Category Archives: Music

High-Energy Serendipities

At the National Arts Club the other night, before I gave my presentation, a very nice photographer named Bruce Allan took me by the hand and led me around from one atmospheric spot to the other to get just the right portrait of me.

JZ Light

Then, as I went on and on (as I often do) talking about Savage Girl and historical fiction and New York City, showing remarkable pictures of Manhattan during the Gilded Age, Bruce captured me again.

JZ talking

He also caught the musicians Henry Chapin (fiddle) and Mark Ettinger (accordion) playing music of the era. So infectious was their performance, they got people who were there only to listen up on their feet to dance. “I danced a reel!” one friend enthused afterward.

Musicians

All in all, a high-energy event, filled with serendipities.

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National Arts Club Talk Wednesday 8pm

I’m so looking forward to giving a presentation at the venerable National Arts Club on New York City’s Gramercy Park tomorrow night, April 16th at 8:00. The Club is housed in a beautiful old mansion, the perfect spot for time traveling back to the late nineteenth century. I will show pictures during my talk, sign books afterwards, and exhort guests to dance to our live musicians playing tunes from Savage Girl’s era. The celebration is free and open to the public. Please come if you’re in the neighborhood!

SG Flier Gramercy

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Wild Music for a Savage Girl

What wild child anthem gets your juices flowing? Curtis Mayfield’s Little Child Running Wild? Wild Thing by the Troggs? Or perhaps an oldie like Bessie Smith’s I’m Wild About that Thing? My personal favorite:  Born to Be Wild as rendered by the immortal Etta James.

etta

Whatever your taste, you can get a bunch of hits in one place when you check out the Spotify playlist I’ve put together with the help of Viking for  Savage Girl’s release in… 11 days (really? is that possible?).

Of course, these selections all appeal to our contemporary taste and would probably appall the characters in Savage Girl, who would have been more entertained by music that was quite different in a pre-Victrola, pre-modern age. To enjoy popular music in the late nineteenth century people might sing around the piano in their homes, enjoying such numbers as My Grandfather’s Clock (1876), Clementine (1863), or Home on the Range (1873). They would also enjoy some of the great composer Stephen Foster’s work, tunes such as Beautiful Dreamer (1864) or Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair (1854), which were popular throughout the second half of the 1800s.

foster1

If they attended a ball, they would in all likelihood waltz – the most popular dance step of the nineteenth century — to compositions by Johann Strauss, Jr, who wrote the famous Blue Danube among over 400 waltzes.

I don’t think you’ll ever waltz to the Troggs. But you can try. Just click on my Spotify playlist.

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Rapture in Blue

Guest post from Gil Reavill:

In the space of a week (writes Gil) New York City offered Jean and me two superb opportunities for time travel, sucking us back four centuries in one case and then nine decades in another.

On February 12, 1924, at the Aeolian Hall on 43rd Street, Paul Whiteman and his jazz orchestra premiered a new work, Rhapsody in Blue, with composer George Gershwin himself at the piano.

paul whithead orchestra

Ninety years later to the day, Maurice Peress and Vince Giordano mounted a tribute concert at Town Hall, a block away from where Gershwin’s masterwork first saw the light of day.

Peress is a musician, teacher and orchestra conductor who served for years at the Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. Eighty-four years old now, he has the kind of beaming, expansive, jolly personality of someone who has spent a life in music. On the podium at Town Hall, he performed antic dances while conducting, winking and giving wry body-language commentary on the proceedings, as well as delivering effusive stage patter between numbers.

Vince Giordano is the leader of the venerable Nighthawks, and both his band and his whole life have been devoted to playing, preserving and promoting the music of the early jazz era.

giordano

The two men produced the concert themselves, laying out their own money to rent the hall, taking a flier in the hopes enough ticket buyers would come out to fill the seats on a chill February night.

They did. Town Hall was totally sold out. You could feel the bon homie among the audience audience members. The musicians were primed.

Nighthawks

I couldn’t help but feel we were in for a treat. Giordano and Peress are both avid musicologists. They tracked down original scores, unearthed sheet music with holograph notations, replicated the arrangements and instrumentation from the original concert from the slide whistle down to the heckelphone.

That original concert was held on a winter afternoon in the stuffy concert hall of the Aeolian piano company.

AeolianHall1212

It was jazz genius Paul Whiteman’s baby all the way. He conducted his Palais Royal Orchestra in a program called An Experiment in Modern Music, designed to close the gap between jazz and classical audiences. In attendance that afternoon were heavyweights such as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jascha Heifetz and John Phillip Sousa.

whiteman program

Gershwin himself almost didn’t make it. Whiteman and he had discussions about commissioning a piece, which the composer forgot about until brother Ira read a piece in theTribune five weeks before the concert. “George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto” read a blurb in the article’s final paragraph.

The composer had only a month to create what is one of the greatest pieces of American music ever written. On a trip to Boston, the click-clack rhythm of the train inspired him. He scribbled the main themes then and there. At first the piece was called American Rhapsody, but Ira suggested the title under which it is now known after attending a show of James McNeill Whistler paintings that had names such as Nocturne in Black and Gold.

Gershwin-01

The famous clarinet glissando with which Rhapsody kicks off is a last-minute development also, with the Whiteman orchestra’s virtuoso jazz clarinetist, Ross Gorman, ginning it up almost as a joke.

