I Got a Right to Sing the Blues

It was 1995 when I got a call from Joel Parsons, a friend from Duluth. He needed a singer for a house gig he had at Blues Alley in Minneapolis. I agreed to fill in until he found someone else, but he never found anybody else, and I spent a year singing the blues and smoking - second hand smoking that is. It was far from a fancy place, kind of a classic dive atmosphere, dark stale air permeated by the smell of rancid beer and carpet that stuck to your shoes. The air was funky and the music was loud, but it turned out to be a pretty good time about half the time. With Joel on guitar, Nils Wesblad on bass, Mike Schaefbauer on drums, and the owner's husband was on the organ - in more ways than one, but the nucleus of the group was groovin'. I never considered myself a blues singer, but I had just as much lowdown, hard road, broke-ass, gutbucket misery, to draw from as the next blues singer, so I did alright. The clientele was for the most part black, and sometimes black celebrities passing through town would even stop in. I met some cool people there and everyone who worked there treated me OK and supported the band and the blues. Other than the few times the people associated with the bar got a little drunk and loud, the only time anybody ever gave me any trouble was one night when I had a throat infection, laryngitis and I could barely squeak a note out. The smoke was killing me anyway and I was feeling down because I was sick, that’s usually just about the time that somebody picks to mess with you. Some guy who’d been drinking since early that afternoon started yelling at me during the first set, “C’mon, you can sing better than that! What’s wrong with you!” that sort of thing. I leaned over and told him off mic that I was sick and asked him to give me a break and chill, but of course he just keep right on. It didn’t take long before my friend, Art the bouncer, who weighed in at about 320 with a heart just as big, came over and asked the guy and his equally smashed date to leave. The audience applauded his exit into the cold and snowy January night and he slipped right on his polly and ester ass in front of the door. I bet he wished he would’ve kept his mouth shut. The band always did well for the club and we could’ve stayed there for a while longer, but we all made the decision to move on. Joel Parsons, whose sense of humor was as sharp as his playing ability, died tragically at the age of 33 - only one of many gifted musician friends who have passed on.

Meeting McDuff

Blues Alley was usually packed on weekends and on a Saturday night, in walked Jack McDuff dressed to the teeth in full black leather with his trademark Captain’s hat tipped to the side, his wife Kathy was with him. A few years earlier I’d seen Cap’n Jack perform at the old Artist’s Quarter in Mpls., of course he played great and swung hard, he also swung some hard words at his drummer that night and I never forgot that edgy and uncomfortable scene. Needless to say I was more than intimidated by Mr. McDuff and there he was right in front of me.

At the end of the night the organ player invited Jack up to play and told us that he was going to do a solo thing. The band started to leave the stage when I heard Jack say, “Not you.” I turned around and pointed at myself, “Me?” I was petrified, I looked around the stage and everybody else had taken off. He started right in playing a standard and thankfully it was something I knew - it was as if he knew I’d know. Man, he played such beautiful chords and had such great feel and groove that it was effortless to sing. By the second verse I’d forgotten my nerves and I was just singing and smiling, he was smiling too and he never did give me “the stink eye” as we called it. The stink eye is just another phrase for a dirty look, and a dirty look from someone like Jack McDuff means you’d better get your sorry ass off the stage and reconsider your career choice.

Joel Parson’s lent me a couple of Jack’s CD’s, and as much as I dug Jack’s playing, his writing impressed me even more. When I heard his song, "The Room (For Kathy)," it stuck in my head and I wrote words to it and surprised him with a demo of it at the blues gig one night. I played his chords and only added a few notes to them here and there, put a keyboard harmonica solo on it, sang it, and my friend Tony Axtell put bass and brushes on it. I figured Jack would eventually listen to it and might appreciate the fact that I stayed true to his chords, arrangement, and most of all his melody - writers have a thing about that.

