City of Angels, a real high school musical

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My husband treated us to a night of surprising jazz from the most unlikely place, a private Seattle high school near Capitol Hill.

I brought our own high schooler James, 15, to the final showing Nov. 4 at the Seattle Academy Upper School. He hadn’t been to a live performance of anything since “Lion King” in 2014 when a musician friend played his guitar parts in the orchestra pit of the Paramount Theatre. That was a thrill, seeing actors in their gigantic animal costumes stroll down the aisle toward the open stage. Man!

As soon as he was old enough to sit still, I would take our son to children’s musicals at the Seattle Center, in hopes he would get bit by the acting bug or, at the very least, appreciate the performing arts. He’d go kicking and screaming, but when the curtain came down, he always demanded an encore. He watched with rapt attention, taking everything in, on and off the stage. Later, bursting to meet the actors, as well as check out the set design up close, asking where the sounds came from, why did that light turn red from blue?

He even took a few performance classes, nothing serious unfortunately. I’d also hoped to move him up to acting. He was too young at the time; just a few more years. But in a few more years, he grew to love sports (namely, soccer) more, abandoning the musicals of his early youth.

I’d hoped the same fire would return watching the performance of “City of Angels,” the Tony-Award-winning Broadway musical based on 1940s film-noir detective stories. Alas, his easily bored teenaged soul yearned to be back home watching “Stranger Things” on Netflix, chowing down on Uber Eats and Snap-Chatting.

With a musical steeped in the 1940s, there had to be the requisite jazz numbers. The band in the modest orchestra pit tucked underneath audience risers had to be slamming. And, they were. My husband led the band on piano. I saw at least three of his Nearly Dan (Steely Dan tribute band) members in the horn section. Nearly Dan creative leader Jack Klitzman on reeds was the one who got Ed on the gig in the first place for a four-night run.

Ed got a kick out of going back into high school theater, meeting the student actors, working around their dialogue and working through dress rehearsals. He used to do this very thing back when he went to high school at Kalaheo in Kailua, circa the late 1970s. After graduating, he did one huge musical production in Hawaii featuring world-famous comedian Jo Anne Worley.

His most recent foray back as an adult working musician was on the Carole King bio-musical, “Beautiful,” which he called a bitch to do, because of the huge material and the pin-point timing.

For us, the best part of the high school musical, “City of Angels,” had to be the jazz performances. Even our son thought so. James (who used to play trumpet in school band) praised his dad for acting as the dominant musical figure in the orchestra pit, adding that the piano performed as its own main character — in the sound effects and the underlying score.

We couldn’t really get into the acting or the story within a story of a screenplay writer trying to make sense of his and his alter’s life for an upcoming cinematic project. We kept notices the gaffes in lighting and sound, the mistakes in dialogue, the confusion, the memory lapses, would the leading man Stine slip on those pages (no)? would femme fatale Alaura miss catching the tennis ball (yes)? But these are kids, this is high school. Give ’em a break. They did fabulously, all things considered.

But then, everything stopped when Jaidyn Lam introduced herself as Bobbi, the lounge singer who got away, in a powerful, all-out jazz number in the middle of the first act. She belted out “With Every Breath I Take” up on that balcony — and I completely forgot she was in high school. She looked and sounded every bit the part of a 1940s MGM actress, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner wrapped up in one lovely package.

The people in lighting shot her with dual shadows as a backdrop, which heightened her tragic character and the age of this musical setting. But that voice, WOW. She was just as good and just as compelling as a grown-up jazz singer at Tula’s or Jazz Alley. Hell, she could probably win the Seattle-Kobe Female Jazz Vocal Audition if she submitted herself in February.

Unbelievably, Lam took on two roles, that of the doomed starlet wannabe and Gabby, the filmmaker’s dutiful good girl assistant who almost has an affair with the writer, Stine. Two very different characters, two very different vocal performances. What a closing night.

Ed told me the kid who played the fictional gumshoe Stone, Simon Matisse, was fantastic to work with, very down-to-earth, very open to direction, and very cool. Singing wasn’t his forte. He earned that pivotal role through sheer force of personality, as an actor’s actor.

Another student actor, Luca Rogoff memorably played two roles: Buddy Fidler and Irwin S. Irving. She provided much-needed comedy relief with the snappy, show-biz-talkin’ movie-maker Buddy, stealing almost every scene. Ed said she was a delightful addition to the cast, crackling with wit on- and off-stage.

“City of Angels” as a story took a long time to catch fire with me. I easily followed the story-within-a-story narrative of parallel lives — one real, one fictional, both intersecting in the finale, though.

Chemistry plays a bigger role in whether a story like this works with general audiences, not all of them musical fans.

But the live music… That was the star.

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knit one, purl two

Your husband was once a man of God.

I only remember a sliver of sun, bearing down on my withered body during the furtive lessons designed to straighten my curved back, prepare me for the broken world ahead.

…I would never live to see.

He taught me how to read from the Latin version of His Bible, the one with the hand-crafted lyrical font, the one he made sing with a single swipe of his restless pianist finger, the one he would lead orchestras with subsequent lives later.

The man of God took me into his solitary world of stonings and sacrifices, a barbarian who only reveled in the blood of Christ’s fallen as I sank my fangs into live, pulsing human flesh.

I can still feel the weight of that flesh give in my dreams. My jaw aches from the bittersweet effort.

We both ran for the exit in due time. But I can still hear the heavenly choir, while he plays another gig for pennies on the dollar and cops a virtual feel from the online fallen, the savage and the holy.

