Monday, October 15, 2018

100 years of music and art

It feels great to be back in L.A. planning some vocal workshops and working on my music again.
I was away for a week up in Buffalo N.Y. celebrating my mothers 100th birthday. 
It was somewhat surreal re-meeting relatives that I hadn't seen in 30 years...cousins, second cousins, second cousins once removed. How does all that work anyways? I never quite grasped it...anyways...there were a lot of fabulous people gathered in western N.Y. to celebrate this remarkable woman's life, and I loved getting to know my extended family again.  

There were so many beautiful tributes to Lorraine....dedications spontaneous from the heart, songs and poems written for the occasion, and performed for the grand dame.



This was my dedication to Lorraine aka Lolo. Thought I'd share it with you!


I recently had lunch with a retired trumpet player named Bill, my own ex-trumpet player and hubby George and a millionaire businessman named Lee who asked a plethora of questions to the three musicians sitting at the table about why we make music.   He couldn’t grasp why we continue to create if there’s no way in hell someone in their 60’s could suddenly make it big….or more importantly how we can make ends meet in the first place.

I gave him head-y reasonable answers about writing, licensing, residuals, royalties, performance opportunities, recording and teaching gigs…but what I wish I had told him is that there really isn’t a choice in this matter…it’s just what we do…who we are. I wasn’t brought up wondering “why” musicians or artists create. 

Thanks to my mother and father creative expression was a part of every single day, and warmly supported and encouraged.

As soon as I came back to my studio after that lunch I decided to look though old photographs and articles about my amazing mother to inspire a short dedication at her 100th birthday celebration.

The first thing I saw was a small square of yellowed fragile newsprint…the heading reads:
WOWS ‘EM IN BROOKLYN 
Lorraine Grant, 520 E. 84th St. was featured vocalist Friday night at the St. George Hotel, in Brooklyn. Her father, Thomas, has been a vaudeville and nightclub entertainer for 25 years.



I put down the piece of paper and thought; this is the cloth I was cut from.

Thank you very much Mom.

I wished I had described the legacy of the amazingly talented people that informed the direction of my life to Lee when he asked “why” and how fortunate I feel to have been raised around that constant creative energy. 

The line to artistic colorful characters goes far back. I remember mother telling me so many stories about her wild, and seemingly fearless father Thomas. When Harry was newly married to Lorraine, he hoped to make a good impression on his new father in law so he graciously offered to help Thomas install an antenna on the roof of the old house in Sutton.  My father was a brilliant musician, but keep in mind that he was no acrobat and had a fear of heights…he made it half way up the ladder holding a shaking antenna in one hand and froze…Thomas suggested he come down and let him do the task after all.  The story goes that Tom accidently slipped from the roof of the old 3 story house and saving himself, executed a double flip onto the first landing then just for show did a triple onto the ground, immediately scrambling back up the ladder as though nothing unusual just occurred.

I smile imagining Harry’s reaction to that.

(Uncle Tom and Grandpa Thomas in costume for the Vaudeville act "Bouncing Fools")

I loved moms stories about the tours she would accompany her parents on as a child, traveling on over night sleeper trains listening to the comforting rhythm of the tracks while reading her books bundled up in her berth.  Monroe and Grant on the Orpheum circuit with the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Gerry Colonna, Abbot and Costello, George Burns, Willie West and Mcginty, a young Frank Sinatra…these were just some of the influences in our family’s story and I thought every family had a similar cast of characters.  

Our house was the house everyone wanted to play at after school. Mother would come up with great ideas for plays and performances complete with costumes, sets and music.  I swear it was like a Judy Garland / Mickey Rooney movie at times:
“Hey Andy!  I have a swell idea! We can use the old costumes out in uncle Jim’s barn and put on that show!!”
We didn’t have an uncle Jim or a barn, but we had the back of moms closet and it was like a treasure trove to me.

