A TASTE FOR JAZZ AND LIME-VANILLA ICE

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I was one of those precocious little Suzuki violin kids. We were schooled strictly in classical music, that is, as soon as we could scrape through Mississippi River. My first violin was quarter size and our early training involved marching around the room trying to keep the violins tucked under our little chins. Tiny violins bounced everywhere. But music really exploded for me on Sunday afternoons when I got to watch Bill Kennedy at the Movies on WKBD-TV channel 50 in Detroit. Bill Kennedy was the faded, slightly pompous former B movie actor who hosted the show. He had this one great scene as a tennis pro with Bette Davis in Dark Victory, which he referred to often.   It was here that I watched my first musicals: Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain, Meet me in St. Louis, The Band Wagon. This was the music, these were the songs that I really fell in love with, the ones that stuck in my head.

Someone noticed.

That person was my cousin Marty.

He wasn’t at all the type of person you’d expect to notice things. But he did.

Marty was my mother’s first cousin. He shared an apartment with my two great Aunts. my grandmother’s sisters, Bess and Rose. My grandmother lived alone in the apartment across the way. My sisters and I would always see the Aunts and Marty at holiday dinners or be trooped unwillingly across the parking lot to visit their little apartment. It was hot in there and there wasn’t much to do except answer questions about whatever it was we were doing. The Aunts hung on our every word and beamed at us for even the smallest accomplishments. We should have feasted on this avalanche of praise and affection but we didn’t really. We felt squirmy and uncomfortable.

At some point in the conversation, Marty, Bess’s grown up son, would be summoned from his room to say hello to us. Marty’s room was a great mystery. No one was ever allowed in there. Not even my Aunts. But the door was ajar once and I peeked inside.   What I saw was a fantastic jumble of books and records amidst the whorl of an unmade bed. It was a mess, it was utter comfort, it was a refuge and a fortress. It reminded me a lot of my bedroom at home.

Marty always entered the living room slowly and bashfully even though this was his home, he was the adult and we were just little kids.

He was a heavyset man with dark curly hair. He smiled a lot. He perspired a lot too—the apartment was kept extra warm for my Aunts—so much so that his thick black glasses slid constantly down his nose. But the look of appreciation on his face, no matter if I was talking about whatever old movie I’d just seen, what music I’d played or some song I loved, was real.

I was probably self-importantly talking about some play that I’d been in at camp when he got really excited and went to his room. He returned with Allan Sherman’s My Son, the Nut, which he placed gently on the turntable. Marty was the first person to play “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah “ for me. I got it. It was cool. The albums that were stacked along side were by people like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. I wasn’t ready for them yet. Not by a long shot.

At holiday dinners he usually didn’t say much. He would always wear a tie although he always looked like he’d rather take it off. If there were uncomfortable silences he would always talk and talk about how much he loved the spinach.

On the violin I learned how to play Leroy Anderson’s Fiddle Faddle and would have gone crazy with joy if I had somehow heard about jazz violinist Joe Venuti but I didn’t. I was a high octane behind the scenes high school theatre person. I did my best to keep up in chorus class. I was hurt that I wasn’t a part of the revered Madrigals singing group at Kingswood (my sister Lisa was) but I still found that I completely and totally loved harmonic singing.

I overheard that several times a year Marty would take the train to Toronto to go to Jazz clubs or Jazz festivals. I don’t know who he saw up there. Chick Corea? Charlie Mingus? I don’t remember him playing that music for us on those afternoon visits. Was he too shy? Did he feel his connection to that music too private to share? Or did he know that to truly fall in love with something you need to discover it yourself?

I had heard the stories. That he had asthma and terrible allergies. That he was babied by his mother, my Aunt Bess, who coddled and overfed him. That he wasn’t allowed out to play much as a little kid and had a way of running with his flat feet slapping the pavement and his arms flapping wildly in the air. That he hated driving and took the bus, a true anomaly in car crazy Detroit. That he was smart. Really, really smart.

Over the years he never once made one of those cringe worthy comments about “how much I’d grown.” But I knew he noticed when he said that I reminded him of Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer. By then I liked songs like Sing, Sing, Sing, Java Jive, and Dream a Little Dream of Me. Progress.

After college I lived in Brooklyn before Brooklyn was cool. I stretched meager paychecks by buying groceries at Balducci’s with my Dad’s American Express card. But one night I went to the renowned Blue Note all by myself, to hear “The Divine One”, Sarah Vaughan. In that cramped jazzy space, I sat alone at the bar drinking Bloody Marys at nighttime. It was the only drink I knew how to order. But there, on that wonderful night, I actually heard Sassy herself sing Misty.

After that night I knew why Marty went to the Jazz clubs in Toronto.

I was away from home for a long time. I grew up, I worked, I married, I had children. Back in Detroit, my Aunts died. Marty was left alone. He moved to his own apartment.   Alone a lot in New York, I listened to music. On my own I discovered Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald. Peggy Lee. The Boswell Sisters.

Then Marty died as well.

He was only 55. It was from his obituary that I learned that he was a revered and award winning Political Science lecturer at the University of Michigan Dearborn, known for both his bristling intellect and unfailing kindness to his students.

It had never occurred to me to ask what kind of work he did.

