Then, one weekend in January, for some reason the black community discovered me. Geoffrey Holder, the dancer/choreographer came in, took a seat at the piano-bar. “I’ve been hearing good things about you,” he said, in his resonant baritone. I couldn’t imagine from where, but I launched into the score from House of Flowers, in which he’d appeared. This delighted him. I played the title tune, I Never Has Seen Snow, Don’t Like Goodbyes, and finished with Sleepin’ Bee –lingering over Harold Arlen’s rich harmonies, the blue notes, the flatted fifths. Geoffrey sang along, joining in, seemed to have a good time, left with a smile on his face. Couple nights later, in came Luther Henderson, who’d arranged and conducted one of my very fav’rit albums, Anita Ellis’s I Wonder What Became of Me?
Mulligan gestured toward Treva’s piano: “Who plays?” he asked. “Treva and I both play,” I replied, going to the keyboard; “And we both write songs.” I waited for him to say, Okay, let’s hear one, but he didn’t. I didn’t want to seem presumptuous and launch into an original without being asked, so I picked out a phrase from an Arlen tune, As Long As I Live. “Oh yeah,” he said, as he recognized the song. He rose. “Lemme go get the ax.” he said. Inside myself, I experienced a huge grin of anticipation -he meant his instrument! Wow. A moment later, he was back, carrying a huge, golden Sohmer saxophone -a baritone. “You know Devil and the Deep Blue Sea?” he inquired. I nodded. “What key?” “Can you do A Flat?” Hmm. I pondered it. I wasn’t that comfortable in A Flat, but I didn’t want to say so and appear unprofessional. “Okay.” He began popping his fingers in a medium tempo. “About here,” he said. I played a four-bar introduction, and he began sending big, breathy phrases into the room, filling the space with what felt like huge marshmallow logs of sound. Treva came out of the kitchen with a smile of astonished joy. We exchanged a conspiratorial look: we had one of the jazz greats in our living room, performing. Treva put her fist to her mouth. “Oh my god,” she murmured.
Finishing the A Flat chorus, I moved through a Cm7 to an F7, taking the tune to B Flat, an easier key for me. Mulligan slipped into it with an easy swing. Sandy was choosing to remain in the bedroom, monitoring the cat’s delivery; hearing Gerry play was obviously old hat to her. Well, not to us, me and Treva. We finished the rendition, and Gerry then asked me, “D’you know The Things We Did Last Summer?” I was thrilled that I did happen to know this rare Juley Styne song, and, as we launched into the ballad, I tried to split my concentration between playing the right notes and trying to define precisely what it was that made Gerry’s playing so compelling. He had an ascetic precision mixed with a breathy sensuality… and the tension created by this…this dichotomy made you hang on his every utterance. Added to this was a fine intelligence -you could tell he understood every word of the lyric, he was there for every emotional beat -even without any words. It was a complete delineation of the song. This I’d heard only once before with an instrumentalist -another wind player -Benny Goodman. On clarinet. A rehearsal for a Lincoln Center benefit concert -three-fifteen in the afternoon, I was in the wings, watching, and he picked up the stick and very gently, very off-the-cuff, blew softly into his mouthpiece the opening phrase of Rodgers & Hart’s Easy to Remember. YOUR SWEET EXPRESSION….THE SMILE YOU GAVE ME…THE WAY YOU LOOKED WHEN WE MET…there was a tender ruefulness, a soothing yet plaintive quality to his tone. And again, you could not turn your ear away. This was the kind of genius talent I was hearing now with Gerry. “You know,” he said, “I used to write songs with Judy.”
He meant Judy Holliday, the comedienne; they’d gone together for years. Gerry moved to the piano and sang and played. I wish I could remember the specifics. I recall the lyrics as being amusing and thoughtful, and the tunes as being musically proficient…but without much melodic interest. Sandy came out of the bedroom, looking relieved. “I think she’ll be all right.” she said. I wondered briefly whether Sandy had learned (in the Orient) the hidden secrets of how to cloud men’s minds. After the brilliant Judy Holliday, she seemed kind of a come-down for the hip, down-to-earth Gerry. Oh, well -maybe he needed someone to take care of his cat.
