In his 1998 book, “Why Sinatra Matters,” Pete Hamill writes about a little late-night debate that took place in 1970 at a bar in New York City.
Frank Sinatra and some pals, including newspaper types like Hamill, had gathered to socialize over drinks, and the talk turned to authors. Inevitably, the question came up as to who was the better writer — Hemingway or Fitzgerald?
According to Hamill, saloonkeeper Jilly Russo said, “Hey, no question. Ella all the way.”
The reference to the jazz icon Ella Fitzgerald made me laugh more than it might have a few years ago because lately I’ve come to know people like that, people whose life seems to be possessed and defined by jazz.
I’d never been a big fan of that most American of music genres. I grew up in the era of rock and roll and folk music, and also embraced classical music, including opera, as well as contemporary and Broadway classics. Jazz was more the music of my parents, and we hardly ever embrace the music of our parents, not with any enthusiasm at least.
But I do consider my musical tastes eclectic, and I like contemporary jazz artists like Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Buble.
The jazz of the purists, however, like the music of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, did not engage me much. I preferred the Beatles.
Things change, however.
Since moving to Schenectady, for years a city known for its jazz offerings, I’ve become friendly with people who love jazz and who, by including me in their outings, are broadening my musical background. (I’m still not really clear on what scatting is all about, but I’m new enough that they forgive me when I ask dumb questions.)
I’ve come particularly to enjoy jazz singers as well as the instrumentalists and their ensembles with their virtuosic solo improvisations. If you live in the Schenectady area, you’re constantly discovering people whom you know through their day jobs who are jazz musicians by night.
Because of the intimate venues and audiences that are respectable but not huge you can get to know these artists and become not only a fan but also a friend. I’ve found they’re very approachable.
Over the past year, I’ve gotten to know and admire many of them, including the legendary jazz pianist Lee Shaw, singer Colleen Pratt (who isn’t just a jazz musician but who certainly does justice to a lot of jazz standards), bassist Bill Delaney and pianist Peggy Delaney, accordionist Al Haugen and pianist Paul Mastriani.
Thanks to my growing circle of jazzy acquaintances, I’ve also discovered there are venues round every corner — at the Van Dyck, of course, but also at the Stockade Inn and Aperitivo Bistro, Justin’s in Albany and Panza’s at Saratoga Lake. Over the Labor Day weekend, we drove to Tanglewood for the opening of the annual jazz festival there and heard the NPR program “Radio Deluxe” being taped, with jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli and singer Jessica Molaskey co-hosting.
On Friday, I attended one of the fall concerts of A Place for Jazz at the Unitarian Fellowship in Schenectady where the Mike Moreno Quintet was featured.
They’re a talented group of five young men led by guitarist Moreno, and their music is full-bodied and modern. I left soon after intermission, telling myself that each number they performed seemed to me to sound like the one before it.
As I was walking out I had this sudden thought that I am becoming a jazz purist, as in old fogey. I did, however, resist the impulse to yell out, “Ella all the way!”
Irv Dean is the Gazette’s city editor. Reach him at [email protected]