From the Archives: at WSJ in 2004 on Steve Lacy

A Career-Long Tribute To Thelonious Monk

When soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy first heard the music of Thelonious Monk on record in 1953, the 19-year-old reedman was immediately taken by the music’s swing, humor, craftsmanship and elements of surprise. Then in 1955, he heard Mr. Monk in a performance at a small Manhattan jazz club and was astonished. “I flipped,” he recalled. “It was so wonderful; the music was sublime and very droll.”

At that time, Mr. Monk was still regarded by all but a few jazz visionaries as an eccentric pianist who composed awkward and idiosyncratic tunes. During the next decade the jazz world came around and embraced Mr. Monk as one of its most innovative composers and performers, and now his compositions rank him alongside Duke Ellington in the jazz pantheon. His music is a cornerstone of any jazz education. Meanwhile, Mr. Lacy has established himself as one of jazz’s greatest saxophonists, and he is the premier interpreter of the Monk repertoire. His second recording in 1958, “Reflections: Steve Lacy Plays the Music of Thelonious Monk” (New Jazz/Original Jazz Classics), was devoted entirely to Mr. Monk’s music and he has led several important ensembles devoted entirely or substantially to that catalog. This Tuesday night, he will present a new group, Monksieland.

Iridium, midtown Manhattan
March 16-March 21

The band is a quintet, and it features the renowned young trumpeter Dave Douglas and three longtime associates of Mr. Lacy, trombonist Roswell Rudd, bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch. For Mr. Lacy, now 69, the group harkens back to a quartet he and Mr. Rudd led in the early ’60s that was devoted entirely to Mr. Monk’s music. “At first the music can be very intimidating and you have to be very formal with it,” said Mr. Lacy. But he added “after you know it very well, you start to find a freedom on the other side.” That freedom reminded Mr. Lacy of the Dixieland bands that he grew up on, hence the “ie” in the name of the new band.

He said that idea grew in part of his work on the faculty at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. “My students are very interested in Thelonious’s music,” he said. “But we’re playing it like Dixieland and they are not so used to that.” Mr. Lacy said that his students were more accustomed to free jazz ensembles where everyone plays at the same time. “I’m trying to get it back to a more traditional, complementary form like the old jazz where the songs were treated in a very loose manner; that’s still the spirit of jazz that I love.”

Mr. Lacy’s career has traveled a circuitous path. His instrument was primarily a staple of older jazz styles such as swing and Dixieland when Mr. Lacy emerged and established a role for it in both the post bebop of the ’50s and the free jazz movements of the ’60s. In contrast to the long, keening, ecstatic lines that highlighted the work of Sidney Bechet, a master of swing, Mr. Lacy’s style was terse and pithy. His solo style is very precise, full of staccato figures that often release into long but controlled lines. Mr. Lacy’s interpretations of Mr. Monk’s music inspired John Coltrane to take up the soprano, and he used the straight horn on his rendition of “My Favorite Things,” one of his best-known performances. The Lacy-Rudd quartet never entered the studio, though “School Days” (HATology) documents a 1963 concert by this splendid group.

In 1962, Mr. Monk hired the saxophonist for a six-month stint in his band. “It was like a crash graduate course from the master,” said Mr. Lacy of his tenure. “It was a little over my head, but I think that Monk realized I was so into his music that I needed a session like that.”

In the late ’60s, with employment opportunities in America on the decline, Mr. Lacy relocated to Paris, where he lived for nearly three decades. While there, he fell in with the European free improvisation scene, and he recorded frequently with members of that circle. In addition, he and his wife, violinist-vocalist Irene Aebi established a pioneering group that created a repertoire for the jazz art song. It was also during this stage of his life that he began a long, fruitful association with pianist Mal Waldron, another Monk aficionado, with whom he often performed in duet and quartet settings through the ’80s and ’90s.

