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We’ll cross out that bridge when we come to it
It was a Friday in May and I was in the shower when the phone rang. My roommate answered it and told me that it was Sherman Sneed (you remember Lena Horne’s manager - the one from Sneedville). There I stood in a towel, I grabbed the phone with a wet hand and Sherman proceeded to tell me that there was a problem with the last line of the bridge. He went on to explain that Lena and her daughter, published author, Gail Lumet Buckley, thought that some people might be offended by the line, “Black is blindness.” He was vague as to the reasons, but I told him that I’d written the song as it was meant to be and I really didn’t want the words changed.
Now if you know me at all, you’ll know that I’m not cocky or unreasonable, I don’t fight for things for ego’s sake or rail against them out of ignorance. I fight for things that I believe are universally right and I believe in integrity, especially when it comes to music. Call me an idealist, I’ve been called much worse. I get my dedication to conviction not from reading Don Quixote, but from my father who was noble in his own right. This “idealistic affliction” that I have is an automatic reaction whenever situations like “the bridge incident” present themselves. Sometimes it seems that I can barely control it, the words leave my mouth before I get a chance to change or edit them. Good or bad, it’s not always an easy way to live and I’ve gotten in trouble from it more times than I care to count, but it’s how I am and I wouldn’t be who I am if not for my beliefs. One of my favorite poets, e. e. cummings once wrote; “To be nobody but yourself in world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
So there I was with nothing but a towel and my convictions and the next thing I know Sherman said, “Well if that’s how you feel about it, it could mean that Ms. Horne might not record your song.” I paused for thought, and I knew that I was facing a heavy decision. Yet I said again, “I wrote the song as it should be sung and I see no reason why the bridge or any other part of the song would be offensive to anyone.” “Would you hold for a moment please?” I heard Sherman say.
Then I heard footsteps that seemed to go on forever; slow, deliberate footsteps across a long hardwood floor in what sounded like an echo-ey room. Next I heard a soft, sweet and refined voice say, “Miss Dodge?” I knew exactly who it was instantly - “Yes, Ms. Horne?” I answered, stunned. We then talked back and forth about the bridge. I listened intently to her thoughts and I clearly stated mine. She explained that she thought the word blindness would be offensive to some people. I was puzzled, “Do you mean that someone like Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder might be offended by “black is blindness?” I asked. No reply, so I went on to explain something to the effect that it wasn’t meant to be taken literally and that I meant blindness as ignorance and that every one of us is capable of ignorance so therefore we’ve all experienced blackness. I meant that we all see the same thing when we close our eyes; blackness. Blindness is not sightlessness in this song, its ignorance and refusing to see the beauty and the worth that black is. “How about, ‘black is silence?’ ” She said. I was silent. That didn’t sound right to me at all because silence in the context of the song seemed to mean submission and the song is about recognizing and addressing discrimination and finding understanding, a common thread, and a voice among all humans to solve the problem. It was at this point that Lena said, “Well I can see that you’re one of those feisty, strong willed musicians.” Which made me smile and laugh a little, because it wasn’t meant to be - nor was it taken to be - an insult, that was a genuine compliment and both Lena and I knew what it meant and have lived what it meant. “Yes, I am.” I said. There was a pause and then I boldly asked, “Will you let me rewrite it? Just give me the weekend.” She agreed and we said goodbye.
