WHY I (Still) LOVE NEW YORK
(in spite of the pollution, noise, expense, and lack of tall trees)
Some of My Most Memorable Moments as an Algonquin in Manhattan
By Evan Pritchard author of Native New Yorkers
For all its
environmental hazards, New York City is still a great place to be, especially
for those inclined towards the arts. For the lucky and the hungry, the
connoisseur of the arts can often "do lunch" with one's literary
and musical favorites. All it takes is to be very charming and to have
a profound grasp of the person's work. It also helps to be in the same
business, and being a reviewer is even better.
I love New
York as a place where you can find great musical genius everywhere,
often free to talk over a meal. My favorite memories include hearing
stunning performances and then having lunch with entertainers/songwriters
Phoebe Legere, Dina Fanai, Larry Siegel, Bettine Clemen Ware, David
Leisner, Ben Verdery, Fred Lipsius; Taking lessons in a Bronx walk-up
with young jazz guitar marvel Rodney Jones. He must have been in his
early twenties, and so good! I don't think I ever saw him eat lunch.
He later became musical director for the Cosby Show and toured with
Lena Horne. Jazz talent is everywhere in New York, waiting to be discovered.
And for dining with great Celtic musicians, go to any Irish Pub and
find out when "jam night" is.
lunch on 34th Street in 1981 with my literary idol Elissa Ely, columnist
for the Boston Globe; Lunch with Dell Books' Fran Goldstein, author
of "Why Is This Woman Smiling," although it was mainly because
I knew her in High School; Madeleine L'Engle making lunch for me at
her place on the upper west side; lunch with writer Rick Jarow upstairs
at the international food spot across from Columbia University while
discussing poetry with some college students, doing lunch with Swiss
millionaire Christina Hartman (I paid for the privilege) then taking
her into a bookstore, pointing to a book on the rack and being able
to say "I edited that book." (Malcolm: The Life of the Man
Who Changed Black America); doing lunch with some actresses, talking
about our favorite movies, telling one I was in love with the girl in
"The Last Picture Show" when I was a young virgin, only to
have her reply, 'That was me!!! I was that girl. Do you still love me?"
Lunch over a drafting table with Rich Buckler, creator of Deathlock
and Superman's personal illustrator.
to lunch at a Broadway café by Arnold Arnstein, copyist for the
New York Philharmonic, and hearing all his war stories, some of them
about Lenny, who was a terrible procrastinator. Arnold told me to go
see him any time, and almost introduced me to one of my musical heroes,
Sam Barber, but Barber died of cancer two months later. Barber set T.S.
Elliot's poems about cats to music, which inspired the musical CATS
which I never saw. There were wildcats on Manhattan in 1609, but the
Dutch killed them all. Now we have actors in furry suits.
lunch with author Madeleine L'Engle, spontaneously "channeling"
a Mahler concerto (he never wrote one) on the original Carnagie Hall
Steinway piano for her entertainment in her penthouse apartment near
Broadway. She loved it, and said, 'First Pederewski, then Rachmaninov,
now you!" As a New York memory, that's hard to top. In fact, as
I later learned, it may have been the Steinway that Mahler used on November
1st and 4th in 1910 in his Carnagie Hall performance of Bach Concerto
suites, which he had doctored to sound like a harpsichord, only louder.
She had just had it repaired, and said she wanted it "tested."
It felt like his spirit was attached to that piano. Perhaps he played
it when no one else was around, trying to remember his youthful "Wunderhorn"
songs in the autumn of his years.
More Musical and Literary Adventures in the Big Apple
being a young "immigrant" (from Maryland) and writer trying
to make it in the music business led to some interesting experiences
that could only happen in New York. Twenty-four years later, I'm still
trying to make it in the music business, whatever that means. But if
experiences really were gold, I'd be the richest man in New York.
ocarina contest with David Amram, composer and author of one of my favorite
books about New York, Vibrations which I read at 14. I was at a party
at photographer Henry Grossman's lavish apartment amid New York's star
talents, and a woman asked me "Everyone here is the best in the
world at something. What are you best at?" I was a 24 year old
Celtic/Micmac Indian just arrived in Manhattan. I stumbled and said,
"I don't know. I guess I'm the greatest ocarina player in the world,
or at least this room." The woman turned to the man behind me and
said, "Did you hear that, David Amram? He says HE's the best ocarina
player!" (Amram is definitely the greatest ocarina player in the
world, and I knew that! Nabbed!) Amram won the ocarina contest handily.