After a brief stint in Berlin, Mr. Lacy returned to U.S. in 2001 and took a teaching position at the New England Conservatory of Music. Since returning to the States, he has been especially active, performing in duets with pianist Danilo Perez, and leading a group called Beat Suite, a quintet devoted to putting the words of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs to music. In addition, he’s been especially impressed with what he calls the Brooklyn school, musicians such as Douglas and pianist Uri Caine. He feels he’s returned to a vibrant jazz scene.

“It’s highly eclectic,” he said. “There are all kinds of styles going on. It may still occupy a small percentage of sales, but the number of people involved is huge. There is such a vast array of possibilities.”

Mr. Johnson last wrote on Luther Vandross.

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From the Archives, in 2009 at WSJ on Linda May Han Oh and JD Allen trio recordings.

Not Your Usual Jazz Trios

Two of the most exciting jazz recordings of the season are from trios, but these groups are not in the familiar configuration of piano or guitar plus bass and drum.

“Shine!” (Sunnyside) comes from saxophonist J.D. Allen and his band, which features drummer Rudy Royston and bassist Gregg August, and “Entry” (Linda Oh Music) is led by bassist Linda Oh, who is joined by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and drummer Obed Calvaire. Both recordings reflect the enticing possibilities found in these small groups.


Listen to clips from “Shine!” by J.D. Allen with Rudy Royston and Gregg August:

* * * * *

Listen to clips from “Entry” by Linda Oh with Ambrose Akinmusire and Obed Calvaire:

Mr. Allen wrote the music in “Shine!” with his austere lineup in mind. “In a trio setting the music becomes less about harmony and rhythm and more about conversation between the musicians,” he said in a recent interview.

“I wanted to do something completely different,” Ms. Oh told me a few weeks ago. She said the idea of a trumpet trio appealed to her for its unique sound, and “you’re completely exposed; there’s nowhere to hide.”

Ms. Oh’s music may provide a challenge to its players, but it is mostly pure pleasure for the listener. The overall sound is bright, warm and concise, and her compositions are full of infectious melodies and sophisticated dynamics. Ms. Oh, 25, is a relative newcomer to the New York jazz scene. Of Chinese and Malaysian parentage, she grew up in Perth, Australia. The music of rock bands with great bassists, such as Led Zeppelin, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus, inspired her to take up the electric bass. In college, she was encouraged to switch to the acoustic version of the instrument.


“I was skeptical at first,” she said. “Then I heard Ray Brown on Oscar Peterson’s ‘Night Train,’ Scott LaFaro on Bill Evans’s ‘Sunday at the Village Vanguard,’ and Charlie Haden’s Quartet West.” Her distinctive, tuneful sound is indebted to all three of her jazz idols.

“Entry” is Ms. Oh’s debut recording, and she aimed to make it a unified statement. “I wanted to make a concise concept album,” she said. “It’s the sort of recording that people listen to the whole thing in one sitting, rather than a showcase of every lick or style I can play.”

In contrast to Ms. Oh’s music, which often recalls a picnic on a sunny hillside, the music on Mr. Allen’s “Shine!” is like a fast drive on a dark, winding road—exhilarating but just a tad reckless. His trio has a directness in its playing that gives the 12 songs on the recording an urgency that draws the listener in.

Mr. Allen, 36, was born in Detroit, and after being mentored by many leading musicians there he moved to New York, where he has played for key figures ranging from Betty Carter to Butch Morris. He formed his trio for the recording “I Am I Am,” released in 2008, and has kept it going ever since.

A unique part of Mr. Allen’s approach with his trio is a self-imposed time limit: No song can be more than five minutes long on a record, or much more than that in concert. “I find that keeping the compositions within a certain time limit helps with the storytelling aspect of a recording or a live performance,” he said. “Shorter compositions put movement in the forefront.”

