March: looking back, looking ahead

Photo proofs of Tennessee Williams at the Morgan Library exhibit.

March is an in-between month, not quite winter and certainly not quite spring, either. Last month, restlessness and impatience nipped at my heels as I dreamed of lilacs and blue skies, only to be met with nor’easter after nor’easter. Snowfall notwithstanding, March brought lots of fun experiences: seeing the Tennessee Williams exhibit at the Morgan Library; listening to Jay Clayton, Sheila Jordan, and Marion Cowings sing at an intimate Upper West Side soirée; and performing with Duchess at Dizzy’s (in the middle of a snowstorm, I might add). March also ushered in occasions to celebrate: my mother’s birthday, the first day of spring, Major League Baseball’s opening day (!), and my fifteen-year anniversary as a New Yorker on March 31.

Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan singing on the UWS. I am so grateful for their joyful and generous spirits!

I suppose at some point I may stop marking my move to New York City as a personal holiday, but the truth is, the anniversary of my arrival in New York feels as significant to me as my actual birthday (August 22, if you’re keeping track). One of the things I have always loved about New York City is its potential and permission for reinvention. A person can live many different lifetimes in this endlessly dynamic city, and the promise of spring reminds me anew that, as Dorothy Parker wrote, “New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it.”

This year, my New York-iversary coincided with Easter and Passover, leading to a very festive weekend and no small amount of rumination on the twin themes of spring and rebirth. On Good Friday, my friend R. and I headed deep into Brooklyn to attend an invite-only dress rehearsal of Jesus Christ Superstar, starring John Legend and Sara Bareilles. We were there thanks to the largesse of a buddy of mine, who was playing lead trumpet in the show (thanks, S.!) and we were blown away by the energy and talent of the musicians and actors.

The following night, my husband, in-laws, and I had dinner at Gramercy Tavern, a longtime standard-bearer of the New York City restaurant scene. In all my years in New York—and the restaurant business, for that matter—I had never eaten at Gramercy Tavern, and the experience more than lived up to its reputation.  We were delighted by the profusion of tulips and forsythia at the restaurant’s entrance and the warm, golden light that suffused the room. The service was knowledgeable and unpretentious; the food was elegant, imaginative, and (most importantly) delicious. The entire evening was unforgettable.

Three cheers for the world’s greatest city!

Easter Sunday itself was spent with my husband and mother-in-law, walking through the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Precious little was in bloom, but we were all heartened by seeing brave little buds on the trees and lilac bushes.

Looking ahead—well, at the moment, the truth is that I’m not looking too far ahead. Spring will arrive when she’s good and ready. In the meantime, there are daffodils from Trader Joe’s, early dinners in cozy locales with friends, piping hot cups of tea in the morning, and other small, quiet joys that make me happy to be right here, right now.

In March, I…
Blogged about: February. The joys of carbohydrates. Singer-friend Champian Fulton.

Watched: Woman of the Year. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are irresistible. Words and Music. Wildly inaccurate, but delightful to hear so many Rodgers and Hart tunes. Sneaky Pete. Giovanni Ribisi is ridiculously good in this fun show. Jesus Christ Superstar, live and in person!

Read: Playing with the Grown-ups, by Sophie Dahl. I love Sophie Dahl’s writing. This, her first novel, is a coming-of-age story, told with poeticism and compassion, about a young woman with a decidedly unconventional upbringing. At the Kitchen Table, Dahl’s new website with seasonal recipes and thoughtful musings, described by Sophie as “kind of virtual Sunday lunch table, with excellent guests.” Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub. An enormously engaging portrait of the life of a starlet in Hollywood’s golden age. The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford. God, I loved this book! On the surface, Mitford’s tale of the romantic mishaps and comic foibles of a beautiful British noblewoman could be construed as frivolous, but her prose is laced throughout with laugh-out-loud zingers and sharply intelligent social commentary.

Listened to: The Red Garland Trio, A Garland of Red. Elegant and swinging. The Boswell Sisters.

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February: looking back, looking ahead

Early this morning, I was awakened by a cacophony of car horns. Something—I don’t know what, exactly—was making the rush hour traffic in downtown Brooklyn even more slow moving and ill-tempered than usual, and when it became clear that the din wasn’t going to subside any time soon, I decided I might as well get out of bed and see if I could make something of the morning. My reward? Limpid, dazzling sunlight, dappling the scaffolding on the building facing our apartment and glinting off the plastic trash bags in the street below, and a couple of serene, solitary hours in which to write and reflect.