As soon as I hung up the phone I called the NAACP and explained the situation to two people in the office. I read them the lyric and asked if they were offended by it. They said, "No." I asked if I could fax a copy of the lyric to Merilee Evers, Medgar Evers widow, and the president of the organization at the time, and they said I could and I did. Then I called the National Federation of the Blind. I spoke to the public relations person and I read her the lyric and asked her if she was at all offended by it or if she thought that anyone else that she knew who was vision impaired would be. She replied, “I've been blind all of my life and nothing about the song bothers me in the least, I know you mean ignorance not sightlessness." So there it was; there was very little chance that either a black person or a blind person would be bothered by the last line of the bridge, “Black is blindness.” I’d already known the answer because nearly every black musician, vocalist, and friend that had heard the song dug it and understood its meaning. Dennis Spears was the first one to record the song and he knew exactly what the lyric meant and interpreted it as it was meant to be. Bruce Henry loved the song, Debbie Duncan loved it and later recorded it. Jazz vocalist Roberta Davis, who was known for her frankness, told me that she thought the song was good, a high compliment from her. So there I was armed with all of this information and knowledge and I still didn't understand why Lena and her daughter were put off by the line, but out of my great respect for Lena I wanted to try and make it work for her. After all, the song isn’t just a song; it’s a philosophy, that’s why it rings true. The whole point of it was the ultimate exercise in empathy and human understanding and I thought that if there was something there that didn’t feel right to Lena, I’d try to see her view and accept the challenge to rewrite it.
What an agonizing weekend it was, I went through hell and the dictionary a few times. I burnt out my brain trying to find a new word to replace the already perfect word. I tried everything and nothing felt right. In one of my most tormented moments I called Jeremy Lubbock for some sage advice. I figured that he’d had a similar experience somewhere along the way, and indeed he had. Jeremy had written a song that Al Jarreau recorded called “Not Like This.” The original last line in the bridge was “‘cause I still feel you in my bones.” Al Jarreau recorded it with, “‘cause I still feel you in my soul.” You see, “I can feel it in my bones” is an English (as in England) expression and Jeremy is a Brit. It may not be as popular an expression here in the U.S., but Jeremy heard the lyric that way and that’s how he wrote it. He fought for his version but the alternate version was the one Al recorded. While that story soothed my mind a bit in knowing that it had happened to a great writer like Jeremy, I was still at square one. I had to search for the alternate word to replace the ideal word.
Lo and behold I finally found it, oddly enough the word was “hate.” I gave up on replacing the word blindness and replaced “black is blindness” with “hate is blindness.” It worked and I knew that I could live with it so I sent the revised lyric to Lena that Monday morning in the hope that it would work for her. I waited for a reply, but never heard another word about it and it is how she recorded the bridge. She did sing “Black is like a sky in spring” in the third verse rather than the original, “Black is like a child in spring.” But it is Lena's interpretation, and Lena was legendary, and more than that she, like me, deeply cared about the music and the artistry behind it. She sang my song like she loved it and I believe that she did. I also got the feeling that she kind of liked me too and we seemed to have a repoire when we met in person. Maybe it was “the bridge” that built a bridge between us. All I know is that sometimes you can just see a person’s soul and that’s really what it all comes down to, soul.
You’re not black, are you?
About the third conversation with Jeremy - I think we were discussing the bridge predicament - he paused and said, “Can I ask you something?” “Of course.” I replied. Jeremy continued, “You’re not black are you?” “No, why?” I said. Jeremy laughed and when he stopped to catch his breath he said, “You see everyone in NYC, including Lena, thinks that you’re black because you wrote ‘Black Is.’ ” “But Jeremy,” I said, “I spoke to Sherman and Lena on the phone at length and I sent Lena a recording of the song that I sang on and…well, it never came up.” I really hadn’t even thought of it, I mean the whole point of “Black Is,” is universality and the recognition and acceptance of everything that black is, that we are. It hadn’t occurred to me that people might think that only a black person could write about blackness. But the more I thought about it the more it made sense and the more I realized that I’d once again been mistaken for a sista’ - which I was and I am in the soul sense, but just a sista’ of a lighter color. People have mistaken me for being Jewish as well, but as honored and proud as I would be to be Jewish or black, technically, I'm neither, "soul-nically," is a different matter. I remember Jeremy with a mischievous lilt to his voice saying, “Wouldn’t it be funny if no one knows that you’re not black until you get to NYC and they meet you in person?”
