I’ve Got Mail

The ebb and flow of people in one’s life is always amazing. I have had the great fortune to count among my friends a lot of wonderful jazz people. Our paths cross, then diverge, then cross again somewhere down the line. Often, years intervene. Back in the days when I was enjoying Monday nights at the Vanguard, or any night at Bradley’s (a tiny bar on University Place that hosted the world’s best jazz pianists and was the musicians’ late night hang out), one of my favorite people to hang with was Carol Sloane. Carol is a superb interpeter of a lyric, truly one of the best jazz singers, and sadly underrated. If you are not familiar with her work, get thee to Amazon now! One of my favorites is the 1988 recording Love You Madly, with Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, Akira Tana, Art Farmer and Clifford Jordan. It’s one of Carol’s favorites, too.

Anyway, about the mail. Carol wrote to fill in a few details about Joe Williams’ recording date with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra:

Memories of this record date flood back to me. I was there, as Joe’s guest. He had been singing at The Half Note, and he told me that the date was scheduled for a few hours’ hence. He came to my apartment (35th & Third) and flopped on the sofa for a while. Slept a bit, I think. Then we went uptown for some breakfast and on to the date.

She also questioned my memory of “the plaintive sounds of Bob Brookmeyer’s arrangement of Willow Weep for Me.”

I asked Bob to listen to a recording of Mildred Bailey’s gentle version of a song I liked called “Willow Tree”. He responded to it, and of course, eventually wrote a gorgeous chart. He may also have written one on “Willow Weep For Me”, but I suspect you may have confused the two. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Well, it turns out we are both right. First I looked at my CDs and found that the band had recorded both ‘willow’ songs, but the credits did not list the arrangers. Still in a quandry, I decided to go to the source. I called Brookmeyer, who promptly informed me that he wrote five charts for that fine band: St. Louis Blues, ABC Blues, Samba Con Getchu, Willow Tree, and Willow Weep For Me. He also happened to mention that he is about to launch a new project online with ArtistShare. When he launches, I will let you know, and at that time I will tell you more about the brainstorm that is ArtistShare.

Branding – part two

Well, I was just over at the jazzatwingspread blog reading the comments that have been posted thus far. It seems that one or more people are hot and bothered, and I can understand why. I said that I was a friend of MCG Jazz, and I am. I like the Pittsburgh venue, and applaud the quality of the music they present – both live and on CD. I believe their hearts are in the right place. What worries me is how awfully hard it is to stay clean when you’re playing ball.

One anonymous commenter wrote “The big record companies only look at sales numbers and not in devloping the art. Members of your own panel are guilty of this.” Absolutely true. I took a look at the list of attendees and mentally crossed off several as being high on the list of exploiters, those who I know for a fact have taken advantage of jazz artists.

Another comment, actually a long rant posted by “conscience,” made several good points, one of which is that artists who wish to perform or offer clinics at the IAJE convention have to pay their own way and receive no fee. Having been a jazz publicist for many years, I am all too familiar with the rationale – “it’s good exposure.” Jazz musicians are tired of giving it away, and I don’t blame them.

Conscience also wrote “Branding just sounds like raising the price of jazz – rather than making the music and its infrastructure and universe more inclusive,” and suggested the result would be similar to the pharmaceutical industry where drug prices are so high only because they must cover the cost of advertising.

I am all for raising jazz awareness and increasing revenues, but only if the music makers, the artists themselves, get their fair share. Without them, there is no music.


In 1998, having relocated to sourthern California, I needed new business cards. I could have replicated my old cards that had WRITER in addition to my name and contact information, but I thought it too plain. I needed something that would be descriptive, unusual, and therefore memorable. I consultated with a friend and we came up with a tag line that is still on my cards and letterhead — “Biographies and other expressions of the human condition.” I still use it, not because I think it’s done much for me, but because I don’t have anything better in mind.

