My Fateful Night at Birdland

I only have one thing on my bucket list. One thing. Because everything else I try to add seems cliché or insipid. Or, it’s something I would never dare to do. “Visit Paris in April” sounds trite. “Jump out of an airplane.” No way in hell. “Run the Boston Marathon.” I can barely run around the block. “Fly an airplane.” Been there done that. I once flew my client’s private plane part of the way from Portland to Seattle on a beautiful, crystal clear day. “See Carl Sagan in his underwear.” Check. But that’s a story for another time. And it’s not at all what you may think.

So, I am sure you’re on the edge of your seat, wondering, “What is this one thing on your bucket list? It must be something ingenious.” Well, hold on to your hairdos, as I’m about to do the big reveal: To see Tony Bennett in concert. Yep. That’s it. That’s the one thing on my bucket list.

Who doesn’t love Tony Bennett raise your hand? His music has been woven through every phase of my life, like so many others my age. But my true appreciation and admiration for Mr. Bennett began when my daughter was a baby. We had his children’s album, “The Playground.” We’d listen to it every time we rode in the car, which, in a place with virtually no public transportation, a car ride is an everyday affair. And, seriously, how could you not fall madly in love with that velvety smooth voice and hint of a Queen’s accent singing “Put on a Happy Face” and “Swinging on a Star”?

You know the book, “Go the F*ck to Sleep”? That title was my mantra for the first two years of my daughter’s life. She was one heck of a napper. But getting her to sleep at night was, well, a nightmare. Ferberizing? Seriously? That’s like waterboarding for a new parent. So instead, I took another avenue to get her to sleep. Less torturous, but still a painful and exhausting tactic. I’d rock her in my arms and sing Tony Bennett’s version of “Inchworm.” Like a dirge. For hours. Until she would go the f*ck to sleep.

Stepping back in time, way back to 1982, my family took a trip to New York City (and I have the scrapbook to prove it). While I had grown up in Upstate NY until I was 9 before moving to Oregon, I had never been to the ‘City.’ Now, just 18 years old and freshly out of high school, my parents, my two sisters and I made the 8-hour plane trip across the country to Manhattan (why we waited to visit New York City until we lived on the other side of the country still remains a mystery). I’m the kind of person who loves to be where the action is. I like to be in the thick of things. It’s no wonder I fell in love with Manhattan the moment I stepped off the plane at JFK. I loved every single thing about it. The hustle and bustle, people walking with real purpose, high-style, and high rises, and old-school restaurants and shops left as remnants of days gone by. New York was my paradise.

Scrapbook from my first trip to NYC

Among doing the typical touristing — visiting museums, climbing to Lady Liberty’s crown, seeing Sugar Babies on Broadway with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller — my parents took us to a jazz club called Eddie Condon’s on 54th Street and Second Avenue. This is where my love affair of great jazz began. And this is where I got to order my first legal alcoholic beverage — a 7 & 7. I loved sitting in the dark club, listening to the bebop improvisations. The clinking of ice cubes in glasses. The smoke. The hard-core jazz fans. It is a night I have never forgotten. After this night, New York City and I were officially joined at the hip.

Fast forward to the summer of 2014, my daughter and I “lived” in Manhattan for 7 weeks. After my initial trip with my family to NYC, I had been there more than a dozen times on business and as a tourist, but my thirst for New York had never been fully quenched. This trip was to experience it like real New Yorkers. We lived in a natty walk-up in an Upper West Side brownstone. Central Park was our new backyard. Columbus Avenue was our pantry. Long Giang Dang Cleaners was our laundry room.

