Prescription for Jazz
I wanted more than anything to get past that divide and into the exclusive world of New York's jazz clubs.
I needed new glasses, so I made an appointment with an optometrist in Queens. As this younger doctor examined me, I commented on his frames.
“Only jazz musicians can wear these frames,” he said as he dilated my pupils.
I was surprised to discover that the optometrist was moonlighting as a musician, but also felt envious. The style of his frames symbolized a velvet rope to me. I wanted more than anything to get past that divide and into the exclusive world of New York's jazz clubs.
I could always carry a tune. Music moved through the veins of my family. My grandmother in Ireland would often tell me, “When you feel down, just sing yourself happy.” But I'd never studied music. My only lessons had involved listening to granny sing in her pantry while she peeled potatoes or milked cows on her farm.
“Well, I’m a jazz singer,” I announced, after my optometrist asked me to blink for him.
“Really?” He stopped examining me. “Sing me something!” He leaned back and smiled with anticipation.
My mind went blank. I could sing plenty of Irish songs. I used to be a soprano in the university chorus. I could sing "Amazing Grace." I knew the national anthem.
“How about something by Billie Holiday?” he suggested.
“What does he sing?” I asked ignorantly.
At this, the young doctor laughed. “Why don’t you sing something you know?”
So I pulled out my party piece. The song everyone always asked me to sing, whether they were Irish or American. "Crazy" by Patsy Cline.
He was impressed by my imitation of the country idol and my perfect pitch but suggested I learn a few songs by Billie Holiday, and some other singer I had heard of named Ella Fitzgerald. She sounded Irish, so I said I’d give her a try. The optometrist directed me to a place called Off-Wall Street Jam. He said it was a studio where bankers and business men would go on their lunch hours, or at night, to play music and lead lifestyles alternative to their days dressed in navy and gray. They assembled jazz musicians on Sunday afternoons.
“Why don’t you sit in on the sessions, meet some of the musicians, and learn some tunes,” he said. “Then you can tell people you’re a jazz singer.” He paused to write up my new prescription. “But I’ll tell you what. I like your voice, so let’s get you a pair of these frames. Can’t hurt to dress the part.”
So I spent a year of Sundays just off of Wall Street jamming with musicians. I learned as many songs as I could. If a bass player suggested I learn Nina Simone’s version of “Since I Fell for You,” I learned it. If a drummer thought my voice might do right by Nat King Cole’s “Frim Fram Sauce,” I ate it up.
A year later, it was time to get my annual check-up at the optometrist.
“I earned my frames,” I informed my optometrist with pride.
He looked up from my chart and smiled.
I not only knew who Billie Holiday was, I had let her invade my pours. I breathed Billie into the microphone. But I’d also found my own voice and had become a Celt in the Cotton Club.
With 20/20 vision, I looked straight into his eyes and proposed, “How would you like to start a jazz band?”
My optometrist and I have been performing together for fifteen years. And the beat goes on.