The (Caffe) Vivaldi Requiem

“Nothing lasts forever,” the Buddha tells us, and that’s true of people, life, and certainly cities. I know that impermanence is the only thing we can be sure of, but when I spend time in Greenwich Village my heart beats out little prayers of gratitude for all the cafés and coffeehouses and jazz clubs that have held on through the years, keeping the flame of the Village’s bohemian character alight, however faintly.

True, lemmings are lined up outside [insert trendy dessert establishment du jour] for the chance to eat a cup of $10 fucking cookie dough or some other such nonsense, but in Washington Square Park one can still find bluegrass musicians, performance artists, protesters, families, and sentimental flaneurs and flaneuses like me who are contented simply to stroll slowly, taking everything in (preferably while eating a good old-fashioned ice cream cone, thankyouverymuch).

My favorite Village locales, from 55 bar to Corner Bistro to Mezzrow to Caffe Reggio, all share a certain timeless quality: if you squint a little, it’s easy to imagine you’re in Greenwich Village circa just about any decade from the 1930s to the present day. Caffe Vivaldi, a soft-spoken little haunt tucked away on Jones Street, is no exception.

A grand piano takes up most of the front of the room at Vivaldi. Portraits of various classical composers hang on the walls, watching over the patrons, who are a microcosm of Greenwich Village itself: an elderly couple in the far corner shares a bottle of wine and quietly discusses the play they’ve just seen at the Lucille Lortel Theater while a few NYU students rowdily talk politics over beers at their communal table; a lone tourist sits near the door nursing a cup of coffee and, brow furrowed, studies a subway map as (ahem) a jazz singer gets her music in order before her set. The café’s ember-glow light and the music being played inside—folk or jazz or classical or singer-songwriter—spill onto the sidewalk, causing passersby to stop and peer inside. “Let’s go in and have a drink,” they say, delighted to have (accidentally) “discovered” the place.

Proprietor Ishrat Ansari has presided over Caffe Vivaldi for thirty-five years. With the time-tested tools of food and wine, music, and hospitality, Ishrat has created much more than a café. He’s provided a haven for all of us who love Old New York and the culture of Greenwich Village.

Over the course of the past several years, Caffe Vivaldi has staved off a 400% rent increase and a heartbreaking litany of legal and financial attacks by a convicted felon whom the attorney general once called “the Bernie Madoff of landlords.” Ishrat suffered a stroke smack dab in the middle of this long and contentious battle and his recovery has impeded his ability to keep fighting. Enough was, eventually, enough. In a tale that has grown all too familiar, a(nother) beloved and vibrant institution is being shuttered thanks to greed and corruption.

As both patron and performer, I will miss Caffe Vivaldi and the Greenwich Village spirit it embodies. Before Caffe Vivaldi closes its doors on June 23, I plan to stop by, listen to some music, and raise a glass to Ishrat Ansari’s vision and steadfastness. I invite—nay, urge—you to do the same.

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April and May: looking back, looking ahead

April and May, despite their flying past with blinding speed, were lovely. I sang a number of diverse gigs with dear friends, which is always good medicine for the soul. The performances ranged from being the “canary” in a Benny Goodman tribute to channeling my inner Patsy Cline for some western swing at Mezzrow to harmonizing background vocals with Duchess to singing socialist anthems in three different languages in commemoration of the Spanish Civil War…and that’s not even the complete list!

When not singing for my supper in recent weeks, I was delighted to partake in some quintessentially New York City cultural experiences:

  • at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, the scent of lilacs hung heavy in the air and a rainbow array of tulips stood at attention;
  • Passover Seder included our traditional boisterous rendering of Dayenu;
  • we feasted on a rustic seafood stew in a Brooklyn brownstone for a dear friend’s 75th birthday;
  • at Yankee Stadium we leapt from our seats, elated, when Gary Sanchez hit a walk-off three-run homer;
  • an entire evening’s program was dedicated to the key of C minor at the Chamber Music Society; and
  • beloved friends hosted an evening of intimate theatre in their home, where their friend (an accomplished stage and film actor) presented excerpts of a thought-provoking one-man show about the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Kicking off summer: lakeside in CT; a busy bee at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens; Yankee Stadium; my annual nose-in-the-lilacs photo.