Our experience during those 7 weeks went far beyond our wildest expectations. This was mostly because of the people we encountered. My daughter had an internship with Velocidi, a digital marketing firm in the Flatiron District that employs a group of creative online advertising masterminds. From there, she took the subway to her afternoon job, where she was a nanny for the children of two ingenious entrepreneurs: Naama and David Bloom. Naama, Founder and CEO of HelloFlo, had just released her second viral video: First Moon Party, which garnered 7 million views in 24 hours and amassed 25 million views in a week (her first viral video was Camp Gyno). David was piloting his rapidly growing company, Ordr.in, which provides an application for restaurants to offer online food ordering, which capitalizes on the ‘take out’ trend that is sweeping through the UK and across the US.

Through my dear friend, Susan McPherson, who aptly bills herself as a ‘serial connector,’ I had the good fortune of networking with many amazing women who reside in NYC. They included the incredibly talented jewelry designer, Judi Powers, who I now count as one of my cherished friends. Two amazing women behind SHE, the brilliant and oh-so-humble Elizabeth Scharpf and the marketing dynamo Connie Lewin — I feel privileged that they selected me to help with SHE’s publicity. We were also honored to spend Fourth of July at the apartment of Susan’s sister Nancy Spector, the chief curator at the Guggenheim, and Nancy’s husband, Michael Gabellini, the renowned interior architect, who reinvented the Top of the Rock and just finished renovating the infamous Rainbow Room. In addition, we got to closely watch Susan’s then partner, Fabien Cousteau, on his under-the-sea expedition called Mission 31.

Aside from day-to-day living among inspiring locals, and visiting the customary Manhattan sites, I wanted my daughter to experience the same magic I experienced as a teenager visiting New York: a real jazz club. While Eddie Condon’s was long gone, a few long-standing clubs remained. After researching all the venues and headliners, I decided on Birdland, a long-standing jazz supper club where the legendary jazz pianist, Barbara Carrollwas performing. This, I thought, would give my daughter the ultimate, nostalgic New York jazz experience.

We arrived at Birdland a little early, as we weren’t sure how long it would take to get there on the subway from our place on West 88th down to West 44th. And, if you have visited anywhere near Times Square recently, you understand the dread of fighting through the spectacle of tourists and ‘street performers’ dressed in cartoon costumes. Good thing we got to Birdland early. We got the second best table in the house, seated directly in view of the small stage.

Do you believe in serendipity? I do. I believe in the platitude “everything happens for a reason.” I believe that small decisions can result in huge outcomes and vice versa. One time while driving, I made a hasty decision and, unknowingly, I almost pulled out in front of a huge truck coming quickly around the corner. That one snap decision could have cost me my life and drastically changed the life of others. I still shudder when I think about it. The decision whether or not to buy tickets to Birdland to see Barbara Carroll wasn’t snap decision. And although it was a small decision, I wrestled with it all day long. I grappled with thoughts like, what if a better opportunity comes along? What if my daughter hates me for the rest of her life because I took her to a boring jazz club? What if it is not the night and experience I had hoped for? At one point during the day, I threw caution to the wind and clicked the ‘purchase’ button to secure two tickets to that night’s performance at 6 p.m.

There was something about the subway ride to Birdland. We took the C train every single day. But that night there was an energy I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Was it the darling elderly women, all dressed up in her Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, with grocery bags in each hand and insisting on standing during the ride no matter how many people offered her a seat. She looked like she had some great stories to tell. Or was it the fun-loving group of teens who were singing, dancing and laughing, turning the ride into impromptu party. Or was it the wide-eyed toddler sitting on her father’s lap and taking it all in. Whatever it was, the energy that made me beamingly happy. It was an energy that felt like something great was going to happen.

While there was a different vibe I remember at Eddie Condon’s, Birdland still represented that timeless and classic jazz club feeling. As it should. The original Birdland opened in 1949 on 52nd and Broadway and was named in honor of Charlie “Bird” Parker who was its primary headliner. The list of Birdland’s notable performers is far too long to publish here. Name a jazz great and they most likely played there. Count Basie? Check. Billie Holliday? You bet. Dizzie Gillespie? All the time. Stan Getz? Of course. The song Lullaby of Birdland, written about the club, is a Jazz Standard (ranked 153 out of 1000), and was made famous by Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. It’s also been recorded by Mel Torme, Chaka Khan, and, yes, Amy Winehouse. Personally, I think her rendition is one of the very best.

