Foodie Tuesday: Songs for Supper

Jazz Musicians & Food

L to R: Duke Ellington, enjoying a sundae; Billie Holiday, cooking; Frank Sinatra, having coffee & a donut in his dressing room.

Musicians tend to be bons vivants, possessing refined palates honed from playing countless gigs at fancy-schmancy shindigs with top-shelf food and drinks.  Lots of musicians are great home cooks, too; maybe there’s a connection between improvising in a band and improvising in the kitchen?  Whatever the explanation may be, I think it’s safe to say that musicians, as a group, love food with a special fervor.  When musicians get together, it’s usually not long before the conversation turns to what we’re eating on the way to the gig, what we’ll be eating at the gig, and where we’ll go to eat after the gig.

Today’s Foodie Tuesday post raises a metaphorical glass to the love affair between musicians and food, although this smattering of food-themed songs doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how many great tunes have been written about eating and drinking.

Sweet Kentucky Ham, written by Dave Frishberg, performed by Rosemary Clooney
Man, did Rosemary Clooney have a way with a lyric or what?  Perhaps more than any other song I can think of, this tune encapsulates what it feels like to be in a lonely hotel, dreaming of the taste of home.  In his signature style, Frishberg has written a wry lyric that is both humorous and heartbreaking.

Eggs and Sausage, written and performed by Tom Waits
I first heard this tune on Waits’ live-in-the-studio recording, Nighthawks at the Diner, when I was about twelve years old.  This tune, in particular, evoked everything that I imagined adulthood held in store for me: late nights, breakfast-for-dinner, and city life.  As it turns out, the adult me does love all of those things.  I also love this clip of a very young Tom Waits on the Mike Douglas show, in which Douglas hilariously introduces Waits as “…a combination poet, jazz singer, and vagrant, with a surprising amount of personal charm.”  For his part, Tom Waits describes himself as “an unemployed service station attendant.”

Frim Fram Sauce, written by Redd Evans & Joe Ricardel, performed by the Nat “King” Cole Trio
I don’t know what “frim fram” sauce is (although autocorrect seems to think it’s “from farm,” so maybe there’s a connection?).  Nor have I ever eaten “ossenfay” or a side of “sha fa fa,” but this is the first song that came to mind when I decided to post about food and music.  Nat Cole was such an incredible musician; he made everything look so effortless, but he was playing a lot of piano and his singing was smooth as silk.   The double-takes between the “two Nats” in this clip are priceless.  For another take on the tune, check out Amy Cervini’s version.

In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening, written by Johnny Mercer & Hoagy Carmichael, performed by Frank Sinatra
This song won an Oscar in 1951; it’s a very silly lyric that is offset by a couple of rather unexpected harmonic shifts.  Only Frank Sinatra could sing about a “weenie bake, steak, and a layer cake” and make it sound swinging and cool.

Hold Tight (Want Some Seafood, Mama), written by Sidney Bechet & Leonard Ware, performed by Fats Waller
The Andrews Sisters had a massive hit with this song, but I’m including Fats Waller’s version here.  His hilarious and playful interpretation makes it clear that this song is, perhaps, not really about food at all.  You be the judge.

Bon appétit, happy listening, and please feel free to share some of your favorite food songs in the comments!

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And I say, “Hey! Lama…”

I descended the stairs into the subway station at Union Square after a long, if uneventful, day of errands, music, and work. My feet were aching and I had switched my mind to “autopilot” for the ride home, which I hoped would be short. I was absentmindedly digging in my purse for my notebook; I’m a compulsive list maker, and I figured I’d sketch out the next day’s schedule while on the subway.

That’s when I heard the music. Now, it’s not unusual to hear music in the New York City subway. It is a bit unusual, however, to hear really good music in the New York City subway. A sweet and gravelly female voice caught my ear and I walked closer, making my way through the crowd of people who had gathered to listen. The crowd was a cross-section of the city itself, filled with New York night-shifters of all ages and colors. I tossed some money in the open guitar case and took a flier. The band was called The Bill Murray Experience.

