Yesterday I was listening to Meredith d'Ambrosio accompany herself on piano while singing Love Is a Simple Thing. The song appears on her sterling album Another Time (1981), which is one of my favorites of hers. Meredith and I have emailed for years, since she loves JazzWax and I love her voice and piano. As I listened, I thought I'd give you a treat by uniting five parts of my 2009 interview with Meredith in a single post. As I'm sure you'll agree, hers is a harrowing story of a jazz artist's struggle and survival...
Here's my complete five-part interview with Meredith:
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Meredith d’Ambrosio: I grew up in Boston. I have two brothers and a sister. One brother and my sister are quite a bit younger than I am. My mother had them late in life. My mother was a pianist-singer whose voice was similar to Lee Wiley’s. She performed around Boston using the stage name Sherry Linden. Her real name was Sarah Kleiman. She was the last of the red-hot mamas, a performer who sang songs by the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Kern, Berlin, Coward and others. She also performed risqué material.
JW: Sounds like she was quite a character.
Md’A: She was. Her romantic style of singing would often bring tears to people's eyes. As for my father, he had been a small-band radio singer. Later, using his own formulas, he created a refinishing and re-upholstery business. I remember my early childhood in the 1940s vividly. I was a terrible tomboy. Those are the years I remember most fondly.
JW: Why? Were your teenage years unhappy?
Md’A: Very messy. My mother and father didn’t get along, and neither gave me much encouragement. My father was a womanizer and it broke my mother’s heart. She resented him terribly for it. My father's issues probably stem from his rough start in life.
JW: What happened?
Md’A: He was born out of wedlock in Boston to a Russian mother and a merchant seaman from Florence, Italy. His mother gave him up to the care of the state when he was five. After years bouncing around foster homes, orphanages and farms, he was sent at age 14 to live at the home of a family on Cape Cod. But just as the family was ready to adopt him, his mother surfaced and blocked the adoption. Up until then my father thought she was dead.
JW: Did his mother take him away?
Md’A: Yes. She took him to live with her in the Beacon Hill section of Boston, where it turned out she was the town madam who ran her business out of a four- story townhouse. Just before she took my father back to Boston, though, she married a man whose last name was d’Ambrosio.
JW: When did you know you could sing?
Md’A: When I was six years old, I was harmonizing along with my mother’s large collection of swing records. I then studied classical piano and art from that point forward. My classical training lasted up to age 11. Then I went to Boston’s Schillinger House of Music [pictured], which later changed its name to the Berklee School and then moved its location to become the Berklee College of Music.
JW: Which singers moved you most as a kid?
Md’A: Dick Haymes [pictured] and Peggy Lee. My mother had a collection of 12-inch swing records that had to be played on a Victrola. I thought Haymes had the best phrasing of them all and the most romantic voice.
JW: Did you have formal voice training?
Md’A: No, my father wouldn’t allow it. He was a bass baritone and had been classically trained at the New England Conservatory of Music. When he heard me singing and harmonizing along with my mother’s records at age 11, he decided voice training would be bad for me. He didn’t want my voice to be spoiled with formal instruction, though he had a hand in coaching me to understand how to breathe and shade.
JW: What did you sound like?
Md’D: I had a style back then, a voice that sounded like no one else. I was a mezzo-soprano then—the same range as my mother's. Much later I became a tenor, the same range as a cello or flugelhorn.
JW: Did painting and visual art play a more important role in your youth than singing and playing piano?
Md’A: Yes, and it still does. When I was 5 years old, in kindergarten, I drew a picture of a face that was in perfect proportion. I immediately sensed I had an advanced talent. So my mother bought me an easel, and a year later I started taking formal art instruction. After school, I’d take piano and ballet lessons. And each Saturday I’d go for additional art lessons at the Rutledge School of Music and then Hebrew School. I had no time to play on the streets. It was a grueling schedule.
JW: Was your family well off?
Md’A: Actually no. When I was 13 years old, I got my social security card and had to go to work over the summer at a hearing-aid and transistor parts factory. The check was used to help my family make ends meet. By then my mother had two more children in addition to my brother Jerry, who was born three years after I was.
JW: Why did your mother have two more children so many years later?
Md'A: She later confessed to me that she had had my brother Stanley and my sister Elaine later in her life to keep my father from straying. So I had to help take care of my new siblings, since my mother was in her forties and had had nervous breakdowns with both births. The newborns were exhausting and stressful for her.
JW: You must have been gratified to get out of the house when it was time for college.
Md’A: It was liberating. When I was 17 years old, I won a scholarship to the Boston Museum School, which was at the time considered the second best fine arts college in the country after the Chicago Art Institute. By then, I was living a pretty bohemian life, which angered my mother to no end, since she was rather traditional.
