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.

RIP: Bernie Strassberg

I received word today that Bernie Strassberg died earlier this week.  I’d heard that he was ill, and if my math is correct, he was about 86 years old, so his passing was not entirely unexpected.  Still, when someone looms as large in one’s life as Bernie did in mine, there’s something inherently a little shocking about death.  It’s hard to imagine New York City without him.

Bernie, in fine form, on the Upper West Side ca. 2003.

Bernie, in fine form, on the Upper West Side ca. 2003.

I met Bernie for the first time when I was still living in Seattle.  Bernie was visiting a friend in town, and the two of them came to my gig at Café Campagne.  During my set, I sang “Body and Soul” and “The More I See You” and sang the verse up front, a cappella.  Afterward, Bernie pulled me aside and rather sternly inquired as to whether I knew what year “Body and Soul” had been written.  As it happened, I did—1930, incidentally—which made Bernie happy.  He went on to ask me if I knew who Beverly Kenney was, saying that I had channeled her in the verse to “The More I See You.”  I had heard only one of her recordings, I admitted, a beatnik-y version (complete with bongoes) of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” on a Gershwin compilation album.  My answer seemed to satisfy Bernie, and after he returned to New York, he got in touch with me and told me to make a demo recording, for which he would foot the bill.

With Bernie’s help, I recorded a four-song demo with my Seattle band, and, also thanks to Bernie, the demo found its way to pianist/composer/Dizzy Gillespie alumnus Mike Longo, who became my mentor and teacher when I moved to New York City.  My first gigs in town were with Mike’s big band, and through those early gigs, I slowly began to find my footing in the music scene here.

I spent lots of time hanging out at Bernie’s apartment during my first couple of years in New York.  He had thousands of albums, and we’d drink wine and listen to June Christy.  I remember he always teared up during the ballads.  Sometimes Bernie’s cat, Lady (named for Billie Holiday, of course), would sit on my lap while the records played.  Once, I came over, crying; I was exhausted, broke, and feeling defeated.  Bernie would have none of it.  I can still hear his voice: “My money’s on you, kid.”

Bernie’s apartment had a little terrace that overlooked West 57th Street.  He had filled the terrace with so many plants that there was hardly room to sit, but sit we did, talking about music and city life on sweltering summer afternoons.  Truthfully, it was Bernie who did most of the talking, which was all right with me.  He had a lot of opinions and liked to teach me Yiddish and tell stories about his years in the army and concerts he’d seen.

Bernie

Always a twinkle in his eye.

Eventually, Bernie and I had a falling out; in his signature blunt fashion, he harshly criticized a recording project of mine and I was too angry and stubborn to let it go.  We didn’t speak for several years, until one night he surprised me by waiting outside the stage door at Come Fly Away.  I was singing with a big band in Twyla Tharp’s Broadway homage to Frank Sinatra, and Bernie was tickled pink.  “You did great, kid. I’m so proud of you.  Whatever went wrong between us in the past, forget it,” he said, dismissing any lingering resentments with a wave of his hand and a hug.  It was great to see him.

Bernie spent every Sunday afternoon at Café Loup, eating brunch and listening to live jazz.  He invited me several times to meet him there, and I never made it.  I sure wish I had.

Bernie Strassberg was a mensch, a real New Yorker and a true friend to jazz, and those are pretty goddamn fine things to be, if you ask me.  Rest peacefully, Bernie.  Thank you for everything.

But I think it’s about…forgiveness.

Sanctuary
My land is bare of chattering folk;
The clouds are low along the ridges,
And sweet’s the air with curly smoke
From all my burning bridges.
-Dorothy Parker

Lately I’ve been thinking about bridges that have burned over the years. I don’t have a laundry list of mortal enemies, or anything, but a handful of personal and professional relationships in my adulthood have ended badly.

I have no regrets about cutting off contact with some of the abusive characters I’ve encountered in my life.  Some of my severed ties, though, just leave me feeling a little sad.  I’ve had a couple of friendships disintegrate because of disagreements over money.  My “righteous indignation” led to some harsh words on my part, as well as a lack of tolerance for my friends’ (and my  own) shortcomings.  I’m not proud of the way I acted.  Turns out, being “right” can carry a pretty hefty price tag.

There is one incident in which I was the sole architect of a friendship’s demise.  Deep in a blue melancholy, I deliberately shut out a friend whose happiness over her new relationship was too much for my bruised heart to stand.  My heart and I eventually recovered, I was appropriately embarrassed over my selfish, self-pitying behavior, and I offered a humble and sincere apology to this lovely girl.

She was unequivocally gracious and compassionate, which humbled me further.  However, despite our most conciliatory intentions, after a year of hurt feelings and neglect, our friendship is not–and will likely never be–the same. 

Picasso's Blue Dove

Picasso's Blue Dove

One of the defining characteristics of maturity, at least as I see it, is the understanding that some things cannot be undone.  Some of our words and actions forever change the landscape of our lives and relationships.  I learned this lesson the way I learn most of my lessons: the hard way.

Unlike Dorothy Parker, I find no sanctuary in the isolation of bridges burned.  The older I get, the more certain I become that sanctuary will only be found in forgiveness: for others and for ourselves.