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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December: Looking back, looking ahead

Ah, December.  I know the holidays aren’t everybody’s favorite time of year, but this month has been fantastic all the way around, with lots of touring, singing, and holiday celebrations.  The month began with a trip to Israel with my DUCHESS cohorts, Amy and Melissa.  We had an extraordinary experience performing at the inaugural Jerusalem Jazz Festival and taking in the sights, sounds, and flavors of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  (DUCHESS has had a pretty amazing 2015; you can check out our year-in-review here.)

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A few sights in Jerusalem, including a panorama of the Old City, Mt. Oliva, and the Tower of David.

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The Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Overwhelming.

An abundance of wonderful food, family, and friends made for a relaxing and joyful holiday season.  I returned home from Israel on the first night of Hanukkah.  Ours being a multi-culti household, we had friends over for a pot roast dinner for Hanukkah; then, on Christmas Eve, E. and I made our traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes at home.  Christmas Day found us at Bouley for an exquisite many-course dinner with family and friends.  On Boxing Day, we traveled to Bensonhurst for Sicilian-style pizza at L&B Spumoni Gardens, then took in the dazzling Christmas lights in Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights neighborhood, an excursion that I hope will become a new holiday ritual.

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Dyker Heights’ Christmas lights extravaganza; our Christmas table; Sicilian-style pizza in Bensonhurst.

I’m closing out this festive month with back-to-back nights at the Jazz Standard with DUCHESS, followed by a marathon New Year’s Eve gig at a swanky NYC restaurant.  I love these last days of the year, when we’re teetering on the edge of a brand new beginning; I love the proverbial clean slate.  Then again, New Year’s resolutions get a bad rap, and with good reason: nothing sets us up for failure like deciding to make sweeping, life-altering changes literally overnight. Whether one’s goals involve greater self-care, self-improvement, or self-discipline, I agree with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: “The beginning is always today.”

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That said, I can’t help but be invigorated by the cosmic turn-of-the-page that comes with a new year.  Once the Christmas decorations are all put away and the holiday excesses have died down, I invariably find myself reflecting on the potential and possibilities contained in the year ahead.  True, I do have some big hopes and dreams for 2016, but my actual New Year’s resolutions are small, do-able actions that will, I hope, bring about larger shifts in my attention span and the scope of my imagination:

  1. Listen to podcasts at the gym instead of my same old workout music playlist.  As usual, I’m late to the party, but I am having the best time exploring the world of podcasts. My time on the StairMaster goes by a lot faster when I’m happily listening to an interview with a singer I admire or tales of Old Hollywood.
  2. Read on the subway; no more silly iPhone games.  It’s a well-known fact that I loathe the subway.  Overcrowded cars (which is to say, most of them, most of the time) make me claustrophobic; the long, unexplained stops between stations make me panicky, and the smells…oh, God, the smells!  BUT…all of the above notwithstanding, the subway is still the quickest, most affordable means of getting around NYC and I don’t anticipate getting a chauffeur any time soon, so why not make the most of my time on the train?

In December, I…
Blogged about: Autumn.  My Six Months with Sinatra. DUCHESS’ Year in Review.

Read: Invisible City, by Julia Dahl.  I’m not usually a big mystery-novel reader, but this one is set in Brooklyn, specifically in the Hasidic community.  It was a fast and engaging read, and I’m curious to check out more of Dahl’s work.  My Kitchen Year: 136 recipes that saved my life, by Ruth Reichl.  I’ve long been a fan of Reichl’s writing, and her cookbook/memoir is a beautifully photographed, thoughtful meditation on how what we cook and eat reflects the seasons of the year and of our lives.

Watched: A few movies I’ve been eager to see.  Joy boasted a great cast and a true rags-to-riches story; I’ll watch Jennifer Lawrence in just about anything.  Spotlight was somber and brilliantly acted.  Brooklyn was heartwarming and sweet.  There are still lots of movies I want to see (the final installment of the Hunger Games, Trumbo, and The Big Short, among others), but these were my top three.

Listened to: Podcasts!  Janis Siegel gave a wonderful interview on The Third Story with Leo Sidran; my culinary hero, Nigella Lawson, chatted with Bon Appétit; You Must Remember This took me back in time to the Hollywood of yore.

Stormy Weather – October Recap

This morning, life outside my Brooklyn window looks surprisingly normal.  Car horns are honking in the street, and pedestrians are walking in that clipped, hurried way that seems indigenous to New Yorkers who have somewhere to be (damn it).  And, most welcome sight of all, the skies are blue and the sun is shining for the first time in days.  The storm, at last, has passed.

