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.
One March afternoon in 1974 I got a call from Gil Evans (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gil_Evans); could I come over to his loft-apartment in Westbeth (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westbeth_Artists_Community) to fix up some parts before his band’s gig that night at the Village Vanguard? I was then living in a basement apartment at 7th Ave. and 21st St., so I grabbed my supplies (pen, ink, manuscript paper and lick-&-stick staff strips) and headed downtown to meet with Gil.
Saxophonist Trevor Kohler was Gil’s copyist at that point, and I was surprised to see that many of the parts he’d copied were in turquoise ink (not exactly “standard”!) I’d also never seen as compressed sketch scores as what Gil handed me; talk about economy! Many of the sections had been erased and revoiced more than once. He was going to get his money’s worth out of that paper, by gum!
Thus began our relationship; most Monday afternoons I’d be on-call to patch up whatever section of an arrangement Gil was reworking, and then I’d spend my evening enjoying the band’s music at the club. The music itself was much looser than I was accustomed to, and week to week, I could rarely tell the “new” sections from the “old”, but my cover was waived and everyone seemed to be having a great time, so… what the heck!
Gil was a very laid-back guy, as was his wife Anita. It never occurred to me that their relaxed attitude may have been augmented by chemical enhancement. I’d get my assignment and be left alone unsupervised in their apartment for hours. Once when the phone rang, I answered and had to tell Miles Davis that Gil was asleep in the bath tub and unavailable to talk. I didn’t know about Miles’ raspy damaged vocal cords, so I took a message for Gil to return his call and then advised Miles that vitamin C might help, but maybe he should see a doctor for that horrible cold!
A few months after I began my tenure as Gil’s copyist, the band went on tour to Europe; I recently came across this YouTube: https://youtu.be/ihDjcW9u6y4 – they all look and sound just as I remember them; young and full-of-beans.
After a long delay, Gil was VERY excited to finally be recording the Jimi Hendrix album that first summer – and after having worked exclusively from sketch scores for months, I was shocked that Gil was actually capable of writing a full score, complete with individual staves, properly transposed for each instrument! Consequently the sessions at RCA were less last-minute and hectic, tho I missed the spontaneous backgrounds that the horn players would invent behind their cohort’s solos at their regular gigs. (Gil generally surrounded himself with younger people and encouraged them to take liberties with what he’d written).
Though I’ve looked back and wondered why I didn’t parlay more business connections from my copying clients, I never had the ambition to “go to school” on Gil, like Maria Schneider, who copied for him in the mid-80s. Sure, I admired Gil’s work. But to my ear, his orchestrations were too similar one to the next, and I was usually more interested in the original tunes themselves. (and distracted by the musicians, to be totally honest!)
I kept copies of some of his sketch scores, though – and after unearthing them from my file cabinet, recently decided to share them with the Library of Congress. Now anyone who’s interested can see first-hand how Gil was writing back then.
“So what have you done lately?” It used to really bug me when my dearly departed dad would ask this question; while I’d be eager to show him my newest song, I sincerely doubted his interest, as I rarely felt he actually liked any of my work.
And I felt challenged, as if what he was REALLY asking was, “what have you got to say for yourself? Give an accounting of what you’ve accomplished to justify your existence!” It almost felt like an attack, although I’m pretty sure that wasn’t his conscious intention.
‘Tis the season for Christmas letters, and as one might expect, we didn’t receive as many as we have in earlier years; 2020 was a year of delays, postponements and cancellations, so many of us didn’t have as much to report. (Maybe it’s enough that we survived!?)
Which reminds me of the first attempt we made in 1984, to include a Christmas letter in with the greeting cards we mailed to family and friends; we’d moved precipitously from Chicago to Los Angeles (on a wing & a prayer, AKA hope & credit cards!?), and had recently purchased our first computer. The word processing program had a
We didn’t have much actual NEWS to share, and were frankly floundering, trying to get our bearings in a new market. But after 6 months on the west coast, we still felt hopeful we could break into the Hollywood music biz, and we included all of the new people we’d met since our move on our mailing list, many of whom we hadn’t followed up on after our initial meetings. We hoped the holiday letter could be a way to reconnect and perhaps build relationships.