That day came, and we were all supposed to meet at “The Power Station” in NYC. Adi Yeshaya, Tony Axtell, and I arrived and Jeremy’s was the first smile I saw. Then Sherman Sneed, Lena’s manager came in. Jeremy introduced us and as I put out my hand to shake his I noticed a blank, dully stunned look on his face, to break the tense moment I said, “Are you from Sneedville?” It was a Dr. Seuss reference and I was the only one that got it, it was a silly moment and I was nervous anyway as I thought I was going to meet Lena Horne. Smile-less, Sherman left the room quickly and I looked over at Jeremy and shrugged my shoulders. “Where do you think he went?” I asked. Maybe he’d gone to tell Lena that I wasn’t black? Did it matter? I was so excited to be there that it didn’t make much never mind to me. Here I was about to meet a legend, someone that I grew up listening to, who my dad counted as one of his favorite singers, and whose album covers I used to stare at for hours while I listened to the strains of “Stormy Weather” and “The Lady is A Tramp” and “Watch What Happens,” vibrating through our Setchell-Carlson record player at home. My dad would’ve been proud and might have been able to meet Lena too, but he missed it by 10 years, he died in 1986. By the way, my dad was dark-skinned, but he wasn’t black, or Jewish, he was Italian.
Meeting Lena Horne
Back to 1996 and The Power Station/Hit Factory, Sherman Sneed came back up to the lobby and said that we could go and meet Lena. I felt the blood rush to my feet - I must’ve really looked white then! He led Adi, Tony, and I back to a rather dark and empty studio. We walked up to a shrouded figure with a hat and large black sunglasses. She was just about the same height as me and she held out her hand, it was slender, delicate, cool, and then I heard her voice, sweet and smooth with a faint curl on the ends of her words. We were introduced, then right away Lena asked me, “Were you the one singing on the tape?” I tentatively said, “Yes.” She said, “You’re good, you should sing your song.” What she said didn’t sink in then or for several hours after, but I managed to thank her and we were all led out of the room. It was like meeting a queen, I suppose, and perhaps just as mysterious and overwhelming.
Send Ms. Dodge in here
For the New York sessions we all met at Clinton Studios where the strings and trio were to be recorded. A lot of great musicians have recorded at Clinton and that was a thrill in itself for me. I didn’t know if Lena would be there or not, but I hoped she would. Rodney Jones, Mike Renzi, Akira Tana, and Benjamin Brown were all really cool and made me feel welcome - Rodney in particular, who would prove to be key to the future release of my song. Bruce Lundvall, the president of Blue Note was standing right next to me, and to this day I think, if I wouldn’t have been so shy I would’ve had the nerve to introduce myself and connect with him, but I really am a shy person when it comes to that kind of thing and I was a bit intimidated and overwhelmed by it all. I was also caught up in the excitement of hearing my song and Adi’s arrangement played by 30 of the cream of the crop string players in NYC. I remember the rush of that first lush sound seeping through the studio and filling the room with warmth, it was something I’ll never forget. I almost could’ve gone home then.
But a few minutes later Lena’s personal assistant Carmen came into the control room, so I had a feeling that Lena would be there. Lena came in the studio while the musicians were running through my song, she was listening to the music, looking at the words, and she said, “This song is a beautiful poem. It reminds me of something Billy would’ve written. ” I was stunned, she meant Billy Strayhorn, and anyone who knows me knows that Billy Strayhorn is one of my favorite composers. I was floored by Lena’s words, these little things that might not mean much to anyone else mean the world to me. Those positive thoughts and positive words that people I admire have spoken have gotten me through some nearly impossible times. I call them “golden words” and they’re affirmations that give hope to the solitary, struggling writer that I, more often than not, am and have been for the past 25 years.
Lena walked past the musicians to the vocal booth, and I hoped that this meant that she’d at least record a scratch or guide vocal for the song to make sure the tempo felt right, etc. I was glad that I might get to hear her sing my song, even if it was just a run through.
