The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Out and Back April 12, 2015

This week I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to meet some old-time residents of Saratoga Springs. My heart is lifted to have met Rocky Groce, a DJ from back in the day, an 87-year-old fellow who knew every single song I could possibly think of…. He told me how he’d play hookie from school to go and hear the bands play… They’d hop on the subway and get to the Strand in midtown Manhattan just in time for the 1:00 show…. When I talk to cats like this, I can’t help but feel I missed my era. All those songs. And real live musicians. Everywhere. That culture is gone, and now the old-timers themselves are almost all gone now, and I’m starting to feel it. I’m feeling the importance of keeping the songs alive. But how? I myself don’t even know them in my fingers; for decades I was spoiled to live in Chicago and sing with some of the very best musicians on the planet. I never had to play. Just had to sing. I’ve always been a rather rudimentary piano player, but hearing all those old songs again as I reminisced with Rocky has got me thinking…. And playing, too. Been picking my way thru as many tunes as I can, stumbling through clumsy, simplistic voicings, rejoicing at just getting the harmony right. Right now I’m wishing I’d paid a little more attention to the music when I had the chance. But I can’t fret now, I’ve been a lucky gal. Just got to figure out how to go from here.

I met Rocky because, as it turns out, his wife Mia and our family friend Martha were classmates in the 1947 class of Skidmore College, here in Saratoga. Mia and Margie, another friend, went to visit Martha in the nursing home yesterday, and I met them there, my goal being to meet Rocky in person. Rocky didn’t know Martha, and had no interest in visiting, so he’d be waiting in the lobby. A perfect chance. I’d heard he had dementia, and that he was ‘really out of it these days’, but man, that was so not my experience. Maybe he doesn’t know what time it is, or what month, but who cares? (See, right there, two songs: “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “Who Cares?”) Yesterday, when I sat down with Rocky, I can tell you he was all there. It’s been ages and ages since I’ve enjoyed hanging with anyone like that. I felt so lucky as I drove home, and I sang the whole way.

Mia has her own interesting story too; aside from the fact that she was the first ‘woman of color’ to graduate from Skidmore College, which is in and of itself a rather historically important fact to note, she also represents a very important family in the town of Saratoga. The house where she was born still stands, yet it is the only one that remains on that block, as aggressive urban renewal campaigns of the 70s and 80s wiped out all the historic homes in her neighborhood. When the original families left the homes (built in the late 1800s), many then became neglected, low-rent tenement housing, and there were no champions to fight off the wrecking ball, except for Mia’s mother, Ardelle Elois Mouzon. She stood her ground, an elderly woman living alone in a house which was desperately in need of repairs, she weathered the city’s cruel tactics of turning off the electricity, and then even the water… The house suffered broken pipes and flood damage, but still, Ardelle would not leave. It’s thanks to her tenacity – and some help from daughter Mia, too – that the house still stands today. Now it’s the home of a much-loved, high-end restaurant called Mouzan House. Another interesting note: Mia’s mother Ardelle was full blood Cherokee Indian, and her father of Creole descent. (I’ve heard that that’s why Mia doesn’t refer to herself a ‘black woman’, but rather a ‘woman of color.’ Indeed!)

You can imagine how invigorated I was to have met Mia and Rocky and to have heard them tell me their stories. It got me thinking again… It got me wondering, what is out there now, today… tonight? Just what is going on in the world – what stories might I be missing? And what kind of music could I find out there? With Elihu being gone, it was a perfect time to see for myself. It was Saturday. Couldn’t be a better night. So I set out.

Started at the local piano bar. The fellow playing actually took a few lessons from my father, and it made me happy to learn that dad had allowed Rob’s students to play their Bach recitals in the Studio, and on his double manual harpsichords. Warmed my heart to know that he’d known dad. I hadn’t sung in literally years, so I was a bit less together than I might have liked, but it didn’t matter. It was a slow night, and the gracious hostess and owner, Brenda Lee (also one of the old-timer set) was there at the bar, singing right along with me as I swung through Blackbird and The Nearness of You. When he finished for the night, he let me noodle around a bit, and I tried my hand at playing and singing – at the same time! – which I discovered, like anything in life, takes a bit of getting used to when you’re out of practice. Not accustomed to doing both at the same time these days – but it was fun. He showed me how he had all his sheet music on his Ipad – and how amazingly easy it was to turn pages, locate signs and endings. I can see that it would be the way to go if I had such a gig. One more thing on the never-ending list. I’ll consider it a huge personal victory if I can just acquire a new jobbing keyboard, much less find a place to actually do the playing and singing.!