I gave the recording to Jack at the blues gig and later that night after I’d gone home around 3:00 a.m., the phone rang, it was McDuff and I could hear the demo I'd given him blaring in the background. He was laughing and said, “I love it! It’s just great!” Then he asked, “Who is that harmonica player?” Then I started laughing and I said, “Me, it’s a keyboard, you nut.” We got such a kick out of that and it became kind of an ongoing joke with us. Jack played that demo for a lot of jazz artists in the hopes that it would be recorded. He told me a couple of them tried to sing it but he always said he liked my version the best. His nod of approval meant a lot to me and he was a great mentor. I called him my musical father and I won’t forget all I learned from him, music things and life things, things you can only get from someone who’s really lived. Older musicians truly know in their bones what jazz is about and they can readily sense when someone either has “it” or they don’t - “it” being swing, feel, soul, jazz sensibility, whatever you want to call it - and Jack’s stamp on my passport was a rite of passage for me. On the sweet side, I remember when he met my mom, he shook her hand and the first thing he said was, “Your daughter’s a gem.” That’s set in my heart - it takes one to know one and a gem he was.

Some Cats Know

The late 90s were a productive time for me as I was finally getting to be around some real jazz cats. I got the chance to hang with some of the guys from the Basie band and met another great friend while he was touring with the CBO, vocalist Chris Murrell. I wrote “The Voice of Love” with him in mind and we’ll hopefully record it as a duet on my upcoming CD.

Arranger/composer Adi Yeshaya and I have collaborated on several projects, including the Lena Horne CD Seasons of a Life. I wrote lyrics for several of his compositions from classical choral pieces, and jazz ballads to big band charts, the most played being, “Mickey’s Diner,” a swinging tribute to the famous St. Paul dining car that I visited nearly every summer when I was a kid. Recorded by the vocal group Voice Trek on their CD At Last, it’s also been published as a vocal chart arranged by Michelle Weir for MichMusic.

During this time I also got the chance to write for jazz sax player Irv Williams. Irv played with Billy Eckstine, Fletcher Henderson, and Mary Lou Williams among others, and is definitely one of the cats who knows. I’d listened to Irv for years and loved his seamless playing from afar. Jazz writer Bob Protzman dubbed Irv “Mr. Smooth” and it fits him perfectly, his tone and playing is as smooth as they come. I wrote two songs for Irv, “Mr. Smoove’s Groove” and “In Mary’s Eyes,” a ballad dedicated to his wife Mary, the latter can be heard on his solo CD Peace.

Laura Caviani is one of the most talented jazz cats on the scene, she’s also an excellent composer and arranger, and I've had the good fortune to collaborate with her on two of her songs, both were recorded by one of my - and the world’s - favorite jazz vocalists, Karrin Allyson. The songs are on Laura’s CD As One and have always been two of my favorite recordings of any of my songs. The melody on Laura’s beautiful ballad, “Past Regrets” flowed so easily that the lyric almost wrote itself. Her swinging blues tune turned fable “Bottom Line” is a little more intricate - a tongue twister I’ve been told. The main character “Big Moe” is a popular cat (fish) too as he seems to win listeners over hook, line, and sinker wherever it’s played.

Classical Aghast

My dear friend and fellow composer Adi Yeshaya called me one day and asked if I could write lyrics to a four part (SATB) classical piece for one hundred voices overnight. First off, I’d never written anything remotely classical, let alone for four parts, and never anything of that magnitude in twenty four hours - of course I said “sure.” I never could turn down a musical challenge and this was a huge one. Not only did I have to write it with a Christmas theme, but I had to write four separate but interchangeable lyrics - one for each part (SATB) - that would fit with the other parts as they were being sung simultaneously. Crazy, but I worked on it all that day and into the night, and nearly cried out of frustration at least twice. But I came up with “Child Born of Heaven’s Light” and somehow finished it by the following morning when it was sent off to the copyist. All a mad rush from start to finish for all of us, but it was done and it would be performed at a symphony concert later that month. It was at Orchestra Hall in Mpls. and Doc Severinsen was scheduled to perform with the symphony that night. Adi’s and my piece would be the opener for the concert. I bought a full price ticket and sat in the midst of a packed house ready to hear the first lyric I’d ever written for a classical piece and sung by a one hundred voice chorus. I’d spent time around symphonies as my Mom played in the Duluth-Superior symphony for 40 years. I’d been to many rehearsals and concerts, backstage and around the eccentric conductors and the always dressed in black. usually very pale guest artists. It’s a whole different atmosphere from the club scene - smokeless and quiet - but still the same gig. How did it come out? Read the next anecdote.

