Troubadour

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Time marches forward and it was brought to my attention today that I have published more than 760 of these posts. (That seems impossible actually, but I will take the word of the fine folks here at WordPress since they seem to be keeping count.) Topics have sprawled over time and the nature of it has morphed a bit. As a general rule they have gotten longer and increasingly personal, although cats, photographs, toys and Felix remain the banner headline for the majority of weekends.

You all, my readers, have increased in number over time too – more in recent years than at first. And inevitably some very interesting things have come in over the transom from you all. A wonderful cache of Felix photos came to me that way – I remember I was in a hotel room in Florida having a miserable trip for work when it found me and cheered me immensely. (That post can be found here.)

Pams-Pictorama.com Collection

One man in India was very interested in a rare book I had acquired (and cannot find in the miasma of our apartment post renovation to scan for him but will eventually) and I have heard from the descendants of folks I have uncovered, such as the grandchild of Alfred Latell, who have had occasion to write about more than once. (Among my most popular, those posts about his career as an animal impersonator can be found here and here.) Usually I let the stuff I have acquired lead me down the rabbit hole of memory or joyfully research or speculate on its past a bit, although occasionally I have taken you on trips across the country and world for work, recipes I have created, or whatever else is on my mind on a given day.

Alfred Latell, Pams-Pictorama.com Collection.

My original dream of organizing my Felix photo postcards into a book seems as far away as ever – folks start muttering about copyright when I mention it – but nevertheless, it remains of interest to me. Alas, I will find a way I hope and of course I continue to add to it.

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Earlier this week, a reader reached out to me to ask about a post I did where I mentioned a lost cousin of hers, Bruce Rogerson, someone I knew in Britain when I was living in London in my earlier twenties. It arrived in the midst of a work week which can only be described as our annual budget hell which has been escalated in intensity by the pandemic – such is fundraising for a performing arts organization that hasn’t been able to perform in public for more than a year! However, I did take some time to answer her and dredged up memories of Bruce the best I could on short notice.

Annoyingly, at the time I could not find my post she referred to and it was only this morning that I realized that it was the briefest of mentions in a super long post I wrote while returning from a work trip to South Africa in 2019. (It can be found here.) That post was primarily about African Highlife music and musings on my early relationship to it while living in London in the mid-1980’s. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra had played with local musicians as part of the Joy of Jazz Festival and the strands of the more indigenous African music woke the sound memory in my mind.

This morning I received an email from her and thanking me for writing along with the information that she had about her cousin. The combined gathering of my memories of Bruce for her and then reading her notes have him very much on my mind today.

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Bruce Rogerson owned a coffee house in Britain called The Troubadour (still in existence at 263-267 Old Brompton Road, London). It would have had recognized bona fides and probably something of a cult following when he acquired it in 1970 from its original owners, Michael and Sheila van Bloemen who established it in 1954. The Troubadour made its name in the heyday of the coffee house live performance culture on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1950’s and ’60’s. It is said that it is the first venue in London where Bob Dylan performed has have Paul Simon and more recently Adele.

At the time I knew it the basement was used only infrequently for music or performance and I can only remember being in it once. Subsequent owners have expanded it and it is a live music venue once again – or presumably was pre-Covid. However, living down the street in a series of rented flats in Earl’s Court – which was rundown and affordable at the time although even then you had to know it was on the edge of gentrification.

The Troubadour was to me a rare place for a good cup of coffee – at a time when that wasn’t easy to find in London and I was already coffee addicted. It was also warm in winter (my abodes were anything but) and light food was available – a good soup comes to mind and quiche. The pastries were dubious and occasionally we joked about those. I was chronically a bit broke at the time so eating out was a matter of budget, although I was willing to pay for coffee. It was a sort of a cappuccino served in thick white ceramic mugs. (Liquor, wine and beer were not sold there during my time although I believe a license was acquired later.)

A coffee or two could buy you a lot of time at the Troubadour and soon I was doing my school assignments and writing letters from there, and my few recently acquired friends joined me there occasionally, making it our clubhouse of sorts. However, I was the most constant resident and as a result I got to know Bruce and also a number of the other regulars.