These high/low juxtapositions (stunning morning light shining on garbage and construction, stolen peaceful hours underscored by the relentless honking of car horns) kind of sum up this time of year for me. Sure, there’s beauty to be found, but I find I have to look a little harder for it in late winter/early spring. It’s easy to maintain a rosy outlook on a 75-degree June day, after all, when you’re at Yankee Stadium on Saturday afternoon, cold beer in hand, and the boys in pinstripes are winning. Unflagging good cheer is slightly harder to come by when it’s sleeting sideways on the one Tuesday that you’ve got meetings all over town and the subway is full of people who are as damp and cranky as you are.

Scenes from February travels: twilight in Florida and Wendell Castle’s Steinway.

Looking back, February was busy, filled with travel, gigs, and opportunities to make the best of things. Duchess had a show in Florida, where we availed ourselves of some much-needed balmy temperatures and beach walks…after an hours-long flight delay here in New York on a sodden, gray morning. Later in the month, I flew to Toledo, Ohio for a performance at the beautiful Toledo Museum of Art. The people we met were welcoming and warm, and the venue itself was gorgeous—a glass pavilion with a Steinway designed by Wendell Castle—but I felt lonely in the impersonal downtown hotel, and the weather was (you guessed it) gray and rainy.

Lest I seem ungrateful, I hasten to add that last month brought moments of utter delight, as well, with old and new friends. Upon reflection, many happy moments in February involved food or music (or both): an afternoon spent talking about music and life with Nancy Harrow, a wonderful singer and composer; burgers at Diner with a friend from high school whom I hadn’t seen for over a decade; oysters at the Grand Central Oyster Bar with a singer friend from my former restaurant life; a cocktail at the Algonquin with dear ones; a family dinner at Felidia; a post-gig drive through a blizzard with the Duchess gals, laughing all the while; a few brunch gigs around town with different configurations of musician friends.

Recipe for winter happiness: singing + oysters on the half shell. (Top photo by Claude Collerette)

Looking ahead, then, I’ll do my best to embrace the caprices of March and, if actual sunshine is nowhere to be found, I’ll look for it in the kitchen or on the bandstand.

In February, I…
Blogged about: Nothing! Oy. But I did write a remembrance of Keely Smith for JazzTimes Magazine (my first byline!). The March “In Memoriam” issue is on newsstands now.

Read: The Last Days of Café Leila, by Donna BijanThis novel was poignant and, at times, beautifully written, especially the passages about Persian food. I was disappointed by the ending, but would still recommend this book. Cooking for Picasso, by Camille Aubray. Light as a feather but a fun airplane read.

Watched: Battle of the Sexes (also on an airplane). Mozart in the Jungle.

Listened to: Fresh, by Sly and the Family Stone. God, when the horns and vocal enter on “Skin I’m In”!! Sly Stone was such a revolutionary; it seems like he influenced everybody. Fools Rush In, by Louis Armstrong. Sheer beauty.

January: Looking back, looking ahead

After the rush and sparkle of the holiday season have died down, I like to, if possible, get out of town. Walking along icy sidewalks past piles of desiccated, discarded Christmas trees and realizing that months—months!—of winter remain can bum out even the most stalwart soul. What better antidote than sunshine and guacamole?

Scenes from the Baja: representing Brooklyn on a morning run; sunrise over the Gulf of California; the best chips & guac ever; the backyard…fan palms and mountains.

Mid-January, I flew south of the border to spend a week in Mexico, where my parents live. Time seemed to expand that week, and I don’t think it was entirely a function of being on vacation. On the Baja, I rose with the sun and went to bed embarrassingly early. I minimized screen time. There were no sirens and no street lights; nights were starry and silent. When driving, we often had to stop and let cows cross the road before proceeding. In short, each day’s rhythms were set by nature. It was a deeply restorative time and I returned to New York rested and invigorated…once I got over the 24-hour stomach bug I picked up on the flight home, that is. C’est la vie.

Road trips! Clockwise from top: a sweet café in Todos Santos; making way for the cows’ commute; a quick stop in charming El Triunfo; sunset in La Paz.

Looking ahead, I’ve got a little travel coming up in February: Florida with Duchess and a duo show with Ehud Asherie in Toledo, Ohio. But for the most part, I’m sticking close to home and doing my best to maintain some of that Baja expansiveness in my Brooklyn life: early(ish) to bed and early to rise, dedicating time daily to writing and singing, and keeping screen time to a minimum. Simplifying. So far, I think it’s going well.

In January, I…
Blogged about: Simplifying. Year’s End.

