On the road with the Choirs of St. John the Divine and a postscript from Jazz Camp

The bus driver loaded our suitcases into the baggage compartment and shut the doors. We lined up on the steps for a photo. That’s when I realized There are a lot of kids here! Twenty-four choristers from  the Cathedral School of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, New York City.

Here we are just before leaving for the airport
Choristers and the Tower  in London, August 15, 2019

The choristers, community chorale members (including me) and professional singers spent seven days in London singing as one at St. Paul’s Cathedral (late 1600s) and two additional days at the Canterbury Cathedral where Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop, was murdered half a century earlier. The choristers brought youth. The cathedrals brought history.

We’re walking up Ludgate Hill to St. Paul’s Cathedral, August 16

We sang at the Evensong services. (The regular choir was taking its August break.) Evensong begins with the cantor singing O Lord, open thou our lips. We respond And our mouth shall show forth they praise …

Our choir stalls WITH LAMPS. We loved the lamps, arches and domes, mosaics and stained glass

… followed by the Anglican chant of a Psalm in four part harmony. To me the Psalms feel like the heart of the musical experience, where poetry meets harmony. They are mysterious. I often don’t know what they mean. We rehearsed them line by line.


Director Kent Tritle coached us on every vowel (most are diphthongs) and reminded us time and again to articulate our consonants just before the beat, so they would be heard throughout the lofty, lengthy cathedrals. Bryan Zaros also rehearsed and conducted us and never broke a sweat as leader of the tour. Ray Nagem, our organist in New York, played for most services in England. Dean Clifton Daniel shared the entire trip with us. I loved meeting every person in and out of the choir. The music was magnificent. On Sunday, after our third day at St. Paul’s, I wrote this email home:

Looking  into St. Paul’s dome

“Today we sang the Eucharist service, then the Evensong. The services move fast here! I like that. There were lots of people attending. . . . The choristers all sing soprano. In rehearsal [on the request of the director for the benefit of us singers], a chorister produced a beautiful, in-tune high A and held it. Then she released, and the note continued to sound. After the air finally stopped reverberating, she shyly smiled.”

In our off hours we visited the House of Commons. The chamber is extremely small. It’s impossible to imagine 650 people crammed into it. We spent a day in Oxford. Soprano Glenda Strothers, alto Abigail Huffman and I visited to the National Gallery. I found the Charles Dickens House. We went to the Handel and Hendrix Museum, and heard a good jazz band – The Brass Monkeys – at Pizza Express. I want to mention trumpeter Chris Dowding whose playing and composition for Esbjörn Svensson moved me.

Checking in to YHACanterbury

London was the lion’s share of our  trip, but we made it to Canterbury for two more Evensongs, a Cathedral tour,  reception in the Archdeaconness’s home (she is from New Zealand), and a last-night dinner at an Indian Restaurant

Home on Saturday afternoon, August 24. I have been happy ever since!


Two weeks before the choir tour, I was in Burlington VT at Jazz Camp thanks to organizer Roni Ben-Hur. Music ranged from Thad and Sam Jones to Brazil and beyond. Thank you, Helio Alves, for the lessons. I barely took a single picture.

I love the stretch from jazz and improv to singing and reading. But are they really so far apart? I’m thinking about this. Comments are welcome.




Side trip: Handel & Hendrix in London


Glenda Strother, soprano in the St. John the Divine Community Chorale, outside the Handel&Hendrix site

I’ve posted out of order! Preceding  impressions from my August 2019  trip with the St. John the Divine Community Chorale from NY to London, here’s the story of a single residence we found — home to two musical figures, centuries apart. Finding the Handel House / Hendrix Flat is like solving a puzzle. We knew we were close when we saw this message on the tiled wall of a downward-sloping alley: From the summer of 1723 until his death on 14 April 1759 Handel lived and composed many of his greatest works at No 25 Brooks. It stands among other multi-story houses from that era, now occupied by art studios and boutiques.


And here’s the twist. Two hundred years after George Frederick Handel and his harpsichords lived there, another musician moved into the upstairs flat. Now Jimi Hendrix’s room is restored, with  a very good exhibit about his brief residency in 1969.
Hendrix and his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham decorated the room in fabrics, spreads and rugs. Based on her memory and many photo sessions that took place in this flat, the bedroom is restored and features a replica left-handed guitar. “Etchingham remembers that this guitar was always on the bed or propped up against the bed so that Hendrix could write songs, noodle away or jam with his guests.”