Music isn’t a Pop Game

Music isn’t a game. But pop is, was, and always will be, apparently.

I’m a diehard pop fan. I grew up on the Top 40 and I make no apologies for it. My father and my mother were pop fans too, in their own time. They gave me an acquired taste for bossa nova jazz, rock, and Broadway tunes. My younger brother turned me onto metal, and my former fiancé, alternative college radio (The Caulfields’ “Rickshaw!”).

Lately, I’ve been watching “The Pop Game” on Lifetime, knowing full well this isn’t real music and these aren’t real musicians. Well, except for Ian, the Texan guitarist, songwriter, and singer who has routinely given me chills by tuning the popular masses out and tuning into his own, almost angular vibe.

So, obviously, Cravetay is my least favorite.

Amateur pitchy wannabes like her are the reason mainstream music’s suffered from a disturbing lack of talent, creativity, depth. Like “world renowned” record producer Timbaland says more than once, We can fix the vocals, but you’re born with swag.

I think what pisses me off the most about this show and this pervasive attitude that anyone can be famous is the whole cult of personality disease infecting our free world.

Talent does and should matter. Other art forms require talent, why not music?

Like all art, the best is when the artist allows the muse to flow in then out, projecting his/her true voice without any adulteration, auto-tune, social media hype, or stylist. Art is truth.

No other art form can lay such truth bare better than music. No other art form requires the artist develop his/her voice to the best of his/her ability more.

I’ve heard too many real artists go unnoticed because the big box office studios prefer to go with superficials, the almighty physical appearance, almighty youth, that stupid excuse for bullshit called swag.

Swag is personality. Personality combined with ability equals truth in art.

Watching and disparaging what others do isn’t art. Ask any closet poet who writes from the bottom of a pit of hell of his own making.

Focusing solely on yourself as “the star” isn’t music. The music is what matters. Someone like Cravetay will never improve as long as she plays to that shallow bottom line, even if she will probably win the Pop Game. Because isn’t that what the world wants? Sugar on the fiber cereal, pass the Pop Tarts.

I’m also listening to a lot of fatalistic indie music lately, which drives home the point even more that life’s too short for games of any sort, pop or otherwise.

Not sure why. Maybe because my own time is at hand (I’m in my 50s, not getting any younger, and there’s this shooting pain near my pelvic bone) and the universe likes to fuck with me like that.

Those musicians have a shit-ton to say, and they say it thoughtfully with a whirlwind of artful instruments at their disposal, distilled down to the raw, gritty nub through their flawed, heartbroken, heartrending, imperfectly open humanity.

They’re not about putting on a glamorous show where one guy wins, and the other loses. They’re about collaborating so we can feel better about ourselves, so we don’t feel as alone, so we can feel something.

The only thing I feel when I watch “Pop Game” is rage, and the urge to throw my remote at the TV as hard as I can.

Peace Now

I’m reading. He’s good, tucking maybe regret, definitely affection — as a man would — in intentional throwaway recollection, the kind with marks.

Last night, I enjoyed my first home-cooked meal, a bowl of spaghetti sauce, organic, and a ton of broccoli. Sleep came in a brain wave of this light blue-green stitch and an endless series of possibility. Just past midnight, which is abnormal for me.

But I’m up now. Sunless.

Her repetition doesn’t seem right for this half-assed, ultimately cool, belated eulogy.

Diamond Girl

“Can’t you feel the whole world’s a-turnin’
We are real and we are a-burnin’
Diamond Girl now that I’ve found you
It’s around you that I am” —Seals and Crofts

“The Big Lebowski’s” on HBO, Seals and Crofts are playing their greatest hits, and I’m on the precipice of a decision: Writer or Slouchy Hat?

This dream, I knew it would be involved, intense and erotic, a whirligig of early Beatles impressions on a post ’60s high — with influences from the pulled pork Eggs Benedict I just ate rotting and shooting up my esophagus, as well as several weeks of major insomnia from the thundering approach of menopause.

I’m back in the music world, accepted as one of them even though I don’t play a note. These musicians, a startling array of them, seem to want something from me ticket money can’t buy. They play and I respond, or maybe vice versa.

One of them’s playing now, an aging rock star with a familiar lick from my childhood. I remember jumping down up front onto a pillow to get a closer look. He only cares about his show and the fact I nudged a bassist friend’s guitar face up, because he’s too famous.

As I debate whether to right the bass up, “Diamond Girl” pipes in from stereo speakers everywhere. Maybe the Seals and Crofts song has been playing all this time, waiting for me to pay attention.

The universal language of dreams is energy, we all exude some form of it. The closest manifestation of that energy, for me anyway, is music — music I can identify with, whether it’s a scorching solo out of nowhere that burns down forests, or a 1973 pop hit that used to play constantly on the radio when I was a child running around in Louisville, Ky.

I hear music constantly, dreaming or awake. Music or lyrics, makes no difference. It’s the vibe, the soul, the spirit behind the notes.

Sometimes the music is original. Other times, it’s this… A dedication of sorts from this man I know in real life who plays flugelhorn — someone who would be one of my best friends growing up in Kentucky chasing fireflies and exchanging comic books from our rising collection — waiting patiently through some amazing sets for me to look up and hear myself in the song he plays in his head over and over.

When I stop filling up the precious seconds with borrowed chatter, I finally do, as if hearing it for the first time. I hear it through his point of view, incredulous, almost disbelieving were it not for the Greek chorus in the many people who have crossed my life, many lifetimes.