Whiteman didn’t think the name of the largely unknown 26-year-old Gershwin could carry a concert, so he brought in a popular pianist of the day, Zez Confrey, had top billing over the composer. The concert featured such popular numbers as Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys” and Irving Berlin’s “Alexander Ragtime Band.”

kittenonthekeys

When it came to Rhapsody, though, Gershwin played it himself, with a piano score that was not yet written down.

Sitting in Town Hall in 2014, Jean and I heard a program performed note for note as close as possible to what audience members heard ninety years ago and a block away, with the superb Ted Rosenthal sitting in for George Gershwin. The Aeolian Hall is long gone, now the quarters of the CUNY Optometry School. Peress told us he performed a pilgrimage, though, and through a gap in the dropped ceiling saw a section of the gilded proscenium from the original theater. These fragments we shore against our ruin.

Earlier in the week Jean and I journeyed to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater for another kind of time travel, this one a performance of the Chichester Festival Theatre Company’s King Lear, with Frank Langella in the title role. The production was played very straight. It was not set in Weimar Germany, say, or contemporary Uganda, as other directors are wont to dish up their Shakespeare, but in the Celtic landscape of the original text. The blocking was stylized and almost static. Langella delivered a phenomenal performance.

KINGLEAR-master675

No one knows what the play might have sounded like during its only verified performance in Shakespeare’s time, on December 26, 1606 in the court of King James I at London’s Whitehall. Scholars suggest that Elizabethan English sounded similar to the accents of the American South. Lear’s trio of daughters would have been played by males. (In 1660, decades later, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary, “Saw ‘The Scornfull Lady,’ now done by a woman, which makes the play appear much better than ever it did to me.”) But again, as with the Giordano-Peress concert, I was able to pretend that I was somehow witnessing a shard of the past, broken off and magically turning up in the present.

The BAM audience laughed often at Shakespeare’s acerbic wit, four-hundred year old jokes still getting a enthusiastic response today. The tragic flavor of doom came across, too. “Never, never, never, never, never,” Lear repeats, his last words. Yes, we can never truly beat the tyranny of time. But sometimes it’s pretty to try.

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Pot Lucky

Just a neighborly event. The lightest of snows twinkled outside the windows. Someone said, You may not see each other for six months but you’re still glad they’re there. There was a list, a neighborhood email listserve, and these 60-odd people were on it.

The pot-luck took place in the carriage house of the local nature preserve, Teatown.

scenery_teatown1

Such communal feedbags have a history, dating back to the sixteenth century, when pot-luck meant “food provided for an unexpected or uninvited guest, the luck of the pot.”

In this bowling-alone world, community often strikes me as a missing element. Or perhaps that’s just because mine is a solitary profession, handcuffed to my computer keyboard, staring out the window at the winter. I was happy now to talk to people I barely knew about books we’d read, about composing music, about keeping chickens.

chickens_1844738c

Above all, we spoke about the deep drifts and ice outside that affect everybody.

As Bilbo Baggins once said, “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”

Someone brought a soup enriched almost to a stew with wild rice. Someone else baked a crusty bread. When the desserts came out there was a deep-burnished chocolate bundt cake studded with cherries that had folks lining up. We all shared food, shared companionship. A hat was passed to send kids to the local summer camp.

No one spoke about plumber referrals, or the other information that flies across the internet on the listserve. No one talked about rowdy teens on the roads, or co-mingled recyclables.

separate-recyclables

Above all, no one became embroiled in the deer situation, the bane of the neighborhood, the divisive question of whether to leave the overpopulation alone or somehow control it, and if so, how to do so. It would be a fraught conversation. We let it go. (Though some wry soul offered venison sausage on the buffet table.)

We were gracious, putting faces to names. We shook hands, kissed cheeks. We were neighborly.

Outside, it continued to snow.

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Feet Ball

Me and my two feet, my new feet, in sneakers, no boot, no cast and no crutches.

kicks

On the train to Grand Central Station, New York City. We don’t care about the grey slubs and slabs of ice rimming the river.

hudson ice

We don’t care about the Super Bowl madness engorging midtown, a crowd where the words stadium and lap dance are enunciated loudly along with impressive beer burps.

We’re going to make a night of it, in a club where the hair of the patrons is greyer than the ice on the Hudson, all convened to hear the oldie but extremely goodie Vanilla Fudge, aka “the Fudge.”

Vanilla+Fudge

They don’t look like they used to, but neither do we. Psychedelia crossed with blue-eyed soul, and on foot! Happy day.

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Woody Guthrie’s Resolutions

The finest list of New Year’s Resolutions to be had – or  New Years Rulins’ as he called them – penned by Woody Guthrie in 1942 at the age of 30. A few of these are far beyond me, writing a song a day for example, but I think I could benefit by staying glad and dancing better.

woodyguthrie

1. Work more and better

2. Work by a schedule

3. Wash teeth if any

4. Shave

5. Take bath

6. Eat good — fruit — vegetables — milk

7. Drink very scant if any

8. Write a song a day

9. Wear clean clothes — look good

10. Shine shoes

11. Change socks

12. Change bed cloths often

13. Read lots good books

14. Listen to radio a lot

15. Learn people better

16. Keep rancho clean

17. Dont get lonesome

18. Stay glad

19. Keep hoping machine running

20. Dream good

21. Bank all extra money

22. Save dough

23. Have company but dont waste time

24. Send Mary and kids money

25. Play and sing good

26. Dance better

27. Help win war — beat fascism

28. Love mama

29. Love papa

30. Love Pete

31. Love everybody

32. Make up your mind

33. Wake up and fight

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