These sorts of unconventional trios have a long history in jazz. Saxophone trios like Mr. Allen’s date back to 1957 and Sonny Rollins’s landmark performances at the Village Vanguard, and some unorthodox trios may have roots in the experiments of saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre in the late ’50s. In the ’60s and ’70s, unusual configurations were a stock in trade of the jazz avant garde. But while many of those ensembles rebelled against the conventional pleasures of jazz, today’s new groups embrace them.

Thanks in part to the fragile economics of jazz, it seems clear that trios will be permanent part of the landscape. But the economic advantages of smaller ensembles are being matched by an outpouring of extraordinary music. “Less is more” is a timeworn cliché, but this season in jazz it’s also an accurate assessment.

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Going Way, Way Back. At WSJ in 2006 on Vijay and Rudresh

This piece got me an agent and nearly a book deal!

Musical Masala

New York

Ten years ago, when saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa was introduced to pianist Vijay Iyer, both men were shocked; neither had imagined that the other existed. Both musicians were American-born with family roots in Southern India, and both were 25 years old and passionately interested in playing jazz with an Indian twist.

“I thought I was the only one,” said Mr. Mahanthappa with a laugh from his Brooklyn apartment.

The two also had a common mentor, saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman, who introduced them at a Stanford University jazz workshop. Mr. Mahanthappa had traveled to California from Chicago, where he was pursuing a master’s degree in music at DePaul and playing on the local scene. Mr. Iyer was working on a doctorate in music and cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, and touring with Mr. Coleman. It’s an understatement to say that the young musicians became fast friends.

Rudresh Mahanthappa and Vijay Iyer.

Before long they were playing in each other’s bands and building an impressive body of work, which includes two world-premiere concerts in Manhattan this week and a duo recording, “Raw Materials” (Savoy), that will be released next month.

Tonight, at The Jazz Gallery, 290 Hudson Street, Mr. Mahanthappa will present the second of two performances of “Code Book,” a new work for his quartet, which includes Mr. Iyer on piano plus bassist François Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss. The work, which was commissioned in part by the New Works Program of Chamber Music America, merges Mr. Mahanthappa’s interest in jazz, Indian classical music, modern classical harmony, math and cryptography.

“I’ve been interested in codes and cryptography since I was very young,” Mr. Mahanthappa said. He used the John Coltrane classic “Giant Steps” to illustrate how his interest works in “Code Book.” “‘Giant Steps’ is a very systematic piece. It divides octaves into thirds. Whether the audience knows that doesn’t really matter — it was a way for Coltrane to get across what he was hearing,” he said. “I took ‘Giant Steps’ and ran it through some cryptographic methods,” he continued. “It still feels like ‘Giant Steps’ to me, but I don’t know if it will feel that way to the audience.”

Mr. Mahanthappa grew up in Boulder, Colo., and studied music at North Texas State University and Berklee College of Music. Not feeling ready to tackle the rigors of New York life in the early ’90s, he settled in Chicago, where he taught and performed for several years. He took great inspiration from Mr. Coleman’s work.

“You could hear the depth of the jazz tradition in his sound, but it sounded unlike anything else,” he said of Mr. Coleman’s music. In particular, Mr. Mahanthappa was fascinated by the different meters and complex rhythms employed in Mr. Coleman’s groups. He traveled to Palo Alto, Calif., to meet and spend some time picking Mr. Coleman’s brain; he met Mr. Iyer, and their interest in Indian music proved complementary.

“I was more fascinated by the ragas, the melodic approach, trying to evoke the sound of the double-reed instruments or the singers of Carnatic music,” said Mr. Mahanthappa. “Vijay was more into the rhythmic aspects.”

Later that afternoon, from his Morningside Heights apartment, Mr. Iyer agreed.

“My approach to the piano is on the percussive side. I’ve been inspired by James P. Johnson, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor and percussive traditions from India,” he said.

Mr. Iyer also cites pianist Randy Weston as a key figure. Mr. Weston fused aspects of West and North African percussion traditions into his playing. “I wanted to do something similar but with Indian drumming — bring it into dialogue with American piano tradition.”

