music biz

Croon-ah In Altoona

 

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It was supposed to be a 2-week engagement playing and singing piano-bar at the big downtown hotel in Altoona. I’d signed a contract stipulating I was to be paid $250/week + room w/breakfast and dinner. I boarded the Greyhound at Port Authority at the ungodly hour of 6:30 AM in order to arrive before my 6PM start, noshing on liverwurst sandwiches as the bus stopped at seemingly EVERY little town in Pennsylvania.

Things were not auspicious when I arrived; my room was NOT ready, so I had to wait in the lobby for 45 minutes until it had been cleaned. Then I found that the air-conditioning in the room didn’t work – something you’d rather not have to face after spending ten and half hot hours riding on the bus, desperately needing to freshen-up before the gig! After I hunted down the manager, he told me the AC would be fixed by the time I turned in, but by then there wasn’t time to get dinner before the downbeat. Oh, well!

The boisterous crowd was celebrating some bigwig’s retirement and mostly ignored me, even when I asked for requests.  I kept getting the stink-eye from the manager, who became more and more inebriated as the evening wore on. He began making snarky comments while blowing smoke in my face during my first set and continued to verbally harass me nonstop during my breaks. This gig was not looking good for an entire fortnight’s duration!

Now, I was raised to be a person of my word, my rent was due soon and I couldn’t afford to bail on this gig, but I knew this abuse would continue for the entire 2 weeks if I didn’t find Plan B.  So, after the 3rd set I made “an executive decision” and called my friend Jamie (collect!), to see if he’d loan me the $500 I’d expected to earn, and was incredibly relieved when he said, “Sure! Don’t put up with that! Come on back home to New York right now!”  At the end of the night, I took the $32 in tips I’d earned, packed up my suitcase and walked over to the Amtrak station for the 1:30 AM train bound for Penn Station. 6 hours later I was back in Manhattan, safe and sound.

There’s an old joke my dad used to enjoy telling with the punchline, “what? and give up show biz?”  The agent who had set up this engagement seemed totally unsurprised when I called later that morning to tell her what had happened, and I suspect I was not the first nor the last singer-pianist to have taken a powder on fame-&-fortune in Altoona!

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religion, music biz, self-acceptance, music, excellence

Silk & Scientology

I’d never played a gig like this before; my friend Mara Purl had invited me to join Teji Ito’s band to provide music for a fashion show. I was to add keyboards to the group which featured Mara on koto, Dan Erkkila on flutes, Genji Ito, Cherel Winett Ito and Guillermo on percussion and shakuhachi. Say WHA???

There was no sheet music; we were all just supposed to listen to each other and extemporize, adding whatever might fit with what everyone else was playing. I was sure the resulting cacophony would be terrible – but somehow it began to gel during the rehearsal (otherwise known as my audition!?) – and then… the gig!

The venue was an art gallery and the models were all dancers from the NYC Ballet. Their gorgeous silk attire was breathtakingly beautiful, and they seemed to float on air as they danced to our spontaneous music – it was a “happening” in the best sense of the word!

We played for about an hour and then it was over. Mara and I returned the Fender Rhodes I’d borrowed back to the friend who’d lent it to us, then brought her koto back to her Park Avenue apartment. As it was a lovely spring afternoon, I decided to walk home to my place in Chelsea.

As I passed a storefront on West 34th Street, an attractive young man popped out and invited me to “take a free personality test ”  I was so surprised and in such a good mood, I (uncharacteristically for me!) agreed.  It took a lot longer than I’d thought but I was sure that I was “ace-ing” it!  Turns out – like everyone else who gets suckered into taking this test – not-so-much! The results were graded and it turned out that I was an amazingly defective excuse for a human being – desperately in need of the help that only Scientology could afford me.

