July 1, 2015
A few months ago, just after finishing a recording project, Lorraine Feather, jazz singer, and lyricist, and Dave Grusin, pianist and composer, went out to dinner with Dave’s wife, Nan Newton. Nan, who had never met Lorraine before, soon learned that the singer had spent the earliest years of her childhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. This interested Nan, for she had also lived on the Upper West Side for many years.
“What street did you live on, Lorraine?” she asked.
“On Riverside Drive.”
“Really. I’ve friends who live on Riverside Drive. Where on Riverside?”
“The corner of 106th and Riverside.”
“Amazing coincidence. That’s their corner. What address?”
“340 Riverside Drive.”
“You’re kidding me. That’s the building my friends the Steinhardts live in.”
At that moment, Nan almost fell off her chair.
“That’s the Steinhardt’s apartment,” she exclaimed, wide eyed.
The statistical improbability of Nan knowing two people, who lived in the same apartment at different times in a city of nine million people, was staggering, but Lorraine immediately saw a golden opportunity in the discovery. She was coming to New York City the next month and asked Nan whether she thought the Steinhardts would allow Lorraine to visit the old apartment she had left as a girl and had not seen since.
Lorraine and I were soon e-mailing back and forth about her upcoming visit. In the process, I learned that Lorraine was jazz royalty. Her father was the distinguished jazz writer Leonard Feather and her mother, Jane, was a former big band singer and had been a roommate of singer Peggy Lee. Lorraine’s parents named her Billie Jane Lee Lorraine after her godmother, none other than Billie Holiday, her mother, Jane, Jane’s friend the singer Peggy Lee, and the song “Sweet Lorraine.”
I learned something else that took my breath away. Her parents often had jazz parties at 11A that included jam sessions in the living room with such jazz legends as Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday.
The news of what had taken place in our very own living room was too exciting to keep to myself. I called my old friend, the cellist Charlie Forbes. My wife, Dorothea, and I had taken over apartment 11A from Charlie and his family when they moved elsewhere. Charlie was flabbergasted to learn who the previous apartment tenants had been and the Who’s Who of jazz that had performed there. As it turned out, the Feathers had lived in 11A from 1949 to 1961, the Forbes family from 1961 to 1971, and the Steinhardts from 1971 to the present. Considering that Charlie played with the chamber music group New York Camerata while living there, apartment 11A’s living room has been filled first with the sounds of Billie Holiday and her colleagues, then the Camerata, and finally the Guarneri String Quartet for a good sixty years.
If only those living room walls could play some of that music back to us now!
On Lorraine’s New York City visit, she wandered through our apartment for the first time since she had left it at age twelve. Yes, Lorraine said, the living room looked just the same. She stood there dreamy eyed, recalling how her parents had allowed her to stay up late enough to hear some of the glorious sounds coming out of that space.
Dorothea and I watched Lorraine, a grown woman, turn into a little girl once again as she shared with us memories of her young life in 11A, more than half a century earlier.
As we parted, Lorraine had another dizzying piece of news for us. She had saved many of the informal recordings that her parents had made at their parties in which some of the jazz greats had informally performed.
Several weeks later, Lorraine sent me a link to what she referred to as the “Party at 340” jam. I sat down in the very living room where the music had been made and listened breathlessly.
A voice at the recording’s beginning announced “November 20, 1956,” and then, with a background accompaniment of murmuring party voices, I heard amongst others, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Short, and finally Billie Holiday whose singing had always touched me to the core. With a heart-aching sadness that brought me close to tears, she sang The Lady Sings the Blues, Good Morning Heartache, God Bless the Child, Misery Song of Despair, and, finally, Miss Brown to You.
Billie Holiday, who only three years later would die at the age of forty-four, was once again singing in my living room after an absence of almost sixty years.
Welcome back, Billie.
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