Most of us creative types — writers, musicians, painters, and so forth — don’t seem to have the business gene. Oh, some of us are organized, some have learned to schmooze and sell, but real marketing know-how is something one has to study and cultivate. It is an art form all its own. And those creative types who are born with that gene, well they work on Madison Avenue and make the big bucks creating ad campaigns for Aflac, Nike, milk, and California cheese. Perhaps I’d have more business savvy had I completed that MBA degree I started when still in my 20s. But maybe it’s not too late to learn a few of the secrets.

I’ve got my eye on a most interesting happening that will be taking place from Tuesday evening (May 24th) through midday on Thursday (May 26th). A group of the jazz world’s powers-that-be (think Jazz at Lincoln Center, Blue Note Records, Concord Records, BET on Jazz, Jazz at Kennedy Center, Monterey Jazz Festival…) will be meeting together with some management and marketing gurus and a few artists to discuss “how to work together to raise market share for jazz.”

Being a jazzer myself, as well as a close friend of MCG Jazz (one of the conference organizers) I have more than a passing interest in this event. But the truth is that I will be watching closely because I hope to learn something that might be applicable to myself and to others who are close to me.

My peephole into the event is the Jazz at Wingspread blogsite , where I and others will read about the initiatives to be discussed and may post our comments and suggestions. Check it out.

Childrens Stories

I remember that as a child I read Winnie the Pooh, all manner of fairytales, Eloise, Madeline, Stuart Little, and Charlotte’s Web, but the story that stands out most is The Little Engine That Could. I grew up believing that you could do anything if you put your mind to it. I still believe that.

I don’t have any children, but I do have some children’s books on my shelf, mostly a few of my own tattered and scribbled upon childhood tomes that I somehow rescued from the give-it-away or trash piles. The Little Engine That Could was not among them, so a few years ago, for what reason I can no longer recall, I bought a brand new copy from a 1991 printing. The original copyright year is 1930 — that’s what I call a long shelf life.

Even as a child, I loved biographies, but I remember listening to more biographies than I read. I think it was Riverside Records that had a wonderful series of recordings called “A Child’s Introduction to…” Each record was the story of a different composer, narrative tales with sound effects and, of course, music. I knew the life stories of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart as if they were my best friends. The series no longer exists, but I do look for it from time to time, hoping that someone will discover the masters and reissue these aural productions on CD. Meanwhile, I still like Peter and the Wolf along with the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and a few years ago I found some good audio children’s tales, notably Beethoven Lives Upstairs and Mr. Bach Comes to Call.

In the last few years I have bought a few “new” children’s books, all of them about artists of one sort or another. A real favorite of mine is a very creative tale called When Pigasso Met Mootisse, by Nina Laden (Chronicle Books). Hyperion Books for Children have some great biographies — the two on my shelf are Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa, and Alvin Ailey, both by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney. My most recent acquisition is Roxanne Orgill’s If I Only Had a Horn: Young Louis Armstrong with illutrations by Leonard Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin Company).

What’s on your shelf – past or present? What books you remember from your childhood? What are the children you know reading today? Send me an email [devra AT devradowrite.com] and I will compile and post a list.

Inspirations and Goals

Here are a few of my favorite quotations from books about writing, lines I enjoy re-reading because they inspire me to keep writing:

“Art, in essence, celebrates life and gives us our measure.” – Bernard Malamud (First Person Singular: Writers On Their Craft; compiled by Joyce Carol Oates)

“…the creative impulse. It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, you try to show this beauty in things to others…” – Brenda Ueland (If You Want To Write)

“Art is moral passion married to entertainment. Moral passion without entertainment is propaganda, and entertainment without moral passion is television.” – Rita Mae Brown (Starting from Scratch)

“An essay about those who shun the popular and profitable for that of seemingly small importance is an essay I want to write; it is an essay I want to read.” – Lisa Knopp (“Excavations” in The Essayist At Work, edited by Lee Gutkind)

Those are my goals as a writer: to celebrate life, to illuminate the lives and loves of people around me, to do so with skill as well as passion while creating works that are entertaining.

