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Interview: Meredith D'Ambrosio (PT 3)

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Meredith D'Ambrosio When you first speak with vocalist Meredith d'Ambrosio, you hear a shyness that comes when artists devote most of the their waking hours to their work and little time interacting with others. But Meredith is no mouse. Spend time with her and you hear a distinct take-charge sensibility, a gentle get-it-done mindset that has served her well as a jazz singer, pianist, composer, lyricist and visual artist. [Photo: Meredith playing and singing at Boston's Camelot Lounge in 1966]

During the 1960s, Meredith began to make a name for herself as a jazz singer-pianist, accompanying herself at clubs in the Boston area. But she also was a single mother, with all of the joys and hardship that come with that status. Which meant she had to leverage her talents as a visual artist and musician to make ends meet. Caught between the drama in her personal life and yearning to express herself artistically, Meredith managed to keep the two sides of her life separate, which is probably what kept her from burning out emotionally. [Pictured: Popponnesett, watercolor, 1994, by Meredith d'Ambrosio]

In Part 3 of my interview with Meredith, the legendary jazz vocalist talks about the birth of her child, the battle with her ex-husband for custody, the death of her mother, estrangement with her father, breakfast with John Coltrane, and why she wasn't able to go on tour with the Coltrane Quintet to Japan in 1966:

JazzWax: Did your heart repair itself after your parents chased off the grifter who proposed to you?
Meredith d'Ambrosio: Yes. Two years later, in 1960, when I was 19, I met a man and agreed to marry him. I didn't love him at the time but I assumed I would learn to love him. He didn't want children but I did. Three months after we were married, I was pregnant. Cyd was born in 1961, and about a year and a half later I divorced my husband and moved back in with my parents. At this point they were living in Newton, just outside of Boston. [Pictured: Apiary, watercolor, 1986, by Meredith d'Ambrosio]

JW: How did you make money?
Md'A: By doing calligraphy for wedding invitations and envelopes and diplomas, citations and illuminating scrolls. I also sang at the Hunt Room at the Beaconsfield Hotel [pictured] in Brookline, MA. Then I landed a better job singing and playing at the Charter House in Newton, which paid me $100 for five nights. Once again, I decided to leave home, at which point my mother generously told me, “You'll never make it."

JW: So you're divorced with a two-year-old baby, and you're scuffling to make ends meet?
Md'A: Yes. Soon I began dating a lawyer, and we lived together for three years in Boston. Then I found out he was cheating on me, so I asked him to leave. Soon after I went to Austin, Texas, for two weeks to sing and play at a jazz room there. I left my daughter Cyd with her father in Boston.

JW: What happened when you returned?
Md'A: After I got back to Boston two weeks later, my ex-husband and his new wife wanted to keep Cyd. They wouldn't let me take her back, even after I found steady work in Boston. Then I learned that they were attempting to adopt her. My ex-husband thought Cyd wouldn't be well cared for by me because there was no backyard for her to play in where I lived. This was a very sad time for me. [Pictured: Glen Lake, oil on canvas, 2006, by Meredith d'Ambrosio]

JW: What did you do?
Md'A: I stole Cyd back from my ex-husband's house with my dad's help. I pretended that I was going to take her to the movies. A huge custody battle followed. I won, and my former husband in response chose not to see Cyd for years, until she was 11 years old. I continued to make ends meet with calligraphy and by selling my eggshell mosaics.

JW: During this time, what was going on with your parents?
Md'A: My father divorced my mother in 1967. A year later she committed suicide by running the motor while sitting in the car in the garage. My sister Elaine, who was 11 at the time, found her.

JW: And your dad?
Md'A: My father remarried in 1970, but I never got along with his new wife. He became increasingly cruel to my sister Elaine and brother Stanley. It got so bad that my father asked them to leave his house. [Pictured: Traffic Signal #1, eggshell mosaic, 1972, by Meredith d'Ambrosio]

JW: Where were you living?
Md'A: In Newton, MA, with Cyd. To pay the bills, I accepted assistance from Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a federal program at the time. But I also had to take in my brother and sister. The AFDC didn't provide me with enough to support everyone.

JW: What did you do?
Md'A: I sued my father for support and won. Then he disowned me. Soon I found another job singing and playing and working as a calligrapher.