The members of the band all looked to be in their early 20s and they were playing blues and jazz standards. Backed by bass, banjo and guitar, the singer was also playing the washboard; her time was excellent, she was dead in tune, and most of all, she was performing with a palpable sense of joy. In fact, everyone in the band was swinging hard, and they all seemed to be having a great time. (Below: a YouTube clip of The Bill Murray Experience busking in Washington Square Park this summer.)

It takes something pretty special to make a crowd of tired, homeward-bound New Yorkers stop and pay attention, which is exactly what the Bill Murray Experience did. We all stood and listened to tunes like “St. Louis Blues” and “Shine,” totally engaged in the present moment. The Bill Murray Experience transformed the Union Square subway station into a 1920s-era speakeasy of sorts. Their exuberance was a reminder that the music of life is everywhere and that great beauty lives in the ordinary. So much for “autopilot.”

As a compulsive list-maker, I’ve added another item to my list of “Things I Love About New York”: on the most unremarkable of days, just when I least expect it, New York can provide a moment of Total. Consciousness. So I got that goin’ for me…which is nice.

I’ve got a right to sing the blues?

Yesterday I got some tough love from a mentor: “What are you going to do with your life? What kind of singer do you want to be? What is holding you back from doing the musical work you’re supposed to be doing? We’ve got to get your time concept together.”

I didn’t have any answers, but I knew he was right.

He gave me a blues head to sing. I sang the head, then he said, “Now. Sing a solo. Go!”

“I…can’t. I’m sorry.”

“Why?”

“I’m just…paralyzed. I feel so inhibited. I’m just a girl from Alaska, you know? The blues just don’t feel like they belong to me.”

“Yeah! You see?! Why don’t you think you have a right to this music? There’s a Hilary version of the blues that’s yours. That’s what we’ve got to work on. You know I’m saying this out of love, right?”

I did.

I left my lesson downcast but resolved to recapture the sense of joy, abandon, and adventure that spurred me toward a life in music in the first place. Of course, trying to “capture” joy, abandon and adventure is like trying to pin down a cloud: the harder you try, the more elusive it becomes.

Then I remembered this Clark Terry clip. His legendary “Mumbles” routine is the joy, abandon, and adventure that jazz embodies. Check out Roy Hargrove’s expression at 1:37.

When I was 12, I wrote Ella Fitzgerald a letter and she sent me back an autographed 8×10 photograph. Ella was my first singer, and the one who introduced me to jazz, so I think her words are a fitting source of wisdom now:

Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong. –Ella Fitzgerald

I think maybe we’ve all got a right to sing the blues.

Lion Tamer

seattle-space-needleI spent my early 20s in Seattle, a small town by the sea with a vibrant music scene and flourishing restaurant culture. The verdant Pacific Northwest was a gentle, beautiful place to find my footing as a fledgling adult. I adored the Emerald City, yet I high-tailed it out of there at 24. When people ask me, “Why did you leave Seattle?” I always respond by saying, “I got too comfortable there.”

New York City, by contrast, provided near-constant opportunities to leave my comfort zone. I had to tap into an assertiveness that I never knew I had just to ride the subway. Musically, most of all, I found myself thrown headlong into the lions’ den.

ladyluckSee, singers don’t exactly have the best reputations, especially among jazz musicians. Singers are frequently stereotyped as the most difficult and least educated members of the musical community, unable to keep time, read music, or sing in tune. Throw in the fact that jazz is overwhelmingly male-dominated, with the exception of singers, who are overwhelmingly female, and you’ve got another interesting wrinkle. Consider the old joke:

A singer turns to her pianist and says, “I’d like to do ‘Misty,’ please.” The pianist says, “Yeah, sure, no problem. We’ll start in A-flat, then modulate up a step in the bridge. We’ll drop a beat in the third measure of the last A section and put a fermata over every single note in the last four bars, right?” The singer, aghast, says, “But I can’t remember all that!” The pianist deadpans, “Why, baby? That’s what you did last night.”

In my first few years in New York, I did a lot of sitting in. (For non-musicians, “sitting in” means doing an impromptu, unrehearsed performance with musicians that you may or may not know.) The musicians that I met were almost always gracious, but I was terrified just the same. When they’d ask me to sing a second tune, I’d breathe a sigh of relief. The second tune meant I’d moved past being “tolerated” to being “accepted.” Sitting in is a baptism-by-fire, an initiation, a gauntlet of sorts.

