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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Flashbacks about Jazzers

Here are two flashbacks from my youth, and they relate to the town of Irvington near where I grew up in NY in the early 1970s.

In sight of the Tappan Zee Bridge, the affluent villages of Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, Irvington, and Tarrytown attracted the rich and famous, including some very successful jazz artists.


For example, the Danish trombonist and jazz composer Kai Winding (1922-1983) lived just up the hill from my house. My friend "Pip" happened to be his next door neighbor. You may know Winding as the composer of the hit tune "More" from the movie Mondo Cane. As a teenager, I was also impressed that his Winding's blond wife was a former Playboy pin-up model.


Other famous musicians lived in the area too, such as saxophonist Stan Getz (1927 - 1991) who made his home in the neighboring village of Irvington.

One evening, not knowing exactly where I was or how I got there, I found myself with a couple of friends visiting other teenagers from the neighboring town of Irvington. I recall sitting in a comfortable suburban living room with an assortment of kids: both girls and boys.

Feeling a combination of boredom and curiosity, I reached over to a small collection of record albums sitting in a crate beside me. I saw nothing of interest - except an album by Stan Getz. I grabbed it and enthusiastically said, "Let's play this! This is good stuff."

A young woman sitting sitting on the couch opposite me seemed very surprised, and perhaps a little suspicious. After all, we were citizens of the generation that listened to Rock. But I was rather persistent in my defence of Stan Getz, and wanting to hear the album.

Ultimately, she and her friends let the cat out of the bag. "That's my dad," she said with the ring of embarrassment you might expect from a teenage girl talking about her father.

In disbelief, I replied "Aahhh, come on! No way!"

I didn't believe her, but then she said to look at the album cover.

"That's me." she said.

Feeling like a fool, I sat on the couch looking alternately at the album cover and her face.

"Yep, that's you" I finally conceded.

It turned out that she lived next door, and we were at her friend's house. The young lady must have been Beverly Getz, or "Bev. What a coincidence!


By the way, her biological mom, Beverly Byrne, had sung with Gene Krupa band.



Drummer and bandleader Gene Krupa (1909 - 1973) lived in Yonkers and came to visit my high school a few years before he died of heart failure at the age of 64. It was part of a public awareness health program to encourage kids to stay off drugs.


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My second flashback from this era involves an encounter with yet another world-famous jazz legend.

It took place on the sprawling 63-acre estate known as Lyndhurst. Lyndhurst is situated on the border between Irvington and Tarrytown, NY. It's where the mansion of robber baron Jay Gould (1836 - 1892) was constructed (a photo of the mansion is below). Gould, one of the richest men in American history, was a American railroad developer and speculator. Lyndhurst is a designated National Trust Historic Site/Landmark, but is also a venue for public summer concerts.



I knew that on Saturday August 19th, 1972 at 6 PM at Lyndhust there would be a concert with "Duke" Ellington (1899 - 1974) and his full orchestra. It was a benefit concert for Brian Sheldrake. The concert was scheduled early so that Ellington and his band could get into NY City for their regular evening performance at the Rainbow Grill. Stan Getz and "Dizzy" Gillespie also performed (with Dave Holland playing bass in his band). My friend Barry McVinny (who played sax in my group) was working as a stage manager, and got an even close up-close view of the great musicians in action.


Although I was very interested to hear his music live, I didn't have the cash on hand to purchase a ticket. But I knew the Lyndhurst landscape pretty well, having walked up and down the adjoining NY Central railroad tracks like a hobo in training. I surmised that I could probably enter Lyndhurst from the area below the site along the Hudson from the train tracks. Once on the property, I could walk up the steeply embanked slope to where the concert would be held.

As I had schemed, I made it easily over to the tent were Ellington and his orchestra were performing without incident or arrest. But since I didn't have a ticket for a lawn chair, I just stood by myself near the stage.

Perhaps feeling empowered by the superb music, I ventured up closer to the stage close to where the "Duke" was standing (stage left). Ellington would go back and forth between playing licks on the piano and standing up. His band was essentially playing his music on autopilot.

At one point, I stood just 20 feet away from the Duke, and was oblivious to the audience. I had my arms crossed, and allowed myself to be totally engulfed by his music. But visually, I focused on Ellington.

Then suddenly the "Duke" looked directly at me. Our eyes locked in. He stared right at me for a duration that seemed like an eternity. It was if we had embraced in a kind of "Vulcan Mind Meld." Intense waves of energy shot back and forth between us, although his band and the audience were completely oblivious to it.

I clearly remember the expression on his face. He looked tired, like a man who had lived a very long life. Ellington had heavy "bags" under his eyes, but gazed at me with a youthful curiosity and wondrous sparkle. It was almost as if he knew about me, and that I was a musician. Our psychic exchange was inter-generational and inter-cultural. Most everyone else attending the concert came from a different place. To put it stereotypically, they were old, white, and extremely rich.

In 1972 Ellington knew about the revolution in music that was going on around him. Although he was immensely successful and had no lack of work, I could strangely sense his artistic and philosophical conundrum. Was this audience at Lyndhurst really his audience? Would this be his legacy? And, who the hell is that long-haired hippie teenager hanging out near the stage?

Sometimes communication is non-verbal. Music is certainly a prime example of that. But the face-to-face encounter I had with the "Duke" on August 19th, 1972 will be etched onto my brain forever.

Ellington died just short two years later. He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery (in the Bronx) close to musicians Miles Davis, Irving Berlin, and Lionel Hampton. It is the same cemetery where robber baron Jay Gould, the former resident of Lyndhurst, was laid to rest.

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