As if all of the above weren’t enough, my husband and I celebrated our seven-year wedding anniversary with a trip to Savannah. We had a few touristy to-do’s on our list (eat at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room; take a tour of the Owens-Thomas mansion), but our days were largely free-form. We mostly ambled down shady tree-lined streets, taking in the architecture and thinking about Johnny Mercer. Lest I give the impression that things were too idyllic, I should disclose that I also caught a bitch of a chest cold. However, I found the bourbon cocktails to be extremely medicinal.

Scenes from Savannah: sniffly and sipping bourbon for its medicinal value; a plate of home cooking at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room; the Mercer-Williams house; a rendezvous with the Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia himself, Mr. Johnny Mercer.

Looking ahead, I’m feeling quite territorial about my time. Things are bound to get busy this summer, what with tour dates and assorted professional obligations, but I’m determined to set plenty of time aside for reading, seeing friends, picnicking, listening to music, watching baseball, daydreaming in the park…all the things that make summer, well, summer. Spending Memorial Day weekend lakeside in Connecticut felt like a good start.

The pas de deux between productivity and recreation can sometimes more closely resemble the French Danse Apache, but I firmly believe we sacrifice leisure for busy-ness at our peril. The very word “recreation” holds the key: when we take time to smell the roses, i.e. recreate, we re-create ourselves and emerge renewed, ready to meet our obligations with joy and optimism.

In April and May, I…
Blogged about: March. Close-harmony girl groups (for Duchess).

Watched: Baseball, natch. Via Dolorosa, live and in-person, acted by the wonderful Jonathan Tindle. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in preparation for Savannah.

Read: Her First American, by Lore Segal. Vivid, sad, and beautifully written. I loved this novel about a young Jewish woman in love with a Black intellectual in post-WWII New York City. Caroline: Little House, Revisited, by Sarah Miller. I re-read the Little House series a handful of years ago for the first time since my childhood, and the books were…different than I remembered. For one thing, I was stunned by the rampant racism against Native Americans that runs throughout the series. For another, whereas the character of Ma (Caroline) once struck me as a bit of a wet blanket, as an adult woman myself I realized how selfish (and occasionally reckless) Pa was. Reading Miller’s thoughtful re-imagining of the Ingalls’ story as told from Caroline’s perspective was satisfying. Blue Nights, by Joan Didion. Brilliant, stunning prose…and also one of the most depressing books I’ve read in ages. The Scribe of Siena, by Melodie Winawer. Definitely a light read, but we all need a little fantasy and escapism from time to time. How to Eat a Peach, by Diana Henry. Part memoir, part cookbook, completely delicious. Diana Henry has long been one of my favorite food writers, and I think this may be her finest book yet.

Listened to: Connie Converse. The only thing more mysterious, heartbreaking, and unique than Converse’s story is her music. Janelle Monaé. I am always sooooo late to the party when it comes to contemporary music, but consider me obsessed. Kat Edmonson. Duchess sings backup vocals for Kat from time to time, and her new album, “Old Fashioned Gal,” accomplishes the nigh-impossible feat of being both a throwback and utterly of its own time. Les McCann. Les McCann. Les McCann.

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.

A Chance Discovery

Peggy Lee & Jimmy Durante on the air in the 1940s.

I love the old-fashioned image of people gathered around a radio at night to listen, rapt, as their favorite entertainers played music, told jokes, or acted out detective stories. You’d think, then, that I’d have been the first to jump on the proverbial bandwagon when podcasts really started to take hold in this century.

As is so often the case in matters technological and/or internet-related, though, I was late to the podcast party: I started listening to podcasts in earnest less than a year ago. Since then, I’ve become devoted to a number of modern day radio programmes (wordier but more elegant, no?), dedicated to topics ranging from Old Hollywood to food to French history to medicine. I’ve even, to my delight, donned the mantle of podcast guest and podcast co-host as a member of Duchess.

And so it is with all the fervor of the newly converted that I share a recent podcast discovery with you: Music from 100 Years Ago, hosted by Brice Fuqua. I chanced upon this podcast on a busy New York City afternoon filled with too many subway rides. “This looks like it might be good,” I thought, and downloaded a few episodes while waiting for my train. Dear reader, I loathe the subway, so it is no small thing when I confess that I was disappointed when my subterranean odyssey ended that afternoon and I had to put the headphones away.