Yet, this is the kind of lovely sentiment for other women, beautiful, charming, normal, accepted women, women up there on the marquee and the center of attention at cocktail parties — not me.

“You,” he said. “Only you.”

I looked at him, too, for the first time. Words could never describe what that meant. Therapy and truth. Support and freedom.

Everything at this point opens up and I’m blinded, as if I just stepped into the early morning light on the first day of spring.

There’s no attachment here, not to the past or the future, societal rules of etiquette or who’s fucking who, just pure mushin. Dreams, real dreams, aren’t about that boring life stuff anyway. Musicians know. Why do you think so many of them are misunderstood?

Energy, remember? I do and I did, and it was — for a blissful moment — wonderfully validating.

When I woke up, I immediately went to Google for the lyrics and then YouTube to listen to my song. It really does fit, in a spectacularly offbeat way.

And hey, the song’s not bad either.

‘More to Live for’: Wife keeps Michael Brecker’s legacy alive

Susan Brecker continues jazz musician husband’s legacy of help

Repost from Jazz Examiner, March 8, 2011

A new documentary chronicling the lives of three brave men searching for bone marrow matches inspired record numbers of Sedona International Film Festival audiences to be tested last month. “More To Live For” also enjoyed a sold-out second screening and the second-highest rating in the SIFF 2011 documentary line-up.

“Right away I saw the opportunity to make something that would motivate real change in the world through what I love to do; tell people’s stories.” –Director Noah Hutton

Featuring the late multiple-Grammy-winning jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker, aspiring Winter Olympian (Skeleton) Seun Adebiyi, and Love Hope Strength Foundation co-founder/entertainment insurance executive James Chippendale, the documentary-narrative will next show at the Cleveland International Film Festival March 25, 2:20 p.m., March 26, 1:30 p.m., and March 27, 7:10 p.m., at Tower City Cinemas. After each screening, audience members will have an opportunity to sign up for the bone marrow registry, with a free, easy testing process, involving a mere cheek swab. Co-producers James Chippendale and Susan Brecker, Michael’s wife, will be on hand following the March 26th screening for an informative panel discussion.

The Couple 3 Films Inc./Love Hope Strength Foundation documentary already earned a nomination for the Greg Gund Memorial Standing Up Film Competition at the Cleveland International Film Festival (March 24-April 3), and was just picked up for an official screening (April 3, 7 p.m., and April 8, 7 p.m.)/Sunday panel discussion at the Dallas Film Festival.

For the first time in the film festival circuit, all of the documentary’s cast and crew – Dallas is where co-producer James Chippendale lives – will attend DFF’s Sunday premiere. Bone marrow registry drives will also, as usual, accompany the screenings.

The bone marrow registry drives are what drives Michael Brecker’s widow Susan – a psychotherapist, playwright, and mom to two children – to do what she continues to do: get the word out, and save more lives. It is what the late, revered jazz musician/composer Brecker would’ve wanted and what helped keep him going until his final days in January, 2007—along with the love and support of family, friends, and his music, which produced perhaps one of the finest recording projects in jazz history, “Pilgrimage.”

I hear the documentary More To Live For is doing quite well. What has it been like for you to see audiences respond so positively to the stories of three gifted, well-known men, including your late husband Michael? It has been an amazing experience. After each showing, the theater becomes transformed, from a roomful of theatergoers, to an intimate environment. People begin to share about their experiences with cancer. And across the board, people respond that they are grateful for the stories, and would either like to donate, or they wished that they had known about the ease of donation when they were younger/eligible. One hundred percent of the eligible audience members have gotten tested after the screenings, which is very gratifying.

This documentary was just released. How did the germ of an idea for it even begin? I met my co-producer, James Chippendale, after I had read an article about his successful transplant in the New York Times. We both wanted to find a way to spread awareness about this under-recognized cause, and to sign up new donors. Film seemed like a natural way to tell the story, and reach the largest audience.

More To Live For has been doing well since its February 23rd debut at the Sedona International Film Festival. As a co-producer, what is it about this documentary that has been moving the audiences? Because the film is both a documentary and a narrative, people become engaged with the three men in the film. They learn about these three lives, and feel the struggle of finding a donor to save their own lives. I believe learning about the ease of testing and donation is a revelation to most people, and it is exciting to realize that saving a life can be so simple and rewarding.

What’s the ultimate goal for this documentary when all is said and done, and do you think Michael Brecker would be happy with its progress so far? Our mission is to save lives, and we will do this by signing up donors after each screening of the film. In addition to the film festivals, our plan is to go to colleges, cancer centers–anywhere in the country where we can spread the awareness and sign up new donors. Michael would have been thrilled. When he went public with his illness, he did so only when convinced that he would help others. Although a world-renown artist, Michael was a very private person. [Only] when he became aware that others might find a match through his going public with his search did he then agree to a public campaign. Over 50 lives have been saved just from our searching for a match for Michael. He would have been very pleased.

