Monday, May 19, 2008

Bill Reed presents ... Blossom Dearie Day

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Blossom came along at just the point in time when everyone who had designs on being the next Ella or Frank was being blown out of the water by the tsunami of rock and roll sweeping the land. Dearie is one of one the few of those wannabes who managed to survive, and in her case, rather big time.

Dearie has a widespread rep in the biz as being a tad tetched, or to put it in lay terms, she is believed to have bats in her belfry. That is to say, her elevator does not go all the way to the top. But, in fact, from where I sit, she seems to be merely crazy like a fox.

She did suds of TV commercials circa 1960s-1990s, and as late as 2000-and-something, one could view TV ads for Banana Republic with the soundtrack featuring Dearie singing one of her signature songs, ““Peel Me a Grape,“ with Lyle Lovett. She also did voiceover shilling for, among others, Contac, Carolina Rice, Hires Root Beer, Calvin Klein, Serta, and Cover Girl. She must’ve made gazillions doing this, thus freeing her up to record exactly what she wanted to, and to appear in exactly the kind of intercontinental intime boites that would accede to her demand for smoke-free silence and no serving during her performances. (“You want WANT us to stop doing WHAT while you perform?”).

Dearie’s, to put it another way, batshitcrazy personae was immortalized for all time in a novella-length post on a certain Yahoo group devoted to female jazz singers by the late and brilliant journalist-record producer-lyricist-educator Joel E. Siegel (no, not the other dead Joel Siegel, the one from Good Morning America).

I know A LOT of Tales of Tiny Terror (that’s what I’ll call my collection of Blossom horror stories if I ever get around to writing it one day) including some from personal experience. But to heap these, in this space, above and beyond Siegel’s TOTT would be kinda overegging the custard, doncha think? And maybe it's all just a case of, as Miles Davis remarked o Dearie, "She's the only white woman who ever had soul."



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The Blossom Experience
By Joel E. Siegel

In the early '80s, I produced a concert series at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. called "Great American Songwriters." The idea was to match up first-class jazz and cabaret performers with GAS composers or, in rare cases, special themes. The series ran for three and a half years in a lovely 197-seat auditorium with a superb Steinway piano. Many of the programs were taped by and subsequently broadcast on National Public Radio.

Overall, there were about 30 concerts spread over three years. Here's a sample of the programs: Jackie and Roy doing concerts of Stephen Sondheim, Alec Wilder and a collection of songs they introduced; Pinky Winters and Lou Levy doing Johnny Mandel; Carol Sloane doing Rodgers and Hart; Charles DeForest doing Harry Warren; Ethabelle doing Harold Arlen and John Latouche; Sheila Jordan doing songs by jazz musicians; Buddy Barnes doing Cole Porter; Shirley Horn doing Duke Ellington and Curtis Lewis' "The Garden of the Blues Suite"; Mark Murphy doing Dorothy Fields; Julie Wilson doing Arlen and Kurt Weill, Sandra King making her American debut with a Vernon Duke program. Well, you get the idea. Others in the series included Chris Connor, Margaret Whiting, Carol Fredette, Ronny Whyte, Rose Murphy, Dardanelle, Bob Dorough, Dave Frishberg and many more. (Apologies to anyone I forgot to mention. My box of materials with the full list of performers is stored in my attic.)

Obviously, this was a perfect venue for Our Blossom. My negotiations with her were rather complicated. From the outset, she rejected the idea of preparing a special program as all of the others did. ("I'm a Great American Songwriter myself," she informed me.) I decided to bend the rules because Blossom is special and I knew she would draw a full house. So I gave her carte blanche to do whatever she wanted. I told her that traditionally we had a celebration dinner at a restaurant in Chinatown after the 4 p.m. concerts, to which a handful of people associated with the series were invited-Jennifer, my helpful and charming young intern-assistant from the Corcoran, Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell, several patrons of the series, etc. Blossom told me that her brother Walter and his wife would be coming from Winchester, Virginia, and asked that they be invited to dinner and that a driver be assigned to them. The Blackwells graciously volunteered provide them with transportation.