JW: What eventually happened with your daughter Cyd?
Md'A: She became pregnant and married, but she couldn't cope. In 1981 she had a nervous breakdown and left her two-year-old baby with her husband. Later Cyd moved into my apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Once she got her bearings, she tried to return to her husband and daughter, Davina, in Revere, MA. But her husband and his family barred her from visitation. They even cut me off from visiting my granddaughter and changed their phone number. [Pictured: White Mountains Birches, watercolor, by Meredith d'Ambrosio]

JW: That must have been painful for you.
Md'A: It was. In 1991, my granddaughter Davina called me for the first time. She had tracked me down in an effort to learn more about her mother. Today I speak with Cyd and my granddaughter Emmalyne and grandson Emmanuel every day. Davina hasn't been as close to me or her siblings for unknown reasons. That's her choice. I did recently learn, though, that Davina now has three children, which makes me a great-grandmother.

JW: Clearly all of these events have shaped who you are as an artist, especially as a jazz singer.
Md'A: It's all in there someplace, I suppose [laughs].

JW: Returning to the 1960s, you had breakfast with John Coltrane in late 1965?
Md'A: Yes. I went to hear him play at Boston's Jazz Workshop with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones over a series of nights. I knew his Boston manager, Robin Hemingway, who took me to see them. After the gig one night, Coltrane, Robin and I went to Ken's, a coffee shop nearby in Copley Square, for breakfast. We sat there till 3 a.m. talking. I was told later that John never laughed or smiled. But during our time at Ken's, he was laughing and enjoying himself the entire time. I was happy to know that I was able to amuse him.

JW: Did he hear you sing?
Md'A: Yes, he asked me to sing something for him, and I did. After I finished singing at the table, he was so moved he asked me to come with him to Japan and sing with the group.

JW: Was he serious?
Md'A: Very. But Cyd was just four years old, and I was living with my parents after escaping my marriage. I explained why I couldn't go with him. John understood.

JW: Do you regret the decision?
Md'A: Oh, goodness, not at all. I never think about what might have been. I was and still am a very shy person. I didn't want to venture away from Boston at the time.

JW: Shy?
Md'A: You have to understand, I didn't want music in my life professionally. I thought of myself as a visual artist. I'm a thinker, not a talker. I'm introspective, all day and all night. To this day I hide away in my house painting, composing and writing lyrics to my compositions, or other people's melodies. [Pictured: Top of the Island, watercolor, 2000, by Meredith d'Ambrosio]

Tomorrow, Meredith talks about her first recording, meeting bill Evans, the musical connection between British pianist Pat Smythe and Evans, and what Smythe taught her about chord voicings.

JazzWax tracks: Following her critically acclaimed Little Jazz Bird (1982), Meredith recorded It's Your Dance (1985), which includes fabulous versions of Dave Brubeck's Strange Meadowlark, Yip Harburg and Vernon Duke's Off Again On Again, Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen's Humpty Dumpty Heart and a rendition of Nobody Else But Me (Hammerstein and Kern) that rivals Joe Mooney's.

The Cove (1987) followed with Lee Konitz (alto sax), Fred Hersch (piano), Michael Formanek (bass) and Keith Copeland (drums). The album's title relates to “the hollow of a man's shoulder where a woman can rest her head and snuggle up in. It's like a little secret place," Meredith says in the liner notes. Her voice is suddenly deeper and more confident. There are fabulous versions of Bill Evans' Turn Out the Stars and Thunderstruck.

The first album Meredith recorded after marrying pianist Eddie Higgins, who died on August 30th, was South to a Warmer Place (1989). In addition to Eddie, Meredith was accompanied by Lou Columbo (trumpet), Don Coffman (bass) and Danny Burger (drums). Everything on this album is perfect. There's a conversational You Better Go Now, a mid-tempo The Touch of Your Lips and a lush reading of the title track. The album also includes This Will Be My Shining Hour, an uncharacteristically fast-tempo tune, which Meredith handles smoothly.

All are available as downloads at iTunes and Amazon. Or on CD here, here and here.

Art exhibit and performance: Starting next Thursday (September 24th) in Miami, radio station WDNA (88.9 FM) will be exhibiting 35 of Meredith's watercolors and oil paintings. Meredith also will be performing, accompanied by pianist Patti Wicks. For more information and ticket prices, go here.

And for more about Meredith and her paintings, go here.

JazzWax clip: To hear how tasteful Meredith's late husband Eddie Higgins was, dig this...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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