All I could do was laugh! I’d just come from the headiest musical experience I’d ever had to that point, making music with Teiji and his group just a couple hours earlier! I’d been paid handsomely and felt on top of the world! Buoyed by that experience, I continued home in the twilight, still high from the gig.  While I might have been susceptible on some other day when my self-esteem may have been shaky… “not today, L. Ron Hubbard! Not today!”

WhatIfNothingWrongWYou

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music biz, music, Jingles, excellence

Leadership

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We’d done hundreds of recording sessions together and we’d been married for over 4 years before I discovered what a wonderful conductor Mark Wolfram is. Somehow I’d missed seeing him wave a baton in front of an ensemble before that.

Initially, Mark was introduced to me as another arranger at the Chicago jingle company where we both worked. His charts were always professional, sometimes brilliant – and he seemed to know his way around the recording studio. He picked up his trombone and played my charts beautifully.  A consummate producer, he was detail-oriented, but always got the big picture, especially when it came to the mix. His ears were impeccable; he could always tell when a singer or musician was sharp or flat, ahead or behind the beat.  He was also a skillful, safe driver behind the wheel – I trusted him and felt confident that he knew where he was going, what steps to take and how to get there – on the road and in his career.  I should have known.

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But I honestly had no idea how well he could conduct before I saw him in action and noticed how attentively the musicians were following him – performing for him in a way I could never get them to play for me.

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Having been a “solo act” for much of my professional life, and having not played or sung in very many ensembles, my knowledge of conducting was rudimentary and my confidence as a leader was sorely lacking. Sure, I’d taken the requisite conducting course in college, but I’d always felt uneasy and embarrassed in front of a group – like a fraud – and the results I got were disappointing. I just didn’t have the “it” factor to gain and keep the attention of the ensemble, whereas Mark has a natural ease on the podium, allowing the musicians to relax, knowing that they’re in good hands with him at the helm!

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Experts say there are basic qualities that the best leaders possess: communication skills, awareness, integrity, courage, vision… that great leaders guide and encourage other people to reach their goals, with the same attributes shared by great teachers – and the best music conductors. Ultimately – and ironically – strong effective leadership comes from being of service to those being led, to the project at hand, to the greater good.

I really wish more modern politicians were a fraction as imbued with these leadership qualities as my Maestro Mark.

Qualities

 

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learning, self-acceptance

The Company We Keep

One of the benefits of having so much more “downtime” these past five months has been the opportunity to sift through old music cassettes; revisiting songs I haven’t heard or thought of for decades, and reassessing the qualities of the writing, production, performance, etc. It’s been amazing to realize how much my tastes have changed… and in some instances, how little, as I’m just as thrilled to revisit some music as I was when I first listened, so many years earlier!

Along with re-evaluating music, I’ve been gaining fresh perspective on the people in my life; it’s always been helpful to me to see friendships in terms of energy fields, and notice how I seem to come “alive” more while hanging out with this person as opposed to that person.

I’m fortunate to have had a number of *enchanted* friendships, where I was immediately overwhelmed when meeting the person for the first time; we got on like a house a-fire, and it felt like we’d known each other our whole lives, or that we were fated to be friends. When it happens, this initial enthusiasm is so heady and intoxicating, it’s hard to resist! And sometimes it continues for a long time; I’m blessed with friends I met in the early to mid-1970s who become dearer to me with every year!

But not always. Recently I’ve become estranged from a few friends-of-many-years when I’ve realized that, though we still shared a lot of the same enthusiasms in life, they were not behaving in a way that made me feel safe – and so I had to distance myself emotionally – and sometimes entirely – from them.

This always feels weird to me – I’m a pretty retentive personality and don’t like letting go – especially when there was something so GOOD about the relationship. But sometimes it’s essential, and the only way to survive psychically. Being in pandemic lockdown, I’m more aware than ever of the importance of choosing my companions carefully. I’ve made questionable decisions when I was younger and felt better able to fend off negativity than I do now. I also know I’m more sensitive to bad juju than I used to be.