It’s tough for musicians, much less people in general, to see someone of Michael Brecker’s caliber to all of a sudden have to stop making music/stop doing what he loves most, to take care of such a terrible, debilitating illness—and not even know if he would pull out of it. As his wife, what was it like for you and your family to go through the highs and lows? And, how in the world did you all pull together to be so positive and inspirational for the rest of us? You are very kind. Any terminal illness presents enormous hurdles for families to experience. We have a very strong family bond, and incredible friends and other family from whom we drew and continue to draw enormous strength. That’s not to say there weren’t hard times. Michael and I moved to Minneapolis to receive treatment from a facility there, and our friends and family pitched in with care of our two children and visits to us out there. There are so many people who loved Michael, and were willing to help us. I will be eternally grateful to my friends, family and the thousands of people who got tested in hopes of finding a match for Mike. I am very blessed to be surrounded by such constant support and love.

In Corey Kilgannon’s August 18, 2005, NY Times feature, “His Saxophone Is Silent, His Life Is in the Balance,” both you and your husband stressed that donors register not just specifically to save Michael Brecker. That must’ve been tough to do. Most of us couldn’t have been so selfless. If it’s possible, can you explain how you both managed this terrible condition, its effects on his ongoing music, and yet remained positive, hopeful, and so generous of others? Mike was a humble and empathetic person. Knowing that his public search for a match might help others motivated him to go public with his illness. He was not always positive about his illness! But somehow the synergy between us kept us going; when he was low, I was able to pull him up, and often felt like I was giving him hope when he had none. And similarly, when I was frightened or down, Michael found a way to give me the boost I needed. Giving to others was never an issue for either one of us; we tried to remain hopeful that he, too, would find a match.

Tell me a little about what it was like for him to be able to finish “Pilgrimage” in 2007 before he passed away from myelogenous leukemia. First, he passed way from MDS, which is myelodysplastic syndrome. It is an incurable condition, which turns into leukemia.

Before Mike got sick, he was studying Bulgarian folk music. He became skilled at playing in that style, and had written many tunes in that genre. His dear friend Pat Metheny came to our house one day, and they decided that Mike’s next recording would be a jazz record, and he would record the Bulgarian one afterwards. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to make that record; the music is amazing. But he started writing the music for “Pilgrimage.” He worked on the demos in every hospital room he was in, and in May, 2006, he felt like he would be strong enough to record this album. I truly believe that this project kept him alive, as he had a goal of recording this music. It was a remarkable achievement, not only because he was so sick when he was recording, but because it is truly a masterpiece.

What about Michael Brecker, as a jazz artist, made him so outstanding with his colleagues and with the public at large in your opinion? It is difficult for me to answer this, as I am not a musician myself. I know Mike the person, and I have never heard a bad word spoken about him. He was a gentle, giving soul. When you spoke with him, whether you were a famous artist, a student, or a sanitation worker, Michael made you feel like you were the most important person on earth. He had a very special way of relating to people, which stemmed from huge respect that he felt for everyone.

“Pilgrimage,” which would go on to win two Grammys, is filled with references to Brecker’s struggle with the disease. What was he going for with this last recording and how was it different from his previous work? You might have to ask Pat or John Patitucci about this! But from my perspective, this was just another recording for Mike. It was, however, the first recording that he wrote every tune, and I think he felt the significance of this.

Great musicians like Herbie Hancock did everything for Brecker in the bone marrow drives and in encouraging him to continue on as a composing musician. What did their outpouring mean for him and for you? I think Michael was aware of the efforts of his fellow musicians during his illness, but he was uncomfortable with getting any special treatment. When he learned that the drives could help others, he was able to support our efforts. He was focused on feeling better, working on his music when he could, and being with our children. Their support of him as a musician was constant throughout his life; he had a world full of loving and supportive colleagues.

These friends supported us both during his illness and continue to stay connected with me now, with my children and with this film. I am so grateful for the love and support of the music community, and find that everyone who knew and loved Michael is willing to help me. I couldn’t begin to express my gratitude for the outpouring of love from musicians, friends and family. I will forever be humbled by the beauty of Michael’s life, and the community which surrounded him and us with love.

Nearly Dan rocks Jazz Alley Feb. 12

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Photo by Dave Bristol

You know you’ve arrived when Jazz Alley uses your review in its press release.

For those of you clamoring to see my husband Ed Weber live, here’s your chance. He’s the musical director of Seattle’s hottest band, Nearly Dan. Nearly Dan also happens to be the reigning king of Steely Dan tribute bands. The 12-piece tribute band returns to Jazz Alley for one night only next month.

Press Release

NEARLY DAN

February 12, 2017

FROM:  The Pacific Jazz Institute at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley

2033 6th Avenue, Seattle, WA, 98121

RE:  Performance at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley

COST: $29.50 (includes $5.00 service fee) 

The Pacific Jazz Institute at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley presents Nearly Dan for one night playing the Aja album! Band members are Jack Klitzman (saxes, flute, clarinet), Ed Weber (keyboards), Brad Boal (drums), Jamie Dieveney (lead vocals), Darelle Holden, Kelly Ash and Tina Hart (vocals), Rick Houle (bass), Michael McGee (guitar), Frank Seeberger (guitar), Andy Omdahl (trumpet), and Rich Cole (saxes & clarinet). Set time Wednesday at 7:30pm. Doors will open at 5:30pm.

“The hard rockin’ Steely Dan tribute band [gives] the…crowd what it want[s] to hear and dance to. And then some. At times, they sound just like the original Donald Fagen/Walter Becker ‘70s legends. At others…they surpass the originals.” – Carol Banks Weber, Jazz Music Examiner

Based in Seattle, Nearly Dan is made up of 12 national musicians who share a passion for the distinctive music of Steely Dan – revered for inventive music-making, jazz-infected lush harmonies and their own lyrical color. The individual Nearly Dan members come from across genres – from rock, R&B and country to fusion, swing and jazz – and have received training at institutions from Berklee College of Music in Boston, to University of Washington and Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. 

