Friday, December 24, 2010

"The Christmas Song"

The one version of co-writers Bob Wells and Mel Torme's classic holiday hit that for me must be heard at Christmas is that of Nat King Cole. As a child enjoying the wonders and magic of Christmas, it would not have been complete without hearing his rendition. What made this tiny tot's eyes all aglow was the fact that my now legendary uncle, Irving Ashby, was guitarist for the Nat King Cole trio. Talk about proud!

"Chestnuts roasting..." and The Nat King Cole Trio were synonymous in our household. Special in King's version of "The Christmas Song" was the simple guitar voicing. I spent many a time with the trio backstage at the RKO Theater in New York City as a young boy, where I was privileged to hear this and many other Nat King Cole classics.

Recently, my wife and I journeyed to my hometown of Boston to perform at the celebration of our friend and colleague Ellen Cantaro, whose birthday party was attended by friends and relatives, all who champion her tremendous accomplishments as a writer, jazz pianist, and teacher. Many fine artists performed that night. I first met Ellen when her love for beauty in all things brought her to my home in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts some ten years ago, beginning her exploration of the art of Bel Canto--my passion.

The entire event was truly memorable. We were even treated to a film documentary showing Ellen from infancy to the present, a very personal gift from her beloved husband, Jack. Among the artists was Angela Rossi a former student and native Italian, born & raised. Miss Rossi is an extraordinary young singer, watch for her!!!

No one sang "The Christmas Song,"but we all gave Ellen our very best. The banquet style service and the musical presentations ranging from Brazilian folk music, cabaret, and Jazz to European Classics made the evening a complete success.

Coming from a family of musicians and years of performing and teaching, the gift of Christmas was present in the bond we all shared: the precious years of learning
and giving.

Finally, my dear friends: Although it's been said, many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to You.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


A few weeks ago my student Marlon Saunders--super singer, arranger, coach, teacher, and all around giant of a man of mythic proportions--got in touch with my wife and me, declaring too much time had elapsed since we were in each other's company in a social setting. We met in Manhattan and were treated to a lovely dinner and an evening of absolute joy.

Marlon's genius resonates for me like that of the other brilliant Black men of my era; a rarity in present day society. He affectionately refers to me as the "Guru," which always brings a smile to my face. Marlon knows that in my vocal direction as a teacher that I've chosen the road less traveled of the development and understanding of the myriad applications at hand with the Middle Way, Middle Falsetto, Voix Mixte, the Mezza Voce, all popular in the 18th century. However, it is Marlon's strength of character and his commitment to excellence that makes him soar like the legendary powerful winged horse: one who fights for goodness and, like Pegasus, will no doubt take his place in the firmament.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Green Olives"

We decided to have pizza tonight, something we very seldom have now that we're watching our weight. I'm someone who loves all the toppings, etc. and was in seventh heaven savoring every bite, and among the many tasty treats were of course black olives. Suddenly my mind reverted to my childhood and I remembered going shopping on Fridays with my mother when frequently she would say,"If you're a good boy, you can have a whole bottle of green olives all to yourself". She knew how much I loved them. Thanksgiving always brought so many delights to our dinning room table, green olives with pimentos being on the list.

My Mother passed away on a Thanksgiving Day and for awhile I didn't think I'd ever enjoy the day again. But this Holiday season I'm showered with the remembrances of her love for me and her good taste in all things. Both my parents were great singers; I've heard nothing but the best my entire growing up. Because of their great vocal abilities I am blessed with a passion for the human voice. The simple joys of Friday shopping with Mom and green olives still live alongside the ultimate joy of making beautiful sounds.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Billy Taylor and Jazz Mobile

On November 29, 2010, Dr. Billy Taylor was celebrated as the visionary and founder of Jazz Mobile. A grand musician in his own right, Dr. Taylor's passion for his art has given us a vehicle with which to nurture young artists and perpetuate the art of Jazz. The celebration was held at the Schomburg Institution.

The fact that Dr. Taylor is observing his 90th birthday is also an indication of how long this gentlemen has served his art. Because my family and I have a rich history in Jazz I have long been aware of Dr. Taylor's genius and his enormous contribution to culture.

Also on this celebratory evening there was a personal source of pride for me--my student Brianna Marie Thomas was chosen along with other fine musicians to entertain. Brianna, a most versatile singer continues the great tradition of Jazz vocals. I applaud Brianna for having been chosen to represent the art of Jazz stylings, and above all, to be a part of paying tribute to one of the Masters, Dr. Billy Taylor.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"Revelations" The Jubilee

In the early days of my dance career I was honored to have worked with many great African American choreographers, one of the greatest who was the legendary Alvin Ailey. It was during this time that his company took on a very specific character and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company was born. This month we are privileged to celebrate fifty years of the choreographic genius of "Revelations," the Company's signature piece. Special to me, although I was not in the company at that time when Alvin created this work, was the exciting fact that Myrna White, who was later to become my wife and mother of my children, was one of the original dancers.

You will note in the picture posted the young Alvin Ailey and Myrna White intensely focused in a live performance in the early days of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Alvin Ailey truly represents a golden age in American dance history. "Revelations" has endured fifty years of worldwide audience adoration. Congratulations!!!

The Magic Cufflinks

Some twenty-odd years ago following a long run as the lead in the touring company of The Wiz, I returned to New York City where, for the very first time, I hung out my shingle as a vocal teacher. As they say "Build it and they will come," and before long my studio was doing very well and the vocal growth in my students and in myself was remarkable. As they progressed, I presented my students in mini concerts and recitals.

Eventually the time came for me to appear in concert to demonstrate my skill to my students and to reintroduce myself to the New York concert audience, and so I scheduled a debut concert at Lincoln Center's Merkin Hall.

Just before the night of my performance, my student Dwayne Allan Foster (whom we affectionately called "Dudley Do Right") presented me with a pair of gold and mother of pearl cufflinks with matching studs. The beauty of his gracious gift and the spirit in which it was given was that this set had been given to Dwayne by his grandfather when he graduated from college. To me it was the ultimate compliment, and I have worn them ever since for every important singing engagement. It gives me immense comfort as I dress for a performance knowing that I carry this spirit and tradition forward with me.

Like so many old friends who lose touch over time, Dwayne and I renewed our friendship through Facebook; he is now married and the father of beautiful twin daughters, and I have shared with him the numerous performances I've given over the years, always wearing what I've dubbed my "magical" cufflinks. On Sunday, November 21st, my wife Etta and I participated in an inaugural performance of a new opera company and I thought it appropriate to write Dwayne and let him know his beautiful gift again graced my cuffs. His response was as magical as the cufflinks: "It's good to know that you take my grandfather and me with you on stage every time."

Sadly, I never met Dwayne's grandfather, but he was still living when his grandson passed the gift on to me and Dwayne told me he had championed my role as his grandson's teacher/mentor, a magic we share to this day.