Speak, Living Room
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.
Sign up to receive new stories straight to your inbox!
I would love to hear the Billie Holiday recordings to which Lorraine provided you a link. Is there any possibility that you could share them with us (with Lorraine’s permission)?
An amazing and wonderful story–the West Side is so deeply connected with classical and jazz music history. (The buildings where Thelonious Monk and other jazz luminaries lived as a youngster were torn down and have been replaced by the various Trump buildings along Riverside in the West 60s.) BTW, in 2004, when I went to my 40th college reunion, I discovered that I lived in the building where my college friend Joan Buchalter had grown up (though not in the same apartment). I’m still there–and Seymour Lipkin lives on her floor.)
There’s nothing I like more than coincidences, because I see them as signs from above. What difference does it make if they aren’t really literally signs; it’s at least poetically true, and that’s what counts. I remember Leonard Feather well. He was very close to Duke Ellington. This is a long way away from string quartets…but, is it really?
An absolutely beautiful story, and told so well! I felt like I was in the living room watching Lorraine revisit her past as I read it.
Thank you so much for sharing this, Mr. Steinhardt!
Wow! An amazing story of several levels! I love this for the coincidences — how likely is it, even in NYC, that an apartment would have musicians consecutively for decades! I had tears reading your description of listening to the tape. Thank you!
A most amazing story! Beautiful!
I get the utmost enjoyment reading your e-mails !!!!!!!!
Such a beautiful story! Thanks for sharing!
Maestro, what wonderful story, amazing how everything fix into plaice. !!! And yes the walls have ears,, :-)
This is an amazing, heart breaking story, beautifully written. I don’t quite know why I was flooded with sadness reading it. The beauty of the coincidence juxtaposed with the life of an apartment in New York, the passing away of the former duelers, leaving their voices and their lives behind, the endingness of it all, and its resurrection by the beautiful music of the Guarneri Quartet, that encompasses my life as well. I am grateful to you for entering this story into the anals of this town, this century, this ongoing lives. You are a most profound teller of stories.
A great story indeed Mr. Steinhardt! As for Lorraine…one of my favorite jazz tunes was always Cannonball Adderly’s “I Remember Bird” – written by Leonard Feather, Lorraine’s dad. I never could figure out the chord progression, so on a whim, I emailed Lorraine and asked her if the music was available somewhere as I could not find it. She actually replied, and said there was none, but she made a xerox copy of a single page hand written lead sheet. How cool!
After that, I bought some of her CDs, she is a great talent in her own right – so apparently none of the music made from your living room went for naught.
Thanks so much for your personal anecdote, and for publishing all of your blog stories.
What a wonderful story. Our building has heard such great music and been a home to such great artists over the years. Omus Hirshbein told us that Vincent Persichetti had lived in 15D (true or not, I don’t know); and during the 1980s, we were lucky enough to hear the Emerson and Juilliard Quartets, a teenage Joshua Bell, Arleen Auger, Cecilia Bartoli, Richard Goode and Dawn Upshaw all perform in the living room of 7A, at Anne Ratner’s concerts to raise funds for the Camphill Villages. And now, this, to top it all. Thank you so much.
Didn’t David and Janet do some recording sessions with Billie Holiday around
that same time?
Thank you for sharing this as well, Mr.Steinhardt. My family is of the Guarneri violin. Will there be an opportunity to hear the quartet again in the future? Thank you.
So many coincidences, with shrinking degrees of separation (especially in the music world). First Riverside Drive rings a bell. I took my piano lessons with Lillian Freundlich at 105th–311 West… a stone’s throw from the residence named on 106th. I believe Lil and Irwin’s son David (a psychiatrist) lived down the same block. Then comes the association to Billie Holiday. My uncle, Arthur Herzog wrote “God Bless the Child.” Totally amazing connections! As for the Guarneri quartet I went to a reception with Harris Goldsmith following a quartet concert. Remember it like it was yesterday.
Dear Mr Steinhardt –
I thought, at first, that it was going to be an updated version of “The bald soprano”
What a fantastic story. Thank you!
What a very beautiful story and I too enjoy so much reading your posts. Elaine Richey was my violin teacher and she spoke of you with such respect and joy. So glad you are still pleasuring us with your playing and writing.
This story gave me goose bumps — happy ones. If your living room walls could talk, they would sing out in celebration of what they’ve been privileged to hear in the last 60 years!!
Leave a Comment*/