Endorsed by the company they keep, this group’s musicians have performed with greats such as Ray Charles, George Benson, Diane Schuur, Lou Rawls, Basia, Huey Lewis, Tower of Power, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Tito Puente, Natalie Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Gladys Knight, Julio Iglesias and Roberta Flack.  Perhaps the best part of this band is that is doesn’t suffer fools gladly.  Anyone who knows the music of Steely Dan, also knows that only fabulous musicians can pull it off!  A challenge this group is energized by…and rises to! 

www.nearlydan.com              Video: http://www.nearlydan.com/video.htm                 

Murmuration

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Mary Petrich

Synchronicity is a strange and wonderful thing, isn’t it? It’s everywhere, yet we’re often too busy, too tired, too weak, too self-involved to notice.

The other day, I was busy figuring out my schedule, coordinating plans with my son in his bedroom when — out of the corner of my eye at his window —  I happened to see these little birds swoop in formation out from our roof down to the front lawn.

The sight was small, almost insignificant by today’s larger-than-life standards, yet for me, it was magnificent, almost magical in context. I almost felt like I was a witness to the birth of elves and fairies.  It’s certainly not something you see everyday.

I also saw what appeared to be a red-headed cardinal pecking at one of the largest trees in our front lawn. It was really our resident woodpecker. I could hear my son tell me he tried to shout it away then later remembered as my husband remarked importantly, “Woodpeckers are territorial.”

Two days later, I’m here writing a review for AXS. I expected to do more work on the musicians’ union newsletter but hadn’t heard back from Robert about the WordPress. So I turned to the pile of CDs ready for review, the first one by saxophonist Mary Petrich, a musician I met during a break at a post-Thanksgiving gig at the Biltmore Fashion Plaza — another place I’d heard of long ago but forgot in what context.

I was there visiting friends in Phoenix for a week. The drummer friend went to sit in with a jazz quartet led by pianist Beth Lederman. Petrich was a part of this quartet. We all went to watch. It seemed insignificant, just a place to be until we got to have dinner together at this cool Italian restaurant we heard about.

I found myself approaching the saxophonist during a break. I have no idea why. Drawn to her, I guess.

Petrich was easy to talk to, as it were, and when she found out I reviewed music for a living (and for fun), she handed me her latest CD, Murmuration, which just so happened to be about the phenomenon I witnessed a few days ago from my son’s bedroom window.

Her Murmuration musically tried to capture the essence of, “The sudden massing of wild starlings in patterns of closely synchronized flight.”

What does it all mean?

I have no idea if there’s a big picture at play, or if this is a telepathic conversation that happens everyday and we’re too into our humanness to pay attention.

Pay attention.

Mary Petrich is a spiritually in-touch musician, and a nice lady. There aren’t many like her flying around here.

Hawaii’s celebrity ambassador: Jimmy Borges’ star-studded events treat jazz right

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Photo courtesy of Michi Moore

(Jimmy Borges passed away May 30, 2016 from cancer. I interviewed him in 2009, three years before he was diagnosed with and beat liver cancer, only to have the cells move up to his lungs. I’m reposting my Oct. 5, 2009 Jazz Examiner interview here.)

Hawaii’s premier jazz performer Jimmy Borges, 74, has done more, seen more, and lived more than most. He also knows more people on this planet– the famous, the infamous, great musicians, singers, even the local mob – than the average person.

Celebrity friends came about quite naturally during his regular Waikiki club gigs in the 1970s through the 1990s. A born entertainer with a special gift for rearranging standards and putting his audience of tourists, locals, and celebrities at ease, Borges cut his teeth at two primary hotspots: Keone’s on Lewers Street and Trappers at the Hyatt Regency on Kalakaua Avenue. This was back when live music was embraced, appreciated, and attracted the big crowds and the big money, before karaoke, before one-man synth bands, before DJs spinning techno-bad house music and cost the average tax-payer an arm and a leg.

Back in the good, old days of the early ‘70s, Borges held court at a happening place called Keone’s. Backed by a solid band, especially pianist Betty Loo Taylor, Borges did his thing every night except Sundays, 9:30 p.m. till 4 a.m. After 3 a.m., Borges and band really let loose with variations on “Lush Life,” “Wee Small Hours,” and other standards that lent well to improvisation.

The 2008 and 2007 Hoku Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Borges described the scene, night after blessed night: “I was there for four years. It was one of my very favorite places: black-leather, recessed booths, black walls and ceilings, cocktail waitresses dressed in Playboy-bunny outfits, all stunners… smoke hanging in the air like wispy clouds that would rain if you seeded it. It became ‘the place to go.’ I’ve had everyone from Frank Sinatra (who complained because it was ‘too crowded’), Diana Ross, Mel Brooks, Joe Sample, Average White Band, Jose Feliciano, Mel Torme, Mamas and Papas, and Joe Williams to Don Ho (almost every night!), plus every local entertainer and musician who came to sit in or came to learn.”

It was then that Borges earned his reputation as a singer who loved to play with the standards, making it his own, while maintaining each song’s melodic integrity. He’d also get together with the band twice a week to bone up on the new pop songs of the time period, and “jazzify” them. He got so good at this, that even actress Liza Minnelli tried to buy one of his arrangements (James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”) from him; he let her have it for free.