Using many variations on mothers old performance gowns she’d help dress us for an impromptu neighborhood circus or carnival. For one of those grand events she helped Sharon and me make a space ship out of a refrigerator box. We cut out a door, painted a lovely control panel with blinking lights, and put a pilot’s seat inside. The neighborhood kids paid a penny to sit inside the rocket ship while we blared at top volume a recording of a launch we made on our reel-to-reel tape machine.  With 9-year-old astronaut in place, Sharon and I shook the box violently from side to side while Lorraine…who never smoked a cigarette in her life, took a drag on a fag and blew a puff of smoke into the box during “take off” for extra special effect. 
She was a nut. 
We had parades with mobo the tin horse, decorated wagons, floats, puppets and banners down Sterling Ave.  We have a photo somewhere of Mom featured as the bearded lady in one such parade that she helped Trudy produce.  Trudy was dressed as a beautiful crowned princess, ballerina, baton twirling queen of some sort, but definitely a lacy lovely sparkly satiny starlet.

Trudy is another story of the apple not falling far from the tree. 

Another time.

Back to my beautiful mother.  She would sing while doing the dishes and vacuuming the living room.

Wait!  Rewind. Actually I don’t honestly remember her breaking into song around the house. But she did scales while washing the dishes and vacuuming.
Warm up vocal exercises…but rarely songs unless relatives provoked her to sing at the holidays.  Aunt Calli always requested “September Song” and loved the way mom sang it.  She did sing it exquisitely. After mom finished the last note Cali would be in tears…then start to laugh heartily at herself because she was crying.

The famed quote that “Ginger did everything Fred did but backwards and in high heels” applies to Lorraine. 
She always managed to do all of the necessary day to day things like cooking, cleaning, shopping for groceries and school supplies, homework, changing diapers, making birthday parties for 25 kids etc. looking like a million dollars and yes…in heels.

I believed my mom must be the most elegant and beautiful of all mothers.
I remember thinking  “my mom is so glamorous…she looks like Donna Reed…definitely not a June Cleaver…but Donna Reed…dresses, heels and hose…every day! 

1918: On my desktop I’m looking at a baby Lorraine propped up on a chair dressed in white ruffles and a 5 year old version of this beautiful child circa 1923. She’s wearing a sailor collar and looks directly into the camera with a sleepy half smile. She has dreamy eyes and an adorable over bite. She looks the same to me today.

I see how much Sharon resembled mom at this age.



Another favorite black and white shot of Lolo sitting on a bench in 1925.  The caption in Grace’s handwriting says “The first Day with Skates” Little brother Tommy is sitting next to 7 year old Lorraine, his feet dangling with heavy iron wheels attached to his leather shoes….mom looking confident with a huge white bow on the side of her head.



Early 40’s sultry black and white press shots of mom as Diana Durbin’s double.  In first grade my teacher at school 66 gave us an assignment to bring in pictures of our family members. I chose the one of mom looking like a sexy Hollywood starlet.  It was my favorite. I thought she looked beautiful. Head thrown back, bare shoulders and a ruffle of taffeta along the bodice.  I proudly presented the 8 X 10 glossy to my teacher Mrs. McMurrey…she handed it right back to me stating in an angry if not bewildered tone “This is NOT your mother!! Now bring in real family photos tomorrow!!”


And Harry’s favorite photo of mother. Probably around 1944.  Sitting on a couch, her beautiful legs crossed with strappy high heels, fingertip on the bridge of her nose looking coy.


1945 Mom and dad with baby Trudy in a pram…both looking happy and amazed. Two brand new parents.

1952 Trudy, Alan and baby Sharon around the dining room table that mom had set for one of many brilliant birthday parties that happened in that dining room.

1954 baby number four.  I hear stories that I was the “surprise” baby.
Mom sitting by the window on the edge of the steam heat radiator donning an apron…very pregnant with me, and still smiling.



Photos of trips to Florida…kodachrome fading on a beach scene of Harry and Lorraine with four children watching the boats head to Havana…New Hampshire every year…often twice a year…piling a family of 6 into the station wagon with pillows, pajamas (no seat belts!!) stuffed animals, books, flashlights and snacks. Mom was always the vacation planner. She was like Rick Steves and dad happily followed orders and did the driving while she navigated with maps and AAA tour books opened up on her lap in the passenger seat surprising every one with what she came up with. Trips complete with Lorraine’s historical well informed guided tours of Boston, Atlantic City, Maine, Montreal, Quebec City, Gaspe...these were my favorite trips.

Thank you for that mom.  You gave us all a passion for travel, seeing new places, discovering different cultures, and a love of learning. You and dad filled our lives with music and art and I am endlessly grateful for that.
The spirit of adventure that you got from Grace and Tom is what I hope I’ve passed along to my children and they in turn to their children.  Look at what you’ve started!

 It’s quite a legacy and I’m so proud to be in this family and part of that story.







Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Ten Dollar Tears

No one slept that night.
A city with unexplained insomnia.
The man whose nose was red from drink and large from age, his pink rimmed eyes set deep in tired sockets waited for the number 24 bus wondering
"Did the bus driver toss all night too? Something's gone awry-
world at the edge
of the edge
of the edge
looking down a crevice I am
on a ledge
the ledge
the ledge of the edge
about to fall
into one enormous collective sleep
of desperate sleepers.
I will skip the bus
and walk."

A gum wrapper on the sidewalk caught his eye. He picked it up to examine more closely while seeming to enjoy a brief conversation with a volleyball net before bending over to pick up an empty can as he talked to the tail pipe of a Toyota truck then stood up conversing with the air as he continued his stroll.  There in a shrub, the corner of a bit of army green paper fluttered and called out "I'm stuck in this bush!" as it tried to escape the snag of twigs holding it captive. The man whose nose was red from drink and large from age gently tugged on the paper freeing it from it's bushy captor, finding it was a $10 bill. He put the crumpled bill into his fist and shook it at the sky in a wild gesture of joy and astonishment, pink eyes filling with salty water and rolling down his rough weathered cheeks making his face shinny with tears.


Hello friends and readers. What has this to do with Suzi Stern's music news you may ask?  I'm in LA experiencing a wonderful new chapter of observation and self discovery. Just felt like sharing an observation. They are everywhere.  I'm enjoying filling the well so to speak, and writing things down in words and music. I'm meeting musicians in so many different fields of composition that it humbles me. I recently heard a lecture and met a remarkable composer / arranger named Nan Schwartz. The depth of her arranging skills blew my mind and I had never even heard of this brilliant and important artist. I plan to take a few months to continue exploring, observing, studying, re-evaluating and soaking up what I am so fortunate to have around me here in LA before presenting my own new creations. It's difficult for me to pause, breathe and trust that the well will indeed fill up.

Thank you for letting me share my musings with you!

Musically Yours,

Suzi


Thursday, August 30, 2018

A new hit on Winston.

"Thank you for your attention. All tray tables must be put back and locked and seat backs upright and in position for landing."
I notice that the woman sitting catty corner to me in the aisle seat has her hands making a familiar mudra...index finger and thumb making a circle, eyes closed in meditation. She must be visualizing a safe landing. I'm happy that she's working on it. Since she has that covered I decide to relax and flip through pictures in my iPhone that I just took during my weekend in Portland. I was meeting my first grandchild.

I thought I'd feel transformed and very old having this new descriptor 'grandma' in front of my name...but I just feel elation having this little guy in the world.  Aside from feeling like the same Suzi, I've gotta say it's quite amazing watching my son holding his son...that is crazy beautiful continuity.

George says he looks like Winston Churchill.

Winston Churchill must have been mighty cute.

Oregon was smokey the entire time I was there. Fires from California and Washington blowing over the state made the air gray.  Every morning I'd walk to the corner coffee shop where there would normally be a good view of Mount Tabor park but it was enveloped by a smokey haze.

The coffee shop had the relaxed murmur of people chatting Saturday off from work conversations layering warm waves of sound bubbling up and periodically quieting down as if on cue from an invisible conductor. There was a singer on the overhead speakers and her music laid on top of the talking textures. She sounded like so many popular singers...a whiney almost child like lazy slurred word delivery of every line. Why did this annoy me?

The bounce of the airplane as the wheels hit the ground brought me back to my seat from my day dreaming. I felt my weight move forward until the plane came to a slow taxi.
"We know you have many choices when making travel plans so we thank you for flying Southwest and enjoy your stay in Burbank."

Burbank. In 20 minutes I'd be home in our new southern California abode. I checked in with my gut feeling about that. It was a good feeling. I'm looking forward to getting plugged into life in L.A. writing more music, making new connections and hiking in the mountains.

Change is inspiring and I'm looking forward to all the great things these big changes will bring along the way.

