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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

 

Part Two: Doing Lunch

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.

Enjoying 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.

Being taken 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.

After another 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

Of course, 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.

Having an 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 better!"

My first 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.

Broadway (formerly the Mohican Trail) and Me

In Native 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.

Having my 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.

After my 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.

Co-starring 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!"

Performing 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 Project.

Watching 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.

Falling in 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 did.

Giving the 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.

Co-producing 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.

More about 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.

Long talks 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.

Talking with 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.

Standing 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.

Writing a 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.

Of course, 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 friends.

 

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