There are sample covers from his record collection, and a list of his records from Acker Bilk and Albert King through The Beatles, Bill Cosby and Handel himself to Richie Havens, Roland Kirk and Wes Montgomery.

Hendrix also entertained musicians and went out to hear music. The  timeline says that in March 1969 “Hendrix goes to [the club] Ronnie Scotts to see Roland Kirk play” … there’s a photo … “and continues to return to the Speakeasy [a neighborhood club] to jam with the likes of The Gods and Billy Preston.”

This was a peak time in Jimi Hendrix’s career. Also a short time — a few months. Hendrix died in London in 1970 at age 27.



Tonight my friend Marian and I went to a pair of documentaries, footage from 1968. They are “Monk” and “Monk in Europe.”

The first shows the pianist Thelonious Monk in New York. He and his trio are playing at The Village Vanguard and recording for Columbia Records. The second film is from a northern European tour that included London, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin and Rotterdam —   travel, rehearsal and performance footage. Fifty years after they were shot, “Monk” and “Monk in Europe” come from an analog age. The light can be silvery and warm, the sound can get a little edgy but it’s remarkably good. Everything is real and draws you in.

In Europe Monk seems in turn travel-lagged and completely present, musically in charge during the concerts. Up close you see his face, his hand over hand technique, his pulsing feet. Toward the end of “Monk in Europe,” he plays several choruses of “Ask Me Now” with each phrase  setting up the next one as though he’s advancing a story or building a case. Sometimes he pulls back from the narrative to embellish it or just run down the keyboard. For me it’s more logic than narrative. Music is his medium and he communicates. To see him create  in real time is the gift of these films.

The crew — two brothers, one shooting and the other doing sound — gets up close. Monk is almost always in the frame and when he’s not, you feel he should be.  While the octet sound checks in the hall, back at the hotel, Nellie Monk helps her husband get dressed for the concert. There’s a sense that he might be running late.

And yet having him in the picture does not guarantee that you know how he feels about things. That happens only when he’s playing, and maybe that’s an illusion too.

Charles Rouse, Larry Gales, Ben Riley play saxophone, bass and drums in both films. For the octet, Phil Woods (so young that I did not recognize his face) and Johnny Griffin complete the sax section, Ray Copeland on trumpet and James Cleveland on trombone. Clark Terry drops in as a guest soloist. He and Monk leave the stage with arms around each other.

Monk is last seen sitting between his niece and his wife, buckling his seatbelt to fly home, beaming a smile straight into the camera.



Dorrance Dance: Jump Monk, SOUNDspace + More @ City Center

I have something new to love: Dorrance Dance. The tap troupe is at City Center here in New York through March 30. Last night was opening night.

Bill Irwin in top hat and tails choreographed, wrote and narrated Harlequin and Pantalon for one dancer – Warren Craft – in both roles. First he’s tall and wearing a diamond-patterned leotard (Harlequin), then a crooked old man in a black frock coat (Pantalon). Though they never share the stage (your first hint), the dancer slips behind a narrow satin curtain or disappears into an open trunk just long enough to hide the gleeful, almost successful costume changes. And Irwin (seated to the side) is guileful, slipping an obsequious reference to “the Endowment” (as in the National Endowment for the Arts) into an old tale as Harlequin and Pantalon fight over who owns the dancer and the dance.

In Jump Monk the ten Dorrance dancers tap, mostly in unison, to Brenda Bufalino’s choreography and Charles Mingus’s “Moanin’”. (“Jump Monk” and  “Moanin’” share the same chord progression.) The sound design for this concert is foot-first, alive with the color and nuance of the countless ways a tap can hit the floor. I could close my eyes and listen but the dance is too good, even for a moment. Toward the end, as the live musicians dropped out, the dancing feet carried on and on, to the joy of all.

Photo and video from dorrancedance.com

SOUNDspace – the second half of the concert – has no accompaniment. The  choreography is by Dorrance and spotlights individual improvisations. At first you see just the dancers’ knees-to-feet in a row across the lip of the stage. They tap in the rhythm of a mighty railroad train coming down the tracks. Then Michelle Dorrance emerges in a long solo as the owner of two bare legs that seem interchangeably left and right. Tapping and re-mapping the stage, smiling and effortless, she is both boundless and precise. Also camoe-ed, Warren Craft (again) moves as a puppet on many strings.  Nicholas Van Young brings a Paul Bunyan woodchopper look (life-sized, not a giant) as he slaps his thighs and taps his chest while his feet tap.