The Troubador more or less as I remember the interior in the late 1980’s.

I now know that Bruce was born the same year as Kim which made him twenty years older than my 21 years at the time. Over time I was to learn that he had a degree in mathematics, an advanced one I believe, although I only remember touching on it once. He was a tall, lanky man, always dressed in a uniform of neat denim jeans and an open-necked, button down Oxford cloth shirt, light blue or blue and white stripe for the most part. Bruce wore his hair a bit long, disheveled and was balding when I knew him.

He stood behind the low, ancient wood bar counter at The Troubadour, stairway that went up to the apartment where he lived above just in back of him. The kitchen, painted a really bright, surprising sunshine yellow, was at the end of the long narrow space and beyond the counter. One usually ordered from the counter although occasionally a waitress might stop at a table and ask if you needed anything – or not. The seats were hard wood, all of them. Former church pews lined the walls, at least in retrospect that is what I think they were, and wooden chairs made up other table seating throughout. Music played ongoing and the Blue Danube Waltz was played nightly at closing to usher us out the door.

I believe most of the interior decoration which defines The Troubadour dates back to Michael van Bloeman, the founder and scrapper extraordinaire.

Michael van Bloemen, the founder, was known for his ability to find trash and turn it into treasure. (After selling The Troubadour he and Sheila moved to Sarajevo and my father was ultimately introduced to them while traveling there and they struck up a friendship.) So The Troubadour was chock-a-block full of odd ancient and interesting bits and pieces that spoke volumes even to a young Butler blogger and future collector of detritus even at the time. In retrospect it seems odd that Bruce would be so devoted to the place when his own taste actually ran to the modern and his apartment reflected this and was a bit of a shock in contrast. Michael stayed friendly with Bruce and was a close friend of Don’s and would stay with one or the other on trips to London, where he turned up periodically to pick up his money from the dole.

The shop, which I believe is no longer there, as it looked when I lived in London.

I met and became good friends Don Bay there, it was Don who introduced me to High Life music as he owned an African music company, Sterns. (Ironically Don tried to pick me up by taking me to a classical music concert I had been reading a review for when we met. It was the only time I would associate Don and classical music.) Don and Bruce were close friends and over time I tagged along and was enmeshed in their lives for the time I lived there.

Let it be said, these guys drank a lot. At 21 I was capable of drinking a fair amount myself so I didn’t think much about it at the time, but now I know it was a lot of drinking. Bruce consumed endless bottles of white wine while tending to the counter evenings, always in a short water glass. Meanwhile, Don and I had a love of cooking in common and he had a large kitchen at his house in Putney so we would spend whole weekends making exotic fare and inviting friends to eat it. Those cooking weekends including consuming bottles of scotch while we cooked (my mind reels thinking about it now), not to mention while we ate, and those parties generally went all night long sometimes with leftovers being finished in the morning.

Bruce and Don both knew about food and enjoyed eating out and would sometimes take me along to the various restaurants they knew, some where they were regulars themselves. With Bruce it was always a late meal, after The Troubadour closed, which I want to say was 10:00? Seems so late now, but there was a French restaurant across the street where he went on a regular basis and there was also an African restaurant in a basement up the street where you could get a late night meal. Again, I was very broke and a good meal was always memorable and appreciated. (I was acquiring my own cooking chops as well and this was the time I really started to figure out cooking.) I was just starting to leave off eating meat, but still did. Bruce’s cooking achievement was a traditional cassoulet.

Generally Bruce, who was a very reserved man, made much of looking askance at my young (probably somewhat outrageous and loud) American ways and would often use a certain look of horror, eyebrows raised when I shocked, which was frequent – sometimes just looking at what I was wearing; I had a fondness for very bright colors at the time and at one point shaved my very long hair into a boy’s bob in response to my less than efficient shower at the flat. However, he generally also had a bit of a twinkle in his eye as well. In retrospect, he was fairly rigid in his ways and was very set in a routine; he needed the structure he created and wasn’t comfortable out of it. He stuttered a bit, something that is just coming back to me now in an effort to really remember him.