Read: Devotion, by Patti Smith. As ever, beautiful writing—and in this thin volume, Patti Smith pulls back the curtain on her own creative process. Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler. An extremely well written novel about a young woman’s coming of age, set in the NYC restaurant scene circa 2006. This book was, at times, uncomfortably familiar (especially the many scenes at Park Bar). Still Life, by Louise Penny. My Duchess sister, Amy, gave me this book before my surgery, and I finally got around to finishing it. It’s the first in a series of mysteries set in a picturesque Canada town. The scenery, townspeople, and protagonist (Chief Inspector Gamache) are all incredibly endearing, and food descriptions abound. I may be hooked.

Watched: The Durrells in Corfu, an incredibly charming show about an English family (that of novelist Lawrence Durrell and naturalist Gerald Durrell, in fact) expatriated to a remote Greek isle in the 1930s. Grace and Frankie. There is such nuance and depth of storytelling in this hilarious show. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are goddamned national treasures. Lots of movies: Ingrid Goes West, Beatriz at Dinner (both watched on the plane), The Big Sick, Lady Bird.

Listened to: Honey and Salt, by Matt Wilson. I listened to this album in Baja as I walked along an empty beach with the sea on one side, mountains on the other, and a vast, uninterrupted sky above. Such beautiful surroundings were the perfect place to absorb this album, rich with humor, wisdom, sorrow, and humanity. A generous, expansive work of art. Le Nozze di Figaro, at the Metropolitan Opera. Mozart’s melodies, perfectly constructed and lyrical, are a balm for the ears and soul.

Year’s end: Looking back, looking ahead

Radio City Music Hall, in full Christmas regalia.

All’s well that ends well, the saying goes, but October and November were nonetheless pretty difficult months. We entered the holiday season a bit shaken but with unshakeable gratitude, keeping our festivities mostly quiet and homespun. We hosted a few small-scale dinners at home and visited friends for a couple of parties in Brooklyn. We stepped out on the town a bit, too, enjoying some fantastic dinners out (La Scalinatella! Nom Wah Tea Parlor!) and we also took in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, which did indeed live up to its name.

On the singing front, October saw the release of my new album, The Late Set, a collection of intimate piano/vocal duos with pianist Ehud Asherie; we enjoyed a sold-out CD release show here in NYC and headed out to the Pacific Northwest in early November for a whirlwind tour. Duchess headlined at Jazz Standard in December, then weathered SantaCon (!) and two snowstorms (!!) to play our last shows of the year in Connecticut and Tarrytown.

Singing in the new year. Welcome, 2018!

For the last hurrah of 2017, I did something I’ve never done in all my years of New Year’s Eve gigging: I sang in a jazz club for people who came for the express purpose of hearing music. Please forgive the profusion of italics; after years of being sonic wallpaper at fancy restaurants, singing for an attentive audience on New Year’s Eve was pretty exciting and, I choose to believe, a good omen for the year ahead.

Looking (way) back, I vividly remember being twenty-two and believing firmly, with the self-assurance indigenous to people in their early twenties who happen to have read a couple of novels and therefore believe themselves to be preternaturally Wise People, that life’s joys and sorrows were meted out by the Universe based on some kind of vague karmic meritocracy. I blame my erstwhile embrace of this horseshit philosophy on the youthful desire to make sense of a perplexing and troubling world. (Okay, and Oprah. I also blame Oprah, who has championed pop psychology nonsense like The Secret and Dr. Phil since, it seems, time immemorial.)

What I have come to understand in the years hence is that life’s joys and sorrows are only sometimes determined by one’s intentions and choices (and let’s just leave the “Universe” out of this, shall we?). At least as often, we are at the mercy of our genetics, the circumstances of our birth, or the pure happenstance of being in the right or wrong place at precisely the right or wrong time. And when the proverbial shit hits the fan (which it most certainly will, for all of us), the most and best we can do is be as strong and kind as possible. As I reflect on 2017, especially its turbulent autumn, I am suffused with gratitude for kindnesses great and small, extended at every turn by a community of family, friends, and strangers. Looking ahead, my New Year’s resolutions are simple: Be present. Choose kindness.

In October, November, and December, I…
Blogged about: Summer. Duchess turning 4. Singer-friend Marianne Solivan.

Read: The Girl from Venice, by Martin Cruz Smith. I picked this up in the airport on a flight delay and had a hell of a time getting through it. But I persevered, and in the process, did a little armchair (and time) travel to WWII-era Venice. Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin. Plainspoken, friendly tomes about cooking and eating; perfect to revisit while in the holiday cooking frenzy.