JW: Just before college began in 1958, you and your mother fought regularly. What was her big issue with you?
Md'A: Several things. For one, I couldn’t hold a waitress job in Maine over the summer to pay for textbooks, and my mother was furious that I didn’t apply myself and take the job more seriously. Just before my studies began at the Boston Museum School, our disagreements grew so bad and so frequent that I moved out.
JW: Did you enjoy the Boston Museum School?
Md’A: I loved it. But even before college started, my life was complicated, which certainly didn't help matters with my mother. When I was 17, I had the misfortune of falling deeply in love with a man who was a jazz pianist and three years older than me. He asked me to marry him, and we became engaged. But soon I learned from his closest friend that within a two-year period, he had been engaged to 22 other women. He disappeared soon after I found out. I think my parents chased him away once they learned about his past. It took me many years to get over the emotional devastation of being deceived by someone who I thought was my soulmate. I had even thought about suicide. By then I had moved back home.
JW: You must have fallen pretty hard for the guy.
Md’A: [Laughs] That was only the half of it. Two years later, the same guy called and asked if I’d go to Europe with him. I turned him down, having learned my lesson. Or so I thought. Then, 18 years later, he called me again, this time from Colorado. We began to date when he came to Boston. He proposed to me again, I accepted, and I sold everything I owned to move out there with him. He took some of my eggshell mosaics to Denver to see if he could find an exclusive gallery for my works. I had been doing the mosaics since I was 18 years old.
JW: What are eggshell mosaics?
Md’A: It’s a technique I developed. On a thick wooden board, I make a sketch. After tearing the membrane from white eggshells, I paint the shells, crack them into small tessera [tiles], apply medium-rough mosaic cement in small areas to the board, and one by one, place each small painted eggshell onto the cement using a tweezer. Polyurethane is painted on the back to prevent warpage. The result is an image composed of painted eggshells.
JW: So what happened with the guy?
Md’A: I didn’t hear from him for two weeks after he left. When I called his brother to see if anything had happened to him, his brother told me he was engaged to another woman and a wedding was planned.
JW: That must have crushed you, to be duped twice like that.
Md’A: I was pretty shocked. I never thought I was going to get over him. But I did eventually—12 years later.
JW: Getting back to your college years, did you and your mother patch things up once you moved home?
Md’A: After my first year at school, my mom and I resumed fighting bitterly. So I moved out again—into the basement apartment of a girlfriend. But she made my life miserable. She was a terrible bully. I had gone back to work at the hearing-aid factory to make ends meet and had to walk home from work in the bitter cold winter. Eventually I came down with pleurisy and bronchitis, which resulted in walking pneumonia. Eventually I got well.
JW: Were you still listening to jazz during all of this turmoil?
Md’A: Oh Yes. Horace Silver’s records in 1952 had first awakened me to jazz. The only way I could play chords was to try to emulate them while I was listening to his records. I was so taken with what he was doing. I also was aware of jazz through radio shows in Boston hosted by Symphony Sid and Father Norman J. O'Connor, the so-called jazz priest. I realized immediately this wasn’t swing like the music on my mother's records. It was straight-ahead jazz. And I loved it.
JW: What were you listening to in Silver's records?
Md'A: I heard the chords Horace was playing and was able to figure out his voicings. Art Tatum, too. He had full, full chords. I've always been able to hear the detail in recordings and figure out on the piano what I was hearing. When I went to Schillinger House in 1952 and 1953, I was taught basic chords. But by separating those chords, I could figure out what Silver was doing.
JW: By the late 1950s, were you good enough to get work playing and singing?
Md’A: Yes. I eventually found work playing at jazz clubs in Boston in 1959, when I was 18 years old. I also became friendly with the guys in Gunther Schuller’s jazz group at the New England Conservatory of Music. That’s where I met pianist Roger Kellaway. He would perform at clubs and ask me to sing while he played. We’d often go to Storyville, the Stables and the Crystal Club in Milford, Mass., to hear Boots Mussulli [pictured], Conte Candoli and Serge Chaloff, and to the Stables to hear Varty Haroutunian with Ray Santisi, Herb Pomeroy and others.
JW: You sang with Maynard Ferguson’s big band at a club?
Md’A: Yes. Maynard [pictured] was at the Crystal Club one night with his big band. Roger [Kellaway] said something to him, and Maynard asked me to sing with the band. We did I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good) and I Cover the Waterfront. Fortunately I was able to sing in the key in which they played. That was the first time I sang with a big band. Maynard loved it, and so did the audience. Roger was very encouraging, and he remains a beautiful pianist. We had a Jackie and Roy thing going. We had many of those kinds of arrangements. He made me work hard, though, and I’m grateful for that.