Bruce generally surrounded himself with a series of stunningly attractive waitresses whose skills had to include making the coffee (a large and somewhat erratic machine was involved) and at least assembly as well as serving of food. I still remember one woman named Emma who remains one of the most attractive women I have ever known and once told me a wild tale about having been a nanny for a famous German film director, who in addition to hitting on her, one day took her to a major film premiere without telling her where they were going. The Troubadour provided Bruce with both a social life and an endless line of attractive women, both customers and staff.

No tables outside when I frequented it as in this undated photo – also door painting is new to me.

He was a kind person and to his cousin I related a story about a mutual friend, my age, Hedwig Dumangier, who suffered terribly from epilepsy – she would have “tremblies” as she called them, several times a day and throughout the night. Specialists were unable to control it, although she tried a variety of medications and I believe had seen doctors across Europe. She was unerringly cheerful about it and took it in stride, however, when Hedwig failed to find employment due to her disability, Bruce gave her a job waitressing at the Troub for as long as she needed it. (This was very hard on dishes and occasionally food ended up in the lap of customers, but Bruce never really cared that much about the comfort of his customers!) On another occasion he invited my friend Sue to spend Christmas Eve with him and Don when she was alone in London. She was Jewish so the midnight mass they attended (sharing a flask in the back of the church) was I believe, memorable indeed.

Bruce was the one who was interested in classical music and I remember him trying to impress upon the young me that the sound quality of CD’s was inferior to LP’s. He had an elaborate turntable and a record collection which seemed substantial at the time, although I now know that a large record collection is generally in the thousands. If I could go back in time I would ask him if he didn’t also collect 78’s, maybe he did. Of course, even better sound quality there – but I knew none of this at the time and it was my first introduction to the concept. He played me the same recordings on both to make his point, but my untrained ear failed to really catch on at the time.

The very beautiful Old Brompton Cemetery was down the road and I used to take long walks there as well. This was less unusual in Britain and many folks walked there.

Although I knew Bruce had died back in 2014 (at age 69) I did not realize that he had been in nursing care for dementia in the last years of his life. He had sold The Troubadour in 1998 and retired in the Chelsea area. His cousin tells me that growing up his parents ran an inn where his father would have held forth behind a bar much as Bruce would later in life at the coffee house, although his family’s preoccupation with running the inn meant that he was sent away to school early on as well. Bruce lost his mother to cancer when in was just 17 or 18 and purchased The Troubadour when he was only 25. Knowing his background, growing up with parents running an inn, that makes more sense now – he grew up in the business. He was estranged from his mother’s side of the family after she died. My favorite bit of information is that he was nabbed for smuggling Swiss watches into the country. Bruce would have been attracted to Swiss watches and their fine mechanisms!

For those of you who made it through this very long post, thank you for staying the course. I hope this gives a bit more color to my description of him to his cousin Sara, who made the inquiry. It made me think hard about that time in my life which I haven’t really in a long time and so it was very much on my mind. I hope you enjoyed the trip, but hope to return to Felix and finds next week.

Johannesburg

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Yesterday’s post poked around a bit at some of my underlying thoughts about heading off to South Africa for a week of work around the Joy of Jazz festival. My internal resistance to the trip pointed to something more than the inconvenient travel. Nonetheless, I hopped on a plane for upwards of 15 hours, and only after only a bit of intermittent sleep I found myself on the other side of the planet where I stumbled off the plane and began my adventure. While I usually write more about myself when traveling Johannesburg was surprising enough as place that I am taking a departure to do a bit of an overview in this post today.

Those of you who are Pictorama readers already know I have traveled a fair amount with two trips to Tibet under my belt, Bhutan and a bit of Nepal along the way. (I had reason to examine those trips in a recent post about a trip to California which was somewhat disastrous in August. That post can be found here.) I did a brief turn in South America (Peru, Buenos Aires, Santiago) many years ago on my first trip representing the Metropolitan Museum. Shortly after taking the job with Jazz at Lincoln Center I had traveled to Shanghai. (That adventure was memorialized in my post which can be found here.) Mostly I note this because I have traveled a fair amount for comparison. To my surprise, Johannesburg is not the Third World, but neither is it the First and I will write more about that below.