The musicians were rehearsing the song and then I heard a voice come through to the control room, “Would you send Ms. Dodge in here?” it said. It was Lena and I was confused, did I hear what I thought I heard, and if that was what I heard, why did she call me to come out there, and how was I going to make my legs walk out there? Someone - no idea who - pushed me from behind, “Go, go!” they said, and there I was walking to the vocal booth where Lena stood in her big black sunglasses behind a music stand with the large print lyric sheets I’d sent her. She said, “Sing this for me, how does this part go?” I stammered, “Ms. Horne, there’s not one thing I can tell you, and I’m so nervous anyway…” “Well don’t be!” She said, in a firm but understanding way. After she said that I wasn’t nervous anymore, I was just one singer in a room with another singer, albeit a great one, and we were both there for the music. In that moment I saw Lena’s soul; who she really was - her strength, her depth, and her passion for music, and it was beautiful. I sang the song quietly, she sang it with me, there were parts we sang together. It was only her and I and a song that bridged us together. It didn’t matter where we were from, or when we’d been born, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t black either - I was just another soul. That was the essence of the song and why I wrote it and it proved to be the truth.
Lena sang a guide vocal of the song and they recorded the final music tracks for it that day. Thankfully the engineer snuck me a dub of it because he could see how much it would mean to me. I didn’t even ask him for it and indeed it meant a lot to me. I thanked him for it, but would like to thank him again someday. That rough mix and a few photographs would be the only record of that whole “dream that came to life” that I would have for the next ten years that followed.
The last time I saw Lena I was almost comfortable. We took pictures and we talked, smiled and laughed. She was warm and real and not untouchable anymore, just a wonderful human who knew. When the time came to say goodbye, we hugged each other and then she looked in my eyes and said, “I promise I’ll do a good job on your song.” I took her hand and could only smile. What more was there to say?
Saying good-bye to McDuff
The last conversation I had with Jack was while he was in the hospital for the last time, he’d had a couple of strokes, was losing strength and he was a little out of it by that time. He said, “Why don’t you come down and break me outta’ here?” I didn’t know what to say but we talked a few minutes more and the very last thing he said was, “It’s gonna’ be alright.” He died soon after and I would leave Mpls. soon after that.
It was January, and some friends and I went to Jack’s memorial service. His NY band members were there and other musicians, friends, and admirers. A few people got up to talk about Jack. I’d written a poem for him and decided to read it, but I was compelled to tell a couple of stories about him. I didn’t know how I’d get through without tears because his wife Kathy, who’d become a good friend of mine, was sitting right in front.
The first story I told was an example of the sweet side of Jack. One night he and Kathy came to hear me play at a restaurant downtown. They stayed until the end and I was walking with Jack to their car and asked him to give me the most important piece of advice that he could think of about life, music, love, anything. “Well” he said in his slow and deliberate way, “If you can find somebody who makes you feel as good as music does, then hold on to them and don’t let them get away.” That was wise advice that I've tried to follow, even though nothing has come close to how I feel about music. After I told that story I looked up at Kathy and said, “You know you made him feel as good as music and he loved you so much.” Kathy and I both lost it, but I knew there was one more story that I had to tell. It was an example of Jack’s funny side, his musician's humor and just the hip way he was. The story was one that only McDuff could tell right, but we got so many laughs out of it I had to retell it.
He’d played a gig with the trombone player, Al Grey, and Al owed Jack money from the gig. I think it was $500. Al lived on the east coast and Jack in Mpls., so Jack called Al’s house several times to ask him where his money was. He’d get the machine and the recording would say, “We’re at the summer house, please leave a message.” So Jack would call the number for the “summer house” and would get a machine again and it would say, “We’re at the winter house, please leave a message.” So Jack got irritated and ended up calling both houses and leaving the same message on both machines, the message was, “First you’re at the summer house, then you’re at the winter house, what I wanna’ know is, which one of these muthaf*#%in’ houses is my money at?!” It still makes me laugh - I’m laughing right now as I type this. Jack just had a way about him that was indescribable, just so funny and clever. So I told the “which house” story at the memorial service and though a lot of the musicians had heard it before, we all laughed through our sadness and it was an uplifting moment - even if I did swear in front of the minister, he smiled too.
