Musical Living

Mom, Dad and Carmen McRae
By Fred Crane

My musical background has little to do with me, so please bear with a bit of history. My Father was a jazz pianist and my Mother, a jazz singer. In case that wasn’t influence enough, it wasn’t long before my sister, Kelly, began to display a similar drive and talent. Music was simply daily life; corn flakes and scales, eggs and arpeggios. For all I knew, everyone had perfect pitch (myself excepted, an obvious black sheep from the first notes sung).

If there was a band in town, they’d likely known Dad from the road. Not unlike many professions, jazz is a smaller family than you’d think,. Perhaps even more so at that time due to the recession that was at hand in the face of pop music. Regardless, over the years various luminaries stopped by; the Adderley band, Ella’s rhythm section, James Moody, Joe Pass, Lee Konitz...and a whole bevy of others. Some known, and some, like my Dad, known to other players. Much of it I was too young to recall. I was just as prone to kick my soccer ball as to sit around calling tunes.

My Father’s professional life began playing over a PA system that spanned the aircraft carriers that were docked in Virginia during the tail end of WWII. Like many young lads who signed up fibbing about their age, he was mercifully put on a dock, in this case as a boilermaker’s helper. However, during lunch breaks he played for all the men on the carriers, as they went about making those small cities on the water function, and before he himself would have to get back below to pound and turn. Soon thereafter, 6 months I believe, his boiler maker pulled him aside and gave him an envelope. It contained a bus ticket to New Orleans, and a collection the guys had taken up to keep him going for a amounted to around $200, which in the mid 40’s was no small chunk of change.

Dad’s first stop was Loyola University, to audition for their music program. After a short audition he was given a full ride in exchange for playing on the radio twice a week.

His first small band gig was with Al Hirt. Then he went off with Woody Herman.  Dad and Al would have a friendship that spanned decades, and each engrained in me that I was from New Orleans,(and indeed I was born there), though we moved to Dallas when I was rather young. When Jumbo (Al’s well earned knick name) grabbed your shirt, pulled you in for a bear hug and a kiss, breathed on you like a bull a half inch from your face, and said that you were from New Orleans and never to f’in forget it...well, you didn’t. With Al for a God Father (ahhh no, there wasn’t any Christening), and guys like Pete Fountain, Bill Huntington, and Al Belletto nye, it’s no surprise that I’ve always felt more a product of New Orleans than anywhere else.

Dad had several trios through the years. Guys like Jimmy Zitano, Bill Huntington, Marc Johnson, Joey Baron, Kirby Stewart, Steve Houghton, Paul Warburton, and others made for synergies that could all find the pocket. He also did some wonderful duets with Carl Fontana, the famed underground trombonist. Those guys taught me many life lessons, not the least of which was listening...truly listening. I’m still working on it. My folks along with J.Z., Bill, and Marc, were the colors of my childhood.

Dad also played for the pianists each year at the Van Cliburn, where he became passing friends with Samuel Barber. The story goes that Sam had hopped on the piano while Dad was on a break; a behavior that in most situations doesn’t pass as kosher. Not recognizing him, Dad was glaring and on the verge of unleashing a helping of ferocity when Mr Barber introduced himself. Talk about the proverbial 180. Father adored Sam’s compositions and had been playing them since his youth. They had nice exchanges for many years thereafter.

Dad did teach, actually ‘mentored’ is more accurate, but only a few students; Marc Johnson and David Golub stand out. Later he would arrange an audition for Marc with Bill Evans. Marc ended up with the gig for the last several years of Bill's life. The other student, David, was a wunderkind classical pianist who went on to play for Isaac Stern, and eventually had his own classical trio in Europe...David had a photographic memory of sorts. Horrible acne that somehow you didn't notice. He was all light. He went to Germany for 4 months and came back fluent...that kind of mind. Years later, when he would come to town, we would go eat Mexican food and talk about Woody Allen movies. With t-shirts painted with guacamole, and both of us full of beer, he'd be the last guy you'd pick out of line-up as a classical player. He married into Italian royalty of some sort and died long before his time.

When I was around 10 I began to take a stronger interest in music. I had a drum set and my Father had shown me a few things on the piano, (the same few things are the totality of my repertoire these many years later). However listening was are in which I excelled. I would take 40 albums a month from my parents collection and commit them to memory, taking care to absorb the liner notes. I miss liner notes. I started hiding cassette recorders around the den to record what might happen...the first signs of audio interests. I had also spent some hard earned money (bussing tables, lawns, studio gaffer) a few years later on audio. I also attempted to push my Dad into some better gear. When I was a kid, we had Toby speakers, a Technics table, and a Pioneer Receiver...and a few cassette decks (Naks) and reel to reels (Technics).

When I inherited my own room at 13, (my sister had graduated early and was off to the Dick Rhodes School of Music at 15) I had a Crown Amp and pre, and some UREI Monitors that I saved from be thrown out of our friends studio. They were fronted by an Otari reel to reel and a Technics record player, and one of the Nakamichi decks. The rest is lost to memory.