I had not really considered what I would find when I got to Johannesburg and frankly there were things that surprised me. On a very basic level, I had not realized that Johannesburg is at an altitude of almost 6000 feet. While that wasn’t really high enough for altitude sickness (Lhasa for example is almost 12,000) the first time I went to run up a flight of stairs I couldn’t catch my breath. It is indeed high enough to get winded with exertion and perhaps to make me a bit dumber than usual – not good when you are trying to work in a foreign country!

It is extremely dry which I had considered (no umbrella in my suitcase, lots of moisturizer), but I was surprised that instead of desert vegetation there were deciduous trees (leafy) and even some evergreens, although also the occasional cactus. It was spring there (the seasons are opposite from ours) and we saw an abundance of beautiful flowering trees at the height of their bloom. It was one of the nicest aspects of the trip, the smells of these flowering trees (beautiful purple jacarandas) and other plants as well as seeing them in flower. At unexpected times I would wonder at what I was smelling and ask what it was. Generally people just looked at me like I was nuts – clearly enough of their day to day that they don’t think about it and no one could ever tell me what plant I was smelling. Giant aloe plants also seem to grow wild and at one point I am fairly sure I was enjoying wild jasmine when outside taking a break at the Apartheid Museum.

The food was simply amazing everywhere we went – much of it South African, but with an especially memorable Portuguese meal tucked in there. While, by nature of my business, many of my meals were in fine restaurants, even the more modest meals were notable. I was concerned that as a pescatarian my options would be limited, but there was a remarkable profundity of excellent fish and vegetables while meat of all kinds was indeed in abundance. The extreme spiciness which I experienced that time in London was evident – although the hot spices were full bodied and nuanced, not just a matter of blowing your head off. Many of the upscale restaurants based their menus on either traditional South African or pan African cuisine. Several meals will live in food memory.

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Lunch at a cafe in Soweto.

 

The extreme dryness however surprised me by making me cough and, perhaps along with the altitude, caused my nose to ooze bloody congestion endlessly throughout the trip – which I gather is not unusual for visitors and tormented me, waking me occasionally despite exhausted sleep. I battled these issues by drinking what must have been gallons of water. Although some of my colleagues drank the tap water I never do in foreign countries (it may be safe, but that doesn’t mean I want to take the time for my stomach to adjust to it) so I felt responsible for a vast number of plastic bottles which will need to be recycled. (I did spy a staff person at the hotel carrying out those bottles in a bag almost as large as himself.)

As I mentioned above Johannesburg defied category of First or Third World so I Googled it out of curiosity and discovered that it is indeed in a somewhat new category of Second World. We drove to Soweto for a Jazz for Young People concert and on that drive there was poverty not unlike what you see in Nepal or India – shanty towns, vast areas of trash. There are people begging, although my experience was that it was mostly at traffic intersections and of course you see that (to a lesser degree) when you enter Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel. I was told that these were largely immigrants from the neighboring Zimbabwe who came to South Africa starving and looking for work. (Their immigration is controversial there.) Much of where we spent our time was like any cosmopolitan city however. We could have been any number of generic urban places. Joburg was a strange mix of things and in the end not quite like any place I have been.

 

It is no secret that parts of Johannesburg are dangerous and women in particular are told to be very careful. Night travel in particular seems to be considered carefully. As a result, and because I worked almost every waking hour I was there, I did not attempt to go anywhere alone which was unusual for me as well.  We saw some wealthy enclaves with walls around them which reminded me of Lima, although I didn’t see many individual homes this way – mostly sort of gated communities. When being driven to the north and the Apartheid Museum on the one morning we had to ourselves, our driver gave us a most interesting impromptu tour. He began by discussing the immigration issue – in his opinion the people from Zimbabwe had a right to come looking for a better life as had generations who had migrated to Johannesburg in prior decades. This is clearly a controversial issue there.