Ultimately it seems to come down to staying conscious and being willing to face reality when it presents itself; being curious and brave enough to actually see and evaluate the evidence before us. My dad had a saying, “watch the feet” – because talk is cheap, and it’s easy to assume that others have your best interests at heart when perhaps that is not the case. Then what we need to do becomes crystal clear.

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family, Home

A Horse Named Willard Scott

Where it all began

Sometime in the early 1980s my Dad took the train from NYC to visit his younger brother, who lived in the harbor section of downtown Baltimore. Daddy was an avid walker, and on a whim, (between card games, probably), they strolled over to Pimlico racetrack for an afternoon’s amusement, as Uncle Larry and Aunt Katie would do on occasion. None of them were schooled in the vagaries of gambling on the ponies, but noticing that a horse named Willard Scott was set to run, my dad placed his first bet; the odds were 20 to 1, Willard Scott won and my dad went away $150 richer.

Willard Scott – yee-ha!

He never looked back. The Sport of Kings took over; it became a passion. His lifelong enthusiasms (books, records, acting, writing, movies, playing ukulele, banjo, guitar, etc.) all took a backseat as he worked tirelessly perfecting his handicapping “system”. Sometimes he would win, but mostly he’d lose. Then he’d go back and make further adjustments.

His namesake didn’t earn as much as the clown/weatherman, but all told, the horse did okay!!

All of this constant tweaking would need to be shared with his loved ones as he puzzled out the permutations… with brother Larry, of course, who had gotten him started – and each of his daughters in turn, none of whom had ever expressed even the slightest interest in his methodology. He wrote out his theories (and even got some published!). He spent countless days taking the subway+bus out to Aquaduct or Belmont Park where he could place his tiny 1-dollar bets (to test out his theories), and spend time with his fellow gamblers. If he felt tired, he’d just go downstairs and place the minimum 2-dollar bets at the corner OTB storefront. Nonstop daily study and research of the racing form was a given.

“Like to see some stuck-up jockey boy sittin’ on Dan Patch?”

Once when Larry and Katie were visiting him in NYC, my dad insisted on showing off Belmont Park. After a winning afternoon, as they drove back from Queens into Manhattan, instead of calling it a day, Dad decided it would be a good idea to keep going on out to the Meadowlands in New Jersey, where they could engage in nighttime sulky racing. None of them had a clue what made that sport tick, however, and they lost all they’d won earlier in the day. I don’t think my dad ever bet on a harness race again.

pretty as a picture!

Having grown up with the idea that he was an intellectual fellow, I never understood my father’s fascination with the ponies, and why the ravenous hunger to WIN!!! took him over. I was glad that this desire was kept in check to the degree that he didn’t borrow money from the mob to feed his habit, though – and I loved watching him get SO excited about it, even if it never made sense to me. All I know for sure is that it engaged his mind, heart and soul – it made him happy – and happy is a good way for a Harris to be!

March 1995 at Aquaduct
Excerpt from CELEBRATIONS by Richard W. Harris
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excellence, music

My Mother’s Grandson

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She didn’t make a big deal about it, and I know she enjoyed all of her “granddogs” and “grandcats”, but I think my mother would have really loved it if her children had given her human grandchildren. And after seeing Ben Platt perform IT TAKES TWO for Stephen Sondheim’s 90th Birthday, I’m pretty sure that he would have more than surpassed her expectations for a grandson.

Ben first got my attention in DEAR EVAN HANSEN and a couple years later he blew my mind as THE POLITICIAN.  And now, I’m totally convinced – my mother would have adopted him in a heartbeat. For starters, INTO THE WOODS was my mother’s favorite show; for while she adored A FUNNY THING HAPPEN ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, she was crazy about fairy tales her whole life, and INTO THE WOODS is the only musical she bought copies of for ALL of us.

