Recently my daughter, Jolie, and her husband, Mike, moved to Wayne, New Jersey, and I envied that move. The reason is that they now live in a walking distance from William Paterson University. That might seem strange to you but, as of this year, a most respected jazz program has as its new director one of the world’s premier jazz pianists, Bill Charlap. For twelve years he has been the artistic director of the 92nd Street Y’s “Jazz in July” series. I’ve been attending that series for more than twelve years. Bill Charlap is the product of a successful musical family with a rich history in popular music. His mother is singer Sandy Stewart and his late dad was a Broadway composer, Moose Charlap. In addition, Charlap is a cousin of one of my favorite jazz pianists, Dick Hyman, who preceded him as director of that series. It’s been said about Bill Charlap that the man plays not only the melody but the lyric as well. In 2007 Charlap married another fine pianist, Renee Rosnes, and here’s where I really have a connection. In some homes you might expect a two-car garage but you might not expect two pianos in the living room. I grew up in a living room that had two pianos since my mom played one and, for my sixteenth birthday, I was given my own baby grand which is currently housed in my Bayonne living room (and it still sounds fine – even when I play it! Ha!) The Charlap couple say, “Music is our profession, our love, our spiritual quest, our life journey, our hobby.” There’s a well-known phrase, “Music soothes the savage.” Shall we toast that? I’m lifting my glass.
It’s weird! I feel connected to a Broadway star although I never met her. It simply has to do with knowing the neighbors of her family. Can’t get more remote than that! My friends live in Evanston, Illinois, and that’s where the amazing Jessie Mueller was born and raised. She’s the daughter of two actors plus her two brothers, along with her sister, are also actors. I first was aware of Jessie (pardon the familiarity) and I became a starry-eyed fan when she starred in “Beautiful, the Carole King Musical.” For her performance as Carole King she won many awards including a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical. One reviewer commented, “She’s no diva – this is a star of supreme self-possession.” Another wrote, “Jessie Mueller has become one of the most talented musical theater performers to arrive on Broadway in recent years.” The brilliance of the star’s performance was that she sounded startlingly like King, a fully realized stage character. Currently the thirty-three-year-old actor is starring in “Waitress,” an adaptation of the 2007 movie. In The New Yorker’s revue the first sentence starts with “The astounding Jessie Mueller is the heroine of this winning new musical.” She plays Jenna, a pregnant waitress trapped in an abusive marriage. She’s a server at a small town diner who bakes wonderful cakes. The show is mindful of the obstacles that working women face, even as it dusts them with show-business cinnamon. My California daughter, Dorrie, loved the show. Her husband, my son Jim, took a nap. Chacun à son goût.
I enjoy watching old movies on TCM. Well, for the third time I indulged myself with the 1977 Woody Allen film “Annie Hall.” Each time I wondered who was the very short man with two blonde glamour gals on his arms. He played a music producer and it was a small role. Only recently I found out that the 5’3” actor was the accomplished musician, singer-songwriter Paul Simon. This month the iconic man is in the midst of a late-career renaissance releasing his 30th solo album. I was familiar with some of his past work: “Mrs. Robinson” and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” Best known as one-half of Simon and Garfunkel, the duo split up in 1970 and Simon began a successful solo career as a guitarist and singer-songwriter. Paul Simon was born in Newark, grew up in Queens, and became a songwriter and a perfectionist by the time he was a teenager. This month he is releasing his new album “Stranger to Stranger.” “I’ll never stop,” he sings in the album. I listened to the first single titled “Wristband” and found it frisky and funny – and yes, even danceable. At 74 he sings in a voice that’s boyish and clear seeming unburdened by the years. “If you can’t get a wristband, you can’t get through the door.” His lyrics are surreal, inventive story-telling. To quote Simon, “The right song at the right time can live for generations. A beautiful sound, well, that’s forever.” He is proudly unself-contained, evidently requiring a regular infusion of fresh rhythm and new collaborators in order to keep up his steady pace: a short album every five years or so. He appears to be in fine health singing relatively cheerful songs about an acolyte that is not clear he believes in. He keeps asking questions following his curiosity wherever it leads. To my surprise I enjoyed listening to his new album, “Stranger to Stranger.” Simon is a rock ‘n’ roll aristocrat if there is such a thing. Good luck, man.
My favorite month, as you might guess, has four letters. That feeling started when my kindergarten teacher wrote JUNE on the blackboard for everyone to see. I thought she was writing about me. When the thirty days were over I finally realized that I was being erased until the next year. Chuckle! Growing up and becoming aware is realistic, I guess. I was born in Brooklyn. However, there’s no relationship to the adorable man who was born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, too. He is a living, funny, king of comedy. If you are dial twisting you might be fortunate enough to find and watch his “Young Frankenstein,” a brilliant parody of the original Frankenstein movie. In “Blazing Saddles” he was directed to omit twenty-two different scenes including punching the horse, the race joke, the farting scene, etc. Fortunately many of his audience dig the nuances and the details of his movies. If you’ve seen the film, you know he refused to make the changes. I guess a large percentage of his audience is as brilliant as the filmmaker. Mel Brooks has two Oscars and has also won Emmys and Tonys. All of the above came to my mind recently when I was fortunate to see this comedy king in person alive and well at the Iguana on 54th Street in Manhattan where Vince Giordano and his 11-piece orchestra bring down the house with their 20s, 30s and 40s music. And there he was – Mel Brooks enjoying the music scene, smiling and open to his adoring public. He was in the audience with his son, Max Brooks. That son has talent, too, as you would expect, having written two best-sellers. However, the Genius, and I use that word rarely, smiles and it gets wider as he speaks about his grandson, Henry Michael Brooks. “He’s the light of my life, that kid.” Well, Mel Brooks, you brought big grins and many laughs to our lives.
June Sturz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.