Whatever Borges was doing, he was doing it right, because the crowds jam-packed Keone’s every time they performed. Soon, everybody who was anybody headed down there: visiting sports stars and coaches, flight attendants and, yes, the local syndicate.

Members of the powerful, underground, local syndicate were also fans who now and then conveniently took care of the heckling riff-raffs for Borges and the band, but otherwise left the entertainer alone. “They liked me and my music, so I never had a bit of trouble,” Borges explained.

One night, a famous actor named Jack Lord from a famous TV show called Hawaii Five-O came by to check out Borges and his band. Borges’ innate charm, infectious energy, winning, local-kine personality, and ability to riff conversationally with the patrons in between songs and sets won him over with Lord, who came with a novel acting proposal. “I had never acted before (on film) so I asked him, ‘Why me?’” Borges said. “He replied that he would save the production money, since I could think on my feet and not be flustered by dialogue flubs and would continue on until I fed the cue line to the next actor, consequently less cuts by the director, saving shoot time.”

Subsequent acting gigs followed on nearly every TV show based or filmed in Hawaii, from The Jeffersons, Charlie’s Angels, and The Rockford Files, to Magnum P.I., Jake And The Fatman, and The Islander. And he did commercials for United Airlines, Sunkist Orange Juice, and many other products/services.

Keeping up an acting and music schedule was hairy for the multi-talented Hawaii star. “I’d get off my gig at 4 a.m. and head directly to the studio, where they would put make-up on me and I slept until I was called on the set. Did this for many years,” he said. “With all the side stuff going on, music was always at the core of my creative soul. If I had to choose between a great music gig or a film shoot, I always picked the music. For some unbalanced reason, I think that made the producers want me more, who knows?!”

After four years headlining at Keone’s, Jimmy Borges moved on to Captain Nemo’s down the street, which then became the Jazz Cellar. After six months there, developer Chris Hemmeter came to him with the perfect gig. Hemmeter had completed work on a new hotel, the Hyatt Waikiki and added a special nightclub just for Borges to perform in. That was the birth of the legendary Trappers.

On the strength of Borges’ name and reputation alone, he and the band (Betty Loo Taylor on piano, Steve Jones/Gerry Roush/Bruce Hamada/Lyle Ritz on bass, Noel Okimoto on drums, Sam Ahia or Jimmy Funai on guitar, David Choi on sax or his brother Junior on trumpet) earned a real salary, complete with vacation, sick days, full medical coverage and paid union dues/fees.

From 1977 to New Year’s Eve-1986, Borges and his band jammed with an implausible array of VIP big shots: The Count Basie Band, Wynton Marsalis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Al Jarreau, Mel Torme, Jean “Toots” Thielemans, Mavis Rivers, Anita O’Day, Smokey Robinson, Joe Williams, Joe Feliciano, Kay Starr, Connie Haines, Ginny Simms, Robert Goulet…

What would usually happen is, a big-name artist would come to Hawaii to do a concert, then afterwards go to Borges’ gig to unwind. Eventually, they’d be coaxed up onstage to perform with and/or in place of Borges. It happened a lot. Sometimes, they’d stick around and just hang out with Borges and the band during their off hours. Marsalis spent a week longer than he’d planned once, to enjoy Hawaii like a local and shoot some hoops with Borges’ drummer and trumpeter.

In 1984, Borges made sure to include a one-week-a-month Jazz Stars program, which turned the crowd out even more, so they could catch the likes of Bill Watrous, Bobby Hutcherson, Freddy Hubbard and Joe Sample for two whole sets nightly, with no cover charge. “One night, the Beach Boys came in and put on an impromptu concert for all of us,” Borges recalled. “Those were great times for music.”

When it was time to go — management cluelessly thought turning Trappers into a rock ‘n roll venue — Tony Bennett joined Borges up on stage to ring in the new year, 1987, and bid loyal customers goodbye. Trappers was never the same since.

Trappers and Keone’s are long gone. Gone by way of passing fads and misguided attempts at keeping up with the youth demographic, while trying in vain to draw in the coveted big-money of the Japanese tourists. Meanwhile, live music in Hawaii has suffered tremendously. Borges agreed, “Times have changed in Waikiki. Most hotels employ single guitarists/pianists/singers and music is treated like a semi-necessary evil. Very little respect for the art form. Consequently, the locals don’t come into Waikiki, and the ‘Hawaiian Experience’ for the visitor mingling with the local doesn’t come to fruition.”

But despite the passing fads and trends, Jimmy Borges remains a classic constant, the standard crossing all musical genres – standing the test of time and wavering musical trends – still out there doing occasional gigs, benefits and concerts, when he’s not traveling with his wife Vicki, winning golf tournaments, and mentoring up-and-coming singers.

He may have retired from the regular nightclub gigs that used to last till 2 a.m. past, but he still performs.

His next gig is coming up this Wednesday at Gordon Biersch-Aloha Tower Marketplace (6:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m.), in fact, featuring his Jazz All-Stars – Dan Del Negro, Darryl Pellegrini, Steve Jones, DeShannon Higa, Robert Shinoda, and super New York sax man, George Young. The following week, the man Honolulu Advertiser’s entertainment writer Wayne Harada named “one of the 50 notable islanders who’ve influenced the entertainment world since Statehood” will attend a St. Louis School soiree at the Sheraton Waikiki, where he will receive the Distinguished Achiever Award.

