Chapter One – Studio Arena Theatre

Welcome to the first chapter of a memoir. Yes it is all about me, but more importantly, about people and events that you may or may not know, but may have been influenced by them in one way or another. You might learn a little something about our world, you might hopefully chuckle a little. Best of all they are good stories, short and sweet.


by Susan Slack

Chapter One – Studio Arena

The very first famous person I ever saw was in New York City.

On stage doing one thing or another as far back as I have memory, I literally barked at the chance to apprentice at the brand new Studio Arena Theatre right out of High School in Buffalo New York. Woof! The Studio was an Equity (union) theatre that had grown from a community theatre, then started a school and finally a 500 seat three-quarter thrust (audience on three sides of the stage) professional theatre in a refurbished Towne Casino on Main Street. I had won a couple scholarships to the theatre school and was in the loop when word spread that they were looking for apprentices for their second season. And they found me. $15 dollars a week and all the envelopes I could lick (pre Seinfeld’s episode when George’s fiance’ died from stamp licking) I also eventually did props and costumes, set building and some backstage crew work.

The first show of the season was an all out production of “Cyrano de Bergerac”. Because part of my deal was that I would be in some shows, I was cast in the pivotal role of “villager” in the opening scene. Every night I got a real orange squeezed on my hair. My Muse awakened.

Roy Schieder, yes “Jaws” Roy Schieder, played Count De Guiche. You may be thinking that I could count him as my first famous person, but he was not famous yet. At that point he was just this extremely nice, nice, mega professional actor shipped in from “The City” – I picked up the lingo right away. If I talked to anyone outside of my 25 hour a day engagement, I always used “The City” at least four times within a conversation, and if they did not know to what I referred, it just pointed out how really sophisticated I had become in just a few short weeks.

And as long as we’re digressing here, I’ll also divulge that I always use the spelling t h e a t R E, “re” on the end because all we theatre folk do that as a kind of code to each other. Well that’s why I do it. Not sure about the others.

So back to Buffalo, 1966, Studio Arena Theatre’s second season, first show. We had a month to build the sets and costumes for Cyrano. I found myself attracted to the wardrobe room downstairs. Pearl reigned there: 5’4″, wiry, brownish-grey hair plopped on top, pointy-cornered glasses on a chain, no makeup and cigarette often dangling from her mouth. She could make a wedding gown from a paper bag without a pattern. I liked her. She suggested that I work wardrobe and specifically that I be the “dresser” for the name they had booked from The City, George Grizzard. Did you know there is actually a very important and respected profession called “Dresser”? Neither did I. Being ignorant is one thing, but I did not even know that I did not know. It was a big honor to be given this big honor, but I thought it was like becoming Miss Kumquat of Chautauqua County. You get the tiara and then return to washing floors. Not so. There was stuff that happened in between.

The memory of Mr. Grizzard from my seventeen-year old brain is very pleasant. He was slightly shy of average height, slim with sort a hint of strawberry blond to it and eyebrows that very soon, promised to be unruly. He was always very polite to me.

Did I mention how very patient Mr. Grizzard was with me? He would calmly tell me that this needed doing or that needed to be in this place. My job was supposed to be to make sure he had everything he needed but he wound up being my trainer. I don’t know if he ever complained about me, but I remained his dresser for the whole month long run – a good sign.

Playing Cyrano de Bergerac, he needed to glue on a big fake nose every night. He had brought two with him from New York – I mean The City. We finally got into a rhythm each night. Before the show I checked his props. That means that I made sure the sword was on the table in the stage right wing and the note was just outside the upstage door. (Any actor will tell you that you need to check your own props before each show. Everyone had stories of running onstage without the gun and saying “Bang” with pointed finger). I made sure his bloody bandage was in his dressing room for the last act; that he had a cup of coffee waiting before each show. And after the show I’d collect what needed to be cleaned mended, replaced, etc.

The rest of the cast, excepting Roy Scheider, were either local actors hired for under scale (union minimum) to fill in the larger crowd scenes or they were part of the Resident Company. That means about ten actors, hired through casting calls in The City were signed on for the whole season and would take roles of varying significance in each of the eight shows of the season. All of these other people had only the general Wardrobe Mistress to whom they brought their soiled socks and broken zippers. That duty fell to…well…me. But this isn’t about child labor laws. This is about ART.

Mr. Grizzard (never George from my lips) left after the show closed and I stayed running wardrobe for each show and playing the small but crucial and significant roles of a nurse with no lines entering in the third act to take an upset lady to the mental hospital, a 17th century French nun in an asylum, a Gilbert and Sullivan Geisha girl (a singing part) and finally a 20’s flapper with lines to say. (The show starred John Schuck, for all you McMillan & Wife, Herman Munster, Annie and Klingon and fans) And finally for that flapper role I was listed in the program as a member of the resident company and got my Actors Equity card – a really big deal.

Somewhere in there I also toured schools as Alice in Alice in Wonderland and Beaver Girl in a play about the local indigenous Seneca people. It was a supposedly true story about a white girl who was captured by and grew up with the Senecas. Soooo un pc. But back then people thought this was a good thing because the girl LIKED living with the Indians. (cringe level: 4). This is a big diversion, but I think worth a side trip.

I was doing props for this show titled….wait for it….”Indian Captive” and drove myself to the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation and after a little tour of the res. Not much to see. Dirt roads. Cheap little houses. They generously offered to lend a water drum and an elm bark rattle. It was getting dark and I was invited to witness a semi/social semi/ritual community circle dance. I was led to a large building and when the door opened I was transported into another dimension. 80, people in dim light – could have been a fireplace behind them – were dancing in a circle. My ears were not trained but I recall some singing of words I didn’t understand and some drumming. Most vividly the picture that pops up when I think of the occasion is the whole group moving exactly the same, relaxed about it, but all together, shadows in front of the light. There was the sound of feet shuffling on the rough wood floor bringing up a thin powdery dust, creating an even more magical atmosphere that could not be absorbed at that point. Internally, an impression was made somewhere between awe and fear. It wasn’t a show. I was the only ‘white’ person there. I let the feeling I was experiencing be labeled as fear (was the term “Indian Captive” subliminally pestering my head?) and so I left after… well I don’t know how long I stayed…until I left. And still embedded in me is the sound of rhythmically shuffling feet, puffing the dust between me and the light behind the dancers. Over the years the memory of it has evolved to a feeling a gratitude that I was allowed to be there. And who knew, but it may have been the start of something big in my heart.

Back to the Studio Arena: I was very busy carrying responsibility. I was promoted to Head Apprentice which came with a raise to $25 a week. The Executive Director of the theatre made a point of never making direct eye contact with me and I think he even enjoyed being so important that there were people whose existence he did not have to acknowledge. The 17 year old me thought this was the way things were. Reflecting, he had budgets and Boards and actors and designers all wanting a piece of him.

And now here comes the part where I meet my first famous person – you know, one whom I could see with gauze over my eyes and apply any kind of fantasy on them that I wanted to.

So the season is over, my apprenticeship is finished. I decide to visit The City and go see Mr. Grizzard in “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running” playing on Broadway. I Grey Hounded it for the day with a great big suitcase because you just never know. I left a note at the box office when getting my ticket, letting Mr. Grizzard know I was there. I don’t remember the show, only that I wished I had liked it better. Afterward I went backstage and he thankfully remembered me and asked if I would like to go to Joe Allen’s on West 46th Street for a bite to eat. My Greyhound back to Buffalo would be leaving at 11:00pm-ish but I had a little time. I also had my suitcase, which I must have checked in the theater’s coat room. I do remember checking it in the coat room at Joe Allens, a half basement little bar and restaurant with close little checkered tablecloths where, rumor had it, many well known laps had sat under. The Maitre d’ gushed over Mr. Grizzard with the exact perfect tone – not too much – but certainly not too little. After all.

We sat at a little table and he ordered me one of their often mentioned hamburgers. And then it happened! I saw a famous person. I starred with open mouth and pointed and said somewhat too loud, “Look!” He turned his head quickly, then back and said under his breath that he didn’t know her.

But she’s on a soap opera! OMG OMG. (Cringe factor here of 8). I didn’t know which soap opera. I didn’t know her name but I had SEEN HER ON TELEVISION. A famous person. I had just seen a famous person.

And that was when I saw my first famous person.

Grand Central Station was only two blocks east and I told Mr. Grizzard that I would walk there. 11:00pm. Hell’s Kitchen. Era of the worst crime rate the city had since they kept records. Mr. Grizzard kindly offered to accompany me and he carried my suitcase all the way there. (pre rolling suitcases) and as I said he was not a large husky man and every time I saw his carrying shoulder droop I felt guilty and the more I apologized the more, I’m sure, he wished I would stop apologizing.

The last time I ever saw him was there at Grand Central, making sure I had my ticket, that I was at the right gate. He put down my suitcase, rubbed his arm and we said good-bye.

Over the years I’ve seen him many many times on the tube and in films. In 1996 he won a Tony for best actor in Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance”. That is a very big deal.

He passed in 2007. None of his obituaries mentions “Cyrano” or “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running”- not even in his many long listings of credits. The New York Times wrote that he was survived only by his long time partner. They didn’t mention me.


Mullah Nazruddin was a famous wise/fool from the middle east who has many teaching-while-laughing stories. Many disagree on when, where or even if he really existed. The following seems appropriate to cap off my story. You may have heard this one before, but earliest renditions are attributed to the elusive Nazruddin.

A friend came upon Nazruddin late one night. He was on his hands and knees next to a streetlight feeling the ground with his hands. “Mullah,” the friend asked, “what are you doing down there?”

I’ve lost my key.”

Where did you lose it?” the friend asked.

Over there by my door,” he answered pointing to his home several yards away.

Then why do you look for it here?”

Stopping his search he looked at his friend as though a child who needed an explanation. “Because the light is better here under the light!”

Posted in Memoir | Leave a comment

Chapter Eight – Sarasota FL

In 1998 I moved to Sarasota Florida, a lovely, warm little town on the gulf coast, whose biggest industry is tourism. Big money first came to the area via John Ringling, one of the circus bros. The elephants and small people had put a good deal of change in his pockets in the 1920s and he chose this area to set up a winter camp for the show folk. In fact, the place I lived was on the outskirts of that block of property. I often thought I might find a stray sequent or tiger dropping, but it didn’t happen. John Ringling also built a little summer home to entertain wealthy guests like Edison, Ford, and the like. In the late 1920s John Ringling was one of the wealthiest men in the world. When he died in 1936 he had only $311 in the bank. “So it goes.” (Kurt Vonnegut)

But Sarasota was already established as a place for having a wonderful time, wishing for friends to be here on the back of postcards with pictures of pink flamingos, of which there are none here. Though mostly hidden now, the circus subculture still exists here in second and third generation show folk in trailer parks and clown costume shops. If you go to the right places you can over hear reminiscing conversations about sideshow performers too hung over to perform or of the time the lions got out (FYI – there are some codes in the circus world pertaining to this kind of situation. So just know, if you are ever at a circus and the band suddenly breaks into a rendition of “Hold That Tiger” RRUUUNNNN!!!)

There is a resurging circus culture slowly regaining ground through the leadership of a not for profit called, Circus Sarasota, founded by Dolly Jacobs, daughter the most famous clown in the world, Lou Jacobs who I know you would recognize – pinkface, big white eye lids, big Bozo mouth (Lou was the original) teeny tipsy little hat on top of a cone head. Dolly and her South African born husband Pedro Reis started the organization 1997. They are ‘circus folk’ with credentials as long as a stilt walkers legs.

I worked for Circus Sarasota as project manager and had several conversations with Pedro. He had been infatuated with the circus since a boy and toured with the European companies eventually playing Madison Square Garden where the ‘accident’ happened. Union rules there state that only union workers can set up equipment. That went against all of Pedro’s years of training. Just like an actor checks his/her props before a show to prevent the need to say BANG with a finger gun, a circus aerialist needs to check their ropes and connections to save, not a moment of embarrassment, but their very life. But on opening night at the Garden, the union said no to his personal equipment check. Pedro used to perform waaay up there in the cramp-your-neck section and his big finish was to leap from way up there, with no net, and land gracefully on his feet. It was all about the bungee cords secretly attached to his ankles which he released a second before he touched ground. On this night he lept, but the bungee cords had not been attached up there at the top and he fell to certain death. Except he lived. He suffered two very broken legs and was never able to ‘fly’ again. Of course I asked if he sued and he said no. You probably never heard of him, but now you have.

How did I come to run away to the circus? I originally moved to Florida for a couple reasons. One is, do you remember I said I lived in Buffalo???? And the second reason was that I was a partner in a business theater training company. We had some contracts with Disney World in Orlando. Oh, how I would love to drop some names here, but we are legally bound to keep secrets. But let me tell you this: I know how many fingers Mickey REALLY has. And I know why Donald doesn’t wear any pants. Nuff said.

