Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Return to the Homeland

In late January my wife and I were summoned to the Homeland to await the arrival of our seventh grandchild. Our function was to help feed, clothe and transport the pre-existing grandsons, Benjamin 6, and William 4, during the difficult period of adjustment to the arrival of a new competitor for the family's attention.

Given the ever more truculent attitudes of the Department of Homeland Security and its sister agencies, we weren't thrilled by the prospects of the trip. However, to be fair, most of the inconveniences we experienced were administered by the private sector, i.e. the airlines, and the airline manufacturers, but I'll save those details for another time. If you travel much these days, you already know that story.

By a strange twist of fate, our daughter Francesca and her husband Jim live in Glen Rock, New Jersey, the same little suburban town that I grew up in. They went out of their way to make us comfortable, even giving up their master bedroom for six weeks so that we could have more quiet and privacy. We certainly ate well and if my lack of exercise got me a bit out of shape, that was my own doing. We were greeted by lots of snow on the ground and a great deal more fell over the next couple of weeks. Temperatures remained mostly between 10 and 25°F so the snow never went away; it just turned into a brittle crust with rock hard mounds of ice where the snow had been plowed along the edges of the roads. I prefer to use metric units but these are temperatures I can't relate to in Celsius because we just don't experience them. We didn't get out much in these conditions but besides being a visit to our young family, this trip was a nostalgic and possibly ultimate return to my hometown. I enjoyed wandering around those old familiar streets. Toward the end, my brother came up from NC for a few days, until seeing us off at the airport, and we had a very pleasant visit with the Crolands, our parents' next door neighbors from forty years ago. Ironically, they had just visited Umbria, not far from us. They still live next to “my” old house. We also got to see my cousin Bev, up from Florida with her daughter Linda to clear out her mother's house. Aunt Ruth died a few weeks before our arrival, just a week short of her 104th birthday and only a few months after the demise of our stepmother, just short of her 99th birthday. Most people in Glen Rock go to Florida when the children leave but the ones who remain seem to thrive.
the six week norm

Our wonderful daughter Francesca has a few quirks. How could she be our daughter otherwise? We adapted easily to the idea of not wearing shoes in the house. It's not like Umbria, where we're in and out of the house all the time and doors and windows are open as much as they're closed. Alternating slippers with boots works just fine in the New Jersey winter. The idea of absolute silence in the house, except for child generated sounds, was a little more difficult to adjust to. Once I resorted to my ipod to get a little refreshing jolt of music but when told that the music leaking out of my earplugs was audible, I gave up further attempts. I alleviated my radio withdrawal symptoms by staying in the car a little longer after my school and shopping runs, and new hearing aids allowed me to hear the occasional TV feature at a volume acceptable to everyone else. At the other end of the aural spectrum, I warned the boys that they might never be able to to get a job as a spy for the CIA or NSA (the only sources of job growth on the horizon) if they couldn't learn to move around without anyone hearing them. For a moment it worked as Benjamin showed that he could tiptoe as quietly as a mouse. They do learn well, and their mother teaches them well. Both boys are not only bilingual but they have the skill and sense of humor enough to mimic and ridicule Americans saying spag├Ędy for spaghetti. When his grandmother suggested to Benjamin that some of his preferred foods were not the best, he replied “but Nonna, de gustibus non disputandus est”. Another time, hearing something described as “awesome”, his little brother Willie calmly said “but that word is overused”. Good boys!

Francesca also went on a fanatical cleaning spree in the two days before the birth of the baby, but I'm told that's perfectly normal. He was born more or less on schedule. My wife and I have always wanted a Tiberio. Our three children were all girls but decades later we pleaded in vain with them all for one of our grandchildren to be named Tiberio. Alas, the new baby is Alexander Tiberius! That was an even kinder and more generous gesture by Jim and Francesca than giving up their bedroom. The baby will hereafter be known by three names: (maybe four after he gets to school) He'll be Alexander to his father, Alessandro to his mother, and Tiberio to his grandfather. To resist the depredations of his lively siblings, who see him as a new toy, he'll need some of the qualities of his famous namesake, a victorious Roman general, who later became emperor following the early deaths of Augustus Caesar's intended successors, and then had the good sense to leave the power struggles of Rome to settle in Capri, where he reigned until his death at 77.