Underscoring the car horns, though, is a steady refrain of ambulance and police sirens.  A couple of nearby trees are lying on the ground, their roots exposed, upended by the storm.  The  traffic congestion is due to the fact that there are no subways running, and we don’t know when service will recommence.  Entire subway stations are submerged, and the tunnels linking Manhattan and the outer boroughs are flooded, which is pretty much my greatest nightmare come to life.  In short, we have a long way to go here in the Apple before life is really back to “normal.”

Hurricane Sandy showed little mercy to our beloved New York City, and we’ve all seen the footage of the wreckage that once was the Jersey Shore.  We were lucky, in our little corner of Brooklyn, to have been spared so much as a power outage, but it’s sobering to know that flooding, fires, and wind damage have wreaked havoc on the lives of our neighbors.  Today is the last day of October, so here’s a little monthly wrap-up.  May the month of November bring speedy and complete recovery from Hurricane Sandy.

In October, I….

Wrote about: Wine.  Words & Music.  The Hustle (doot doot doot doo doot da doot doot doo!).

Watched: This lady.  Obviously.

Played: a little too much (way too much) Cat Bowling.

Read: this memoir about a home restoration in Sicily.  While this book was not exactly riveting, I enjoyed reading about my new dream destination and its lemon groves, sardines, inky wines, and Moorish architecture.

Listened to: a lot of the Nat Cole Trio.  The effortlessness and insouciance of Nat Cole’s singing and playing utterly belie how HIP he was.

As I type, the sky has become overcast again.  However, the sun is stubbornly poking through the dark gray clouds, which seems to be a metaphor for the indomitable spirit of New York City and New Yorkers themselves.  New York City is battered, but not broken.  Here’s to brighter days ahead.

Right Here, Right Now

I am, at best, an inconsistent meditator.  My relentlessly practical Judeo-Christian, Midwestern/Alaskan upbringing is antithetical to the Buddhist concepts of no-self and detachment.  I like clear-cut yeses and no’s and rights and wrongs: What do you mean, this is all an illusion?  I’m right here!

Despite my resistance to some Buddhist ideology, I have long appreciated Buddhism’s emphasis on living in the present moment.  As anyone who’s even dabbled in meditation can tell you, being here now is a lot trickier than it sounds.  I try to cultivate the experience of present-moment awareness as much as possible, but I’ll be honest, there are many times when I’d rather be doing something other than, for example, airline travel, shopping at Trader Joe’s at noon on a Saturday, or waiting for the subway to arrive.

There are, though, some moments in which our senses are heightened and we perceive the world in sharp focus: colors are brighter, sounds are more pronounced, and we are, perhaps in spite of ourselves, completely engaged with what’s happening right now. We feel uniquely, fully alive. The Reverb 10 prompt for December 3 is an invitation to: Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year. Describe it in vivid detail (texture, smells, voices, noises, colors). (Author: Ali Edwards)

The Broadway opening of Come Fly Away was one of the most hyper-attuned, electrically “alive” experiences of my life thus far. The murmur of the near-capacity crowd drifted backstage, where dancers did last-minute stretches and whispered “Merde!” to one another. My black velvet Lanvin dress was tight across my hips, so my stride was shorter and more careful than usual. The headband holding my hair ornament in place pressed firmly against my scalp.

As the curtain opened and the show began, I was conscious of my rapid heartbeat and the brightness of the lights. I felt a little bit lightheaded and oddly calm; as the opening strains of my first song began, I was aware of the floor beneath my feet, the cool metal of the microphone in my hand, and the sensation of my voice traveling from my throat into the theatre.

For the duration of the performance, I experienced every breath, sound, and movement as “Now.” “Now.” “Now.” Moment to moment. I was wonder-struck for two solid hours, which brings me to the Reverb 10 prompt for December 4, in which author Jeffrey Davis asks, How did you cultivate a sense of wonder in your life this year?

Photo: Michael Nagle/Getty Images, NY Times

Well, it was easy to access a sense of wonder during the excitement of a Broadway opening and the ensuing six-month run. Every day brought with it a heightened sense of gratitude and engagement with what was happening rightthisverysecond. The thing is, though, most days are not Broadway openings. The challenge, then, becomes cultivating present-moment awareness and a sense of wonder as we navigate the hassles of everyday life: the airport, the endless check-out line at Trader Joe’s, and even the subway.

Looking ahead at 2011, I wish I could say that my meditation practice will be rock-solid. I’d like to believe that one day I will finally make my peace with the Catholicism that has seeped into the very molecules of my being and reconcile it with the elusive equanimity of Buddhism. I can’t. I feel sure, though, that I can cultivate a sense of wonder in moments both magnificent and mundane by simply choosing to be right here, right now.

