Keep On Movin’, Don’t Stop

IMG_5199Being in the arts means a life of movement and travel. Whether you’re on a 6-month international tour, a weekend run one state over, or a different club in a different part of your home city that’s not packed with your friends and family, that movement can be as essential to the music as the notes you play. You can’t do your art in your house forever (and you don’t want to) so at some point, if you want to grow outside of your comfort zone, you’re going to have to see how your artistic self operates in the outside world.

The rules don’t change just because you are a married mother in mid-life. Of course, I weigh the opportunities differently than when I was younger because I understand the back-end costs a bit better. But even my family has come to accept my movements,  and if I’m home too many nights in a row, the kids start asking “why don’t you have a gig this week??” followed by Frank’s well-weathered saw, “You’re not picking up any new fans here on Bryan Street, hon.”

So when pianist Sarah “The Mighty Meerkat” Slonim asked if I would be interested in doing some gigs at Smalls in New York with her band, it only made sense that the answer would be “yes”. I’d met Sarah a few months prior at another gig in New York, and we immediately established a healthy respect for each other’s personalities and musicianship. And I had come to embrace doing the Turnpike hustle from Philly thanks to weekly winter gigs in Harlem with The Captain Black Big Band.

I was typing my all-caps super-enthusiastic response of “HELLS TO THE YEAHHH” when another text from Sarah came through.

“It’s at 1am, by the way.”

Girl, WUT?!

I read it again. And again. I thought maybe she forgot to carry the one, or add a one and subtract 8, or whatever would make that look like an hour in the day that wasn’t when most people are dead asleep. I waited for a corrective follow-up text. Nothing.  I showed the text to Frank. He shrugged, and grinned.

“Yeah, hon. That’s how it works. It’s SMALLS. You gotta do it.”

A supportive partner makes a WORLD OF DIFFERENCE when it comes to conquering careers, discovering new planets, and experimenting with untested workout routines. I highly recommend getting yourself one if you can.

I send my response back to Sarah, and my heart flutters a little.

Playing Smalls with the Sarah Slonim Project has been a rewarding experience that continues to inspire me long after I’m back home in Philly. A steady residency makes for better communication between the musicians and better music on the bandstand, and I am so proud of the hard work Sarah and all of us have put into the band. Smalls is a microcosm of my weekly living- I make new friends and reconnect with old ones; have short but intense political conversations and long, drawn-out insubstantial ones; rub elbows with the “stars” I’ve only ever listened to and try to get away from Mr Grabby who swears he’ll get my number one day.  And the music I get to hear in Smalls and all around NYC recharges my battery and reminds me that if such beauty can exist, humans just might survive a little bit longer than their self-destructive ways otherwise indicate.

I am often asked how I make the 1am gig work- folk in Philly can’t believe I go to New York so late and don’t spend the night, and folk in New York don’t believe I come up from Philly and go back without spending the night. Maybe they are all right. It’s kinda silly and unbelievable. But ain’t’ that life, sometimes?  We do the unbelievable so that we keep believing. Make of that what you will.

So without further ado, I present the “How I Do ShoobeeDoobeeDoo.”

At 8:15pm, I’m out of the house and driving to 30th Street Station, in search of an available parking spot on Market Street because it’s free for 12 hours after 8pm. I’m lucky tonight so I park and get in line for the 9pm Bolt bus. I pray for no stinky food or feet (Vicks or lavender essential oils on cottonballs helps with that) and I spend the next two hours reading, listening to new song ideas. I may catch a bit of shut eye but once the light from the Lincoln Tunnel hits my face, I’m up and in my wallet, searching for my Metrocard.

My mood and cravings dictate how I’ll spend the next few hours until the gig: perhaps a few minutes walking about the village, remembering what i forgot from living in New York so many years ago? Maybe a drink and somebody’s second set at 55 Bar or Mezzrow? On this particular night, I want a bit of uptown before the downtown so I hop the 1 train to 103rd St to Smoke Jazz to check out my favorite bartender Jenny, who always has a big hug for me. I end up stomping my feet and yelling out “Preach” as I get a master’s class in what vocal impresario Marion Cowings is laying down and I think about how I can steal his entire repertoire without it being too obvious.