The rock which gave Glen Rock its name still sits in the glen, although it was called “Pamachapura” or “stone from heaven” by the local Lenape tribes long before white flight from Paterson and Brooklyn established Glen Rock as a suburban community a century ago. The other rock of stability in town is the Glen Rock Inn, not really an inn but a restaurant and bar. It's almost as old as I am and as a kid I remember going there for their sliced steak sandwiches. The menu has been embellished but they still serve them. The Quinn family is doing a fine job of keeping tradition alive. They even have an occasional jazz concert, a clear upgrade from the old days. Our second meal back in the US was a Sunday brunch there. Several weeks into our visit, when the sidewalks had been cleared sufficiently for me to brave the typical 20°F temperatures for the mile walk past the rock into midtown, upon entering, I was greeted by a lovely young woman behind the bar who introduced herself as Kimberly. Beyond serving the beer she helped me select, Kimberly saw to it that the closest of the many TVs was turned to an event I was interested in watching, and later brought out very good complimentary pizza to make my drinking experience more rewarding. Soon I was engaged in conversation with Pat Quinn, one of the senior members of the Quinn family. After I mentioned that I live in Italy, Pat revealed that while the Quinn side of the family is Irish, the maternal side is Italian, with Ligurian roots. Irish/Italian! What better combination could you ask for to run a drinking/eating institution?

The back room, mostly devoted to family dining, has several murals on the walls depicting local scenes. One is of the rock, which hasn't changed much over the past century. Another is of the Municipal Building, which sadly, hasn't fared as well as the rock. The surge in population from the 7000 of my youth to the current 11,000 necessitated a vast expansion of the police and fire department facilities. Funds were found for the construction but apparently not for design. The only other imaginable explanation for its appearance is that Glen Rock wanted to symbolically reflect the status of the US as the world's leading incarcerator of its own citizens.

The Municipal Building

Ackerman & Maple Avenues
Elsewhere in town I noted that despite Glen Rock being a pocket of affluence in the richest per capita state in the union (although some claim that it's second to Connecticut), its main streets, such as Maple Avenue, now sport monster phone poles to carry all the new telecommunications stuff. If Glen Rock can't bury its utility lines, who in the world can? The intersection of Maple and Ackerman Avenues, shown in the photo above, is where many years ago, when we were in the sixth grade, my old friend Bobby Alther and I donned our white shoulder stripes four times a day and served as crossing guards. We couldn't stop traffic but just made sure that the little kids crossed only when the traffic light was green. The present day crossing guards are roughly my age. I don't know if they're volunteers or are paid. Of course, we were volunteers, but I suppose that our not being paid would constitute child exploitation today, or worse, taking jobs away from old people in need. More importantly, there really is no need for crossing guards now. The kids are are driven to and from school.

Learning to drive the family school bus did take a bit of time. There's nothing to the actual driving, but to avoid confusion, I made a little chart of all the controls for opening windows and doors, locking mechanisms, HVAC and sound systems, about thirty in all. The front seat alone has four beverage holders, possibly useful for mobile wine tastings. Sequence is important. Neither windows nor doors can be opened until the transmission is put into park and an unlock button is pushed prior to the doors being opened. Nevertheless, despite all the fail/safe procedures I was startled on several occasions by my young charges reminding me with a tone of
child pick-up/delivery at Byrd School
mild rebuke that I'd driven off without closing the big rear doors. These ubiquitous vehicles are officially called mini-vans, although as a former owner of a European Mini, the significance of “mini” is lost on me. They are useful however, given today's requirements for children's car seats. We did see one man in the neighborhood, a former Marine and throwback to an earliertime, who actually walked his kids to school.

We met several old friends from New York who braved the traffic to come out to the Glen Rock Inn, and we talked to many, many more on the phone but sadly, we missed seeing most of the people we'd hoped to see. We'll await their visits to Italy. I did manage to spend one pleasant afternoon at Minerva's drawing studio in Soho and on the way back stopped to see the restaurant of the son of the Widmanns, our Umbrian neighbors. Their son, Sebastian, wasn't there and among my other organizational failings, I never managed to get together with friends for a meal there, although the place is appealing and seems to be staffed by young Italians. If you happen to be in New York, try it, Malaparte on Washington St and Bethune in the West Village.

Since the Constitution was rescinded, my enthusiasm for life in the United States has waned but my two great American passions, football and jazz, remain. I'll get to football in a future post on bread and circuses. The motive for this trip was simply grandchildren, but jazz did furnish a secondary theme.

I've known Bruce Lundvall since I was about 14 years old. He hung out with my friend, Don Dewar who lived just across the street. They were both a year older so I wasn't among their tight circle of friends. Despite a few ill-considered trips with my own high school classmates to hear the likes of Henry Red Allen and Peanuts Hucko and drink too much beer at the Central Plaza, my enthusiasm for jazz didn't really take off until we were all away in college, so I didn't realize what an obsessive jazz nut Bruce was until I ran into him a few times at jazz clubs in New York, and even once in Stuttgart after a 1959 JATP concert. I kept up with Bruce's progress through Don (as well as reading LP liner notes) and when I returned to NY in 1997 to work for a few years, I was determined to reconnect with him. It turns out we worked in the same building. Bruce's passion for music had served him well. He had risen to become president of Columbia Records, then founder and president of the Electra Musician label, and finally in 1984, was brought in to preside over the resurrection of the legendary Blue Note label as its president. He spent his career working with people I thought of as gods.