Next month, Borges and actor/singer Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle) will perform a Christmas show at downtown Honolulu’s Hawaii Theatre for three nights, November 27-29. Then, there are commitments to do some small, local concerts December through January, his Sinatra Music Tribute with the New Mexico Symphony March 6, 2010 in Albuquerque, another similar tribute with the Honolulu Symphony April 31/May 1 at the Concert Hall, a CD of his work, a documentary about his life, his autobiography (“Confessions Of A Saloon Singer”)…

Knowing Jimmy Borges, that autobiography is sure to become an instant bestseller.

The Collaborator: Seattle area drummer parlays love of music into thriving career

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I wrote this profile first for Examiner.com in Sept. 2009. Now that Examiner went away, I decided to re-post the feature interview here, with some minor edits. Bryon Atterberry has become a dear friend of mine, family even. He’s one of the hardest-working, most dedicated musicians in the area, and is slowly shaping up to be a drummer with his own distinctive feel. A lot’s changed since 2009. He’s no longer married, but still devoted to his two boys, and he’ll always be that drummer you can’t take your eyes off during a live performance of Steely Dan’s “Aja.”

Musicians who know and have worked with Seattle drummer Bryon Atterberry, 44 on October 28th, describe him as “committed,” “dedicated,” “hard-working,” “thorough,” someone who always does his homework.

There’s a very good reason for this. Atterberry practically came out of the womb playing drums. His older sister, Sheila, often brings up the time Bryon had to go in for surgery when he was a boy. While most of us were dead to the world, allowing the anesthesia to do its job, Bryon was air-drumming to a tune only he could hear.

His mother, Nancy, told him that he was born with perfect time and a deep appreciation for music. “… even before I could walk or stand on my own, I’d hold onto the stereo door (back when we all had the big covered consoles) and sway back and forth in perfect time,” Bryon said. “She was a big music lover and always had tunes cranked while she sang along – very loudly! We only had a few TV channels back then, so music was more prevalent.”

Despite his general love of all music, there came a turning point in his life—at age five/six at his first Neil Diamond concert with his mom, dad and sister. It must’ve been 1971 or 1972, “back when he ‘rocked’ and everyone got stoned at his shows,” Bryon described. The concert had a life-long impact on the serious, intense little boy. “[Neil Diamond] had two percussionists and a drummer. I freaked at how cool it was. … When I got home, the next day, I built a diorama type thing that was a stage made of cardboard. I cut out a guitar and drum set made of paper and cardboard and then had my teddy bear playing the drums and my Big Jim and GI Joe ‘dolls’ on guitar and percussion.”

“Real sticks felt great. I pounded on the little wooden pad for hours the day I got it and subsequently blistered my hands so bad I could barely hold a pencil the next day.”

Bryon quickly developed an almost all-consuming desire to drum, whenever and wherever—even when dining out at a Chinese restaurant, a rare extravagance for his working class family. Lacking the money to buy the real things, Bryon learned to use whatever was at his disposal, even chopsticks. At home, he’d practice on the couch, pretending it was a real drum kit. “My mom said it looked rather funny having me pounding on the fabric and having dust flying all around my head!”

By the time Bryon entered sixth grade beginning band – drums, natch – he used every opportunity to indulge in his passion and practice, practice, practice. Almost to distraction. He explained, “Real sticks felt great. I pounded on the little wooden pad for hours the day I got it and subsequently blistered my hands so bad I could barely hold a pencil the next day.”

It’s that kind of commitment and dedication that’s served Bryon Atterberry well throughout his 20-plus years as a working musician…

The following is a Q&A he kindly agreed to do (it’s revealing that he spends more time applauding the works of others than building himself up):

What did you do before committing yourself full-time to music?

I worked in a brass foundry called Anacortes Brass Works pretty much right out of high school and then on and off for eight years. I had virtually no plans for my life when I graduated. The only reason I even got the job was because one of the guys who worked there was the person I had buy me beer (since I was only 18). I had just asked for a half-rack a few days before so he had me on his brain when his boss asked if there was someone the foundry could hire to do grunt work. I barely hung on to the job since I would show up late all the time from being hung over. I eventually grew up and became one of the top employees. After about four or five years of doing this job and then randomly playing in garage bands, I made the decision that “I would be self-employed with just drumming.”

When people, mostly students, have asked me, “When did you decide to be a pro drummer?,” I usually respond with, “I didn’t. It chose me.” I have felt for years that God called me to be a drummer. He opened doors for me to do this even when I wasn’t pursuing it. I’ve obviously had to work on it, but I have just been available and prepared so that God can use me where He wants.

What are some of your current, favorite gigs?

… I am a part-time contracted staff member at my church, Northshore Christian Church (among others). I play for the weekend worship services and provide leadership on the bandstand for the less-experienced players.

Speaking purely of musical faves, however, I’d say that Nearly Dan [a successful Steely Dan tribute band, who finished up a nearly sold-out Triple Door concert earlier this month] is at the top of the list. I love the music, the grooves and the strong potential that we all have with this project. We have a long way to go, but I think this group has the ability to really reach a wide audience with some very creative music and arrangements.

You are a working musician and Mr. Mom to two elementary-school boys. Describe some challenges you face juggling these roles.

Luckily, right now, I have some time in my day to practice while they are in school. For the first time since my youngest (who is five) was born, I actually have some me time! I can’t just hang out and practice since I have a house to run too, but I am trying to get two hours of shed [drum practice] time in and also work on my business chops too. It’s not like I’m gone every night doing gigs, so I get a lot of time with them and get to watch them grow up – which they are doing way too fast!