Mr. Iyer was born in Rochester, N.Y., and although he showed musical skills at an early age, they took a backseat to math and science studies until he got to Berkeley, where he won a local jazz competition and soon after was hired to perform with Mr. Coleman’s band. Like his friend, Mr. Iyer moved to New York in the late ’90s.

He sees math as a key undercurrent in his musical pursuits. “There’s a lot of mathematical structure in our work,” he said. “The notion of permutation and combination at the arithmetic level is omnipresent in Indian music.”

Although both men are fluent in technical vernaculars, the first impression I take from their music is its meditative elegance. Mr. Iyer favors gentle clusters of insinuating rhythms, and Mr. Mahanthappa’s tone swings with jazz authority but with an unmistakably Indian inflection. Only some of their music is in the 4/4 walking beat of straight-ahead jazz, but little of it will feel foreign to jazz fans.

Blends of jazz with Indian classical music have had a longstanding niche and, parallel to the rise of Messrs. Mahanthappa and Iyer, that genre is growing again. Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain was invited to perform at last summer’s Montreal Jazz Festival, and he appears on a stellar new recording, “Sangam” (ECM), by saxophonist Charles Lloyd. Mr. Lloyd first pursued this fusion in the ’70s, when he recorded with Indian musicians, and he returned to it as a tribute to jazz drummer Billy Higgins. Of the recording, Mr. Lloyd said that the merging of jazz and Indian traditions created a unique tapestry of sound.

Mr. Mahanthappa and Mr. Iyer are emblematic of their generation of jazz musicians. They have found ways to tweak conventional forms to find their voice, rather than laying waste to the structures that preceded them. Most of jazz’s new movements in the past 60 years have been either revolutions or counter-revolutions, but what the current jazz lacks in “change the world” thunder, it makes up for in imaginative, accessible music.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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From the Archives: At WSJ on Henry Threadgill

A Jazz Man With His Own Vocabulary

Once Confined to the Margins of the Scene, Henry Threadgill Returns to the Stage

For a quarter century beginning in the mid-1970s, reedman and composer Henry Threadgill was a dominant force on the jazz and contemporary-classical music scenes. He led a variety of ensembles with increasingly idiosyncratic names like Air, the Henry Threadgill Sextett, the Very Very Circus, Make a Move and Zooid. These groups pushed the boundaries of both jazz and new music, yet they also trafficked in familiar elements like tangos, marches and fanfares. It was easy to become a Henry Threadgill fan without being a lover of jazz or new-music.

“What first struck me about Henry’s work is its lyricism,” said Butch Morris, a composer, cornetist and conductor who has followed Mr. Threadgill’s career since the ’70s. “He’s taken familiar forms and really advanced them.”

Saxophonist Henry Threadgill and his group Zooid will perform this week at Roulette in SoHo. AMY SUSSMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


Then about eight years ago, Mr. Threadgill faded to the margins. He released no widely distributed recordings, and was heard in concert only sporadically. He finally returned last autumn with his band, Zooid, on “This Brings Us To, Vol. I,” (Pi Recordings), which was widely hailed as one of the best jazz recordings of the year.

This season, Mr. Threadgill is much more prominent, with “This Brings Us To, Vol. II” (Pi) and Mosaic Records’s limited-edition eight-disc retrospective, “The Complete Novus & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill & Air.” In addition, Zooid is to perform Mr. Threadgill’s newest works at Roulette in SoHo for three nights this week beginning Thursday.

Over drinks at an Italian café near his East Village home, Mr. Threadgill said the hiatus gave his band time to master his new style of composing music. “I have completely left the majorminor system in favor of a chromatic way,” he said.

Liberty Ellman, Zooid’s guitarist, added via email, “It’s a system for developing harmony and counterpoint from a set of intervals that originate in chord analysis.”

