Two NY weeks, 5 artists

By Caitlin Kelly


Sometimes you’re lucky enough to witness artistic history.

That happened to us last week at Carnegie Hall, in a fully sold-out audience, listening to 71-year-old jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

That’s 2,804 people of all ages, listening for two-plus hours and three encores in rapt silence, as the show was being recorded, (so, eventually, you can hear it too!)

We were seated up in the nosebleeds, (aka the second-highest balcony); even those tickets were $70 apiece.

If you haven’t heard of him, or his music, you’re in for a treat.

From Wikipedia:

The studio albums are modestly successful entries in the Jarrett catalog, but in 1973, Jarrett also began playing totally improvised solo concerts, and it is the popularity of these voluminous concert recordings that made him one of the best-selling jazz artists in history. Albums released from these concerts were Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne (1973), to which Time magazine gave its ‘Jazz Album of the Year’ award; The Köln Concert (1975), which became the best-selling piano recording in history;[15] and Sun Bear Concerts (1976) – a 10-LP (and later 6-CD) box set.

I was in college when the Koln Concert came out, and I was introduced to it by a boyfriend. I still have that album and still cherish it.

This week’s entire concert was improvised.

From Wikipedia:

Jarrett has commented that his best performances have been when he has had only the slightest notion of what he was going to play at the next moment. He also said that most people don’t know “what he does”, which relates to what Miles Davis said to him expressing bewilderment – as to how Jarrett could “play from nothing”. In the liner notes of the Bremen Lausanne album Jarrett states something to the effect that he is a conduit for the ‘Creator’, something his mother had apparently discussed with him.


That was Wednesday night.

I barely had time to process what a magnificent evening it had been when a generous friend offered two free tickets to hear authors Colson Whitehead and George Saunders read and answer audience questions at the 92d Street Y, another Manhattan cultural institution.

Back into the city!

I had never read either of their works, but had read rapturous reviews of their new books — Lincoln in the Bardo and The Underground Railroad. Each read for 30 minutes and it was mesmerizing. Afterwards, answering audience questions written on note cards, they were funny, insightful and generous.


It is one of the great pleasures of living in and near New York City — a place of stunning living costs — to be able to see and hear artists of this stature.

I’ve been writing for a living since college but this was Writing, fiction of such depth and emotional power it takes your breath away.

In a time of such political instability and anxiety, it was also healing to remember that art and culture connect us to one another and to history.

We escape. We muse. If we’re a fellow creative, we leave refreshed and inspired. We recharge our weary souls.

On our main street, a terrific concert hall

On Saturday, we went to hear Bebel Gilberto, a Brazilian singer. Our suburban New York town has a fantastic music hall, built in 1885, where tickets are affordable and the variety of performances eclectic. Of all the shows we saw, this one was the only disappointment. The rest of the crowd loved it, but not us.

The week before, I heard director Kelly Reichardt being interviewed by fellow director Jonathan Demme after a screening of her 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff at a local art film house, the Jacob Burns Film Center.

She’s directed five feature films in a decade — no big deal for a guy, maybe, but a very big deal for a woman; only 13 percent are female.

As someone who’s a huge fan of movies, and of her films, this was a huge thrill. She was tiny, low-key, down to earth.

As a creative woman, it’s such a delight to see and hear another woman who’s carved such a great path for herself.

I went up later to say hello and was a total fan-girl, and she was warm and gracious.

Do you love culture?

What have you seen or heard lately that knocked your socks off?

How badly do you want it?

By Caitlin Kelly

Here is a powerful essay by British pianist James Rhodes, from The Guardian, about the many sacrifices he’s made for his music:

Admittedly I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six
hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a
brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something
that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental
hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. And the pot of
gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d
envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising,
lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews,
isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches
of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house
slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure
(playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right
fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the
composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices,
my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most
crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect
recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of
self-forgiveness, be “good enough”.

I find this an interesting, and extremely rare, admission of what it’s like to achieve and sustain public excellence.

English: A post-concert photo of the main hall...
English: A post-concert photo of the main hall’s stage inside of Carnegie Hall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We see and hear, and applaud, (or boo or yawn at), the final product of many talented hard-working people, but often have absolutely no idea what it took to get them there — onto the concert stage, into the corps de ballet, onto the bookstore shelf or into the kitchen of a fine restaurant.

I’m fascinated by process, always hungry to hear how others are doing it and what, if anything, they have had to give up along the way. By the time we see someone becoming famous and, possibly, well-paid for their talents, we’re really looking at an iceberg — seeing barely 10 percent of their story, the other 90 percent often being years, even decades, of study and practice and rejection and failure that led up to this moment.

The Passage of Time
The Passage of Time (Photo credit: ToniVC)

I think it’s worth reading these stories as a way of thinking about our own choices:

How much longer will I devote to this project?

What I never achieve my goal?

Are there smaller, more private, less lucrative successes that would also satisfy me?

If not, why not?

What am I willing to give up?