Well, in recent years, I’ve done less sitting in and more playing out. As more of my own projects have taken shape, I’ve found myself in the lions’ den a lot less. Until last night, that is.

I was asked to come sit in as an informal audition with a big band I’ve long admired. The venue was familiar, as were a few of the faces on the bandstand, but for the first time in quite a while, I was the “new kid.” It was scary! But it was also a blast.

lion_tamerAutumn is swiftly approaching and I’m feeling the same back-to-school jitters that met me at the bus stop every September as a kid. And no wonder! I have a new address and a new living situation. The cabaret project I hold so dear is venturing into the uncharted territory of new material. I’m not just singing; now I’m also booking a band, teaching some lessons, and writing prose.

Facing these foreign horizons and the opportunity to re-invent myself, I am tempted to retreat into the sanctuary of my comfort zone. But sitting in with the band last night was a powerful reminder that the lions’ den is a lot more interesting.

Always listen to the bass player, or: Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)

Truth has a way of showing up in funny places. Some people get flashes of insight in the shower. For me, a lightning bolt of awareness struck somewhere between the best man’s toast and the fish course at a wedding gig a few years ago. I was talking to my friend Paul, the bass player. He was listening patiently to my anxieties about where–or if–I belonged in the New York music scene.

Photo by Gerald Slota

Photo by Gerald Slota

See, I had just finished a long-belated classical voice degree, and while I loved the discipline and power of classical singing, I knew that a career in opera wasn’t for me. When it came to jazz, I loved to experiment with rhythm and phrasing, but since I wasn’t musically or aesthetically inclined toward scat singing, I didn’t feel like a true-blue jazz singer, either.

“Maybe I should just scrap classical and jazz and go audition for Broadway musicals,” I said to Paul. But I wasn’t in love with musical theatre and, while I didn’t think of myself as a high-flying improviser, I knew that doing the exact same show the exact same way every night would make the jazz part of my heart wither.

Wasilla121So what was I supposed to do? Feverishly throw myself into opera and will myself to love it? Memorize Coltrane and Bird solos and be a hard-core jazzer? I really didn’t see myself taking tap classes in hopes of landing on the Great White Way. Was there a place for me in New York’s musical community, or would I have to pack it all in and go back to Wasilla? (Okay, you’re right; I never planned on going back to Alaska.)

ideaPaul listened patiently and then gave me some of the most powerful advice of my life: “Hilary, find the thing that you do. Find the thing that’s yours, no matter how small a niche it might be. And then get good at it. Work your ass off and get so good at it that, whenever somebody is looking for that specific thing, there’s only one person they can call, and that’s you. If you do that, you’ll never stop working.”

If we’d been in a cartoon, a lightbulb would have appeared above my head. I’d had it completely backwards! I’d been making myself crazy trying to fit into my idea of what a classical singer or a jazz singer “should” be. As embarrassing as it is to admit now, I had no idea what I wanted to sing.

weillCoverYou know how this ends: once I stopped second-guessing my eclectic influences and started celebrating the things that made me, well, me, the phone started ringing. I found myself immersed in a jazz-based cabaret project called West 73rd that incorporated elements of classical, jazz and theatre. We made a The Kurt Weill Project - A Song About ForeverCD, got representation, and began performing in some wonderful New York venues, such as Feinstein’s and the Metropolitan Room. More big band work materialized, and most shocking of all, I started hearing from people who wanted to take lessons with me.

Look, I still play weddings. I still work part-time at a restaurant. I teach lessons occasionally and keep a constant eye on my checkbook. Singing for your supper means a lot of hustling, whether you’re in New York or Nebraska. But thanks to Paul’s sage counsel, I’m no longer riddled with anxiety about what kind of singer to be. I just sing and give thanks for the chance to be myself.

You say “diva” like it’s a bad thing!

400000000000000165660_s4“Demanding.” “Difficult.” “Emotional.” “High-strung.” “Diva.” “Beautiful, but…” And, my personal favorite, “Bitch.” The words used to describe powerful, uncompromising women often condescend and sometimes mock. If she demands excellence, if she refuses to compromise, or if she insists on calling bullshit by its name, a woman can expect a backlash. And if she happens to be beautiful, too, well, God help her.

