Being a professional musician sometimes feels to me like being the girl in the Hans Christian Anderson story, The Red Shoes. Now that I’ve put the shoes on, I can’t get the damn things off, and I have to keep dancing no matter how tired I get. Except, I’m not dancing I’m singing.
In the Powell and Pressburger movie, inspired by the fairy tale, when the heroine is asked why she wants to dance by the ballet director, Lermontov, she says:
Vicky: Why do you want to live?
Lermontov: Well, I don’t know exactly why, but… I must.
Vicky: That’s my answer too.
At the same time, “music” is a sort of separate entity which I love like a child. Or, at least, how I feel about it reminds me, at times, of how I felt about my son when he was a child. I feel protective of it. I look after it. Do things for it that I wouldn’t do for myself – odd though that sounds. I would fly in a small plane to get to a gig for it. Train it across the Siberian tundra in sub-zero temperatures for it. Sacrifice things for it. Go without fancy clothes for it. Forgo holidays. Give up journalism for it. Not only would, … I have done all the above – except fly in a small plane – yet. And I would be scared but I’d even do that (with my fingers crossed, of course).
It is my quest.
: a journey made in search of something
: a long and difficult effort to find or do something
Both of those.
And like all good quests, following this path professionally has taught me more about myself – my faults, my strengths, my weaknesses, my good side, that er … other side – than anything else I have ever done, with the exception of child-rearing. And it utilizes everything you are… every experience you have ever had, every death of a friend or relative, everything you’ve ever believed, everything you think you know and (I’m sure) a ton of things you know that you don’t consciously know you know.
Each experience adds another color, and the more experience you have, the more colors you have to express yourself with. All communicated wordlessly – even if you sing actual words. All perceptible to anyone who wants to perceive it. Or receive it. Or resonate with it – with you. Which is probably why, when someone else gets it, that is the most affirming thing ever. And, even though being a musician is work – hard work, constant and full-time, on call 24 hours, even while you are sleeping – few things can beat the feeling of communicating absolutely essence-to-essence with an audience. It’s about that.
Every now and then I have flirted with the idea of taking off the red shoes but, I realized recently, they are my feet now. So here I – still – am.
“To have faith requires courage, the ability to take a risk, the readiness even to accept pain and disappointment. Whoever insists on safety and security as primary conditions of life cannot have faith; whoever shuts himself off in a system of defense, where distance and possession are his means of security, makes himself a prisoner. To be loved, and to love, need courage, the courage to judge certain values as of ultimate concern – and to take the jump and to stake everything on these values.”
― Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving
A heads up to come and see us (Marvin Sewell, guitar, Dana Leong, cello, and me, voice) at the 55 Bar, TONIGHT, Friday, August 9.
Meanwhile, I am in sore need of a break from what started out as a mild bit of decluttering/feng shui and has now turned into a full on palarva. And I haven’t even started on the clothes and shoes – for example the high heeled leopard pumps that I allowed some stranger in the shop to persuade me to buy: “You have to buy them! High heeled leopard pumps are our sneakers!” – “our”, I now realize, referring to a particular group of idiots who believes people who say they can go jogging in shoes that are too high to even stand in, let alone walk in.
Which reminds me of the time I was shopping with my friend Robin and excitedly heard myself saying: “Those shoes are just perfect for … sitting down!” However, unlike me, she didn’t buy them – basically because walking in them would have required being on all fours. Meanwhile, those damn high heeled leopard pumps did fit me in the shop! I swear! And speaking of mysteries (and back to feng shui) …. what was I even doing with a giant bag of arborial (wot?) rice in the first place, and how did it quietly live in my fridge untouched for eight years!
Turns out that de-cluttering is a bit like jogging. Sounds like a great idea and it’s easy to start. But then after a few hours (or minutes, if it’s jogging, of course) you think, what am I doing? Only, instead of like jogging, where you can pretend you were just sprinting to the local wine bar for an emergency glass of wine, a few hours into de-cluttering, your place looks like a teenager’s bedroom. It’s like swallowing a raw egg – once you start you have to keep going. (What? You never ate a raw egg?!)