Birdland is an intimate venue. There are about 20 tables that encircle the small stage. We were in the second row of tables that were slightly elevated above the tables in front of the stage, with a pony wall and rail to separate us from the tables below. I was so excited for my daughter to the same kind of introduction to real, live jazz that I had so many years ago — sans the smoke and the drinks. Looking around the room, I was a little disappointed to see it was not your typical classic jazz crowd. Then, in walks the quintessential looking supper club patron: an 80-something, slight, short man, balding with the big black-rim glasses. His thick, distinctive Queens accent added to his character. He told the maître d that he needed six seats. Together they moved the tables directly below us to create a table for six. I gave my daughter a look that indicated, “This is what it’s all about.” Her expression responded back, “I get where you’re going with this.”

Another elderly gentleman, looking similar to the other, shuffled into the club. I nudged my daughter and said, “Here comes one of his friends.” She gave me a look like, “Oh my gosh mom, how cute is he?” A younger woman, probably in her early 60s joined the two men. She looked very familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then, two more older men came in and walked over to talk to the group.

Do you know the moment when you see someone and you think, “I know you. How do I know you?” Well, as soon as these two men walked up, that was exactly what went through my mind. I looked right in his eyes, taken aback, and said, “Hello.” He looked at me, said “Hello” and then looked down at the floor as if he was shy. I felt a sudden twinge in my gut.

Not wanting to cause a scene, I texted my daughter. Yes, she was sitting across the table, but I texted her. I often do this in restaurants when I want to tell her something but don’t want anyone else to hear. The content of the text: “I think that’s Tony Bennett.” Ding. She looks at her phone and looks at me with wide eyes. She knows how I feel about him. She knows that he “is” my bucket list.

But I am still not 100% sure. Clue #1 was that it sure looked like him. Clue #2 is that he sat at opposite end of the tables from his friends. When they asked why, he said, “I want to sketch Barbara.” Of course. Tony Bennett, or Anthony Benedetto, which is his given name and the name he uses for his artwork. Holy shit. He is sitting directly in front of my daughter, an artist in her own right, and he’s going to sketch.

The house lights dimmed. Barbara Carroll and her jazz bassist, Jay Leonhart, took the stage. She is lovely. Elegant. Slender and tall. A gazelle. She takes a long, paused look over the audience and begins to play. Ms. Carroll, now 88 years old, is somewhat a vestige of jazz years gone by. She got her big break in New York when her friend booked her under the name “Bobbie Carroll” and did not allude to her gender, as sexism in the jazz world, especially as a musician, was rampant in those days. It wasn’t until it was too late for them to find someone else for the evening performance that they found out she was female. Impressed by her talent, she was asked to put together a trio and play opposite Dizzy Gillespie’s Orchestra at the famed Downbeat Club. After that, she performed in major cities all over the United States, London, the White House and even a stint on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Me and Juliet. In 1978, what was to be a two-week engagement turned into a 25-year stint at the Bemelmans Bar in the well-heeled Carlyle Hotel.

After her first two songs, Barbara Carroll’s eyes met Tony’s and she gave him that nonchalant look like, “I see you.” This was Clue #3 and confirmation for me that it was indeed Tony Bennett. Glee and panic struck me instantly and simultaneously.

At this point, Barbara was playing, the bassist was plucking, I was shaking with excitement, Tony was sketching, and my daughter was taking in one of the most rare events she may ever encounter in her entire life: watching the last of the iconic crooners sketch his long-time, dear friend, one of the last jazz pianist greats.