No one knows this better than Lena Horne, whose story is compellingly told in my friend James Gavin’s book, Stormy Weather: the Life of Lena Horne. Meticulously researched and engagingly written, Stormy Weather traces the arc of Horne’s life and career against the sociopolitical backdrop of the American 20th century.

The fire-and-ice persona that Horne painstakingly and deliberately cultivated was a by-product not only of living in a brutally racist, segregated society, but of Horne’s own personal complexities; on more than one occasion, Horne was her own worst enemy. However, James Gavin neither condemns nor canonizes his subject. Rather, he masterfully and respectfully lets Lena Horne’s fascinating story, with all its trials, tribulations and triumphs, speak for itself.

We need more writers like James Gavin. He knows the music inside and out, and he has deep love and respect for the musicians. And how could anyone have anything but deep love and respect for Lena Horne’s artistry?

Check out the clip below. Horne communicates volumes with the simple arching of her eyebrows; every gesture is purposeful. Lyrics which may have sounded benign in the hands of someone less gifted take on profound meaning. The second song, “The Eagle & Me,” becomes a veritable civil rights anthem in Lena Horne’s riveting, guaranteed-to-give-you-goose-bumps interpretation. Oh, and she swings like crazy.

It’s worth noting that the word “diva” is frequently used pejoratively, but its literal meaning is “goddess.” At 93 years old, Lena Horne is, in the truest sense of the word, a diva.

Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing

6 scotches and a pack of Lucky Strikes for lunch?  Why, Don Draper, that's a marvelous idea!

6 scotches and a pack of Lucky Strikes for lunch? Why, Don Draper, that's a marvelous idea!

I watch Mad Men for a lot of reasons: the writing, the clothes, the glimpse into 1960s New York City, and especially the pantheon of mysterious characters.  Last night’s episode contained a subplot in which Sterling Cooper, the advertising agency, was trying to sell a diet cola vis-a-vis a re-creation of Ann-Margret’s iconic opening scene in Bye Bye Birdie.

The Sterling Cooper creative team found an Ann-Margret look-alike, wrote a catchy Bye Bye Birdie sound-alike jingle, and painstakingly reproduced every camera angle of the famous scene.  The executives from the diet cola company had been explicit in their request for an imitation of Ann-Margret’s star turn.  Yet, as they watched the carbon-copy commercial, uneasy glances were exchanged.  

The soda executives were finally forced to admit that, while they couldn’t put their fingers on it, something just wasn’t right about the commercial.  The ad executives at Sterling Cooper agreed, although they were also unable to pinpoint exactly what was wrong.

The soda executives and the ad men shook their heads, shook hands, and parted company.  A young ad exec, still puzzled, remarked that he didn’t understand what had gone wrong; the ad men had done exactly what the client requested, so what was the problem?  Why had the commercial bombed?

Roger Sterling, one of Sterling Cooper’s partners, had been silent the entire meeting.  Now, with the soda executives gone, he shrugged his shoulders and said with utter certainty: “She’s not Ann-Margret.”

When we’re trying to find our way as artists, regardless of our medium, it’s easy to fall into the trap of imitating successful artists in our genre.  The temptation to compare ourselves to artists we admire is great–and very dangerous.  You see, the trouble with imitation and comparison, as Mad Men so brilliantly illustrated, is this: an imitation will always invite comparison, and will always–always–fall short of the “real thing.”

Oh, the entertainment business will never stop trying to clone the big success stories.  Watch an episode of American Idol (if you can stomach it): every single singer is trying to emulate somebody else who has already “made it big.”  But at the end of the day, who would you rather listen to, Aretha Franklin, or an Aretha Franklin imitator?  

There is no one else on the planet who can be you.  No one can look just like you, no one can write, act, sing, dance, or speak exactly like you.  So it stands to reason, you’ll never be able to exactly reproduce the qualities that make someone else unique.  And that’s okay!  In fact, that’s the whole point.  Instead of trying to fit yourself into a mold created by someone else, celebrate your voice, your gift, your message.  The world is waiting.