Dinah, Sarah, Abbey And Michelle: A Snowy And Jazzy Story

Three weeks ago, we here in my section of the greater Philadelphia region were blessed with a storm that deposited a foot of heavy, messy snow. Ooh la la! I spent four hours, spread over three days, hurling the white stuff off of my walkways, driveway and rear deck. That’s a lot of work for a guy who has made a depressingly large number of revolutions around our friend the Sun.

That barrage was the seventh or eighth snow event this year. So, when the forecasters told us to expect plenty more snow for last week’s Wednesday, I went into a bit of a funk. “Enough with the shoveling already! This winter bites the big one big-time! In other words, it f*cking sucks!” I loudly thought to myself.

Fortunately, as it turned out, the outcome could have been worse, though it was bad enough. Nine inches of white matter descended onto my area, white matter that was, mercifully, far less dense than had been predicted. I spent an hour and a half that Wednesday afternoon lashed to my snow shovel, and then the job was done. I went back into the house feeling okay but, unbeknownst to me at the time, in need of some soul sustenance.

Enthroned at the dinner table at 6:15 PM, my wife Sandy and I chomped away and happily chit-chatted (Sandy: “Please pass the salt.” Neil: “Huh?” Sandy: “I need the salt. Please pass it.” Neil: “What?” Sandy: “Pass the salt, you nitwit!” Neil: “There’s no need to shout!”)

As we ate, musical accompaniment was provided by WRTI, Temple University’s radio station that spends half of each day (6:00 AM till 6:00 PM) spinning classical fare and the other half broadcasting jazz selections. So absorbed am I with filling my maw at dinnertime, music ordinarily connects only moderately with me then. But that wasn’t the case on the after-shoveling evening in question.

Around 6:30 PM, in between bites, I perked up my ears. A distinctive voice, one I recognized, began to soothe me. And the words being sung seemed very right. They got to me, made me go all warm and fuzzy inside. “I took a trip on a train/And I thought about you./I passed a shadowy lane/And I thought about you.”

It was Dinah Washington singing I Thought About You, a number written in 1939 by Jimmy Van Heusen (who composed the music) and Johnny Mercer (who penned the words). It’s a great song, one that I and most of us have heard over the years. Sinatra, Diane Schuur, Ella and a million others have recorded it. Dinah Washington’s version came out in 1959 on her album What A Diff’rence A Day Makes! Dinah nailed it.

Dinner all of a sudden, as good as it was, became better. But WRTI wasn’t done with me, thanks to Ms. Blue, that evening’s program host. Half an hour later I found my ears doing that perking-up thing again when another female voice captivated me. I knew whose voice it was. Sarah Vaughan’s. And I knew the song too, Can’t Get Out Of This Mood. It has a moody lyric, yup. And in this recording the instruments swagger and caress, as often is the case when jazz practitioners are at work. The number is damn good, not least because it was placed in Sarah’s hands. Or should I say mouth? Jimmy McHugh (music) and Frank Loesser (lyrics) wrote the tune in 1942. Sarah waxed it eight years later.

Well, Sandy and I, by then removed to the living room sofa, kept the dial set to WRTI for another two hours. And the only pieces that really registered with me during that time were by lady vocalists: Abbey Lincoln and Michelle Lordi. Somehow my mind and emotional mechanisms weren’t programmed that night to find any manner of enlightenment in non-vocal pieces or in songs warbled by persons of the male variety, though both sorts abounded on the WRTI airwaves throughout the evening. No, the female voice was what my shoveling-weary arms and shoulders and all the rest of me needed for sustenance, for rejuvenation. If Sandy and I hadn’t turned on WRTI that evening, I’d have gone to bed in an untuned state of being.

Ah, Abbey Lincoln. She’s a favorite of mine, a powerful singer and a songwriter who examined the human heart and the imbalances in society with a sharp eye. But she wasn’t the author of the tune that I heard on WRTI, which was Lost In The Stars, a melancholy rumination from the 1949 musical of the same name by Kurt Weill (music) and Maxwell Anderson (book and lyrics). If Abbey’s cries and laments don’t move you, especially those that begin at the song’s three-minute mark, then you’re a lost cause. Her recording dates from 1959.

As for No Moon At All, the composition sung by Michelle Lordi, it was a new one to me. It’s a terrific song, playful and perceptive. No Moon entered the world in 1947, the work of David Mann (music) and Redd Evans (lyrics). Michelle’s version, witty and jaunty (but not annoyingly jaunty), entered the world last year. Her vocal approach meshes ideally with the tight jazz combo frolicking with her. Dig those guitar and trumpet solos.

While compiling that which you currently are reading, I realized that only one of the four jazz vocalists — Michelle — is with us in the flesh. Dinah, Sarah and Abbey left the planet in 1963, 1990 and 2010, respectively. The three of them were superior talents. And also quite famous.