Watched: The Deuce. Meet Me in St. Louis, without which the holidays cannot officially begin. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Alias Grace. Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. Stranger Things. The Netflix Yule Log, for which I make no apologies. It’s cozy!

Listened to: Politely!, by Keely Smith with Billy May & his orchestra. The Song Is All, by Nancy Harrow. A lot of Christmas music.

Summer: Looking back, looking ahead (or: September, we hardly knew ye)

This summer was filled with some great stuff: cheering for the Yankees at baseball games; strolling through riotously blooming botanical gardens; enjoying barbecues in Brooklyn and country weekends of canoeing and lakeside reading in Connecticut; toasting a couple of dear friends as they got married in a ceremony brimming with laughter, tears, and music; watching Casablanca and eating an impromptu living-room picnic after getting rained out at an outdoor movie.

Summer’s happy places: Yankee Stadium, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and a quiet lakeside idyll in Connecticut.

But, as A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote in The Green Fields of the Mind, “There comes a time when every summer will have something of autumn about it,” and indeed, proverbial autumn loomed large this summer. There were upsetting headlines (Nazis are trying to stage a comeback? The president is tweeting threats of nuclear war? Seriously?). Friends and I traded diagnoses, fears, and familial travails like baseball cards. My routine physical turned into a protracted series of exams and consultations in which I learned I’d need a big ol’ surgery to remove a softball-sized fibroid. I was scared a lot this summer. Then, September belonged to the surgery itself: preparing for the procedure, going under the knife, and recovering.

Me with my mom, the best nurse a gal could hope for; socks from my DUCHESS sisters that kind of sum things up; me at my first post-surgery outing at (where else?) Yankee Stadium.

Now, thoroughly ensconced in actual autumn, my big takeaways are forehead-slappingly obvious and not particularly insightful: We all get sick. We all die. The world is—and has always been—on fire. Given all these dismal realities, the only things that really matter are family and friends and a living a life full of love and kindness and gratitude. THANKS, HALLMARK.

While I’ve been sitting here this morning, trying (and failing) to piece together a cogent recap of my summer and the gifts that fear and uncertainty can bring, I’ve also been listening to the radio. Right now, Ella Fitzgerald is singing “On the Sunny Side of the Street” with the Basie band, and her exuberant, freewheeling vocal, imploring us to choose joy, is really the whole truth. Looking ahead, I’m going to do my best to follow the song’s advice:

Grab your coat and get your hat
Leave your worry on the doorstep
Just direct your feet
To the sunny side of the street

Can’t you hear a pitter-pat?
And that happy tune is your step
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street

I used to walk in the shade
With those blues on parade
But I’m not afraid
This rover crossed over

If I never have a cent
I’ll be rich as Rockefeller
Gold dust at my feet
On the sunny side of the street

This summer, I…
Blogged about: May. Music from 100 Years Ago. Singer-friend Roseanna Vitro.

Read: Kafka Was the Rage, by Anatole Broyard. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. This gorgeous essay about food and memory. What She Ate, by Laura Shapiro. The Girls in Their Summer Dresses, by Irwin Shaw. One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts, by Shirley Jackson.

Watched: The Handmaid’s Tale. Casablanca. So much Yankees baseball. The Great British Baking Show. Desk Set. Every single episode of Game of Thrones. I Called Him Morgan.

Listened to: Sly & the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Luiz Bonfa, Solo in Rio. Lots of the Nat Cole Trio. Tanto Tempo, Bebel Gilberto.

May: Looking back, looking ahead

Ebbs and flows—of money, of employment, of time—are hallmarks of the freelance life, and I’ve loved the busy-ness of the past six months. Singing has taken me from a film set to Italy to the Caribbean to Canada, as well on short jaunts to the Midwest, South Carolina, the Pacific Northwest, and the Hamptons (and a vacation took me to Mexico for some much-needed R&R). When not on the road, I’ve been onstage or in the recording studio. Yes, 2017 has been fast-paced and action-packed thus far, and I’ve been having a great time going with the flow of busy-ness.

But…(you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) when one’s energies are directed outwardly for too long, it’s absolutely essential to replenish the well, which is exactly what I was able to do in May. Last month, I hung out with friends, ran a 5K, visited the Met and Cooper Hewitt museums, saw a performance of Shakespeare in the Park, went out to hear some great live jazz, and I even saw an opera. It feels so good to be a tourist at home, gleaning inspiration from New York’s endlessly vibrant art and culture.

Shakespeare in the Park; stopping to smell the roses at Brooklyn Botanic Garden; the Jazz Age exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt museum.