However, my newly painted fridge (yes, there is a thing called fridge paint) is now gleaming white, instead of dirty beige, and my landlord is giving me a new WHITE stove (the correct color for that “gua’ of my apartment). And my super is laying me a new kitchen floor (can this be due to cleaning up my “helpful people” gua?) And since I’ve got the paint tin open and I forgot to buy mineral spirits to wash my brush, I’ve been going mad, fridge-painting everything – including the kitchen cupboards, the wall around the stove and the kitchen window. And a green filing cabinet. Aaaah! It will feel fab when it is done. Unlike raw egg ingesting.
Which brings me to tonight (Friday) …. eggnog anyone? Actually, do they even sell it at the 55? Maybe not. But they do have emergency wine and other choice beverages, and Kirby to dispense them at the bar and me and Dana (Leong on cello) and Marvin(Sewell on guitar) to entertain you, and Pascalito is going to sit in on Avec le Temps (singing in real French!) and his mum, a visiting singer from France will sing a song. It will be fun, especially if you come! And I’ll wear my leopard pumps (just perfect for sitting on the bar stool!)
See you there, I hope! My Top Ten Feng Shui tips below:
Don’t start! Unless you actually like drinking raw eggs.
Gosh! So much news! First of all I had a fab interview with Jill Pasternak for her WRTI radio show, ‘Crossover’, which will air this Saturday morning at 11.30am to 12.30pm. It streams on Saturday morning at 11:30 and will be repeated the following Friday night at 7:00 p.m — on radio and streaming I think.
Thank you so much those of you who made it to the Blue Note last week – pics below for those of you who missed it (for very good reasons I am sure: Stern Mum Voice). I was blessed with an incredible band – Kenny Werner, Joel Frahm, Sean Smith, Billy Drummond, Will Holshouser – who were all … well, … incredible). And we were a sextet. I like saying “sextet” because I am a 12-year-old boy in a woman’s body! You can watch a You Tube video of us performing the title track of my Beyond the Blue (Motema, 2012) album by clicking on this link here.
My friend Simon, visiting from Canada (who I’ve known since he was 16! and was actually ‘best man’ at his wedding) took some nice pix, as did Richard Conde (husband of Usha’s of ‘Usha’s Wedding Song’).
And speaking of Usha’s Wedding Song, I also went to the beautiful wedding of my friends Kimberly and Amy (so proud of you New York State, can we please make it Federal now!), and sang ‘Usha’s Wedding’ just before the vows, which I thought of in my head as ‘Kimberly and Amy’s Wedding’ for that three minutes, and Our Beloved Dana (who is playing with me at the 55 on July 13) accompanied me on cello. I won’t pretend that having Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald (now also a jazz singer) in the crowd wasn’t entirely intimidating. But … well it was! Meanwhile, Simon went out on his own that night and came back at 5am, which I know because I accidentally locked him out and he had to ring the doorbell to get in! Guests! (although he’d probably say: “Hosts!”)
Only bad thing is I ate too much and drank too much. So I am hoping to slim back into this dress again by June 22 when I am returning to the ROCHESTER JAZZ FESTIVAL I can’t wait! Please tell all and sundry. I must have all of SIX Rochesterarians on my Rochester mailing list, so if you have anyone to send … well, send them! Please!
New Yorkers, I will be at the 55 Bar with Our beloved Dana Leong and a brand new guitarist, John Shannon, on Friday, July 13. But first …. Rochester Jazz Festival! Not sure when I am coming to UK but I will be in Los Angeles and the Bay Area in December and in various Mid West places between now and then.
Russia. Oh! My! God! It was FREEZING. I don’t know how they cope! We traveled all over the place (see map up top — although 11 & 12 should be 10 & 11) and everywhere we went … it was relentless! At one point it was 38 degrees below zero. Cold like you couldn’t actually breathe IN cold! They’re so used to it there, they refer to these temperatures without even bothering with the zero bit.
It was super pretty, though. Everything was silver – silver birch trees, snow as far as the eye could see, frosted trees. If we walked outside, even Daniel’s moustache turned silver. And every morning the dawn cast pink shadows on the endless snowscapes as we rolled through the actual tundra. Meanwhile, we were praying that the train didn’t break down, because if it did you were dead. And when Dana and I went shopping for a hat for him in Vologda, I honestly think my eyeballs actually froze.