Throughout, I sat next to an empty chair and missed my friend Sue Moore. Until a few weeks ago, Sue was going to concerts and plays and reviewing them on her Facebook page. All the time she was fighting cancer.  Earlier this month, she had to let go and on Monday, March 25, she died. Sue, I miss you. You are a mighty inspiration. A friend. Thank you.




Harlem à Limoges: An Article in Syncopated Times

Check out my article in the March 2019 edition of Syncopated Times. I write about the Hot Club of Limoges, the creation and passion of Jean-Marie Masse and his wife Paulette, focusing on three American musicians who became associated with the HCL and friends with the Masse family.

  • Trumpeter Bill Coleman (1904-1981) from Kansas lived in France after WWII.
  • Trumpeter Buck Clayton (1911-1991), also from Kansas, moved as a young man to Los Angeles, then worked in Shanghai in the 1930s! After the War he worked in Europe, including Limoges. When I came to New York in the 1980s, Buck Clayton was here, teaching and playing.
  • Willie “The Lion” Smith (1897-1973) was decorated as an American soldier in France in the First War. He returned after the Second to play solo piano in Limoges.

Coleman led the way to Europe, Clayton had longevity and adaptability, and I love Smith for a bunch of reasons, personal and musical. He grew up in Newark. He played the piano, he’s an inventor of Harlem stride. Fats Waller was a protégé.

In the book Harlem à Limoges, the story is told that The Lion was afraid to fly, so his wife went out and bought the tickets for their 1950 trip to Limoges. He has a big personality that leaps off the page.
My article will be online in late February. Soon! There are thousands of clippings, recordings, posters and photos in the Masse collection, now the property of the city of Limoges. And you can see the book Harlem à Limoges on amazon.fr here.


Harlem à Limoges: a jazz colloquium .. a rhino and a lion

Here’s an itinerary: fly to Paris from New York. Take a train from Aeroport Charles DeGaulle to the lovely Gare Austerlitz, which shares space with a natural history museum and features this lovely beast.

At Gare Austerlitz

Après le rhino, continue by train to the colloquium Harlem à Limoges, celebrating the Hot Club of Limoges (1948-2018) and beautifully programmed by Anne Legrand. There is also a vast and well organized exhibition at the public library. Information in French here.

Anne Legrand at the Bibliothèque francophone multimédia de Limoges 

Historians presented 16 papers at the colloquium, most in French. For example, the scholar Ludovic Florin talked about Willie “the Lion” Smith, one of the original stride pianists. Born this month (November) in 1897 and a child of Newark, NJ, Smith enlisted in the Great War in 1916. He served as a Harlem Hellfighter in the trenches of Champagne. Florin says Smith was decorated — maybe twice — for his courage.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: In response to the above para, Anne Legrand writes Smith wasn’t with the Harlem Hellfighters but with another regiment, the 350th [Field Artillery], and the leader of the band was Tim Brymn and his Black Devils. 

There’s more about Brymn on Wikipedia, here.

In 1950 Smith returned to France to perform for the Hot Club of Limoges. The poster is below. Florin concluded his paper with a recording of Smith playing his “Echoes of Spring” which always makes me cry.

Tuesday 10 January (1950) onstage at 9:00 at the Capitole, Willie “The Lion” Smith

Mahler, Monk, Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

Saturday afternoon Gustavo Dudamel of the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, worldwide via the German orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall. The performance was detailed, subtle and spectacular, and the moment the music ended, the audience let out  a huge cheer! Me too, in my living room, watching the livestream.

Then that night I was equally rewarded by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with new arrangements by the pivotal composer, Thelonious Monk, live in Rose Theater. All but one or two were premieres, most written by players in the band. Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis wrote two and was a frequent and welcome soloist in other people’s arrangements.

(Factoid: piece for piece, Monk’s music is arguably more recorded than Ellington’s, as I learned at the jazz talk prior to the concert.)

As host/saxophonist Ted Nash said from the stage, “We like to write for each other, to challenge each other.” The arrangers embedded lines from Monk’s recorded solos into their writing, playing hide-and-seek with the advantage going to those who know the originals in detail.

