excellence, music, music biz

As Good As It Gets?

Is Carly Simon right?

My original plan had been to head directly to NYC where I would make music for a living. But Hartford High wouldn’t give me a diploma, even though I’d accumulated the required 16 credits. And I couldn’t stand the idea of spending another year there, and I didn’t have the nerve to begin my career as a high school dropout. So I applied to the only college that was still accepting applications in March, and wound up living at home and attending classes at the Hartford branch of UConn my freshman year. Which was a blessing in disguise, as I was about as ready to live by myself in Greenwich Village at age 16 as I was to fly to the moon.

Long before UConn became a basketball powerhouse, it was an agricultural school https://uconn.edu/about-us/history/ – and when I attended, virtually all music majors studied to become teachers. Serious students with professional aspirations opted for conservatories like Oberlin, Eastman & Juilliard, though there were a few exceptions; Marco & Ernie Calouri were gifted French horn players at UConn during my tenure, and they both joined the US military bands upon graduation. There were probably a few others who pursued something other than a Music Ed. degree at that time, but I don’t recall who, or where they ended up.

My first winter in NYC, the Calouri brothers asked me to help them get tickets to the NY Brass Conference for Scholarships, a weekend hosted by music publisher Charles Colin. The following year Dr. Colin hired me to extract parts to some compositions that had been commissioned for several large brass ensembles, and I got a real idea of the calibre of musicianship in the NYC freelance scene. Of course, there were legendary performers, teachers & honorees like Clark Terry, William Vacchiano, Manny Klein, Don Butterfield and Art Farmer – as well as headlining celebrities like Bill Watrous, Doc Severinson and Marvin Stamm – but there were also so many incredible rank & file players whose skills were astonishing! To hear a group of 20 to 30 of these guys all sightreading a new piece was mindblowing to me – I’d sure never seen anything like that at UConn!

Chuck Colin was a charmer! He got me to squat down so that I wouldn’t tower over him in this photo!

After the conference was over, I got to attend some “rehearsal” bands that got together to play for the love of it, and to keep their chops up. Wayne Andre along with Alan Raph led an octet of trombonists whose sound was pure heaven! Much like the Los Angeles counterpart, Hoyt’s Garage https://alankaplan.hearnow.com/secrets-of-hoyts-garage – which shaped and encouraged musical excellence among Hollywood session players.

It can be difficult to find such ensemble perfection these days – and not just because of these past two years of the pandemic. I think my generation was spoiled by our culture; by a public education system that valued music enough to make it a required part of the curriculum from kindergarten through high school. By commercial radio stations that programmed all types of music simultaneously, to appeal to listeners of all ages, so that Louis Armstrong’s HELLO DOLLY was on the top of the Billboard popular charts the same week as folk, rock, surfer songs, Motown and The Beatles! By TV variety shows that featured all genres of music, from classical to dance to pop and beyond. And by respect for the amount of individual effort that went into continually refining and raising the standards of professional musicianship.

Billboard magazine 5/9/1964

I remember when I finally got to live my heart’s desire and work in the recording studios. And how older musicians would tell me how I’d “missed it”, because for them it had been SO good in the 1950s and 1960s; everyone had been working all the time, everybody was busy with records and jingles and film scores, and I’d just been born too late! I’d MISSED the heyday of the music business!

But I hadn’t. I’d seen and heard and been there when it was glorious; when music was rapturous and took my breath away; when superbly skilled musicians worked miracles, outdoing one another with inventive ideas and exquisite performances. To me, that was as good as it gets.

to a dog, maybe bacon IS as good as it gets!?
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Entertainment, excellence, music

An Open ❤️ Letter to Artie Butler, Ron Dante & Barry Manilow

Dear Artie, Ron & Barry:

I’ve loved your records since they were released in the 1970s, and I never stopped. As a singer-songwriter-pianist myself, I could appreciate everything you three brought to the party – and my husband and I have made a habit of bringing your music along on road trips, to sing along with on the drive.

Unfortunately, with the pandemic, there haven’t been as many of those outings over the past couple years. And I personally didn’t feel much like singing lately – which turned into a case of “use it or lose it” downward spiral; I didn’t enjoy singing because I no longer had the vocal chops I used to have, which led to not singing much at all.

But this past week as we drove to L.A. on business, we got to Palm Springs and Barry Wanted to Sing https://marilyn801.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/barry-wants-to-sing/ – so sing we did! Full-throated, for almost an hour, until we had to stop because we were getting hoarse!

And we kept listening, in awe-filled appreciation, to those gorgeous sonorities, arrangements and production! Together the three of you created enduring musical magic that brings joy to so many! Last week you helped me find my voice again! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

http://artiebutler.com * http://www.rondante.com * https://barrymanilow.com

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excellence, learning, music biz

All In The Game

I had a realization tonight – an insight that had eluded me for as long as I can remember, which is that my career has been stymied by my own resistance to playing the game.

I’ve gone to extremes to learn the rules of the game, to get to know the players and their strategies. And then I’ve turned my back on this knowledge, insisting that “it shouldn’t be that way – it’s not fair! – that’s not how the game should be played!”

Flavortown!! Ever been there?? Funny how I got hip to Guy’s Grocery Games after watching a few episodes (well, okay – MORE than a few!) I saw that no matter how delicious any given dish was, (created from the insanely limited food list allowed), no matter how many nummy-sounds the judges made, if the chef hadn’t incorporated the prescribed ingredients according to the rules of the game, that chef would go home empty-handed. The Winner, while perhaps not as accomplished or skillful at creating wonderful FOOD as other contestants, would have ACED the game requirements, thereby prevailing and sweeping up the prize.

There are always excuses that can be made to explain failure, and sometimes I’ve hidden in the comfort they provide. But I think the truth in many instances is that I wasn’t willing to play the game, to kiss the Pope’s ring, to do whatever it took to succeed. I’m still not sure exactly why I made those choices, but tonight while listening to a recording of THEY’RE GONNA LOVE ME, I heard the bitterness and anger in my voice, my refusal to worship the dead gods of jazz at the expense of the living mortals. And I understood.

The good news is that there’s actually more to life than Winning The Game. And there are always other games to play.

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

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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excellence, Jingles, music, music biz

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.

MarkConducts3

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.

MarkConducts2

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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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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