Meeting “Duck” Severinsen

There I sat in Orchestra Hall waiting for the big debut of my very first classical collaboration. I wished my Mom could’ve been there, I knew that the Orchestra Hall performance of my and Adi’s piece wouldn’t be recorded, in fact, it wasn’t even listed in the program. Out came the chorus, the lights dimmed, the audience grew quiet, and the singers inhaled their first singing breath. The first line sounded great, then behold, one hundred voices sang the wrong words on the second line, they repeated the first line which was incorrect and also rather redundant. There’s nothing quite like hearing one hundred singers sing the wrong words, it’s just very…WRONG x 100. I knew the copyist was as cramped for time as I was, so I couldn’t get too upset, but I still wished that it would’ve been right. The piece ended, applause, then Doc walked out on stage and to the podium. Unexpectedly he announced the name of Adi’s and my piece and our names, he got the pronunciation just right on Adi’s name - which usually doesn’t happen for Adi - he’s even been called “Artie Shaw” and mistaken for the long gone band leader. When Doc got to my name he said, “Ma-REESE-a Dodge. Like Reese’s peanut butter cups. “Oh well.” I thought, “No one in this crowd knows who I am anyway.”

After the concert Adi introduced me to Doc, he was cool and nice and he said that he liked our piece and that we should try to get it published. After Doc heard Adi pronounce my name correctly he was kind enough to apologize for mispronouncing it, I laughed and said, “Oh, it’s OK Duck!” I don’t know why he didn’t think that was funny - I didn’t even get a smirk out of him, but I thought it was a brilliant comeback on my part. Oh well, another one of my “own little private joke” moments - I have quite a few of those. I still think asking Sherman Sneed if he was from Sneedville was a classic. Leave it to me.

Jeremy Lubbock (not from Texas)

I was 18 when I first heard Al Jarreau; I not only dug his singing but loved the music, the arrangements, the songs, the whole sound of the production, and the musicians on his albums. There was a ballad Al recorded called “Not Like This,” and when I first heard it I remember thinking to myself, “I want to write songs like that.” Jeremy Lubbock wrote it and I added it to my list of ideal songs, along with “Lush Life,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Skylark,” and several other flawlessly crafted songs that I always go back to and wish that I’d written. That was the summer of 1979, the year I graduated from high school.

17 years later, in the summer of 1996. I was asleep on the couch and I had a strange dream that I was going to meet Jeremy Lubbock. Half awake I thought I heard the phone ring and the answering machine go on. Then not knowing if I was awake or dreaming I thought I heard a British accent saying, “Hello, this is Jeremy Lubbock and I’m looking for Marissa Dodge. I just want to tell you that your song is gorgeous Marissa, I love it and hope to talk to you soon.” He left his number and I heard the answering machine beep, but I was still under the impression that I’d dreamt the whole thing. I got up and played the message back and found that I hadn’t dreamt it at all, indeed it was Jeremy Lubbock, I couldn’t believe it! He’d heard my song, looked up my info on ASCAP and took the time to call me. As it turned out he was going to be the producer on the Lena Horne project and there actually would be a chance that I might get to meet him.

Jeremy and I would become friends through that project and his sage experience and confidence in me was something that I could never replace. After a few conversations he ended up helping me with a strange situation; the requested rewriting of the bridge of “Black Is,” which is detailed in the "The Bridge” section. I did get to meet him in NYC and I spent some memorable time with him, the highlights of which were his stories about the experiences he’d had with some of the artists that he’d worked with; good and bad experiences, but all wonderful for me to hear about. I never thought that I’d get to meet the writer of one of my favorite songs and that he’d even consider me a confrere. (A con-what? A fellow composer!)

More anecdotes on Part 2!


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