Fanfare for the common man

‘A warm…soft—warm, soft sound without any sawtuhf effuht. Sawtuhfa warm clarinet sound…’

Aaron Copland rehearses the London Symphony Orchestra—1969, his ‘Appalachian Spring.’ Twenty-five years earlier he had scored it for Martha Graham, and he still referred the musicians today to the passage work: ‘Remembah, she would be dancing here.’ Passages he didn’t want these musicians—some of whom might have been children when the piece was written—to miss. He knew it earlier as ‘Ballet for Martha.’ The New York Times had called it ‘shining and joyous.’

‘That’s good! Swell. Hold it a little longer!’

The piece won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and Isamu Noguchi designed the set for the premiere, which was performed at the Library of Congress. How did he divorce his conducting this day from his visual memory of a quarter century earlier? I wondered. The premiere was on October 30, 1944, when America was at war.

Earlier that day, October 30, two young women were deported from Auschwitz to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They are Margot and Anne Frank.

That day, Navy Lt. J.N. Christenson wrote from his ship to his ‘Dearest Mother and Dad,’ saying:

I’ve tried recently to inventory the experiences in this part of the world and measure them against my expectations of what life in the tropics would be like. It all is about as expected. The heat is not much worse than in summertime Washington, D.C. The margin of discomfort is the humidity which gives wringing wet clothes and dripping brow. Strangely enough, the heavy khaki shirt, wool sox and heavy shoes that I wear seem to insulate. Then, too, the heavy footwear is more comfortable for the long hours of watch standing and treading the steel decks.

The beautiful blue and green waters I had known would be here and the various backgrounds of white beach and green jungles. There isn’t evident as much bird and animal life as I had thought, but then I haven’t spent any time in the bush. The evenings are surprisingly cool. Many of the men sleep out on deck in hammocks slung from gun to rail, on cots, or just ‘flaked out’ on the deck. There’s always a breeze stirring. Oftentimes they get a wetting down before morning, but the percentage is in favor of an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

Mother, I’m enclosing a check for $50. Will you make it stretch for gifts to the people I like, name of you and Dad, the nieces and nephews, and Carl. Like most of us out here, I’ve been hoping to find some things to send home, but outside of a few shells, a souvenir anchor chain link, and a brace of .38 caliber revolvers, my possessions aren’t of the Christmas gift sort. So, you’ll have to play Santa Claus for me, please.

Copland said when he was younger that he wanted to write music to ‘make you feel like you were alive on the streets of Brooklyn.’

‘At 2, gentleman—everybody—ladies—watch out about…it’s getting too sweetly sentimental. It, um…it’s a little on the Massine side there. Play it sawtah more cleanly. And 14,…nobody else would be disturbed by it, but I get a little disturbed by it. 14 is, uh, it’s too sentimental. Too much sentiment. It’s the wrong sound. It sounds on the Tchaikovsky side. Don’t play it so…,’ Copland’s voice fades. ‘Make it more American in spirit and—the sentiment isn’t all shown on the face. You know? It’s more…cool. The music by itself is warm; you don’t have to help it by… 16, everybody, please!’


My father wears a khaki-colored shirt. It’s a beige herringbone pattern, drenched in the armpits and on the spine from the New York City summer heat. It’s open at the neck two buttons down toward the chest, showing his graying and scraggly hairs and, beyond that and held by hard-working buttons, it cradles the stomach cultivated by gourmet meals. I am sure he bought the shirt from St. George’s Thrift Store. Perhaps it was 1977, the summer we had the blackout. That day, July 13, there were 3,776 arrested for looting, disorderly conduct, or nefarious behavior. That summer is 32 years after the end of the Second World War but only eight years since Copland had rehearsed the London Symphony. I was 14. The year before, 1976, Martha Graham was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Gerald Ford, whose wife, First Lady Betty, had once danced in her troupe. Martha was 82.

His trousers are khaki as well. He had tried to enlist in the military before the start of the war, but his asthma and other conditions earned him a medical rejection. I always held it against him that he never fought, unlike my five uncles—two on my mom’s side and three on my father’s—who were in the Navy, Air Force and Marines. They never told me stories about the war, but I knew they had been part of it.

In his khakis and sweating in the summer heat, maybe in the blackout, Dad concentrated on the carrot, paring each one carefully, making sure to not cut his finger and that each was sliced diagonally and evenly, the same thickness, and at least an inch and a half long, to make it suitable for scooping his homemade curry mayonnaise dip. Aaron Copland’s ‘Appalachian Spring’ played on WNYC-FM on the radio above the refrigerator. The radio had a TV band as well, because he liked to listen to the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour on Channel 13 at 6pm, and because ‘there’s no need to watch the news; you only need to listen.’ In 2009, when Jim Lehrer introduced the new NewsHour format, he read some guidelines he considered pillars to his work, including these two: ‘Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am,’ and, ‘Assume the same about all people on whom I report.’

