…Where she’ll never grow old

I ordered the DVD of Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace film the day it was released because, I guess, seeing it 15 times in the theaters just wasn’t sufficient. Yes, I saw it 15 times, what?

The 15th time was in Spokane WA where I had gone for my day job, and I consider it a gift from the Universe because, if my flight home had not been cancelled, I wouldn’t have had “free time” to check out what else was going on in Spokane. And I found out that the film was playing around the corner from my hotel!

If you missed seeing Amazing Grace in the theaters, now is your chance. It is not the typical documentary. There is no narration; no interviews or recollections by anyone who was either in attendance, in the band or choir, or among the crew members or producers – almost all of whom have passed away.

What you witness in Amazing Grace is Aretha Franklin, at the piano or “standing flat-footed” (as a singer friend of mine likes to say) simply doing what she does best. Her singing voice exclaims all that needs to be said. Despite whatever technical difficulties and legal wranglings that kept the film from being shown for all these decades, the Amazing Grace film is well worth the wait. Amazing Grace is church, it is a concert, it is a master class in live recording… it is all of that.

Although the film is titled Amazing Grace, I wish they had called it “Never Grow Old.” Don’t get me wrong, Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” is the highest point (among several high points) in the concert. But “Never Grow Old” is the final song she sings, the song she first recorded at the age of 16. And here Aretha Franklin is, the Queen of Soul, captured on film at 29 years old, at the very top of her game as a singer, having recorded over 20 albums, won five Grammy Awards, and earned 11 consecutive Number One Pop and R&B hit singles, closing out her concert recording with “Never Grow Old.” In the Amazing Grace film, Aretha Franklin is captured forever, where that Spirit-filled, Blues-inspired, Soul-regaled voice – will, indeed, never grow old.

Vocal Heroes & Sophisticated Ladies

One of the gigs I had during this past holiday season was a reunion of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Female Ensemble. The current ensemble, now called The Sophisticated Ladies of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, were performing their holiday concert to benefit their upcoming concert tour to Austria. Their current director is fellow Ellington alumnus, Sylvia Twine, who combined their annual holiday concert with a tribute to the ensemble’s founder & director, Dorothy Dash, and invite ensemble alumni to come and sing with the current ensemble as part of the tribute.

The female ensemble was first organized in 1978 when the Concert Choir that year was “top heavy” – there were too many high voices to balance the tenors and basses. So, all of the underclassman girls were taken out of Concert Choir and sent down the hall of Ellington’s third floor music department to the voice studio of then-Chair of the Vocal Music Department, Dorothy Dash, where they were taught theory and sight-singing.

As Mrs. Dash started incorporating SSA choral pieces into the curriculum, she liked the sound she was getting from the girls, and so the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Female Ensemble was formed.

I came to Ellington in the Fall of the following year and was assigned to Dorothy Dash’s voice studio. Mrs. Dash had also auditioned me for the school the previous Spring, so I had the double blessing of studying voice with her privately as well as singing under her direction in the Female Ensemble.

At the holiday concert at Ellington this past December 9, the ensemble alums sang two pieces with The Sophisticated Ladies: the anthem Praise Ye the Lord by Mendolson, and a light gospel number, Light Shine by Theodore Thomas, Jr. Then, Mrs. Dash was introduced and brought onstage. She made really poignant remarks about the importance of music, and music education, in these turbulent times and then, each of us alumni walked to the center stage microphone, announced our name and Ellington graduation year, then presented a rose to Mrs. Dash. I was really glad that I was able to participate in this tribute to her.

What was even more enjoyable than the actual concert was reuniting with Ellington vocal alums for the rehearsals leading up to the concert, and then, another more relaxed reunion at Sylvia’s home after the holidays. During the rehearsals, especially the first one, I was struck by how well our voices instantly blended after 30-plus years of not singing together.

Most of us had not stopped singing during those 30-plus years. Some of us only sing now in choral settings at our respective churches. A few of us teach/coach vocal students privately or in DC-area schools. A few of us are professional soloists. The thing that was so cool about our most recent gathering was observing how those who were upperclassmen when I arrived at Ellington, whom I had looked up to (like Sylvia) and whose voices I revered, had the same reaction toward the earlier alums. Hearing one of my vocal heroes from Ellington class of ‘81 tell an alum from the very first graduating class about how her performance at Ellington precursor, Workshops for Careers in the Arts, inspired her to audition for the school, and then, to hear that alum suddenly break into the solo she had sung that day, was an awesome moment.

Sylvia Twine’s current ensemble, The Sophisticated Ladies, which consists of 30 young singers, are working very hard toward a concert tour in Austria from June 16-24, 2019. I am including a link to their donation page: https://sltoaustria.flipcause.com/secure/cause_pdetails/NDQ4ODQ=

because, as Sylvia told us, “We want to leave no girl behind.”

Happy New Year!

