I should have known something important was about to happen when Dan Levinson approached me on Saturday, November 28, 2015, at the San Diego Jazz Fest and asked if I would video-record his next set. Dan believes (if I may coarsely paraphrase him) that the beautiful evanescent creations of jazz musicians should remain so; that they can be made subject to eternal scrutiny is not something he prefers. (I take it as a mark of great respect and friendship that he has humored me and my little camera for years now.)
But once Dan was a quarter of the way through his explanation, I said, “That’s great. I’ll be there,” and I was.
But before this narrative gets too convoluted, too much about myself and the philosophy of video-recording, let me introduce you to Rena Jean Middough. First, through a photograph taken in 1952. The man on her right is multi-instrumentalist / singer / bandleader / inspiring teacher Rosy McHargue:
Then, in her own words, a reminiscence she has titled THE JOY OF PLANETARY ASPECTS:
Astrologers think aspects to the planet Uranus trigger unexpected human events. Some events may be good, some may be not so good, but all will be unexpected. Three years ago, something moved my son to order a CD of Rosy McHargue’s Ragtimers. Rosy McHargue was a Dixieland musician who dedicated himself to preserving American music from the early 1900’s.
I had met Rosy because my husband was the director of a TV show in which Rosy appeared, “Dixie Showboat,” and Rosy invited us to his home. Somehow, he asked me to sing two songs while he recorded them on acetate.
In 1952, Rosy made a recording of all the songs the Ragtimers played, and he asked me to record a vocal. When I got to the recording studio in Hollywood, all Rosy said was, “Hello, sing two choruses.” The musicians began to play. I sang two choruses and sat down. Rosy asked why I was still there. I replied, “I’m waiting to rehearse.” “No, no,” he said. “It was fine. Go home.” And that was my great recording career. Only my kids remembered.
Sixty-two years later, Uranus unexpectedly made New York musician Dan Levinson very happy. Young Dan Levinson was taught to play clarinet and saxophone and to be a full-time musician by Rosy McHargue. The two were best friends, and when Rosy died, he left all his music and arrangements to Dan. Dan, who has mde his career playing music from the first half of the twentieth century just as Rosy did, took the old recordings and made them into a modern CD. He wrote loving biography notes on all Rosy’s musicians, but someone was missing. Who was the girl who sang “Posies”? When my son ordered the CD, Dan sat down in the subway, opened his laptop, and mailed the good news to everyone he knew. He had found the girl who had sung two choruses of “Don’t Bring Me Posies.” He had searched for her for ten years. My son, when he placed the order for the CD, had written that his mom had sung “Posies” and his dad was the barking dog on “You Gotta Quit Kickin’ My Dawg Around.”
Once my son had solved the mystery of the girl singer, Dan and his wife Molly quickly arranged an afternoon for us in New York. We met at Penn Station under the arrival sign for New Jersey trains. Dan, at six foot five, had to bend down to be kissed as I thanked him for calling me a National Treasure. It was a wonderful feeling to be treasured. During that afternoon in New York, I felt acceptable to the universe.
This summer, Uranus and that silly song merged again. Once a year, Dan and Molly play the Coffee Gallery in Altadena, and all their Southern California friends swarm to see them. I persuaded a lady who can drive at night to drive me to Altadena to enjoy the wonderful jazz. I grabbed the best seat in the house. The show began. Dan played clarinet and sax, and Molly sang the vocals. They were backed by a fine bass player and a superb jazz guitarist. After a while, Dan began to invite fellow musicians he knew in the audience to come up on the stage and sit in with them. One by one, the friends borrowed saxophones and trombones and performed. After the fourth guest musician, Dan informed the audience that Rosy McHargue’s favorite vocalist was in the audience, and would she like to come up and sing? Would I? I rose like the sunrise, shoved out of my seat by my hubris. Uranus, the unexpected, took my hand and helped me up on that stage. I surveyed the packed house and announced I was working on my ninetieth year. Then I, who can no longer sing much higher than Middle C, plucked a good note out of the air, and with the musicians behind me, loudly and enthusiastically rendered verse and two choruses of “Don’t Bring Me Posies, When It’s Shoesies That I Need.” Breath control, which has forsaken me for a decade, reappeared, and I held the last note strongly for a count of four. It is truly wonderful how joy can open the throat.
It must have sounded all right. Uranus and I stepped down to enthusiastic applause. One lady with a tin ear asked me where else I was singing. People bought Rosy’s Ragtimers CD to take home. The bass player demanded that I stay and take a picture with him. Somebody in the audience had taken my picture and sent it to Facebook as I was singing. (My niece Laura saw me on Facebook before dawn the next day.) Dan wrote his review of the evening and posted it on Facebook at 2 a.m. The bass played posted our picture at 4 a.m. Within 24 hours all my nieces and their myriad cousins had seen me on stage.
A week later, I wrote Dan and Molly a thank you letter. I said that when we met in New York they had made me feel acceptable to the universe. Now that they had placed me center stage, I was infamous on Facebook.
Bless Uranus. I can’t wait for next year. Maybe they will unexpectedly let me sing again.
So here is “Rink Leslie” (a pseudonym made up because “Rena Jean Middough” would have been too long for a record label: “Rink” came from a classmate’s nickname for Rena; “Leslie” was Rena’s father’s name) appearing with Dan Levinson, reeds; Chris Dawson, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Marty Eggers, string bass; Danny Coots, drums, and guests from the Titanic Jazz Band, Keith Elliott, trombone; Dan Comins, trumpet — at the 2015 San Diego Jazz Fest — to recreate the Middough – McHargue recording of DON’T BRING ME POSIES (WHEN IT’S SHOESIES THAT I NEED):
That’s splendid fun. And it would be splendid fun even if the singing ingenue were not 89. When Rena Jean came off the bandstand, I rose to congratulate her, and she sweetly told me what she’s written above, “When Dan discovered me, he made me feel as if I was acceptable to the universe, someone wonderful.” And I — speaking from my heart or shooting from the hip — said, “My dear Ms. Leslie (for at the time I don’t think I had taken in her lovely elaborate name), you have been acceptable to the universe your whole life, and more!” and she grinned at me but with old-fashioned very becoming modesty.
I, too, look forward to a return appearance of Rena Jean Middough and / or Rink Leslie at the 2016 San Diego Jazz Fest. I will, in future, post the lovely music that preceded her . . . but for the moment I would like you to admire her poise, her joy, her ebullience. (Incidentally, when she and I spoke on the telephone some weeks after this event, she told me that she had been an excellent dancer and a good singer in college — but that her inspiration for the delighted energy she offered in the original recording and at the end of November 2015, right here, was Danny Kaye in the 1941 film LET’S FACE IT. Another reason to thank Mr. Kaminski, don’t you think?)
And let us not forget the indefatigably devoted Dan Levinson, solver of mysteries, tracer of lost persons, someone who makes wonderful musical entanglements happen even when he is not playing or singing.
May your happiness increase!