A guitar piece of mine was performed that evening at the party and he
said loudly, "I'd a given my right arm to have composed that!"
He and I later became friends, and I helped teach him to play guitar.
Later that year, I got to meet "the world's greatest harmonica
player" Larry Adler, a real "Native New Yorker" of the
modern variety. A year later I spotted him in a Broadway restaurant
in New York. I had my ocarina with me and gave him a free concert right
then and there. He said, "Great, but I still like my harmonica
editing job, at 25, sitting with Blood, Sweat and Tears arranger Fred
Lipsius (with a broken Grammy award on the table of his New York apartment-it
was the award for arranging Spinning Wheel) working on his manuscript
for The Complete Book of Improvisation, later published by Warner. I
did it as a favor. He sold me his electric piano for half price-the
one they used at Woodstock 69, I think.
(formerly the Mohican Trail) and Me
New Yorkers, I wrote about the history of the Mohican Trail and how
it gradually became Broadway. It is an interesting tale. But what the
book doesn't mention is my own adventures on Broadway as an aspiring
writer and composer. The following memorable events happened on or near
Broadway in Manhattan. The thing I like best about these events is that
they happened to me.
work premiered at Lincoln Center at 24, one year after my unannounced
arrival, along with new works by Virgil Thompson, Otto Luening, Ned
Rorem, and others. We each bowed after our pieces. The next morning
I went to my job as a "picker" in a cold-storage warehouse
with sub-freezing temperatures; most of my co-workers didn't know where
Lincoln Center was so I didn't make much of it. I was working for sub-minimum-wage
on a back street in Staten Island. My boss was so tough, another operator
hired me to teach the other one a lesson, and gave me his coat in the
bargain. He raised by pay to minimum wage. The concert was reviewed
in Hi Fidelity Magazine, which I couldn't afford.
Being hired by Polygram Records/Chappel Music through a kid I talked
to on the subway who knew the job was about to open and told me what
to say. While working there I did a legal analysis of the Porgy and
Bess contract, signed by Louis B. Meyer, the Gershwins, E.B. DuBois
and others, for the great music lawyer, Bruce Gold. I'll never forget
holding that original document, examining the signatures, hoping not
to spill tea on it. I had written a Broadway musical, but it never got
off the ground. I submitted a demo tape of the music to "Golden
Ears" Irwin Schuster who had discovered "Pippin." He
liked my song which lampooned the music business, but passed on the
rest of the show. I was also in attendance at his funeral when he passed
away the following year. Great guy.
time at Polygram I was hired to be Schirmer Publishing's copyright director.
Their motto was "the largest music publisher in the world."
The day before I was officially hired, (at 29) Leonard Bernstein sued
the company over West Side Story, his New York City classic, and my
favorite musical. Before breaking the news to me, they sat me down and
asked me, "Do you know Leonard Bernstein?" I said, "Yeah
sure, we've talked a couple of times." That was it. They eliminated
the position altogether. They also lost the battle for West Side Story.
I would never have survived that fight in any case. My heart would not
have been in it.
with Phoebe Legere and Ken Littlehawk in a Broadway Musical premiere,
playing the part of Wamsutta, one of my Algonquin heroes in May of 2001.
Phoebe played my wife Witamu, and we did a death-by-poisoning duet aria
that was part Native American, part Broadway, part Wagner. I had to
learn the part in a week. She had called to get permission to use ideas
from No Word For Time. When she said she didn't have a Wamsutta, I said,
"Hey, I can do this!" After the performance I met a Native
American outside and said, "Hey, are you a Munsee Indian?"
He said "Yes!" I said, "But what are you doing here in
Manhattan?" Quite correctly, he answered, "Our people have
always been here!"
a monologue/spiritual ritual in the Delaware language for a crowd of
900 people at St. John the Divine, backed up by the sounds of the Hawk
the preview showing of the movie version of Annie with its composer
Richard Schumann, who also wrote Bye Bye Birdie, both somewhat dear
to today's Native New Yorkers.
love with the first chair cellist for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
from the thirtieth row when I was 24. I think she was 35. I bumped into
her by accident on the street and asked to dine with me. To my surprise,
she actually thought about it, and gave me a number to call, but I never
first public reading of From the Temple Within near Lincoln Center at
Hilda Charleton's summer solstice spiritual gathering, accompanied by
the spontaneous improvised music of Richard Shulman. Walking into a
free bluegrass concert at Walter Damrosh Park near that same church
while looking for something fun to do.
a talking book with Ruth Warrick and John Hunt of Audio Literature Inc.,
in a mid-town recording studio. The stretch limo got stuck in traffic
crossing Broadway. Ruth said, "Who needs limos? We've got feet!"
so we jumped out and walked the rest of the way to the studio.