Subway Bodhisattva

New York has become a wind tunnel, with December’s icy gusts tearing through the “canyons of steel” so lovingly described in Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York.” Had he written a song called “Winter in New York,” I’m fairly sure that the words “Fuck, it’s cold!” would have been included in the lyrics. The frigid temperatures have made pedestrian life, already a full-contact sport in New York City, even more competitive and fraught with peril.

Negotiating crowded sidewalks in a perpetual New York hurry is a dicey proposition, no matter what the season. New Yorkers have a penchant for jaywalking, while taxi and delivery drivers have a penchant for running red lights. Rubbernecking tourists cause pedestrian pile-ups, stopping abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk to take pictures or consult their maps. Very, very important people weave haphazardly throughout the crowds, so engrossed in their iPhones and Blackberries that they can’t be bothered to watch where they’re going.

Now, take all of the above hazards and put patches of ice on the sidewalk. Make everybody really tired and cranky from holiday retail madness. Then factor in the wind chill, and you’ve got a recipe for some pretty pissed-off pedestrians, most of whom are headed to the subway.

And the subway! Oh, the humanity! The underground platforms are freezing, the subway cars are overheated and overcrowded, and you can bet that you’ll be hit up for loose change and/or “serenaded” by vagabond urban minstrels of dubious talents for the duration of your ride (which is likely delayed due to “necessary track work”).

Once, on the subway, a girl who was getting over a cold began coughing. It was one of those eye-watering, throat-tickling, can’t-make-it-stop-whatever-you-do coughs. The girl had no water or lozenges with her. She was clearly mortified but unable to control the coughing, and the train was being held between stations, so she couldn’t leave. The people around her probably thought, “Great. All the subway cars in New York and I have to share one with Doc Holliday. Bitch better not give me swine flu.”

If I’d been sitting next to her, I don’t think I’d have been able to conceal my irritation. I’d probably have just reached for the Purell and counted the seconds until I could just get away from yet another annoying human being. Just one thing prevented me from doing so, though: I was the coughing girl.

Just when I thought I might actually cough up a kidney or die of embarrassment, a gentleman sitting near me reached into his pocket and, smiling, proffered a Halls cough drop. Cough-induced tears running down my cheeks, I could only gesture my gratitude. He got off at the next stop, so I wasn’t able to thank him properly. I’ve thought of him ever since as a “subway bodhisattva.”

New York City is home to over 8 million people. Manhattan alone boasts a population density of almost 70,000 people per square mile. With those numbers, we’re bound to get on each other’s nerves, especially during the freezing temperatures and frenetic pace of the holiday season. But today, as I venture into the cold to teach a voice lesson and feed the thronging masses at the restaurant, I will keep the memory of my subway bodhisattva’s simple act of kindness close at hand.

At the end of the day, we’re all just “annoying human beings” doing the best we can, and we all are capable–and worthy–of compassion.

Rest stop.

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Photo by Mutsumi Gee

Big band gig. Sunday night. I had worked an ear-splittingly loud and seemingly interminable party at the restaurant the night before, so my voice was hoarse. Fortunately, after a little warming up, my voice rallied. The band began to play, the buoyancy of swing music kept my fatigue at arm’s length, and I made it through the gig.

Afterward, while waiting for the subway back to Brooklyn, my mind ping-pong’ed between cataloguing every item on my “to-do” list and berating myself for being unproductive and disorganized. The train arrived. I found a seat, opened my magazine, and zoned out. The next thing I knew, I heard the subway conductor announce, “The next stop is 125th Street.” Shit. ShitShitShit. I had taken an uptown train instead of the downtown train that I needed, adding at least 30 minutes to my (already long) trip home.

buddha It should be noted that this little subway incident took place halfway through a 6-week class on (wait for it) mindful awareness meditation. I’ve been studying mindfulness in the present moment and didn’t even notice I got on the wrong train until 6 stops into my ride? Great. I take a class on mindfulness and wind up doing something completely mindless.

Friends, I am weary in my bones. My voice is tired. I came home from the restaurant the other night and dissolved into sobs: “I can’t do this for another ten years. I just can’t.” Just getting to the meditation cushion and sitting with my frenetic, impatient mind is proving to be more difficult than I could have imagined.

All this to say, then, that I don’t have any pithy words of inspiration today. I have no answers. Today, I only have questions and doubts and fears and frustrations. So it was with deep gratitude and relief that I stumbled upon this talk by the ever-humorous, ever-human Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. Namaste.

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.