It is a rainy afternoon in June, and I am singing for seniors in an assisted living retirement community. Today’s theme is “songs about warm, sunny weather”, and I am hoping that cheerful, upbeat numbers like “Blue Skies”, “Sunny Side of the Street”, and “My Little Grass Shack” will brighten up this dreary day. People sing along, clap, even snap their fingers and smile as the formula works its magic, evoking memories of happy times. After the show, audience members share personal stories and favorite songs with me while I pack up my gear. As a facilitator of human connection through music, I’ve learned a lot from them over the years, especially about the importance of humor, being in the moment, and delivering songs with a lively stage presence.

It all began at an after-hours jam session twenty-five years ago, when I heard a singer belting out “Sentimental Journey” with such carefree abandon that an infectious joy filled the air. Until then I had been dabbling in folk music and a little blues, but the swinging pulse of the guitar and voice was so compelling that in a decisive moment of inspiration I knew this was a musical style worth pursuing.

I soon found a pianist to accompany me as I learned repertoire from the Great American Songbook circa 1930-40, and eventually began singing in local nightclubs. For patter between songs, I chronicled the music’s colorful history with anecdotes gleaned from books, films and record covers. Armed with such tantalizing trivia as Irving Berlin’s real name (Israel Baline), and the first woman to win an Academy Award for lyric writing (Dorothy Fields, in 1936, for “The Way You Look Tonight”), I branched out and started performing themed music programs in libraries, schools and senior centers.

For eight years I worked with a wonderful man named Barrie Vye, who provided  not only exceptional piano accompaniment, but patience and solid fatherly advice. A veritable gold mine, he had “a mean left hand”, an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz standards, and plenty of stories of his own heyday shenanigans. As a teenager, Barrie hung around the jukebox at The Bungalow outside Seattle’s Garfield High School, and once snuck in to hear Anita O’Day at the Triannon Ballroom. During World War Two, he listened to Duke Ellington records over the intercom of a troop ship in the South Pacific.

Together we assembled a program of  Big Band Era mega-hits called “What Did You Hear in the War, Daddy?” and pitched it as a duo act to the King County Libraries. We performed twenty-two concerts during “May is Senior Month” that first year, 1998.

Fast forward to 2010. Barrie Vye is now “tickling the ivories” at that great jam session in the sky, and I’ve recently released my fourth CD of jazz standards entitled “Sentimental Journey: Popular Songs From WW II”. Recorded with pianist Hans Brehmer and bassist Larry Holloway, it features a collection of popular songs that once upon a war-time lifted spirits, forged lifelong bonds and boosted morale when nothing else could. The CD cover includes photos of both of my parents in their Navy uniforms.

I still enjoy bringing people together and sharing this wonderful music. With a passion indulged and a dream realized, I am honored to be an ambassador for these classic songs from such a fascinating era of American musical history.

(From an article reprinted from Prime Time Magazine, Oct. 2010)

Impressions of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

Say “Brazil” to most Americans and their first thought is “Rio”, along with “Ipanema” and “bossa nova”, but it is all of that and so much more.

I recently travelled to the northeast coast of Brazil and headed straight for the cultural wellspring of Salvador (Brazil’s first capital), where the banners of the city’s old Pelourino district boast “Musica Dia e Noite”.

Live music pours from every square and marketplace, at times creating a glorious cacophony with an omnipresent drumbeat. Strolling within a 4 block radius one can hear everything from bossa nova, classical and folk to upbeat dance music like “forro” and “axe” (a combination of African percussion and Caribbean reggae rhythms).

A street party happens every Tuesday night. The event is preceded by a church service where the choir is comprised of 6 singers and 5 drummers. Afterward, bread is handed out to the poor and so begins Carnival. Several “blocos” (bands from neighborhood samba schools) parade through the cobblestone streets followed by hoards of revelling turistas and natives dancing close behind.

One evening I enjoyed the phenomenal group “Didi”, an all female pop-samba band whose ages ranged from about 5 to 15 years. Those girls had great choreographies and went all out, at times contorting themselves and dancing wildly on the frames of the larger drums.

Perhaps the most moving musical experience for me was the night that Olodum, one of Brazil’s most popular carnival bands, celebrated 25 years with a concert in the main square. About 30 young drummers beat out polyrhythms while various solo singers or rappers exchanged lines with the audience in a call and response. While basking in a “sea of Baianos” singing and dancing their hearts out, I observed their compelling fluidity of movement, particularly in the torso and hips, and I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Eighty percent of Salvadorans are of Afro-Brazilian descent, a legacy of the slave trade that started in the mid-1500’s, when sugarcane plantations began permeating the area. This African influence is reflected in the local music scene and can be heard in the folk and samba bands who proudly preserve their black heritage.