How much will I regret those losses?

I weary of the widespread fantasy that “everyone’s a writer.” They’re not!

It is damn hard to become very good at something.

Here’s a great recent post by a professional conductor talking about this, chosen for Freshly Pressed:

Recent research and a popular book have theorized that it takes 10,000 hours for a human to become proficient and considered an expert at something.  It seems so easy:  Put in the Time, Collect the Dime.  I think most adults can see some truth in this theory based on their own experiences.  Driving a car is a great example.  While we are learning, we are cognizant of every movement, every decision, every possibility.  After time, we become very natural at it.  It almost becomes a reflexive action.  (For example, when’s the last time you thought about—really concentrated on—operating the turn signal?)

What makes it interesting is that it could apply to anything, from knitting to playing the violin.  The implications for an art form are obvious and the research pointers are fairly sound.  However my question is: Is it enough to make good art?

It is even harder, depending on a wide variety of external circumstances — do you have kids? A big mortgage? Student debt? Poor health? — to make a lot of money doing something purely creative, versus working for The Man and taking home a steady paycheck.

I love this multi-media piece about jockeys in Nairobi — the only track for 3,300 miles. They want it badly!

At Ngong Racecourse in Nairobi, Kenya, the only track in a 3,300-mile swath of Africa between Egypt and Zimbabwe, the jockeys struggle to earn $20 a ride, even in the big races. For the country’s biggest race, the Kenya Derby, the winning horse’s owner may take home little more than $7,200. Grooms, who wake up at 4:30 six mornings a week to muck out stables and brush down horses, make less than $100 a month. Yet, the dwindling numbers of trainers, jockeys, owners and breeders in Kenya are deeply committed to keeping the sport alive.

I started working for Canada’s best newspaper, The Globe and Mail, at 26, after applying for a staff job every year for eight years. I eventually wanted to come to New York and so, after a day’s work, also worked as a stringer (contacts I sought out) for Time, The Boston Globe and the Miami Herald. I needed to find American editors who liked my work and to up my game.

Knowing I planned to leave Toronto within a few years also meant not settling down and getting married and having kids, (not a dream of mine anyway.) I moved to New Hampshire in 1988, leaving family, friends, career and country, then moved to New York just in time for a horrible recession, with no job. I got one after six months, earning $5,000 less in March 1990 than I’d made in Montreal in September 1986 — in a much costlier place to live.

Every move we make is a choice that carries consequences and every one carries a cost — physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, professional. Sometimes all of those at once!

That’s why they’re called sacrifices, and why it’s so much nicer to just avoid them. And the worst fear, perhaps, is that you make a ton of them and still don’t get what it was you really wanted.

So it helps to figure out what you really want — the fancy job title and shiny new car or a life with enough room in it to travel three months every year? A bunch of kids or the creative freedom to fail at new ideas and still pay your monthly bills? A loving spouse or the sort of work that moves you from one conflict spot to the next, in an NGO or aid work or journalism? (They are not all either/or, but they will enact sacrifices.)

No matter who you are or where you live or what you hope to achieve in life — non-materially — the fewer your financial obligations, the easier it is to focus on that.

Do you have a specific dream you’re trying to achieve?

What are you willing to do — to give up — to get there?

Nikki Yanofsky, 15, Sings, Scats And Stuns With Her Talent

Braces and all...Image by ataelw via Flickr

Have you heard of — or heard — Nikki Yanofsky? She was interviewed recently on NBC Nightly News by Brian Williams. Not bad for a teen from Montreal who, until last year, wore braces.

From Wikipedia:

Nikki is the youngest performer to headline her own show in the 29 year history of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. It was the summer of 2006 and she was only 12 years old. Since then, she has performed to sold-out crowds at each of the subsequent Montreal festivals. She also performed at the 2009 Montreal Jazz festival edition. She has also performed at Montreal’s Bell Centre, The Air Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival in Montego Bay, with Marvin Hamlisch at Carnegie Hall in New York City and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and with The Count Basie Orchestra at the 2008 Luminato Festival in Toronto.

She’s terrific.

Here’s a video of her singing at Zankel Hall, part of Carnegie Hall — at the age of 14.

Crooning In Unison At Carnegie Hall With Milton Nascimento

Milton Nascimento
Image by LivePict - LIVEPICT.COM via Flickr

I’ve been to Carnegie Hall dozens of times, but have never heard the whole place  — as we did tonight sitting in the $28 cheapest seats in the house — crooning in unison, the words to every song memorized and lovingly chanted from the rafters. Jazz superstar Milton Nascimento is a legend in his native Brazil, a small-town boy who made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1984 with a midnight show. Clearly, he knows how to make the grand old lady swing to a different beat.

He played with only four musicians, without an intermission, offering almost two hours of non-stop entertainment — not bad at 67! He’s modest, low-key, and clearly dearly beloved by his fans. This New York City concert, his 18th in 15 cities, finished up his U.S. tour. I’m so glad we saw him.