Memoir Thoughts

I have begun work on a memoir and I am finding inspiration in reading the memoirs of others. Some writers prefer not to read anything in the same genre as they are writing in at the time, but these works by others provoke me to think about questions that I might not have thought to ask myself. For example, in his memoir All the Strange Hours, Loren Eiseley writes about “the most perfect day in the world.” He says:

“It is never the same for each. For some it will be the memory of a woman, or a fading bar of music, or a successful night at a gambling table leaving you with the momentary illusion that you have won the game of life. Also the perfect day is apt to be so subjective that no one else who was with you will remember it in the same fashion, if he remembers it at all. It will be a day totally yours.”

And so I begin to comb my mind for memories of a perfect day, or if not perfect, then a day fully remembered, an important day. As I read on, I am surprised to find that Eiseley’s memory of his perfect day is totally lacking in the usual specificities. He doesn’t remember when it was, or exactly where, nor does he recall who was with him.

“I only remember that there were four of us. But out of all the towns and stations of those years, it was somewhere in Kansas in the wheat.”

Suddenly I realize that a memory need not be “an event” to be of importance, that a beginning, middle, and end are not requisite. Thoughts and feelings, moments recalled and perhaps savored, even if seemingly disjointed from time, these are what illuminate a life.

Freed from some unspoken and self-imposed constraint, my childhood mind opens and I smell the chlorine at the Leroy Street swimming pool where my dad and I went swimming, the incense wafting from every doorway on Greenwich Village’s Eighth Street in the 1960s, the burning wood and singed marshmallows of summer camp fires. I feel the heat on my chest from mother’s Vick’s VapoRub cures, the ache in my ankles after hours at the ice skating rink in Central Park, the exhaustion following a marathon at the Folk Dance House. I taste the cinnamon in mom’s rice pudding and an oyster from my grandfather’s plate. I hear my father reading Charlotte’s Web aloud and my mother singing to me to sleep.

What memories and musings will find their way into a manuscript remains to be seen. Meanwhile, I will keep conducting an ongoing self-interview, aided, in part, by questions that I see other writers pose to themselves.

A Worthy Reminder

“Journalists are always talking about how they write to inform the public, to defend democracy, to champion the little guy against the corporate mogul, to create a better world. I began my career 20 years ago, holding these high-minded rationales. But over the years, as I turned to writing about the everyday lives of people, it dawned on me that these explanations had become props: I no longer wrote stories in order to right wrongs or change the world. I wrote stories, as poet Rita Dove says, in order to feel.”

These are the opening lines of Walt Harrington’s introduction to “At the Heart of It: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives” a beautiful collection of portraits from everyday life.

A Week of Monday Nights

I love living in California, really I do. But there are moments when I truly wish I could beam myself to New York City just for an evening or three. I would dearly loved to have been at The Village Vanguard every night last week — a whole week of the band now known at the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is a a rarity. Ever since 1965 this band — then known as The Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra — has held forth on Monday nights, missing only a few here and there when the band was on tour.

My personal memories of the band don’t go back quite that far; I became acquainted with the band about five years in. I loved to descend those steep stairs into the smoky basement club. It was always crowded, the band barely fit on the tiny stage, and the music filled the room so, that you thought it would bust through the walls and spill up into the street. I remember the plaintive sounds of Bob Brookmeyer’s arrangement of Willow Weep for Me, and a tune called Pensive Miss that, being a brooding teenager, I felt was written just for me. I listened to old timers Cliff Heather and Butterball Jackson mix it up with a young woman named Janice Robinson in trombone section. The saxes I recall included Jerry Dodgion, Pepper Adams, Billy Harper and Jimmy Heath, with Thad Jones standing just inches in front of them waving his arms like no conductor I had ever seen before. He played the band as if it were as much an extension of his being as was his own flugelhorn. The high note of the trumpets was the band’s youngest member, a kid named Jon Faddis on whom I had a tremendous crush, and there was a girl singer, just starting out, who sang two songs each set. Thad knew this young lady was destined for success…and he was right about Dee Dee Bridgewater.