Of course, May hasn’t been all leisure. With the help of the nice folks over at Squarespace, I built a shiny new website, which has been on my to-do list for quite a while. And I’m currently doing a lot of preparation and outreach in anticipation of—drum roll, please—the Anzic Records release of THE LATE SET, my new album with pianist Ehud Asherie, due out in October!

The new homepage over at hilarygardner.com!

Looking ahead, I’ve got a few great gigs on the horizon (including an exciting show with Duchess for Lincoln Center Out of Doors on July 28), and I’m really looking forward to summer. I’ve got a whole list of fun summer plans for the months ahead, including a Circle Line cruise, picnics in the park, beach days, beer gardens, and baseball. Summer’s here. Let’s party.

In May, I…
Blogged about: April. The Song Is You (a remembrance of Josh Wolff). Singer-friend Andrea Wolper.

Read: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler. A well-written, enjoyable read about a woman who, had she been born in a different time, might have been remembered as so much more than a famous writer’s tragic wife. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. I’ve felt a strong inclination toward doing more writing, and this book was just the push I needed to get started.

Watched: Der Rosenkavalier, Lincoln Center HD. A big-screen version of Strauss’ gorgeous opera, with Renée Fleming in her last performance as the Marschallin. Exquisite. Julius Caesar, Shakespeare in the Park. This production was way too heavy-handed with the Trump metaphors (we get it, a megalomaniacal narcissist is running our country and imperiling our democracy), but Corey Stoll is always fantastic.

[UPDATE: In the wake of Delta Airlines, Bank of America, and American Express pulling their support from the Public Theater, I would like to add that I support the Public Theater without hesitation or reservation. Part of what art is meant to do—indeed, perhaps its most important function of all—is to, however provocatively, interpret and portray complex issues that pertain to the here and now. For crying out loud, the whole point of Julius Caesar is that democracy is fragile and can be undone, even destroyed, by violence.]

Listened to: Double Bass Double Voice (Emily Braden, Nancy Harms, Steve Whipple). I saw this trio’s CD release show at the Zinc Bar and was completely blown away by their song selections (everything from Duke Ellington to Stevie Wonder to traditional spirituals to Billy Joel), inventive arrangements, playfulness, freedom, and communication.

April: Looking back, looking ahead

April was filled with travel and music, including a sunny week on the Baja in Mexico, filled with painterly sunsets and pizzas on the grill, weathered wooden doors in sleepy little towns, and morning tea in oversized Talavera mugs. It’s always restorative to soak up the sun for a few days, especially in early April, when one is thoroughly tired of winter (even a relatively mild one) but spring has not yet officially made her presence known.

Mexico…I think that’s a perfectly reasonable size for a margarita, don’t you?

Later in the month, I found myself in the verdant, misty Pacific Northwest with Duchess for some teaching and a few shows in Portland and Seattle. I spent my early twenties in Seattle, discovering the city and adulthood itself through waitressing, singing, and some ill-considered love affairs. Singing has brought me back to Seattle several times in recent years, and I’m always grateful to be able to (at last!) enjoy the memories and familiarity without carrying the weight of old, bad decisions and cringe-worthy moments.

I’ve been traveling pretty frequently, mostly for work, since December and it feels great to be at home for a while. Looking ahead, there’s much to do and the calendar has a way of filling up, for which I am thankful; my official performance schedule is fairly bare until mid-summer, but a number of private party gigs have materialized in recent weeks. I’m also putting the finishing touches on my new website (huzzah!) and firming up release plans for my new recording project, a piano/vocal collaboration with Ehud Asherie.

I am buying armloads of lilacs at every street corner flower stand that still carries them and waiting, with bated breath, for warmer temperatures and clearer skies.

In April, I…
Blogged about: February and March.

Read: In Altre Parole, by Jhumpa Lahiri. I’ve longed to recommence thinking and speaking in Italian, and since a return to la bella Italia isn’t on the horizon at present, I figured that reading in Italian would be a good place to start. I found Lahiri’s bilingual memoir of studying and writing in Italian to be circular and overly precious, but I loved the ritual of reading aloud in Italian every evening with an Italian/English dictionary at my side. I’ve got a couple of Italian-language books here at home, and the Brooklyn Public Library has a great foreign language section, so I’m looking forward to making this a new habit.

Watched: Z: The Beginning of Everything. Christina Ricci stars in this Amazon series about the early years of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The clothes, music, and art direction are lots of fun, once you get past Ricci’s Southern accent. The New York Yankees! This team is on fire and I had a blast at my first game of the season. I can’t wait to go back.

Listened to: Louis Prima, The Wildest. God, what a fun record.