Oh one last thing about Al Grey, he died a year or so before Jack did, and I remember Jack and I sitting there after we talked about Al passing away and there was this moment of silence, then we both looked at each other and thought the same thing and said it, “Now you’re never gonna’ get your money!” Man, we laughed about that. “Ain’t that a bitch,” Jack would always say. I know what he meant, because I miss him and think about him all the time. He was one of a kind and one of the last of his kind and I was fortunate to have known him, and I’m still fortunate that his wife Kathy and I are friends and keep in contact.
Saying hello to Shirley Horn
From the first notes I heard Shirley Horn sing and play I knew that she would become one of my idols and greatest influences. Her understated style speaks volumes and I wanted to learn everything I could from this astounding artist. I was so crazy about her that I wrote a song with her in mind called, “Jaded Heart.” Its a spacious and sensitive ballad written in the spirit of her style. No one could make a ballad breathe like Shirley could. In my wildest dreams I didn’t think I’d ever get to meet her, let alone play the song I’d written for her.
She appeared at the Dakota in St. Paul and I knew I had to be there - as close to the piano as I could get. I went both nights, stayed for every show, and got to meet and hang with her and drummer, Steve Williams. Lowell Pickett, who knew how much I dug Shirley, introduced me to her the first night. I was presented to her as a writer and I told her that I’d written a song for her. She said she’d like to hear it and to come and play it for her the following night. I thought perhaps that she was just being kind and I didn’t want to intrude, but I knew it was a rare chance and I talked myself into bringing a boom box and recording of it the next night, if nothing else she could take the recording and listen when she had time.
After the show, she sat down in the back room and asked me to play it for her - right there. I handed her the lyric sheets and she put on her reading glasses, she was attentive and really wanted to listen. I was scared and thrilled at the same time. She began to listen to “Black Is,” looked at me over her reading glasses and started to ask me questions. “Is that you singing?” She asked. “Yes.” I answered. “Is that you playing?” “Yes.” I answered again. “Are you playing and singing at the same time?” “Yes.” again. She then asked me why I wrote the song and what inspired me to write it, and I explained what it meant to me. I was nervous and on the spot, but tried to answer her as best I could. She continued to listen to “Jaded Heart.” I didn’t know what to think, I searched her face for some indication of what she was thinking, but she was absorbed in the music. When the song ended, she looked me straight in the eye over her reading glasses again. “You should play more.” She said. I thought she meant that I should play more so I could improve, so I said, “Yes, I should, I need more experience….” “No” she interrupted, “I mean that you should be heard.” What? Shirley Horn, my idol, telling me that “I should be heard?” This blew a very shy, intimidated, and insecure me away. “Yes” she said, “You’ve got it.”
I spent the rest of the evening with her and Steve Williams and she was gracious and open-hearted to me. She let me into her realm, made me feel comfortable, and treated me like a fellow musician and kindred spirit. We laughed a lot and cursed a little about music and life. She talked about her daughter, her husband, and how she loved to go out in a boat and fish. Her words and her music have inspired me through many days and nights of wanting to give up on music. She’s joined Ella, Sarah, Anita, and Carmen now; the handful of true legends that I won’t get to meet until Heaven, but I’m more than grateful that I met Shirley on earth. Her musical influence will exist long after we’re all gone and for me, her gift of those four encouraging words meant more than most anything I can think of in my entire career.
Years later, as if Shirley Horn had foreseen it, I was heard by one of her (and my) favorite composers and arrangers, Johnny Mandel, whom she'd worked with on "Here's To Life." He must have heard what she heard in me, because he was impressed with my music and wanted to hear more. That story continues to unfold.
Much more life to live and many more anecdotes to come!
All content (c) Marissa Dodge. All rights reserved.