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!

 

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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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There Is No Greater Love

My birthday was yesterday, August 22.  There are a couple of things I really love about having a late-summer birthday.  For one thing, I share a birthday with Dorothy Parker (in my fantasy, we’d meet at the Algonquin and trade witty bons mots over martinis, but let’s be honest, she’d leave me in the dust before I’d even had my first sip).  For another, there’s an intrinsic languor about the last week of August.  Everybody knows that summer’s on its way out, but the air is still heavy and humid, and the pace of the city—of life, really—has slowed to a near crawl. There’s ample time for reflecting on the past year and thinking about what I want to accomplish in the year ahead.

Wise words on a birthday card from a beloved friend.

Wise words on a birthday card from a beloved friend.

As I am wont to do, I flipped through an old journal recently and came upon my birthday entry from last year.  As I read, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry: my goals on last year’s birthday were exactly the same ones I’d just written down for this year.  Exactly the same. Either this meant I was extremely consistent in my quest for self-improvement, or (and this is much more likely) I had not come even close to becoming The Woman I Want To Be in the past year.

Over the course of my actual birthday, though, I experienced an avalanche of Facebook birthday greetings.  Many well-wishes came from friends, but lots of total strangers took a moment to send a birthday message—and isn’t that kind of lovely?  I also received several videos and voicemails from loved ones’ adorable children singing “Happy Birthday.”  Let me tell you, hearing kids under 5 try to pronounce “Hilary” is a one-way ticket to glee.  And my heart swelled when I received a birthday card in the mail from my 80-something grandmother, with a loving note and a $20 bill tucked inside, just like when I was a kid.

Later, I met up with a dear friend whose birthday falls the day before mine, and we ate cheap-but-delicious Israeli food at a teensy-tiny West Village spot, then headed to Mezzrow for an evening filled with exquisite music, bubbly Prosecco, and lots of kibitzing with an array of musician friends who happened to stop by.  As I looked around the club, I realized with amazed gratitude that I’ve spent a third of my life among jazz musicians in New York City.

My husband is, by nature, more reserved than I (he has no social media presence whatsoever, bless him!), so I will simply say that walking in the front door to find him waiting up for me—he’d worked a 12-hour day in the recording studio—was the best part of an already-fantastic day.  There truly is no greater love.

Sure, I’ll keep making lists of goals on my birthday.  The quest for self-improvement will continue.  But I am also mindful of this line from Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I recently read on a cross-country flight: “What if I was never redeemed?  What if I already was?”

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Nature Girl?

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Clearly having a blast camping.

I read once that green was Duke Ellington’s least favorite color, because green, being the color of grass, reminded him of bucolic landscapes.  As an inveterate city-lover, the Duke preferred pavement.  I have no idea if that anecdote is true or not (and I happen to like the color green), but, like Duke, I’ve never really been one for country life.  I mean, just look at this picture from my teen years, taken during a salmon-fishing camping trip in Alaska.  The aquamarine waters of the Kenai River flowed just outside our camper door, and there wasn’t a glimmer of modern civilization for miles.  Don’t I look thrilled?

This summer, however, my happiest moments have been spent communing with nature…in distinctly urban surroundings, mind you.  There’s a unique beauty to green spaces that are cultivated with the express purpose of providing a respite from the din of the city.  Here, then, are a few places and experiences that promise even the most citified among us a moment of peace amid New York’s clatter and thrum.

Central Park IMG_2902
Okay, yes, I’ve started with the most obvious.  But sometimes it’s good to remember that we can be tourists in our own city.  Thanks to the largesse (and connections) of a good friend, I had the indescribable pleasure of attending Shakespeare in the Park (The Tempest) at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park last month WITHOUT LINING UP FOR TICKETS AT 6 A.M., and I was literally speechless when the play ended.  The brilliance and power of Shakespeare’s poetry, combined with the changing colors of the night sky over Manhattan, fireflies twinkling overhead, and summer breezes wafting through the trees made for an unforgettable evening.