As we drove down a highway that could have been I-95 in Connecticut, I was fascinated when he pointed out a developed area of high rise buildings (could have been Stamford) and said that it had once been the heart of Johannesburg, but as the commerce moved to Sandton (the area we were staying in) this area had become desolate, deserted and ultimately unsafe. All the buildings we saw were now in disuse and inhabited by the aforementioned immigrant population. He pointed out a brick building that had been the stock exchange, a high rise hotel and said they were empty now and had been for years despite periodic attempts at urban renewal. (As Kim said, it begs to be the beginning to a story.) Further out he motioned to mountains covered in yellow sand that contained the famous (infamous) gold mines which were responsible for the creation of Johannesburg and said the mines of platinum and diamonds were further to the north.

Later that day we found ourselves at what was called a craft market which appeared to be the prescribed place to buy our tourist bits and pieces in a sort of one-stop shopping. Despite (or perhaps due to) my travels in Asia I have never been good at bartering. I might occasionally offer someone less for something, but that sort of expected to and fro has never been my strong suit. Therefore I was hesitant to even begin the game.

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Eventually I put my toe in the water with this cat figure which I gather is a leopard (their version of the king of the forest) and based on Benin bronzes. The seller had a few versions that were larger than my real life kits Cookie and Blackie and weighed five times what they do. He tried to tempt me with one of these, assuring me that he could ship it. (I didn’t think I could make him understand that I lived in one room in New York City with a husband, two cats and a heck of a lot of stuff already which made the size undesirable. I was the only person visiting the Mandela three room house in Soweto and thinking that the space was pretty good and about a third larger than our apartment.)

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Side entrance Mandela house museum in Soweto.

 

The seller then set his sights on selling me a pair of leopards – how lonely one cat would be without the other! I assured him that it was going to a destination with many, many more cat friends than he could imagine. We finally arrived at a price for the single cat and I dashed away while he shouted after me that the other cat would be waiting. I found a quiet corner where I purchased some fabrics made in traditional patterns and with vegetable dyes that would become gifts.

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Craft market from my bench perch, resting!

 

I chose one among a myriad of beaded elephants for Kim who spent several months drawing elephants earlier this year – trunk up for good luck. Lastly I added these few birds below and a couple of beaded bowls and then found a bench to rest on while my colleagues finished their shopping. Several members of the orchestra were also there and we compared acquisitions as we planned a route back to the hotel. Whew!

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We were to travel home on Sunday and the orchestra had been invited on a tour of a lion park early in the day so my colleagues and I joined the group. While it turned out to be a glorified zoo (which reminded me remarkably of my childhood trip to a then spanking new Great Adventure park in South Jersey which ran more to baboons than lions) it was interesting to finally get out of the city and see the non-urban landscape.

 

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Petting zoo where this cub uses a tree as a scratching post.

 

Working in another country (even out of state domestically) is always hard – event planning is most easily and successfully done when you can eliminate the unknowns and nothing is known to you in a foreign place. Therefore, this was a long and difficult trip (two seated dinners, welcome packages, a reception, a lunch, a lecture, four concerts – two which didn’t start until midnight – all tucked into five days) from a work perspective. Suffice it to say I had no trouble sleeping on the plane coming home.

However, when I consider what I actually thought of the country I am torn. South Africa, and perhaps especially Johannesburg, is earnest in its self-examination and forth coming about the issues and history they wrestle with which are real and difficult. The politics of their situation is well beyond my capacity to comment on in an intelligent way. However, I found the people of Johannesburg to generally be lovely and welcoming of us as visitors, but also well informed and involved in the continuing evolution of their city and their country.

Below is a few moments from our Jazz for Young People’s concert in Soweto which was so well received it ran over by more than half an hour as Wynton and the orchestra improvised for the appreciative audience of students. In the end I believe our music brought joy to all those who encountered it and in that way was indeed successful.