We got one response that took our breath away; an anonymous recipient of our holiday greetings had gone to the trouble to write a very snarky letter back, using the same format. Since we didn’t really know many of the folks we’d mailed to, we puzzled for weeks over who we had offended so grievously! And we haven’t written many Christmas letters since then!
I’ve been encouraging a couple of friends to write and publish their memoirs; we get on the phone and I LOVE hearing about their career adventures – stories I think would interest every reader, not just those “in the biz”. Some of the most amazing tales are so vivid they make me gasp! Do I believe every word? I admit that sometimes it’s a stretch, because it seems incredible that so much could have happened to one person in one lifetime. But then I remember some of my own peccadillos and wonder how many people might have a hard time believing they actually happened. (I was there – they did!)
Marie was recalling her years playing piano at the mall in front of Nordstrom’s, and it brought back some of my favorite memories of performing in hotel lobbies and having random strangers start to dance as they passed – or begin to sing along! Jamie tells me about growing up in the mixed bag that was America in the 50s & 60s and it reminds me of the compromises my own family made to stay together. These stories need to be shared no matter how they might have become slightly embellished over time. If there’s enough truth, it validates the emotions and lessons to be learned.
We rewatched FARGO the other night, which purports to tell the true story of what happened in MN and ND in 1987. IMO, the film holds up VERY well 24 years after its release, while the additional material on the DVD reveals that the story was entirely the creation of Ethan and Joel Cohen and never actually occurred. But there’s enough truth in the characters, accents and attitudes that we go along for the ride, with “the willing suspension of disbelief”… and it winds up being True Enough.
I recently came across a memoir by a songwriter I’d met in the mid-1970s and perused the pages offered on the LOOK INSIDE by amazon; it certainly sounded like the Paul Vance I knew; dynamic, uncouth, and SUPER-self confident. Were all of his stories accurate? Does it matter? He’s honestly present in this book, telling it “how it is” – or at least how he remembers it! It’s authentic and for me it’s true enough.
Dr. Bertice Berry has been posting daily stories online during the pandemic; http://www.berticeberrynow.com. She frequently dissolves into tears during these videos. Are all of her stories based on absolute facts? I don’t care – I believe her because they’re true enough!
Remember Elvis’ TEDDY BEAR? ♫♬ https://youtu.be/jf9Wg2OkSbE Remember these lyrics? I don’t wanna be your cheetah, ’cause cheetahs run too fast! I don’t wanna be your panther, ’cause panthers don’t know how to make love last! I don’t wanna be your leopard, ’cause they’re too hard to spot! I don’t wanna be your cougar, your lynx or any kind of ocelot! I just wanna be… your Teddy Bear! ♫ ♬
Were all these wildcats in the mix before Bernie Low & Kal Mann settled on “tigers (that) play too rough” and “lions ain’t the kind you love enough”? (Can you prove they weren’t?) It amuses me, and it’s true enough! ♫♬
I grew up surrounded by unions; union-made clothing, union-employed family members, unionized teachers, union awareness… I vividly remember the grape boycott in the 1960s due to the farm workers’ strike. https://www.history.com/news/delano-grape-strike-united-farm-workers-filipinos My first paychecks had union dues deducted from the net – the woman who trained us to be cashiers at E.J.Korvette was a die-hard union gal! There were jingles on the radio; “Look For The Union Label” and films like NORMA RAE and THE PAJAMA GAME presented unions in a supportive light.
I joined Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians in 1973 and worked “on the card” as much as possible. While I never got a gig from hanging out at Roseland, I went through reams of manuscript in my years as a music copyist and joined AFTRA & SAG when I began singing on recording sessions. When I moved to Chicago, I joined 10-208 – when we moved to Los Angeles, I joined Local 47.
With my own favorable experiences working in unions, I was distressed when Ronald Reagan (a former SAG union president himself!) took aim at the air controllers union in the early 1980s. Workers’ unions have always been under attack, but especially so over the past 40 years, as politicians and corporations have tried to divide us by vilifying the very idea of workers pulling together to demand safe work conditions and fair wages. (the nerve! how DARE we?)
