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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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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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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growing up, learning, music biz, self-acceptance

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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growing up, self-acceptance

Hippie Dippy Days

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The moment I first heard Jimi Hendrix (who was a warm-up act for The Monkees at Forest Hills Stadium), I knew without a doubt that I was NOT “experienced” – that, at the ripe old age of 15, I had never been “experienced” – but what a concept!!  The teenyboppers and their parents who had gone to the concert to see their dreamboats Micky, Davy, Peter and Mike were aghast, but I was enchanted by both the amazing music AND the multi-colored feathered tie-dyed attire, not to mention the attitude… WOW!!  I ran right out and bought the album the next day!

And I tried. I really tried. “Hippie” was something I desperately wanted to be, but somehow it wasn’t the best fit for me. For one thing, I had curly hair that refused to hang loose and free like the other girls – especially on humid days. For another, I was always too tightly wound to “turn on, tune in & drop out”. Hippie-dom didn’t feel natural to me.

I saw that Janis Joplin had unruly hair and thought, “well, maybe…”  And I sure loved her album cover! Everything R. Crumb, for that matter.

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I tried pot – even though it was totally illegal. And I found that I hated how it made me feel; instead of relaxing, I’d hallucinate scary scenarios, with the Devil trying to take my soul, or to have me committed to a psych ward. There was a dealer on campus whose visage haunts me to this day: he was tall, slim, sexy and intense, with an orange-ochre cowboy hat that matched his full beard. I only saw him once but knew immediately and without a doubt that he was sent from Satan, and that if I engaged with him at all, I would be irrevocably doomed to a life of sin and depravity, instead of a life of music and love. (Hippies can have a dark side, after all!)

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Picture a hat this color… and a matching beard… 

Still, I embroidered colored thread on my jeans. I bought love beads and wore peasant blouses. I sported a badge I’d purchased in Greenwich Village that read, “Save Water – Shower With a Friend”.  I hitchhiked up and down the east coast, as well as back and forth to classes. It was nerve-wracking as all get-out.  I did the best I could, but unlike many of my peers, I was never cut out to be a hippie.

 

I had a flashback recently; I’d been having trouble with insomnia and had heard that CBD oil could help me get a better night’s sleep – or even just a decently restful nap. So I bought a roll-on bottle that smelled nice (it had lavender oil added!), but did nothing for me. So I got a bottle of edible hemp oil – with an equal lack of success. The odor was kinda nasty and elicited nerve-wracking anxiety attacks and visions of that drug dealer from so many decades ago. (Even tho I’ve since learned that CBD and hemp oil are the modern-day equivalents to snake oil, in that any effect they produce is the result of the placebo effect. Hmmm.)

I guess once a non-hippie, always a non-hippie.

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Picture me half-empty.

 

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learning, music, music biz

Things We Do For Lo♥e

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No professional I know in the arts began with the idea “to get rich”.  Indeed, pursuing the arts comes from an irresistible impulse to write, to make music, to act, to paint, to perform, to create something new. As artists, we spend countless hours and prodigious amounts of money to develop our skills.  I began with the piano which drew me like a magnet. It was an inner impetus: I had to take lessons. I had to learn how to play. It was an all-consuming urge that could not be denied. I didn’t start out with the idea of becoming a star, or even of making a living in music – although that goal developed in pretty short order!  When I was learning to hand-copy music manuscripts in college, a teacher gave me an orchestral work that had been composed by a friend of his. I was delighted to spend weeks extracting the parts from the score, just for the practice and experience of learning. I don’t think the tiny check I received covered the price of the paper and ink I used!

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To my mind, the performing arts can be more treacherous than fine arts (painting, sculpture, etc.) in this regard because in most instances performers crave to relate directly with other performers and ultimately to the audience. One has to “keep up their chops” between gigs, so workshops are formed and often participants pay-to-play, as if they were out bowling recreationally, instead of working hard on perfecting their professional skills.

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As the daughter of two people who met on stage, I’ve noticed theater people appear to be more eager than many other performing pros to assume that one will volunteer for unpaid rehearsals, free rewrites, event promotion, set-building, etc. – Just For The Joy Of It.  This delusion persists their entire lives, apparently!?  One of the reasons I found it so onerous to work at The Gaslight Theater was the presumption that my time was worthless and therefore I need not be compensated for it. That idea may have been okay when I was in school, but it didn’t pass muster when I was in my 50s!

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As I see it, the stage is set for such gross exploitation at the outset of one’s creative life, when we’re so eager, we’ll do anything to scratch that itch! (It also doesn’t help that the world refers to what we do as playing music, as if it isn’t actually work!) Granted, there are so many more of us who get bitten by the creative bug than opportunities exist to do our thing, let alone get paid for it; it can become a desperate scene.

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Last week an article ran in The Hollywood Reporter recounting the tale of an actor who suffered terrible abuse at the hands of a powerhouse film director.  My heart was touched by the catch-22 in which he found himself; an ordeal that’s been echoed in my own life experiences all too often, though not as frequently now as in my younger years. Yes, there are still many Things We Do For Love – but increasingly, just as we learn to drive defensively, we may need to lo♥e defensively!

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Home, politics

My Undumpy White House

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As accustomed to the frequent barrage of BS from the current administration as I’m becoming, I confess to being more than a little taken aback by #45’s critique on Tuesday of his current digs; “That White House is a real dump.” Over the past 196 days, #45 has said and done some doozies, but something about dissing The White House itself, a spectacular home which is paid for by our taxes, just boggles my mind. I picture him leaving his dirty socks all over the West Wing, littering the White House with greasy fast food wrapping, the way he’s been littering our country with trashy hate-filled speech and Twitter tweets.

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The comment kept coming to mind the past couple days, until it occurred to me to consider my own concept of “home”. And I realized with a start that MY home is my body – where I live, the physical manifestation of my being – and that in the past I have been treating MY White House as “a real dump” – every time I don’t take care of it. Every time I overindulge in food or decide to stay up too late or make myself jittery with too much coffee. Every time I blow off exercise and fritter away hours window-shoppping and doing stupid puzzles online. I’m offended at #45’s lack of respect for his home because I’ve been disrespecting my own home.

I’m actually grateful for the wake-up call. I can only hope that #45 will tune in and hear himself as clearly as I am hearing him now. Because where we live is NOT a dump, unless we make it so. You don’t have to be a billionaire to figure that one out!

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self-acceptance

Embracing Limbo

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No… not THAT kind of Limbo!?!  🙂

Jeff Foster was nice enough to send me the following in today’s email:

“Whatever it is, stop trying to figure it out now.
Let it remain unresolved a little while.
Stop trying to fast-forward to the ‘answer’ scene in the movie of your life;
trust the present scene of ‘no answer yet’.
Allow the question itself space to breathe and be fertilised.
Relax into the mysterious ground of Now.”

 

I’ve been in limbo professionally for quite some time; while I still think of myself as a songwriter and musician, I haven’t composed any new songs for many-a-moon and my piano-playing gigs have dried up substantially from earlier years. At times I’ve despaired that I might not have anything more to say, musically at least.

But I’m learning to trust myself because every time I’ve tried to force the issue, the results have been disappointing. Call me lazy if you like, but for the time being, I’m letting it be what it is, which is: Limbo (an intermediate, transitional, or midway state or place).

 

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