I got duped out of the partnership so for ten years I toured schools libraries and festivals in ten counties with my company, the Open Circle Players. I worked as a Teaching Artist for the Sarasota County Arts Council and Very Special Arts of Florida. Summers are slow in Sarasota and all the sidewalks are rolled up while the locals search out some cool shade somewhere up north. I took the temporary job with Pedro and Circus Sarasota. They received a grant from a local foundation to teach basic circus skills to developmentally disabled adults who attended Loveland, a sort of day camp. Disabilities included Downs syndrome and mental retardation combined with cerebral palsy. There was a separate little house for seniors next to the main building and I remember one client who had suffered a severe head injury while a soldier in the Korean War. The only thing he could say was “Hot diggity”. On rare occasions it became “Hot diggity dog”. He had a fiance before the war, but on his return, seeing his disability, she left. What would you do? The war veteran was now in his early 70s and very healthy and spry; one of our most talented and enthusiastic participants. Hot Diggity.

Twice a week for three months I showed up with a couple professional circus artists who would teach juggling, clowning, magic and some tumbling for the robust. If you have been waiting for the name to drop, here it comes. You may not have heard of Jackie LeClair, but you may have seen him him alone, center ring at a Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus, or teaching at clown college, or maybe in Moscow, Argentina – surely some circus event you’ve seen had Jackie Leclair as part of it’s presentation. I know! Did you see C.B. Demille’s 1952 Best Picture Oscar winner, “The Greatest Now on Earth”? Okay, that was Jackie stunt doubling as an aerialist. Now in his retirement he serves as “Ambassador of Mirth” for Circus Sarasota.

He mostly wears a way too big white suit, big shoes of course, hair sticking out and thin red lips. Sometimes he’ll glue on a red nose, but it was really messing up his skin so often he would settle for a red blush nose. Jackie is a very soft spoken man but will share stories when mildly prompted, of his birth in 1929 and youth spent in a traveling circus caravan, washing laundry in whatever stream they camped near, with the other traveling circus families. He talks and I conjure up mental pictures of colorful gypsy wagons.

I learned two extremely important, very basic life lessons from Jackie. Here is how the first came to be: He didn’t offer all the training at Loveland. He was in his 80s and was supposed to be retired. He and Chuck-O, the other clown, did a half hour show for the seniors in the little house next to the main building where the Korean War vet and about 10 others spent their days. Jackie’s style is very low key, blank-faced befuddlement. When he begins his schtick, you have to go with him immediately. Most of it was without words. The things he and Chuck-O did got sillier and sillier, dumber and dumber. 15 minutes in and you just know they’re not going to get it right, so stop expecting Shakespeare. Give it up. I unwittingly surrendered to these two clowns in front of me and there was nothing left to do but laugh. And laugh. They played us like violins. The music we played back to them was belly laughs. They caught me with my pants down…well actually they were the ones dropping drawers… but still, I couldn’t have been more surprised when I felt laugh tears on my cheeks.

After the gig, packing up the car Jackie ran through the show in his head and because I was next to him I heard it. Remember this guy’s background for a minute. Touring the world, all kinds of honors and Halls of Fame, performing for 80 years. You might expect, or at least I could very well expect a Krusty the Clown, get me out of here type of attitude. Nope. Instead he asked me if I thought the clients liked it and reflected that the timing on the the chair gag was off. And maybe the picture frame gag should come before the flower gag to make the show run smoother.

Here is the learning. This review of a gig is quasi normal for performers. But I had never witnessed it from an 80year old. It was not a neurotic, self-loathing, or emotional fishing expedition for acceptance or any other unbalanced reaction. It was simply and majestically caring in a consummately professional manner. He was able to gauge where the act needed tweaking by the reaction of the crowd. Jackie cared, cared about what he did. Think of the platitude “anything worth doing is worth doing well.” The man lived this. He is a truly honest presence in the deepest sense of the word.

A while later Circus Sarasota mounted its annual six week, one ring show under the big top. I got ring side seats for the February run. That’s the perfect time for a circus in Sarasota because mostly everywhere else was off season for circus folk so a lot of good acts were available. And with Pedro and Dolly’s pedigree, the stars would come. They were ‘circus’. Before the music and the horses and the ringmaster turned it all on, Jackie entered the ring, alone with no announcement, as if wandering in off the street in the baggie white suit. Oh dear. He is confused. He makes mistakes. Little chuckles sprinkle the audience. People slowly complete their conversations and look to see what is going on in the ring. Each gag brings a louder response. The demure little man, in desperate need of a tailor, looks to the audience as if to ask, could possible explain why the task he has just attempted has gone so wrong. Is it okay to laugh at this guy? Except we have no choice. We are being played. Every look, every movement, every pause, executed to perfection. Seriously, my stomach ached. I can’t laugh any more. Oh yes I can! That is the second lesson.

Krusty: Uh-huh. Charity, eh? What’s my cut? Nothing? I make more than that takin’ a “schwitz.”
Bart: Tell him it will count towards his community service.
Krusty: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. All right, I’ll do it. [groans] Boy, swipe one pair of Haggar slacks and you’re payin’ for it the rest of your life.

Still in Sarasota on September 11, 2001, as I was driving to the copy store to make up some brochures for my theatre company, I missed the turn for a new short cut I thought I would try – a not-quite-singular occurrence as my son will attest after years of finding delightful unexpected time together in the car. This day my extended route took me past the Sarasota Airport off University Parkway. A quarter mile on either side of the entrance to the terminal and the driveway to the terminal were literally filled with police cars – state, county, local – each with lights flashing – yellow, blue, red, white, no timed sequence to the rolling and flashing. WTF. Oh, right, Bush was in town. Gonna visit the school my friends works at. This really seems a bit over the top even for a presidential visit. The flashing lights – think epileptic seizure waiting to happen; think very bad acid flashback. Driving past all this, I tried to appear pleasant to the uniformed officers, but not too pleasant. Is my registration up to date?

Just minutes before, the second plane had struck and as I drove, the President was reading “The Pet Goat” and not stopping for almost a half an hour, a crucial period in which he may have been able to make split second decisions that might have saved lives. But we’ll never know. Reports on the radio were just starting to come in as I pulled into the copy store parking lot. The two owners were anxiously trying to get a TV hooked up. We heard on the radio that a third plane had flown into the Pentagon. All was dark then, inside each one of us.

I have often wondered why I called my son right there from the store. I found the answer in science years later. It seems the fight or flight response is a particularly male activity. When females were finally studied it was discovered that in similar situations a woman will gather the family; pull all the chicks under her wings. I called my son and my sister whose daughter was a flight attendant.

Somewhere in there we heard Airforce One take off – the last plane we would hear for days, or was it weeks. We ran outside to take a look. It was big. It meant something much more in that moment, though I can’t say what.

I got my brochures copied while we were waiting for news of the fourth plane. I made the decision to continue with my life, my business. To stop would have been submissive to whatever was going on. I chose not to surrender. The photo on the cover of the brochure was crooked. Not even close to being important. Just went home and glued my eyeballs to the TV as the whole nation watched.

Not to leave it there, I did get quite close to Obama during the campaign. I truly believe he heard me yell good luck to him.

So that’s it so far. I have many more miles to rack up on my cringe-o-meter. Thanks for reading all this.

We outgrow love like other things
   And put it in the drawer,
Till it an antique fashion shows
   Like costumes grandsires wore.
 Emily Dickenson
Posted in Memoir | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chapter Seven – Shuffling in Buffalo

Meanwhile back in Buffalo I had been invited to be the Jazz Editor of Buffalo Backstage Magazine, a free monthly tabloid. First off, do you know that the word “tabloid” describes the certain size of a publication? So the National Enquirer is a tabloid because it is half the size of a sheet of newspaper, not because it reports on alien monkey babies. Rolling Stone and the Washington Post are also tabloids. And though they may not report it, I have heard that they are owned by alien monkey babies.

Buffalo Backstage was run by humans, Rick and Marsha without any corporate sponsorship. They paid for printing with ads; everything else was volunteer. Would the phrase “labor of love’ be too trite for you to read?

Monetarily I received bubkas, too. The job did come with a very measured amount of fame and glory. The big draw was free concert tickets and many opportunities to interview famous people. And this certainly was a lot clearer than me hanging around after gigs like a groupie, when what I really liked to do was talk with people who are talented and interesting. And what a bonanza for writing about now!

I earnestly wanted to hear Joni Mitchell when she was in town. I missed her at both Woodstock and the May Day March on Washington so this was a completion of a long quest. Was she a jazz artist? Would it fit my job description? Her most recent couple albums in this particular chronology, had leaned in that direction. We couldn’t book an interview so I proposed a review of her concert and latest release. I got press tickets.

She sang at Sheas Buffalo, an extraordinary 3500 seat theatre in downtown Buffalo on Main Street, built in 1926 with lots of box seats growing up the walls and pretty, decadently unnecessary gold twirly decor. Strangely, one of its original purposes was to show movies or “talkies” as they were called. Imagine an acre of seats in a Versailles-like setting (yes, Tiffany chandeliers) with ONE screen, where after a couple of minutes they turned off the lights and you couldn’t see the fancy muraled ceiling anyway. And the most amazing thing was that you couldn’t hear the movies playing on the right side with, for instance, a screaming werewolf scene while you were watching the couple about to kiss for the first time in your movie. (Although some might argue the appropriateness of the subliminal warning) Buffalo used to be home to many millionaires and in that time, before the great depression (the money kind, not the sad kind) the city was one of the hippest stops for Broadway bound shows. A “try-out” city that, Billy Joel, had he been alive, would have been singing “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you Buffalo, Buffalo”. The theatre is now on the National Historic Register after a huge legal battle with a large corporation that wanted to strip its treasures and demolish it. Are you shocked? The people aiming to preserve the landmark treasure won! That is something to be shocked over.

Where were we? Oh yes, Joni Mitchell’s concert at Sheas. I remember watching her in awe, alone in the spotlight, She actually smoked while performing, which I think was against fire codes (I”ll check with my father) but it certainly did throw a mysterious noir mist into the mix. She didn’t play all her big hits, but rather rather sang the tunes she had just recorded and released.

The moment that I have tattooed in my memory is actually after the performance, waiting outside at the backstage door like everyone else. Her black limo slowly emerged from the bat cave and the Red Sea of loyal fans parted. I had brought a copy of my (vinyl) album, “Sunrise” and I held up the naked-baby-pointing-to-the-sun photo on the cover toward the black tinted windows as it passed. The black barge stopped. Slowly, slowly, the window slid down and there she was two feet away. There is the mental tattoo – her face beamed like the sun emerging from storm clouds. The drama of the moment totally captured me. She was unexpectedly beautiful, with wide crystal lake blue eyes looking into mine, her white incandescent skin and blond bangs created a halo around them. I wished I was gay.

I passed the album to her through the window that had only made it three quarters of the way down, muttering some incoherent thing or other starting with “Miss Mitchell”. She smiled and graciously accepted it with a thank you. The window patiently returned to it’s hermetically sealed position and the limo drove on into the night.

I did interview John McLaughlin of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He was touring as part of an acoustic guitar trio with Al DiMeola and Paco de Lucia. He was gracious but somewhat exasperated with my lack of good questions. I’m with ya’ there, John. Innovative vibraphonist Gary Burton gave the best interview in that I didn’t have to edit one word or switch phrases around to make the article flow. He flowed. I spoke with exciting jazz fusion guitarist Pat Metheny and again invoke the cringe-o-meter in a factor of 4 because I could not ask one question without pleading in my eyes for him to ask me out. Seriously, have you seen the guy smile? Doing this work I gained immense respect for the real interviewers. As much as it may appear, one can’t just waltz in and ask ‘hows it goin’?’ I heard Oprah admit that she did that with Michael Jackson and regrets not having prepped enough.

I was kind of busy raising my son and gigging around. Because this wasn’t paying, I couldn’t rationalize spending a lot of time on beforehand research. So when it came time to interview fusion violinist, Jean-luc Ponty, I donned my beautiful long white vintage coat hoping he would notice and met him in the dressing room before the concert. Not long into the interview, after the ‘hows it going questions’, he brought up his desire and excitement to once again play with keyboardist George Duke. “Sounds great. I hope that happens soon. When will you play with him again?” I hipply asked. “Tonight. We’re on tour together.”

I sort of invented the cringe-o-meter scale so that this moment, and subsequent memories of it, would aptly illustrate the number 10. He knew I was cruising. I knew he knew I was cruising. My beautiful white vintage coat wrinkled as I shriveled into a small unidentifiable ball of cringe. I fumbled through and we printed a big picture and glowing review of the concert and accompanying album. But my interviewing career came to an end in that moment. Was I going to put the time into preparing for interviews as was really needed and not get paid, or did I put more time into playing music myself and which did pay. I chose.

But the name dropping doesn’t end there! On the contrary. I now get to drop the most famous name in the world. I was gigging around town with some mighty fine musicians. One such gig was at the premier jazz supper club of Buffalo in it’s day. The Cloister was built just a few blocks from downtown on Delaware Avenue on the site of Mark Twain’s home when he lived in Buffalo. For years it hosted a Sunday afternoon jam session. The house trio was headed by – Al Tinney, yes THE Al Tinney – who played a set of standards with the house rhythm section and then opened up the stand (stage) to whomever had built up the nerve to try out his chops with Al. You didn’t want to make a fool of yourself. Even though Al did not say anything rude to those who should have spent a little more time in the woodshed, you could tell how you did by the either the expansion or shrinking of Al’s ever present smile. Occasionally a newcomer might get a little “yeah” from him during a happening solo. Nothing better than that. Except if you got asked to play on another tune.