By 12:15am I’m back on the subway headed to work. There is nothing like descending the too-steep stairs that lead you into that basement world of the magical musical tour known as Smalls. Nick, saxophonist/doorguy/soundman gives me a withering hello, and for the first time, I wonder how many careening people he’s actually had to catch at the bottom of those treacherous stairs. I usually try to hear the last 30 minutes of whomever is on before us, out of respect for the music and to get me hype and ready.  This night it’s my old friend saxophonist Troy Roberts who is tearing it up with his quartet and, wait-  is that song in 9? No idea how they are keeping it straight and my head is buzzing with awe and geek praise when they finish. Our band pushes forward during the changeover and I hug Troy, dump my bag and, with Nick’s help, the stage plot is adjusted.  

At about 1am or so, it’s showtime. Sarah and the band open with a jaunty “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You”, and I’m sucking on Ricolas, taking in the view: Sarah, petite and formal in dress, belying her powerful command of the keys; Ben, his hair as high-spirited and unpredictable as his paradiddles and snare pops; Adam, in his good leather shoes, hunkered over, bending the strings to his will; and Adrian, slightly professorial and always amused, using the low end to keep everybody on task. I join them after another instrumental, singing to the shifting shapes and silhouettes and in the blink of an eye, it’s over.  The jazz jam starts, with Sarah first inviting up the notables and the notorious, before moving to the lesser knowns and novices.  

I push back through the crowd and head over to the bar for a bit of bourbon, and Marjorie the bartender points to an approaching customer and whispers to me,

“Tell him he’s got a big head.”

Without missing a beat or a sip, I say,

“Hey there, Big Head.”

He looks at me, then at Marji and they both crack up. I briefly get lost in the thought that one doesn’t have to get a joke to find it funny, then I laugh too. (Would you believe about a month later I see Big Head at a gig at Chris’s in Philly, and he asks if I remember him and I say, “Aren’t you the guy with the big head?” Still funny.)

I feel a tap on my shoulder and I turn and face a short, young man as wide as he is tall. He’s got a subtle rockabilly thing happening, plaid shirt, jeans rolled at the bottom, wallet on a chain, and Bo Diddley specs.

“Hey! I really enjoyed y’all.”, he drawls.

“Hey to you! And thanks!”

He tells me he’s on an east coast tour with a rock band that played Philly the night before, and he and a friend decided to come up to New York on their day off.

“How does this jam session work exactly?”

I regard him, his kind face, open for whatever and I say,

“What’s your name?”

“I’m Sam.”

“Where you from, Sam?”

“I’m from Indiana.”

“And what’s your instrument, Sam from Indiana?”

“Saxophone, ma’am.”

He really is the cutest.

“Well, Sam from Indiana, go head and move yourself on up to the front and open your case. And when you hear a song you know, and you’re feeling like you want to do something on those changes, take out that sax and do what you do, you feel me?”

“I feel you,” he twinkles.

“Oh, and Sam?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“There’s nothing like it,” I grin. “Good luck.”

Suddenly, it’s 3am. I say my goodbyes and as I run up those steep ass stairs and out into the crisp night air, I see Sam from Indiana standing up front, and hear him playing first lines of a night he’ll never forget.  I grab a cab to Penn Station and when the driver learns I’m headed back to Philly, he tells me he’s been to Philly once, Upper Darby actually, to buy his daughter a car and she’s doing really well at Pace University so she deserves it. I tell him I don’t doubt she’s a smart one, thank him and jog down the escalator at the station, darting through the throng of late-night lovers and talkative homeless, before elbowing my way onto a surprisingly full train.

I jump into the first unoccupied seat, pull out my homemade Sponge Bob travel pillow (Thanks, Auntie Carolyn), set my phone alarm so I don’t miss my stop, and close my eyes while reviewing the night’s excitement.  By 4:50am, I’m back in Philly, pushing my way past the suited crowd on the platform, up the escalator, and back out onto Market Street. The city is just starting to stir but it’s deserted enough to make me sprint to my car with whatever energy I have left. I play Lil’ Kim’s “Lighters Up” loud and on repeat for the 20 minute drive home and I’m glad to see Frank at the door, drinking coffee by the time I arrive at 5:30am. He kisses me on the forehead, takes my bag and tells me good night and not to worry: he’s taken care of the morning routine so there should be no sleep interruptions.

Frank doesn’t know that my youngest and I have an agreement- no matter how tired I am, she must give me some of that sweet, sweet shugah before she catches the schoolbus. It’s 7:15am when she creeps into my bedroom, lightly kisses my cheek and says “I love you, mama.” I grunt my response, but she knows as I do that her kiss could never be an interruption. It’s my reward for the hustle.

 

Inspiration to Innovation

 

Great photo by Ola Baldych
THRILLER!!! As captured by Ola Baldych

 

I’m backstage at the Jazz Standard in New York City, about to hit the stage with the Captain Black Big Band. Josh, the lead trumpet player, informs me that my dress looks like Michael Jackson’s leather coat from the hit song and video, Thriller.