But, weather aside, I had a wonderful time. I especially enjoyed being with Dana Leong, who I have been playing with for eight years but who I now realize I didn’t really know before. Billy (who, BTW, went to Russia almost as soon as I returned) told me that you really get to know who people are on the road, which (I realize from past experience) is so true. In Dana’s case, I found out that not only is he a fantastic and simpatico musician, but a beautiful, deep, soulful person. And John Stowell joined us all the way from Portland, Oregon. I also really enjoyed being with Даниил Крамер, the wonderful pianist who invited me. I think this is my fourth tour with him and probably the most FUN.
Even the train rides were less awful than I remembered – especially in comparison to the few times we drove for upwards of seven hours on icy bumpy roads in a tour bus (forget sleeping!) with bathroom stops that when you saw the actual bathroom killed any desire and need to use them. After a few of those road trips we were yearning for the relative “luxury” (and stainless steel but at least clean bathrooms) of the sleeper trains.
But the views are better on the roads because you go through towns and villages of teeny houses with pointy roofs and chimneys with smoke coming out of them. We did wonder what people were doing living in villages of teeny houses with pointy roofs and chimneys with smoke coming out of them, in the wilds of Siberia, buried by snow half the year. But we didn’t meet anyone we could ask. It is entirely possible that they were literally snowed into their homes.
The audiences were amazing. The very first concert at the Omsk Philharmonic (all the venues were Philharmonic Halls) ended with a huge standing ovation from the entire place – even the seats behind the stage. We got lots of those as the tour progressed (ovations not seats!) This (below) is the one we got in Kazan).
And all the concerts were either sold out (including the Ekaterinburg Philharmonic which was sold out six weeks in advance) or nearly sold out. As for CDs, I sold 64 on my first gig, and then eked them out over the next two gigs, which was silly of me, because I wouldn’t have had to carry them if I’d just put them all out at once.
It was wonderful to go back to places I’d played before. I saw my young singer friend Katerina in Ekaterinburg – who advised me to change to my silver sequin dress for my second set, which turned out to be excellent advice (and which I followed for the rest of the tour).
And people remembered me and brought presents. I got so many flowers, a beautiful lilac evening scarf, chocolates, a genuine Soviet era women’s army hat, a water-soaked apple (apparently a great delicacy). Dana was given … er … a dried fish. Another delicacy, we were told. And sometimes audience members would lie in wait for your best song and rush up and present you with a flower or a bunch of them mid-set. A lot of women do this. I love this tradition. Feel free to copy. No fish, though, please. Oh, and no chocolates (ate too many on this trip).
Traveling between cities and gigging most nights was very hectic and exhausting. We were taking 15-hour train rides sometimes. And at the same time I was having to proof the liner notes for the US Motema release of my new CD, Beyond the Blue (release date, May 8th). I hope you like it! By the way, Motema label-mate Gregory Porter’s new CD Be Good just dropped and is getting even better reviews than last year’s (Grammy-nominated!) Water. He is absolutely amazing, if you haven’t already discovered him. I am crazy about his voice, his song writing, his authenticity, his singing, his lyrics! Check him out. Meanwhile, I was so wiped out when I got back. I felt like a stone! Perhaps weighed down by eating too much chocolate too.
And, speaking of food, one day, Dana and I woke up super early and starving and walked the length of the train to get to the restaurant car where we were faced with a Cyrillic menu and non-English speaking waitress. Super sweet but how to order? Recalling many hours of Pictionary played with my son as a little boy, I drew what we wanted – bread, butter, eggs. Then the waitress drew a frying pan to find out if we wanted them fried or what.
I admit there are a couple of interpretations possible with this illustration.
We did nine concerts in Russia and then I left my band of comrades and went to Belarus on my own to do two more concerts (also at Philharmonic halls) with the great Minsk-based Apple Tea Jazz Band, which was phenomenal. More standing ovations. Maybe they weren’t standing ovations, maybe they were people leaping up and clapping their hands and stamping their feet for warmth! (It was just as cold in Belarus as Siberia).
