Monday, March 3, 2014

"Vamp 'Til Ready..."

I have fallen behind in my posting schedule, thus the above title, which I will explain shortly. My excuse, aside from the large hippo named Procrastination, is that we are busy planning our daughter's wedding at the end of March, or rather I am observing that activity and warming up the checkbook. Such a happy event inevitably can lead to loss of focus on regular matters.

I learned of the phrase "Vamp 'Til Ready..." in December 1965. At the time I was serving as Assistant  Manager of the first recital series produced by Lincoln Center. It was  called "Great Performers at Philharmonic Hall"  (now called Avery Fisher Hall).  The series featured some great artists, such as soprano Birgit Nilsson, violinist Yeheudi Menuhin and the phenomenal pianist Martha Argerich in her American debut.  We also included non-classical musicians, namely Joan Baez and Duke Ellington.

Ellington is the center of this story, although I have a good one about Ms. Baez that I might get to another day. Edward "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974) was one of the great jazz performers and composers in our musical history. In discussions with his office we asked if he would be willing to write an original composition for the performance. He agreed.

One of my jobs was to prepare information for each concert's printed program and so I needed to know the name of his composition. I was told only the Duke had that information and that I could talk to him on a certain day between the hours of 2 and 3 a.m. He was clearly a night person, which I was, and am, not. I reached him on the phone and asked for the title. There was a pause and he indicated he hadn't given it much thought. I pressed him (as much as I could at age 24 and in the wee hours of the morning) and he finally gave it to me, almost in the form of suggestion.  I admit now I have forgotten it, but it was something like a "Study in _________," - a bit nondescript.

Another job I had was to look after the artists the day of their performances, and any rehearsal before. Ellington declined  a  rehearsal so the first time I met him was about 45 minutes before the 3 p.m. "curtain." I went to his dressing room and found him there, still informally dressed, seated at a spinet piano with about six of his band members in the room as well. Importantly, also present was his longtime arranger and collaborator Billy Strayhorn. Duke was playing musical lines on the piano and a number of the men were transcribing  notes onto part manuscripts. Strayhorn would offer suggestions  as well as  joining  in the transcription task. Periodically a musician would stand  up and wave his part in the sir to dry the ink.

Clearly I was watching a composition in the final making, only 30 minutes before the concert's start. I don't remember if I broke into a sweat, but nervous is an understated  description of my state.  I checked back every ten minutes or so, found the same activity and finally caught Ellington's eye and tapped my wristwatch. He gave me  a benevolent smile and went back to work.

The witching hour of  3 p.m. arrived. Still wavings of music manuscript in the air. At 3:10 - now quite desperate - I got the Duke's ear, reminded him of the time and asked his advice of what I should do. He said calmly "Come back in 10 minutes." By this time there was evidence of audience impatience. I returned to the dressing room as  instructed, found some men still scribbling but this time Ellington was dressed. He said "Let's go" and he and I - no other musicians -  descended in the elevator to the stage level.

A stagehand was ready to open the door to the stage, bare except for a grand piano and seats and stands for the musicians. As the door was opening I asked the Duke- by the way a most charming and polite man, - what he was going to do. "Oh," he said,  "I'll just vamp 'til ready."

So he did, "vamping" meant improvising at the piano or noodling. He also talked some to  the audience. Maybe 15 minutes passed and then the door opened and the 10 members of the band came on stage, carrying their now dry scores of the original composition. Of course Ellington standards, such as  "Take The A Train" were also played. The concert was a great success.

So I hope you didn't mind if, with this story, I have vamped until my next post about nonprofit issues is ready. 'Til then...

1 comment:

  1. A totally engaging story. The kind of remarkable moment with a remarkable personality that young, up-and-coming, shining-star arts administrators are likely to have in their bag of fond memories. All the more poignant now that said youngster is sharing the wisdom of 5 decades of remarkable senior experience and mastery in the field. As for this reader, one instance a life's-lesson story such as this is worth a thousand blog postings of the troubles facing arrogant and self-indulgent urban arts institutions. I'm on the edge of my seat waiting for the Baez story when it's posted! Bravo, Geoff. Encore! Encore!