Fuqua is a host after my own heart. For each episode, he chooses a smart, wide-ranging array of music from the first half of the twentieth century, all centered around a specific theme (god, I love a theme). The topic of any given show might be straightforward—say, the music of a specific composer or year—or completely hilarious, like a recent episode featuring songs about chickens.

Here are a few recent episodes that I’ve especially enjoyed:

Fuqua is knowledgable without being pedantic. He keeps his commentary concise and conversational, letting the music do the talking. I don’t know where or how Fuqua has amassed such a diverse and vast music collection, but his listeners are the beneficiaries, getting to hear rare recordings of hot jazz, 1930s-era classical music broadcasts, gospel vocal groups, singing cowboys, and (much!) more.

Brice Fuqua launched Music from 100 Years Ago back in 2006 and has since aired well over five hundred episodes, all of which you can find on his website (you can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes). Rather than kick myself for being a Johnny-come-lately, I’m choosing to celebrate the fact that there is so much treasure yet to discover in the Music from 100 Years Ago archives…and I hope that Mr. Fuqua decides to keep his podcast going for at least five hundred more episodes. Happy listening!

 

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.

I still love New York

Sometimes it seems like New York City is on its way to becoming (or, depending on whom you ask, is already) a tiny island filled with nothing but banks and Duane Reade stores. A number of my friends have recently moved west, having decided that New York is “over,” and L.A. is now the place to be.

I get it. I know that living in New York City is not for everyone. But if a hipster is somebody who loves something before it’s cool enough to capture the fancy of the general public, I suppose I, then, am the opposite. I love New York City as much today as ever, even though lots of people seem to have decided it’s not cool anymore.

By the time this post is published, I’ll be in Tuscany, on a long-anticipated vacation with my mother. When it comes time to depart Italy, I know I’ll be terribly sad to leave la dolce vita, but there will be solace in knowing that autumn in New York awaits.

Brooklyn Bridge will be filled with tourists and locals, strolling in the still-warm September sun. The greatest musicians in the world will be performing at Mezzrow in Greenwich Village every night. The leaves will be starting to turn in Central Park. And, as I walk briskly through Manhattan’s “canyons of steel,” with every footfall, my heart will beat, “I’m home. I’m home. I’m home.” 

I love New York, today and every day.

“New York is hopeful.”

It occurs to me that there are other towns. It occurs to me so violently that I say, at intervals, “Very well, if New York is going to be like this, I’m going to live somewhere else.” And I do—that’s the funny part of it. But then one day there comes to me the sharp picture of New York at its best, on a shiny blue-and-white Autumn day with its buildings cut diagonally in halves of light and shadow, with its straight neat avenues colored with quick throngs, like confetti in a breeze. Someone, and I wish it had been I, has said that “Autumn is the Springtime of big cities.” I see New York at holiday time, always in the late afternoon, under a Maxfield Parish sky, with the crowds even more quick and nervous but even more good-natured, the dark groups splashed with the white of Christmas packages, the lighted holly-strung shops urging them in to buy more and more. I see it on a Spring morning, with the clothes of the women as soft and as hopeful as the pretty new leaves on a few, brave trees. I see it at night, with the low skies red with the black-flung lights of Broadway, those lights of which Chesterton—or they told me it was Chesterton—said, “What a marvelous sight for those who cannot read!” I see it in the rain, I smell the enchanting odor of wet asphalt, with the empty streets black and shining as ripe olives. I see it—by this time, I become maudlin with nostalgia—even with its gray mounds of crusted snow, its little Appalachians of ice along the pavements. So I go back. And it is always better than I thought it would be.

dorothy-parker-1411-t-600x600-rwI suppose that is the thing about New York. It is always a little more than you had hoped for. Each day, there, is so definitely a new day. “Now we’ll start over,” it seems to say every morning, “and come on, let’s hurry like anything.”

London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it. There is excitement ever running its streets. Each day, as you go out, you feel the little nervous quiver that is yours when you sit in the theater just before the curtain rises. Other places may give you a sweet and soothing sense of level; but in New York there is always the feeling of “Something’s going to happen.” It isn’t peace. But, you know, you do get used to peace, and so quickly. And you never get used to New York.

-Dorothy Parker, “My Home Town”
1928

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