When I was 11 or 12, they started calling me Little Leonard, after the jazz historian and producer, Leonard Feather. It was about that time that my Mom was singing in the Fairmont Lounge...actually she was subbing that night for a friend. Carmen McRae was in the main room. On her break, she came over to get a drink and heard Mom singing in the bar. Carmen was the antithesis of subtle. At the end of the ballad Mom was singing, Carmen yelled from the back of the room, "who the f^&* are you!! I haven't been thrilled like that in 20 F%&%**in years" She came to the stage, hugged Mom, and told her that she was coming to our house for lunch the next day. She had a way of doing that. While this was transpiring, I was at my table in the main room waiting for Carmen to return to the stage. I was perturbed that night, (you can get edgy when you’re 11 and have free reign of your Shirley Temple in-take). Carmen was copping Nat Cole's piano licks.

 I was a knight at the Nat Cole Trio round table...a fanatic who would love and defend Nat’s trios both pre and post vocals, till now anyway. Later when we met, Carmen donned a pseudo maternal tone, (which fit her like a snow plow) and asked me if I liked the show. Being both too young and too stupid to recognize her tribute, not to mention the woman’s potential ferocity, I lit into her for copping those licks with all the disdain and energy that someone who’d had 7 Shirley Temples might muster. She looked at my parents bemused, and said, “What is it?” Still that was the beginning of a dialogue and a closeness that we shared until her passing decades later.

Joe Williams and Norman Simmons also left a mark. A great mark. It is a sad fact that I attempted to impress certain young ladies by telling them I’d written a this or that song in their honor. Often stolen were tunes from the little known and out of print album (at that time), Joe Williams Sings About You. Hormones and desperation are my only defense. To me, this album was and is, a glorious piece of ballad work that deserves it’s place among our finest. That it was initially eschewed by the public was always a thorn for Joe. They had him pigeon holed as a blues man. I guess he could sing the blues about only singing the blues. Still, he was much more than a any one type of singer. He was that rarity.; a story teller, who could tell both large and small tales. The public came around years later.

Joe first met my Father when his pianist took ill, and Dad was called in to play. Joe couldn’t believe it. Dad knew all of the changes from his lessor known ballads and so forth. It was the beginning of a life long friendship that later included my Mom. Joe and Carmen, travelled with cassettes of Mom and Dad. They loved that...

So, Joe and his band (Norman Simmons was his pianist and musical director until Joe’s passing) were at our home. I was told I could skip school to hang out with guys, if I could get it past the school administrators. By then, I was in high school. I went early, and asked my Vice Principal, Opal Smith, with whom I flirted daily (no principal should look like Opal.) if it was possible. I explained that I didn't get to see them often and that I loved Joe's ballads, and that surely it was educational in some sense. The rest of the story is off of the books, but Norman ended up marrying Opal's best friend, and I got to drink beer with the guys.

A few years later, my Father passed. Joe and Norman came to town. Joe took me to lunch, offering condolences and wanting to know it I needed anything. I didn’t know what to say, save to thank him. I think I asked him some inane questions about women in an attempt to find a soft landing from the currents of emotion.

About this time, I had a job in a studio owned by a good friend of my Father’s, Arnett Peel. I learned my way around equipment while working ungodly hours and sleeping in studio B. Our house had been sold. There were money problems. If you’re broke, you may as well be broke near your dreams and perhaps a beach.

So I hopped a train and became a cliche’...another starving writer in LA. After nine months of working three jobs, trying to write, and sleeping on a love seat at my sister’s apartment, the phone rang. It was Carmen. I hadn't been in touch because I didn't feel I needed another witness to my strife. I suppose I was embarrassed. Of course she couldn’t have cared less. "When were you gonna call me, after you'd been here a fuckin’ year? Why do you think I have such a big God Damned house. Pack your shit and get over here. I have a gig tomorrow in DC and I've gotta show you how the alarm works."

It was a life savor. Both my Sister and her roommate, Natalie, were out of work, and I had started an affair with Natalie, a situation for which I received no small amount of disdain from my Kelly.

The time was ripe to move uptown. Carmen’s was a magical time. Her digs were on Summit Ridge Drive. A very nice Beverly Hills address. From a love seat and a sore back, to living next door to Fred Astaire. It was a split level 3 story with a pool and views...very Frank Lloyd Wright in it’s design. She took me into the house, and showed me down some stairs and said, ‘No one has stayed in this room since my Mother passed in 72. You know you’re special.’ From the dust in the room, it was apparent no one had been in there. There were sliding doors to a tiny patio that over-looked the hills. There was a bed...a really nice bed in comparison to the love seat or the prior couch in Studio B.

Upstairs there was a sunken living area with picture windows that bordered the built in seating in a square that over-looked the canyon and hills. And of course a piano, and a great kitchen. Carmen loved to cook. There was a pool and patio off of the dining area. It was a very interactive and social design. Centered at the entrance, was an oil painting of her dear friend, Sarah Vaughan

Carmen was famous for being a woman with edges, for being hard. She was hard, but that wasn’t all she was. I think about what she had seen in life. Being a young girl pianist playing intermission at Minton’s for Bird, Diz, and Monk while they figured out Be-Bop up in Harlem. Or being the only woman with 26 guys on a bus for 32-48 weeks at a time. She better be hard. She also had questionable taste in men...or as she might say, ‘questionable, nothing questionable about those mother’s.’ I hope that her taste in women was better. She was a woman of great talent, great inequities, and great complexity. She had thrown out her last borders for using a metal spatula on her no-stick pans.

