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Monday, February 09, 2009

Blossom Dearie: 1926-2009

A little over a year ago, we featured the lady with the wonderful name and voice in a Blossom and Jack episode of the Dreamtime podcast.

You never know what's going to spark audience reaction. Certainly I wasn't expecting the number of emails I received after releasing that show. But a lot of people loved Blossom Dearie, and a lot of people were concerned about her well-being, as by 2007 she seemed to have completely disappeared from the scene.

As is noted in her New York Times obituary, Blossom went into retirement after her long-time watering hole, Danny's Skylight Room, closed its doors in 2006. Her personal record label, Daffodill, shut up shop, as did her web site. I had some fragmentary reports that she had moved to Woodstock, another anonymous comment that she was still in Greenwich Village, but preferred her privacy and not to pursue my inquiries further. And I didn't.

As her obit also alludes too, Blossom did not suffer fools gladly and had a reputation among her friends as being a bit, ah, difficult, and among others as being downright divaish. This probably startled many who expected a personality to match the baby-doll voice. Here's a long, but rewarding, especially if you're a Blossom Dearie fan, article about "The Blossom Experience" originally posted in a Yahoo group and reproduced in this blog post. Bill Reed's post on the subject is also recommended for the compleat Blossom fan. I also recommend a tour of YouTube, and especially of this video from circa 1985, which Mr. Reed also posted, but for his own reasons has embedding disabled.

The Blossom Experience
By Joel E. Siegel

In the early '80s, I produced a concert series at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. called "Great American Songwriters." The idea was to match up first-class jazz and cabaret performers with GAS composers or, in rare cases, special themes. The series ran for three and a half years in a lovely 197-seat auditorium with a superb Steinway piano. Many of the programs were taped by and subsequently broadcast on National Public Radio.

Overall, there were about 30 concerts spread over three years. Here's a sample of the programs: Jackie and Roy doing concerts of Stephen Sondheim, Alec Wilder and a collection of songs they introduced; Pinky Winters and Lou Levy doing Johnny Mandel; Carol Sloane doing Rodgers and Hart; Charles DeForest doing Harry Warren; Ethabelle doing Harold Arlen and John Latouche; Sheila Jordan doing songs by jazz musicians; Buddy Barnes doing Cole Porter; Shirley Horn doing Duke Ellington and Curtis Lewis' "The Garden of the Blues Suite"; Mark Murphy doing Dorothy Fields; Julie Wilson doing Arlen and Kurt Weill, Sandra King making her American debut with a Vernon Duke program. Well, you get the idea. Others in the series included Chris Connor, Margaret Whiting, Carol Fredette, Ronny Whyte, Rose Murphy, Dardanelle, Bob Dorough, Dave Frishberg and many more. (Apologies to anyone I forgot to mention. My box of materials with the full list of performers is stored in my attic.)

Obviously, this was a perfect venue for Our Blossom. My negotiations with her were rather complicated. From the outset, she rejected the idea of preparing a special program as all of the others did. ("I'm a Great American Songwriter myself," she informed me.) I decided to bend the rules because Blossom is special and I knew she would draw a full house. So I gave her carte blanche to do whatever she wanted. I told her that traditionally we had a celebration dinner at a restaurant in Chinatown after the 4 p.m. concerts, to which a handful of people associated with the series were invited-Jennifer, my helpful and charming young intern-assistant from the Corcoran, Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell, several patrons of the series, etc. Blossom told me that her brother Walter and his wife would be coming from Winchester, Virginia, and asked that they be invited to dinner and that a driver be assigned to them. The Blackwells graciously volunteered provide them with transportation.

On Saturday, I picked Blossom up at Union Station and drove her to her hotel, a comfortable place just across the bridge from Georgetown. She was tired so I left her to rest after checking her in. The next morning, I was awakened at 8 a.m. by a call from her. She said that she needed to rehearse and had to find a place with a piano. This struck me as rather odd since she was performing solo and doing songs she had performed hundreds, probably thousands of times before-"I'm Shadowing You", "My New Celebrity Is You" etc. I told her that I had a piano, albeit not a very good one, and would be happy to drive into D.C. from Arlington, Virginia, and bring her to my place. She said she needed to have breakfast first, and would call me as soon as she was finished. I couldn't fall back to sleep, so I awaited her call.

9 a.m. 10 a.m. 11 a.m. 12 p.m. No call. Finally, I began phoning her, but got no response. 1 p.m. 2 p.m. I'm getting nervous because we have a 3 p.m. sound check. Finally, she called me at 2:30. I told her that I was worried that something had happened to her. She sternly said, "I told you that I was going for breakfast." "But that was more than 6 hours ago," I pointed out. "Oh," she said, "They were very slow." End of explanation.

