Reflections in a bloodshot eye
Mar 24, 2005 | 564 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Hoover Dam sits on the border of Nevada and Arizona on the Colorado River, creating or enlarging Lake Mead. Its generation of power and irrigation of water is of enormous benefit to millions of inhabitants of a great swath of the southwestern region of the U.S.A.

So impressive is it, both from an engineering and aesthetic point of view, that I was impelled in 1992 to do the guided tour. This was a good decision. The tour was so fascinating that the scars of the previous night's one-armed combat with a slot machine in Caesar's palace in nearby Las Vegas began to heal. That bout greatly distorted my financial calculations, though not to the point of penury, and so I set out.

After enjoying the Hoover Dam, the next leg of my trip was to be more substantial, and it would focus on jazz more than a natural landmark.

On a Boeing 707 heading south, I saw the Grand Canyon from a height of 33,000 feet while standing on the flight-deck. The captain flew at an angle to enable passengers on both sides to view this geophysical phenomenon. Imagine such a treat in these sad days of high security? Some day, I promised myself, I would visit it on the ground.

Today was not to be that day - because of Anita O'Day.

The legendary jazz singer was appearing in Los Angeles the following night, and I intended to be there. That decision was made on the basis of the relative longevity of the Grand Canyon and to that of both Miss O'Day and myself. So Los Angeles it was to be.

The long drive to Wickenburg, 50 miles north of Phoenix, Arizona, was leisurely paced and surprisingly rewarding to a dedicated indoor type like myself. Vast expanses of openness were relieved by large numbers of cacti, gorgeous autumnal colors. It was May but it was desert and skyscraping plateaus of brown sandstone. Subliminal images of cowboy films I'd seen as a boy flashed in my mind's eye. Wickenburg is a lovely old western town and at that time, it didn't seem to be a bit touristy. A good but cheap hotel, a nice dinner, and an early night set me up for the next day.

The drive the next day to Phoenix had none of the relaxed feeling of the previous day's drive. Traffic began to build, as did the temperature. Then there was the shock of seeing the signpost to Los Angeles. It said 450 miles, and for some reason I would never know, I had reckoned 150 miles. The next eight or so hours were probably the most stressful of my traveling life.

Concentration and acute awareness had to be maintained for the whole journey. Sweaty and exhausted, I pulled into the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, famous for hosting the first Oscars. Since I last stayed there, it had received a big facelift and it came as no surprise to learn that rates had quadrupled. Damn that slot machine in Caesar's Palace! It meant I now had to scurry around for something more economical. I was lucky. A cheap and seedy hotel nearby with a clean bathroom and bed linen filled the bill.

Feeling somewhat more couth, kempt and sheveled, having bathed and changed, I entered the Vine Street Bar & Grill 30 minutes later.

The feature length documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day was filmed at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, released in 1959. Some of the greatest names in the genre appeared at that festival, and the performances of the likes of Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Bob Brookmeyer, Chico Hamilton, Thelonius Monk and many more readily come to mind. Two performers in particular stole the show for me. One was Chico Hamilton bowing his cello in a semi-darkened, smoke filled room. The other, above all these, was O'Day.

Wearing a beautiful dress and a very stylish broad rimmed hat, she looked beautiful and her interpretation of "Tea for Two" was magnificent. Her great voice and her innate rhythmic sense made that clip one of the highlights for me of so many long years listening to jazz. But that was 1958, and it was now 1992. How would she be, considering by her own admission, she had a big problem with substance abuse?

In seconds I had the answer. She looked and sounded wonderful. At the intermission, she chatted with an ordinary fan at the bar and related the joys and tribulations of a musician on the road. I must confess I envied that guy.

They say that one of Frank Sinatra's many gifts as a performer was to convince the listener of being sung to personally. I agree. O'Day has that power too, to convey intimacy. I'm certain that when she sang the haunting line from the beautiful ballad, "You came to me from out of nowhere," everyone in the audience thought she sang to them personally, but I knew that she sang it to me and me only.

She did, didn't she?

The Grand Canyon is still there, and I am delighted to report that O'Day is still performing in Los Angeles and marketing her recordings over the Internet. Now, if only I could use a computer! - Bernard Brady

Bernard Brady lives in Dublin, Ireland but is a regular visitor to Weehawken. This is his first published piece and he is very excited about it. To submit your own, e-mail
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