Tag Archives: Quincy Jones

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I Wish I’d Been There

Occasionally everything seems to come together in one place: prodigious talent, virtuoso performers, and a perfect program that is preserved in a great recording.

If only by default, most of us collect musical memories, usually through recordings, and only with a growing recognition that it would have been wonderful to have been present in the room. Some of us who are older may even obsess on what it would have been like to have been at Woodstock in 1969, or the Newport Jazz Festival a few years earlier, when Bob Dylan shocked the crowd by “going electric.”  Though there’s no recording, it would have also been fun to be on hand during the first performance in Paris of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring, where the audience was so agitated by the avant-garde score that punches and airborne vegetables were thrown around the theater.

Most concerts usually go better, and some endure on extraordinary recordings.  Rolling Stone has catalogued their own list of the 50 most admired live concerts.  And all of us have a few of our own.  Every now and then everything comes seems to come together in one place, producing a kind of musical alchemy. In hindsight, we may envy the folks who were lucky to be present.  Ecstatic witnessing is the reward of a great performance.

I count myself lucky to have seen the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein play two full concertos at the Academy of Music with the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as a full slate of virtuoso soloists and orchestras around the country. Equally memorable were numerous chances to hear casino lounge acts by nameless but first-rate jazz players who performed in the 60s and 70s, all for the price of a drink.  Mine was always an underage stowaway’s Coke ordered from a seat in the back corner.  By the time I was 21, the lounges were mostly gone. My older self was too late to the party.

Perhaps the oddest form of witnessing where I would love to go back occurred during a lazy August afternoon, walking along the shady sidewalks of the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York.  The orchestra at the arts retreat was preparing for an evening concert that included Robert Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony (1851). The buoyant music from the open-sided amphitheater reflected off the Victorian buildings and drifted over Lake Chautauqua.  Direct and reflected sound in perfect balance; Schumann would have loved it.  The moment made me a convert. I still have the habit of searching for any new recording that recaptures the ambiance of that perfect afternoon.  And, of course, I’ll never find it, because the event is in my head as much as any recording.

I was too young to be present for a live performance that makes Rolling Stone’s list: a 1966 performance by Frank Sinatra at the legendary Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. The main attraction in the 400 seat Copa Room was the 50-year old Sinatra in full control of his voice and perfect phrasing, but also the legendary Count Basie Band with Quincy Jones orchestrating and directing. This was the scene of the Rat-Pack haven immortalized in the original Oceans 11 film and countless other live recordings by Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin. But on this night sound engineer Lowell Frank captured the band and Sinatra with stunning clarity.  It was easy to write about the lucky reclamation of performances like this in The Sonic Imperative.  For ‘sound centrics,’ musical moments are memories that stick.

In the recording the well-oiled audience can be heard, obviously loving every note. Some must have sensed that they were witnessing a performance never to be replicated again. More recently Jones recalled with complete accuracy that “Frank was at the height of his powers” singing with “the greatest band in the world.”



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Lunch Anyone?


I’m always interested in the response of my friends to a simple question. If they could conjure up anybody from the past or present, who would they like to have a leisurely lunch with? 

Sometimes we could use some new conversation-starters.  In my circle the usual topics run all the way from A to B, from the cool and wet summer, to the latest norm-violating behavior of our President. There are also some local issues that are good for a few minutes of hand-wringing, including plans to build an unwanted pipeline through our valley, or the always-good-for-a-comment angst about our state’s high property taxes.

But sometimes it’s worth taking a leap into the unknown, or even the frankly impossible. I’m always interested in an acquaintance’s response to a simple question:  if they could conjure up a meeting with anybody, who would they like to join for a leisurely lunch? A meal can not only satisfy an appetite, but ruminations with a good conversationalist can stay with us a long time.

All of us come into contact with remarkable people, friends or strangers with wonderful stories to tell or experiences that extend well beyond our own. It is usually just an intellectual exercise to imagine what it might be like to spend time over lunch with a famous person. But people we already know can be just as interesting. Think of the conversations with familiar companions that bubble up in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981) or Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013).

To be sure, it sometimes works out that someone with intimate knowledge of a notable achiever may come away from a meeting chastened. More than a few writers have admitted that their living or deceased subjects remained interesting, but not necessarily as candidates for a fantasized social outing.  Biographer Nell Painter remembers working on a study of the famous slave preacher, Sojourner Truth.  But several years ago Painter told a C-Span interviewer that her “closeness to me receded” as she worked her way deeper into Sojourner’s life.  She respected her subject to the end, but finally doubted they would connect in a conversation. Sometimes a little distance keeps the great and good on a pedestal where we want them.

In a recent dinner with friends the question drew various responses.  Singer-songwriter Paul Simon came  up as  a good lunch companion.  He  has been a stream-of-consciousness poet for several generations.  And some of those enigmatic lyrics in Graceland: what do they mean?  Another liked the idea of sharing a meal with Jesus, and  it’s hard to quarrel with that choice.  But the guest of honor would probably make me a nervous eater. Did I order to much? Should I have shared it? Why didn’t I suppress the joke about turning my water into wine? Another mentioned Barack Obama.  He’s articulate and sometimes funny.  And his off-the-record perspective in this political moment would be fascinating  to hear.  Would he make us feel better about where the nation is headed?

Another person suggested the African-American blues musician, Daryl Davis. Davis seems to have a knack for drawing in listeners, including KKK members.  He told an NPR interviewer that in some cases he was the first black American these white men had spoken to socially. One measure of his success is that he has a pile of KKK robes that his newly sensitized friends have sent him after they renounced their membership in the Klan. Think of what he might teach us about the subtleties of face to face conciliation.

American culture exists most vividly when we focus on agents of insight or change.

My choice tends to change by the week.  But right now I’d love to have lunch with the arranger, musician and producer, Quincy Jones. He is in his 80’s, with a career that spans playing trumpet in several great 50’s bands, to arranging and conducting some of the best performances caught on record: everything from Sinatra at the Sands, (1966) to Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982). He’s a walking history of American music: big-band Jazz, R&B, Pop and Funk. In interviews and a growing list of tributes (including 26 Grammys) Jones is unfailingly generous and interesting. Can a person still be hungry when sitting next to a national treasure?

There’s a useful point to this exercise. It’s a reminder that American culture exists most vividly when we focus on agents of insight or change. They may be famous or obscure.  But more than we think are close by,  their lives are testimony to the value of pluralizing our world beyond the shallow celebrities that sometimes narrow rather than broaden our horizons.

Since the fantasy lunch with the fantasy check is on me, who would you choose?