I was trying to figure out a way to get his autograph on the down low, so I didn’t draw attention of other patrons. There was a postcard on our table and I started to jot a note to him on it. A note about how I’m a huge admirer (me and millions of others) and that I have played his music for my daughter since she was a baby. And would he please do me the biggest honor by signing the postcard.

This girl, my daughter, who, for the first two years of her life, had to fall asleep in a simulated version of Aunt Ruby’s funeral procession, had the most magnificent idea: “Mom, pick up his check.” Brilliant. I turned the waitress and coolly said, “I’d like to pick up Tony’s check.”

“What?”

“I’d like to pick up Tony’s check,” I repeated casually, like he was an old friend.

“Uh, okaaaay,” the waitress says with some apprehension, like “You’re really going to make me go over there and get his check for you?” Yes, I am.

She walks around to their table. Then chaos and confusion ensue.

The performance is now over and Tony is talking with Barbara, Jay and his friend Basil Baylin whose back was to us. The waitress walks over and tells them that we want to pick up their tab; however, Basil misunderstands and thinks that I want to look at Tony’s sketchbook. He grabs it, turns around and hands it to me. I take it, thinking it is the bill, and realize what I am holding: Anthony Benedetto’s sketchbook. Holy shit. “I don’t want this. I want the check,” I say to Basil. “Oh, I thought she said to hand you the sketchbook,” says Basil. For a split second I’m thinking, “I could just run out of here and sell his sketchbook on eBay and pay for this 7 weeks in NYC and then some.” But even more so, I am thinking, “I am holding Tony Bennett’s sketchbook. The Tony Bennett.” It took all my restraint not to open it and take a peek at his sketches. I hand it back to Basil who then hands me the check. Twenty dollars. That was it. Two glasses of wine, one for Tony and one for Basil. As I am paying the check, Basil and I start a conversation. “Where are you from?” he asks. “We’re here from Oregon,” I say. “Oh wow, Oregon,” he says, pronouncing it “Or-ee-gone” vs. “Orygun.” He turns around to the group, “Tony, these ladies from Or-ee-gone are picking up our check!” I hear everyone in the group repeating the “Oh, Or-ee-gone.” in their heavy New York accents.

Then he, my bucket list, turns around to face our table. “Thank you,” he says with a cool, sweet smile. “You’re welcome,” I say. And then I begin to babble about how I’ve played his music for my daughter since she was a baby. How I went to Eddie Condon’s when I was a teenager and wanted to share a similar experience with her. I think I may have even said that he was the one thing on my bucket list. I was trying to fit all I wanted to say to him in that moment in time. I was ill prepared. Who knew that I would ever have the opportunity to talk with Tony Bennett face-to-face? Let alone in this intimate environment. Had I known I was going to come face to face with Mr. Bennett, I would have practiced in front of the mirror for hours beforehand. Every word, every gesture, every intonation, meticulously practiced so I could make the most out of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But I didn’t have this luxury. So I just babbled. And Tony would just shake his head and repeatedly say, “Thank you.”

He signed my postcard and it reads, “Thank you” with his signature. I am on cloud nine. I cannot believe that this moment took place. Everyone is now exiting Birdland. My daughter and I happen to be right behind Tony and Basil as they walk down the sidewalk. Two older unassuming gentlemen, shuffling along, going undetected by other pedestrians. And then they just vanish into the traffic and its as if none of this had taken place.

If you want to get particular about it, my bucket list really says, “See Tony Bennett in concert.” Not, “Meet Tony Bennett.” So technically, I haven’t checked that item off yet. And thank goodness for that, because, as I have stated several times, that’s the only thing I have on my bucket list. And if I accomplish that, what else is there to live for? However, on November 5, I’m taking my mother to see Tony Bennett in concert for her 80th birthday. On that night, I will have fully accomplished my bucket list. My one thing.

So, I figure I have until November 5, 2014 to figure out what I need to add to my list. I better think fast. But, honestly, I’m at a complete loss for what can be more exciting than my fateful night at Birdland.

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