You see, the two greatest words in the language: MUSICAL THEATER!!! First John P. Wintergreen (the Gershwins) then Robert Ryan (Irving Berlin) and now….Onstage at The Appollo -our prexy, Barack hits a homer doing a musical number! Go, Barack!!
- I developed my own style at the piano -never had a lesson. I was an auto-didact (that always sounded dirty to me). So it’s amazed me that I’ve been able to play with a couple of serious jazz musicians. I posted about Wynton Marsalis earlier. Here’s another one:
- Treva and I were in line to pay for groceries at the Ralph’s supermarket on Fairfax. It was six-thirty on a typical Los Angeles evening, with the big orange ball of sunset dipping into the Pacific. Suddenly Treva clutched my arm -“Sandy!” she cried. “Oh, hi, Treva,” said the woman in back of us. I looked and, behind her large, dark Hollywood sunglasses, I recognized Sandy Dennis, the actress. Behind her stood a tall, red-headed guy. Sandy peered inquisitively into our shopping cart: “What’re you having for dinner?” she inquired. “Well,” Treva responded, Johnny’s going to cook chicken breasts in a cream sauce with shallots.” Sandy gave a short, smug smile: “That wouldn’t be for me,” she said, “I don’t do cream.” With only the faintest hint of irony in my tone (I mean who the hell asked her?) I said, “Well, I could make it with yogurt…” Sandy nodded judiciously. “That’d work,” she finished -and that’s how we all went back to Treva’s -in two cars- and I put dinner together for the four of us. Sandy was immediately entranced/concerned with Treva’s cat, who was in the beginning stages of labor, about to deliver a litter. After paying merely cursory attention to the conversation at dinner, Sandy ran to the bedroom to be with the cat, leaving Treva and me alone with…Gerry Mulligan.
TO BE CONTINUED
Now why had Dietz‘s wife asked me to lunch?
We sat up there on the Astro-turfed roof-top restaurant at Lincoln Square with our omelettes and crabmeat salad sandwiches, and Lucinda asked me about myself, almost as if she were quizzing a prospective suitor for her daughter’s hand in marriage: where did I grow up? Had I gone to University? What made me learn so many of Howard’s songs? She seemed genuinely sweet and concerned. Finally, she got to the point: “We thought, since you do know so many of Howard’s songs, that you might be nice enough to play him a few, downstairs, because he loves to sing along -and it’s the only exercise he gets now.” I suddenly understood: for Howard, singing was the equivalent of Physical Therapy. When lunch was through, Howard got shakily to his feet, and, with his wife supporting him, shuffled slowly to the elevator. She’d made sure to make him look presentable, I saw, in a navy blue suit and a little bow-tie. Downstairs, I was confronted by a Steinway grand, which dominated the living room of a conventional one-bedroom in this barely post-Eisenhower building. Lucinda helped her husband into his chair, which faced the piano…and I decided to start with a happy song from The Bandwagon -Howard’s classic revue from 1930. “I SEE A NEW SUN/UP IN A NEW SKY”–As Dietz recognized the melody, it was as if an inner ray of sunshine began appearing in his face -he was suddenly animated, coming alive with a fresh energy. Lucinda was right: singing his own lyrics was like a tonic to him, a shot of adrenaline. “I’LL GO MY WAY BY MYSELF/HERE’S WHERE THE COMEDY ENDS–” Long before Garland’s rendition in I Could Go On Singing I’d learned this song from an old 78 recording, on the Liberty label. Long before they made a movie of The Bandwagon (1953) I’d worn out my copy of the score on Mary Martin‘s 10 inch LP: I ALWAYS GO TO BED AT TEN/OH ISN’T THAT A BORE?