This jam session was a bonding staple for the jazz community for several years. When Al was ready to pass it along, his tenor sax sideman, Sam Falzone took the leadership. Because there was such momentum for Buffalo jazz in those days, the Cloister also offered jazz on the weekend nights. Sam hired me as vocalist and percussionist for his quartet.

Before we go any further here I’ve got to mention the waterfall – the one that ran down outside window of the Cloister’s one story rounded greenhouse glass structure from the inside. I don’t know exactly why it was there, but I do know how it got there. My father moonlighted as a plumber when not fighting fires for the city. In addition to keeping all the pipes in good order at the Cloister, he also helped install and maintain the waterfall. When standing inside it always seemed as thought it was raining. Someone could have made some bucks selling umbrellas.

To enter the Cloister one walked past the waterfall through a rather modest doorway into a reception area area. One of the walls was literally covered with framed 8” X 10” black and white glossy photos, all signed and addressed to Jimmy. That would be James D. DiLapo, the proud owner of the establishment. I don’t recall ever meeting ‘Jimmy’, although I’m sure he would have had to approve my hiring. Meanwhile back at the photo wall, one could spend a good long while looking at the stars and very famous people who had obviously dined there and enjoyed themselves. We’re talking big stars on the Las Vegas circuit – Sammy Davis, Rosemary Clooney, Dean Martin, Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Sonny Liston and of course, Frank Sinatra. Those are just a few. It was a big wall.

To the left of this entryway were the two steps down into the jazz club and bar, the stage being at the furthest end. My memory is that it wasn’t garish, not too many mirrors. Yes, clinking ice in sweating glasses, smoky dimness, fancy clothes and cocktail napkins which no doubt, sported many a discrete telephone number.

To the right of the photo-bedecked hallway was the dining room. It had a great reputation for food, though I never had the pleasure personally. The kitchen closed just as the band began to play. The idea was for the diners to move to the bar for the entertainment and larger tab. That meant a nice crowd for the opening set. The mainline jazz crowd filtered in later. That meant more familiar tunes at the beginning of the evening and longer solos later on. Following musician union rules, for a four hour gig we played 40 minutes, then took a twenty minute break, 40 on, 20 off, 40 on, twenty off, twenty on, twenty off and twenty on, so there was live music right up until closing.

I remember that night very clearly. I was wearing a white Indian style pants outfit, gathered at the ankles, high neck and a beaded red velvet belt I had bought with the first royalty check from my album. I was sitting back on my my first twenty minute break, next to the popcorn machine in the picture hallway when a party of about ten understatedly well-dressed, first class party came in past the water fall as a single unit. They were happy, though not boisterous, talking quietly as they were shown to a table in the dining room. One member of the party lingered to look at a photo and then pranced into the darkness, following the others. I watched as the tall man trotted and thought,”That guy has good balance…carries himself well.” I considered myself somewhat of an expert on watching people move. I had after all, been accompanying dance classes for several years. I thought perhaps I should mention this to the lopping man in the hopes that it might boost his confidence. The fact that I did not mention this to the gentleman proves that, yes… there is grace and compassion in the universe. When I returned to the bandstand I was told that Mohammed Ali was in the house. Mohammed Ali was just a few feet away, my voice going into his ears. He was the most famous person in the world, known in the most remote tribal village in Africa, the most lush and decadent penthouse spa, the worldwide middle class and the Soviet block countries. More famous than any movie star or rock & roll god, more than a politician or philanthropist and more than a sports hero, which he definitely is. He is a magnetic icon that spoke truth to power before that was a cliché’. But his appeal, to this day, goes beyond even his refusal to fight a war he didn’t believe in and beyond his boxing championship and triumphant return. Mohammad Ali was in the next room listening and I was, like the little drummer boy in the song, singing my best for him.

But wait, there’s more. On our next break we were invited into the dining room, which was usually closed at this hour, to meet “The Greatest”. We approached the big round table of diners as plates were cleared and were introduced to him in a very classy way, as if we needed to be told who he was. Each of us in the band said hello and told him our names. This event took place after the Parkinson’s had started its slow journey through his body, and we were matter-of-factly told that he wasn’t speaking much. He looked us in the eye, grinning warmly. He was incredibly handsome, skin a medium coffee brown, hair perfectly coiffed in a slightly rounded box cut.

He pulled a handkerchief from inside his suit pocket along with some coins and started into some slight of hand magic tricks. Really. Even though I tried to ignore them, discouraging thoughts leaked into the sides of my mind, such as, ‘maybe he is loosing his marbles’. One of the women at the table, probably noticing my look of dismay, smiled gently at me and said, “Mohammed likes to do magic tricks.” Oh. Okay. He was a showman after all and he was entertaining us. I can’t say how adept he was. What I do recall was the casual love that rested on the circle of people. They undoubtedly had seen these tricks countless times, but they seemed to earnestly enjoy him enjoying himself. There were no “handlers” trying to protect his image or ‘yes’ men clapping too loud as the coin magically appeared from an unexpected ear.

Thinking back, it was ideal. I believe he was aware of how much people wanted to meet him. In stead of sealing him off from well wishing autograph seekers, we were invited to meet him. I am guessing that he suggested it. But then what? Should we all rattle on and on about how great he was? Or stand there awkwardly gawking? Nope. None of the above. He pulls out the hanky and we’re all having this gentle experience together like a family in a living room. The real magic was that the whole time he was kindly watching us watch him. And smiled all the while, like he knew something else was going on – something like, “Here, take some happiness.”

We returned to the other room and continued our gig. When the guys played an instrumental I stepped off the stand and headed for the photo hallway. Standing there in front of me was Mohammed Ali. He towered over me and I looked into his eyes. We stood very close. Our gaze met and the world as we know it disappeared. Please be very clear that this was absolutely not a flirty kind of interaction. Not even 1%. I had been studying in some spiritual circles and had the good grace to recognize a moment like this when it happened.

We stood eye to eye and took hands and greeted one another on the inner planes. If this sounds strange, that’s okay. There was an exchange of peace, of recognition of the depth within each of us. It might have lasted a minute or two or a year or two. Events like this are void of time. It still exists in me. I believe I met a deep mystic who transferred some unspoken knowledge to me. The disorder his body experiences seems to be minor distraction to his soul which manifests itself so beautifully.

At the end of the night, long after the group had gone, I looked to see which photo Muhammed had paused to look at when he first arrived. Sonny Listen. Duh.

I was working with a couple modern dance companies as a musician and was commissioned to write scores to accompany dance pieces. One of those pieces was invited to participate in the grand opening of Rockwell Hall on the Buffalo State Campus. Okay, its new name as of 1961 is State University College of Education at Buffalo but all the locals still call it Buff State. Rockwell Hall is a beautiful, wonderful, state-of-the-art-in-its-day performance hall with 850 seats and a totally workable backstage – rear door loading dock, fly space, huge wings, great adjacent dressing rooms and a huge stage with a surface perfect for dancers. Some may not realize that dance companies require special stages, not because they are spoiled prima donas, but it is what is needed – like a baseball team needs a baseball diamond. So this beautiful facility is having a grand opening in 1987 and someone decides to make it a dance festival to mark the occasion and call it the Festival of Five because five local companies were invited to perform. Members of companies know one another in part due to get togethers such as this. As composer and accompanist for one of the companies I was hanging out backstage, schmoozing along with those of the snapping tights, ballerinas lacquering down hair, sprawling limbs everywhere keeping muscles limber.

As the program began and voices hushed, I noticed a single occupied chair in the darkened stage right wing. I knew who she was of course. She was the special invited guest making a rare appearance to shower her blessings on this ship’s maiden voyage. It was easy to grasp that she did not care to be approached and out of respect, no one did. Katherine Dunham was no more than 10 feet from me, after the years of putting the movements she created into my body, we shared at least some neuropathways. I can’t even get close to imagining what she had gone through, being the first to bring authentic Afro-Caribbean dance to the legitimate stage way back there in the 1940s and 50s. She had the intellect and the artistry to recognize that the African diaspora nurtured power and beauty through music and dance, when almost all others that cared to look at all, saw only “jungle” chaos. She funneled the incomparable energy of the culture into a disciplined technique and spearheaded the creation of a new genre. Now in her late 70s she was sitting 10 feet from me and I felt so very humbled.

It was dark behind the new thick, heavy velvet curtains, closed now to separate we of the toe shoe and the dance belt from the well-dressed celebrities and VIPs who sat in 850 brand new seats. With difficulty we listened to the welcoming speakers. If the thick curtains function was to keep backstage shuffling and whisper from the ears of the audience, the value added, or subtracted, was that they also served to keep stage noise from the ears of those in the wings. The speeches sounded as thought being delivered from under several bed covers, if for some reason you have that experience in your memory for reference. There was this donor and that foundation and several politicians to thank, who then had to say ‘you’re welcome’. Muffled applause after each wafted back to the wings. It was during this time I gently walked closer to where Miss Dunham sat. Again there was no indication that she cared to have any kind of interaction. I paused about three feet behind her, there in the dark, and began to breath with her. I had no intention of taking anything from her but rather just purposefully being with her for a moment, to share the same air, to place her countenance in my memory, to be more aware of her than of myself.

The stage manager informed her it was time for her to speak. She rose with difficulty and was escorted to a hidden opening in the curtains. Word was she had two knees replaced and back then it was not the 15 minute oil change it is today. There is a lot of earthy downness in the Dunham technique. Not sure if anyone was saying the bad knees were nature or nurture. By this time I had moved into Hawkins technique for daily use which was kinder to bodies. I watched Miss Dunham carefully disappear to the other side of the curtains, into the lights that for an instant flash blinded my eyes.

She spoke slowly, a tiny bit haltingly. Her medium was after all, movement. I listed with all the ear power I could muster. I think she began to tell a little of her personal story. The part that caught me was when she said, “I am a practicing Buddhist”. That was a surprise. I let it run through my consciousness to the exclusion of what she continued to say. It was none of my business of course, it just didn’t fit with the program I had conjured up for her. Well, from her lips to my ears, Katherine Dunham is a Buddhist.

The concert went on, beautifully, if I do say so. New costumes rustling, heavy makeup and lots of sweat to wash it down. When the evening concluded, plenty of hugging and laughing with hands to mouth about missteps that had occurred. The Rockwell Performing Arts Center was now officially inaugurated. Miss Dunham returned to her home in St. Louis where she maintained a school of dance and continued to receive lauds and praise as a national treasure and political activist.

It was not until her passing years later, when national tributes and memorial news reports were everywhere that I discovered my erroneous belief. She was not in fact, a practicing Buddhist, but rather a practicing Voodhist. Ahh, the curtains. Voodon, the religion of rhythms, of power-laden dance, of nature. Most people think of just the pins in the dolls when “Voodoo’ is mentioned. That practice may exist in the tradition in the most pedestrian level. But what I know of it calls on personal discipline and respect; specific drum rhythms that evoke deities, not so different from wearing a St. Christopher medal for protection or burying a St. Joseph statue upside down in your backyard to sell your home (I did that). Call it cultural conditioning or something else but I can understand why Miss Dunham embraced the practice. May she dance with/as a deity now.

Then there is Chautauqua Institute, a quaint, tightly nestled gated community south of Buffalo founded in 1874 by inventor Lewis Miller and Methodist Bishop John Heyl Vincent as a teaching camp for Sunday school teachers on over 2000 square miles of gently sloping land which hugs Lake Chautauqua. Since 1973 it is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. Mostly it sleeps through the winter and springs alive during the summer to part-time residents who relish an incredible lecture series, world class performances by the resident ballet company and internationally famous artists and a boatload of one, two or three week long classes on everything form pottery to gardening, philosophy the writing…well it just goes on and on. People who want to teach something send in a proposal and it goes through extraordinary scrutiny, after which one gets a thumbs up or down from the committee. Fortunately, for two summers my proposals were accepted to teach African drumming (I believe the first time it was offered there!) and to work with kids using multicultural folktales and music.

One of the advantages of being class-offerer was that I had access to performances and lectures in the Amphitheater. So here comes the name dropping part. Huston Smith was one of the first Americans to go public in a big way with the idea that all religions come from one source, or to put it another way, address the common need and questions in all of humanity since the dawn of civilization. Heavy. In 1955, he was host for a National Education Television series called “The Religions of Man.” and his book of the same name, later changed to “Religions of the World” has sold over two and a half million copies. Mr. Smith had dived deeply into the study of Zen Buddhism and Sufism, both mystical points of view. I purposefully booked my weeks of teaching to coincide with Mr. Huston’s morning lecture. He is a tall slim man with wavy, thinning snow white hair. He spoke gently and clearly with great intellect and down to earth common sense. After the lecture he made himself available outside in a sunny, intimate area next to the Ampitheater. I had nothing to ask him, or had no need to bring myself to his attention. Instead I sat on a bench and observed as he spoke with people. Some had books for him to sign. Some did most of the talking. He listened with sincerity. He did not look at a watch or grimace as some went on about themselves. He reveled in it. In his Western style white shirt, he was the personification of patience and grace. His face beamed pleasantness there in the dappled sunlight, summer flowers gently shaking in the warm breeze, happy to be right there where he was; no indication that he was anticipating the opportunity to sit and have lunch.