I went home to close up the chickens (which required doubling back five miles and donning my muck boots for a minute) and then promptly turned around and headed downtown. I found the streets were pumping as if it were high racing season. Bands rung out from every bar, and clusters of sloshed twenty-somethings in sky-high heels tottered into taxis, phones all aglow… My goal was to meet musicians. To find out where they came from, how they got the jobs, and how I might do the same. Ideally I’d wanted to find a hotel where I could play – a place where I can do my thing while people do theirs. I had many such jobs ‘back home’ in Chicago, but I can’t compare that time or market to this. I found the jazz joint, and it was a joy to hear real music again. But still, I couldn’t ignore the inner snob… It wasn’t great music, they weren’t amazing players, and I realized, once again, that the caliber of music I heard in Chicago, and the experiences I had singing with those top-tier musicians cannot be compared to this. I was fucking lucky back then. And I had no idea. But somehow, even in my glory, rocking a perfect size 8 cocktail gown and calling tunes in front of a full house, I still felt as if the ‘real’ things were yet to come. That somehow, this was all a precursor to the real success, the ‘real’ career which was, somehow, to follow in the vague and distant future. Right.

When the guitar player declined to show much interest in trying a voice and guitar duo thing sometime, I lost interest in sticking around for any more of their original tunes. I’d had my fill. Time to move on. I had a few bands to choose from, and squeezed my way into a bar out of sheer curiosity – the band was all middle-aged guys my age or older, and they were just breaking. I said hello to the keyboard player, a stout, bearded fellow who drives a school bus by day.  I asked him about jobs – hotels, weddings, that sort of thing. He admitted he didn’t know – it didn’t much matter to him, as his band was booked two years out. That impressed me. Talk about working! I admired his stamina too – they played two-hour sets at one stretch, set up and broke down all their gear themselves (I can’t imagine dealing with 70 pound keyboards at this time in my life!). They didn’t get home til four in the morning, and yet by the same time on Monday morning he’d be rising to get to his day job as if it were business as usual.

They started to play, and I admit that I was ready to do my big-city snob thing; I was ready to split after the first song, but damned if I didn’t stay for the whole set. I guess I was a little embarrassed to stay at the start, but the whole thing was just so fascinating – the mix of tunes, of generations, how they pulled together the set list…. How they copped the tunes as well as any pro jobbing band. It was interesting. And…. fun. Drunken young professionals spun a beer bottle on the floor which kept stopping its spin to point at me, at which point I’d be dragged out to the middle of the circle to dance with the chosen partner… It was crazy, and in spite of not wanting to succumb to the barroom madness, I did. And I dug it. I laughed to myself later on when I thought of the rocker bus driver. He sang great, sounded great, kept the stuff moving… And never would I have guessed it if I’d seen this cat on the street. So what do his charges know of his other career? Do they know that they have the cool bus driver? I wondered. ‘Nother lesson learned. That book by a cover thing – it so does not work.

Intrigued with the crazy-high heels all around, I stopped to ask a crush of girls standing on the corner how they managed in their shoes – especially up and down hilly Caroline Street. “Oh, it isn’t easy” one girl replied, a bit slurred. I pressed for more – were they truly five-inch heels? Or was there a one inch platform to assist? One girl offered that hers were all heel, and then… they all just sort of turned away from me. And I felt it. The phenomenon of being too old to be relevant. If it hadn’t been for the level of intoxication, I’m not so sure the kids would’ve been so welcoming to me on the dance floor. I definitely felt old in this population. First time I’d really felt it – first time I realized that none of my peers were out on the streets. No, they were at home. Asleep. With their kids down the hall, and their Subarus in the garage. Yeah, I was ‘over fifty invisible’. Mighta bothered me once, but not now. I turned and left the clump of tottering girls and headed back to my car, and back to my country homestead.

