I met Ray Charles when I was studying composition with Paul Glass. Quincy Jones was studying with Paul when he was composing the “Black Requiem,” an oratorio for full orchestra, chorus, and with Ray Charles as featured soloist. It began with the slave ships coming to America and continued through the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Ray was narrator, preacher, storyteller, and participant. He was satiric, serious, jovial, excoriating. He bantered with the chorus, he shouted, he laughed, he cried. The part was written so that it appeared to be a spontaneous improvisation, but it was actually intricately crafted.
Quincy is an amazing arranger, and had carved an open space for Ray to be himself, around which orchestral colors swirled, chorus singers whispered, cursed, growled, chanted and sang. It was a vast panorama inset with vivid vignettes. I attended the premiere with the Houston Symphony. Quincy conducted, making changes and revisions during the rehearsal much to the chagrin of the orchestra, accustomed to having everything set in place. Being an improviser and accustomed to sensing new insights on the spur of the moment, he did not hesitate to improve and edit what was on the page; dictating notes, rhythms, and articulations to the musicians in the orchestra. Of course Mahler did this, George Szell did this, Bernstein did this, but most of it was done in advance and written into each part by librarians. Quincy’s purpose was the same as theirs, only his method was more spontaneous. However, the Houston Symphony musicians were not receptive to last-minute changes and became impatient and testy. Quincy took it all in stride, unperturbed by their grousing.
The performance was a triumph. I had never experienced such a large and participatory audience. Their enthusiasm was palpable and interactive, as they communicated and reacted to what was on the stage. Between the two rehearsals and the performance there were a few hours and Ray played chess with Paul Glass. I was privileged to be present during this game, which Ray won. He had a special chess set that had pegs beneath each piece and holes in the chess board, so that he could run his hands across the board without upsetting the pieces. His memory was phenomenal and he was a chess master.
Paul had given him a recording of one of my compositions and Ray told me, “Even I can appreciate that,” meaning that 12 tone concert music (which is what I was writing at the time) was not what he normally listened to. “If you’re a legitimate musician-what does that make me? An out of wedlock musician?” he teased me. He has a sly sense of humor and was not hesitant to speak his mind no matter what the consequences. His taste in music was omnivorous, and he appreciated any style as long as it was communicative, honest and well written.
After that memorable concert, I did not see Ray for many years. I left LA, attended and graduated from Juilliard and was appointed Music Director of the Roanoke Symphony in Virginia. I was invited to guest conduct the Richmond Symphony for a pops concert and the soloist was Ray Charles! I introduced myself, and reminded him about the "Black Requiem" concert in Houston. “Has that piece been performed since then?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, “Quincy withdrew it and wanted to make some changes.” “Do you want to do it again? I’m now Music Director of an orchestra and I could program it.”
“You’ll have to convince Quincy,” he warned. Quincy lived near my mother in Bel Air, just above UCLA in Los Angeles. Ray gave me his contact information and I called him.
“The score of the Black Requiem is in pieces,” he cautioned. “You’d never be able to figure out how to put it together.” “Is there a recording of the performance?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I think I can piece it together with the recording as my reference and, Ray is interested in performing it again.” “Come over and see what it looks like before you get too excited.”
My husband and I walked up Bel Air Road to Quincy’s secluded mansion high above Beverly Glen Canyon, where he has invited us to lunch. “Before we eat, let me show you what kind of shape this piece is in,” he said as he walked over to a cabinet and bent down to open the bottom doors. “Here, hold this,” he said to my husband as he reached in and took out some large statues, piling them into Stephan’s arms. One after another, identical, shinny Grammy Awards came out, hidden away. Stephan and I looked at these treasures and marveled at Quincy’s modesty to tuck them out of sight and not blatantly proclaim to the world, “Look what I’ve accomplished!” This was Quincy to a T.
During lunch he told us that when he produced “The Color Purple,” no one thought he could do it because he had never produced a film before. “This was a great position to be in because no one expected me to do well. I surprised them all, because I had had the experience of producing many recordings and the process was the same. So starting as the underdog was a plus!”