For Mr. Threadgill, one of the key goals of the new system was to facilitate collective improvisation along the lines of early jazz. Mr. Ellman said it was a challenge to learn the new system. “It’s difficult at first to put aside your pre-existing vocabulary while learning to play Henry’s music, but over time it becomes intuitive and it really opens your ears up to a larger musical universe.”

Mr. Threadgill, 66 years old, was born and raised in Chicago. He moved to New York in the mid ’70s and made his first mark with Air, a trio featuring bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall. Their 1979 recording, “Air Lore,” which is included in the Mosaic set, offered reinterpretations of the music of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton, and is acclaimed as one of the best jazz recordings of the late ’70s. “He’s one of the only musicians who has gone beyond the surface markers of Morton’s style,” said Anthony Coleman, a pianist and composer who recently also released a recording of Morton’s music. “It’s more than mere photo-realism.”

In the early ’80s, Mr. Threadgill presented his Sextett. He explained that the second ‘t’ in the group’s name highlighted the fact that their music was written for six instruments, though it was played by seven musicians (the drum part required two men). “You can have a quartet sung by 40 musicians, 10 singing each part,” he said. “I wanted my music to be viewed with the same respect.”

Other Threadgill ensembles included on the Mosaic collection typically feature unusual instrumentation. The Very Very Circus features two tuba players. “Hopkins spoiled me,” Mr. Threadgill said, referring to Air’s bass player. “Regular walking bass lines make the music too slow.”

Make a Move blends electric guitar with accordion and harmonium. The unifying element is Mr. Threadgill’s horn: His alto saxophone has a gritty, emotional quality, often an urgent voice above a wealth of intriguing rhythms.

The Mosaic box also includes unreleased work from Mr. Threadgill’s rarely heard X-75 ensemble. Unfortunately, some of the composer’s most intriguing ensembles have gone unrecorded. For instance, a YouTube clip from a concert in Hamburg, Germany, in 1988 is one of the few public documentations of his 18-piece Society Situation Dance Band. Mr. Threadgill felt it should only be heard in concert.

Mr. Threadgill still lives in the same neighborhood he moved to in the mid ’70s, and has seen the East Village change enormously since then. Yet he continues to find great inspiration sitting in Tompkins Square Park. “You can still learn so much from watching and listening to what goes on there.”

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From the Archives: At The Root on Frankie Manning

The King of the Lindy

Cover of Frankie Manning: The Ambassador of Lindy Hop

Dancing With the Stars would never have happened without Frankie Manning. One of the greatest dancers in American history passed away last week at age 94, but the swing dance craze that he helped to inspire is a testament to his contribution to American culture.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Manning is that he had two extraordinary careers as a dancer, and they took place three decades apart. He didn’t invent the Lindy Hop, the most athletically bravura style of social dancing, but his innovations brought it worldwide attention and gained him substantial notoriety and fame. After the ballroom era faded in the years after World War II, Manning went to work for the post office. But a surprise inquiry from swing dance enthusiasts in the mid ‘80s brought him back to the dance floor, and he won a Tony Award for his work in the Broadway revue Black and Blue. He taught Denzel Washington how to dance the Lindy for his role in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.


Frankie Manning was born May 26, 1914 in Jacksonville, Fla., and moved to Harlem with his mother three years later. He took an interest in dance in 1929 when he joined the youth dance program at the Alhambra Ballroom. As a young man, Manning worked as a furrier but dance remained his primary interest. In the ‘30s, most ballroom dancing consisted of “social” dances like waltzes and fox trots, but the music was undergoing a revolution. The swing era, heralded by bands lead by Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson, created a new vibrant and powerful music full of fast tempos and exuberant solos. The Lindy Hop was the dance to match this music. The dance was fast, rhythmically precise and astonishingly athletic. Manning’s innovation was called the aerial, a move in which he tossed his partner in the air in rhythm to the music.