I turned on the radio and heard something that made my whole body feel good. It was a jazz guitarist. Man, I’d like to sing with someone like that, I thought. The shit was burnin. The subsequent tunes were good too, but when I pulled into the driveway I sat in the car and waited for the dj to back announce the tunes so I could learn who the guitar player was. It was Pat Martino. Yeah, mighta known it. I laughed, and got out of the car. Thankfully, the new neighbors had finally turned off their garage lights and the place was dark. All except for a deep red half moon, which was rising just above the horizon as I reached the front door. I would never have seen it if I hadn’t been out all night. Even if the night hadn’t lived up to my hopes, I’d had fun. And if nothing else, I’d gotten to see this perfect moonrise. And that alone made the whole night worth the money spent and the sleep lost.

IMG_6901That’s my new friend, Rocky Groce on the right. Do a little googling of the man and you’ll see he’s had a long and varied career as a disc jockey. That’s  JG on the left – turns out he was a big band singer. The two gentlemen are exactly the same age and both shared memories of cutting school in the 40s to hear the bands play at the Strand in NYC. They both heard Frank when he was young and in his prime.

Rocky recalls his youth… Wish I’d let the video go longer, but still nice to have.

IMG_6916Here’s Martha on the left, enjoying a visit from fellow Skidmore graduate, class of ’47, Mia Mouzan Groce. She is the hottest-looking octogenarian I have ever met. !!! Way to rock that leather jacket!

MiaAnd here’s Mia in 1947, just after graduating from Skidmore College. !!!

IMG_6928One more look at her…. not a whole lot different, ya think?

IMG_7063Things sure have changed since those tuxedo’d days of the thirties and forties! No pics from the Wishing Well’s piano bar or the tiny jazz joint, both which might have more closely resembled the nightlife of years gone by – but here’s a little look at the middle-aged men rocking a house packed full of tipsy twenty-somethings in modern-day America.

And here’s a little soundbite from “the Master Cylinders”…

IMG_7066And here’s the gorgeous, red moon I saw at night’s end, peering out through the trees on the hill. A nice welcome home.

 

Clean Slate February 22, 2014

For me this has been a day of very mixed feelings. From elation at the prospects of the future to intense pangs of sorrow at having lost something precious, now irretrievably gone from my life…

Today some friends and I cleared the Studio out of its contents. There was so much more stuff than I’d realized there’d be. And I do understand pretty well how stuff adds up – I’m rather a stickler for organization and pairing down to the most important stuff – but the piles and the boxes just continued to appear. It’s amazing how we humans manage to stash away objects. And when you finally do get around to excavating every last corner of the place and have set all the piles out before you, what then?  How do you let go of things when they’re so loaded with nostalgia, longing, subtle shades of regret? Where do you draw the line?

I regarded the boxes and when pressed as to whether or not they should go out onto the big trash pile I found myself sounding a lot like those poor souls on the show Buried Alive… “Mmm, uh, I might use those again, uh, maybe just put them here for now. Hm, um, wait, wait… I’m not sure, I don’t know…” Wait, me? I can’t let go? I myself used to help others let go of their stuff and organize their possessions long before it was trendy, long before places like The Container Store were even dreamt of. Under the informal moniker of “Assess a Mess” I’d go to people’s homes and help them throw away all of their crap or send it back out into the world. A combination of psychologist, personal assistant and trashman, I’d help them make all the hard choices. I employed what I called my “rule of two”: if you hadn’t used it in the past two years and didn’t plan on using it in the next two months, then out it went. I wasn’t cold-hearted about sending stuff away; I always tried to find objects a second life – and this was before the era of Freecycle, Craigslist or Ebay, yet somehow I’d make it through mountains of stuff, leaving a perfectly clean and organized joint behind. But now that it’s come to me – now that we’re talking about my recently deceased father here and all the tangible results of his life’s work – it just isn’t the same deal at all. And my mother’s hand is here too; it was she who kept the place running, made the videos of all the concerts, fed and watered the audiences at intermission, the musicians before and after concerts and rehearsals – her things are here too, and it’s troublesome to vote her things out when I know all the love and attention they represent…

Thankfully I had my partner Ceres and her kids here to help. It was far more work than it appeared to be at first, and I – physically or emotionally – couldn’t have done it alone. After getting a bit further into the job I discovered that the more I excavated, the more that I liberated the walls and corners of long-forgotten stuff, the more hopeful I became. I began to envision little future scenes of what one day happen here in this room. I’d been listening to the boombox I’d bought dad for Christmas last year (so he could listen to his favorite Bob and Ray CDs) to keep me going, and I heard violinist Andrew Bird on the local college station and wondered… might I host him here one day? I realize he’s become kinda big now, but I knew him in Chicago back in the day. Never know. And what of my other friends from my old life? I started imaging concerts, combinations of folks whose music I love… I didn’t want to spoil my fantasy with all the ‘yes, but‘ conditions, so I held back the sober voice of reality and limitation and allowed myself to continue to dream while I cleaned… Later on I heard jazz vocalist Janice Borla – also another fellow Chicagoan – and man, I though her recent recording sounded great. A totally different kind of music and crowd, but maybe, I thought, might I have something like that here too?