I'll sign off for now!

With much love,

Grandma Suzi












Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Smelling the roses.

In spite of the lack of rain here in southern California plants seem to be thriving. The street we live on is luscious and green with bizarre looking succulents that have figured out a way to manage the dry hot summers. I'd like to talk to these alien looking botanical wonders and learn the secret of their seemingly content existance on zero water and tons of sun.

Magically, creatively, auspiciously lucky, George scored a perfect sweet little old hobbit-ish house made of white stucco on a beautiful tree lined street in Pasadena. We've been camping out inside of it for a week because our "stuff" doesn't arrive for a few more days.

The mornings are cool enough to sit on the front porch with coffee and toast and call out chatty niceties to people walking by with dogs and babies in strollers.

I'm excited about setting up my studio and getting back to work.  Soon enough! It's always good to take a break from routine and give the well a chance to fill up again...and I'm grateful for this temporary down time of not having any deadlines and to actually be able to stop and smell the roses...although have you noticed that roses don't smell like roses any more?  What's that about? For the past several years I've been on a quest to find roses that smell rosy to little or no avail. I'm actually someone who does stop when I pass by a bush in bloom. It used to bother me that lately roses are for the most part without fragrance, but today on my morning walk through our new hood I bent over to sniff a lovely pink bloom and I realized that even though you may not get to enjoy that memorable scent of rose,  it's still a nice thing to take that moment...a pause...get close to the open petals and really appreciate it even if it only smells like any generic plant these days.

So we all figure out how to keep blooming don't we? The succulents without water...the rose with no scent. Smart plants.

That being said, I miss my sense of community in Austin. I miss the family I left there. But I know I'm going to enjoy this new chapter of our creative life together in a new place.

Onward...and I'll keep you posted on musical things happening very soon.

Much Love,
Suzi












Saturday, July 14, 2018

Change and a 5 second walk in the woods

I keep an old holiday card on my desk in my music studio.  It's a scene of a deep wood blanketed in snow and a creek running through the middle of it. The glitter on the card sparkles like the real stuff. I like to look up from my work and stare at the sparkling scene as a beam of Texas sunlight comes through the window across the card and remember the experience of snow....it had a crisp almost metallic smell and it felted everything in a world of quiet.  It's a 5 second walk in the woods and it makes me feel still.

I'm about to move to another sunny state where it doesn't snow and stays green all year round. The plans for our move to L.A. have me living half in the present where my body resides, and half in the vague movie I'm living in my head of the little white stucco southern California house and our new life in Pasadena.  Change is exciting because it always inspires. I hold onto that thought when I mourn over the fact that I'm leaving this comfortable, sweet, supportive world in Austin. In Pasadena we will be a walk to the Huntington gardens and art museums, a short train ride to one of the most amazing concert Halls in the world and surrounded by unbelievably creative and productive musicians and artists. I really can't complain!

When I think of it what I leave behind isn't being left anywhere because it's a part of me and I'm taking every bit of that with me! My unbelievable friends, the women in my life who have seen me though love found and love lost, births, marriages, divorces, successes, failures, extreme highs and extreme lows, deaths, more births and marriages...so goes life...and I am fortunate beyond description to have so much love in my life...so much support...so many people who have always had my back. Those wonderful women, my children, my George and my family are home for me and that really isn't about the state I reside in...it's about the state of my heart.

And for me most recently...a change way beyond this big move we're making is the arrival of my first grandchild. My son RenĂ© and his beautiful wife Selena are parents now. Their tiny little boy puts the wonder and the miracle of this life we're all living into clear perspective. It really is all quite amazing isn't it? Change...movement...growth...life.  Let's not forget to enjoy it!

I'll keep you posted on the little guys changes, new musical creations, and our life on the left coast.

Bye for now and off to California!

Much Love,

Suzi



Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The richest kid on the block

A jazz enthusiast came up to a seasoned veteran piano player after her gig and asked her why she chose jazz as her life's focus...the pianist replied "I don't like crowds"

I thought I'd start my blog today with some humor about my career, but as I was trying to remember musician jokes I was thinking about how the jokes that make us laugh the hardest do so because they're based on truth.