Of all the stories in Ray Bradbury’s beautiful Dandelion Wine my favorite is “The Swan”. Drawn together at a soda fountain over the unusual order of “a dish of lime-vanilla ice” young Bill Forrester meets and befriends 95-year-old Helen Loomis. Despite the extreme differences in age the two form a transcendent bond. It’s clear they were meant to be together, but according to Helen, just not in this life. Maybe the next. Or perhaps the next one after that. Ray Bradbury does not leave us with a happy ending in this story but instead with a wistful, open-ended one.

Maybe this is true for lost friendships as well.

But all I know is that I desperately miss someone I never really knew at all.

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THE COURAGE OF HARPER LEE

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I was jazzed and completely dazzled when I heard the news. Everyone was. After more than fifty years no less a source than the Associated Press confirmed on February 3 that Harper Lee would be publishing what they referred to as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the finest novels ever written. The only novel Harper Lee ever published. The publishing news of a lifetime.

All great authors leave us wanting more, and there is no question that Harper Lee is among the greatest for not just for creating characters of immense sympathy and depth but for crafting a story of tremendous resonance to time and place. It is a book that illuminates not just vicious injustice but has at its core a celebration of kindness and decency. It was and is and will remain a work of remarkable courage. Like only a handful of others—The Origin of the Species, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Silent Spring—it’s a book that changed the world. So many people have said as such far more elegantly than I.

I knew, everyone knew, that Harper Lee stopped giving interviews in 1964, shortly after the initial publication of the book in 1960.  I didn’t and don’t know much about her. But here’s what’s very clear: Harper Lee said what she wanted to say in Mockingbird the way she wanted to say it.   It is equally clear that she has long valued her privacy. She chose to share To Kill a Mockingbird. To my mind when an author publishes a book, the author is reaching out to the world. The published book is almost a gift, an offering. With readers, a connection is formed, a partnership that completes and recreates the book time and time again. But to me, that’s where the partnership ends. I don’t have a right to know what an author—or any one else for that matter–eats for breakfast or what they might think about Kanye hopping up on the stage once again at the Grammy Awards.

There are precious few of us who can write a book such as To Kill a Mockingbird. But if nothing else, all of us are the authors of own lives. We cherish the ability to actively, or sometimes subconsciously, craft our own myths; to tell our own stories they way we want them told. All of us also have the right to keep some things private, to keep our own secrets for our own reasons.

This thought of privacy and personal secrets is true whether someone is as quiet as Harper Lee or as exuberantly out there as Lady Gaga.  Beware, be cautious. Most public people, who talk about themselves constantly, are fueling an image for the public. We should never make the mistake of thinking we know who they really are or what they really think. We most emphatically do not. For some people their public persona becomes an extension of their craft. That’s fine. But obviously that’s not true for everyone. I don’t think it should be.

It didn’t take long to discover the AP actually had it wrong about the new Harper Lee book. Quite wrong. The “new” book wasn’t new. It seemed that it had been thought lost, and recently been rediscovered. More troublingly, there are murmurs that Harper Lee herself is quite frail, with diminished eyesight and hearing. Her sister Alice Lee, long her attorney and protector, has recently died. It seems as well that Harper Lee’s editor at HarperCollins has never spoken to her directly but has dealt only with her friend and attorney, Tonja Carter and her literary agent, Andrew Nurnberg.

Although the forthcoming book features the adult Scout and other characters from Mockingbird, apparently it was not conceived as sequel. According to reports on ABC News, the book was written prior to Mockingbird itself. According to a quote from Ms. Lee published in a HarperCollins press release and quoted by ABC News, the manuscript was the first book Harper Lee submitted and her original 1950s editor who suggested that she rewrite it from the perspective of Scout as a child. This purportedly new book then is an unpublished, nay rejected, manuscript that was the leaping off point for what became Mockingbird.   This is emphatically not a carefully constructed companion volume to Harper Lee’s opus.

Of course it’s possible that this lost or forgotten manuscript has just resurfaced. Of course it’s possible that the 88-year-old author might truly want it published. People can change. They can certainly change their minds. Ms. Lee’s friend and attorney Tonja Carter has worked closely with Alice Lee for a very long time and is a person that Ms. Lee trusts. I refuse to believe that she would take advantage of the elderly and frail author. But still something feels uncomfortable here.

But it’s tantalizing to think about reading a story about the adult Scout. Just as it’s tantalizing to think that somewhere J.D. Salinger has squirreled away a fifty-year saga of the Glass family. God help us if that turns up someday.

Here’s what I think. For more than 50 years Harper Lee chose to present her viewpoint, her story as To Kill a Mockingbird. It doesn’t make sense to me that she would now look to publish what could be described as a previously rejected manuscript to support what has always been viewed as a fully formed statement in Mockingbird. It doesn’t make sense.  Except, of course, that there is a great deal of money to be made here. According to ABC News the forthcoming book is “in the top 10 on barnesandnoble.com” and the publisher has set a “first printing of 2 million copies. “ This might be a good moment to mention that the ivory tower of book publishing also a business. And it’s a basic fact. Business need to make money.

What is the real story?   Is it possible that the media is improperly reporting that story now? I just don’t know. But I’m deeply uncomfortable. If Harper Lee is impaired in some way or has made the choice to publish this book either under duress of some kind to read this forthcoming book smacks of voyeurism to me.

I won’t do it.

What I will do is reread To Kill a Mockingbird.  In this small way I hope to honor the work and legacy of the very private and very courageous Harper Lee.

Note:

Above image from The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, written and illustrated by David Allen Sibley