JW: What did your mother think about your flowering jazz career?
Md’A: Not much. There still was no encouragement from her. Around this time she started to suffer terribly from depression and had another nervous breakdown. So I had to return home yet again to care for my youngest brother and sister. I became their surrogate mother.
JW: Did being pulled away from your art, singing and playing upset you or stress you out?
Md’A: No. For whatever reason, my mother's issues and my family chores never really pulled me away from my goals. I compartmentalized the two and never felt stress.
JW: Did your heart repair itself after your parents chased off the grifter who proposed to you?
Md'A: 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.
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.
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.
JW: Where were you living?
Md’A: In Newton, Mass., 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, Mass. But her husband and his family barred her from visitation. They even cut me off from visiting my granddaughter and changed their phone number.
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.
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.
JW: Your first album, Lost in His Arms, was recorded in 1978, at age 37. That’s pretty late for an artist with your talents.
Md'A: I didn’t want to be out there on an album. But I was duped [laughs]. The piano tuner who worked at the Longview Farm Recording Studios near Boston had free rein of the studio one day. Just for fun—or so he said at the time—he wanted me to come out and sing and accompany myself on piano. So I did.
JW: What happened?
Md'A: I recorded 35 songs in a seven-hour period—mostly one take for each song. The guitarist, Norman Coles, sat in on two tunes. We chose 15 cuts to put on a tape for a possible album. The tuner would have become my manager, but he passed away soon after that. I think he was there to guide me for a moment.
JW: What happened to the tape?
Md’A: Ron Della Chiesa invited me to come on his WGBH-FM radio show, Music America, to play the tape. Johnny Hartman [pictured] was also being interviewed by Ron that day. When the tape played, it sounded like an album. When Johnny heard it, he couldn't believe it wasn't. Johnny insisted on taking the tape to New York to play for a record producer he knew. Johnny thought it should be an album. I was surprised he was so kind to me. I was a fan of his.
JW: How did pianist Ray Santisi wind up on the album?
Md'A: Later, Ray, who is a great pianist from Boston, came to the recording studio and we recorded two songs. We added those extra tunes to the tape. It spiced up the album, since I never considered my playing to be anything but sparse. Wil Morton of Shiah Records bought the master. I recorded two albums with Shiah before receiving a call from Herb Wong at Palo Alto Records. He asked me to record my third album, Little Jazz Bird, for him, and I did.
JW: Your voice has been compared to Bill Evans’ playing, particularly his sensitive, lyrical feel.
Md’A: I know. I guess there's a similarity in the quality of tone and voice. I first met Bill in the mid-1960s when he was in Boston playing at the Jazz Workshop. I was sitting with Fred Taylor, the club’s owner, whom I’ve known since I was a kid. Bill came over and sat with us. He was so shy. He hardly said anything, and I immediately identified with him because I’m the same way. I didn’t want to be out there in the world playing and singing. I don’t think Bill did either, deep down. But he had a natural talent that couldn’t be hidden away.
JW: As a pianist and singer, did his sound affect you?
Md'A: I was in awe of his genius. Listening to him play, I hung on every note, every phrase, every chord. I knew instantly that I was in the presence of someone from another planet. Our conversations, as I look back, seemed more telepathic than verbal. Something happened to me after talking with him and hearing him there that first night. I completely understood his concept of chords, and I changed musically in a noticeable way.
JW: What isn’t well known about Evans?
Md’A: Probably that one of his sources of early inspiration was British pianist Pat Smythe. When I was living in New York in 1980 at [English composer] Richard Rodney Bennett's home, I became friends with Pat. He allowed me to pick his brain, but all I needed to do was watch his fingers.
JW: What did you learn?
Md'A: Pat showed me chord voicings on the piano that were even more advanced than those used by Bill Evans. When I told Pat that the voicings sounded like Bill's, he said he used to sit with Bill in his London home and fool around on the piano when Bill first visited England in 1965. Pat said he showed Bill how he voiced chords, and Bill adapted some of that knowledge. He said that Bill learned from him that there was no limit to how many notes in a chord one could play if all 10 fingers were used at once.
JW: What did Smythe teach you?
Md’A: That nothing on the keyboard is impossible. The key is to use all of your fingers at once. I soon found myself using one finger on two notes, which helps make a fuller sounding chord. I’m not proficient at the piano, but Pat taught me enough so I could get a certain sound and contrast to my deep voice. A chord using five notes would sound mysterious and full because of the placement of the fingers on an altered tension chord voicing, for example. Pat helped me realize that there are no limits.
JW: What goes through your mind when you’re recording?
Md'A: Trying to get everything right. I rarely do more than two takes. Sometimes I’ll get stuck on one tune, and it will take a while. But I want the initial innocence or vulnerability or rawness that comes the first time around to be preserved.