He’s made 41 records. If you’ve never heard his music, which is lovely, here he is, singing.

Madoff, Juju And The Marshals — The World's Weirdest Auction

Bernie Madoff's personal New York Mets jacket is displayed at a November 13 press review of a US Marshals auction (Mario Tama/Getty)

It was one of the weirdest scenes in midtown Manhattan yesterday. The lobby of the Sheraton Towers on Seventh Avenue, a few blocks south of Carnegie Hall, was clogged as usual with tourists lugging suitcases and shopping bags. It was a cold, rainy day.

But what was up with all the burly guys standing around and talking into their cuffs, clear curly earpieces tucked behind their ears? They were with the U.S. Marshals Office, under whose auspices the Madoff auction — the first to offer up some of the contents of their three homes — was held. It was an auction, in many ways, like no other: 1,936 online bidders from 20 countries, from Syria to Singapore, Australia to Denmark and a hotel ballroom filled with 500 people of all ages and races: professional dealers, wealthy collectors duking it out and curious locals hoping to snag a bit of affordable history.

Most auctions charge a seller’s and a buyer’s premium, each of 15 percent; it’s how they make their money. Buyers here were spared that, and some said they were comforted to know the money they were spending would repay Madoff’s victims. There was no huge moment when the Madoff material went on the block, just an announcement from the auctioneer, at 1:57 p.m., that this was now his stuff they were selling. All the reporters had marked their catalogues and knew that only the lots 196 to 299 and 301 to 386 were his.

The auction began at 10:00 a.m, selling before the Madoff items an endless parade of narco-bling seized from dozens of other miscreants across the country, like enormous diamond-crusted crosses and Jesuses and really ugly pendants and rings. Although it was worth being there when an 18-carat diamond sold loose for a cool $425,000 — far more than anything belonging to Ruth and Bernie.

Two auctioneers with thick Texas twangs poured out their spiels at lightning speed, moving the merch at 50 lots per hour. There was a serious disconnect between staring up at a screen at a vintage watch going for $65,000 and hearing the runners — male assistants spread throughout the room making sure no bid went un-noticed — bellowing and hooting while they pointed to a bidder. It felt like they were selling heifers, not Cartiers and Rolexes and Hermes gold chains.

The preview was Friday so if you hadn’t showed up then to try things on or check them through your jeweler’s loupe, too late. All there was by Saturday was an image on a screen and mere seconds to jump in and signal your intent. Sometimes a bid started at $40,000 and jumped to $60,000 within seconds. Snooze, you lose!

So, what was hot? His blue satin Mets jacket, of course — sold to an on-line bidder for $14,500. The underbidder, at $14,00 sat right behind me, Al Tapper, a writer who lives a few blocks away from the hotel, an avid collector of one-of-a-kind material. He figured he was bidding against his usual opponent and dropped out without remorse. I spoke to a businessman from San Diego, Chuck Spielman, who said if he was a successful bidder, (he was, at $16,000), on one of Bernie’s watches that he would wear it — but sounded a little embarrassed. “I wouldn’t tell people whose it was,” he said. Tapper said he would never have worn the jacket.

One of the auction’s ironies was that the extremely wealthy — the sort who were casually bidding in increments of $1,000, comfortably starting at $20,000 — are the very crowd who Madoff went after. Those who escaped Madoff’s imprecations were refunding those who didn’t. It’s their friends, neighbors and colleagues, several told me, who were cleaned out. For the dealers, from major sellers like Circa, which re-sells jewelry worldwide, it was just business as usual.

Unlike most fine auctions, where there are lovely objects to sigh over, this was clearly driven by Madoff’s name — beyond his and her jewelry, the household belongings were banal and unimpressive: posters, a silver tea-set, one set of 1777 English silver salt cellars. If they actually had great taste and elegant objects, which is usually the case when people are as wealthy as the Madoffs — you can always buy taste by hiring an art consultant or decorators — it sure didn’t show up in this sale. Four of his powerboats: Bull, Bull (no typo there), Little Bull and Sitting Bull, go on sale this Thursday, Nov. 17 in Fort Lauderdale, as does his 1999 Mercedes with 12,000 miles on it. (954-791-9601 is the phone number, if you’re interested.)

The Madoff stationery and pens went for $2,500 — far above their estimate of $90. Three white polo shirts with a logo designed for Madoff’s three yachts went for $1,300. A life-ring from one of his boats — $7,500.

And his class ring, 1960, from Hofstra, a Long Island commuter college, inscribed BLM — MA, went for $6,000.

I wonder how soon, and at what prices, much of this material is being re-sold. For every buyer who wants to wear one of Bernie’s watches against his own flesh, others clearly planned to profit handsomely from that legendary association. I looked at Ruth’s bags and belts, her boots and shoes and furs ($600 to $1,600 — they went cheap) and thought, no, there’s really not enough money in the world to make me want to wear your things. You slept for decades beside a monster. I don’t need that kind of juju in my home.

You can see all the auction results here and here’s my full story in today’s Toronto Star.