Ballroom owners were ambivalent about this new dance and music. Some complained that the Lindy Hoppers took up too much room on the dance floor, and others noted that few patrons were athletic enough to dance in that style. One entrepreneur, Herbert White, saw substantial entertainment potential in the dance and organized a troupe, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, which were headquartered at the Savoy Ballroom; he paired Manning with Naomi Waller, and their unique style took off. The troupe toured Europe, performing in France, Ireland and England. So intense was the interest in Lindy Hopping that the King of England attended the troupe’s performance at the London Palladium in 1937.

When he returned from Europe, Manning choreographed and performed the Lindy Hop scene in the movie Hellzapoppin (that’s him in the overalls), and it remains, 70 years later, one of the greatest dance clips in movie history. Manning performed at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, then served in the South Pacific and Japan in World War II. After the war, he led a troupe called the Congaroos, and they danced in the movie Killer Diller. The troupe toured England and South America, but in America the ballrooms were closing and jazz had changed; bebop, a more complex, less danceable style was the new rage. So in 1955, Manning abandoned dancing and took a job at the post office.

For all of his enormous success, Manning remained a humble, self-effacing man. When Erin Stevens, a swing dance enthusiast, called Manning in 1984 (after getting the number via 411), she asked if he was Frankie Manning, the famous dancer. He responded, “I don’t dance anymore, baby, I just work at the post office.”

He came out of retirement to tutor Stevens and her dance partner on the Lindy Hop. Soon after, he began teaching classes at the Sandra Cameron dance studio in Manhattan, and with a swing dance revival picking up steam, he began performing again. Still dapper and charming, he called dancing “three-minute romances.”

In 1989, Manning and Norma Miller, another member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, choreographed “Opus McShann” for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Three years later, he tutored Denzel Washington and appeared in the Lindy Hop scene in Malcolm X. Washington said of his then 78-year-old mentor, “We were all just trying to keep up with him.”

In 2000, Manning received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. With Cynthia Millman, he penned an autobiography, Frankie Manning: Ambassador of the Lindy Hop, and he’s the subject of a documentary, Never Stop Swinging, that will air on PBS later this month. A five-day festival was set up to celebrate Manning’s 95th birthday, in New York City, May 21-25. It will include five nights of dancing, competition and events. Before his death, Manning insisted that the celebration go on even if he couldn’t make it. He didn’t want anything—even his passing—to get in the way of people dancing.

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root

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On the Time that Sarah Vaughan Interviewed Me.

Some time in 1985, probably the autumn, I was interviewed by Sarah Vaughan (born March 27, 1924).

No, I did not interview her. She interviewed me.

It happened at the Blue Note. She was booked for a week, Tuesday-Sunday at the famed club. I had wanted to go, I but figured that press comps were out of the question as I had just finished my rookie season as a professional journalist. It had been great start to my career. In rapid-fire succession I went from writing for the Amsterdam News to writing for a feistier Brooklyn-based African American weekly called The City Sun and I was about three months into freelancing to Newsday, one of the ten largest newspapers in the country. At Newsday, my work went through the jazz columnist, a former Features Editor named Stuart Troup. I’d pitch my story ideas to Trooper and he’d get the greenlight from his replacement on the Features Desk, Caroline Miller. Then I’d type my story on a Smith Corona and bring it to Troup for editing before it was sent off to Miller. The edit process was rough. He’d rip apart my copy and rewrite it, explaining to me why he was doing what he was doing. Then after we were done, and my self esteem was embedded into the carpet, he’d whack me on the shoulder and say, “let’s get dinner.” Usually over dinner he’d regale me with stories about Woody Herman, Benny Golson or Gerry Mulligan or Miles.

The week that Vaughan was playing the Blue Note, he casually asked me what night I was going.

I shook my head.

“I thought you liked her,” he growled.