The kitchen tiles were maroon linoleum with a Moorish trellis pattern. Dad had designed and built two counters with storage units below. One was attached to the stove and curved around to the entrance to the kitchen. My brother Jim and I ate all our meals here, except on nights when we had family dinners in the dining room. The latter room my father had painted and then added a heavy lace stucco to the walls and ceiling both, along with a Christmas-tree-light chandelier with hand-painted gold leaves. A room fit for bacchanalia. The other counter he built was next to the dishwasher. In addition to the storage beneath it, there was also an 18-inch square cutting board raised ¾ inch from the top. Around the cutting board were glazed tiles he had purchased in East Harlem. I had gone with him when I was about eight or nine.

Dad had wanted to be an architect but, as his mother died when he was nine and his father, later remarried, died when he was 20 in 1941, he was forced to quit college as a junior and begin earning money to help out his two younger half-brothers, his half-sister and his widowed step-mother.

He was a page at NBC on Sixth Avenue and used to go across the street to Hurley’s and buy two ryes for the cost of one whiskey.

photo: nickmur


Pat Metheny riffs

The preacher said on Easter during his sermon that I had been “mega-possessed.”  He didn’t say so exactly, but he reminded us that Jesus had cast out “seven demons” from Mary Magdalene, and the number seven when used like that in ancient Semitic times meant “mega” or “super.”  She was big-time possessed, and the Lovely K and I figured that my four or five major demons meant that I had been pretty darn messed up.  Giving my testimony that night at church in front of 800 of my closest friends, my story played well into that of Mary’s.032908umberto.jpg

Truth be told, that morning – Easter – I woke up and felt little to no spiritual depth.

Easter – mind you, Dear Reader – is my favorite holiday.  I like it much more than Christmas, because it is so free of the freneticism and almost addictive spending of money.  (Sure, it’s big on saturated fat, but those confectionery Peeps are just so tasty…)  I like it more than Thanksgiving, which I like more than Christmas because of its emphasis on family togetherness.  And I like it more than Flag Day, which to date has eluded Christendom as a significant time of celebration.

When I was a boy, we used to spend many Easters down in Williamston, North Carolina.  My aunt Jane and aunt Sally lived together on Church Street, so named I assumed because it ran alongside the Baptist church.  This is where we’d stay.  I used to play with a neighborhood boy, Arvin, a name I have yet to encounter north of the Mason-Dixon Line or belonging to anyone born after 1970.  We never went to church during those Easter times there, but rather we drank Coca-Colas from 8 oz. bottles on my aunts’ porch, the rhododendron trees on either side of their front walk forming perfect cover for kids’ hideouts during game time.

After I started to follow Jesus, Easter took on a new meaning.  It is the defining moment of Christianity:  the proposition that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and, because of his being alive, the promise that we, too, will one day rise from the dead to be with him.  It is kind of the whole enchilada of the faith, and without it, everything else crumbles.  It is therefore, I would argue, more important than Flag Day and all the other holidays.

Last year, Carter and I went to the Saturday night Easter Vigil at church where, in the Anglican tradition, at a certain point in the service, everyone gets to ring bells celebrating the resurrection and shout Alleluia! as loudly and often as they can for about two minutes or so.  It is a cacophony of joy.  We brought the 4-inch dinner bell that my parents used to have in their apartment.  The entire service lasts about 2-1/2 hours, and Carter did quite well, except for the incense.

But this Easter was somehow different.

My heart was darkened.  Maybe it was the dread of having to get up in front of people and tell them all my dirt.  Maybe it was my having been climbing all-too-slowly out of a depression that started two weeks prior and my desire to “not be found out” as weak, as vulnerable, as…depressed.  How, after all, can a Christian be depressed on Easter?  Of all times?!  Surely this must signal that my faith is not that strong.  That I am a sham of a believer.  That my charade is over.  That this Christianity stuff really doesn’t work.  My mind tortured me to consider that my depression on Easter morning would weaken my sons’ faith in Jesus and cast doubts in the Lovely K’s mind as to my mental and emotional stability.  Excuse me, I reminded myself, but you have two pill bottles for Depakote and Zyprexa in the medicine cabinet that already answer that last part, sir.  In short, I felt like crap.  And it was Easter.  Of all times.  My favorite holiday.

To help, I took the boys out to the playground before lunch, so that K could hide the eggs in our apartment for our family Easter egg hunt.  (Yes, I believe Christians can hunt for eggs on Easter and still hold that Jesus rose from the dead.  I can’t find any Scriptural conflict for these two things.)  This gave me fresh air but still left me the same:  depressed with a little spring wind burn.  I came home and after the hunt I tried to nap in my chair in front of a Mets-Cardinals pre-season baseball game.  That part was somewhat easy.