After all the Grammy Awards were emptied out of the closet, he pulled out several big boxes filled with sheets of music. We got down on the floor and poured over them. There were notes written on scraps of paper, loose sheets without page or measure numbers. This was going to be a truly daunting task, making sense of the jumble of sketches and finished score pages. But then there was the magical tape! It fused all the disparate elements and provided me with a coherent time line. I told Quincy that I felt certain I could re-assemble the score and parts and make it into performance-ready materials. I begged him to trust me and reminded him of Ray’s eagerness to perform it. Reluctantly he relented. We enjoyed a delicious lunch together prepared by his chef. I could see that he was warming to the idea of resuscitating “Black Requiem.”
When I got home I sleuthed through the boxes, arranging every bit of evidence like Sherlock Holmes solving a mystery. With the tape to guide me I was able to make order out of the seeming chaos and to appreciate what an organized and detailed score Quincy had composed. I marveled at the skill and imagination that went into the creation of this masterpiece, and my excitement grew when I contemplated bringing it back to life.
Needless to say, the Roanoke Symphony board of directors was overjoyed at the prospect of presenting a work of Quincy Jones with Ray Charles as soloist. In addition to the orchestra, the piece required a large chorus, preferably black and capable of singing in the traditional gospel style. Roanoke had a number of black churches, many with excellent choruses, but few could read music. This did not turn out to be an insurmountable problem, as they were accustomed to learning music by rote. I decided to combine the forces of all the local church choirs and to enlist their choir directors to teach them the music, using the recording as a guide. This took considerable preparation and adequate time needed to be allowed in order to learn and memorize the music. A date was chosen when Ray could fly in, his schedule being a complex time-table of international appearances. Everyone in the community quivered with anticipation.
Because this work was so precious to him, Ray generously insisted on being at several rehearsals, unlike his normal schedule of one rehearsal and then a performance. After the first rehearsal Quincy called. “How did it go,” he asked anxiously. Both Ray and I assured him that the music was glorious, that all of the pieces fused together into one magnificent whole, and that the orchestra and chorus were up to the challenge.
The local newspaper went ballistic. Every chorus member wanted to have his and her picture taken with Ray. He was patient, professional and overwhelmingly inspiring. No one who worked on that production will ever forget his brilliant performances, at rehearsals as well as at the final concert. The piece galvanized the community and the event. It was a day that no one would ever forget.
Ray was glowing. “I want to do it again and record it. When can we do it?” I was ecstatic. Another date was scheduled and Ray arranged for a truck with the most up-to-date sound equipment and his own personal recording engineer to come to Roanoke to record the “Black Requiem.” We recorded in Radford University’s Preston Hall, building a wooden platform over the seats and setting up the truck with the recording booth and equipment. Umbilical cords of thick wires snaked over the floor and through the hall, connecting the stage and the booth. Ray brought several soloists to the session: Will Lee on bass and Steve Ferrone on drums. They adjusted to the circumstances like true peripatetic professionals accustomed to the ever changing kaleidoscope of performance venues.
Ray shuttled between the stage and the truck, closely monitoring every detail. Balance, clarity, sound quality - nothing escaped his microscopic analysis. I was equipped with a headset, which I positioned over one ear, listening to the musicians in front of me with the other. Unlike the live performance, he planned to overdub his part at a later date.
At one point the orchestra erupted in a chaotic burst of sound during the Watts riot section of the piece. After the last not died away, I heard Ray over the headphones: “I didn’t hear the harp. Was the harp playing?”
Having just been bombarded by brass and percussion playing fortissimo, the gentle plucking of the harp was not a sound I had zeroed into. I asked the harpist and she sheepishly confessed that indeed, she had lost her place and failed to play the last passage. What an ear! We all marveled at Ray the magician, capable of hearing sounds no mere mortal could detect.
The sessions went smoothly and we all spent long hours together, intense and concentrated, punctuated by picture-taking, meals, jokes, exhaustion and elation. Ray, ever the perfectionist, never let a detail escape. “Watch out for Ray – he can be like the Ayatollah” Quincy had warned. “He can be ruthless and withering in his criticism.”
Thankfully I never felt the brunt of his anger during any of those sessions and it was not until the next time I conducted for Ray that I experienced first hand his violent temper.
The occasion was a pops concert. After the “Black Requiem” recording sessions, Ray invited me to conduct a private concert at a posh golf club. They had hired a chamber orchestra to back up Ray, and his regular conductor was not able to make the gig, so Joe Adams, Ray’s manager, invited me to conduct. I got to the club early to look over the music, and to my horror; the pages of the score had scant information. Being accustomed to a score where every detail was notated, these empty bars with chord symbols underneath them and little else filled me with dread. How was I supposed to know if someone was playing a wrong note? What was the tempo? Where was the melody? The phrases? Dynamics? Help! There was one rehearsal and Ray was not going to be at it, only showing up for the concert. Frantically I sought out the drummer.
“What do I do?” He patiently went through each piece with me and I wrote out what I could in the scores, jotting down word cues and places to watch for tempo changes. “At the end of each piece, we hold and Ray improvises. Watch his shoulder. He rocks back and forth and when his shoulder comes down, you cut off the orchestra.”
That evening I watched Ray like a hawk. Then we got to the end of the piece and as the drummer said, Ray rocked from side to side, wailing an improvised cadenza on the keyboard. I followed his shoulder movements and when I thought I saw his shoulder dip down, I cut off the orchestra. The audience erupted in thunderous applause, but on the stage Ray was yelling—at me! I could not understand what he was saying, but it was clear that he was rip-roaring mad at me. I was in shock. Before the next song, while Ray was bantering with the audience, the drummer whispered to me—“The other shoulder—it’s the other shoulder. That’s your cue to cut off, not before that.”
The rest of the concert went well and I discovered the all-important cutoff cue. After the concert I slunk back to Ray’s dressing room. I was certain that he would fly into another rage. I had blown it completely. I had a golden opportunity and I completely failed. I lamented that I probably would never work for him again. I was humiliated, ashamed and embarrassed. I wanted to sink into the earth and disappear. “Come in,” he boomed.
I stood there, anticipating the inevitable. “I’m so sorry,” I stammered. “Don’t’ worry about it,” he laughed, and gave me a big hug. “You’ll get the hang of it next time.” I floated out of the dressing room. Next time? He was willing to give me another chance? I was stunned.
I became a regular, conducting orchestra appearances for Ray all over the world, alternating with Ray’s arranger Victor Vannacone. “It’s the Victor/ Victoria Show,” I quipped referring to a popular movie at the time. I made it a point to get a set of scores, notate them carefully and listen to every Ray Charles recording I could find so that I got to know his repertory, and every nuance of his performing style. Of course each performance was different and Ray had a vast arsenal of improvisational variations. He often changed the order of the program on the stand, reacting to an inner directive that prompted his infallible sense of the rightness of one decision over another. He was as relaxed as your best friend at a dinner party and as energized as a meteor. His tempos could be so laid back that you thought he had stopped altogether only to find him right where he needed to be at the last moment.
He played piano, he played sax, he played the electric keyboard which could be anything from a roaring Hammond B3 organ to a delicate celeste and of course he sang. The voice encompassed whispers, smooth seductive tones, wailing blues, gospel shouts, and country twang. At one moment he was pleading for his lady to take him back, at another he gave a new meaning to what it feels like to be green in a song originally sung by Kermit the frog. He crooned love songs, scatted jazz standards. He sang Beatles songs and country and western. I told him he was my post-graduate music course because I learned something new every time I worked with him.
“You are without any prejudice. Here I am, a woman, a classical musician and white and you have given me the privilege and the trust to be your conductor,” I said to him. “Either you can cut it or you can’t. That’s the only thing that matters.”
My last concert with Ray was on his 70th birthday concert. I was conducting a production of “Tosca” with the Harrisburg Opera, when my husband called me during a staging rehearsal. “Call Joe Adams right away. Ray wants you to conduct. Its urgent!”