I found myself standing and walking toward him without intention. I put out my hand to greet him and he met it openly. I thanked him for coming and he asked me a couple of questions. Out of respect I kept the conversation short but I believe he could have had a good conversation with almost anyone, finding common ground with a kumquat if need be. This was walking the walk. If I had my way, I would clone him and place him as advisor to all world leaders.

A man was very fond of roses, and had planted them all around his house, but they never grew. All that ever grew were dandelions.

“Hmm,” Nasruddin said, “I myself am fond of dandelions, but as you can see, they do not grow here.”

“Why is that, do you think?” asked the man.

“Probably because I never planted any.” he replied. “But to return to your problem, let me restate it. You love roses, but you only grow dandelions. If you love roses so much, why not plant them?”

“No, no , you misunderstand! I plant roses, but only dandelions grow!”

“Ah,” he replied. “Your conundrum is clear. I have heard a solution for this, which involves three hot peppers and the dung of a camel of advanced age.”

“I already tried that one,” the man said.

“There is another remedy I have heard for growing roses, but it involves moving to Persia and growing them on the banks of the river Tigris.”

“That would be very inconvenient,” said the man.

“And expensive,” Nasruddin said, “though you could probably afford it.”

“No,” he said, “I don’t believe that’s a good solution. Do you know any others?” He looked at the wise fool hopefully who pondered, and pondered, and pondered. The man waited patiently. Finally, he had the solution.

“I have a solution!” Nasruddin said, “But you won’t like it.”

“Oh, I will, Nasruddin, I will! Please tell me.”

“No, I know you will not like it. I don’t think I should suggest it.”

“Please, O Great and Wise Nasruddin, please tell me.”

“Well, when you put it that way…no, I can’t. I know you won’t like it.”

“Enough, already, Nasruddin, what is the solution?”

I took a deep breath.

“You must learn to love dandelions.”

Posted in Buffalo New York, Memoir | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chapter Six – Omega Institute

Omega Institute

Back in Buffalo, raising a son, not quite so much time for jam sessions, I wrote and recorded my first album, “Sunrise” and put a photo of my little guy on the cover, in the buff from the back pointing to a reflecting sun rising over the water. Also joined with six other people in creating a free local newspaper with articles and calenders of groups teaching yoga, meditation, healing, healthy eating and all the activities and practices known back then as “weird”, called “The Network of Light”. I wrote columns, interviews, collected calendar items and begged for ads. I bought a used, um, what were they called…oh right…I bought a computer. No internet yet but it sure beat the heck out of white-out on a typewriter.

So where are the famous people as promised in the title? Be patient. A teaser: I encounter the most famous person in the world! But that comes later.

At this point, I somehow found a catalog for a summer camp for adults. Hidden away in the Berkshire Mountains in east New York State, Omega Institute was one of the trailblazers of honoring all traditions. True, Esalen Institute on the west coast at Big Sur was founded in 1962 and Naropa, an accredited University in Bolder Colorado in 1974 were a little earlier. Omega comes in third in 1977. I saw that it had been conceived by students of Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, the head of the Sufi Order, the same organization whose members had independently chosen to pick up the pieces at the World Symposium on Humanity. Omega was offering courses from people who were deeply committed to their own spiritual and/or artistic traditions so one could study with a Zen Buddhist from Japan, a Native American shaman/elder or an African drummer. Remember, back in the early 80s this was relatively unheard of; people of different paths all teaching on one campus. Most weren’t on self help book tours as it is today. They were merely doing what they were internally called to do, externally supported by the happenstance of where they were born. The decisions on which teachers to invite were made thoughtfully and usually someone on the deciding committee had personal experience with them.

So there is this catalog in front of me and as I flip I see a face that looks familiar. The name was Baba Olatunji. I don’t know how long it took me to make the connection but this was the man who had recorded the album, “Drums of Passion” that I found in the library and played on my little record player years earlier. Wow. The real thing. My inspiration. I was there.

At this this time I was playing two second-hand, repainted black fiberglass congas which I schlepped all the way across New York State and into the very big space at Omega where the six day course would be held. I set the drums up right in the front row, as close as I could get to the portable blackboard that was green and a grand looking drum that I imagined to be the teacher’s. It was. Almost five feet high and mostly cylindrical, it was perched on a custom-made black metal stand. Strips of beautifully smooth, dark stained wood flared delicately up to a 16” diameter head made of white animal skin. There was no other drum like in on the planet. It waited there patiently with the rest of us for Baba to enter.

Born outside of the capitol city of Abuja in Lagos State, Nigeria, West Africa to the Yoruba people, Michael Babatundi Olatunji found his way to the US by winning a scholarship he had read about in ‘Readers Digest’. Though his degree was in Diplomacy, he had the ancient rhythms of his homeland in his blood. (Just as you could now hum the incessant music from the ice cream truck, only better) He formed a band and opened a center in New York City to bring in some extra money and because this was America’s first introduction to authentic African music it caught fire. “Drums of Passion” was recorded in 1959 for Columbia records at his center, which by the way was pushed along with the help of none other that John Coltrane. Baba spoke seven languages including his native tongue of Yoruba (pronounced Your-r Ba).

But we, or at least I, knew none of this while we waited at Omega Institute for the exotic African drum teacher to appear. He did without fanfare. Wearing, as he always did when I saw him, traditional Nigerian clothing – long kaftan type of top commonly called boubou and kufi style cap. He was very well aware, as we politely patronized the foreigner, that he was an ambassador of sorts and he accepted our stupidity with love. He spoke with vowels as broad as the sea as he gave the syllabus for the class. Then finally he walked to the THE DRUM, raised his elbows and played. It spoke with a voice that is branded into my senses: deep, mellow, soothing and wild at the same time with at least three layers of overtones that gave it a melodic quality. I could feel it as I breathed deeply. There was definitely a love affair going on between it and Baba. No one else knew where it’s pleasure spot was but him. He teased the song out of it with strong, definite gestures. As he played he sang a song in Yoruba, in a voice so loud it was probably heard across the entire campus. Interesting that some students giggled nervously probably because they had never heard an African language (or maybe anything but English, except for maybe Dean Martin singing “That’s Amore’”.)

And of course there were the actual rhythms. West African poly rhythms (many rhythms going on at once) sound very complex but are really very simple parts that are woven together. The real challenge is in the weaving. But for Doris Day-listening, Beatles-grooving ears like ours, even the easy parts were, well let’s say it again, challenging. Years later I learned, but will insert here, that traditional rhythms, developed in smaller communities and passed down aurally, are of course, all tied together with the language being spoken in that community. All the subtle nuances of the patterns are way beyond the non-speaker-of that -language’s ability to discern. Also taking into account the sounds of the wind, the trees, the animals and birds, climate and cultural duties in which the language and rhythms were developed, it may be safe to say that white people don’t have a snowballs chance in hell of getting them so right that a blind person from that culture couldn’t tell your DNA had passed through the Caucasus mountains. But Baba was there to try anyway. Besides, the point wasn’t to replicate exactly. That’s what happens to music when it is written down. (I double-dog dare you to try and write down classical West African poly rhythms.) Music and arts of all kinds naturally morph. And we sitting there, unbeknownst to us at the time, were the morphers.

Baba had devised a method of teaching using verbal Yoruba syllables – Gun, go, do, pa & ta. He had us speak the rhythms before playing: “GUN go do GUN go do” over and over till we caught a little of the feeling. Baba didn’t make up this way of teaching drum rhythms. It is the norm all over Africa, Asia and the Middle East. “If you can say it you can play it” the axiom goes. Finally after instructions on how not to hurt our hands we played very simple little parts. Holy cow. I had never heard that many drums play at once. We thought we were hot as hell. I’m sure Baba was probably thinking almost the same thing – leaving out the “hot as” part. In any case, we progressed, deeper and deeper into the sounds, the swaying, the power, the discipline and of course the bonding that ultimately brings a group together, hearts all beating together with the drums.

One of the ways Baba excelled in transferring this almost unteachable art was that through his Gun- go-do exercises, he had synthesized basic underlying patterns running through many traditional West African rhythms. If in the future I/we would come across any complex rhythms from Mali or Ivory Coast or Guinea or wherever, we could break them down into familiar chunks and not be totally lost inside them, and be able to play something that sounded close-ish. If you have had an opportunity to read what brain research has discovered about how brains learn, you know that new learning takes place more effectively when there is already a similar learning waiting in the brain for a twin or least sibling of the original information, that is almost like it. The original memory is strengthen by the repetition and the newer memory builds it’s own house in the same neighborhood. So the more similar learning, the bigger the neighborhood becomes. The more you know, the bigger your capacity grows to learn even more.

He also had us sing in Yoruba as we played. Brain researchers also acknowledge that performing more than one associated task at the same time (like singing while drumming or playing table tennis) networks a lot of brain neighborhoods together. (Very helpful when playing “Jeopardy” among other important tasks.) Baba was genius.

Playing the ancient, woven rhythms that had been played for thousands of years made me feel like I had finally joined the human race. Apparently I was not the only who felt this music deeper that my bones. Put on your history hat for a moment and remember that people from West Africa, who knew and played and danced to these very same rhythms were being kidnapped from their homes for hundreds of years and sold in the slave trade. Though most who were brought to the US were not allowed to speak or sing anything even resembling Africa, they cleverly managed to keep reminders, subliminal codes, generation to generation, in the rhythms of work songs and “Negro Spirituals” and in the cadence of their accents. The man who collected the Brer Rabbit stories (no not Uncle Remus – he was a made up character created to make black people seem safe and docile not for particularly racist ends, but instead to sell magazines) Joel Chandler Harris was a white man who had no idea he was writing down ancient African folktales. He thought they were just cute animal stories that the readers of his magazine would like. But he had some background in music and when he heard the African American slaves singing he remarked to several acquaintances that there was something unique and unreproducible about the rhythms he heard. A bit of an understatement because it was that golden thread of connection to the tantalizing, soul moving rhythms of Africa that gave birth to almost all of what we call American music – from ragtime, to jazz, blues and rock and roll and hip hop. And if you mix in a little Scottish-influenced Appalachian music you’ve got Rockabilly and Country Western. So as I and my classmates and all of the hundreds of thousands of people that Baba taught and inspired, learned and listened to him, we were actually closing a big circle, or maybe continuing on a spiral of musical evolution but now with a big dose of pure unadulterated, original DNA mother music. Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart (I played with him once) was so moved he collaborated with Baba and inadvertently jump started the drum circle phenomenon that can be found in every major and many minor US cities. (for better or worse)

One evening toward the end of our week with Baba we performed for the whole Omega campus. He had me sit in the front and suggested to others they could follow me if they got lost. Privately he told me I played very well. That one comment burst me into a confidence that allowed me to step right up to the guy drummers back home and say “Hey, I’m playing here” when told to let the big boys play. I never got any sexist crap from Baba. Without his support I might have just given up because the pushback from men drummers was so strong. I returned to study with him the next year and he greeted me warmly by name. The next year a friend named Stephanie organized a big event in Buffalo to bring Baba to Buffalo for a Juneteenth celebration (Emancipation Proclamation anniversary). She asked me to prepare a large number of local drummers by teaching them Baba’s Gun go do introductory rhythms. The idea was after months of practice, to play as he entered the celebration. At the last minute the Buffalo African American community who was in charge of the event, held in a public park, told us not to play there because most of us were white. We all lost.

The last time I saw Baba was at that Buffalo event. He was having health problems even then. When he passed in 2003 there were memorial services for him all around the world. Hundreds of thousands of drummers gathered in many locations to ‘drum him up’. There was lots of national news coverage. He had discretely but not so quietly crept into our national collective consciousness.

After Baba I chose to study with another percussionist teaching a summer course at Omega. Collin Wolcott was a highly respected, dearly loved, extremely creative and talented co-founder of the group, “Oregon”. The real reason I wanted to study with him was because while I was in San Francisco, seven months pregnant, I went to their concert. The whole time they played, my baby was moving in a way he had never moved before. Any other time it was a kick in the kidneys, or some other jock move. But this time I swear he was in there dancing, in a round rolling sort of way. Externally it made me nauseous, but internally I was overtaken with bliss that the little being inside there was able to so profoundly and innocently enjoy those sounds. I wanted what they were having.

They were the vanguard musicians of what one might call “New Age” or “World” music, although at the time there were no such things. Labels like Windham Hill and Narada might not even exist without them opening the market. All four members of Oregon had played with the Paul Winter Consort, founded by the soprano saxophone player of the same name, who most famously was the first to record whale songs and wolf calls and compose music around those melodies. Most of what Collin and the rest of Oregon played was improvised, perhaps starting with a theme they had worked with previously. Definitely a jazz feel to what they did, a big dash of Western classical, Native American, East Indian and beautiful indescribable sound scapes with entrancing rhythms. They recorded over 20 albums together. Collin also recorded with many other top artists of his day including Miles Davis, Richie Havens, and even U2 sampled his music..

