. Even though he was just a random kid in the restaurant that day, anyone could've seen that he had real potential. It's a shame that he was rushed into stardom the way he was, because he was honestly only at the way beginning of his musical journey, and he knew it. I can only hope that all the money and fame hasn't taken away his sincere, child-like excitement about the musical journey that lay ahead of him, and that his ego hasn't blown up and tricked himself into thinking the journey's finished.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Rest In Peace, Marian McPartland

I was very sad to hear of the passing of the great Marian McPartland yesterday. One of my favorite pianists, a few years ago I wrote her a letter and was shocked when she actually responded. Her long letter was so kind, thoughtful and encouraging, and also full of stories from her life. After telling me about Red Garland, George Shearing, Bill Evans, Frank Sinatra and Dizzy Gillespie, she wrote, "But that's just talking about myself, we don't need too much of that!" How wrong she was; I could've listened all day. A special lady and a huge inspiration to many - she'll be missed!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Meeting Dick Cavett

It was such a thrill to meet the legendary Dick Cavett last night. He was in attendance at the absolutely amazing performance of another legend, Mort Sahl, at the Cafe Carlyle, and was cracking up the whole show. I know of Cavett's close friendship with Groucho Marx and, having read a whole lot about Groucho this past year, I felt like my moment with Cavett was like a page out of one of those books; he was so quick witted and full of hilarious, dry humor. When I asked if we could take a picture together he responded with, "I thought you'd never ask." Then, just after we took the photo, he realized that he'd left his phone inside the cafe and would have to go back in to get it. Having just made a long, elaborate exit from the cafe, he looked at me and said, "You ruined my exit." Finally, after returning with his phone in hand, he looked behind us at the bar that had just closed for the night. "Darn it," he said, snapping his fingers. "I guess I won't get to spend $300 on a drink tonight." Classic!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Rest In Peace, Dave Brubeck

I'm sad to hear of the passing of one of my heroes, the legendary Dave Brubeck. In recent years, when he'd play at the Blue Note but was too frail to walk up the stairs to use the dressing room before he'd play, he'd sit in the passenger's seat of a car that was parked a few doors down from the club until it was time for him to go on. Over the past few years I was very fortunate to have had a few wonderful conversations with him out there. He was always so kind, encouraging and full of enthusiasm. And while it was obvious that he was in pain, he'd always walk into the club with a huge smile on his face, waving and greeting everyone as he walked into the club and on to the stage. He was a huge inspiration to me in so many ways. Above all, keep smiling!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Tony Bennett at the Village Vanguard

The following was originally published on on February 6, 2012. It was published under the "Eyewitness" Section and is my experience about going to hear Barry Harris recently at the Village Vanguard.

"A week ago yesterday I went to see Barry Harris’s second set at New York’s Village Vanguard. He was appearing with bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Leroy Williams.

Whenever I go to the Vanguard, I like to show up early with hopes of getting a seat just behind the piano’s keyboard. The seat lets me see what the pianist is doing, which gives me quite an education. Fortunately, the table I wanted was open.

Shortly after I took my seat, and I looked around and noticed a “reserved” sign on a table in the center of the club to my right. But as people continued to file into the Vanguard, the table remained empty. I kept watching the door to see who might show up. Saxophonist Lee Konitz walked in, but he didn’t sit at that table.

At 10:55, the lights dimmed. I looked back at the door one last time. There was Tony Bennett standing in the doorway at the bottom of the stairs with a woman, who I later learned was his wife, and a few of their friends. They were waiting to be seated. But instead of sitting at the "reserved" table, Tony chose a booth on the other side of the room. As they made their way to their table, most people in the audience whispered but let him have his privacy.

Then Barry, Ray and Leroy took the stage, and the show began. The trio launched into Like Someone In Love, complete with Barry's signature block-chord style. It was reminiscent of Bud Powell’s version on Dexter Gordon's Our Man In Paris. At the end of the song, Barry said, "Everyone wants to feel like someone in love, but sometimes I just want to be happy."

Naturally, they launched into a brisk, hard-swinging version of I Want To Be Happy. On Harris' version of Embraceable You, his choir joined in. The 20 or so singers were seated like audience members on the "upper-deck" booths just off the stage and were a welcome surprise.

Toward the end of the hour and a half set, Barry picked up the microphone and began to tell a story. He said there was a special person in the audience who had been a close friend of his for years. He told of the first time the two played together, when this person had come by a club where he was playing and sat in. Barry said that each time they would meet—whether in New York or Japan—they would perform the same song.

During one of those chance meetings, Barry said, this person happened to be at the Village Vanguard to hear pianist Tommy Flanagan. Coincidentally, Barry was there, too. When Flanagan invited that person on stage, Flanagan asked what he wanted to do. The person yelled out into the audience, “Barry, what key did we do that song in?” “‘F,’ I yelled back,” Barry said, laughing.

Barry then took a deep breath and said, “I want you to know who is in the audience tonight. Ladies and gentleman, Tony Bennett.”

The place, of course, went nuts. When Bennett stood up to be acknowledged, he spent what seemed like a long moment thinking. Then he started to make his way up to the stage. When Bennett arrived at the mike, Barry yelled out, “Barry, what key is that song in?” They both laughed. However, before we could learn the name of the song they had performed regularly over the years, Bennett humbly said, “I liked what you guys did with Embraceable You. Could we do that one?” Barry launched into an elegant eight-bar introduction, during which Bennett said to the choir, “You’ll have to sing with me.”

Barry was the perfect accompanist for Bennett. The same goes for the choir, which sang long "oo's" behind Bennett and sounded like a string section. It was haunting, in a beautiful way. The choir and Bennett's voice all came in right at the same time and blended perfectly.
Bennett’s voice sounded so good and so strong that it was hard to believe that the 50th anniversary of his release of I Left My Heart In San Francisco was the next day.

As Bennett left the stage, Barry talked about how we had all just witnessed a very special moment. “It’s in the air now,” he said, adding, “I’m sure one of you caught it somehow. It’ll probably come out in Japan and we’ll never know about it.”

Then Barry grew serious again: “New York is a finishing school. You get your beginnings somewhere else, and then you come here. That man is a finisher. Tony Bennett is a national treasure.” Amid the roars, claps and hollers that followed, someone in the audience yelled out, “So are you Barry!” and the applause grew even louder.

As Bennett and his wife and friends made their way up the Vanguard stairs during Harris’ encore, I looked around. Everyone’s expression said the same thing: 'Did that really just happen?'"

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Memorable Moments: Bobby Hutcherson

As a volunteer at this year's NEA Jazz Masters Awards, I was fortunate enough to attend a rehearsal of Bobby Hutcherson, Jim Hall and Kenny Barron. As Hutcherson walked into the room (besides introducing himself to Jim Hall!), it was obvious that he was in much pain - he has emphysema and uses oxygen supply -. All that pain seemed to go away as soon as he touched his instrument. It was like magic, like medicine and it was quite inspiring to see not just how much love he has for the music, but how much love the music has for him.

As the rehearsal continued on, others who were at Jazz At Lincoln Center that day popped in the room to hear the music. One of those people was saxophonist Jeff Clayton.

At the end of that specific take on the tune, Clayton said hello to Hutcherson and asked how he was doing. Hutcherson responded in quite a joyful tone. "Well," he said. "I'm doing good!" Then he paused and said, "Life is good, isn't it?"

Clayton nodded, looked down at Hutcherson's oxygen machine and said, "Sometimes."

Hutcherson smiled, and through that that smile he spoke. "No," he said. "It's good."