During my time there, she sang and played for me a few times, but only a few. Mostly, she was subjected to my playing album after album from her prodigious collection. She hated it when I played her, but she had so many albums that I couldn’t find. I love the album she recorded at the Dug, in Japan, singing and accompanying herself. You can get it on cd now, or perhaps even streamed. It’s a classic. The reissue is called As Time Goes By, Carmen McRae Alone, Live at the Dug.

Living there also opened up the music of LA. I was down to 2 part time jobs and could make time. Getting to hear Jimmy Rowles and John Heard every Tuesday night at Linda's on Melrose was supreme. Jimmy and his wife Dorothy were very kind to me. He called me Sterling Jr. and I called him Adolph, after the actors Sterling Hayden and Adolph Menjou. There'll never be another Jimmy Rowles. If anyone out there has that bootleg of his solo playing, I'll give you my car for a copy. Jimmy had loved my Dad’s playing and was with, Al, Joe Pass, Doc Severinsen, and Carmen, among those who wrote the liner notes to Dad’s posthumous solo album.

One night at the Light House, Gene Harris, Ray Brown and JJ Johnson changed what I thought was possible. I ended up sitting with Peri Cousins, (a very talented woman who was also had been Bill Evan’s girlfriend, for whom he wrote Peri’s Scope) and we both just held on. When they played Lil Darlin, deathly slow, you could hear a pin drop. The House Camp Down!!

Despite a lot of the good that happened in LA, all the great listening, I always identified myself as having more of an East Coast rather than West Coast mentality. I also just liked to move around. Couldn’t help myself.

I soon found myself in Philly. I ended up helping to open and working at Zanzibar Blue. It was a great jazz bar and restaurant (jazz on one side, food on the other) owned by Robert and Benjamin Bynum. Their Father had owned a jazz club in the 60's in Jersey, so they understood how to create the right ambiance for music.

Philly has such great live and accessible music. Tony Williams (the Honorable, a world class alto player) Gerald Price, Eddie Green, Shirley Scott, Arthur Taylor, Ms Justine...Those rhythm sections could cook. It was a very popular venue, and luminaries often stopped in... Also, during this time I taught a jazz history class.

But the bug to move was never far away, and after 4 years I was off to Florida, to ‘not work’ for a year and get some writing done. There I met Meredith D'Ambrosio and her husband Eddie Higgins. They were playing at a health-food store in a strip mall of a sort. I had never heard of Meredith. I was just walking by and heard this voice singing the verse to Spring is Here. Nobody knows that verse. Next thing I know I'm sitting in front of raw veggies and some juice with my jaw on the table. Meredith and I became friends. We actually wrote a some song lyrics together, to Lullaby by George Cables. She lives an hour from me now and we never see each other.

I've been in the Greater Boston area for 2 plus decades. I suppose the bug to move subsided in some small way, or at least my ability to resist it’s call. Audio has been a companion to my existence as long as I can remember, along with architecture, wine and development. I had been to real estate school prior to graduating high school. I took time off a few years back to study yoga.. primarily hot hatha. As an x-athlete, (I never did stop kicking that soccer ball) I needed something my bones could handle and it turned out to be much much more than that. I have friends here that I've known as far back as grade school, God Kids out the ying yang, and feel more or less like a very lucky guy. I even moved Mom up here. Her last recording to date was with Hank Jones, Marc Johnson and Grady can she sing. I'm hoping to get her to do another one at some point.

It was after the yoga practice that my audio business came to be. I have a tendency to picture a business in my head and do everything I can to chisel it to form. I hope I'll be chiseling on this business for some time. It's a lot of fun. We're preparing a reference system for Boston Baroque, who earlier this year recorded the most digitally advanced recording to date. That system will debut at the end of October, when it's used to play back part of said recording to the Orchestra's benefactors and season ticket holders. We're also doing headphone stations for their concert season and for other concerts, like Madeleine Peyroux's upcoming show. We hope to do the same for the BSO, and several other musical events in our area. Anything to keep the music close, and hopefully to share and honor it. Once it’s in you, well, it’s always there. After all, the first portable player was your mind, the rhythm of your movement, and the harmonies between you and the world. If you keep those in place, the rest is gravy.

Fred Crane


At the capital Audiofest I met one of the top experts in the field of personal listening.  His name is Fred Crane and he is the proprietor of Stereodesk a Boston area boutique that specializes in mainstream and exotic headfi and two channel.

I was amazed at not only his cool products but his knowledge base on all things headphone related.
As a leading reviewer of high end audio equipment I am though no expert in headfi.  Visiting Fred's booths and rooms I saw products I've never heard of.  We are talking totally exotic... like an $80,000 headfi set up!

Fred's story is amazing and he tells it right here!

Peter Breuninger