Shortly before our arrival, Bruce's biography, Bruce Lundvall, Playing By Ear, came out. Fast delivery of merchandise is one other good thing about the US so I got a copy and arranged to visit Bruce. I failed to coordinate that with his wife Kay so when I got there, cleaning ladies were cleaning and Bruce was about to be whisked away for a doctor visit. Bruce has some health problems and gets around in a wheelchair these days. We just had time to exchange a few words and for him to sign my book but it was good to see him again, however briefly. The book is a fascinating study of the musicians Bruce worked with and the Byzantine workings of the music business.

A few days later I went to New York for some jazz. The PATH station at the World Trade Center was closed for the weekend to allow construction so I missed my chance to see what had become of the area where I had worked until September 11th 2001. Having plenty of time, I stopped at another old haunt, the White Horse Tavern, just around the corner from where I once lived on West 11Th Street. The White Horse hasn't changed much since Dylan Thomas drank himself to death there but it's now surrounded by boutique bars filled with yuppies drinking exotic, overpriced cocktails. I decided to walk uptown, taking the opportunity to walk the length of the Highline, the new park created on the abandoned, elevated railway line running up the west side through Chelsea. It's scenic and pleasant, an interesting idea well executed.

Around New Years I spoke with vibraphonist Joe Locke in Orvieto where he was playing at Umbria Jazz Winter. When I mentioned that I'd be in the New York area soon, he said he'd be playing at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola and I could come as his guest. I took him at his word. He was playing for three nights with the Dexter Gordon Legacy Band, organized by pianist George Cables, who played with Dexter during his return to the US from Europe in the 80's. Dizzy's Club is a splendid jazz room in the sleek Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle, spacious but not too big, with the musicians performing in front of a two story glass wall overlooking Central Park. The staff is pleasant and efficient and the patrons friendly and appreciative. Doors open 90 minutes before the first set so there's time to eat and drink before the music starts. Maxine Gordon, who had been Dexter's wife and agent, was in the audience, as were Angela Davis and the French director or producer of Round Midnight, the film for which Dexter won an Oscar nomination as best actor. The music was wonderful, with Joe Locke as brilliant as ever in a context a bit different from his own groups. Jimmy Heath appeared for that one night as guest artist. Among the tunes they played was Ginger Bread Boy, which I'd
Jimmy Heath & George Cables
forgotten was one of his many great compositions, since I mostly associate it with the Miles Davis rendition. After the set I spoke briefly with Joe Locke who told me that Bruce had been in the Club a couple of nights before. That surprised me at first but it shouldn't have. Dexter Gordon was probably the musician that Bruce had been closest to. I shared the ride back to NJ with a trainful of sad-faced NY Rangers fans. The conductor and I were the only ones on the train not wearing Rangers shirts. I've always been a Rangers fan myself but it just heightened my sense of pleasure that I was coming from Dizzy's and not the Garden on this particular night.

The third round of my jazz adventures came on a visit to my radio station in Newark, WBGO. I say my station because it's a Public Radio Station and I've been a member for years. WBGO, while operating in Newark, is effectively the 24 hour jazz station for the New York metropolitan area, and through its webcasting, the entire world. I got to the station just after 10:00 AM and Gary Walker, who had just finished his stint on the air, was walking out the door. I stopped him and told him that while he didn't know me, I felt like he was one of my best friends since I've listened to him nearly every day for many years. We had a nice talk. I had a longer talk with Dorthaan Kirk, who does know me. She's in charge of various community events at the station, including the exhibits in the station's art gallery. I'd talked to her ten years ago about having a show there but before it could happen, I was back in Italy. The current show is by an artist from LA named Ramsess. He works in various media but his ink drawings of musicians are particularly beautiful. I believe Dorthaan has been at the station since its start thirty-five years ago. Besides her work there, she organizes concerts at Dorthaan's Place in the NJPAC down the street, and other monthly concerts at her church. She's the widow of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and was about to leave for Austin, Texas where a documentary film on Rahsaan, The Case of the Three-Sided Dream was going to have its premier at the SXSW festival. It will then go to various major cities. It may be difficult to find in Umbria, but one way or another I will get to see that film.

WBGO runs a Kids Jazz Spring Concert Series in various venues in Newark. They're free for whoever brings a kid. Joe Locke will appear with his quartet, Force of Four, at one of these concerts on Saturday April 12 at 12:30 (be there at 12:00!) in the Victoria Theater at NJPAC. I've always been grateful that I've had the opportunity to hear nearly all of the jazz greats of the second half of the twentieth century. Most of them are no longer with us. Fortunately, we do have many great musicians in the twenty-first century. Joe Locke is one of them. If you're in the area, take your kid to this concert. S/he'll always be able to look back and say “I saw Joe Locke perform in 2014”.