January 13, 2008. Posted by Michael Bourne.
I've never seen a ghost.
Walking along the corridors, the Mohonk Mountain House looks (and feels spooky) like "The Shining" -- and I've heard that Stephen King was inspired (or spooked) by the hotel. I've been a regular at the "Jazz on the Mountain" festival every (Martin Luther) King weekend since 2000, first as a storyteller, then as a host and performer, now as an artistic consultant -- or something to that effect. Next weekend, the 18th-21st, will be my 9th jazzfest.
Until they invited me, I never knew about the jazzfest. I only knew about the murders...
When I came to New York for real in 1984, I happened to be staying up the block from Murder Ink, the mystery bookstore, back then on West 86th. I'd become friends with the owner, Carol Brener. I'd been a long-time customer, back when I addictively read detective novels. One afternoon, when she needed someone to man the store while she ran errands, Carol called me. I was not busy, and I knew the books enough to answers questions from the customers. I was not working full-time at WBGO yet, and I said okay when she asked me to come work part-time at the store.
Murder Ink was one of the first business supporters to offer discounts to WBGO members. Sy Oliver, the great composer and arranger for Lunceford and Goodman, was a mystery reader. I also got to meet some of my favorite mystery authors, especially Ed McBain and Donald Westlake. I've read more than 60 books by both of them by now. Elmore Leonard, Robert Parker, and Gahan Wilson also came for book signings. I was especially amused meeting Sara Caudwell, a British barrister and author of a series of novels about an amateur sleuth, a British barrister named Hilary whose gender is never apparent. I remember many arguments in the store about Hilary's sex. I felt that she was a lesbian. Sara herself seemed somewhat asexual and smoked a pipe. Sara also was the daughter of the real-life singer in Berlin who inspired the character of Sally Bowles in the Isherwood stories that became the musical "Cabaret" -- or so Carol said.
My favorite customer was a woman who said "I'm going on a scientific project in Antarctica. Could you pick six months worth of mystery books for me?" I could, and I enjoyed doing so, but working in a bookstore was not why I came to New York. There were weeks when I'd jock an overnight shift at WBGO, get back in time to sleep 2-3 hours, then be at the store, and then go back to Newark. I quit working at Murder Ink only when I started working much more on the radio.
I'd only heard of Mohonk back then when someone called the store, at least once a week, wanting to know about the Mohonk mystery weekend. Murder Ink was not involved, but the original owner of the store was one of the mystery lovers who started the weekend. Virtually a live game of Clue, someone gets "murdered" and everyone becomes detectives looking for evidence and interviewing suspects until one of them unmasks whodunit at the climax.
They still have the mystery weekend, upcoming March 14-16 at the hotel, which is on a lake up the mountain from New Paltz. They also have weekends about ice skating, swing dancing, Latin dancing, being Scottish, yoga and meditation, theatre readings, and, among plenty of other delights during the year, an entire weekend about eating chocolate. Andrew Meyer, please note that the latter will be happening February 22-24.
I was first invited to come talk about jazz in January 1999, but I couldn't come until the following year. Since it was soon after Y2K, I was asked to answer the question "Where is jazz going in the Millenium?" My immediate conclusion was "I don't know, but wherever jazz goes is cool." Then I started telling jazz stories, mostly about Dizzy Gillespie, especially about smoking reefer with Dizzy while watching a soap opera. I was apparently a hit and was asked back the next year.
Being on stage like that, getting laughs again from an audience, awakened the dormant actor in me, and rather than talk about the music, I came back to tell stories about my jazz travels. The first year I performed something like a monologue about all the weirdness that happened to me on a WBGO trip to Brazil, including almost drowning in a riptide at Ipanema and getting exorcised by a candomble priest in Bahia. The second year I talked about being there as the world changed in quantum leaps over four years during the jazzfest in Berlin, first going through the Wall and feeling as if I were in a spy novel. Then came glasnost. Then, a few days after we could hear a million people in the streets on the other side of the Wall shouting "Freiheit!" -- "Freedom!" -- the Wall fell, and I still have a chunk of it. Then, one more year later, it was as if the Wall never existed. All the while, the music played on at the jazzfest.