Four arrangements came from young people outside the band. One in particular — Matt Wong’s new vision of North of the Sunset from the Solo Monk album — stands out.

This transcription* of Monk’s solo recording shows the North of the Sunset melody …  

True to how  Monk wrote and played it, Wong   separated some phrases with .. silence! Full stops, no new sound, just space for a few beats. It was startling, and fun.

More than once during The JALC Plays Monk, the arrangers used the creative technique of divvying up a melody and handing it back as a sequence of phrases from section to section, player to player. To my ear Wong went further and made North of the Sunset into a fugue with overlapping voices. Then Wynton Marsalis’s solo drew the blues out of the song. And to close, Wong floated an  unconventional coda, not obviously tethered to North of the Sunset yet swimming in the same notes.

Here’s the full exhilarating program:

Eronel arranged by Victor Goines … solos by Carlos Henriquez, bass, and Goines, clarinet

Let’s Cool One arranged by Marcus Printup … Paul Nedzela, baritone sax; Dan Nimmer, piano

Shuffle Boil arranged by Ali Jackson … Sherman Irby, alto sax; Vincent Gardner, trombone

Misterioso with Round Midnight arranged by Jihye Lee … Marcus Printup, trumpet; Dan Nimmer, piano

North of the Sunset arranged by Matt Wong … Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Ted Nash, alto sax

Well, You Needn’t arranged by Sherman Irby …  Camille Thurman, tenor sax; Elliot Mason, trombone; Joe Farnsworth, drums


Off Minor arranged by Wynton Marsalis … Dan Nimmer, piano; Vincent Gardner, trombone; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet

Friday the 13th arranged by Kenny Rampton … Vincent Gardner, trombone; Kenny Rampton, trumpet

Ruby My Dear arranged by Joseph Block … Wynton Marsalis, trumpet

Ugly Beauty arranged by Wynton Marsalis … Dan Nimmer, piano

Little Rootie Tootie arranged by Esteban Castro … Sherman Irby, alto sax

Jackie-ing arranged by and featuring Ted Nash, alto sax, and the saxophone section

From Mahler to Monk, this was a Musical day.


Thanks to Chris Donnelly. His Monk transcriptions are a great resource, here. And if you’d like to read my notes about Chick Corea with the Jazz at Lincoln Center, go here.

Frank Carlberg and Johnny O’Neal Play Monk

Thelonious Monk’s 101st birthday month is almost over. Here in New York the re-invention has continued.

On Monday, October 8, the Frank Carlberg Large Ensemble, led by a native of Finland now based in Brooklyn, played music from the album Monk Dreams Hallucinations and Nightmares (no punctuation) at Dizzy’s Club.

For the long arcs of the pieces, the Monk themes and memes as incidentals, the fearless and appealing broken octaves that persisted through the set, the solos and the quiet endings, I would see this band again.

There is also text. Dark text as Christine Correa recites/sings Abide With Me — the hymn is played piano-free on Monk’s Music (1958) —  interjecting the phrase “Thelonious is dead” and referring to a winter night (he died February 17, 1982).

Maybe the Carlberg arrangement of Round Midnight overwhelms the song within, but Kurt Knuffke delivered a strong and original solo on cornet.

Everybody delivers, and I would try this band again! Expecting to be uneasy some of the time. (There’s a sample here.)

On Saturday night, the 13th, I was again on a barstool, this time at Smoke with two ardent Norwegian fans/friends who have followed and presented jazz for decades. We came for the Thelonious Monk Celebration featuring the Johnny O’Neal Quintet. The leader plays the piano of my dreams. On Monk’s I Mean You, I thought I heard a dash of Erroll Garner though I could see not a trace of effort. On Ask Me Now, alto saxophonist Antonio Hart’s playing and pleading summoned the memory of Johnny Hodges in the Ellington Orchestra. O’Neal’s voice is another pleasure. I wish I could find the words — he certainly can — though he left Monk behind when he sang A Sunday Kind of Love. Then came Alfie, Blue Monk, and a guest vocalist joining for La Belle Vie. Poof! It was over. Smoke is intimate. That’s why people love it. The next audience was lining up outside. I don’t live in Norway; I’ll be back.

There’s a feature about O’Neal’s CD In the Moment from Smoke Sessions here.