Schirmers: The youthful David Leisner walked in, took a guitar down
and a difficult piece of music and began to play. I said, "Who
are you and why have you come?" He later premiered my Second Sonata
for Guitar, and toured with it. I gave him his first composition lessons,
which were on a friendly basis. He became quite renown as a composer
after his hand injury. Another man came in claiming to be a great organist,
dropping names. I gave him my Organ Prelude and Tocatta in A minor to
perform. For years he told me of how he played it in various concerts
around the world. Then one day I managed to pin him down to a performance
at a vacant church. He had been making up all the stories all along,
and couldn't play a note. Only in New York.
with young composer Lowell Leiberman who must have been twenty years
old at the time. He soon won the Charles Ives award. I found young Michael
Rosensweig panhandling on the street, looking like a homeless derelict.
He had arrived in New York as I had, with no identity or contacts. As
a descendant of nomadic people, I never hold that against anyone. He
mentioned music, so I showed him a piece I had with me. Although barely
educated in music, his analysis was startling. I went to the room where
he was staying temporarily and he played me a tape of his music, and
I brought him to Columbia University to meet people in the music department.
I introduced him to the music of Mahler, which he liked. He wrote several
successful string quartets, announcements for which were plastered all
over the city. He soon took over Columbia and was in line for conductorship
of the Columbia Orchestra. He had a completely original mind, and a
strong will, and had such conflicts with personalities, he was removed
in spite of his mastery of the orchestra, and placed in a more neutral
situation. Years later I struck up a conversation with a man on the
street, on Broadway, at Lincoln Center. It turned out to be the man
who had to make that decision. The man said, "Musical genius is
important, but human beings are more important." I told him, "I
don't regret giving him that chance, but I would have done the same
thing in your shoes."
The day David
Leo Diamond called me at work to invite me to study with him at Juilliard,
and left a message with my friend Jeff Gold, who was his biggest fan.
Jeff was walking on clouds!
The day David
Leisner (now at NEC) got his first call from Virgin Thompson, and thought
it was me, pulling his leg. He told Virgil, "Oh, cut it out. This
is Evan, right?" Virgil said, "No this isn't Evan, this is
Virgil! I really am Virgil Thompson!" They later collaborated on
songs for guitar, published by C. F. Peters.
Leonard Bernstein about the future of symphonic music. "A new tonality?
He said through his nose, I'll have to see that!" Lenny always
used to say, "I'm such a looney!" He was a brilliant man,
very flambouyant! He used to hang out among his admirers behind stage,
bare chested, dressed in only a terrycloth bathrobe, looking very much
like a lion, with that mane of his. New York was made for people like
him. The Great Canarsie Chief Sessys probably looked like that.
before the Juilliard scholarship audition board for composers at the
height of the department's glory; five Pulitzer prize winners and myself.
Diamond, Sessions, Persechetti, Babbitt, Carter, and an Algonquin Indian
named Pritchard. It was like pitching to the 1927 Yankees. They tested
my "pitch," and I did very well. Being a guitarist I was a
half step off on the first note, then gave them all the pitches correctly
after that. Persechetti was a trickster, a Heyoke. He played my own
piece for orchestra and said, "What's that piece?" I said
"I don't know it isn't mine." He said it was. I said, "You
misread the key signature!" He said, "Oh, I see," and
played it again, correctly. I didn't get the scholarship because a student
working in the office changed my age from 24 to 27, speaking of tricksters..
Nevertheless, I had read a lot of books about Vienna in the 1700s, and
wanted that kind of experience, and New York delivered.
symphony under the expert tutelage of David Leo Diamond, and hearing
him announce at a composer's forum at Juilliard that I was "another
Delius." The other young composers' eyes turned green. Now they
are all very successful with "anothers" of their own to name.
seeing my life-size name and likeness in the Broadway window of the
giant Barnes and Nobles bookstore on 81st Street was memorable for me,
as was giving the talk there on No Word For Time. Part of what made
the talk memorable was what people had to say afterwards. A number of
the people went out to eat afterwards, and several became long-term
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