Working and living in New York City was thrilling and lonely. While I considered myself a completely grown-up adult, I was still only 20 years old and I’d still been heading back to Connecticut every other weekend to see my parents and sisters – a practice that was at once comforting and also filled with all the old family angst. So when my teacher Hale Smith and his wife Juanita invited me to their home for Thanksgiving, I was excited to take a new adventure.
I’d never been to Penn Station before and was unprepared for the hordes of travelers on the holiday, but I managed to get my ticket and board the train, which rapidly filled to overflowing – so much so that the conductor was unable to move thru the car to collect tickets, which is why I still have this souvenir.
I don’t recall who picked me up at the Freeport station, but when we got to the house, it was packed with so many people, I was a bit overwhelmed! From their youngest son Eric, (an adorably over-excited 8 year old) to Hale and Juanita’s parents, it was a very mixed and lively group. The food was abundant and delicious and the conversations vibrant – covering everything from politics to sports to art, but always coming back around to music. Everyone in this family had an opinion and no one was shy about expressing themselves. I was delighted to be there, and very thankful to have been invited.
After the entree, the desserts were plentiful and conviviality continued with music at the piano as more and more neighbors and friends converged on the Smith house throughout the afternoon. Both Hale and Juanita went out of their way to introduce me to everyone as they arrived, and most of the new guests turned out to be luminaries in their various artistic fields – I briefly wondered what I was doing, struggling to live in Manhattan, if Freeport was actually a secret artists retreat!? But I figured out pretty quickly that these were just the types of bright, creative people whom the Smiths attracted.
As the party began to wind down, I started to help clean up by clearing the tables, stacking and scraping dishes, but with a brief word to Juanita, Hale spirited me away. He lit a cigar as we walked down the block from the house to the jazz club where he was a regular (on Babylon Turnpike, maybe?) and the whole place erupted with joy at his arrival! After Hale had introduced me to seemingly everyone as his student, the house pianist got up and turned the bench over to Hale, who proceeded to play his ass off for at least three sets!
The energy that night was palpable – here were musicians in their element, taking chorus after chorus with abandon, seemingly effortlessly! Needless to say, I was entranced! Though I’d studied with him for 2 years, I’d never seen my teacher strut his stuff like this – probably because I’d never actually seen him play among his peers before!? At one point, a singer was invited to sit in, and she was great, receiving such enthusiastic appreciation from the audience, it kinda blew my mind! Other than in the movies, I’d never seen that degree of rapt attention from a jazz audience and I began to reconsider my own career ambitions. Seeing her and the band make music together broke apart my own misgivings about singing as a possible career direction and I started to entertain the idea that I might perform and actually enjoy doing so.
When the club finally closed, I had missed the 1 AM train back to Manhattan. Hale and Juanita wouldn’t hear of me waiting 2 hours for the next train, so they commanded their tall, handsome eldest son (who was studying to be a medical doctor) to drive me home. During our conversation I was smitten and felt as if I was living a dream as we approached NYC at 2 AM. Just as Hale had modeled the possibility of being a professional musician/composer while I was at college, he and his wife had demonstrated that day the possibility of a warm and nurturing family life, complete with sophisticated friends and colleagues. The NYC skyline never sparkled brighter for me than on that night, when I saw it was possible to live the life I’d dreamed of; to be surrounded by family, friends and colleagues, to make music and have so much fun doing so. I was beyond dazzled.
I’ve already made the case on my website how much of my career I owe to Hale Smith – please take a look if you haven’t already seen it: