This album isn't for the music critics or music labels. It is an aural snapshot of an important chapter of my life and all the people who shared one of the most special musical nights of my life. It is for them and me.
When I started playing at the Alta Plaza in 1995, I had no idea what an event Tuesday nights would become. I had played at the same location 2 years ago on Sundays. Back then it was called the Fillmore Grill. Years later, I stopped in to visit the old club. That night I sat in with the pianist Eric Shifrin for a tune and the response was so overwhelming that the management hired me back to sing every Tuesday. There was one catch. They didn't have an entertainment license anymore so I would have to sing acoustically. This would be daunting for most singers but I had a solid classical and theatre background, good projection and was willing to give it a try.
Quickly I began to realize why Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey sang in the manner they did. They had no microphone. I had to adjust all the keys I sang in and keep a constant watch on my breathing technique. It became apparent that unless the room was quiet, I would blow out my vocal cords before the first set. This was not a background gig. But fortunately without a mike cord and without the hassles of feedback, I was free to walk around the room and I soon began to do so. Suddenly the room had a whole different feel. The club transformed into a speakeasy from the Prohibition; the audience hushing each other to hear me sing a ballad; an old movie where Sam would come right up to your table and play it again; a Broadway show with guys lifting me up on the bar to belt out "Cabaret."
After many months of playing together, the band, John R. Burr on the piano, Terry Miller on the bass, and I became amazingly in tune with each other. I could even walk upstairs into the dining room and somehow we could stay in time with each almost telepathically. The staff was superb. Scott and Chuck behind the bar could tame the rudest customers with class and still be able to whip out multiple martinis when it got busy. And it got BUSY.
Soon ex-lovers would fight over who had the divorce rights to go the Alta on Tuesday nights. Old musicians from Fillmore Street's heyday would stop in. Hadda Brooks, the Queen of the Boogie Woogie, would stop in, tickle the keys and then walk around the room singing to the young boys making them blush in their pants. The recently departed Etta Jones stopped in when she was in town. The management was the best at making musicians feel at home. Pretty soon all the musicians in town wanted to play that gig with me. The gig where everyone listened, where gay, straight, young, old and all races mixed freely with no tension, where the bartenders gave you top shelf martini's all night, where the chef Amy made the best food for you and sat you down for an unhurried dinner break, where the staff refused to accept tips from the musicians and the patrons gave you $50 tips to play all the songs you loved to play, "My One and Only Love," "Autumn Leaves," "That's All." It was a classy, yet unpretentious place. It was home.
It seemed as if that gig would go on forever. But unfortunately, due to illness, the owner was forced to close. With only one weeks notice, Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony and a regular Tuesday attendee, arranged to record the final evening at the Alta as a special present to me. I had tried to record at the Alta previously but the mechanics of recording an acoustic act in which the singer walked around the room had proven impossible. Michael however, accomplished what previously could not be done without intruding on the natural performance. It was a wonderful night. The place was overflowing. People who couldn't fit in were pressed with their noses against the double glass doors making it impossible for anyone to get out. Not that anyone wanted to leave.
It was hard for me to sing that night, I wanted to cry but if I did so my throat would swell up and I wouldn't be able to sing. If you hear a catch or break in voice in this recording it is simply a tear.
At the Alta Plaza I met more people that would become my closest friends and biggest supporters than anyplace I have ever been. I cannot begin to name them all. You know who are. I think the space has a very special energy. It used to be a place called the Scene in the sixties. And it featured jazz and blues then as well. It became the Alta Plaza for years then briefly the Fillmore Grill and then the Alta Plaza again. I hope someone with vision will reopen the place again and we can have an Alta Plaza III. But I know that sometimes events are just a combination of the right people and the right place and the right time. Those years at the Alta were all three.
Saturday, June 29, 2002