As for Michelle Lordi, who is not a big name at all, I believe her to be a marvelous singer. She’s not show-offy, for which I give the thumbs-up sign, and she’s able to find her way deeply into a lyric. She resides somewhere in my neck of the woods and performs regularly in it, as well as in The Big Apple and here and there too. I saw her perform in, of all places, a pub two miles from my house three years ago, and wrote about the show. I guess my review was pretty much a rave.

Well, the time has come for me to mention that yours truly has been tinkering with this essay a whole lot. There’s only so much tinkering a guy can stand! Adios, for now, amigos. I hope you enjoyed the music contained herein.

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A Long Walk In Philadelphia On A Warm Winter’s Day

Cira Centre

There I was two Wednesday mornings ago, unfruitfully occupying space on my living room sofa. My shoulders were tense, my mind was neither here nor there. In other words, it was business as usual.

“Yo, schmuck! Snap out of it!” I silently yelled to myself. “Somebody ought to paint your portrait right now and call it Here Sits A Schlump. Life’s for living, boyo. Get with it already.”

And so I did. Gathering myself together, I decided to go for a walk. A nice long walk. But where? Not in my suburban area, whose charms are incredibly limited. Philadelphia it would be then. Philly’s the metropolis that never bores me. Soon I was at my little town’s train station. A late-morning ride arrived and I climbed into the second of its three cars. Fifty minutes later I exited said metal box at 30th Street Station, in the city’s West Philadelphia section, all set to explore a nearby area that I was barely familiar with. Ferdinand Magellan I’m not, but I’ve always liked to poke around.

It’s amazing though, being someone who likes to poke around, that I’d never done so among the blocks only a hop, skip and a jump northwest of 30th Street Station. Those streets, part of West Philadelphia’s Powelton Village neighborhood, contain a good bit of Drexel University’s sprawling campus. From the mid-1970s until 1991 I lived in West Philadelphia, only a mile and a half from Powelton Village, but I didn’t venture to the Drexel enclave there, despite Drexel’s rise during that time to major-player status in the academic world. And in the ensuing years, which have seen me visit West Philadelphia who knows how many dozens of times, the pattern continued.

Hallelujah, now the deed is done! I came and I saw. I’ll leave conquering for another day.

Powelton Village
Powelton Village

Now, let me say that my stroll through Powelton Village, checking out not only the Drexel facilities but the sturdy, soon-to-be-leafy residential blocks, wasn’t a walk for the ages. I mean, not too many urban campuses are going to knock your socks off. And Philadelphia’s older housing — rowhouses, twins and stand-alones — are so much with us in Powelton Village and in many other Philadelphia neighborhoods, I’ve come to think of them as comfort food.

Still, stretching my literally old legs felt great. Especially since the day was sunny and warm, as in 74°F, an insanely high number for mid-February winter. I worked up a good, pungent sweat hauling my ass and my bones around. And my eyes did plenty of darting, admiring the college girls who were dressed for summer. Skimpily, shall we say.

In addition to the girls, certain sights during my travels did make quite the impression on me. For instance, before I reached Powelton Village — in fact, when I was only 150 feet from 30th Street Station — I remembered to take a look at the Cira Centre, a majestically sleek office tower that smiles down upon the station. But I didn’t see it. Was the station somehow obscuring my view? Turns out, of course, that Cira was there in plain sight. Sort of. A glass wonder, the reflections of the sky on its surface were camouflaging the building, as the photo at the beginning of this article reveals. Man, that was something, clouds seeming to float everywhere on the glass along with the reflected image of a tower under construction several blocks away.

Drexel’s Buckley Recreational Field
Vue32 apartment building

And in Powelton Village, just up the block from Drexel’s Buckley Recreational Field, I was most surprised to see a tall, modern apartment building (Vue32) being erected on North 32nd Street. Some might say that Vue32, a non-Drexel project, is totally out of place in a quiet two-and-three-story-high neighborhood, and if I lived nearby I’d probably agree. But it looked cool to me.

SEPTA rail yard

Speaking of North 32nd Street, if I hadn’t been there I would have missed being near-stunned by the sight of oceans of commuter railroad cars — just like the one I took into the city — a smattering of feet east of where Vue32 stands. As I later learned, I was looking at a rail yard used by SEPTA, the Philadelphia region’s public transit agency, to house and do maintenance work on trains. I’ve lived in Philadelphia or its suburbs for most of my adult life and I’d only vaguely noticed that enormous yard before, though it is glimpsable from numerous vantage points in the city. Call me Mr. Observant.

An open square on Drexel campus

Well, the early afternoon passed pleasurably. I ambled along block after block in Powelton Village. Many streets contained a mixture of private homes and Drexel buildings. Everything was peaceful and quiet, just the way you’d wish that all the world would be. I saw many students, some on their way to or from classes and residences, some munching away or doing work at tables in a campus open square, some lolling on the grass in pocket parks. I enjoyed being a college student, but you’ll never find me enrolling once again in an institution of higher learning. There would be just too much work. In these latter stages of my life I prefer things that are way on the easier side.