There was even smoke and colored lighting on the stage! This was my 10th gig in two weeks. I was like one of those dolls that when you push the bottom they collapse in a heap and when you let them go they spring to life again. Backstage I was a crumpled, usually shivering (big places are hard to heat), heap. Somehow, when you go out on stage the crowd gives you energy. It’s kind of magic. See how important you are! Without you … crumpled heap-dom!
It was written about. Click on the picture of the article on euroradio.fm to read it in Belarussian and (or) look at the tons of pictures. And if you want to see it you can watch a video of this amazing band’s rendition of my original composition ‘You Don’t Have to Believe’ here – with some crazy good solos!
Meanwhile, the search for a suitable venue for my CD release in New York continues. But if you know anyone in Philadelphia I’ll be playing Chris’ Jazz House on May 5 with Tom Guarna, Sean Smith and Billy Drummond. And Scullers in Boston on May 16 with some of my amazing Beyond the Blue band (Steve Kuhn, Billy Drummond, Joel Frahm and Gary Versace). Send people! Come!
By the way, the picture of me shaking hands with President Obama came the other day, but it will not be on my blog because a big sticker on the back expressly forbids emailing or disseminating it in any way.
I’ll have to organize a viewing party at my place. Meanwhile, it is a great picture, granted, it’s not me hugging Mrs Obama, but it’s a very close second because he looks so engaged and interested (I hadn’t noticed that at the time), and Billy is smiling beside me like he ate the (White Chocolate) White House.
First of all, for the New Yorkers out there, I have a nice gig in Harlem this Sunday, which will be my last gig of 2011.
This is not quite the same as being able to say that I was singing at the White House last weekend. Which I wasn’t, by the way. I wish! But I did have an amazing two days in DC, courtesy of the Kennedy Center and White House, starting off at the Mandarin Oriental, where I rolled up at the same time as Jessye Norman. I was practically dashed to the ground by the stampede of doormen who rushed to greet her. But I dusted myself off enough to tell her I’m a giant fan.
Hey, I love it when people do that to me. Oh, okay, if you insist, that one time it happened to me on the street. I loved that one time. Actually, if you must know, it happened to me two times, once up by Columbia University and once downtown. Yes, yes, it was the same guy! But that’s extraordinary in itself, right?
We were there because Billy (who played with Sonny Rollins for three years) was in the band put together by Christian McBride to celebrate Sonny being awarded the Medal of the Arts. This involved two days and nights of partying, with Champagne up the wazoo, commencing on the Saturday night with a reception hosted by Hillary Clinton, who greeted us all individually.
She is, by the way, actually very attractive in real life. We arrived on literally a busload of celebs — a bit like the school bus, except, instead of sitting behind school crush Stuart Goodrich (phoar!), I sat behind Lionel Ritche (that’s him to the left of Judi in the pic below) just across from Alan Alda. And when some oaf was holding up the line of people trying to get to the seats on the bus, John Lithglow offered me his seat.
There’s something rather surreal about seeing Robert De Niro have to produce ID to get in. Okay, totally surreal. In fact, it was all a bit like an actual dream, one of those ones where you’re in a roomful of famous people, glugging champagne and picking snackettes off passing trays. We were even photographed as we walked in (on what I noticed on the way out was red carpet) by paparazzi calling out: “Mr. Drummond! Over here!” And Kevin Kline actually remembering me from being introduced ten years ago (which impressed me no end) was kind of like someone in a movie turning mid-scene to ask after your mum or something. And speaking of Mum, I wore her coat that I had spent the previous week re-lining with lilac silk (Mum, explain how you get ink on the inside of a coat with no pockets!) which felt a little bit like taking her with me.