And so… another year is gone and a new one begun. My wish for singers, vocalists, song stylists, etc. is for, first of all, good vocal health; that we find and do whatever works to keep la voce healthy and singing well.

If you are a voice instructor, I wish you engaged vocal students who are open to the wisdom and experience that you want to share with them. Remember, reaching only one student is still an accomplishment.

If you are a voice student, I wish you supportive teachers and coaches who inspire and encourage you to stay on your vocal journey even if your chosen path strays a bit from the curriculum.

If you are a professional singer, I wish you connections to the people who appreciate your vocal gifts and are positioned to open the right doors for your career. I wish you supportive accompanists and/or bands; instrumentalists who work with you, not in competition, but who challenge your ears enough to keep things fresh. I wish you a team of supportive people (even if it’s only one or two) who are knowledgeable about the promotional/business side of things and can advise you so that you don’t feel like you’re out here on your own. I also wish you opportunities to meet your vocal heroes while they’re still with us.

For all of us, I wish focus and endurance. There’s a lot going on around us (positive and not-so-positive) that can be distracting and/or discouraging. We all should be aware of what’s happening but find creative ways to process it. Sing on!

Classic Offense

These days seems like somebody is offended by something. I am not at all using this blog space to argue the validity of someone taking offense at something. But, when someone being offended by, say, a piece of music leads to the banning of said piece of music, especially when that piece of music is a classic hit record that pre-dates that person’s time on the planet, I do have some thoughts about that.

In the mid-80s, there was a group of parents using their connections to powerful people in Congress to sue hard rock bands, try to ban certain records from radio airplay, and force recording artists to put “parental advisory labels” on their records because these parents – unlike my parents – had a problem telling their kids things like, “Turn that crap down” or “Stop playing that record over and over and over again” or “No, you can’t have that” or “No, I won’t buy that for you” or “You can’t play that in my house.” The group fizzled out by the late 90s.

I stopped listening to Top 40 radio – i.e. having it on my radio in the house/car on a regular basis – in 1994 – that’s nineteen NINETY-FOUR, and I had a bunch of reasons, at the time, which I might revisit on this blog at some point. But that’s not to say that I don’t hear current radio hits in the Uber of the moment, or in a friend’s car/house, or in a store.

As time has moved on from the mid-90s, recording technologies have become more user-friendly, music programs have all but disappeared from public school curriculums, and stuff that would never have gotten “in the door” of a radio programmer’s office before has now become acceptable as music in the first place, I hear several things in many current radio hits that are offensive to mine ears before I ever get around to the lyrical content or general “message” of the hit record. So, you know… there’s that.

Again, not questioning the validity of a person taking offense to a piece of music, or the circumstances (however tragic) that might be brought to mind by said piece of music. But really, people. Your offense to it should not have any bearing on my ability to hear it, and vice versa. That’s why we now have headphones and earphones, and various devices upon which we can hear anything we want at a given moment and, thereby, not hear whatever else might be playing in an environment where we do not control the playlist.

And so, you know… since I’ve been my own programmer for the past 25 years, I’m playing the Ray Charles-Betty Carter recording of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” on a daily basis this holiday season because I love that record!!! Also, because it really is cold outside.

Long Live the Queen

It’s been about four months, and I still haven’t done the full-on-ugly-cry over Aretha Franklin’s passing. I don’t know if that’s because so many of my vocal heroes (as well as family and friends) have passed away in recent years that I’ve grown numb, in a way… or if, because the world keeps turning, and stuff still has to get done, I haven’t afforded myself the opportunity to sit and really focus on the fact that Aretha Franklin was actually mortal and is now, in fact, gone.

When Sarah Vaughan passed away in 1990, I remember driving up and down Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park, crying like a two-year-old, only stopping long enough to blow my nose. This morning, I got the news that Nancy Wilson passed away late last night. As the current saying goes, I just can’t…

I was two years old when Aretha Franklin’s 1967 cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” was released. I would turn three that December. I can’t recall the first time I heard “Respect” but I know I heard her version before I ever heard Redding’s original recording. In fact, while I can’t say when I first heard any of Aretha’s records, I can say that I can’t recall a time when I did not know her voice.

In the days and weeks following her Aug. 16 death, I read a lot of tributes from celebrities and Aretha fans and, if I had to take issue with anyone’s thoughts at all, it would be where people wrote about “doing housework” to her records. And okay, I get the concept of maybe being inspired by the grooves of her more danceable records to move around with the duster in hand. But hearing Aretha, even when I was very young, made me more inclined to sit down and listen to what she had laid down on the record. Not only to her own Spirit-filled vocal athleticism, but to the harmonies and rhythmic call and response of the backup vocals.

I don’t know if “kids today” get what a voice like Aretha Franklin’s means to people in my generation who grew up listening to her. I don’t know that they get the historical importance of her voice as we did when we were “kids today”. I’ve heard older people say that a voice like Aretha’s comes along once in a generation – like Mahalia Jackson’s, or Ella Fitzgerald’s, or Leontyne Price’s voices did before her.

