MARTHA, CONNIE AND VET; BESS, ANN AND ROSE

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It was the craziest thing. I found them on YouTube. Of all places.

Listening to the Mills Brothers on YouTube that day was for me, truly little blip of joy. The music was delightful, but what I clicked next was really divine.

The Boswell Sisters singing Crazy People. I had never heard of the singers or the song. But I haven’t been the same since that moment. Here they are (left to right) Connie, Vet and Martha, The Boswell Sisters of New Orleans:

http://youtu.be/ynwtYRDP124

That was two and half minutes of sheer joy that was both buoyant and almost symphonic in it’s precision and complexity.

How do you define something extraordinary? Should you even try? When something is right and good and true, the real thing, be it a painting, a novel or the love of your life you just know. You just feel it.

Lover of harmonic singing…or not. Lover of jazz innovation…or not. Lover of musical stylings of the 20s and 30s…or not. There are simply some artists—Judy Garland, Eric Clapton, Django Reinhart, you’ve got your own favorites I’m certain- who demand your attention, whose immense talent and sheer artistry can’t be denied. They just ARE. The Boswell Sisters.

A quick round up: The Boswells were musical innovators, arrangers extraordinaire, and the finest close harmony singers of all time. The three Boswells-Martha, Connie and Vet, created an almost otherworldly sound I’d waited a lifetime to hear. I’d love for you to think I am the only one with such exquisite taste but far from it. The Boswells were the most popular singers in the country and attained worldwide fame for five frenetic years until 1936 when all three sisters married and the group abruptly disbanded. They were feted and beloved by everyone from Prince Albert of England (later George VI who insisted on slipping into every single one of their 1933 performances at London’s famed Palladium) to a young vaudevillian named Bob Hope who said to have intoned, “they were the best act I ever followed”. Ella Fitzgerald said the only singer who ever influenced her was Connie Boswell. The Andrew Sisters, who ascended only after the Boswells stopped performing, began as unabashed Boswell imitators, so much so the Minnesota natives originally sang with a southern drawl, according to Maxene Andrews.

And that was it.

They were there, top act in the country and just as suddenly not. All three sisters married, Martha and Vet immediately retired. Connie went on to a respectable solo career.   Save for a single unplanned on stage reunion about 20 years later, they never performed together again. At least in public. There’s a mystery here, of course, a real one worth savoring, but I’ll save that for later.

But for all that, it was an actually a throw away line that knocked me to my knees.

“You know,” my mother said, “I listen to the Boswells and I can just see your grandmother dancing to the radio. “ My lithe and beautiful Little Gram, the dancer in the middle between her different, but equally talented sisters Bess and Rose. My own family’s mercurial and linked threesome.

That was it then.

It was said once of the Boswells “They together clicked like a Geiger counter in a mine.” Such was the power of the unspoken rhythms and pulse of the three sisters. My grandmother and my great aunts didn’t sing but their lives together were complex and woven together as the Boswells.

They all lived all together in one house: my aunts. my great grandmother, and two sons upstairs, My grandmother and grandfather and three children below. My Aunt Bess was a seamstress of such self-taught skill that it was said that she could glimpse the latest styles through shop windows, then return home and recreate each intricate style stitch by stitch. Her marriage to a handsome but itinerate man was somehow broken—he was absent always, it was never spoken of. She remained behind, raising two sons, cooking and cleaning and helping to care for them and for her aged mother. Brilliant and bookish Rose gave up dreams of school and marriage to work in an office to help support them. My tiny and quietly vivacious grandmother married her childhood sweetheart—they had three children. My dashing grandfather dreamed of starting anew and apart, bringing my grandmother and their children everywhere from gritty Pittsburgh to sunny California in attempts at a new beginnings. But try as he might to escape they were always pulled back to the crowded house in Detroit. The sisters needed to be together. The sisters needed to be apart.

In thinking back, I don’t know who was happy and who was not. I don’t know what was fair and what was not. I don’t know, if things had been different, what might have been.

But at the core, my grandmother and my great Aunts were three sisters who cared for each other truly and deeply. They too were a trio.

And so to the mystery. What happened to the Boswells after they all married in a flurry ending effectively bringing to an end the Boswell Sisters in 1936?

Here’s the short answer,

Cynthia C. Lucas, as passionate and knowledgeable about the Boswells and their music as anyone in the world, once, told me to listen to Connie Boswell singing George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me. “  http://youtu.be/9fLuoUBdKnw

And there it was. Connie Boswell, now a soloist, a woman who lived to perform, begins this slow, reflective and almost mournfully lovely rendition by humming the opening bars of “Shout, Sister, Shout” the Boswell theme song for their radio show.   The shout in this case is a whisper, but there it was, a message of heartfelt longing to her sisters.