I guess, because it wasn’t out on the streets, everyone was super friendly– especially the politicians who couldn’t pass by without shaking your hand and saying “So nice to see you!” – which is pol-speak for “nice to meet you” — which they daren’t say in case you’re someone they’re supposed to remember meeting before (like an ex-wife or something). Standing in the line for brunch on Sunday, John Kerry took that a step further when he was talking to us and kept touching the elbow of my BFFDL (Best Friend For the Duration of the Line), except it wasn’t her elbow, it was her rib cage, which is rather more intimate — perhaps he thought they’d been married once. Then a few minutes later she noticed he’d worked his way up the line and was now about eight people ahead, instead of in his rightful place actually behind us. This is how politicians jump lines. Very charmingly.
And speaking of charming, Bill Clinton was obviously totally star struck by Sonny Rollins. He even sat at his table at the dinner on the Saturday, choosing him above any of the other nominees – Meryl Streep (at the next table to our right), Barbara Cook (at the table to our left), Yo Yo Ma, and Neil Diamond. And he gave the toast for Sonny, which was the best, most thrilling toast of the evening. Actually all the toasts were amazing (Nora Ephron did Meryl Streep’s) but Bill’s was our favorite, because it was about “our” man and he knew SO MUCH about jazz. Plus he tapped Billy on the shoulder as he passed our table so he could shake hands and say: “How are you doing, man.” (I don’t think he thought they’d ever been married).
And the next day… after brunch (more Champagne), there was another reception (this time at the White House) in the afternoon (with even more Champagne .. hic!). And food, including a White House made entirely of white chocolate (see left) – although the staff told me it wasn’t to be eaten. See, it has little rooms in it, with lights on! And then the President introduced the honorees in a separate room, which was televised in our room, the room with all the food and — hicshh! – Champagne. And then . . . (drum roll) . . .
. . . suitably liquored up, we were taken to meet the Obamas. President Obama looked a bit tired, poor thing. But she. She is ohmygoodnessagoddess! And whereas he was … well, looking a bit tired, poor thing, she … she was acting like it was her absolute most favorite thing in the world to stand and shake hands with 200+ people — especially YOU.
And when I said “ohmygoodnessyouareagoddess”, she took both my hands and spread my arms apart and said “Look at YOU!” And then, I think, she actually hugged me. I say, “I think” because, strangely and unexpectedly, actually meeting them was an experience that puts you so totally in the moment that you almost aren’t there at all. Or washz that the SHChampagne – hic! oops! Or both.
The next day I turned to Billy and said: “Hang on a minute… Did I hug Mrs. Obama?” And he said not only did I, but he was expecting me to be arrested when he turned, horrified (he’s from the South), to see me coming out of the hug. But obviously it wasn’t me that initiated the hug. I mean, come on, everyone knows that Mrs. Obama is the hugger. She hugged the Queen of England. In fact, maybe this was an autopilot reaction to my accent. Whatever it was, it felt like a blessing – like when a baby smiles at you on the subway. And of course I will now never have that dress cleaned.
This is the life to which I wish to become accustomed (especially the Champagne part) – not to be confused with the Life, which is Harlem-speak for gone to the dogs. I’m not even going to mention the enormous basket of scrumptious treats that the Kennedy Center had left in our room. Or the absurdly enormous double bath and marble tiled double shower. Or how sleeping on a cloud makes you wake up looking ten years younger (Must. Buy. New. Pillows. Without lumps in them!). Or how I felt like a proud mum (albeit, I hope, a M.I.L.F.) in my gown (as opposed to mere “dress”) sitting in the audience (along with — though not next to — the Obamas) watching my boyfriend play with Herbie Hancock, Joe Lovano, Christian McBride, Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, Ravi Coltrane, Jim Hall, and Jack DeJohnette – who joined in for one of the songs – who was playing Billy’s ride cymbal (which, for reasons perhaps only another drummer could understand, was apparently terribly exciting).
And speaking of excited… the GOWN. Even before being imprinted with Mrs Obama DNA it was already special since Billy bought it for me because I needed something “special”. He not only bought it, he dragged me around several shops to find it and then he picked it out (it’s the grey silk strapless in the pictures) and sat there like a proud D.I.L.F. while various women fussed around me pulling and tugging and adjusting undergarments to see how it looked. And when it needed altering at vast expense and I was quite ready to go off to H&M to save the money he said: “Of course!” Every now and then I fondle it in my wardrobe (it rustles because of the tulle underskirt) and remember that weekend. And remember to say thank you.
