Diary: Peter Cherches, Variations on a Theme, from Thelonious Monk and Billie Holiday

When I was in college I was working toward becoming a playwright, studying with Jack Gelber, best known for the play The Connection. Most of my literature courses were in drama, from the English, Comparative Literature, and Classics Departments, and I took a number of courses in the Theater Department too. My professor for history of theater was Benito Ortolani, a scholar of classical Japanese theater, with a secondary focus on western antiquity. Ortolani was as Italian as they come. He had a thick accent and his hands were in constant motion. One day a student asked him, “Professor Ortolani, how many languages do you speak?” He replied, “Seven living-a ones and two dead-a ones.” In Ortolani’s class I learned about the surviving ancient Greek theater at Epidaurus, a magical place that from then on had a bookmark in my brain.

It was close to forty years later that I finally got to Greece. From Nafplion, a beautiful coastal city on the Peloponnese, I took a tour to Epidaurus.

The theater was built at the end of the fourth century BCE, not long after the death of Euripides, whose plays were surely performed there, along with those of Aeschylus and Sophocles. It’s famous for its acoustics, a marvel of ancient engineering. Our tour guide pointed out that if you stand in the center, at ground level, and speak at a normal conversational volume, your words will be heard in even the highest, furthest seats—and the theater seats about fourteen thousand spectators. “Try it,” she told us. A couple of people went down and spoke a few words. What was I going to do? Here I was at a veritable shrine of the theater world, long a destination of desire for me; I certainly wasn’t going to say something banal like, “Hello, everybody!” Then I had a brainstorm.

My life in the arts has taken a number of twists and turns. By my senior year in college, it became clear to me that short fiction, rather than drama, would be my true métier. By the early eighties I was doing what people were calling performance art, mostly monologues based on my own texts. Then I started working with musicians, and that got me serious about singing, so I studied for about five years with a fabulous jazz singer, Nanette Natal. In 1987 I did my first concert as a jazz singer, at the New York alternative music space Roulette. For the show, I had written lyrics for eighteen of Thelonious Monk’s compositions. Now I’d take the opportunity to consecrate Epidaurus with the music of Thelonious Monk.

So when my turn came I started singing my lyrics to “Blue Monk.” I had finished one chorus when a security guard came up to me, sternly wagging her finger, saying, “No singing!” I stopped, but I should have said, “And what the hell do you think those Greek choruses were doing?”

I tell people that singing Monk at Epidaurus was the closest thing this atheist Jew has ever had to a “spiritual” experience. I hadn’t really sung for close to twenty years, and this inspired me to get back in the game.

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I was very close to my maternal grandparents. They lived in the same building we did, and I’d often go upstairs to visit them or stay with them when I needed a babysitter. They died within a year of each other, in their mid-eighties, in the late sixties.

My grandma we called Gran, and my grandpa we called Pop. Gran called Pop Pop, and Pop called Gran Mama.

Both were Russian Jews, but Gran came to Boston when she was three years old and had a Boston accent without a trace of Russian. She was a thin, slight, perennially sweet woman who didn’t have a bad word for anybody. Pop came to New York when he was a young man, to avoid military service, and retained a thick Russian accent. He was a short, fat, bald man, about five-foot-seven and 250 pounds. There was an old photo of him smoking a cigar from the thirties, the spitting image of Al Capone. He was a curmudgeon who hardly ever had a good word for anybody—except Mama, to whom he was devoted.

They both started failing around the same time and ended up in a nursing home. I know that Gran died before March of 1969 and that Pop died after, because Pop, who had entered a deep depression, claimed he was holding on only so he could be at my Bar Mitzvah. Pretty much all Pop ever said after Gran died was, “She was a saint,” with tears in his eyes. Then he died a few months after the Bar Mitzvah, having nothing left to live for. He weighed 97 pounds.

After they had both died, we went upstairs (nobody gives up a rent-controlled apartment in New York) to go through their effects and see what there was to keep. I found a cabinet full of 78 RPM records. The only one I can remember was the Billie Holiday disc on the Commodore label that featured “I Cover the Waterfront” on one side and “Lover Come Back to Me” on the other.

I was already curious about jazz and blues, and I had certainly heard of Billie Holiday, but I’m pretty sure I had never actually heard her sing. I had heard her song “God Bless the Child” in the version by Blood, Sweat & Tears, but can’t remember if I even knew it was hers (and the total mismatch of the song to that group still gives me the willies). Back then many turntables still had the 78 speed and could take a reversible cartridge, because the 78s took a thicker stylus than the one for “microgroove” recordings. I didn’t have a 78 needle for my turntable, so I played the record with a standard one, which worked, but could ruin the grooves. And that’s how I heard Billie Holiday for the first time, on a crackly 78 played with the wrong kind of needle.

It grabbed me. I instantly understood why Billie Holiday was considered such a great singer. I loved especially “I Cover the Waterfront,” which suggested to me the surreal image of a giant literally covering a waterfront. I learned years later that the song took its title from a novel and film of the same name. In the song it’s a woman waiting by the waterfront, likely in vain, for her lover’s return, presumably by sea. In the film it’s a journalist whose beat is the waterfront.

The first Billie Holiday album I owned was a double LP of her thirties recordings on Columbia called God Bless the Child that came out in 1972 and featured an earlier recording of “I Cover the Waterfront.” For me the 1944 Commodore recordings, like the one I first heard, represent a sweet spot in her career, though. She was between contracts with John Hammond at Columbia and with Decca, where she was given more of a pop treatment than the pure jazz of her earlier records. Her voice was in fine form, and her interpretations fell somewhere between the youthful verve of many of the Columbia records and the weathered, battle-scarred, simmering intensity of her fifties work.

When I think back upon it, I’m really pleased that I discovered Billie Holiday in my grandparents’ collection. I have no memories of my grandparents listening to music, but it fills me with joy to imagine them putting on Lady Day, Gran’s ear cocked toward the Victrola, listening intently, and Pop gazing lovingly at Mama, even if it never actually happened that way.

Peter Cherches has published three volumes of short prose fiction and nonfiction with Pelekinesis, most recently Whistler's Mother's Sonand, with Purgatory Pie Press, three limited-edition artist’s books; collaborated with Elliott Sharp in the avant-vaudeville music/performance group Sonorexia and with pianist Lee Feldman on a series of original songs and monologues as well as the album Mercerized! Songs of Johnny Mercer. This Diary is adapted from his new book, Tracks: Memoirs from a Life with Music. We have an extra bonus track from Tracks for subscribers here!

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Cherches at Epidaurus, courtesy of the author