The Song Is You

“You’d never know it, but buddy I’m a kind of poet, and I’ve got a lot of things to say…”

He was seated at the piano, playing and singing “One for my Baby (and One More for the Road)” when I walked into Tula’s in September, 2001. “Who,” I thought, “is that?” How was it possible that, of all the singers and pianists in town, I had never met this particularly young and handsome one? As is wont to happen in the brash bloom of youth, our eyes met from across the room and that, as Rick famously said in Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I learned that Joshua was stranded in Seattle that week. He’d been visiting his family when the planes hit the World Trade Center in his adopted hometown of New York City, and all the flights were grounded, all the airports closed, so he couldn’t get back to his Harlem apartment. Not knowing quite what to do with ourselves in those frightening and disorienting days after the 9/11 attacks, we both sought sanctuary in the local jazz club.

When I moved to New York a couple of years later, Josh met me for dinner. His relaxed kindness told me that, even though I was broke and overwhelmed and had no idea whatsoever what in the hell I was doing, I had a friend in New York City. A while later, when Ray Passman heard me sit in with Bob Dorough at the Iridium and decided to “present” me in my first New York solo show at the Triad, I called Joshua to play piano. I was as green as grass and did everything wrong, but I still remember the gentle 12/8 feel Josh brought to our rendition of “Tis Autumn,” and how the room seemed to stand still for that tune.

He came with me once to my hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, where we played a Christmas show; we duetted on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and switched the roles, with him singing, “I simply must go…” and rebuffing my wolfish advances. He stole the show, of course.

Josh had a way of showing up at exactly the right moment. I had a brief stint singing with a country band, and we played a gig on the Upper West Side one summer night in 2012. To my delight, Josh was in the audience. In fact, he may very well have been the audience. We caught up on the set break, and a few days later he sent me a note asking if I’d like to perform a holiday show with him that November in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where his brother had founded an orchestra. Josh opened that email by asking me, “How ya doing, cowgirl?” I gleefully accepted his invitation, and that autumn, we shared a wonderful weekend of barbecue and music.

Four years ago, another email appeared in my inbox, this time from Josh’s dad. I was in the elevator on my way up to my apartment when I checked my phone and read the news of Josh’s recent hospitalization and subsequent diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer. No treatments could be undertaken or explored beyond keeping him comfortable. In a trance, I exited the elevator and tried, again and again, to turn my key in the lock. It wasn’t until a neighbor in the hallway said, not unkindly, “um, hello,” that I realized I’d gotten off on the wrong floor and was standing in front of a stranger’s door.

I am infinitely grateful for the time spent in the hospital with Josh and his loved ones in the days before his death. Even today, four years later, those hours are too surreal, too painful, too dear to write about. There was singing, there were tears, there was—somehow—laughter, and there was a palpable cloak of compassion enveloping us all that I, an avowed non-believer, can only describe as holy.

It is tempting to withhold forgiveness forever from a world that would silence Josh’s music so abruptly, so cruelly early; he was just thirty-nine years old. But the world doesn’t ask for forgiveness, and anyway, didn’t it give voice and breath and life to Josh’s song in the first place? Where does that leave us? What are we to do with ourselves in this perplexing and infuriating and beautiful life, overflowing with loss and tenderness?

Sing, I think. We are here to sing at full voice, to live right out loud, heedless of the occasional dissonance or cracked high note. And may our music, like Josh’s, be a balm, a window, a catalyst, and—above all—a gift for whomever is listening.

Ted Kennedy’s “good ending for himself”

Mark Leibovich, of the New York Times, has written a remarkable article about the last months of the late Senator Ted Kennedy.  You can read the whole thing here:

After Diagnosis, Determined to Make a “Good Ending”

Leibovich interviewed many of Kennedy’s friends, colleagues and family members for his article.  Representative Bill Delahunt (D), a friend of Senator Kennedy’s, made an observation that resonates with me very deeply:

“This is someone who had a fierce determination to live, but who was not afraid to die…And he was not afraid to have a lot of laughs until he got there.”

According to Leibovich, Kennedy

“told friends that he wanted to take stock of his life and enjoy the gift of his remaining days with the people he loved most. “I’ve had a wonderful life,” he said repeatedly…”

The knowledge of his impending death heightened the intensity of Kennedy’s everyday activities: he began conversations with the words, “Every day is a gift,” according to his friend Peter Meade.  
Ted-Kennedy_795835c

Just over a year ago, Senator Kennedy was given what, on the surface, seems like a nightmare: a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. Kennedy received what many of us dread the most: advance notice of when, and how, he was probably going to die. Like it or not, though, we all have “advance notice” of our impending death. Sure, we don’t know when or how we’re going to die, but that we will die is nonnegotiable.

What if we lived our lives every day with an awareness of our impending death? We live in a consumer culture whose message is, “Buy this, stay young at all costs, and whatever you do, don’t think about death.” We sequester our old people and sick people in nursing homes and hospitals; because we perceive them as being closer to death than we are, we don’t want to have to see or think about them.  In ignoring and denying death, we ignore and deny much of life’s beauty.

Rather than sink into despair over his diagnosis, Senator Kennedy embraced the opportunity to, in his words, “make a good ending for [him]self.” If Mark Leibovich’s article is any indication, Senator Kennedy succeeded admirably in doing so.  I’m not trying to canonize Ted Kennedy, here; his past was not without missteps and scandals.  But there is much to be learned from the way Ted Kennedy chose to spend his last year of life.

Dr. Lawrence C. Horowitz oversaw Senator Kennedy’s medical care and is quoted as saying, “There were a lot of joyous moments at the end…There was a lot of frankness, a lot of hugging, a lot of emotion.” For my part, I aspire to a life and a death filled with joyous moments, frankness, hugging, and emotion.

Irene Kral

g02655op4o1Irene Kral was the younger sister of Roy Kral, of Jackie & Roy.  Early in Irene’s career she sang with both Maynard Ferguson’s and Herb Pomeroy’s big bands.  She made a fantastic record with the Junior Mance trio called Better Than Anything and was a serious champion of songwriters like Tommy Wolf, Bob Dorough, and Dave Frishberg.  Carmen McRae numbered among Irene’s many fans, and Carmen was, by all accounts, not easily impressed.

Unfortunately, Irene died of cancer in 1978; she was only 46 years old.  A few years earlier, in 1974, she and Alan Broadbent recorded Where Is Love, a collection of voice and piano ballad duets.  

I’m not sure if Irene was already ill when she made this record, which she called “the definitive example of [her] work,” but the following passage from her self-penned liner notes suggests this may have been the case:

I would like to dedicate this album to my late father…from whom I have, hopefully, inherited the strength to overcome life’s adversities and enjoy its beauty.

With clarion tone, elegant phrasing, and deep emotion, Irene Kral reminds us that, in this life, we love people who don’t always love us back.  We feel lonely.  We have to say goodbye to people and places we love.  Our most joyful moments are suffused with tears, knowing that the moment–and we–will be gone too soon.  

Somehow, Irene communicates all this without one unnecessary vocal flourish, without a shred of sentimentality.  Her interpretations are pure, generous, and without vanity.  Alan Broadbent is supportive, creative and utterly deferential to the songs and Irene’s singing.  

Irene Kral’s Where Is Love is a desert-island record.