There have been as many changes to unions over the years as there have been to the world at large, and some of them are not positive; more than once we’ve brought a problem to the union and not had our concerns taken seriously, or taken at ALL! (I’m remembering a New Year’s Eve gig where I had a signed contract with a club and got stiffed… and then there was the time the union didn’t follow up on thousands of dollars in residuals that were due to us and the singers we’d hired! A Dime A Dozen). Graft and corruption have seeped into the handling of pension plans, for example, and, as in many other business dealings, there’s always been the tendency for contractors to hire others on the basis of friendship (or kickback!) rather than merit.
But most musicians I know have only fantasized about enacting some of the behavior in ON THE WATERFRONT. In a more perfect world, unions would be more perfect, but in the world we actually HAVE, they are plenty good enough.
Lately I’ve come across some interesting recordings while archiving old cassettes to mp3s on my computer – including jingles I composed over 40 years ago. This has led me to ponder the “art of persuasion” that is advertising itself.
Not as overt as 3-card monte, the jingle is still a bit of a con, as it makes assumptions; about who you are, what you need, your self-image and identity, and a host of other attributes that the advertiser hopes will lead you to embrace their product, service or idea.
The following lyrics were for a Honda motorcycles pitch, and the only “given” from the ad agency was the tagline “what life oughta be”; an idealistic, dreamy message, full of hope and promise. My first attempt:
I was told this was too confrontational, ominous and maybe even a little threatening. So, back at the drawing board, I softened the message:
(You can see I was pretty enamored with the phrase “dreamin’ out loud” and wasn’t going to give it up without a fight!) But my attempt to express the urgency of how riding a Honda would change your life tracked as impatience – the underlying message being WTF is WRONG with you? Get GOING already! So – once again, a new tune with a more authoritative “leadership” narrative and slightly less punitive tone:
Ultimately I don’t think I managed to capture the right balance of the Carrot & Stick approach because I didn’t sell any of these jingles, but I certainly tried! Listening to them now, I can’t help but notice the similarities between my ultimatum messages (of life fulfillment-via-motorcycle) and that of the Trump re-election campaign; the promise of making America “Great Again!” coupled with the threat of dystopian apocalypse should anyone else win the White House.
With this much apparently at stake, it behooves us to remember that there’s only one sure-fire way to win at 3-card monte:
All the current scuttlebutt about destroying the Post Office brings to mind the many times I’ve interacted with the USPS; from early childhood I remember how special it was to receive a card or letter from Nana – with MY NAME on the envelope! – and how I signed up for penpals thru ‘TEEN magazine (which I subscribed to and received in the mail every month!!)
Getting mail is a privilege and a right for Americans thru our Constitution and it’s illegal and immoral to attempt to destroy this precious service that helps us communicate and stay connected.
Over the years I wrote and received letters and cards I treasure to this day; a letter from a neighbor who had moved away, encouraging me to keep writing poems and songs when I was a teenager, a stack of love letters and greeting cards from when my husband and I were courting, the final PAID-IN-FULL invoice from my college loans, and decades of letters from my dad… might not matter to anyone else but they sure mean a lot to ME!
One of my favorite memories of receiving mail was when Mark and I lived in NYC and would receive thick envelopes every month or two from his dad, who lived in Tucson. Enclosed with his note would be a stack of coupons he’d clipped from newspapers and magazines. In the early 1980s, Tucson was a test market for a lot of new products, so there would be coupons for items we’d never even heard of…! Dad LOVED his bargains and we felt like we could splurge trying out new things because we had those coupons he’d sent to us!
Mostly we knew he was thinking of us, and that was the best thing of all. Nothing takes the place of a letter from home.
We depend on our postal service to ship our sheet music and CD recordings to our customers. Reliance on the USPS is a non-partisan issue; personal and professional. The difficulties being heaped on our postal service now are indefensible; at every turn, postal employees are being cheated, service hours are being truncated and critical deliveries are being delayed. Today I spoke with our carrier who delivered a shipment from Germany, bills and advertising circulars and a box of vitamin supplements – and I reassured her, “we have your back. We’re union people, too. And America will not let the postal service die!”
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!
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!”
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.
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.
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!
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.