My mom’s been gone for quite a few years, so Ben has nothing to worry about – but, oh, such a handsome young man – and such a brilliant talent! She would have delighted in and spoiled him rotten!

Instead, she delighted in and spoiled our first boy, Dunkel.  Fortunately, he loved his Grandma Betty right back! 🐾

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learning, self-acceptance

The Guts to Tell My Story

The willingness to share our “mistakes” can be the liberation the whole world needs – I know I certainly need it!

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

debonisBy Karen DeBonis

I met my future freelance book editor in 2001 at a memoir-writing class. Robyn’s writing was beautiful, her smile magnetic, and I trusted her to hear my story. One of the biggest fears memoirists have is that readers will dislike or even hate us for our faulty decisions and bad behaviors. With Robyn, I felt safe.

After a few years of shared critique groups, lunches, and coffee, we lost touch. I stopped working on my memoir because it got too painful. In fact, I stopped writing completely. Then a medical leave from work in 2016 presented me the opportunity to pick up where I’d left off. I looked Robyn up and saw that she had earned an MFA, taught creative writing, and started an editorial business. We met at a coffee shop and I told her I needed an editor. A month or two later, I handed…

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learning, music biz, self-acceptance, growing up

That River In Egypt

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New Years tend to bring on reckoning and self-reflection, and I find myself face-to-face with realities, bitter and sweet; the loss of loved ones, and the memory of happy times with them… releasing habits that no longer serve – and pleasures that no longer please. And then there’s that weight I managed to lose… and all the extra pounds I have yet to shed!

One of the greatest hurdles I find in cleaning up my act is to remain conscious of how messed up it actually IS, present-tense. A load of laundry takes a matter of minutes to do and a messy room can frequently be made presentable in a few hours, but healing an unhealthy body may take months and even years – a long time to keep one’s eyes steadfastly on the prize!  This is especially true when a person has used food to ameliorate uncomfortable emotions for their entire life.  Add on the deluge of shaming / blaming, our culture’s harsh judgements and the stigma of living in a larger body, and it’s no wonder I’ve so often chosen to tune-out awareness of my size and not consistently taken the steps needed to change it for the better.

That said, I’m pretty sure that choosing to be as oblivious as possible to my weight has, in some ways, actually served me in my life.  It never occurred to me to identify as a “fat person”, even over decades while seeing shrinks, joining Overeaters Anonymous several times, trying every new diet, shopping at the fat ladies’ store, joining the gym, etc. Sure, I knew I was heavy, and carrying so much extra weight factored into some lost opportunities, but I also felt that it protected me from certain types of unwanted and dangerous attention, (think #me,too). Being fat in some ways made me feel safer.

Not that I wasn’t confronted by friends, family and strangers! I can’t forget the look of shock and undisguised horror on a teacher’s face when he saw how I’d bulked up over 25 years… or the surprise and disbelief of others when they realized that I’d somehow managed to be creative, productive AND happy, all while being (gasp!) fat!!  The assumption that we’re supposed to deny ourselves having an actual LIFE because we don’t fit the idea of what constitutes “normal”? – well, it never held water for me and in hindsight I’m glad I chose to not focus on this particular “elephant in the room” more than necessary.

Calling out other people for the shape and size of their bodies is rude and unhelpful, IMO.  Hating on ANYBODY is bad form.  Okay – I flinch when I hear a musician play or sing out-of-tune, and wrong lyrics / bad chord changes make me cringe. Likewise, I understand how many folks recoil when they see obese people. But the truth is, just about everyone is doing the best they can and it’s no one’s business to pass judgement on someone else’s journey. I believe we all get to where we’re going on our own time, and, as my grandfather used to say, “none of us are gettin’ out of this alive”.  So…

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music biz, self-acceptance

A Thousand Words

I’ve always loved photos, and I agree with the adage that “a picture’s worth a thousand words”. We didn’t take that many photos in my family of origin, (especially compared to the family I married into, who chronicled every birthday and holiday meal with multiple pix of everyone.) As a kid, I rarely got to snap the camera, since film cost money, as did developing and printing.