   “Wait. WAIT. WHAAAAAAT?”

I’m staring at Josh, my eyes ablaze, mouth sneering, and my hands suddenly ball into fists. Josh, sensing an unleashing of the Angry Black Woman (ABW), takes a small step back, regards me with curiosity, and then grins.

“I had a jacket like that when I was younger,” he says.“It’s cool.”

But nothing was cool in that moment. In fact, I wanted to grab Josh by his awesome beard and scream, “NOTHING IS COOL RIGHT NOW, JOSH- NOTHING!!!”

————-

I’m putting on my makeup and getting my hair together and cutting it close on time, as I’m wont to do. Frank taps his Fitbit, stands and stares at me, as he is wont to do when I’m cutting it close.

“M, we gotta go, hon. NOW.”

I run to the closet and slip on this spicy little dress I found online, a colorblocked wonder of red and black accentuated with gold threading. Frank gives a whistle as he zips up the prominent zipper running up the back, and while I am grateful to have brought that extra black dress, she is staying in the hotel closet because Goldie Redblock is handling it.

I float on Frank’s arm as we make our way out of the hotel, down Lexington Avenue and down the steps of the club. You can’t tell me nothing right now, especially when my boo thang tells me I’m fine, and the soundtrack in my head is looping “Sugar, how you get so fly?”. I peck Frank on the cheek and scoot on back to the tiny green room and now I’m surrounded by other good-smelling, sharply-dressed men- my brothers in music. The room is abuzz and our collective excitement comes out in the shining of brass, multiple sips from an unlabeled jar, and all around good natured ribbing.   We are all motion and nerves, constant and electric.

I find a place to stash my coat and sit to change my shoes. The room has emptied and I’m checking my lippy when the aforementioned Josh returns to retrieve something.

”Hey! Great dress!” And then, as if taking even himself by surprise, Josh adds,

“It’s like Michael Jackson in Thriller.”

A laugh comes up from my throat, but is interrupted by “Wait. WHAAAAAA?”

Josh mutters something about having that coat as a kid and he throws an apology over his shoulder as he chuckles and backs out of the green room. I’m not listening. I’m looking in the mirror, clearly on the brink of a Florida Evans punchbowl moment.  How did I miss this? I loved this dress on sight, even though it’s not my usual fare. But there was something about it that made me want to try it on. And then when I put it on for the first time, I loved it. And when I showed it to Frank, he loved it.

Yes- I watched the premiere of the Thriller video on MTV as child. Yes- I’ve seen it a thousand times. Yes- I know the zombie dance. And yes- I wanted to be Ola Ray.

Oh my God.

My hands are now framing my face, like a Munch recreation.

Was this some sort of inner child exercise I missed? Was I like subconsciously channeling Ola RAY?! And worse: should I send Frank back for the shunned black dress?

Just then Todd, lead saxophonist, walks in, unknowingly preventing my complete meltdown. I wheel around, and ask in a steady-not-steady voice,

“Todd. Does this dress remind you of Michael Jackson in Thriller?”

“Hmmm, I can see that, sure.”

At this point, I just look down at my feet and do the only next right thing. I ask every band member I run into about it. Each one laughs, and the truth cannot be denied. I bought this dress because it reminded me of something really good. I just didn’t know it until right then.

——-

As a singer, I stand on strong shoulders of mastery: from Big Mama and Bessie to Billie and Ella, from Sister Rosetta and Sassy Sarah to Roberta and Etta. Some days, I marvel at my nerve in singing some of the standards that the Greats made their own years ago. What in the world can I add to that? Gurrrrrl- have multiple seats.

I find jazz in particular to be a constant balance of inspiration and innovation, of example and expansion. There’s no denying the influences and lineages in jazz,  and it’s the reason why so many of us do tribute concerts and albums (not to mention they sell like hotcakes:) And yet there’s the ever-present striving to explore the canon and the genre further, to make the music my own. It’s that mix of the familiar with the new that makes  jazz so appealing- the boundaries are boundless. Jazz is a genre that can contain both the desire and the disappointment, and still helps you off the floor with a “Nice try, kid. See you tomorrow.”

The notion of adding my true voice to that continuum, while daunting and challenging, is what keeps me in the ring, grasping for the brass ring, actually.  I may not sing better than my heroes, but I will get better at being a musician, at being a writer, at being ME.