I told him that I thought the gig was beyond the reach of my press credentials and I certainly didn’t have Blue Note level cashflow.

His brow furrowed in slow motion then he released. He shrugged. “I thought when you said you went to Columbia that you meant the Ivy League university, not some Columbia High School that I’ve never heard of.”

I sat across from him stunned silent.

“Call their PR people first thing tomorrow morning and if they give you any static, tell them to call me.”

I did and to my substantial surprise, Martin Johnson/Newsday was on the press list for the show that night. They even offered me a plus one, which made me realize I needed to boost my self-esteem and start dating.

Photo of Sassy from Newport 1967, from AP

The show was wonderful. I wasn’t a huge fan of club’s amenities, but to be that close to legends was far more important than food or drink.

After the set, I wandered upstairs to the men’s room and when I came out, I saw Sassy, reclining in a desk chair in the green room probably still catching her breath from the performance and the club’s steep stairwell.

For the second time in just more than 24 hours, I was stunned speechless.

“Well hello there,” she said, looking straight at me.

I opened my mouth praying that words and maybe sentences would come forth. They did. I said something to the effect of “hello Ms. Vaughan, that was a great show.”

“And who are you” she asked genuine curiosity rising in her eyes.

“I’m Martin Johnson, a freelance writer,” I told her gradually gaining confidence that I belonged in this dialogue. “I write for Newsday and the City Sun. I used to write for the Amsterdam News.”

“Well Mr. Johnson,” she said rousing the giddiness in me. “What do you write about?”



“I write about jazz,” I repeated. Then I ran off a litany of musicians that I’d written about recently: Art Farmer, Don Cherry, David Murray, Duke Ellington…”

“Really,” she said somewhat incredulously. I thought she thought I was making this up.

I offered to send her clips.

She caught my suspicions and allayed them. “No, young man, that’s impressive, very impressive.”

For the first time since I exited the men’s room, a smile crept across my face.

For the next five or ten minutes, she asked me how I got into jazz (my father’s records and my sibling’s musical taste), how I began writing, and what I wanted to do next (get a staff job and have a career talking to jazz legends was the answer though I don’t think I said that in so many words).

She paused to process what she had just heard.

Then she told me she had to go and that it was nice speaking with me.

She stood up and as she did, I extended my hand for a hand shake. She grabbed my hand and pulled me close to her. She whispered in my ear, “go inspire your younger brothers and sisters to follow in your footsteps.”

We separated, and I told her I’d try and that it was great talking to her.

I bounced down the stairs and on to the street. Or well sort of. I don’t think my feet touched the ground on my way home.

A couple of weeks later, on a Monday night, I brought another story to Trooper. He ripped it to shreds and pieced it back together. Then he announced we should go hear the Thad Jones Mel Lewis Orchestra at the Village Vanguard. He scooted off to the men’s room and told me to call the club and let them know we were coming.

Still afloat from my encounter with Sassy, I called the Vanguard. When Stu returned he asked me if I’d called and told him yeah, “Martin Johnson plus one is on the list.” He laughed uproariously and took a bottle of whiskey out of his desk and got two coffee cups so that we could have a drink before heading to the club.

I don’t know if I’ve inspired my younger brothers and sisters, but I do know I’ve never doubted that I belonged after my interview with Sarah Vaughan.

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From the Archives: At WSJ on Susan Fales Hill

I miss the old WSJ Greater NY section.

Uptown Girl Turns Writer About Town

Parties to launch first novels are often hard-scrabble affairs in spartan settings serving inexpensive wine. But the party last week for Tuesday’s release of “One Flight Up” (Atria), by Susan Fales-Hill, filled the Club Room of swanky 15 Central Park West with elegantly dressed guests snacking on canapés and choosing from a well-stocked bar of top-shelf offerings.

