Ellington is Essential

Pam’s Pictorama Post: This is a quick post today as I am dashing off to Rose Hall (the House of Swing) where I spend much of my time since taking up my post at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Having recently hit the two year mark, now it is hard to remember that there was a time when the labyrinth of our backstage confounded me. But this post isn’t so much a reflection on that as how I will spend my day today. This weekend in May belongs to a competition of fifteen of the finest high school jazz bands the nation has to offer fighting for the title of the best in the US.

Among the somewhat myriad educational programs we run, this one is called Essentially Ellington. Born out of the realization that most of the arrangements for Duke Ellington’s music were lost, Wynton Marsalis began a journey of recreating them (a band member actually does this each year) and distributing them for free to high schools all over the country. Many of these high school jazz bands then compete regionally for the opportunity to be one of the bands chosen to come to Manhattan to show their stuff and compete for the national title which happens over a three day period in May – this year culminating today in the finale of the 24th year of the program.

The first year I attended I thought – man, a whole day of high school jazz bands – I wonder if they are paying me enough? I was very quick to realize how very wrong I was. These kids are amazing – think Olympics of jazz band competition. I’m telling you – people would pay to hear most of these kids play.

Although it is a competition they are generous with their praise for each other – great solos are met with thundering applause and approving cheers, each school’s performance given an enthusiastic standing ovation when it completes its rounds. Last year when a young female trumpet player hit what is sort of the triple crown – winning the composition award, top achiever award and her band taking best in the competition – the approval of her peers just about brought down the house. Additionally, the ovation of the kids for their band directors at the end of the festival went on for seven minutes – there is love to spread around in that hall on Saturday night.

Since I am a fundraiser I know the details and demographics well. Half of the schools that compete nationally are what are called Title 1 schools which is the designation of those which are financially disadvantaged. Understanding the lack of resources at those schools, and even with the assistance we can offer (financial as well as providing some on the ground educators to train band directors and do some clinics with the bands locally at the schools), it is nothing short of a miracle what these chronically under-resourced schools achieved in order to arrive here this weekend.

While all the students are all of a high caliber, there is nothing like the moment when one of them takes a solo and suddenly the judges all sit up a bit and start to smile. As jazz musicians themselves they can’t help responding to the music. Yesterday during a trumpet solo by a young man from Rio Americano high school in Sacramento began his solo, I too found myself sitting forward in my seat and when the group from Snoqualmie, Washington took the stage next we were all blown away by a young woman who took her turn soloing, singing and playing the trumpet. Memorable.

By the end of the weekend new friendships will have been forged among the students – and for some of them, especially those who pursue a career in music, those are the seeds of cohorts that will inform the professional relationships of a lifetime. Many of the band directors will send love from the stage to wives who are chronically deprived of husbands on Mother’s Day again and again over the years. (The competition is webcast on our jazz.org site and many of the competing schools are watching it and cheering their school in auditoriums back home although a variety of parents and teachers travel with the kids as chaperones.) My colleagues from all parts of the organization, from the Chief Financial Officer to assists, will each be responsible for one of the bands throughout the competition. Seeing them in the civvies for long days and evenings in the hall is part of the drill.

It is all as American as apple pie, if also somewhat exhausting. As one fan said of the festival, there’s something about it that is very democratic, and for this and other reasons we will all find ourselves wiping a tear here and there over the course of the three days. So it’s 7:00 AM and I have to get to midtown. Let the finale begin!

Breakfast

Pam’s Pictorama Post: It’s early Sunday morning and instead of being curled up at our computer at the far end of Kim’s work table, which is where most mornings find me, I am propped up in bed in “my” room at my mom’s house in Fair Haven, NJ. Pictorama readers have found me here before and therefore might guess that I have cobbled together my breakfast from my mom’s mostly vegan offerings. Although only exercised infrequently, it is an alternate routine of sorts. I scrounge coffee and a bagel and take it back upstairs so I don’t have to face her hungry cats with the decision of whether or not I should intercede on their behalf, break ranks and feed them early.

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Mom’s cat Red joins me on a sunny spot on the bed while I write this

 

I myself have a cat-like craving for routine and a green smoothie and (very large) coffee in hand is how I start most days at home while at the computer and chatting with Kim. I try not to get sucked into my work email and instead read the newspaper online (prize or interesting tidbits read out loud to Kim, who in turn proffers some stream of consciousness thoughts while he works) or if it is the weekend work on a blog post.