I’d eschewed graduation photos from both high school and college – I’m not sure why. I think I didn’t want to spend the money – or I just wanted my education to be OVER, so that I could get going on being an adult already!

As soon as I could, I bought a Polaroid Swinger “it’s more than a camera, it’s almost ALIVE!!”  and took some selfies-before-they-were-called-selfies… slightly out of focus. A few years later I bought a used 35mm for $10, with which a friend took my first headshot (see below). I think this photo reveals (in addition to a lot of skin!?) something I couldn’t even admit to myself, let alone the rest of the world, which is my profound ambivalence about being a performer and entertainer. (What kind of performer uses a headshot where she’s gazing away instead of engaging with the viewer? Perhaps someone who doesn’t trust the audience and doesn’t really want to be there?!)

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I always kinda liked this next photo, taken by a friend in 1978 – I think I have a “Candice Bergen smile” here:

Okay…. maybe not so much… let’s just say maybe I felt like Candice that day!!!?

A couple years later it occurred to me that I didn’t actually have anything approaching an actual portrait of myself, and seeing that I was in my late 20s, perhaps I should chronicle my youth while I still HAD some of it.

When I resumed playing piano-bar gigs in the 90s, I needed a new headshot – and this one, taken by Mary Clare in Chicago, I actually like!?

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So – there are nine thousand words (10, if you count Candice!?)  In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t remain as camera-shy as I felt in my teens – especially since all these wrinkles started showing up!

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music biz, self-acceptance, #jazzcongress, music

Getting Off The Hamster Wheel

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Like many of my fervent enthusiasms, it began innocently enough; a new collaborator suggested I record a jazz CD. Of course, this had occurred to me before and we even made a CD a decade prior – but after production and replication, we’d run out of money and had no budget for promotion, so the CD gathered dust in our closet.

But this time would be different! We’d hire press agents and radio promoters to spread the word and garner airplay! We’d book live performances at jazz clubs and visit radio stations around the country! This time we’d get noticed and on the charts and succeed! At least that was the plan. The reality was slightly different; finding a club willing to take a chance on booking an unknown artist was virtually impossible. Getting radio programmers – even the ones we knew personally!? – to spin a cut on their station even once was iffy! Add to the mix my own profound ambivalence about performing… well, it was a longer-than-long shot.

Even so, there were some victories; I was very proud of both of my jazz albums and after the 2004 release of Future Street and the 2006 release of Round Trip, I finally charted on JazzWeek and became friends with some jazz radio programmers. I got to visit friends and family across the country on my tours. And I introduced some original songs to other artists who wound up performing and recording them.

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Alas, it ultimately wasn’t as rewarding as I’d hoped, either financially or emotionally. First I began to turn down gigs that involved schlepping keyboards, PAs and other gear, and after a few more years I found myself dialing back my involvement in the jazz-o-sphere at large. While I’d enjoyed the annual IAJE conferences and JazzConnect/JazzCongress, it became apparent to me that, like Henry Gibson recited on Laugh-In, one was expected to “keep-a-goin’!” despite any setback or frustration – and I’d had some: Believe Them The First Time

Now, this doesn’t seem to stop my initial reaction when I notice that other jazzers are releasing new CDs or getting covers of their original songs; this type of news pops up on FaceBook, YouTube, and my email box all the time, and I find my Fear Of Missing Out kicking into overdrive! …until I remember how much work and financial outlay are involved in producing, promoting, performing, etc. to create even the smallest ripple of attention, let alone acclaim – and how fundamentally uninterested I am in those aspects. I continue to watch with appreciation and rejoice in the business and artistic triumphs of my colleagues, especially because I know what it takes to accomplish – but I honestly don’t miss running on the hamster wheel!

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ummm…. not-so-much, any more!

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