I excused myself from the rehearsal and went out into the hallway to call. I heard Joe say on the other end of the line, “It’s Rays 70th birthday concert and he wants you to conduct.” “I’m in the middle of rehearsals with the opera here in Pennsylvania, but I can see if I can get away for a few days. We’re doing staging rehearsals and I can get the assistant to take over while I’m gone. Where is the concert?” “Warsaw, Poland” Joe said matter of factly. “Warsaw! When is it?” “It’s the day after tomorrow. You’ll have to leave right away.” Gulp. “Can I call you right back?” “Sure.”
I explained to the cast and the director the situation. “Wow,” they agreed. “What an opportunity! You can’t afford to miss it! Go, we will be fine. The orchestra rehearsals don’t begin for another few days.” I dashed out, took the train to New York, quickly packed and headed to the airport. But this was no ordinary trip. I was met by a chauffer and a limousine hired by Ray, I traveled first-class and I was treated like a star.
Warsaw has special meaning for me. My grandfather graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory. He was a composer, conductor and played the double bass and balalaika. The story of how he got to Warsaw is a colorful one.
He was born in a little shtetl in Russia called Sellets. He loved music, but his father was dead set against him becoming a musician. As far as he was concerned, it was not a respectable profession. Musicians played in the streets, begging for coins, or entertained at weddings or bar mitzvahs. He forbade my grandfather to study music. But in secret my grandfather, Samuel Epstein practiced. His mother was sympathetic to his passion and when the situation became unbearable, she allowed him to slip away and stow away aboard a train to Warsaw. He knew about that city’s great conservatory and although he spoke no Polish, he found his way to the building. My mother told me the story of how he finally approached the vast steps leading to the conservatory’s intimidating doors. Either because he was too exhausted to climb up them or because he was awed and frightened and unable to speak the language, he camped out on a step and spent the night there.
The next morning a kindly professor found the boy, took him under his wing and became his teacher and his mentor. Because the professor was a bass player, that became my grandfathers instrument. He excelled as a student, graduated and taught at the conservatory, returning home to prove to his father that being a musician could be an honorable and lucrative profession. My mother told me that when he returned home he was wearing a beautiful and expensive suit and a big cape. His father was suitably impressed.
This trip to Warsaw was doubly meaningful to me. I was conducting Ray Charles’ 70th birthday concert, and it was also an opportunity to see where my grandfather had studied. Because he died before I was born, so I only knew my grandfather through my mother’s stories and though photographs. There was one of him playing the bass in a chamber ensemble, smiling cherub-like and looking like Franz Schubert, with a round face and round glasses, and another of him playing in a balalaika ensemble, a mischievous expression on his face. These images were always with me, and my mother said that my life had replaced his. She told me that he would have been very proud to know that I had become a professional musician, following in his footsteps.
I was picked up at the airport in Warsaw by another private car and I asked the driver if he could take me by the Warsaw Conservatory on the way to the hotel. Imagine my disappointment when he pointed to a modern one-story building with two steps leading to the door, which was anything but imposing. How could this be? Was my grandfather’s memory of the enormous, steep steps a myth? When I got to the hotel, I found a guide book explaining what has once been the Warsaw Conservatory was now the Chopin Museum, conveniently located a walking distance from the hotel. I grabbed a flower from the vase in my room and armed with my camera and a map, set out to find the conservatory.
Warsaw was largely destroyed during World War II, but the center of the city was rebuilt to resemble the architecture of the original buildings I rounded a corner and there it was! There was the pyramid of stairs and the imposing façade. Chills ran up and down my spine. I placed my flower on every step and photographed it. He slept here - on one of these very steps. This is where my musical life began.
When I got to the rehearsal I told Ray the whole story. He was very touched and gave me a hug. The concert was memorable. Sadly, it was the last time I would conduct for Ray. As his disease began to devour him, he was forced to curtail much of his concert schedule. I visited him in Los Angeles shortly before he died. Although he was frail and emaciated, his spirit was strong and he seemed convinced that he would recover and resume his concert travels.