On another occasion, E. and I made an impromptu decision to spend an entire day wandering through our favorite parts of Central Park.  For me, that meant a trip to the reservoir and the northeast corner of the park, especially the Conservatory Gardens.  E., a native New Yorker, led us to Sheep’s Meadow for a sweet hour of people-watching and nostalgia. IMG_2905

Brooklyn Botanic Garden IMG_2930
Each spring, I make it a point to visit the BBG when the lilacs bloom.  Ranging from the whitest white to the deepest purple, the BBG boasts a vast array of lilacs.  I always look forward to joining my fellow winter-weary Brooklynites, as we bury our faces in the blossoms, breathing deeply the lilacs’ heady fragrance and the promise of summer.  This year, though, I (finally!) discovered that the BBG is free to the public every Tuesday, and I’ve taken to strolling through the gardens whenever weather and schedule permit.  A recent highlight was the moody, overcast afternoon I spent wandering through the riotously-in-bloom rose garden.

Tuesday Moon Bath Yoga and Pranayam: Evening Outdoor Yoga in Fort Greene Park
Okay, you guys, this is HANDS DOWN the most Brooklyn/Portlandia thing I’ve ever done, and you know what?  IT’S AWESOME.  While CrossFit die-hards grunt and pant nearby, we serenely stretch, chant, and breathe deeply as the sun sets over Brooklyn.  Kathryn is my favorite yoga teacher: smart and spiritual, without ever veering into the realm of preachiness or “woo.”  She teaches this by-donation class every Tuesday throughout the summer, and if you’re in the neighborhood, you should come.  You’ll leave feeling calm and rejuvenated. Yoga Collage Now that we’re in the middle of a heat wave, of course, I’ve got (air-conditioned) museums on my mind—the Jacob Lawrence Migration Series at MoMA, the Sargent exhibit at the Met, and the Sinatra retrospective at the Performing Arts Library—but that’ll be another post. What are your favorite verdant urban retreats?

Autumn in New York

LeavesAndPumpkinsCollageWe have careened headlong into fall.  Summer was a nonstop flurry of singing and travel, and the past three weeks or so have been such a blur of activity (my CD was officially released, my parents came to visit, DUCHESS took a trip to New Orleans) that the turning leaves and ever-cooler temperatures took me by surprise.  I savor this time of year, and it was a bit jarring to glance at the calendar and realize that we’re rapidly nearing the end of October.  With the exception of drinking a couple of pumpkin spice lattes recently (I know, I know) and the happy donning of my favorite scarves and sweaters, I’ve scarcely noticed that my favorite season is flying by; Thanksgiving will be here before we know it!

Yesterday, the lure of crisp air and clear skies proved to be irresistible and I took a couple of hours to meander through my Brooklyn neighborhood.  With no particular destination in mind, I was free to stop and smile at brightly decorated brownstone stoops, festooned with oddly-shaped gourds and pumpkins of all colors and sizes.  Upon returning home, I made a big pot of roasted butternut squash and apple soup.  It’s a start.

Brooklyn stoops, in full autumn regalia.

Brooklyn stoops, in full autumn regalia.

Still on my fall to-do list?  More only-in-autumn recipes, like this butternut squash strata from my culinary hero, Diana Henry.  A caramel apple from the farmers market, and some apple cider to heat on the stove with a stick of cinnamon, too.  Definitely a trip to Central Park for some quiet reading in the Conservatory Gardens (maybe I’ll pair this excursion with a visit to the MOMA to take in the Matisse exhibit).  A late-afternoon glass of red wine in a cozy bistro, catching up with an old friend.

I know I’m biased—my all-consuming love of New York City is well documented on this blog—but autumn in New York glows with a singular beauty, perhaps borne of the juxtaposition of nature’s splendor and the city’s hustle and bustle.  As the song goes, “it’s good to live it again.”

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