By the time I made my way back to 30th Street Station I’d racked up four miles of ambulation. My shoulders were a lot looser than they’d been five hours earlier. My mind was no longer neither here nor there. And I was happy to be heading home. A few minutes before the train pulled in to whisk me back to my sleepy town, for no particular reason I took a photo of the “Watch The Gap” warning painted on the platform. It refers to the open space of an inch or two between the platform and each train car. Looking at that picture the next day it occurred to me that watching the gaps elsewhere in life is good advice too. Relationship gaps can be painful. Equality gaps are unfair and often hideous. But, with effort, gaps can be closed or dealt with productively, though not always.

With those words of wisdom I’ll now take my leave. But (hopefully) I’ll be back! Till next time.

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(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window)

A Frigid Classical Music Story

Man, the weather in my region of Planet Earth (i.e., southeastern Pennsylvania, USA) not only sucks right now, it has sucked for the last several weeks. You like cold? We’ve got it up the frozen wazoo, and it’s going to get worse.

I’m typing the opening salvos of this pert essay on the 4th of January at 4:30 PM. Several inches of white stuff fell from the heavens earlier today, a minor amount to be sure. Much more to the point, complaint-wise for me, is that it’s a bone-unsettling 20°F (-7°C) outside, which is on the high side of what the numbers have been since Arctic air began its southward trek into wide portions of North America last month. In the wee small hours of Saturday the 6th, the vapors around here are predicted to tip the scales at 4°F (-16°C). And 24 hours after that we can look forward to a tantalizing reading of -2°F, which computes to -19 degrees in the Celsius realm.

Where’s my bathing suit? I’m heading to the nearest beach!

Well, I’m fairly sure that this is the first time I’ve groused about the weather on the pages of this humble blog. But hell, that’s what old guys do sometimes, right? And it’s not as though I have anything better to do, unless you count as a worthy activity the many hours I’ve recently spent compulsively tying the remaining strands of hair on the crown of my head into square knots. I’m a wiz when it comes to tying square knots. Thank the stars above that the training I got eons ago as a Boy Scout went not for naught.

Still, it’s not as though the present draping of cold air should come as a surprise to those who reside far from the equator. Such was the message, in fact, from the announcer who handles the mid-morning shift on WRTI, the Temple University radio station that plays classical music for half of each weekday (6:00 AM to 6:00 PM) and jazz for the other half.

“Buck up, buckeroos. It’s winter. You’ve heard of winter, haven’t you?” is what, in effect, the announcer said a few minutes before 9:00 AM on the aforementioned 4th of January. “We’ve dealt with below-average temperatures before, yes? So, don’t panic, don’t fret. The Earth is still orbiting the Sun, and everything will be all right.”

This wise man, Gregg Whiteside, then softened his message by adding that he realizes that the current undesirable situation is highly upsetting to more than a few members of the populace. And that’s why he then cued up a piece that he assured his audience would settle their nerves and ease their worried minds. And he was right. Sitting on my living room sofa, square knots in progress, I was taken by the great beauty of Frederic Chopin’s Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, as performed by pianist Antonin Kubalek. I think you’ll like it, too. Here it is:

Ah, it’s a gem. But Gregg must have felt that one heavy dose of soul satisfaction wasn’t enough. When the Chopin opus reached its conclusion he wasted no time in hitting the button to send Antonin Dvorak’s Nocturne in B major over the airwaves. The composition was played by the British orchestra that goes by the name of The Academy Of St Martin In The Fields. It’s a magnificent work, as you will discover by clicking on this YouTube video:

See? Mr. Whiteside provided a temporary panacea for emotions jangled by wintry onslaughts. But let’s fast-forward a bit. It is now 10:15 AM on January 5. More than 24 hours have elapsed since Gregg advised me to make the best of it. During that time I’ve shoveled my driveway and walkways clear of the four inches of snow that I mentioned earlier. I kind of enjoy shoveling snow. Been doing it all my life.

But I don’t like the deep freeze we’ve been in day after day after day. It’s intimidating and it’s a pain in the ass, not to mention unsafe. Gregg’s musical offerings of help and warmth notwithstanding, there’s no getting around the fact that cold is cold. After I’d been at it with the shovel for an hour, completing the job at hand, my poor ol’ nose, fingers and toes were waving the white flag. Thankfully, I have a lot to be thankful for this winter, and a nicely-heated home is at the top of the list. Into said abode I went.

Just as every essay must end, so must every weather pattern. Which is to say that relief from the meteorological conditions that I’ve been bemoaning is in sight. Soon after I publish this chilling story, my neck of the woods will be emerging from the woods, so to speak, as the weather forecasters are assuring us that the thermometer needle will creep ever so slightly above the freezing mark at some point on Monday the 8th.

I’m now going to remove my fingers from the keyboard upon which I’ve been tapping away. I will relocate to the living room sofa, tune in to WRTI and attempt to undo the square knots that decorate the crown of my head. I’m tired of that look.Wish me luck. The Boy Scouts taught me how to tie square knots. But not how to untie them.

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