The setting underscored the fact that Ms. Fales-Hill is not your usual debut novelist. The 48-year-old spent nearly 15 years as a writer and producer of television shows, including “The Cosby Show,” “A Different World,” “Suddenly Susan” and “Linc’s.” She resettled in New York in the late 1990s and wrote her first book, “Always Wear Joy: My Mother Bold and Beautiful” (Harper Collins, 2003), a memoir about her and her mother, the actress and singer Josephine Premice.

Susan Fales-Hill, author of the new book 'One Flight Up,' in Midtown.
Susan Fales-Hill, author of the new book ‘One Flight Up,’ in Midtown. PAUL QUITORIANO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

And while the four successful, urbane women chronicled in “One Flight Up” will certainly bring to mind the characters in Candace Bushnell’s “Sex and the City” and Terry McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale,” there is one important difference: Three of the four are married.

“I was so frustrated with literature and movies where getting to the altar is the whole story,” Ms. Fales-Hill said the day before her launch party over lunch at Sardi’s, where she sat near a caricature of her mother. “To me, the whole story really begins after you say ‘I do.'”

Another priority was to illustrate contemporary diversity. She complained that too many books reflect “Mad Men”-era segregation rather than the world she knows. Her characters include Esme Sarmiento-Talbot, a Colombian heiress; Abby Rosenfeld Adams, a Jewish art gallery owner; Monique Dawkins-Dubois, an African-American doctor; and India Chumley, the lone bachelorette of the crowd, a lawyer of mixed racial heritage.

India Chumley and Ms. Fales-Hill share Harvard educations and racial backgrounds. The author’s father, Timothy Fales, was the white son of a shipping magnate; her mother was the black, Brooklyn-born daughter of members of the Haitian elite.

But Ms. Fales-Hill said that the lawyer was the hardest character to write. “She’s a commitment-phobe, which many women are,” she said. “They have a different way of showing it; they keep picking unsuitable men.”

She said she found her way into the character by trying to reveal the cracks in India’s facade. She compares the problem to performing onstage, and quotes singer and actress Barbara Cook, who once said that “the challenge of performing was to show what life has done to you.”

“Susan is the only writer today who can glide so fluidly and elegantly between uptown and downtown, highbrow and lowbrow, raunchy and refined—all with great humor,” said Amy Fine Collins, special correspondent for Vanity Fair and a friend of Ms. Fales-Hill, who read every draft of the novel. “She has a performer’s sense of timing and comedy.”

Ms. Fales-Hill grew up on the Upper West Side during the ’60s and ’70s. Her parents, who found few landlords willing to rent to mixed-race couples in the early ’60s, settled on West End Avenue, where their living room became a place for many leading actors, actresses and singers to hang out. The Faleses often played host to Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Eartha Kitt, Harry Belafonte, Roscoe Lee Browne and others. But Ms. Fales-Hill was also aware that her home wasn’t in the most upscale neighborhood.

“The Upper West Side wasn’t fashionable then the way it is now,” the author recalled. “There were secondhand shops with all kinds of treasures, and the streets were like a wonderful carnival.” On the other hand, she enjoyed the pristine elegance of the Upper East Side, which she saw on visits to her paternal grandmother. Since both her parents were multilingual and believed in a classical education, she was sent to Lycée Français on East 75th Street. Amid her affluent classmates, she learned to assert that “you are more than an address.”

Ms. Fales-Hill now lives on the Upper East Side. She might have preferred her old neighborhood, but when she returned to New York from Los Angeles in the late ’90s and married Aaron Hill, a banker, the couple found that the Upper West Side was now out of their price range.

Back in Los Angeles, Ms. Fales-Hill had collected evening gowns even though she was spending most of her time holed up in writers’ conferences. She finally put those gowns to work in the early years of the 21st century, becoming one of New York’s few African-American socialites.

Ms. Fales-Hill has now pared back that part of her life, but not her willingness to break the mold. In her closing remarks at her book party on Tuesday, she quoted Harvard Prof. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: “Well-behaved women don’t make history.”

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