But now here I am back in the C-Town of neighborhoods, where a girl has to line up for two hours in the local post office to get stamps because every time someone asks for stamps, the staff (behind the bullet-proofed — or perhaps merely irate customer-proofed — windows) go off to ferret around in the back for half an hour looking for them in the SAFE! People! This is a post office. Someone might ask for … Hello? … stamps. By the way, what the hell are they doing in the safe in the first place? And I am so missing “my” double bath and double marble shower, not to mention the downy pillows. But as, one hopes, more-than-once-in-a-lifetime experiences go, that was a grrrrrrreat weekend! As Ravi Coltrane so perfectly put it when we came out from being presented to the Obamas: “Man! That was a ride! Can we go again!”
Here I am in the most beautiful city in the world, which I am returned to for my friend Andre’s wedding to Anastasia (that’s me at the reception singing two songs for them). Oh my God! This place is so friendly. People smile at you in the street as you walk past. Sometimes they say things like “Good morning!” Or “I’ve got two magazines, would you like to read my other one?”
Palm trees like giant green pineapples with flared leaves jostle with the bougainvilla and other blossoms I don’t recognize on the sidewalks. There are trams whizzing along Church Street near where I’m staying. Actual trams. That real people commute in. It would almost be too much (I think there is such a thing as ‘too beautiful’ just like there is such a thing as ‘too thin’ though perhaps not ‘too rich’) if it weren’t for the mess of cables all over the place, which stops it from being too chocolate boxy.
Yes I had to endure a 30 minute ride in blazing sunshine over the glittering Bay to Larkspur just to rehearse
I can’t believe I used to live here and then moved! Then again in the non chocolate box department, it would be hard to beat where I live in New York. Young men on every street corner doing pull ups on the traffic lights. Giant pit bulls straining at their leashes to get at the chicken bones strewn all over the street. The faint smell of … well, let’s just say, not eucalpytus trees and blossoms. And God forfend you should leave your brolly in the vestibule of Balthazar’s when it is bucketing it down as I did once (and ended up looking like a wet tee-shirt contestant by the time I got home).
Hah! Take that, San Francisco! With your clean streets and your people smiling at you as you walk past, and your ferry rides across the Bay to get to your rehearsals, and your Trader Joe’s and supermarkets which sell alcohol under the same roof! Not to mention your coffee shops on every street corner in residential neighborhoods, and your specialty cheese stores, And delicious breakfast confections such as those you have tried to tempt me daily at Martha & Bros coffee shop..Er … hang on a minute …
“Welcome to my humble abode — for the evening only!”
Oh all right. I admit., it is pretty fantastic. I’ve had TWO burritos (how come nowhere else makes them like they do here?), and got takeout from my favorite Chinese restaurant in the world — Eric’s on Church Street — the night I arrived. And even the cat I am sharing the apartment with runs to greet me PURRING, when he hears my key in the lock. Although it’s kind of hard to sleep with him trying to burrow in the bed with me at night.
And yes, yes, I am literally stopping in the street to smell the flowers. And I thought it was sweet when a woman on my commute to Larkspur (by ferry — sigh!) sneezed and the entire ferry-full of strangers said “Bless you!” in unison. And the wedding was beautiful. And the bride’s dress was like whipped cream. And her mum’s speech was absolutely hysterical — funnier than Tina Fey! The house concert I did the night before was amazing in a Russian Hill mansion owned by a woman who just loaned it to us (us being me and pianist Dan Zemelman) as a favor. Unbelievable house (and yes, since you ask, I really enjoyed greeting people the door and taking their coats and proffering wine like the lady of the house).
YOU in New York at the 55
But being here makes me realize I’m a New Yorker to my very bones. I even walk like one! — going at my normal pace the other day I suddenly noticed I was overtaking everyone on the street. And on my first day here, as i walked into a store, and the girl walking out said “Hello” I had to stop myself saying ‘Hell – oh — oh?” (i.e., in three syllables with a giant question mark on the end) — although I would never take someone else’s umbrella. So even though it is gorgeous (and even the weather behaved — for the most part) …. And even though I know Joni Mitchell would disagree with me ….