Getting so turned on performing again, I wanted to do something I'd never done. I didn't even know what it could be, but I knew that I wanted to do it with Michael Carvin. He's way more than a great drummer. He's a life force. I called him and said "I have this idea of doing --" and he said "I'm in!" I said "I don't know what it --" and he said "I'm in!" We created what I usually call Duets for Actor and Drummer. I performed songs of Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim but like an actor, not actually singing, although often in tempo with Michael's drums. Songs also from the musical "Kismet" and of Jacques Brel, poems of Stephen Crane, even some Shakespeare. Andrew Meyer and his wife Page came up to see us, and, after all these years of my being a critic on the WBGO Journal, I was finally reviewed myself, by Andrew, on the WBGO website, and a good notice it was. We called our act M2 (Michael Squared) -- which became M2+H when we were joined for several pieces by one of my favorite singers, Hilary Kole, including our performing a scene of Bogart & Bacall.
Hilary and Michael both played several of the jazzfests. I've always booked artists that I like, and I've always brought back artists who've been hits with the audience. One of my favorite years featured all singers, including Roseanna Vitro, Catherine Dupuis, Giacomo Gates, and Mark Murphy. Others who've come over the years have included Eric Reed, Bill Mays, Tom Lellis, Marion Cowings, Renee Manning and Earl McIntyre, Chris Brubeck, Randy Sandke, Sheryl Bailey, and The Drummonds.
Returning this year is Steven Bernstein with the Millenial Territory Orchestra. He's one of the most imaginative musicians I know, and the MTO is always fun. Erik Lawrence plays baritone sax in the MTO and also fronts a group called Hipmotism, which includes Steven playing trumpet. Marya Lawrence will sing with Erik again this year. They're kids of saxophonist Arnie Lawrence and are way talented like their father. I've known them most of their lives, since Marya was 2. Arnie was like a brother to me, so Marya and Erik are my virtual niece and nephew.
We'll also have again this year Dena DeRose and some first-timers, singer Kendra Shank and guitarist Frank Vignola. I booked vibraharpist Joe Locke several years ago, but he came, he played, and he couldn't stay. We like when the artists bring the family and enjoy the whole weekend at Mohonk. This year he'll have his own group and I'll have him also perform with other groups all weekend. We'll end the jazzfest on Monday morning with what I call Parlor Games. All the gigs happen in a parlor, and on the farewell morning I like to mix and match musicians.
We'll kick off the festival Friday evening with The Brazilian Trio (Helio Alves, Nilson Matta, Duduka da Fonseca) and singer Maucha Adnet. I kicked off 2008 with Nilson, Duduka, and Maucha live at The Jazz Standard on the WBGO/NPR New Year's Eve Toast of the Nation. I don't know what the weather will be like over the weekend, but usually it's cold on the mountain. I thought that since it's summer in Rio, opening the festival with musical sunlight from Brazil was ideal.
Being freezing most of the years I've been there, I don't like going outside during the jazzfest. Mohonk is a beautiful castle-like hotel, built in the 19th Century by the same Quaker family that owns it all today. I brought a sketchbook one year and drew it all -- until the ink froze. I much prefer looking outside from the inside. If you have a room facing the lake, you see mostly the mountain, with a little castle at the top. Except for the skating rink, you see pretty much no other signs of civilization. And since the rooms don't have TVs, you really get the feeling of an escape. They also didn't have a bar until a year or so ago, unheard of at a jazz festival, so there's usually some BYOB among the jazzers.
While they have a new spa and oodles of activities beyond the jazzfest, when I'm not listening to music or eating, I'm damn near a pyromaniac. I've never lived anywhere with a fireplace, and I love building the firewood into downright artistic sculptures, then watching everything blaze.
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