“Candomble” is another cultural practice that is an important part of community life in Salvador. It  is rooted in a West African religion that involves orixas (gods and goddesses) along with  singing, dancing and drumming. “Capoeira”, a Brazilian martial art that evolved from fighting rituals brought by slaves from what is now Angola, is also extremely popular in Salvador. It traditionally uses drums and “berimbau” (a banjo-like instrument with a metallic drone) as accompaniment.

If you go to Salvador, keep your eyes and ears wide open. With its unmistakable African flavor, the city is a celebration of Brazil’s rich history.

Coming soon:

Impressions of Rio and Sao Paulo

Our Block Party Talent Show (a review)

I live on a wonderful city block in Seattle, Washington, USA. It is full of artists and musicians, and sometimes in summer, with people playing or practicing their instruments, the cacophony of music drifting from open windows along the block resembles a conservatory. For many years we have had the tradition of a loosely organized talent show as part of our annual block party. It is a great way to honor and appreciate the artistic side of the individuals who live close to us, and keep tabs on what the neighbor kids are into (musically speaking) as they grow up before our eyes. Mostly everyone has at some point in time shared something, whether it was a song, story, joke, game, or “other”. One year a group of 10 performed an awesome dance to “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”. Other highlights were Devon, a shy boy on the block, who astounded us with a cool beat box routine, and  my personal favorites: Dorothy, the strutting six-year-old girl, who sang “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair” while twirling a towel, immediately followed by her eight year old sister, Winnie, delivering a heart wrenchingly beautiful version of “America the Beautiful” on her flute. In the past, we have often augmented the festivities with a pet show and/or square dance, but this year’s program had so many stupendous acts that nothing more was needed. Here is an overview:

Prelude: The racoons on our block (a mother and 3 teenagers) were a lively topic of discussion as people told stories of finding the furry prowlers in their kitchens and living rooms looking for food, on one occasion facing off with a desperate naked screaming human yielding a squirt gun filled with ammonia, with no animal rights activist in sight.

The show lineup:

1). Sally- as a certified “Laughing Club” Instructor, she engaged the crowd with some very silly but fun icebreakers.

2). Ella and Johanna- mother and toddler/daughter sang the chestnut “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”

3). Teo’s Acrobatics- 10 month old Teo performed a balancing act on his dad’s hand and lived to tell the tale (if only he could talk)

4). Kota the Cubano Canine- the little doggie performed many captivating tricks wearing his “SUPERSTAR” sweater

5). Effie- played rousing clarinet selections like “When the Saints Go Marching In”

6). Anna-danced hip hop moves to a pop tune played on a cd player

7). Yonah- performed a 10-second daredevil skateboard routine

8). Wiebke- displayed her beautiful and whimsical hand-made recycled clothing

9). Robin- read selected accolades listed in her newly released “Trauma Handbook”

10). Allison- told a riveting eagle story with yoga moves

11). Leah and Bill- a very accomplished teenage fiddler and her guitarist dad played a hoedown

12). Conor and Claire- small children who enthusiastically accompanied Effie’s clarinet with their plastic horns

13). Dina and Frank- wife sang a humorous sing-along while her husband played guitar accompaniment

14). Stewart- taught us a hilarious game which we played by shooting Q-tips at each other through plastic straws

15). Dyan-gave her final speech as out-going block captain and a new successor was installed (me)

After the show, everyone ran home and got their potluck dishes, returned to the street, and we all ate, drank, shmoozed and made merry (including scooter rides up and down the block for the kids) until past dark. A fabulous time was had by all, and the evening was declared another success in block party history.

Billie Holiday

My favorite Billie recording is “Live at Storyville”, an out of print vinyl album that I found in a discount bin when I was age 16. I played that lp until the scratches were louder than the music coming out of the grooves. There is always a strong reaction to great art: you either love it or hate it. In Billie’s case, I loved it. Her singing grabbed my attention, stood me on my ear, and got me thinking outside the box. She was a true original. She swung like mad. She bled her heart out with raw emotion. She dug deep into her well of joy and pain until both were undeniably palpable. That edgy, wiry voice was well-suited to her horn-like phrasing. She had a knack for convincingly hammering home a lyric by repeating a single note through several measures of chord changes with such impeccable musicianship that it sounded effortless and natural and right. Her singing style influenced greats like Anita O’Day, Peggy Lee, and countless others. Billie was the ebodiment of a jazz vocalist: intelligent, free and swinging.

Dina Blade, vocalist
Joyswing Records
Seattle, Wa. USA