A treasured childhood ritual was to sit in jammies on the top of the stairs, and listen to late night weekly living room jams. Stella by Starlight, St. Louis Blues and Sentimental Journey were but a few of the standards they played. My dad’s colleagues shared musical jazz roots; piano-bass-drums- and a horn their vehicle for flight. In addition to my dad playing the sax and clarinet, he had a passion for playing with language. “Scat” flowed freely from him, particularly when he was driving in the car or relaxing at home. In addition to my mom’s occasional use of Yiddish, and English of course, inventive “scat” became akin to my second language!
A few times a year, our family of five would take the three-hour drive south from Providence to the city of magic. We saw every single Broadway musical (Peter Pan with Mary Martin, The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews, and West Side Story conducted by Leonard Bernstein are a few). We strolled the Lower East Side, ate corned beef sandwiches at Katz’s Deli, and star-gazed while feasting on lox and bagels at the Stage Deli which was across the street from our hotel, New York City’s celebrated Americana.
One particular evening, my older brothers were responsible for the care of their baby sister, aka me, while our parents were out-on-the-town. We were free to explore the hotel, which then was the tallest hotel in the world. We’d find plenty to do. Adjacent to the grand entrance on street level, there was an elegant billboard with a black and white glamour shot, announcing the evening’s entertainment at The Royal Box, which was the hotel’s famed supper club. From the lobby, we shot upward in the newfangled (and thrilling) elevator to the top floor. There on the 51st floor we discovered an unlocked door. It was the housekeeping closet and we snuck in. I remember gazing down through an open window onto the bustle of Broadway. Cars looked like toys and people looked like polka dots. Windows in hotels fully opened then. 51 floors was a long way down.
Later in the evening, enjoying some down time on the plush lobby couches, captivating music lured us into The Royal Box, which was steps away. “Adrenaline Rush”– it’s the only reference to describe how I felt entering the glimmering club at dark, seeing men and women dressed to the nine’s tucked into small round cloth-covered tables, while formally garbed waitstaff (all men!) miraculously balanced piled high silver trays, using only what seemed to be a raised flat hand. The soundscape was the distinct and familiar sound of pure unadulterated jazz. Across the room on the stage was a larger-than-life woman dressed in a pale blue sequined floor-length gown. Her vocalizing was tantalizing, smooth as silk. Her scatting emulated the clarity and syncopation of a horn. It was the first time I ever heard someone other than my dad scat! The audience and evidently the maître de, who wasn’t at the door to shoo us away, were as transfixed as we were, enthralled by the living presence of the great Ella Fitzgerald.