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.

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Foodie Tuesday: On Love & Oysters

I ate my first oyster on the half shell when I was 22, persuaded by A Moveable Feast and a chef with very long eyelashes.  Sitting in a trés French bistro in Seattle, I sipped my glass of Muscadet and gazed dubiously at the table, where a dozen bivalves reclined in their shells atop a bed of kosher salt.  I squared my shoulders and, following the example of my long-lashed dining companion, spritzed a bit of lemon on an oyster and tipped the shell toward my mouth.

The oysters were cold and tasted clean and briny, echoing the Puget Sound outside our window.  The Muscadet mirrored the brightness of the lemon, and the flavor of the ocean lingered on my tongue. Everything was quiet.  Chef Eyelashes grinned.  With one glorious bite, I’d become an oyster-lover for life.

Several years (and relationships) later, I traveled with my boyfriend to wine country in California. The September evening was crisp and I wore a wool dress to our dinner at the French Laundry. Our first course was Thomas Keller’s signature dish, “Oysters and Pearls,” described as a ‘Sabayon’ of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sturgeon Caviar.  The Schramsberg blanc de blanc we were drinking clarified and intensified the dish’s delicate richness, and I pronounced “Oysters and Pearls” the best thing I’d ever eaten.  Later that night, my boyfriend became my fiancé.

Just a week or two ago, the weather in New York finally turned wintery, and I found myself nestled in a back corner table at a Brooklyn haunt for dinner.  I was overstuffed from holiday excesses but still craved something festive; I ordered a half-dozen oysters on the half shell, this time with an ice-cold beer in a frosty mug as accompaniment.  I happily slurped down my Long Island Blue Points and was overtaken by the same rhapsodic silence that followed my very first oyster.

This time, the man grinning at me from across the table was my husband.

And thank heaven for that.

I Love Lucy

As is true of most kids, I loved staying home from school.  The slightest touch of the sniffles would send me headlong into a campaign to spend the next few days on the couch, snuggled under an ancient afghan.  On the occasions when I was A) truly under the weather or B) convincing enough that my parents capitulated and let me stay home, I reveled in hours upon hours of syndicated television.  I liked the Andy Griffith show (mostly for the theme song), and didn’t much care for Perry Mason.  Laverne and Shirley helped pass the time, and I liked the Fonz, so I watched Happy Days, too.  Ah, but my most sacred half-hour every sick day was spent at 623 E. 68th Street, in the living room of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo.

Sipping hot chocolate with my cat curled on my lap, I felt both comforted and exhilarated when I heard the Desilu orchestra’s breezy strains of “I Love Lucy.”  Whether she was shilling for liquid multivitamins, working an assembly line in a candy factory, or stomping grapes in rural Italy, I truly did love Lucy.

As Ricky Ricardo, Desi Arnaz provided the perfect comic foil for Lucy’s madcap antics, reacting with both exasperation and affection.  I loved Ricky Ricardo’s pomaded hair, sharp suits, and the fact that he played music in a Manhattan nightclub.  (In retrospect, this pretty much explains the majority of my dating choices throughout my 20s.)  The clip below is one of my favorite scenes in “I Love Lucy” history: a poignant moment in which Lucy and Ricky Ricardo mirror Lucy and Desi’s real-life happiness.  Sadly, their offscreen marriage proved too tumultuous to last, and ended in divorce in 1960.

Lucille Ball died when I was ten years old.  At the time, I was performing in my first musical, singing in the ensemble of a local production of “Tom Sawyer.”  I was just beginning my life as a performer, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, the lessons I learned from years spent watching Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel would serve me very well in the years to come:

Audacity is every bit as important as talent.

A good friend will try to talk you out of a crazy idea.  Your best friend will clap her hands and say, “I’m in!”

Don’t admit defeat until there’s absolutely no way out of your predicament.

No matter how messy life gets, things have a way of working themselves out.

Lucille Ball once said of herself, “I’m not funny.  What I am is brave.”  Lucy, on your 100th birthday, I humbly submit that you were both funny and fearless.  Thanks for all the laughs; you were one of a kind.

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.

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.