His band mate Ralph Towner said this about the way Collin worked: (from .”I can still feel the weight of Collin’s hand on my shoulder. It was as if a large, compact animal had gently perched there. With those firm but gentle hands he would coax every sound he could possibly find from any object with a potential for music in it. Anything that would attract his curiosity such as a shell, a box, a traditional instrument, would receive his full attention as he methodically rapped, tugged, plucked on it or breathed through it until he determined whether it would qualify to join his arsenal of musical instruments. He combined the scholarly approach with the instinctive, the passionate with the pragmatic in the most complete and successful ways that I had ever seen. The beauty of such a man lives and teaches us forever. In stressful times, his example still is available for advice and solace. His formidable strength and gentleness still exists and helps to guide us in this life.”

I had no idea what to expect from Collin’s workshop at Omega. Since so much of what he did was creative and in the moment, I wondered how he could transfer that. I guess Collin wondered too, because he took a more studied approach that week. He had been trained in classical Indian music by Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakka. On the first day of class he whipped out some papers he had copied of Indian tabla rhythms. Holy cow. It is the most complex music I have ever encountered. As in most older music forms we spoke the patterns from the papers with the syllables ta ka ti ki in every imaginable arrangement. There is absolutely no way to get from one’s first ta ka ti ki to proficiency on the tablas unless the class happened to last for ten years. Any musician of consequence will tell you it takes ten years to master an instrument. And as it turns out brain researchers are also bearing witness to this fact. Take that Guitar Heroes.

So I think the point of what he was teaching that week was an oh so small sampling of that particular culture’s artistry. It left me with three things: (1) a total awe and appreciation for the music. (2) a definite removal of “learn to play tablas” from my to-do list and (3) a shining, undying model of what it means to be a whole human being.

Within the next year Collin was on tour in Buffalo with a newer group that he co-founded, CODONA with COllin, DOn Cherry and NAna Vasconcelos. They recorded 3 albums for ECM and were on tour supporting one of them. I was writing for a local music magazine and arranged for an interview. When I walked into the dressing room after the amazing concert, Collin remembered me and my name and gave me a warm smile and hug, then introduced me to Don and Nana and each gave me a warm hug. It was a totally unexpected, unrehearsed gesture that felt like a ceremony. What an ideal atmosphere to play music in. Spontaneous love. Trust. In the moment. I asked Collin what he hoped people would get from his music. He said people were free to do whatever they wanted with it. Once it left his instrument, it was not his.

Of course after all these years I am paraphrasing, but the main gist of what he said really turned me around. I had expected him to say ‘I hope people are healed’ or ‘ I hope they feel joy’ or something like that. Instead, in that one simple statement he showed his elegant state of imperceptible ego. The music wasn’t about him or what he wanted it to be, it simply was.

Within a year of that interview news came that he had been killed in a bus accident in Germany while on tour with Oregon. I was surprised at how much I grieved. He left behind a wife and lovely young daughter whom we met at Omega. I cried for her because this was the kind of man that should be raising children and now this girl had gotten all she was going to get from her father. I cried for the unborn music. And I cried a little for myself, knowing his loving live music wouldn’t enter my senses again. I let go of a fantasy that maybe some day I would get to jam with him. But here pondering the question now I realize I actually do jam with him when I play music and observe as the instrument releases the sound and vibration into the world, knowing as some mystics say that sound continues on into the universe for eons.

Earlier I mentioned that Collin had played with the Paul Winter Consort, the first, at least in my hearing, to combine substantive eclectic new age-ish world music with music from nature. Different musicians floated in and out of the group. I listened to his music regularly and was smitten with it’s blending of genres and high level of musicianship, and the resulting feeling that everything was okay.

On one of my trips to Omega, Paul Winter was billed to perform on the summer solstice. Imagine my joy. He performed on his signature soprano sax and then five minutes before the official moment of most intense sun of the year the whole camp, hundreds of people, joined hands in a big circle and sang a song from one of his albums. And guess who found herself unintentionally standing next to him, holding hands? Moi. I took an internal photo for my gallery.

Hopefully at this point I knew how not to be star struck so I did not sweat all over his hand. He was a slightly reserved person so I did not strike up a conversation. I took the moment as it was, appreciating the circumstance, singing with Paul Winter at the moment of summer solstice and I knew everything was okay.

My last year at Omega I was actually on staff, invited to play drums for Dr. Saadi Neil Douglas-Klotz. He led the Dances of Universal Peace which are a newly organized form of what people have been doing together for at least 20,000 years. By holding hands in a circle and singing songs, the brain relaxes and it’s possible even in these times to think of something other than oneself. You get to feel part of a community. I had been involved with this practice for about 10 years at this point and had met Neil a few years earlier by hosting weekends for him just outside of Buffalo. He would later go on to write a pivotal book, “Prayer of the Cosmos” (publisher’s title – not his) that was a translation of the prayer that Jesus spoke, commonly called the Lord’s Prayer. Neil learned Aramaic, the language of trade in 33AD, and looked at the prayer as written in several sources predating the St. James version. It reads a great deal differently.

So there we were at Omega. I was officially on staff which meant – aha—I got to eat in the staff dining room! I don’t know if you are able to appreciate the import of this. In all the years of attending as a student, the staff dining room was closed to the general public. But I was no longer the public. I was staff and I could eat in the room marked “Staff” over the doorway. I wondered what was in there? Hawaiian luaus with fire twirlers? Waiters in tuxedos popping champagne corks? I trepidly stepped under the arch, waiting for a moment as though mistletoe hung above. There was none. I entered. It looked exactly the same as the main dining room only smaller. It served exactly the same food as out there in the public buffet line, only less. Oh well.

I dished up my food from the pans in the steam table, and as was my custom at events like this, I selected a seat next to someone I did not know. There was a gentleman with a mustache sitting alone so I asked him if the seat was available and he said yes. I said “Hi my name is Susan” He answered “Hi. I’m Phil”. Get ready for the next big name drop. It was Phil Jackson. If you are like me I absolutely did not not know anything about him. I asked him what he was teaching and he said basketball. “Oh that’s nice” I said. “Do you play basketball?” He was really tall which I could not see yet because he was sitting down, but still I had to look up at him as we chewed. He told me used to play but now he coached.

For those who still don’t know who Phil Jackson is (and I did not learn until I returned home) he was the coach of the Chicago Bulls – you know the Michael Jordan team that won all the championships. “When does basketball season happen?” I asked, not really caring. Truthfully there was not much I cared less about than sports, but I thought I needed to be polite.

His manner with me was very quiet and humble, gentle almost. In reflection I think he might have appreciated someone not asking all about Michael Jordan. He asked me what I was doing there. I told him. He seemed a bit familiar with the work of the Dances of Universal Peace, or Sufi Dancing as it had been called. I mostly remember feeling very comfy with him. We both had to get to our classes so we stood and said a little good bye. Did I mention that he was very tall. It is worth mentioning several times.

When I got home and asked my son if he’d ever heard of him he pretty much flipped and wanted to know why I didn’t get his autograph. It had never occurred to me. As my son and I talked further, after he caught his breath and his complexion turned to normal, I realized that Michael Jordan was the guy responsible for those ridiculously expensive sneakers he could not live without.

Okay so we are still waiting to hear about the most famous person the world, right? That’s in the next chapter; promise.

Posted in Memoir | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Chapter Five – Toronto



The T-shirts read: “I survived the Blizzard of 77”. Mine should have read: “I Escaped the Blizzard of 77”. The monster storm hit with no warning and trapped everyone right where they were that hour. Kind of like in 79AD in Italy when Mount Vesuvius blew up and buried everyone in Pompeii in hot molten lava. So on second thought, by comparison the blizzard wasn’t so bad. I was locked in my little flat right in Buffalo with some food. I couldn’t get out the door for the snow. The high winds had blown it into drifts as high as houses. But chipping away at it from inside, after a couple days I could get out, but so what? There was no traffic allowed; only one gully for police and fire to slip down the normal four lane just out my door. No buses. No human faces.

As soon as the buses did start rolling again I packed a bag, took a local to the depot and got on the first Greyhound leaving town, with a serious case of ‘cabin fever’. Fortunately the bus was destined for Toronto, two hours north. Met some street mimes by playing tug-of-war even though there was no rope and they let me stay at their place which, with more good fortune in my life, had real walls. Looked around the town, semi commuted for a couple months and then eventually rented a one room basement apartment in the Beaches section, a block from Lake Ontario. Met jazz musicians at jam sessions. Got some gigs.

As usual there was that kinship among musicians and they were kind enough to let me hear and tell gig stories. I did, after all, know all the correct lingo. I didn’t feel a lot of sexism from the Toronto guys. Maybe it was because I could actually play somewhat okay or maybe it was because they were Canadians.

The clubs closed very early up there – 1:00am compared to the 4:00am closing in Buffalo. So if you knew somebody, you could find an after hours place, kind of like a speakeasy. I was taken to Betty’s where most of heavy hitters from the Toronto jazz scene showed up at one time or another. As any musician knows you NEVER leave your axe in the car outside of a speakeasy in the middle of the night. You take it with you. And what do you think a bunch of jazz musicians do in the middle of the night with their instruments beside them and no where to go? They jam. Because no one was paying them, because they didn’t have to keep it polite and because Betty had posted a sign that said “A hard man is good to find” the musical cowboys were let loose on the trail. There were still rules of course, or maybe call it etiquette. One didn’t (usually)go all crazy and solo for an hour or play “free” forever. If so they weren’t let back in or weren’t given the nod to solo again. These were professionals with great chops and deference was made to those who could get down to business; those who could find the magic notes to stir whatever it was that broke the barriers of thought and soared into previously unexplored territory. Those were good times.

So between touring and playing behind some very talented, sometimes Juno (Canadian Grammy) Award winning singer song writers who one might categorize as folk musicians who were equally committed artists that spoke a different language, I began to poke around to see what else the city had to offer.

One event that stands out and that allowed me to meet a famous person whose name I might drop, was the World Symposium on Humanity in April of 1979, taking place over seven days on the University of Toronto campus. We really need to set this in a chronological reference. The best way for people to communicate with one another then, if they weren’t right there in the room with you was to use the telephone. (Historical reference: a device with two parts – the bottom part with a dial or these new fangled push buttons. The device sat in one place on a table or was stuck on the wall, and the other part connect ed by a wire which you held up to your ear to listen and this piece extended down to your mouth so you could answer important questions put to you. This second part could also be held upside down over the top of your head if you decided you wanted to look like Mickey Mouse) This device, although revolutionary in it’s day, had little flexibility because, of course, it was limited to the six foot radius of the wire. Some people had 20′ or 30′ extension chords so they could go into another room while talking. Why would anyone want to do that? Ridiculous. Besides the telephone, you could also send someone a letter. (Sorry I have no information on that technology)

So get the picture? No computers, laptops, no cell phones, no FAXes, Blackberries, Facebook or Twitter. Nothing digital. Nada. Yes, there were wireless communication devices on Star Trek, but as I’m sure you are aware, takes place in stardate 3045. They were well into reruns by this time, if you could even find them on the 3 or 4 TV stations available in stardate 1979.

But we all knew there was technology being invented by the CIA or some other secret Military Industrial Complex Trilateral Commission machine. Ten years earlier we watched on TV awhile a man landed and walked on the moon live. So some forward thinking person, (probably a Trekkie but I’m only giving an educated guess) had the wonderful idea of having large, simultaneous gatherings at different locations around the world – London, LA and Toronto for sure; maybe more. Each of these gatherings would have several venues including concerts, discussion panels and lectures from people looking a little deeper into the purpose and meaning of life and perhaps jump start some thinking on solutions to hunger, poverty, greed and war; pretty lofty. The big deal about the World Symposium on Humanity was that at certain designated times there would be cameras set up at each location and somehow, through magic or voodoo or something, we would be able to see and hear people in other locations in real time. A world wide conference of alternative thinkers and artists! We could report to one another on ideas, organizations, movements.

As you can imagine this took incredible planning, maybe a year or two in advance. Each team in each city needed to create itself, rent stages, auditoriums, equipment, food, speakers, bands, publicize it, take in money (remember no on-line payments) and most importantly, rent time on the satellite orbiting the earth so that signals could bounce off it and we could all hook up (that phrase meant something different back then). This technology was the big draw. And all this organizing had to be done without internet or cell phones, an almost impossible task to imagine today. But somehow they did it. Hundreds of people signed up at each location and paid several hundred bucks BY CHECK to attend. It may have been the first independent event of its kind.