***

But sometimes the end is the beginning. The Divine Miss M, Bette Midler, has anchored her latest album, “IT’S THE GIRLS!” with a spot on cover of the 1931 Boswell hit of the same name A super cool rock guy Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen begins his new book “EMINENT HIPSTERS” with an in depth chapter on one of his earliest musical loves and influences: The Boswell Sisters. Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks have the world jamming to jazz standards of the 20s and 30s, including the Boswells, through their performances on HBOs Boardwalk Empire and packs ‘em into NYCs Iguana twice weekly. Will Friedwald, one of the most highly regarded and knowledgeable Jazz writers in the country writes in The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 2014) of the Boswells: “They did for group harmony what Bing Crosby did for popular singing and Louis Armstrong did for Jazz improvisation.”  Dan Garrison of Joshua Tree Productions, and one of the finest writer/historians around, readies a PBS documentary on the Boswells, CLOSE HARMONY.

And last by no means least, Vet’s own granddaughter the amazing Kyla Titus, pens the just published THE BOSWELL LEGACY the definitive biography of the sisters revealing the roots of early jazz lore while exploring hidden history of her illustrious family. The true exploration of the mystery is here. A compelling, tour de force, the book swirls the reader into the inner world of the sisters and resonates. The book simply rocks. And rolls. And we all know what it means when finally; at last, bow ties are cool.

All this and long overdue applause to the chorus who’ve been studying and championing the Boswells for eons: James Von Schilling, professor and author of an early essay on the Boswells Hearing the Boswell Sisters (Popular Music and Society), the lovely and talented Jan Shapiro, chair of the voice department at Berklee College of Music, early champion of the Boswell sound revival, the brilliant Cynthia C. Lucas, the brains and heart behind http://www.Bozzies.com a immense source of information on the Sisters, Jazz historian and researcher David McCain, close friend of Vet Boswell’s and one of the sweetest men on the planet.

We can’t relive the lives of the Boswells nor can we relive the lives of my grandmother and great aunts. But we can look back lovingly, with a bit of an ache, and try to understand. And always, to listen.

This is dedicated with love then, to Martha, Connie and Vet, To Bess, Ann and Rose. With a hug of course, to my own two sisters, my own trio, Lisa and Shari.

Yowza.

For more information on the Boswells, or to purchase copies of Kyla Titus’ excellent THE BOSWELL LEGACY, please go to www.theboswellsisters.com

Or

Check for further information at www.bozzies.com

FOOD DREAMS

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In my dreams I can flip pancakes onto a platter with one hand while zip cracking eggs onto a sizzling griddle with the other. Toast pops into midair and is covered with jam before it hits the plate. Piles of burgers are stacked up high and sigh into their buns. I spin, pivot, staccato two-step and then arc a perfect stream of hot coffee into half a dozen waiting cups. There isn’t even a spot on my clean white apron.

I sometimes think I would cook like this if I could. But I can’t.

So instead I slow down. I pour a glass of wine, I turn up Radio Dismuke. I chop and I knead and I stir to a far more sedate beat.  Here it is.

*A handful of Raisinettes melting in one hand and a fistful of Tam Tam Crackers crumbling in the other. The dancing lady and the dancing man statues are poised on the buffet. The big cousins are jumping on the furniture, hiding under the table, they are everywhere all at once but they are still watching out for me. My first treats in the dining room at my grandmother’s house on Northlawn.

*Platters of brisket and corned beef and pastrami, trays of roast chicken, and sliced turkey and beef tongue. Mustard and coleslaw and pickles and rye. One tiny, lukewarm bowl of Birdseye mixed vegetables. My grandfather holds court from his armchair and knocks back a tumbler of buttermilk as he nibbles the core of the iceberg lettuce that was saved just for him. While he’s occupied, my grandmother silently beckons my sisters and me to the kitchen. She gives us Faygo Red Pop to drink right from the bottle. A disliked, discarded creamsicle melting on a plate is instantly replaced by an icy fresh Eskimo Pie. A tin of Mandelbrot is pressed into our hands. A tunnel of elm trees shades the way home. Sunday dinner at Grandma and Poppa’s on Lauder.

*It was the most amazing thing in the world. Drop in a nickel and a small brown container of chocolate milk tumbled into the slot. It worked every time. Except for that one time it didn’t. Somebody turned the dial and a container of white milk came out instead. I couldn’t figure out who would ever want to drink white milk when you could get chocolate. It was the worst. I drank it anyway. I had to. Everyone drank his or her milk because that was the rule at Francis Scott Key Elementary School.