I wrap up with a look at Twitter and Instagram (see last week’s post which describes my cheerful all-cat, all-early-film preferences on social media) and then, if it is a weekday I begin the process of getting ready for work. I like to get there early and frankly it isn’t an early morning kind of place so being there first isn’t that hard to achieve. Today’s post is about the space between leaving the cocoon of the apartment and arriving at work, although I will perhaps devote a future post to the Q train, which deserves one of its own and skip that part of my routine. (As someone who walked to work for years taking the train each morning was a big change.)

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I have lived my entire adult life in New York City, so I don’t know if the daily commute to work kicks off sufficiently different elsewhere. We live in a building in the Yorkville section of the most Eastern part of upper Manhattan. Our building, christened in 1960, is of an anonymous white brick facade where one in a rotating series of doormen are the last folks to say have a good day each morning. I always feel as if they should also hand me my brown bag lunch as my mom used to do on my way to the school bus each day.

I have written before about my chosen neighborhood diner previously in my post Cornered (found here) and also about the role a local diner played in my walking commute to the Met each morning – a tradition that I mourned a bit in my post, here,  about leaving that job after 30 years. Starting on my first day of work at Jazz at Lincoln Center I began sizing up my breakfast options. I eventually began dividing my breakfast consumption between a bodega and a restaurant – on either end of the block that is the west side of Seventh Avenue between 57th and 58th.

The bodega is less expensive. Starting with this new job, I fell into the habit of purchasing flowers for my desk  at the start of each week and the bodega wins many Mondays because it also sells flowers. The downside to it is coffee that is not great and the fact that the construction workers, who put in long days on the towering structures near my Columbus Circle office, form long lines and purchase baskets piled with staggeringly high calorie breakfasts of eggs, cheese, sausage and bacon, coffee and other drinks.

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Office flowers one day recently

 

On the other corner, my preferred establishment was a restaurant with take out in one half of it. The waiters and coffee guys. a rotating cast of musicians. occasionally belting out a rather stunningly good renditions of Happy Birthday (yes, at breakfast and I cannot explain that) for an appreciative customer. I often wonder to myself if being a few short steps from Carnegie Hall was encouraging or discouraging for them.

The short order cooks, a non-singing crew, generally remember my regular order. Then, as things do in New York, it closed abruptly one day. It took me a few days but I eventually found the cooks, but not the singing waiters and coffee guys, at a chain restaurant called Roast Kitchen and, after an initial snobby resistance to breakfast at a chain restaurant began to frequent it.

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Morning at Roast Kitchen, 57th Street near Seventh Avenue

 

My order varies daily, although my large coffee with skim milk is consistent. One of the men there offers me a blessed day whenever he waits on me (or sees me) which was a bit surprising at first, but I have come to appreciate. After all, blessing is good. They offered me the rare free coffee or even lunch on occasion – as at one point they also became my midday salad provider. (I am especially fond of the spicy pumpkin seeds, pepitas.)

The regular cast includes three men – the man who blesses me, another man who does most of the cooking and is the least friendly, and a very young man who seems only capable of the most simple tasks at hand. (Making your coffee is, for example, a bit complicated for him, especially when combined with the cash register. However, he seems to be reasonable adept a making the soup base and the prep for the later lunch.) There is an occasional woman working the register, but not often. They appear more frequently to help at lunch.

One of the things that interests me about it is that, despite being a chain restaurant, they actually do seem to cook there. I see stock being made each morning for the daily soup, the oatmeal homemade as well – it isn’t just all dropped off a truck from a shared kitchen in another borough. Hot greens with a pile of grain offerings isn’t my thing for lunch, but the salad made to order is acceptable – sometimes with a slab of roast salmon, but most often not. There is only mysterious artisanal and I tend to avoid it.

Lunch caters to a broad population, office inhabitants like myself, students and teachers from The Art Student’s League next door, and there is a long line snaking through the storefront. No time for any pleasantries – all business at lunch – as am I, feeling lucky if I have managed to duck out for the ten minutes round trip to get the aforementioned salad.

Meanwhile, the whole point of the breakfast interaction is that it also be briefly efficient and mine is generally satisfyingly so. Yet, it is an important interlude in the space between the subway and the office, as I move from one world to the next and prepare for the rigors of my day. It is a friendly oasis these days between and not unlike the doormen at my building each morning, they send me on my way with their well wishes for a good day and hopes to see me later – and a paper bag with a hot breakfast in my hands and I am repeatedly grateful – and yes, in fact somewhat blessed.