/I ALWAYS GO TO BED AT TEN/BUT I GET HOME AT FOUR. Howard was up there with the greats, Johnny Mercer, Larry Hart -he could be both witty and profound: “THE CLOWN/WITH HIS PANTS FALLING DOWN/OR THE DANCE/THAT’S A DREAM OF ROMANCE”-after each song, Lucinda would cry out, “Great! Great!” And then Howard said, “I used to write with Kern, you know.” He gestured to his wife. “Show him the book.” I couldn’t believe how an apparent twenty-five years had simply shed themselves of this guy -he was acting so much more youthful and strong. Lucinda brought out a leather scrapbook. Within the cracked binding were hundreds of sheets of lyrics, on onion-skin paper, typed on an ancient Underwood and dating back to the teens of the last century. Now these were titles I didn’t know, but I was happy to laugh along with Howard (he was out of his chair now) and Lucinda as he recited witty couplets from sixty years ago. The phone rang, Lucinda picked it up, listened, and said Thank you David. She turned to Howard: “That was David Amram,” she said, referring to a contemporary composer, “he wanted to wish you a belated Happy Birthday…he said he wished Western Union were still delivering, ’cause he would have used them.” “Ah,” Dietz responded, “that would have been an AmramGram.” Man, I thought, he may have Parkinson’s….but he’s still got all his marbles. THE END
Describing Shakespeare’s most famous play, Howard Dietz wrote this capsule description: WHERE A GHOST AND A PRINCE MEET/AND EVERYTHING ENDS IN MINCEMEAT. As a lyricist, Dietz could be both witty and profound. Sometime in the late 1970’s I was asked to participate in a birthday celebration for him given by a PR lady -Jane Allison. Jane teamed me with an actress named Ann Wedgeworth and requested we do a duet -something of Howard’s- I should pick it. Well, there was a charming number from The Bandwagon that Fred Astaire had introduced with his sister Adele: it was called Sweet Music and I was sure Dietz would get a kick out of hearing it again after forty years. But when I met Ann in a rehearsal studio the week before the party, I was horrified to learn she had absolutely NO TALENT for singing. (PHOTO HERE) She was delicious, great-looking and with a ditzy, Judy Holliday-style persona; she was currently on view in Neil Simon’s play, Chapter Two. But when it came to music, she had a block, God knows why. She’d stop, she’d start, she’d drop beats, forget lyrics, she was a mess. Maybe it was because her husband, Ernie, insisted on monitoring rehearsals. He was obsesssively, jealously, possessive about his wife and he was there to make sure I wasn’t making any moves on her. But it was like trying to teach a beautiful cat to sing. I should’ve nipped this potential disaster in the bud, called Jane and asked for a different partner, but you know how it is: inertia and embarrassment combine to prevent you from making the decisive call (I’ve since learned to heed my first instinct). Well, comes the evening, all the other performers sing their tributes, go through the dazzling catalogue: Alone Together, By Myself, Rhode Island is Famous for You…and his biggest standard, Dancing in the Dark. But when I went on with Ann, predictably, she stops, starts, drops beats, forgets her words and, finally, sits down with a giggle, leaving me to finish the number alone. After the show, we all stood in line to say Happy Birthday to Dietz, me wondering whether to apologize or simply pretend everything had gone swimmingly. Finally, it was my turn: Jane presented me to Dietz and his wife, costume designer Lucinda Ballard. “Oh, you were marvelous,” said Ms. Ballard, “Howard thoroughly enjoyed it.” Dietz gave me a crooked little smile and said “You were vurr goo'” and I realized he was in an advanced stage of Parkinson’s. He had a tremor, and his eyes slid around in his head, as if he couldn’t control them. It was a moment of Mixed Emotions for me, and I went home feeling ambivalent, feeling embarrassed for myself and unhappy that I’d let Jane down. The next morning I was surprised to hear Lucinda Ballard on the phone: “I asked Jane for your number,” she said, “I hope you don’t mind, but Howard and I would like to ask you to lunch next Thursday, if you’re free.” I was thrilled and of course accepted immediately. TO BE CONTINUED