JW: Do you think more about the words or the music?
Md’A: I’m thinking about what the words mean but I’m more of a music person. I get carried away by the music that I hear while I’m singing. That music is very important. Like when pianist Lee Musiker plays behind me. Or Don Sickler and the rest of the group on my latest album. I’m not a traditional singer.
JW: Not a singer?
Md’A: I don’t have the pipes. I only think from within. I’m not thinking about what I sound like. I’m already me. All I have to worry about is not breathing in the wrong places. If I breathe in the middle of a phrase, that’s a no-no. So I’m always thinking about phrasing and how to break it up so it will flow.
JW: Which comes first when you write, melody or lyrics?
Md'A: When I first started to record, I realized I shouldn’t be breaking up my phrases. So my words are wrapping around the music. When I write a song, the music comes first. Each melody note dictates what the word should be—the whole story of the song, the phrase, the poetry. I get lost in the melody and chord.
JW: You say you're shy but yet you spent years performing in front of audiences.
Md’A: There's shy and there's stage fear. I've overcome the latter. I had to. When I was very young, my mother used to make me stand next to her when she performed in Boston at the Hampshire House and sing Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart tunes. Little by little she taught me to be brave.
JW: What was the turning point in your career?
Md'A: I think Little Jazz Bird in 1982 with Phil Woods, Hank Jones and Manny Albam. It got airplay all over the world. When I toured in Paris, they treated me like a queen. The second time I went over, Miles Davis and I were on the same bill. Can you imagine? This was 1986 at the Paris Jazz Festival. Miles was in his rock-and-roll phase.
JW: Had you met Davis before?
Md'A: Yes, years earlier. Miles sat with me when he was working at the Jazz Workshop in Boston and I was playing the Inner Circle upstairs. Miles was very angry at the table when he sat with me on his break. I had come downstairs to hear him. But during the little time we spent together, he softened after learning that I was a jazz singer-pianist.
JW: What was your biggest thrill?
Md’A: When Horace Silver dropped in to see me in 1967 at the Inner Circle. He saw my picture outside and came in. I had a four-night a week job there. Horace sat right in front of me while I was at the upright piano they had made to look like a grand piano for me [laughs]. I couldn't believe he was there. He asked from the audience if I could play Some Other Spring. It was his favorite song.
JW: Did you?
Md’A: Yes, and he loved it. I was so embarrassed because of my lack of chops. After that we became friends. My mom had just committed suicide and he was concerned about me.
JW: But you and your mother didn't get along.
Md'A: Yes, but despite all that my mother and I had been through, I sobbed about her for five years after her death. Years after meeting Horace, when I was still in Boston, he asked me to come to New York. So I took a train down, and Horace took me to see Reverend Beulah Brown up in Harlem. Reverend Brown was a minister Horace had known for years, but she was also a medium who claimed to communicate with the dead. I think that’s where Horace got his church sound, through her funky feeling and way of talking.
JW: What did Reverend Brown tell you?
Md’A: She said, “You have to let your mother go. She has to get on to another life.” She told me I was keeping my mother earthbound. So I let her go, and I stopped sobbing. It was amazing.
JW: Where did you meet your late husband, pianist Eddie Higgins?
Md’A: I met him 22 years ago. He had heard four tunes of mine that deejay Ron Della Chiesa played in a row on WGBH in Boston. They were four tracks from four different albums. After, Ron announced that I was playing at a place called the Asa Bearse House in Hyannis on Cape Cod. Eddie also had played there, so he knew where it was. I was working the room three days a week, and pianist Dave McKenna worked three days. One night Eddie [known to friends as Haydn] walked in and asked me to do a song.
JW: What did he want you to sing and play?
Md’A: Well, I thought he had asked me to play You Light Up My Life [the Debby Boone pop hit]. I told him I didn’t do those kinds of songs [laughs].
JW: He was putting you on, no?
Md’A: No, no [laughs]. I hadn't understood what he had said. He had asked for a Brazilian tune called Someone to Light Up My Life. I didn’t know much about Brazilian music at the time. So he tried another song, by Duke Ellington, called All Too Soon. I sang it, a bit puzzled about his taste after his first request.
JW: What happened next?
Md'A: That evening, I ended up standing during my last set singing while he accompanied me on piano. After that we became close friends. Six weeks later we kissed goodnight for the first time. We became engaged two weeks after that and married the following year in the woods on Cape Cod. It was July 28, 1988, the anniversary of our first meeting We were happily married the entire time right up until he died this past August .
JazzWax clips:Here's Meredith singing and playing Love Is a Simple Thing...
Here's Meredith singing and playing Love Is Not a Game...
And here's Meredith singing and playing No One Knows...
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