All manner of possibilities started to come to me, and I let myself fantasize for a bit as I worked. I loved music of all kinds – I just couldn’t see limiting the room to one thing or another. House concerts? Maybe that’s the route to go… Baroque Ensembles that are starting out and need a smaller venue? Hm. The jazz kids from Skidmore hosting small ensembles and including some of the high schoolers in town?? Stuff just kept coming. But then I’d feel a sudden wave of panic, when I’d look up from my task for a moment and see in my mind’s eye the room as it had been for decades… In an instant it was a late summer afternoon and the house was full of people, there was the scent of freshly cut hay in the air, and of course the music. The harpshichord, the gambas, violins, flutes, voices… The familiar sound of the chairs being scooched back on the wood floor as people got up to stretch and mill about… The dreamlike vision came upon me and with it all those subtle feelings I associate with my entire childhood. In my head I could still see so clearly the golden sunlight streaming through the western doors; I remember the flowers, freshly cut from the local roadsides, that my mother would arrange for a vase on the stage; I remember the murmur of the audiences’ voices as they chatted during intermission….

Baroque music and the scent of newly cut hay, the warm sunlight, low in the sky… The memories all swirl around my head, tugging at me to remain there with them, never to leave them lest they die forever… My heart wants things to continue to hear and see these very same things for years without end.  But of course, this is impossible now. Their leader is gone, that era has closed. I know I sure don’t feel like much of a leader myself, and I haven’t a clue what I’m in for. But I guess there’s no question about it. It’s my party for now, ready or not. Into the future we go, much to learn, much to do, and lots of great music and memories yet ahead. Thanks, mom and dad, for the great start. The Studio won’t be the same, but it will continue to have a lot of heart and soul.

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The Studio as it appears from the South from just outside mom and dad’s house.

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This is the side of the Studio people see first, the main door and box office are here. Note the stuff already piling up out front.

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I really wanted to convey the size of this hump in the middle of the room. Seriously, right now we could rent the place out as a skate park! Look at this stool – all four legs are on the floor!

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A selfie with the ever-present tapestry on the back of the stage wall.  Dad and I once had a picture taken of us on this very same spot. I’m feeling a bit sad about things right now.

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See the tilt of the floor now? Crazy!

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I was hoping this might illustrate the drama of the mid-room bump. Kinda…

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Ceres’ son, Christoper, is being creative in trying to illustrate the big bump. In real life it looks much more impressive.

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This is the green room. None of us (mom and me, that is) ever liked dad’s ridiculous choice of green. Ich. Thank goodness I can finally get rid of it. This room served as a backstage area, holding pen for several harpsichords and apartment for musicians and their families while they played here at the Festival. Now my Rhodes lives here – but after sitting in three inches of water for over a week, it’s in need of some serious cleaning and looking-over. So back to my basement it’ll go. That’s grandma’s rocking chair on the left – in good shape. Anyone want it? It’s yours!

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More stuff.

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The box office jam-packed.

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Hmm. You can always tell a lot about a person by looking at their trash….

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The spiral staircase to the balcony. As kids we had loads of fun on this. Note the high-tech, ten pound cam-corder mounted to the balcony railing – mom recorded every last concert on it. (We’ve since had them converted to DVD.)

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The Studio’s sign came off the frame shortly before dad died, and it’s been sitting in a bank of snow. Lest it become warped and useless as the wood floor of the place, Ceres and son Brian moved it up from the road and into shelter. (The Conant’s summer cottage is in the background – it’s where my brother lives now.)

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Ahh, such a great space.

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Always loved this beam detail.

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Even with the damaged floor, she still looks beautiful.

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Had to take this pic from a distance so it’s fuzzy – but it’s from mom and dad’s very first festival in 1959. !

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Here the Zabel family is going home after an afternoon of hard work. Thanks guys! We’re on our way now!!