Richard e Hill - a Writer's Journal

The last time I saw Carmen

During my journey through the seasons of life, I encountered many people that influenced me. (ReH)

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Early Carmen McRae Click photo to see/hear her perform

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The Last Time I Saw Carmen         (CLICK photos to see/hear performances)

 

Live Jazz was an entertainment staple in hometown Chicago. There were venues for both feature performers and local artists. George’s was a supper club/lounge that had several ownership and management changes during its relatively brief lifespan. A supper club with live entertainment generally serves small food portions from a limited selection; you usually have to stop afterwards for desserts or take outs. This Italian restaurant featuring live Jazz and nationally known artists was not an exception. People actually spoke using complete sentences during this pre cell phone proliferation when “laugh out loud” meant you had said, heard, or seen something amusing rather than the overused “l o l” acronym of the instant messenger text age.

 

A friend was stopping by for a drink at my apartment in a downtown high rise after her hair appointment. It should be noted that a fastidious attractive woman does not “just have her hair done” to spend a cozy Saturday evening admiring the view and having cocktails. Dining out definitely was in order. There are rewards for “reading the signs”.

 

When we arrived at George’s for the first show, diners would pause to check in at the Maitre D podium then form a neat queue or take a seat at the bar while waiting for “tables to be ready” as recorded elevator music droned in the background. I wrapped a twenty dollar bill around the fore and obscene gesture fingers of my right hand and answered the question “Do you have a reservation?” by speaking softly, giving my last name, stating “We’re very hungry” and placing my green shrouded fingers on the Guest List on the stand. The Maitre D with a beaming waiter in tow immediately guided us to the center of the “ringside” tables that had a placard with “RESERVED” conspicuously placed upon them. Discreetly slipping off the cash while shaking hands, he removed the sign and told the waiter to take special care of this beautiful couple (code for potential good tippers). Twenty bucks today gets the restraining rope detached with barely enough time to prevent tripping and that’s after waiting in line.

 

After inhaling the light meal, I took my turn to use the restroom downstairs as Carmen McRae’s accompanying trio was setting up. On the lower level there were a bank of pay phones, the Men’s room, the Ladies Lounge (they always get the better accommodations), and the Entertainer’s rest area at the far end of a long hallway. I called the concierge desk at my residence to have a package that was being delivered placed on the writing desk in my apartment. My “cigar guy” was delivering boxes of Havana puros for myself and some business associates. While I was on the phone an elegantly attired lady was moving labouringly towards me and the stairwell. An elderly gentleman was assisting her as well as carrying her glittering pumps. We exchanged acknowledging nods in the manner that all ethnicities do seeing kindred souls when in the minority. It was Carmen McRae! They had ascended four or five stairs of the steep stairway, declined my offer of assistance, and began to move aside for me to pass. When I declined, Miss McRae winked her eye, said a sultry “Thank You”, and mischievously wriggled her derriere before resuming their ascent. She stood barefooted in the alcove at the top of the staircase, repeating the sultry “Thank You” as I passed to rejoin my date.

 

She strutted across the stage when introduced and delivered a killer, sassy, lively performance with an up tempo opening number, and of course the ballads with verses included in her legendary lilting style that seems to coax an extra syllable from every phrase. Into the act she rose from her usual stool, walked to the front of the stage, looked directly at me, winked, smiled broadly, reintroduced the backup group, and then acknowledged the audience. My date gave me a playful admonishing elbow in the ribs. This would be the last time I saw Carmen McRae perform; she retired shortly afterwards before accepting a celestial command performance. Carmen, Ella, and Sarah (no last names necessary for the Diva Jazz Trinity).

 

 

 

Thoughts of her and others who exhibit grace under duress aid me in managing Depression. To quote my daughter and her ongoing encounter with Multiple Sclerosis ---- “I have MS; MS does not have me".

 

 

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