I hurriedly picked her up and took her to the Corcoran. I had told her in advance that NPR was taping the shows and outlined the terms of their contract with the artists. When we arrived at the Gallery, she saw the sound truck, turned to me and imperiously said "It is not permitted." When I inquired WHAT was not permitted, she replied the taping of her show. This was the first time I had been informed of this stricture. An angry NPR sound crew, working overtime on Sunday, was turned away.

We entered the auditorium where the obliging Jennifer was setting things up. Nothing this young woman did satisfied Blossom. The lights were too bright. The lights were too dim. The piano had to be moved numerous times. Instead of requesting changes politely, Blossom kept snapping at the flustered young women in the most insulting manner. Embarrassed by her behavior, I drew Blossom aside and quietly said "You know, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar." She looked at me blankly and replied "I don't know what that means."

Finally, we managed to set things up to Blossom's apparent satisfaction. Just before we were to open the doors, she walked out into the seating area, called me over and asked "Where are all the flowers?" Totally disgruntled by her, I replied "I didn't bring them, Blossom. Did you?"

The audience enters-a packed house with standees-and I introduce Blossom. She takes elaborate bows, then notices a woman standing by the entrance door holding a baby. Blossom points to her and asks "Is that a baby?" The woman indicates that it is. "Does it cry?" Blossom inquires. The woman says "He's asleep. If he wakes up and cries, I'll take him outside. That's why I'm standing by the door." Blossom repeats her earlier mantra "It is not permitted" and the woman and her baby are banished. This behavior does not endear her to the audience.

Blossom performs the first half of her program. Not one of her shining hours. She hits a number of keyboard clunkers. (Maybe she was right about needing to rehearse.) Just before the intermission, she spots Felix Grant, the famous Washington jazz disc jockey, in the audience. She comes to the front of the stage, introduces him and makes a little speech. "I have never performed in the nation's capital before, and for years Felix has been trying to arrange a concert for me here. I guess this must be a pretty big day for you, right Felix?" On that modest note, she retired to the dressing room.

During the intermission, Shirley Horn, who was in the audience and had known Blossom since her New York debut with Miles Davis at the Village Vanguard, popped backstage to say hello. Shirley returned a few minutes later with a puzzled look on her face. I asked whether Blossom was acting strangely. Shirley nodded her head and said, metaphorically, "I think she's gone inside, locked the door and now she can't get out."

The second set unfolded without incident, apart from a few pianistic clangers.

Afterwards, Blossom briefly received her audience. Two gay men, who were regulars at the series, told her how much they enjoyed her, and made a point of saying that they had attended her PREVIOUS D.C. appearance at a gay-owned supper club called the Way Off Broadway, where Barbara Cook, Anita' O'Day. Helen Humes and others had also worked. (Blossom had revised history so that the venerable Corcoran, which she must have perceived as a more reputable venue, was now the site of her "official" Washington debut.) She pretended that she didn't know what they were referring to.

Concert is over. Time for dinner. The Blackwells escort Blossom's brother and wife to the restaurant. We close the auditorium, and I start to drive Blossom to the same location. Only she doesn't want to go there. "I want to see the monuments," she insists. "But everyone's waiting for us," I reply. "I'm not hungry," she pouts. "I want to see the monuments." I give her an abbreviated tour of Tourist Washington and take her to Hunan Gourmet where everyone has grown restless waiting for her.

Arriving at the large round table I reserved that seated 10 people, Blossom complained that she didn't like the chair that was left for her. She made everybody stand up and forced them to exchange seats to suit her. Then she announced to the starving gathering that she was not hungry. Helpfully, I suggested that we could just have drinks and snacks.

"No snacks!" she commanded.

We ordered drinks and, despite her instructions, some appetizers. Before the order arrived, she announced that she was leaving and asked if someone would hail her a cab. In a moment worthy of a Lubitsch comedy, every man at the table leapt up to escort her to the street and get rid of her. I can't recall whether or not her nice relatives remained with us, but I think they did. (Bill Blackwell probably can probably clarify this.) As soon as she was gone, we trashed her roundly before ravenously consuming a huge meal. Subsequently, I learned that Blossom had taken that cab to Charlie's, a jazz club in Georgetown, to see if she could secure a future gig. Had she bothered to inform us of her intention, we could have convened at Charlie's rather than in Chinatown.

To this day, I have yet to solve the mystery of her six-hour breakfast.

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