A band leader calls out a tune to the vocalist on the gig:  "I Remember April" the first 6 bars in Ab, bar 7 modulate down to the key of F, bar 12 change to 7/8, modulate back to Ab to end the head"
The singer looks concerned and says "Oh I couldn't possibly do that!"
Band leader: "You did it that way last night!"

I tell this joke to my voice students. It's an effective way to say "don't do that!"

Humor beautifully magnifies life's absurdities and makes us laugh at ourselves instead of the painful alternative.

What's the difference between a dead squirrel on the side of the road and a dead trombone player?
The squirrel was on his way to a gig.

How did the jazz musician end up with a million dollars?
He started with 2 million.

Actually I've always been a bit proud of the fact that I chose this esoteric path knowing it more than likely would not be a lucrative path. That approach to life must be in my DNA. My grandfather was in Vaudeville and along with grandmother Grace raised 4 children and had a rich life full of travel, culture, music, theatre and most importantly humor. My father found a way to be a jazz musician and support a family with 4 children giving us everything we needed and much more. I never felt like I lacked for a thing...quite the opposite...I felt like the lucky kid on the block. Our house was the house that everyone wanted to play at. My mother encouraged spontaneous living room plays,  performances, parades down Sterling Avenue and always there was music.
My childhood was like a Judy Garland /Micky Rooney film "Hey Andy! There's costumes out in old mister Greens barn!"
     Well, not quite...we didn't have a barn...but we were constantly singing and dancing and dressing up and performing with the assistance of my creative parents. Memories of my childhood were pretty close to idyllic. Music was part of every single day in our home and that was...is still...priceless.

So what's the difference between a large pizza and a jazz guitarist?
The pizza can feed a family of four.

Might be true...but truth be told I feel very rich.


My parents...



Mother on tour in the early 40's



My uncle Don and my grandfather Thomas in their Vaudeville Act


My father...



Mother pregnant with me! My earliest press shot :-)

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Long Time No See!

Hello Music Lovers,
I've been off of the computer and away from my blog site for so long that I almost forgot how to log in!
Well, hello again! Here's what's up: I have been busy the past two years co-producing a wonderful music festival here in Austin. The concept is "Women led bands" not that all the collaborations are made solely with women but women are in the leadership role in each ensemble...playing their own music, with a woman's vision, leading their own bands...all styles of music...not just jazz but improvisation is definitely at the heart of each set. It is so inspiring to see women like trumpeter Ingrid Jensen at the helm performing her amazing compositions...and the extraordinary jazz pianist Helen Sung who were two of our featured artists at last years festival.

We also have an entire day of clinics in improvisation and ensemble work for aspiring young musicians, culminating in a master class to experience having that ultimate spontaneous musical conversation with a professional rhythm section.  In 2019 we hope to get enough funding to extend the festival to a longer weekend with more educational opportunities.

This year has a broad and varied offering of musical styles from Texas singer song writers Emily Gimble and LeeAnn Atherton to the astounding jazz drummer Allison Miller and grammy nominated Jazz violinist Sara Caswell to jazz pianist and festival artistic director Peggy Stern (no relation!)  and I'm thrilled to have the chance to showcase some new compositions that I wrote for the occasion to be premiered with my group which will also be featured at Lulufest this year.

If you're in the Austin area I hope you can make it to the concerts which begin at 5:00 and go until 10:00 PM in the beautiful newly renovated Jones Hall at Saint Edwards University. more details, like location, directions, tickets to purchase etc. at:  www.lulu-fest.com

Happy spring to all of you...Happy Easter...Happy Passover....happy whatever you celebrate to announce the coming of spring!  We had the sweetest seder with friends and family around the table discussing the green of spring...the renewal of life and hope that it brings and how precious freedom is.

Hope to see you on the 14th and thank you for reading my blog!
Much Love,
Suzi

Saturday April 14th
6:00 
at
St. Edwards University
3001 South Congress
Ragsdale Center, Jones Auditorium

The Suzi Stern Group
with 
George Oldziey piano, Paul Unger bass, Joey Colarusso woodwinds, 
Javier Chaparro violin and David Sierra Drums

Directions, tickets and all the information you need at: http://lulu-fest.com/index/

I’ll be premiering several new compositions!  Hope to see you there!
Musically Yours,
Suzi