CD Cover Dee DeeMy favorite male singer has always been Joe Williams. I never got to hear him sing live with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, but one of my favorite recordings from the days of yore was an early morning session they did with Joe in 1966. When I say early morning, I don’t mean the wee small hours — which might have been preferable as the band had been playing the night before until one or two o’clock in the morning. With a recording session just a few hours off, most of them didn’t bother to go home. They just hung out, had few drinks, ate some breakfast and showed up at the studio ready to play some more. Presenting Joe Williams & Thad Jones/Mel Lewis was originally recorded live in the studio to a 4-track machine for Solid State records; Blue Note Records reissued it on CD in 1994. Reviewer Scott Yanow wrote,

“Many of the selections (half of which have been in the singer’s repertoire ever since) are given definitive treatment on this set (particularly a humorous “Evil Man Blues,” “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” and “Smack Dab in the Middle”), and Williams scats at his best on “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” Get this one.”

If Dee Dee had recorded with the band, I would send you right out to get that one too; alas, not. But if you are not yet acquainted with this lady’s talents, you should check her out. Try Keeping Tradition, an album full of mostly standards recorded in 1992, or Live at Yoshi’s which was recorded in 1998 though not released until 2000.

And don’t forget the band! The tradition lives on, so if you’re ever in New York on a Monday night, give yourself a present and catch the band at The Village Vanguard.

Two Ladies in Jazz

Have you ever heard of Nedra Wheeler? I can’t believe that I have not been aware of her until now, especially when I read her credits that include live and recorded performances with Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Higgins, Harper Brothers, Cedar Walton, Branford Marsalis, Billy Childs, and Stevie Wonder, to name just a few.

I saw her Friday night at the birthday concert for Gerald Wiggins, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She not only has the most amazing smile, but you can see the music bouncing around inside of her and coming out not only through her fingers on the strings, but through her hips, and her feet, and her shoulders as she dances with her bass. The expressions that cross her face range from intense concentration, to rapture, to a sheer and exhuberant joy of the music, the moment, and her fellow musicians. She’s having the time of her life onstage and it’s infectious. Add in her musical prowess — good tone, great sense of time, and big ears that hear all the possibilities — and you have a true force of musical nature.

I’ve heard that she recorded a CD titled “Gifts: Live at Birdland West,” and as soon as I find out where to get it, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, for those of you in the greater Los Angeles area, you can see Nedra Wheeler on July 2nd at the Ford Amphitheatre with an outstanding group who call themselves the Lady Jazz Orchestra.

Swedish jazz singer, Monica Zetterlund, died last week in a fire. She was 67. Wire reports say that the fire was caused by a cigarette, and that Ms. Zetterlund, disabled by scoliosis, was unable to escape from her Stockholm apartment. I was sad to hear of such an unpleasant ending, but I was pleasantly surprised that the Los Angeles Times ran her obit and photo, albeit a small one.

Los Angeles is not the world’s most hospitable place when it comes to jazz or jazz artists of a certain age. Truth be told, if Ms. Zetterlund had been coming to Los Angeles to appear at a club, the likelihood of a Times feature story promoting her appearance would be slim to none. A review? Maybe, just maybe.

Perhaps it is partly a sign of the times — jazz being yesterday’s popular music — but locale is a definite factor. New York is far more supportive of jazz. Ms. Zetterlund was well-received there back in the 1960s when, at the suggestion of Leonard Feather, my husband arranged for her first performances in America. Her engagements included clubs in New York and Chicago, and an appearance on the Steve Allen Show. She became a big star in Sweden, not only as a jazz singer but as an actress. In America, in the jazz communty, she will be remembered best for her 1964 recording of “Waltz For Debby,” with Bill Evans.