*Three crisp one-dollar bills. Every Saturday afternoon. Tracy and me. Grilled cheese for her and tuna for me sitting at the Kresge’s Lunch counter. We drank Vernors served in paper cones that were nestled in silver holders. You could blow the paper off the straw if no one was looking. Then a walk all by ourselves around Birmingham. We each had 50 cents left to spend. So many choices but we still always chose the same.  A tiny bag of pistachios for her. A tiny bag of jellybeans for me. Every single Saturday.

*The lines snaked in and around the Continental Market. In the doors and out again. Such a miniscule little shop. It was right next to the place where they sold clogs. And near the other place they sold scented candles. Olga’s Souvlakis. Hot sliced lamb with yogurt, onion and tomato wrapped in warm, flat bread. It wasn’t spaghetti and it wasn’t chop suey. But it was a miracle secured with a toothpick and placed in a red and white container.

*We were all three belted into the backseat. Which was worse: being stuck in the middle or being stuck in a window seat and having the middle sister fall asleep on you, turning you into the human armrest? But a drive west to Chicago for the weekend meant a box of Frango mints from Marshall Field. A drive north to Toronto it meant a bag of Coffee Crisp candy bars. No complaining.

*We never knew when it might happen. We never knew exactly where we were going. Just “get in the car” please. So we did. The windows would be open; the summer air was warm and sweet. A lucky sister might get the coveted seat between Mom and Dad in the front. We would drive and drive, anywhere and everywhere as the summer sun set into twilight. It didn’t matter where we went because at the end there was always ice cream. Small was three scoops. Medium was six. You can guess the size of the large. I am not making this up. Dad would eat his and then have to lick down my little sister’s cone of something weird like Blue Moon or Bubblegum or Superman. He always made a face as he licked the cone flat for her. But he always did it, every time.

*The plastic bowl was as almost as big at the table. You could guess the seasons just by looking in the bowl. My mother filled it over and over. Masses of cherries and strawberries, mounds of peaches and apples and pears. On summer weekends, when my dad was out grilling hot dogs “that snapped when you bit them,” my mom was inside quietly filling and refilling the big bowl with delicious salads that both crunched and dripped. Smart people at some of each.

*We snuck it in. We had to. Everybody else in our cabin bought normal things like chips and gum and candy bars on that overnight. Not us. We pooled our money and bought a whole salami. Best idea ever and it was yours, Ruth. You kept it hidden under your t-shirts in your corner top bunk. You were in charge of after hours slicing, reverentially doling it out after lights out. I couldn’t really be trusted not to eat the whole thing in one sitting. I still don’t know where you stashed the knife.

*I was so afraid. I moved through the cafeteria line alone. What was everyone else eating? I didn’t care what I ate; I just wanted to eat the right thing.   Macaroni and cheese. I hated it. I chose it. The tables in the Kingswood dining hall were round. I was told this was to “invite conviviality”. They actually used the word conviviality. But it was only convivial if there was someone to talk to. I sat down with my plate of macaroni and cheese and looked up. There was.

*Really there was only one way to do it. It didn’t matter the flavor. Look whoever it was right in the eye, grab your knife. Flip the plastic container over and stab the bottom and twist. Squeeze the contents into the bowl. Slide the bowl nonchalantly over the glass. Rules were rules. No one could leave the dining hall with an extra yogurt. You done your job. You done good. As soon as you were done, money in your pocket, you got out of there. As fast as you could made your way to a counter stool at Pizza Bob’s for a chiapati or to a hard backed booth at Drake’s for a grilled cinnamon roll with Russian Caravan Tea. You deserved it.

*Jamie’s brownstone apartment was down the street from Bloomingdales, five spindly flights up to the top floor. The whole building had settled so the floors were uneven, almost buckling. The kitchen was somehow crammed into a closet, shoved in so tightly that the oven door only opened halfway. It didn’t matter. We didn’t cook. Winter Saturdays we ate pizza curled up by the fireplace.   Summer Saturdays we ate pizza baking ourselves on the blacktop roof. Always always double cheese.

*Valentine’s Day. A corner table at La Tulipe. Twin Kir Royals. Twin chocolate soufflés. You didn’t propose that night. But I proposed that someday soon you might. You did.

*Mango sorbet pressed into waffles. The room was dark save for the glow of the TV screen. The channel was always turned to Food Network, the quiet rhythms of Sarah Moulton, the Two Hot Tamales, Emeril before the “Bam!” lulling us to sleep. We would lay with piles of pillows and blankets on the floor. Waffles finished, sticky hands were pressed into mine. One in each.

*Chocolate was always his favorite. Of course it was. He always chose it; he always said this was so. Until the day he said that he always loved vanilla too. I had been there all the time and I didn’t know? But I didn’t know. At the movies he bought things like Buncha Crunch or Sour Patch kids. But then one day he bought a box of Raisinettes. My own favorite, Raisinettes? I had never seen him eat them before. But he said he’d always loved them. Didn’t I know?

I did not. But now I do.