032908klsa12.jpgIt wasn’t until we sat in church together, the five of us, up close on the right side of the sanctuary.  The service we go to – our church holds five on normal Sundays; it did six on Easter – is a jazz service, with a snappy prologue and spiffed up hymns.  Yesterday, they were doing a Pat Metheny piece in the beginning, which I allowed my mind and heart to drift along into.  The pianist, who was the leader, motioned with his head back to the bass guitar player and the brass players, and the lead guitarist up front did a riff that I’d gladly have paid a cover charge to hear, as the pianist’s wife did a scat on the mic along with the guitarist.  I felt my mind easing and lilting along with the melody.  By the time the assistant pastor opened us with a meditation on how a man who was buried with an acorn in his hand led to an oak tree growing from beneath a tomb and breaking through concrete slabs, and how this was symbolic of Jesus’ life breaking through the stranglehold of death, I was starting to remember why I love Easter so much.  I was still a bit apprehensive of getting up to the mic for my testimony, but I let myself be carried with the beauty of the song, of the prayers, of the congregation there to either celebrate Jesus’ miraculous rising or – as was the case with many there – investigate the claims of this faith.

In other words, at some point, I stopped thinking about myself and started to worship.

When I had successfully forgotten about myself and my stage fright, I was happy.

photos:  umberto, klsa12

Whiffenpoofs on TV

In order to stay up past bedtime, the Lovely K and her sisters would entreat her mother to expound on family history.

“Oh, mom…” they would bleat, “was Aunt Sarah the sister of Charles or of Melvin?”  They cared not for the correct answer, but it gave them an extra ten minutes of playtime while listening to it.  In this way, we learned how to play cricket in religion class in sixth grade.


Father Donald Best was from Britain, and his ruddy, round face was always smiling as he greeted us 12-year-olds at Trinity.  If we could avoid listening to the higher critical theory on the authorship of the Penteteuch – the J and P writers, etc. – and listen instead to his stories aobut balls sailing through lead-paned windows of estates that neighbored to cricket games, then we sat raptured by his every word.I Googled another of my teachers, our choir director, who is now happily planted in Delray Beach as director of music at the local Episcopal church.  He has bright white hair, and his bio talks of his love of sailing and travel, and how his wife and he enjoy watching the boats pass through the intracoastal channel.   Dr. Garrett was my choir teacher during 5th through 7th grades, before my voice changed, when I sang with the Trinity boy’s choir.  There were probably 20 of us in the choir, and to my recollection, he found a way to weed out those who voices did not…contribute…to the sound which he was trying to produce.   This was when excellence was not frowned on, when mediocrity was not championed under the guise of inclusiveness and when aesthetics counted for something.  All I know is that Garrett was able to get us gigs at Avery Fischer Hall, Carnegie Hall and others, performing works by Mahler and George Crumb, and being conducted by Pierre Boulez and James Levine.

OK.  So I just dropped a bunch of names, and you’re supposed to be impressed…

But it was great fun.  I recall making friends with the lead trombone player in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, behind whom I sat.  He was thin, almost completely bald and very friendly.  I also remember – as one of the only unpleasant times – having to stand for like 15 minutes silently during the first thousand or so bars of Mahler’s 8th, or so it seemed.  I remember Boulez shooting us piercing glances when we missed our cue.   I remember that we each got $25 for our performances.  We were pros.

My classmate JM was much better than I and so was my friend Geoff, who went on to college at Yale and sang with the Whiffenpoofs.  I saw him on TV once when I was visiting my grandparents.  My grandfather had tuned in to William Buckley’s “Firing Line,” and as a closing segment, Buckley had the Whiffenpoofs perform a couple songs.  They were impeccable, ineffable.  I saw Geoff on the street a few years later.  Third Avenue and 40th, in front of my office at Wiley.  He had been to Paris and tried to make it as a singer but it was a non-starter.

Somewhere along the line I went from Mahler to Johnny Cash, trombones to steel guitar, black choir robe to pearl snap shirt.

photo:  gofish343

“Did you know I was related to Lafayette?”