Aretha also hit her stride as Black people were coming into a self-awareness and self-appreciation in the 60s, and the rise of Soul music as a genre. Her voice reflected that awareness which led her to be declared the Queen of Soul. During the week of her passing, I read (or heard) someone say that generations of ancestors sang through Aretha’s voice. I totally hear that in her records, especially on the Amazing Grace album.

In this time of so-called singers relying on Auto-Tune pitch-correction, studio production, and stage antics to compensate for their lack of actual vocal talent or ability, it’s difficult to know if any of the younger crowd appreciate the actual physical work, as well as talent, that goes into singing well, let alone singing extraordinarily well as Aretha did.

To me, the best singers have always been the ones that are able to vocally get a message over to you without you having to look-at-me-look-at-me-look-at-me. Aretha was one of those singers. I guess that’s why I never gave into the debates that would arise from time to time about her weight fluctuations or her choice of wardrobe for a TV appearance. The only thing that ever bothered me about Aretha was when her decades of smoking took their toll on her once bell-clear tones and wide range, and I was glad when she finally quit.

The good news is that her records are still with us. We can pull them out anytime we want or need to, play them, analyze and discuss what we hear with our grown-up and trained ears. Or, better yet, we can just listen to her sing her way on through… Maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to do the ugly-cry, you know… yet. She may have been mortal, but her voice lives forever. Long live the Queen. #RunningOutOfHeroes

Cords/Chords/Discord

I heard someone use this phrase the other day which struck me in a big way: Living in the context of constant crisis. In our current climate of discord and conflict, I wonder where in the world people aren’t living in/with constant crisis. And yet, hearing someone say that phrase really took me aback, and I heard myself say, “Wow” out loud.

The Sunday evening before I heard that phrase, I watched the “final episode” of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown which focused on the lower east side of Manhattan where Bourdain had spent time among punk rock and early hip-hop artists before they broke big commercially. It was really cool to see Debbie Harry on TV, by the way. I remembered being quite the Blondie fan until I heard Pat Benatar’s bel canto-trained voice rocking my radio, but I digress… or maybe I don’t.

The final Parts Unknown episode was disturbing to me, much more so than the previous one which went behind the scenes of the show with Bourdain and his crew. The final episode was well-produced – as the whole series was (along with its predecessors No Reservations and The Layover) – and captured that punk rock attitudinal vibe that made Bourdain … well, Bourdain. Still, it was disturbing. The episode itself was disturbing as well as the fact that it was the series finale. I felt a great sense of unease while watching it and, when it was over, I was left with this anxious feeling like I needed to watch or listen to something else that would be reassuring.

Those who trained me as a singer/performer had the work ethic that artists should provide an escape from the chaos and confusion in the world; The show-must-go-on mentality. The “punk-rockers” seemed to feed off the chaos around them as well as the anti-establishment vibe of the late 70s. They seemed to let disorder influence their art as well as how they presented themselves as artists, and they had an audience that appreciated that, and Bourdain was in that audience; a part of that scene. So, I guess, the final Bourdain episode was supposed to be disturbing, as punk rock was disturbing to the status quo music culture, and as the circumstance of Bourdain’s death is disturbing.

Anyway, what might be disturbing to me may be motivating to someone else. As a singer, however, I would prefer the crisis factor to be at a minimum or, you know… non-existent. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we currently live in. If the singer is “living in the context of constant crisis,” the challenge becomes how to keep that constant crisis from affecting them vocally so that the singer sings well. Top and bottom line, the singer needs to sing well – as well as they are physically/vocally able to sing – in a given moment, regardless of whatever crisis is going on around them. But then, maybe that’s just me. Also… I miss Bourdain.

What Is Memorable?

I will not remember what you wore on your gig. I won’t remember how your makeup looked, or if you had any on at all. I won’t remember if you had on high heeled shoes and took them off during your show. I won’t remember how your hair (or wig/weave, as it were) was styled. I won’t remember how big your earrings were. I won’t remember any of those things unless they in some way seemed to prohibit your ability to sing well.

I won’t remember if there was a light show. I won’t remember if there was video displayed behind you. I won’t remember the set design of the stage. I won’t remember if you had dancers. I won’t remember if you danced unless you are the song-and-dance act à la Sammy Davis, Jr. I won’t remember what swung in the air or blew up during your show, unless you know… something really does blow up, or shots are fired in the venue because that is, unfortunately, the world we currently live in.

What I will remember is how well you sang. I will remember if you were in good voice. I will remember if you sounded comfortable; unhindered by wardrobe/accessories/staging from breathing well and singing well. I will remember if you sang a piece tonight as well, or better than, the last time I heard you sing live. I will remember how tight your band was. I will remember how well you and the band (or your accompanist) interacted or if you interacted at all. I will remember if the band/accompanist (also sound engineer) was supportive of, or in competition with, your vocal levels, colors and nuances. In short, I will remember the songs, and how well they were performed.