Ah but my heart cries out for you, New York New York, I’m coming home Will you take me as I am, strung out on San Fran (might be all those trips to Martha & Bros coffee shop) You make me feel good rock ‘n ‘roll band I’m your biggest fan, New York, I’m coming home
See you soon, I hope.
NEXT UP: Joe’s Pub, New York, on October 8 (Yes, Yom Kippur! When all of New York is staying home for crying out loud!)
Okay, so I am not a “fellow American” quite yet. BUT I did get fingerprinted the other day for my citizenship papers, even though I was a day late (I didn’t mention it and nor did they), and any second now I will have my interview and will be a “fellow American”. Someone expressed concern at my last gig about anyone wanting to be an American, but see, English + American actually makes me Canadian, although when I say “a boat”, I still mean a boat, not “about”.
Meanwhile, I have been duly swotting like a banshee (and you thought they only howled) all 100 questions, 10 of which will be asked at the interview and six of which I will need to get right. I noticed during a friend’s testing of me that when the question “What was the declaration of Independence?” came up, I accidentally answered: “We declared independence from Britain.” And I didn’t even say “Great Britain” — eek! You can test yourself here at this government website.
Being able to pass an English test is part of the interview, which I fully expect to ace, even though, strangely, there will be no translation questions, such as “plaster” meaning band aid, or “smart” meaning posh (British) instead of clever (which I have just found out in American has negative clever dickie connotations) or “fish ‘n’ chips” meaning good staple diet (British) as opposed to “British food” (American) meaning inedible.
I still struggle with this idea (American) that “British cuisine” is an oxymoron, but of course I won’t be mentioning that at the interview in case they strip me of my Green Card there and then. In the meantime, I think British versus American English should be added to the language skills test, since when I first arrived on this soil I once spent about half an hour trying to get a box of plasters in a drug store in SoHo until another customer took charge and bustled over, saying to the assistant: “It’s okay, I speak English!” like the woman in Airplane saying “It’s okay I speak Jive”.
Perhaps I will wait until I become an American to suggest these, er. … Amendments to the citizenship test. Don’t want to come off as “clever”. Meanwhile, belated HAPPY JULY 4th, which this time next year I will be able to celebrate as the day “we” got away from “us”!
I was so nervous of being interviewed at the Jazz Standard by Brian Pace of the Pace Report. Click here to see the full interview and clips of our gig at the Jazz Standard two weeks ago. I love the title of it, by the way. One of my Mum’s names for me is “Butterfly Mind”.
Actually it was a hairy week because on the day of the gig, an article about me appeared in the Wall Street Journal by Martin Johnson. He writes about jazz and all things gastronomique — click here for his fabulous cheese blog. And here to read the article on line, if your eyesight can’t cope with the copy below.
I have no idea what was so scary about it. Maybe being at the other end of it, and out of control. Or fear of saying something completely stupid by accident. I am quite sure, for example, that Ricky Gervais’s turn at the Golden Globes was a kind of Tourette-ian outburst. But in some ways that’s the beauty of it. Not being able to do anything is sort of restful if you just let go. So … I decided to just relax and be grateful instead.
…. Or, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Never give in! Never give in! Never, never never!” A few months ago, for no earthly reason that I can think of, I was inspired to look at the website of my friend, artist Susannah Bettag. I say “for no earthly reason” because we aren’t in constant touch. She lives in San Francisco. I live in New York. And we are both busy. So we see only each other about once a year. What I saw when I went to the website were the most amazing paintings I’ve seen in years, by anyone. They seemed to me to represent some kind of culmination of all her previous work. Here are some of them, so you can judge for yourself. Click here to see many more. And this isn’t a “hobby”. She’s actually represented by a highly respected gallery.So I was absolutely shocked when, in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, she announced, over a cup of tea (the British cure-all equivalent of chicken soup), that she was “taking a break”. Possibly even a one-year break. She’s keeping her studio, and she’s going to keep going in from time to time but she is taking the focus off painting for a while so she can hang out with her children and work on doing up a house. It turns out that she, far from seeing these recent paintings as a culmination, sees them as a new direction that she’s not sure she wants to take. Hmmm.