I did not know who was organizing this event. I had nothing to do with it. I simply saw a flier with a number to call to volunteer there in Toronto. I thought I could hang out backstage and serve as a gofer (go fer this, go fer that) for the speakers listed on the flier, especially Buckminster Fuller, a very challenging figure to try and define. If you have ever heard of him it is probably because he patented and developed the geodesic dome. (Example of one is the big silver ball at Disney EBCOT). He worked a lot with inventing sustainable, affordable housing and alternatives to oil based fuels. I knew of him because of a philosophy that resonated with me. “Selfishness,” he declared, “is unnecessary and hence-forth unrationalizable…. War is obsolete.” In his 1970 book I Seem To Be a Verb, which I still have in my bookcase, he wrote: “I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe.” I declare him definitely worthy of being a famous person, even though his fame was based on his ideas and original thinking rather than how much publicity he had received. At this point he was well into his 80s. I was told, yes, I could serve Buckminster Fuller tea backstage. I was asked to report to Convocation Hall on the University campus, a beautiful auditorium I had been to several times (including the World Parliament of Religions where I was summoned up to the balcony to a quiet man with long white hair and beard and who people sort of tip toed around and the nice man gave me cashews, but we won’t even go there right now) The round room with a capacity for 2000 was sheltered under a leaded glass dome. It felt warm and grand at the same time and provided great acoustics.

I show up bright and chipper on the first morning, ready to serve the tea and hang out with Mr. Fuller and find out the meaning of life. When I arrived I couldn’t find the person whose name I’d been given. I couldn’t find anyone in charge of anything. The stage at Convocation Hall did have a sound system set up on stage. The light board was accessible. But no stage manager. Hmm. Curious. I waited a good hour and then a band showed up for their concert. Since no one else was around and since I had spent my hour of waiting poking around the stage noticing outlets, checking out the sound and lights, I started pointing to things. Warning: Never start pointing to things if you do not want more questions. Pretty soon we were all working together and figured out all the technical stuff. People were filtering into the house (the audience seats). According to the band’s contract, of which they did not not have a copy, they had a 45 minute set to play. They told me who they were and where they were from, I introduced them to the audience of maybe three hundred and it was great.

I don’t remember who they were and I have a very good reason. This scenario I just related repeated itself all day long. I waited for someone to come and tell me where Buckminster Fuller’s teacup was but meanwhile bands kept showing up. I pointed and help set up, introduce them off they would go. I had no idea who was scheduled or at what time. About midday someone with a clipboard walked in. Hurray! The cavalry had arrived. She was rushed and frustrated. I asked where Buckminster Fuller was. She had no idea. I asked where the stage manager was. Well, there was a problem.

The satellite time they had booked had been taken away by the government. There would be no video hookup between cities. A major component of the staff had freaked about it and walked out, including the stage manager for Convocation Hall. But someone would be there very soon to do the job. I asked if there was a list of who was scheduled to perform. Well, actually no, there wasn’t because the staff members, when they walked off, had their clipboards with them. All the paperwork was gone. But someone would be there soon.

Hour after hour, day after day I welcomed in the performers, got them set up, introduced them, schmoozed a little before they left and another act came in. The attendees to the conference, which I heard were a couple thousand scattered about the campus, had different reactions to the new circumstances. Some demanded and received refunds and some dove into trilateral commission conspiracy theories about who was plotting against the free exchange of information among citizens of the world. So basically one could get angry, one could keep trying to make it be the way it was supposed to be or one could see the situation as it unfolded and work with that. I chose door number 3. Far out.

On one occasion I figured out that during the time the video hook up was scheduled, there were no bands coming in to set up. I ventured out of Convocation Hall toward one of the other buildings, sort of like carefully exiting a bomb shelter into the sun. There were lots of people dressed creatively, vendors selling crystals, jewelry and a few pyramids. Some peace activists and ecology groups were set up at tables. The Hari Krishnas were singing, blissed out in orange togas. Eyes were open. People were awake, talking to one another, listening and of course, many looking for permanent or temporary mates.

I wandered into a big building just in time to hear a speaker being introduced. The best I can recall his name was Chief Rolling Thunder. I never heard of him again. He does not google up today. I tried. He was obviously a Native person older middle aged, with long black hair tied back, tall with a gaunt face and a deep, sincere voice. He spoke only a short time but what he said changed my life. I can’t impart his elegance but the main idea was this. Every time we breath in, some of those molecules of oxygen were once part of the dinosaurs. With every breath there may be a molecule of oxygen breathed in by Buddha. There may be one breathed in by Jesus, by our ancestors, breathed in by every creature that has lived. Surely we are One.

Is that what the government doesn’t want us talking about? Does each country need to remain separate because it is so good for the defense business? I returned to Convocation Hall with a renewed sense of purpose. If I had questioned why I was still there, working for free under crazy conditions, I could now see a bigger purpose. Everyday a clipboard bearer came by to tell me that someone would be there soon to do the job, but of course no one did. Well, actually someone did show up – me. I just never got my own clipboard.

The people who had deserted their positions were followers of Rajneesh, an Indian “guru” who discounted Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings and whose eventual commune in Oregon used the first documented case of bioterrorism and used armed force to protect the 93 Rolls Royces he owned, was swooshed out of the US and denied entry into over twenty other countries. Hmmm. Should have seen that coming.

The people who quietly stepped into managerial positions to help transform the event into a meaningful one, were for the most part from the North American based Sufi Order who had made individual decisions to lend a hand. They continue to teach without scandal or fanfare.

The last group (I hoped) of the week came in and a man introduced himself as Schlomo Carlebach. He wore a full salt and pepper beard cut close, something on his head and carried a guitar case. My emotional memory of his music is that he played with a sixty piece orchestra and full tabernacle choir. Of course that didn’t happen but what he presented was that strong and powerful. People streamed in the doors as he played, enjoining everyone to sing together. If you didn’t know his tunes beforehand, you could pick them up quickly. Sometimes he strummed while sing-songing words of compassion and brother hood with such conviction you knew he had to be right.

For the last half hour he invited everyone to come and join him in a circle, Schlomo at the top of the gently rising steps that led to the stage and the other couple hundred dancing and swaying as they sang. This was totally mystical and transformational for for everyone except the unofficial stage manager with no clipboard, who spent the blissful event on her knees and belly tucking wires safely away from naked feet and they danced and skipped up and down the stairs.

It was a perfectly beautiful end to a groundbreaking event and I couldn’t believe it was over. Dazed, I sat in a seat in the front row of the almost empty hall. Someone sat two seats down and with peripheral vision I saw a developmentally disabled woman obviously upset at something. She was banging herself in the head and pulling out her hair. With a Leave it to Beaver type psychological approach, I turned my head and said to her, “You know, you’re only hurting yourself.” This seemed to make sense to her. She stopped. I relaxed. A mistake. Very soon MY hair was being pulled and MY head was being banged on.

I must have screamed and tried to push her away. Someone may have pulled her off. I wound up sitting on the bottom step leading toward the stage where only moments before blissfully released happy dancing feet had joyfully been placed. My punched face felt swollen. I didn’t even want to feel my head to discover if she’d gotten any of my long beautiful hair. I whimpered. All of that work and I never got a clipboard and where the hell was Buckminster Fuller.

Then magically I was gently and fully encompassed by arms that held me and rocked me perfectly. Schlomo was sitting beside me saying nothing in words, eventually humming. Like a Florida rainstorm, I cried and then cried harder, then yielded to the warm sun love being passed to me. Never before or since had I felt that in the moment committed love. We swayed together on the step and I let myself be comforted, choosing not to stay in the drama. I was not watching myself experience this. I was there being held by firm arms in a white shirt and there were no problems anywhere in the world.

Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach was known to Jews and gentiles around the world as the “Singing Rabbi” and some consider him a most significant composer, bringing back sacred texts into services because of the beautiful melodies he created. There is a musical being produced in New Orleans about him called, “Soul Doctor Music”. He led many back to their roots of Judaism who were disenchanted with rules but still longed to celebrate their heritage. I spent that summer attending his classes in people’s homes. Once he invited me to sing, and not knowing any better I broke into “Amazing Grace”. When people complained that it was not a Jewish song, he said it was a holy song, good for all to hear. He was a person who inspired universal love through the lense of Judaism. It seemed easy and natural to become a better person while singing with him.

In the years since, I heard rumors about improper conduct on his part toward women. At first I dismissed it. But then I met a reputable woman who said she was one. Never ever did I get even a hint of anything improper toward me. I have considered maybe not including him in this piece. What would you do? I continue to feel that I received something very wonderful from him. But at least one sister that I know of was compromised. I grew because of the relationship and that really happened. But was there an alternate motive involved? I cannot say. I only know that inside of each of us there is the potential for many human behaviors. Perhaps I was lucky that I was one of the many who only knew the good part of him.

I died for beauty but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
"For beauty," I replied.
"And I for truth,--the two are one;
We brethren are," he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

Emily Dickinson
Posted in Memoir | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Chapter four – Buffalo Renaissance


Buffalo Renaissance

Winding up back in Buffalo after three years of cultural starvation was like coming in from the desert to an all you can eat buffet in Emerald City. It was a time when there was a lot of grant money out there for arts programs that integrated into communities.

I read about the Buffalo Jazz Workshop holding free learning lab type of events every Saturday. Jazz. Of course I didn’t really need to do this. I guess I knew a whole lot about music already. After all, I had been playing Virginia Holiday Inns for years. But I showed up with my blue drum and met the leader – a short man with caramel colored skin, bald head except for a shallow row of fringe which he braided into a skinny little pigtail down his neck. There was a twinkle in his eye like they say Santa Clause has and his face was in a perpetual state of patient, quiet, bemusement summed up with a permanent little grin and one exquisite dimple. This was Al Tinney. All musicians in Buffalo in the 70s, 80s and 90s list Al Tinney as a major influence in their work. Sheer dumb luck that that I found myself in his class.

The other learners were male except one woman learning bass. All kinds of instruments and their players were attracted to this group. I learned to tell soprano, alto and tenor saxes apart, coronet from flugelhorn from trumpet and a whole new vocabulary.

It wasn’t a class where you sit down, look at a blackboard and talk about things. You came in, set up your axe (instrument). Al handed out lead sheet charts (the melody written on staff paper with chords over the melody) and we played. We worked on a lot of bop standards – “Blue Bosa” and “Song for My Father” are two I remember. First you play the head (the melody as written) and then you play the whole song over and over while one at a time each horn player, guitarist and pianist took a turn with a solo (making up a new melody over the same chord changes) The closest thing I ever heard Al get to slightly forceful was when one of the horn players took a solo and Al stopped the music and said to the horn player, “Don’t you blow scales in here. That’s for the woodshed.”

Soloists, all musicians, are supposed to practice scales at home, preferably back in the woodshed where you wouldn’t bother anyone. Lordy Lordy if you have ever heard anyone practice scales for hours on end then this needs no further explanation. Most people know one scale – the major scale of do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do like in the “Sound of Music”. In the big wide world, over the centuries, many musicians created and worked with with hundreds of scales. Using just the do re mi scale (that I am betting almost every piece of music you have ever listed to is based on) is like going to a gourmet restaurant and always ordering a burger and fries. Jazz pioneers look to all kinds of assemblages of notes (scales or modes) from which to draw inspiration. Al’s ears were so keenly trained he could hear the guy playing an already created assembly of notes – a scale – instead of just letting his inspiration live there in the moment. Some brain scientists interested in music have categorized jazz improvisation as requiring the most instantaneous cognitive resources and therefore, a very intelligent brain. Okay there is classical Indian raga improvisation but chronologically I don’t know about that yet and besides there are a lot more rules in that genre. With jazz you make up your own rules.

While the others were blowing solos, Al came to the rhythm section (piano and/or guitar, bass and drums) and show by pantomime or singing out parts where the ‘pocket’ was. Sometimes he sat at the piano and demonstrated how to comp (jab chords at just the right time, not so much that the soloist would be drown out, but enough to support or egg him on to new ideas). He could do that by using substitutions (chords that were sort of like the ones on the paper, usually having a note of melody in it, or maybe extending it) (I see my quota of parenthesis is almost used up).

Al Tinney showed me how to swing on the conga. A simple sounding statement, but very vast. Al didn’t have conga chops (okay, one more – chops are your technique, your muscle memory. You get there by wood shedding). Al said several times “the bass keeps the time.” One might think that the drummer is the one to keep the rhythm. He made a strong point about everyone keeping themselves keyed into the bass.

When the tune is ready to end, the leader gives a signal to return to the head or go back to the top. Everyone plays the straight ahead melody as in the beginning, with just a dash or two of raggedy fills left over from the solos. Next time you see a jazz group or any group where there are solos going on, watch for the signal from the leader. It could be a point to his/her head or just a dip of his/her instrument just before the last solo ends. That’s how musicians know it’s time to end the tune. That is the basic form of playing, but like everything else in jazz, it begs to be expanded upon. Some sort of musicality soaked into my skin which was still white, but sometimes felt like it shouldn’t be.

So who was Al Tinney? It turns out he was a phenomenally influential pianist and musical theoretician in the Harlem jazz scene from 1939 to 1943. He played at a club called Monroes. Band members included drummer Max Roach and tenor player Charlie Parker. If you know anything at all about jazz you are now realizing that I have just dropped two huge names. But they were Al’s to drop, not mine. Many of the top players of the era came to hear him play regularly there at Monroes while they were in process developing their own style including Dizzie Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and many others who have stated that Al was a big part of that.

In a video-history titled The “Al Tinney Project” produced by James Patrick in June 1995, Max Roach attested to the significance of Al Tinney and the fact that in the early 1940’s Tinney was further advanced than bebop innovators Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. “When we were working at Monroe’s uptown house, Bud was on the scene, but he wasn’t the dominant force that Allen was. He [Tinney] was the piano [player] of note during that time. He was a very important person in there – and even more important than Charlie Parker and Victor Coulsen in that band.”

“His improvisations were harmonically advanced for the period when, between 1939 and 1943, he had most effect. His playing was light, flowing and occasionally percussive and it seems likely that he influenced the developing style of Bud Powell. Tinney evolved his modernism on his own, without any palpable influences.”

I didn’t know any of this when studying with him at the Buffalo Jazz Workshop. But when I would go out to hear him play I know that his solos made me feel good. It was the first time I ever laughed out loud at a musical joke.

Out at gigs, musicians on break would quote him and tell stories they’d heard. But you couldn’t squeeze a story from Al from back in the day. One night after a gig in the all-night diner musicians usually went to for breakfast, I had the courage to ask him about Billie Holiday and if he ever played with her.

“Yea, Billie…”voice fading off. “You know when I got back from the Army so many musicians were dead from from drugs. I got out.” That’s why he moved to Buffalo, he told me.

Other times, when Al wasn’t there, stories abounded. While I nursed an orange juice til 5am (any bathroom scale will tell you not to eat at night) I watched as the city’s primo musicians dipped toast points into runny sunny-side-ups and tell the one about the flat tire, the one about the time he forgot to put his axe in the case and got to gig with no instrument, the one about showing up at the wrong club, showing up at the right club and it was closed, all of us bending over in laughter and then coming up with one more. Maybe if I wasn’t there the conversation would have turned more toward woman “fans”, but of course I don’t know that. I was usually the only “chick” that hung around. It was one of my favorite things to do – so fun to wind down after a gig, like a cigarette after sex, only better.

Maybe because of Al or maybe because the planets were aligned, for whatever reason Buffalo had a remarkably lively and abundant jazz scene. The more clubs that offered it, the more it was played on the radio, the more people wanted to hear it. For a while there was an incredible room downtown at the Statler Hotel that had very big name players and some of the gigs were broadcast live on WBFO hosted by John Hunt.

One of the names who played that I remember is legendary guitarist, Kenny Burrell, who, when I asked him on a break, some dumb question like, “What do you feel like when you play?” he was kind enough to acknowledge me. He raised his eyes up and said something which I don’t remember. What I do remember is the look upward the slight shake of his head as if to say “No words.” But there was this momentary look of exhalation that gave me chills and is still with me today.

I also distinctly remember watching Mary Lou Williams play on a grand piano. She composed for Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. Did you catch that? They played her music. She was the first featured woman instrumentalist I had ever heard of, much less play. She was very stately.

One night I was home listening to the live Statler broadcast. Marion McPartland was playing. (still going strong at 90 with her “Piano Jazz” program on NPR) After a time she announced over the air that if there were any musicians listening who wanted to sit in, they were welcome. …5 minutes to find some clothes and pack my drums… 15 minutes to drive downtown and 10 minutes to find parking and schlep the drums in. Can you believe I was the only one who showed up to play with her? She invited me to set up the drums on stage and had them miked before she even heard me play! She was beyond gracious. In my memory it was the moment I felt like a professional musician. On gigs I would sing as well as play, but this was just about the drumming. It was so cool not to have to prove that my gender was capable of playing. I played the whole last set with her. She announced my name on the radio. I can’t say enough about her nonthreatening/non-threatened demeanor. I was only good enough at that point to not not make mistakes. That was all I wanted. I reached my goal. After the set I accepted the very sincere thank you from Mrs. McPartland (yes that’s right. SHE thanked ME)

She was there with a trio. The drummer played very sensitively and gave me lots of room. In other words, he didn’t play constantly but rather left empty spaces so that that I could add a little fill now and then. I struck up a conversation with him. He was a very sturdy, not tall black man with with large round eyes. He had some nervous energy but at the same time there was something very comfortable about him. After the gig he and I went for breakfast (orange juice) at the hotel restaurant. As my grandmother would say, he was always a perfect gentleman. He was simply a guy on the road, happy to have someone to rap with. He was Roy Haynes. Jazz aficionados– close your jaws.

Roy Haynes was in the heart of the new heavy hitting black jazz body. He played regularly with John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Sarah Vaughn and Stan Getz. Also played and/or recorded with Chick Corea, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Pat Methany, Sonny Rollins and um…Susan Slack.

When he played with Marion McPartland I remember how tenderly he played using brushes instead of sticks. He said he was there for the music, for the person who hired him and so he blended with what ever was being played. No wonder he is the most recorded jazz drummer ever. If you get a chance to hear him on John Coltrane’s “Newport” album you will hear how he totally cuts; takes it out. Now there is an artist. He came through town several times after that and I tried to get to as many of his gigs if I wasn’t working myself. He always seemed happy to see me and we talked late into the night. He reminisced very little about the past, but more about what he was working on – new cymbals, new sticks, new toms, whatever.

I got to talk with other musicians but after a while it got strange. There was an underlying thing going on. I was working with the assumption that as jazz musicians we were all in this big club and it was fun to talk about music. When the subject of ‘let’s take this party home’ I was always disappointed that the talks were leading up to undone zippers rather than the fellowship of the gig. Maybe it came unexpectedly because so many of the guys I had hung with in the City were gay. But now in retrospect I see that I probably wouldn’t have been sitting at their table had I not been a ‘pretty girl’. Guy musicians were not usually invited to the tables. In those days it was understood that I had something to repay for taking up their famous time.

Taking this a step further, they really didn’t owe me or anyone else anything other than the music they played on stage, for which we paid admission. That was the contract. They didn’t know me. I didn’t know them except through their music and celebrity. And also by their genre. Jazz musicians are the cowboys of the music world, the Marlon Brandos of show business (Brando on motorcycles, not on Krypton). They roam the wilderness, free to be where they want to be, sleeping under the stars, reaching for them. Cowboys and motorcyclists all get saddle sores, but as a fans we only get to see them romantically riding into the sunset. I decided that this was not what I wanted to be – a perpetual fan. Probably, like many fans of many celebrities, I wanted to live their lives in some way. Their talent could rub off on me inspirationally but since that was only 10% of the endeavor it was time to find a wood shed.

This was a very exploratory time for myself personally and for the country, both in politics, the arts and socially. There were lots of cowboys and cowgirls out there finding new ways to do just about everything. Again I went with a flow bigger than myself without knowing it. One of the best places to explore, bar none, is the public library. Found books that taught me how to read music. Found lots of music to listen to that I had never heard before. I could sample everything for free. One record that found its way into my hand had a blurry cover picture of an African man with colorful clothing titled, “Drums of Passion”. Could not for the life of me remember the name of the artist. When I put the big flat record on the little portable record player, something came out of the itty bitty little speakers that, although I didn’t know it, would change my life. And of course, me not being an island, I surfed society along with everyone else no matter how much I wanted to be Dale Evans (historical reference – hey if you don’t know who Dale Evans was I am sorry for you. She was a TV cowgirl with fringe skirts and boots and she was married to Roy Rogers) So being unconscious of the fact that there was a national interest in this music, although in it’s very early infancy, I put it on my little record player and listened. Wild. Exotic. Exciting. Passionate. Frightening. African drums. Foreign and yet something that felt like home more than anything I had ever heard; something I had waiting for but was already inside me. Sounds like what someone would say when they meet their soul mate. Heck yeah, that’s what it was.

Of course I had to pursue this. How? I heard about a dance/drum class at the Allentown Community Center which I consequently attended regularly. At first the dance classes offered Graham technique, whatever that was. Classes were accompanied by live conga drumming and one could sit in with them and receive some instruction from their leader, Emile Latimer who played with Nina Simone and Richie Havens. After a good while of attending these classes I was asked by Buffalo State College if I cared to accompany classes for their dance department. I did. In addition to bringing in money I also got to hear lectures on the history of modern dance. Isodora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Doris Humphry, Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham – all cowgirls! Reaching for expression as none had done before. Martha Graham: The one who was responsible for the all my sore muscles. Her technique is rigorous, demanding more than just muscles. It required an internal commitment, cutting deep into the flesh.

I auditioned for a summer job at Artpark in Lewiston, NY about 45 minutes from Buffalo. Just follow the Niagara River after it falls. That plunge of water created a huge gorge – want to say gorgeous here, but I just won’t go there. How about: a small natural wonder running for miles and serving as inspiration for thousands; walls of ancient layers of rocks, strip teased by the surging water to expose itself after millions of years, a little bit of beautiful formations at a time every thousand or so years. Nestled along side this landscape was and is, Artpark, richly funded and well acred. There were several aspects to it including large sculptures or “installations” all over the place, an open air wooded structure in the shape of an L, romantically called ‘the L’ with just a roof and several levels of platforms (a really clever and fancy staircase to accommodate the hilly terrain) and several little workshops where artisans made instruments and pottery and jewelry and classes of all kinds were offered including story telling, mask making and dancing. The main structure on the property was a large performance space with a state of the art stage with seating for 2,400 inside with a roof over your head and 2000 more on the lawn when the rear wall was raised. I did not audition for this stage. I did try out for the first A.R.T. – Artpark Repertory Theatre. I got the gig after lying down about my age which needed to be 25 or younger and I beat the limit by one year. Guess what I did for my audition piece? Never mind guessing, I’ll just tell you – two of the stories I had learned for the bookmobile. Ha! You never know. Our company performed two or three 45 minute shows for families out in the meadow. The genre was called storytheatre, a mix of story telling and children’s theatre.

Every morning everyone in the ART company was expected to meet way up at the back of the big theatre and take mime lessons. The skill was useful for performances and was also a good bonding/warm up. Yes. I did say mime. You know, walking a dog that is not there; pushing against a wall that is not there. To this day, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you have to tell a deaf/hearing impaired person that someone is stuck in an empty refrigerator box – just call on me. I’ve got your back on that one.

I actually liked it but after a while the other people didn’t show up so I went to that same place myself to warm up. There was usually a rehearsal held by the visiting featured artists going on way down below on the stage. I got to dance to several classical groups – just them and me. Very magical. A lot of wonderful dance companies also visited Artpark that summer: Jose Limon Company, Alvin Ailey and the Martha Graham Company. While they warmed up on stage, I warmed up right along with them, hoping they couldn’t see me way up there, or if they did they would mercifully avert their eyes.

On one such day I was cutting through the backstage dressing room area. We weren’t supposed to but it was the shortest distance between two points and I was running late. I passed one of the dressing rooms with an open door and of course I let my peripheral vision scan it. And then it happened. This whole part about Artpark is leading toward this major name dropping event. As I walked past the dressing room, there she was, Miss Martha Graham, she and I breathing the exact same air in that one instant. Too much backstage training training for me to even think about stopping or saying anything. But if I did what would that be? “Hi Miss Graham. I really like your dance technique” or “ Tell me a little about Aaron Copeland” or how about “Oh golly, I’m so thrilled to meet you.” Would she be thrilled to meet me? Would she really want to talk to someone in a pink mime jacket and pigtails with a tendency toward over exuberance who was willing to show her how to pick a flower that wasn’t there? What is your guess?

So I had two, maybe three seconds alone with Martha Graham. I slowed down my gait, turned both eyes in her direction and took a mental photograph. She was seated a bit more than profile to me and I could see her back in the mirror behind her. She wore a long black gown with some sparkly gold dappled through it; hair pulled back and tied with a black ribbon. Her head was bowed down slightly toward her hands which were together, lifted slightly and semi covered in black cloth. I could tell that her hands were disfigured from arthritis. Past the age of 80, she was in full stage make up, red lips above her pronounced chin. In this private moment that she kept, her frailness was less apparent than the pride and history that she embodied. This photograph, this masterpiece still thrives in my internal gallery and I am truly thrilled every time I look at it.

Meanwhile back in Buffalo, dance and drum classes were continuing. Steve Porter, the Director of that program at the Allentown Community Center, made a connection along the way with Miss Pearl Reynolds. She was a member of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company which introduced powerful African & Caribbean movement and music to white America, and returned it to black and brown Americans who might have forgotten. Miss Dunham had been an anthropologist as well as dancer and as she traveled, my guess is that she saw what commonalities there were in the movements and then synthesized exercises that would teach the American body how to do other than the ‘twist’, the foxtrot’ and the ‘whatever’ that had recently become so popular. Pearl Reynolds was in the original company. She was invited give master classes to us every few months. Even if you forgot which day she would be there, you could always tell because everyone had on their best leotards and there was much less socializing. We lined up without a cue. As Miss Reynolds walked into the studio I tried not to breath too loudly. I had never encountered a woman like that. Her face was dark with big round cheekbones and full lips. Her eyes were piercing and focused. She dressed in exotic African clothes. Today if someone were to say to me “African” anything, I more likely than not will ask in a self-righteous, passive aggressive sort of way, what country? What tribe? But back then it was just African – the colorful head wrap and skirts of bold print fabric tucked into itself at the waist; sometimes even ankle jewelry.

More important, she wore regal poise. When her bare feet carried her into the room all stood taller. Without a hello, she counted off to the drummers “five six seven eight” who picked up the rhythm where the next ‘one’ would be and they did not stop for an hour. We went through the litany of standing exercises designed by Miss Dunham, then go to the bar (the ballet barre, silly, not the tap room) and do more. Pearl Reynolds had absorbed all this from Katherine Dunham directly and now we were absorbing from Miss Reynolds.

Forty years later I ran into a woman who had also been in those classes at Allentown in Buffalo. We both spontaneously remarked that Pearl Reynolds was the first black woman we had ever worked with that had commanded such respect just by presence and dignity. She broke a stereotype we didn’t know were were holding onto. Miss Reynolds succumbed to cancer not too long after those master classes, although neither of us heard about it for a long time. All those years, both of us expecting that she was alive somewhere. And so she was.

The teacher, however great, can never give his knowledge to the pupil; the pupil must create his own knowledge.”

Hazrat Inayat Khan

Posted in Buffalo New York, Memoir | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Chapter Three – May Day and Virginia


Chapter Three – May Day and Virginia

Didn’t see any famous people while living in the Step Van, formerly known as an egg truck. We had painted it with a brush, a nice navy blue. The brush marks in the finish were endearing and the extra suspension even more so. There was another event worthy of a name drop during this six month epic Iliad. One of our first stops was the May Day anti-war protest in Washington DC. Having my first run-in with violence – knife, gun, etc. pointed my way during the muggings, my world view shifted a bit. It seemed time to do something other than get famous.

Arriving in our nation’s capitol on a beautiful spring day, we encountered lot’s of other people there staying in trucks and school buses all sorts of makeshift places to sleep. Since it was my first visit there, I am guessing that this grand gathering was on the National Mall. Right away, there seemed to be an unspoken camaraderie. If you were there, putting your body in a place where size of crowd mattered, then you were all brothers (or sisters as were awkwardly learning to say). The closest restrooms were over there, someone is giving away food over there. Maybe if I were to see these same people today we would disagree on everything including whether or not to include oregano in Mexican food, but at the time there was one mind, one intention. Stop the damn war. It was all about oil and fear anyway. The dress code was definitely khaki and camouflage. I wasn’t sure if they’d gotten their clothes at the army navy surplus store like I had or whether they got them from Uncle Sam. That’s where my traveling companion got his. I didn’t understand at the time, but as we wandered around, nodding and feeling solidarity with everyone, the guys would check out each other’s arm patches and that would lead to some kind of deeper bonding that I did not and could not understand. The insignias indicated what part of the service they had been in and they would tell one another where and when they had been “in country”. People were not so much into understanding PTSD back then. Talk about what happened or don’t, it still was part of who they all were and it was not their favorite part. It was where nightmares came from. And it was what caused them to yell louder than their voices wanted to when the crowd would spontaneously chant anti-war slogans.

The crowd was estimated to be about 35,000. I don’t know who estimated. But remember this was back before twitter, facebook, smartphones – hell it was way before the internet. I don’t remember how we even heard about it. You can bet invitations were not issued on any of the three television stations which of course living in a truck would not have caught our attention. Let’s call it an organic migration.

A lot of famous musicians had offered their services to entertain the crowd including Joni Mitchell and Crosby Stills and Nash and lots of others. Maybe I didn’t miss Woodstock after all. The bands started playing very late. Music continued on through the night with no problems from the police about any substances or noise. But I fell asleep early and missed the music again.

At the crack of dawn we were awakened by tear gas and rows and rows of black-masked riot police. Had he existed at the time, I would have thought, Holy Crap! Thousands of Darth Vaders. Seems “they” had purposefully made the bands start very late and let everyone get really drunk or whatever, so that when the Darth Vader clones appeared at dawn everyone would still be too wasted to offer much resistance. Pretty good plan. The whole thing received a lot of news coverage and one reporter coined the phrase “The whole world is watching”, later chanted at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (No, I was not there) It was also almost a year to the day that students at Kent State had been killed by soldiers on campus. It felt like a very real, combat situation. All the roads and bridges were blocked. My boyfriend had lived in DC for a while and knew a way out. 20,000 left single file through the one escape route. I’m sure they were taking pictures of license plates. 12,000 arrests were made that day, the largest ever in US history. The word paranoid could be used here on the part of Mr. Nixon. But we know that now, don’t we?

After eight months on the road and many National Parks, earthquakes, desert excursions and adventures great and small, it was time to call it quits so I moved down to southern Virginia. The dirt was mostly red clay, but perfect for growing tobacco. My husband and I sequentially rented several old farm houses over the three years we lived down there. Several friends and friends of friends eventually moved down as well. Can you guess what the locals called our little community? Oh darn, I just gave it away. Community – commune! even though we usually all had our own houses, vegetable gardens and chickens. We weren’t real hippies, just glad to be living in the country. How were we to know that years later Oliver North would be given a royal parade down the main street of one of the little towns we lived in and hailed as an American hero after the Iran Contra scandal? Well, too many stories to get into here. I won’t even mention the night of the fire and the time we left town in the middle of the night. After all we’re talking about dropping names.

There was a name that was being dropped. It was my own. It wasn’t because I came in second at the state wide Bluegrass Festival, female vocalist competition (which I did) Perhaps if I had come in first place I would have dropped my name around in a few places. And I damn well would have gotten the damn tiara that Betty Sue Waller got when she came in first place by singing “Mule Skinner Blues”. Imagine a little blond lady singing about whipping mules – and she gets the tiara. Where is PETA when you need it.

I also was not worthy of being a dropped name because of the work that my husband and I did on weekends which was singing around the state under the enigmatic name of “Alberta Blue”. We had an agent who booked us into strange places like the army Officers Club the night Nixon resigned and grown men there, cried. And the place where we wound up smuggling two drunken FBI agents-in-training back into barracks because they missed curfew, all the while, inwardly, silently hoping they did not have access to license plate records from May Day.

No, my name was being dropped for what I was doing during the week.

The Brunswick County seat was in Lawrenceville, with a quaint little town square that still had its preCivil War antebellum courthouse. Seems it was left standing by the conquering Yankee armies when a Mason symbol was spotted on the keystone by a fellow Mason. I guess Mason blood runs thicker than slash and burn primal instincts of war.

In the same town square there was a little old red brick public library run by possibly the only liberal Democrat in the county. Jane raised a couple long haired vegetarian sons and ordered books that even I chose to read. She successfully wrote a grant and with that funding she offered the job of summer storyteller on the bookmobile to me and I accepted. The great big, specially modified bus was mercifully driven by a former Peace Corp volunteer. We drove to several designated nestings of homes waaaay out in the rural countryside. First Tuesday was site A & B, second Tuesday was site C & D and so on. So once a month the big old bus, shelves filled with hundreds of battened down books of all kinds went on the road. Jane had the selections updated frequently. It wasn’t like going to a doctor’s office waiting room and reading the same five year old copy of Popular Mechanics every time you went. Jane remains in my heart as a real hero, but then she was a LIBRARIAN. (Que the heroic soundtrack here)

I, following her lead, did not tell the same story every time we visited. Every month I memorized one story, complete with dramatization, songs, props, and whatever else I could use all month long at every stop. By the end of the month at the last stop, I was really blazing with the story – timing down – knew when to wait for laughs – sooo good, if I do say so myself. Please don’t confuse this as self name dropping, even though there is a whiff of back patting in there.

The story here is the clientele we were serving. It was mostly children, if you haven’t figured that out yet. The kids were, as we would say today, economically disadvantaged. Back then they were just poor. Over half had no running water. Many didn’t wear shoes or if they did they were shredded old Keds. I’m not saying they didn’t have shoes. Maybe they, like myself, chose not to wear them when they didn’t have to. Or maybe, like myself at some points, only had one good pair and didn’t want to use them up.

So every month the loaded down bus would pull down a little dirt road with rain gullies so deep, I felt like Captain Ahab in the final chapter, with all the rocking back and fourth. At the end of the road there might be ten or twenty modest houses. The driver would give the familiar beep as we approached the flattest plot in the area and the kids would come flying out the doors as though skunks had come in their back doors. Most had colorful library books covered in in the thick plastic that libraries like. These were from our last visit and they were tucked in their arms ready to return so they could get new ones. This is the part where I am the famous person.

I would half hang out the window, waving like a politician. The kids ran along side as we rolled up the last few feet, waving back, yelling, laughing, trying to outrun their siblings. “Hi Miss Susan. Do you have a story?”

See? I was the famous person! The kids thought so. They treated me with such respect and listened so politely that I couldn’t help feeling important in some way. Unfortunately, though, I probably didn’t have much competition. I doubt whether more than a few homes had TVs. Some neighborhoods (the white ones) were a little better off than the others. Of course they all had to go to school, but back then the anti segregation laws and the reality were two separate items. And I’m sure if back then, they had computers and cell phones or even game boys (or even pocket parchisi) the very idea of me up there in the back of the bus waving my arms, talking loud and being silly would have been beyond indescribably uncool. They didn’t and I wasn’t. They sat on the carpeted floor, rapt. Okay, it was summer and the bus had AC, but still…You can tell when you are a hit with kids. Or shall we phrase that another way – you can tell when you are a flop. My years of experience taught me to notice the subtle signs of a children’s audience you are not reaching. They walk out.

After the live story we showed a short movie. Jane rented them from a catalogue and picked ones that had won awards from prestigious artsy organizations. We’re talking 1973 or 4 here. No videos. No Netflix. No videophones. Oh, and did I mention that the closest movie theatre over ten miles away, played the same movie forever. “Superfly”. I never went to see it.

Then the library purchased a movie camera; very high tech with a zoom lens. And now it was time to make the kids into famous people. We would make a 10 minute movie at each site. We would use the same script or scenario each time. Since we did not have sound recording capabilities, it would be a silent movie with a plot – you know- beginning, middle, end. Here is the plot: Kids find an old timey ice cream maker. They decide to make ice cream adding the cream, sugar, flavor, and ice and salt down in the bottom part. Then they take turns cranking the handle, round and round and round for a long, long time. It takes forever for the milky soup to become frozen ice cream. I wonder how this item ever got invented? By someone with a lot of time I guess. So that is the fun part in the plot. Kids take turns turning and turning. They could do whatever they liked while cranking in their close up. Lots made faces. Some faked passed out. Oh they were such hams. We took shots of kids fake passed out from all the cranking. I remember one boy climbed a little tree and let his arms and legs droop down from the bough. He looked like a sleeping cheetah. The big climax was all the kids eating ice cream. As an artistic element, I had chosen vanilla ice cream for the black kids and chocolate ice cream for the white kids, thinking the color contrast would be a good visual touch as they savored the fruits of their labor. Unfortunately they were all very neat eaters and when I asked them to smear some around their mouths, they were for the most part, very insulted. I explained how this was the climax, the big finish, the pay off of the movie. It had to had a big visual impact. Finally in desperation I told them about ART and how I got an orange squeezed on my head every night. I whined. So they obliged me. Some put dots on their noses. They looked at each other and laughed.

We had to wait weeks for the film to be developed and mailed back. (Read your history books. Many dinosaurs on the road slowed down the delivery of movie film.) Pulling up to the neighborhoods with the films in my hand, I was anxious, excited and still a little seasick as the roads had not been fixed. I don’t think most of the kids had ever seen themselves in a movie before this. All the sites asked us to play their own movie twice. First time through it was mostly self conscious laughing at themselves and their friends. Watching them watch the second time was transformational. They tried to giggle again but settled into recognition of themselves. They saw themselves. They were somebody.

I wonder if those films are still around. Maybe someday someone working on their PhD thesis, really desperate for research will stumble upon them in the attic of the Brunswick County Library in Lawrenceville, in southern Virginia, and think perhaps they have found Scorsese’s or Spielberg’s first works. Or maybe they would see a bunch of happy kids making and eating ice cream and think, “My, they are messy eaters,” and develop a thesis on the table manners of southern children in the 1970s.

One more interesting side note that will lead to meeting more famous people is this: there was a store we were managing for a friend who mostly wanted it so he could buy records and stereo equipment wholesale and also use for a tax write off. The store also carried musical equipment. At first we held jam sessions and people were encouraged to use the instruments we had stocked in the store so they would fall in love and buy them. It didn’t really catch on. There was a cheap, Alice blue conga drum that called to me and I couldn’t keep my hands off of it. It felt easy and natural and soon I felt pretty good about my playing, good enough to work it into the Alberta Blue act. (Reality check: I have heard tape recordings of my playing from this time. Cringe level: 7)

When it was time to leave Virginia in early 1976 the drum went with me as unpaid wages. And in case you are wondering “Super Fly” was still playing at the movie theatre. Friends remarked years later that perhaps the theatre was closed. It had never occurred to me.

Posted in Memoir | Leave a comment