“I have felt for years that God called me to be a drummer. He opened doors for me to do this even when I wasn’t pursuing it. I’ve obviously had to work on it, but I have just been available and prepared so that God can use me where He wants.”

Explain your music philosophy and how you work on gigs. You aren’t so much a solo artist as you are a collaborator.

At the very core of my being, I am a team player kind of guy. I love collaboration. I love being more of a supportive role for the other guys to shine. I like to steer the song as dynamically and musically as I can. If I can usher the audience and the other players into the flow of the song and make it painfully obvious where things are going, then I’ve done my job!

Drumming is a very self-expressive art form. Just like any instrument. But unlike other instruments, drums, most of the time, need additional art supplies to bring out the expression – we need other people to help make the picture. I like to think of myself as that very canvas – and even the easel – and the other players are the paint, paint brush and light. At times, someone needs to be the clean-up rag! I suppose we all need to take on that roll sometimes!

Another virtue frequently brought up by the musicians and singers you’ve worked with is your undeniable love for the music, all kinds of music. What role does music and playing music have in your life?

I had to think about this for a while. Music has a way of transporting a person to a place in their lives. Some songs bring you back to your childhood or some special time or event that you experienced either by yourself or with friends and family. Some music is just great in and of itself. There is an emotional and physical high I get because the songs are so strong and the players are putting it all out there through blood, sweat and tears. When I am in great physical drumming shape (which comes and goes!), I feel so connected to my instrument that I am moved sometimes to tears at how good it feels and I silently thank God for the privilege of being in that very moment doing what I love. Other times, if I’m tired or in a funky mood, I can’t wait to be done so I can reboot for the next time when I know it’ll be better.

The audience plays a huge part of it. I know it is sometimes cliche to hear musicians say that “we are nothing without our fans!,” but it is so true for me. The energy you get from the people who are either listening and/or dancing is so electric. It could be a really stupid song, but you know that folks are just having the time of their lives, so all of a sudden, that song takes on a whole new meaning for me and them. Seeing people dance and smile while I’m drumming is the best feeling. I know that at the very least, the most primitive aspect of music has made a connection with them – the groove and feel.

I can get moved to tears whether I am playing drums or just simply listening to music by myself in the car. I think that whenever we, as humans, are doing what God has created us to do, there is such deep joy involved. I don’t care what the job is. Music and drumming just happen to be mine.

To be a part of the music-making process means I get to experience something with so many different walks of life and create a memorable moment for them. It could be that you are playing in a club where some couple is on their first date. That whole evening will be cemented into their brain – and I was there! It could be a wedding ceremony. The happy couple may not remember everyone who was there or how the cake tasted, but they will remember the band and the music – and hopefully how good it was!

It’s name-dropping time. Let’s get to it.

Wow.  So many to remember.

Obviously, Nearly Dan takes center stage for me right now.

The concert I did with Greg Adams and Paul Brown last November was great. Greg was an original member of Tower of Power and they have been a huge influence on me and so many other musicians through the years.

I’ve played with The Coats, the a-cappella group. It was just me doing percussion and them singing. They are great entertainers. They really know how to connect with the crowd. I’ve done most of my traveling with them. I learned from them that it really isn’t about how amazing you are as a player, it’s about how entertaining you are. They have a huge following, because they put on a great show and they just happen to be very cool people to hang with. They are the real deal through and through – a class act.

Going to Hong Kong twice with the Martin Ross Band was incredible. He is by far the best performer and entertainer I’ve ever played with. I loved being in that band, because he would go off in some other direction with no warning and you had to be on your toes. I thrive in those settings. It’s like I’m enjoying the show for the first time just like the audience. There was never a dull moment.

I spent two years with saxophonist Darren Motamedy. His band was great. Doug Barnett on bass (with whom I’ve done tons of gigs. I owe a lot to Doug since he has opened up quite a few doors for me). Eugene Bien and Ed Weber on keys. Eddie has this ability to take a keyboard solo that almost sounds like a composition. John Raymond, who is also Kenny G’s guitarist, did a lot of shows with us when he wasn’t on the road.

My first big gig when I moved to Seattle was with soul and R&B singer, Korla Wygal. She could blow out a candle from across room when she sang! What an amazingly powerful voice! She owned the room when she performed. She was the quintessential Seattle Diva. She had a great band too. Amongst the other players I’ve mentioned before, she had Michael Eads as her musical director and guitarist. He also has helped me in my career.

Describe your ideal musical life.

I would like to connect with more of a national scene instead of just local stuff. There are a lot of great players out there and I would like to see how I fit in with the musical world. I am trying to get many hours of practice in every day, so I can get myself in better musical shape. I don’t think I have ever come close to my full potential, because of the constant ebb and flow of my performance schedule, teaching schedule, and my family life. My [family] means so much to me and I have put a lot of my dreams on hold to make sure that they have the best life possible. It’s a never-ending balancing act.

It would be great if I could get up, take the kids to school, practice for two to three hours, then go and do recording sessions for a few hours, and then go get the boys from school. Perhaps do local gigs three-four times a week – that hopefully don’t have me up until four in morning! If I do go on the road, I wouldn’t want it to be more than a few days or a week at a time or I’d miss my … kids too much. Getting a gig with some has-been rock group from the ‘70s that travels around doing short tours to the baby-boomer demographic would be great right now! They are too old to hit the road for months at a time! Perfect!

Maybe Bryon should give Neil Diamond a ring.