On Saturday, I picked Blossom up at Union Station and drove her to her hotel, a comfortable place just across the bridge from Georgetown. She was tired so I left her to rest after checking her in. The next morning, I was awakened at 8 a.m. by a call from her. She said that she needed to rehearse and had to find a place with a piano. This struck me as rather odd since she was performing solo and doing songs she had performed hundreds, probably thousands of times before-"I'm Shadowing You", "My New Celebrity Is You" etc. I told her that I had a piano, albeit not a very good one, and would be happy to drive into D.C. from Arlington, Virginia, and bring her to my place. She said she needed to have breakfast first, and would call me as soon as she was finished. I couldn't fall back to sleep, so I awaited her call.

9 a.m. 10 a.m. 11 a.m. 12 p.m. No call. Finally, I began phoning her, but got no response. 1 p.m. 2 p.m. I'm getting nervous because we have a 3 p.m. sound check. Finally, she called me at 2:30. I told her that I was worried that something had happened to her. She sternly said, "I told you that I was going for breakfast." "But that was more than 6 hours ago," I pointed out. "Oh," she said, "They were very slow." End of explanation.

I hurriedly picked her up and took her to the Corcoran. I had told her in advance that NPR was taping the shows and outlined the terms of their contract with the artists. When we arrived at the Gallery, she saw the sound truck, turned to me and imperiously said "It is not permitted." When I inquired WHAT was not permitted, she replied the taping of her show. This was the first time I had been informed of this stricture. An angry NPR sound crew, working overtime on Sunday, was turned away.

We entered the auditorium where the obliging Jennifer was setting things up. Nothing this young woman did satisfied Blossom. The lights were too bright. The lights were too dim. The piano had to be moved numerous times. Instead of requesting changes politely, Blossom kept snapping at the flustered young women in the most insulting manner. Embarrassed by her behavior, I drew Blossom aside and quietly said "You know, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar." She looked at me blankly and replied "I don't know what that means."

Finally, we managed to set things up to Blossom's apparent satisfaction. Just before we were to open the doors, she walked out into the seating area, called me over and asked "Where are all the flowers?" Totally disgruntled by her, I replied "I didn't bring them, Blossom. Did you?"

The audience enters-a packed house with standees-and I introduce Blossom. She takes elaborate bows, then notices a woman standing by the entrance door holding a baby. Blossom points to her and asks "Is that a baby?" The woman indicates that it is. "Does it cry?" Blossom inquires. The woman says "He's asleep. If he wakes up and cries, I'll take him outside. That's why I'm standing by the door." Blossom repeats her earlier mantra "It is not permitted" and the woman and her baby are banished. This behavior does not endear her to the audience.

Blossom performs the first half of her program. Not one of her shining hours. She hits a number of keyboard clunkers. (Maybe she was right about needing to rehearse.) Just before the intermission, she spots Felix Grant, the famous Washington jazz disc jockey, in the audience. She comes to the front of the stage, introduces him and makes a little speech. "I have never performed in the nation's capital before, and for years Felix has been trying to arrange a concert for me here. I guess this must be a pretty big day for you, right Felix?" On that modest note, she retired to the dressing room.

During the intermission, Shirley Horn, who was in the audience and had known Blossom since her New York debut with Miles Davis at the Village Vanguard, popped backstage to say hello. Shirley returned a few minutes later with a puzzled look on her face. I asked whether Blossom was acting strangely. Shirley nodded her head and said, metaphorically, "I think she's gone inside, locked the door and now she can't get out."


The second set unfolded without incident, apart from a few pianistic clangers.

Afterwards, Blossom briefly received her audience. Two gay men, who were regulars at the series, told her how much they enjoyed her, and made a point of saying that they had attended her PREVIOUS D.C. appearance at a gay-owned supper club called the Way Off Broadway, where Barbara Cook, Anita' O'Day. Helen Humes and others had also worked. (Blossom had revised history so that the venerable Corcoran, which she must have perceived as a more reputable venue, was now the site of her "official" Washington debut.) She pretended that she didn't know what they were referring to.

Concert is over. Time for dinner. The Blackwells escort Blossom's brother and wife to the restaurant. We close the auditorium, and I start to drive Blossom to the same location. Only she doesn't want to go there. "I want to see the monuments," she insists. "But everyone's waiting for us," I reply. "I'm not hungry," she pouts. "I want to see the monuments." I give her an abbreviated tour of Tourist Washington and take her to Hunan Gourmet where everyone has grown restless waiting for her.

Arriving at the large round table I reserved that seated 10 people, Blossom complained that she didn't like the chair that was left for her. She made everybody stand up and forced them to exchange seats to suit her. Then she announced to the starving gathering that she was not hungry. Helpfully, I suggested that we could just have drinks and snacks.

