Live Music: Seth MacFarlane at Vibrato Grill Jazz..etc.

November 25, 2014

By James DeFrances

Bel Air.  Sunday night at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc. one performer had the world on a string. That person was Seth MacFarlane and his name should ring a bell. MacFarlane has been the long time creator of Fox’s animated series Family Guy, as well as the brains behind the 2012 feature film Ted and the host of the 2013 Academy Awards telecast…for starters.

Seth MacFarlane

On this occasion, though, he was appearing in a different capacity, as a big band singer. Which wasn’t such a far cry for MacFarlane, who released his debut album Music is Better Than Words, a late ’50’s/early ’60’s style big band vocal record, in 2012. Recorded at Capitol Records studios in Hollywood he showcased his unique voice in a style very much like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole. His TV show Family Guy also relies heavily on lush orchestral Swing style cues in between scenes and for the main theme song. His affection for this kind of music is ever apparent in all aspects of his career.

On Sunday night he was backed by the Ron Jones Influence Jazz Orchestra, which includes an A-list of Hollywood studio musicians.

Seth MacFarlane with Ron Jones and the Influence Jazz Orchestra

Crooning to a packed house of fans from all facets of his career, MacFarlane would have even made Frank Sinatra proud if he had been there. And speaking of Sinatra, there was plenty of his music in the set list. And it was quite a rare treat to actually hear the song choices, as they were not all necessarily chart-topping hits for Sinatra. Songs like: “It’s Always You,” “No One Ever Tells You” and “The Look of Love” stood out.

What was even more exciting was the fact that he used original Sinatra arrangements penned by such legendary orchestrators as Sy Oliver, Nelson Riddle and Billy May. MacFarlane’s voice was fully up to the task, as he cruised through each tune with a relaxed demeanor and plenty of power and vibrato on tap when it was needed.

Armed with a glass of scotch and a wired Shure microphone, he also explored many classics and standards from stage shows and films of days gone by. Among them were songs like “One For My Baby,” “Come Fly With Me” and “Just in Time.”

Seth MacFarlane sings with the Ron Jones Influence Jazz Orchestra

The show seemed to have gone by almost too quickly when MacFarlane announced the final number. In a Vegas-like move, he opted to close the night out with “Luck be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls featuring the iconic 1963 Billy May arrangement for Frank Sinatra.

For a few brief hours on Sunday night it really felt like 1966 at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas with the whiskey flowing and the horns blowing. MacFarlane’s star shined bright at Vibrato and it seems as if the world is his oyster, he really can do it all!

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Photos by James DeFrances.


Live Music: “Vintage Masters of Swing” at Catalina Bar & Grill

November 24, 2014

By James M. deFrances

Last Thursday when I walked through the door at Catalina’s Jazz Club it felt as though I had just walked through a portal to a different time. The club beamed with old Hollywood, from the bandstand on stage to the many recognizable industry folk who dotted the room. As far as the big band, jazz and film music world are concerned this night was a “who’s who” event.

TIm Simonec

TIm Simonec

Produced by veteran orchestrator/conductor, Tim Simonec, “Vintage Masters of Swing” was a guaranteed hit, even on paper.  The concept was to bring together some of the greatest living legend Swing arrangers, composers and conductors in one room for one night, and it succeeded overwhelmingly.

Elliot Deutsch

Elliot Deutsch

First to take the baton was Elliot Deutsch, a bright young bandleader whose big band has been turning heads lately. Simonec chose Deutsch’s band to play as the house band for the evening with all the living legends conducting their respective tunes. The first selection was “Pure Imagination,” from Deutsch’s new album The Push.

Van Alexander

Next to take the stage was veteran arranger, perhaps the Grandfather of all modern arrangers, 99 year old Van Alexander. He delighted the audience with some comedy and reminisced about his long career before playing

Tierney Sutton

Tierney Sutton

“Blues in Twos” followed by “A Tisket, A Tasket” with vocals by jazz artist Tierney Sutton. Alexander concluded by providing some insight on living long, which he attributes to his policy of “never touching a cigarette, a glass of whiskey or a woman until he was 11 years old!”