Josh saw that quicker than me- that Goldie Redblock is indeed an homage to Michael Jackson. I don’t know if that was the inspiration for the designer, or what moved me to purchase it. Who knows- maybe Frank saw me in this dress and subconsciously thought, “Gurl, I’ll rescue you from them dancing zombies any old day!” Whatever the case, I know I wore the mess out that dress that night. I like to think that I took an example and I expanded on it.

———

At the end of the second set, this older man, with disheveled hair and equally disheveled demeanor, comes up to me, shoving one arm into his coat and crows,

“You went from Leontyne Price to Aretha Franklin!”

I laugh hard, truly satisfied with the evening and his words because I know what he means. He heard history in me. He heard my inspirations and I like to think he also heard my innovations. I thank him and shake his hand.

He doesn’t mention my Thriller dress. But that’s okay. I’m just glad Josh did.

The Ultimate Musical Bear Hug

CBBB Smoke Rainbow Scarf

I always love singing in choirs. There is just something about the tuning, when it’s just right, all of those voices, all that breath, that just sends me into a personal bliss that undoubtedly becomes a universal bliss connecting all souls in a cacophony of peace.

That’s a bit extreme.

Maybe?

So lemme try this- I am forever in search of  the ultimate musical bear hug, the sound that envelops and pushes the day’s cares out of my body and off my shoulders until I can only think of love and the present moment and gratitude. Music in general does that for me, and specifically, when I get to participate, either through singing or playing, it really wrings the ugly off of me. Music makes me…beautiful. Aaaaaahh.

And when you can play (well) with others, that’s a nirvana that could change the world!

I’ve had the blessing of being able to play with some really great musicians over the last several months, and I’m getting prettier and prettier. The Captain Black Big Band is the brain child of Orrin Evans, and it’s named after the tobacco smoked by his late father, the great writer, Don Evans. In its current form, CBBB is composed of two trumpets, two trombones, two saxophones, a flute, bass, drums, piano, and vocals, and a lot of mighty mighty. Not only am I enjoying myself tremendously, but I am getting the kind of education that can only come from looking at a trombone chart and thinking “Is that in english?”

We have some really great gigs coming up: Feb 10, 2016 we are at the Kimmel Center in Philly, and Feb 19, 2016 we are taking it downtown to the Jazz Standard, and there’s the DC Jazzfest this summer, and just a pile of great stuff coming up.

I’d love to see you out a show! I promise you a big musical bear hug when we meet.

 

xoxomb

Pass the mic…

So much fun laughing w Ed Feldman and Jill Saul, August 2015
So much fun laughing w Ed Feldman and Jill Saul, August 2015

 

I never pass up an opportunity to give good mic, but this was especially good.

Germantown Radio personality Ed Feldman and producer Jill Saull are a tag team of wonder and they always make room for me on their Morning Feed schedule.  Click on the link and have a listen to the good time we had in August. Or if  you just wanna hear me saaaaangin, I do an acoustic version of “There is No Greater Love” at about the 57:00 mark and then I close it out with an acoustic version of “You Don’t Need & I Don’t Have.”

Morning Feed with Ed Feldman, GTown Radio

June 2015

Summa, summa, summatime…I honestly didn’t think the summer was coming after the winter we had. But it’s kinda here and I am beyond excited for the longer days, the summer visits to and from friends and family, and the summer music festivals! Please check my show page for some dates I’ll be doing to beat the heat!

But this summer is especially exciting because I AM FINISHING MY ALBUM!!! Applause, applause! The release date is September 29th, (9/29 baby!), and we worked hard on this one- we even braved that March 5th snowstorm and cut 4 jams like it was nothing!

Forge Recording Photo
Forge Recording date in the SNOW!!: Brendan McGeehan(eng), Madison Rast, Orrin Evans, Luke Carlos O’Reilly

I have the incomparable Orrin Evans on board as producer and band leader, and the supporting cast he assembled is no joke: Gene Jackson and Byron Landham on drums, Mike Boone and Madison Rast on bass, and, Luke Carlos O’Reilly on organ.   I can’t wait to share it with you, so stay tuned and thanks always for checking in with me, and drop me a line for some holleration!

xoxmb

 

 

January 2015

Hey- thanks to all of you who started your new year off with me at the Barnes! We did the damn thing, lemme tell ya! Look at this crowd just RAPT with attention….

Mb at Barnes crowd shot 

I don’t know if they were rapt necessarily, but we had a great time nonetheless. And thanks for checking in with me here- I have put up a few new pics, there are some upcoming shows so check those out, and as always, drop me a line if you’re looking for some great music!

xoxomb