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

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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.