As the B-52s punch their words into my inner ear, “down, down, down…skedubidub…hrrrrr…ahhh..ahhhahhh…Rock Lobstah!” I recall a few minutes ago when a 20-something guy with a crew cut, backpack, and wild look in his eyes walks into the Starbucks on 76th and Columbus where I’m doing my evening news catch-up, drinking the requisite decaf, checking out the Red Sox losing to the Cleveland Indians in the bottom of the second inning live on, and he taps my shoulder because, after all, I have these antisocial white iPod earplugs in the side of my head that announce, “Please know that I am occupied with a little Alternative Music R&R,” and he stumbles for words, and I think, Uh, Oh, here we go:  This reminds me of London 1985 when I sat in that hotel lobby with brother Jim and college friend Kim and some dude walks in and convinces me that he lost his trumpet – for real, I tell you, and you thought I wasn’t gullible… – and 101507damo_4701.jpgneeds twenty quid (which then was about only $30) which of course I gave him because he promised to send it back to me later to my US home and he even gave me his name and address, which I am sure now corresponded with some ex-foreman at a women’s girdle factory in Yorkshire.  This is going through my mind.  I am thinking: Get ready for the pitch, Man.

But instead he insists he is lost and needs to get access to his Hotmail account and may he log on to my laptop.  He speaks broken English because he is French.   So I consider the fact of the American Revolution and how his country did all those nice things for us.  (After all, since then, the relationship’s been a little…strained…although now there’s a guy in office who might convince the French Language Puritan Nazis to let in such words as “laptop” and “Starbucks” to the rigid lexicon.  So what if YouTube has a video of Sarkozy drunk at the G8 Conference.  President G.H.W. Bush puked on the Japanese Prime Minister, remember?)  We navigate out of my default Windows Live ID screen and away he goes into French MSN and his email account.  He says it’s hard to get to the “web cafe.”

He finds the street address he’s looking for, on West 107th, and asks how far it is.  Walk?  Train?  Taxi?  I ask.  Taxi, he says.  About ten minutes.  He looks comforted, gathers his things.

He does not ask me for money.  He hasn’t lost a wind instrument of any kind.

I am happy.

photo:  damo 4701

Pesto and torn pants

Standing in Gap khakis by the stove and mashing basil leaves and toasted pine nuts in the bronze-colored mortar and pestle I inherited, while listening to Vivaldi on FM 99.5 classical radio, I reminded myself of my dad in a somewhat comforting way.

The pesto I was making came from a Williams-Sonoma recipe, and I now know why most 090107pestowithtrofiette.jpgstore-bought pesto that comes in those plastic tubs near the “fresh” instant pasta is so green:  it doesn’t contain enough pine nuts by volume.  Because when I was done, the pesto – while perhaps not as uniform in tone as I had expected – was predominantly beige, not dark green as those tubs of pesto are.  (One odd downside was that the only brand of pignolli at Crosby’s was a “Product of China.” Is nothing sacred?)

The pesto was the good part.  The pasta was not.  The recipe called for trofiette, which is slightly curly, and tends to hold the pesto well.  My grocery store sells t-shirts that have the town name emblazoned on them – Hamilton – and the year it was incorporated:  1793.  Yet no pasta more adventuresome that fusilli was to be found. 

Dad would almost always listen to classical music in the kitchen at 50 East 96th Street.  He grew up on jazz and swing and went to a bunch of Benny Goodman concerts as a young man.  This would have been in the late 1930s, when he was 17 or 18, coming in from Babylon, Long Island, no doubt via the LIRR to Madison Square Garden or Carnegie Hall.  He had scads of 16 rpm LP’s of the good ol’ days, and I remember one he played for me was of Huddie Ledbetter, otherwise known as “Lead Belly,” a folk and blues 12-string guitarist.  In January 1918, Lead Belly was imprisoned for murder and, it was said, only served two years of his term in large part for writing a song that appealed to the religious values of the Governor, who arranged for his release.

But when I asked my dad why he didn’t listen to jazz on the radio, he’d say, “I know jazz.  I don’t know classical.”  So, after years of this – we’re talking my whole life, pretty much, although he did play Helen Reddy at times when I was a kid, which is even more scary to recall than the fact that my first favorite band was the Bay City Rollers – he still felt the desire to listen to a music form he didn’t understand everything about.

He’d stand there in the galley-like kitchen in thread-bare khakis and a faded yellow button-down shirt, also threadbare and undoubtedly purchased at the St. George Episcopal Church thrift store on East 16th Street, stirring…something…on the stovetop, for dinner.  I’d be talking with Karen while we were dating in 1995-97 and she’d tell me what she had for dinner and ask me what I had.  And…I was never really sure.  I mean, I knew that what was contained on the plate before me at night was a collection of once-discrete food items that had different specific and legitimate origins – some from the sea, some from land, some from the air, and some were perhaps made in a factory – but once compiled and presented together after my father’s efforts, they often didn’t have a recognizable Collective Identity.

I was rarely able to name my meal.

So Karen always found that humorous and we, to this day, laugh about it.  It is now family folklore.

Yet Dad did experiment a lot.  And he tried to learn about things that were unfamiliar.

photo:  Williams-Sonoma