Patrick WilliamsNext on deck was Patrick Williams who got up and exclaimed: “Why is it that everyone I care about is in this room right now?” a clear reminder of the sheer amount of talented individuals both on the evening’s playbill and in the audience. Williams talked mostly about Frank Sinatra, then proceeded to conduct his instrumental arrangement of “I’ve Got The World On A String” from his Sinatraland album.

Sammy Nestico

Sammy Nestico

After Williams took his bows, Sammy Nestico’s segment began, Deutsch conducted because he said Sammy had told him to “let a younger guy do it!” Nestico could be seen sitting with his wife Shirley, smiling and nodding as his songs “Two Sides Of The Coin” and “Blue Samuel” were played to his satisfaction. He did not address the audience after the set, but waved affectionately as they applauded. Simonec then returned to the stage to talk about Whiplash, the new film he scored which is in theaters now. He brought up JK Simmons, who stars in the film, to conduct the next piece entitled “Too Hip To Retire.”

Ralph Carmichael

Ralph Carmichael

Ralph Carmichael was up next and he stole the show with his new, never before heard arrangement of “Unforgettable.” He dedicated the love song to his wife and as the final bars were played the thunderous applause was a direct indication that this was a definite high point of the evening.

Unfortunately, renowned arranger Bill Holman  couldn’t attend but Deutsch picked up his conducting responsibility after Carmichael left the stage, playing Holman’s chart on “Stomping At The Savoy” and his closing theme for the Oscars. In the end the band closed with a supercharged, Ralph Carmichael arrangement of The Gershwins’ “Strike Up the Band.”

The audience roared as the legendary conductors came up to take their final bows. Simonec assured the patrons that this would indeed be happening again and soon if he could help it. To be certain, this was a golden aged Hollywood evening for the music history books.

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Photos by James M. DeFrances

 


LA Opera: “Florencia en el Amazonas” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

November 24, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

Lush orchestration, fervent arias, soaring high notes: these are the hallmarks of Daniel Catán’s opera, Florencia en el Amazonas. Earnest in its desire to please and enlighten, what the score and libretto lack in conveying the wildness of the Amazon is compensated for by L A Opera‘s singers and musicians embracing the work’s shortcomings to ultimately produce a moving picture of love lost and regained.

Hailed as European style opera in the grand tradition sung in Spanish and written by a Mexican composer, one wished for less Puccini-esque high romance and more tropical fervor. Though the score weaves in the occasional beats of an African drum (the djembe), the hints of a steel drum, and the wooden sounds of the marimba, the jungle is mainly evoked by harp, strings, and woodwinds. Melodic lushness is prized over dark dissonance and so the result is a big and beautiful but somewhat homogenous sound. There is none of Manuel de Falla’s tragic intensity, rather we hear more Italian opera and the French Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. It is a tantalizing blend but far from the themes of eros and death that might mark a trip down one of the world’s largest rivers replete with anacondas, caimans (related to alligators), and piranhas.

Conceived as an homage to the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Florencia en el Amazonas is set on a riverboat sailing down the Amazon.

David Pittsinger as the Captain, Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Paula, Gordon Hawkins as Alvaro, Veronica Villaroel as Florencia and Lisette Oropaso as Rosalba.

 

Verónica Villarroel as Florencia Grimaldi

On board is a legendary prima donna, Florencia Grimaldi, voyaging to sing at the opera house in Manaus, Brazil, but secretly on a quest to find her long lost love, Cristóbal. Along with Florencia, the plot follows the fate of two couples – one in the first flush of romance, the other in the fading days of a troubled marriage.

Lisette Oropea as Rosalba and Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Arcadio

Lisette Oropea as Rosalba and Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Arcadio

Rosalba, a young writer longing to hear and interview the legendary Florencia in Manaus, meets Arcadio, the captain’s nephew and they fall in love. It’s a prim sort of love with a few chaste kisses. Why? We are in the hothouse environment of a riverboat on the steaming Amazon, but civilization meets us at every turn of the wheel. And yet, in confessional moments, Florencia (oddly unrecognized by her fellow travelers) sings of how Cristóbal, her heart’s desire, awakened her body to love. That body stands immobile, except for a swoon on hearing the news that Cristóbal, a butterfly hunter, has died in the jungle. No impact of sexual longing here, only the regret of leaving him behind to pursue her career. Director Francesca Zambello went so far as to visit the Colombian state of Amazonas (where the opera opens), trek through the jungle, and ride a riverboat. I found myself wishing she had taken more of the grit and heat of the journey and overlaid it on her directorial decisions.

Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Paula and Gordon Hawkins as Alvaro

Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Paula and Gordon Hawkins as Alvaro

The other couple, however, suffers less from the lack of sexuality in the production. Paula and Alvaro, long married and weary of each other, bicker and complain to frequently humorous and touching effect. There is a sad reality to their relationship yet in the end they realize that their love endures. Paula, sung by the mezzo, Nancy Fabiola Herrera, performs, with her passionate and nuanced voice, the most moving aria in the opera when she thinks Alvaro has been lost at sea. There is a truth, both musically and dramatically to her sudden awareness that pride has built the wall between them.

Florencia’s search for the man she left behind permeates the narrative. With her heart full of remorse, she is the lynchpin of the opera, and her voice needs to carry the poetry of the story. In the portrayal of this diva of renown, one longs to hear a voice of haunting beauty, a distillation of the mystery of the river and the regret of a life half lived. Chilean soprano, Verónica Villarroel, is not quite up to the task. Though she sings in bursts of insight (her most poignant aria is early in Act Two), her vocalization is erratic and at times unmodulated.

David Pittsinger as the Captain, Arturo Chacon Cruz as Arcadio and Lisette Oropaso as Rosalba

David Pittsinger as the Captain, Arturo Chacon Cruz as Arcadio and Lisette Oropaso as Rosalba

With architectural clarity, a handsome riverboat creates the setting for the journey. A pity then that projections of the surrounding jungle are depicted in faded pastel colors – more amateur landscape painting than the mystery and vividness of a painting by Henri Rousseau – though the flocks of birds and other tropical creatures who glide across the projections add a nice touch. But it is not only the backdropset that misses an opportunity.

Aspects of the plot, as written by librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain, undermine the conception. A cholera outbreak at the end of the opera, which prohibits the boat from docking at its destination and precipitates Florencia’s final aria of transfiguration, happens almost as an afterthought. Rosalba and Arcadio’s love remains largely undeveloped. Narrative transitions are too quick and clumsy; directorial decisions are too timid. Rather than sultry and sexy, we get English garden party. I imagine the sexiness was to have been provided by Eric Sean Fogel, who choreographs dancing river sprites to represent the magical waters of the Amazon, a clever idea. The dancers look sensual enough in their golden loincloths with their undulating bodies mimicking the ebb and flow of the river, but the choreography is a bit too predictable to have lasting impact.

As the young lovers, Lisette Oropesa as Rosalba and Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Arcadio are a charming pair. Oropesa’s soprano floated with a lithe and silvery line. Chacón-Cruz’s lyric tenor rewards, though at times he pushes harder than necessary both musically and dramatically, in his role as chronic malcontent. Rounding out the cast are Gordon Hawkins as the imposing and believable husband, Alvaro; David Pittsinger as a sympathetic and velvety voiced Captain; and José Carbó as Ríolobo. Described in the program as the spirit of the river, the character functions as narrator and deckhand, until the moment he dons golden feathers and flies onto the ship to sing about the river and its renewal of the earth – all done in a commanding and fluid baritone.

LA Opera’s highly regarded chorus master, Grant Gershon, directs the orchestra, bringing to the fore all the colors of Catán’s shimmering score. The LA Opera chorus triumphs in their brief appearances as the teeming populace on shore. All in all, it is an amiable night at the opera as we travel in grand European style through the Amazon.

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Photos by Craig T. Mathew courtesy of LA Opera.

To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

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Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  


Live Music: Cat Conner at Catalina Bar & Grill

November 18, 2014

By Don Heckman

Hollywood, CA.  Jazz vocalist Cat Conner‘s performance at Catalina Bar & Grill last week was clearly expected to be a special event, which is precisely how it turned out.

Cat Conner

It was, first of all, a release party for Cat’s new CD, appropriately titled Cat House. Add to that the fact that any of her performances are exciting events for fans of jazz singing. And, adding memorable jazz icing to the cake, she was accompanied by a collection of the Southland’s finest, most versatile jaz musicians.

The latter aspect was no surprise, since her stellar six piece band – saxophonist woodwind artist Gene “Cip” