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.”

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About susanslackblog

Author, drummer, vocalist, dancer
This entry was posted in Buffalo New York, Memoir and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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