"No snacks!" she commanded.

We ordered drinks and, despite her instructions, some appetizers. Before the order arrived, she announced that she was leaving and asked if someone would hail her a cab. In a moment worthy of a Lubitsch comedy, every man at the table leapt up to escort her to the street and get rid of her. I can't recall whether or not her nice relatives remained with us, but I think they did. (Bill Blackwell probably can probably clarify this.) As soon as she was gone, we trashed her roundly before ravenously consuming a huge meal. Subsequently, I learned that Blossom had taken that cab to Charlie's, a jazz club in Georgetown, to see if she could secure a future gig. Had she bothered to inform us of her intention, we could have convened at Charlie's rather than in Chinatown.

To this day, I have yet to solve the mystery of her six-hour breakfast.

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I LOVE this Japanese discography (she is even more renowned in that nation than in the U.S.) because of it's Dearie-like eccentricity of prose, and the fact that it also serves as a rather handy chronological overview of Blossom's career. (Though it does fail to note that Dearie was the female singer of King Pleasure's inarguably immortal 1952 Moody's Mood for Love" ("There I go, there I go, there I go.")

I promised David Ehrenstein, my good friend and traveling companion of the past 35 years, that I would let him weigh in on the subject of Dearie, even it does further reinforce her image of having splinters in the windmills of her mind. Take it away, Mister E:

If there's such a thing as "white writing" (and Roland Barthes insists there is) then Blossom Dearie is "white singing." No, not simply because she's white by racial classification, or because of the whiteness or her hair. The very sound she emits is whiteness, of the sort Poe described at the climax of "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," and Mallarme alludes to constantly. Naturally it's associated with Death. If anyone is planning to musicalize Jean Cocteau's "Orphee" then Blossom would be ideal as Maria Casares. To say she is "difficult" is like saying Catherine Deneuve is French. Look up "Difficult" in the dictionary and you'll discover Blossom's picture. It's a kind of a trade-off -- the sweet softness of her voice for the hard shell of her actual person. When Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau made their marvelous road movie "Adventures of Felix" they thought the best way to open it would be a scene of their feckless hero (played by the lovely Sami Boujilah) riding his bike along by the seaside with blossom singing "Tout Doucement" on the soundtrack. Well they managed to get it in spite of having met her. "She is crazeee!" they exclaimed to me in unison. Why is she this way? Why is the sky blue? Why do the oceans roar? Why do seemingly intelligent people vote Republican? Ours is not to reason why. Just look and listen.

Blossoms on Youtube


7 comments:

Mat said...

There are times around here when I feel I lived in a vacuum for many years.

Blossom Dearie,mmm...

Spent the weekend in Monterrey on a men's retreat, away from tv,radio,etc. Very,very, nice.

I love being able to just sit on the rocks by the ocean and just BE.

Hurry back!

joe m said...

A men's retreat

Blossom Deary

Mat,you have rich and varied life

T H O M said...

mmmmm so deep

my third year performance recital @ university was the music of blossom dearie.

the 'winchester in apple blossom time' album has weathered me through many a (as creeley would put it) 'dark nights of the soul'.

to wake up and see her here on DC is a day-maker.

CycyLolo said...

I (Cycy) really love the voice and the songs of Blossom Dearie. She is amazing. The japanese CD of her Live performance "Sweet Blossom Dearie" is my favourite... Thanks for this great post.

Thomas Moronic said...

Bill - A fascinating character; I'd never heard of her before. London In The Rain is my favourite so far.

Dennis - Hey no rush with the poem. I'm totally up for meeting up on Wednesday. My train gets into Manchester at 6, so a 6:30ish meet for me would be doable. I guess if other people chip in with their ideas then I can just go with the flow.

Steve Lafreniere said...

I never saw this one when it was first up. Bill Reed, thanks a million. I'm a big Blossom fan, and those stories don't surprise me. I knew there was something strange going on in that head the first time I saw her play live.

Spinning said...

That Joel Siegel piece: Hmm.

he wrote something very similar - as liner notes, of all things - for a release by Shirley Horn (on Audiophile), shortly after she had changed management. (From Joel S. to... well, I'm not sure who; it was a while after she was signed to Verve.)

There seems to be some (attempted) retribution, in both cases. I think I always figured that Dearie was strange; that doesn't mean someone needs to tell the world about it.