Now, if you want my pennyworth, I’d say, by all means see them as the beginning of something new, but for crying out loud don’t stop now! Meanwhile, it’s a very apropos illustration of the blog that’s been building up inside me over the past few months about the importance of the fallow field versus (not that anyone around here is dreaming of doing this — of course!) giving up. One of the few Geography lessons I remember, in case you’ve forgotten it, a farmer rotates his crops so that one field (a different one each year) gets the opportunity to lie fallow. If it doesn’t lie fallow it becomes infertile and can’t produce good crops (which, come to think of it, might explain what’s happened to the taste of food, of late).
It is so easy as an artist not to take a break, and I have found that during those periods where I FORCE myself to have Sundays off, I am actually more creative the rest of the week. So I am all for lying fallow. Some of our greatest talents took LONG breaks — Sonny Rollins took off years (although he practiced every day). Miles Davis also took off years (and didn’t practice, and had to catch up when he came back to it). However …. the trick is to know when you need to lie fallow — and whether a year is possibly a bit much (unless you are a field of course) — and when you need to keep going.
The other day, in Half Moon Bay to perform at the wonderful Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, I took a walk in the morning along the cliffs. There were two little surfers in the distance and I thought I’d watch them and maybe take a photo. It was fascinating to watch their progress out to sea. As the first surfer went out he kept getting pushed back by the waves. But each time he was pushed back, he was a little further out to sea than the time before. By the way, for no reason at all that I could see, the progression of the second surfer was much faster. Just sayin’.
However, if the waves had been harder to get past (which I am sure they are when you’re talking about Hawaii or somewhere), it would have taken a lot longer to get out to where the ride-able waves are. In that case, maybe a break to rest and gather your strength would make sense, right? Or maybe you just keep doing it and eventually build the muscles required to get strong enough to finally (one miraculous day!) get far enough out to catch a big one.
But here’s another analogy (which brings me to the title of today’s blog): When I gave birth to my son I remember thinking (after eleven hours in labor), my goodness, this baby is never going to come OUT! But I had three nurses on either side of me shouting “Push! Push! Push!” What must it be like to give birth alone without that encouragement? I can’t imagine! And, at this point, half the nurse’s job is to remind you that it’s not just agony for no reasons, there’s actually a baby in there! And it needs to be born! It reminds me of that period in your creative development when you are getting ready to move to the next level. Where you wonder what the hell are you doing. Where the hell you are going? What the PH you were THINKING when you started this whole thing? Where you have to have utter blind faith that there’s something in there TO come out. This is the time, second only to starting out, when you are most likely to give up.
And actually I think there is a point when you SHOULD give up and just do what you have to do at the final stages of labor, stop pushing and start panting. Oh my goodness! The panting. Yikes! I can’t remember why, but I remember them telling me to do it. And then at the very end, one final PUSH, followed by the blissful bumpity bump of legs and arms. And … Boom! Actual baby! If only we could love our creative productions as unconditionally and instantly. But, then again, perhaps creating a work of art is more like surrogacy than having your own baby. It’s not for YOU. It’s for other people.
So, I’m just saying … By all means lie fallow for a bit. Pant. Keep swimming to build those muscles, even if it’s only in the local swimming pool. But don’t stop! And, most of all, give yourself a break in that other sense.
Because wherever you are, be it near or far from your dreamed-of destination, the endeavor is so difficult, so fraught with doubts, so peppered with failures along the way, at times it feels it would be easier to give up. To keep going requires constant effort, confidence, self belief, preparation, a road map, assistance and encouragement from people around you. A plan. … As Julia Cameron points out in The Artist’s Way, “All too often it is audacity and not talent that moves an artist to center stage.” And just as often, maybe more often, it is lack of audacity, not lack of talent, which makes others give up. [From page 55 of my book]
To quote Andre Gide, “Art begins with resistance — at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.” Or as Po Bronson says in his ‘What Should I Do With My Life’ (and yes, I am the tea-making Tessa referred to in the chapter on community): “The hardest thing was not learning to write. The hardest thing was to never give up.”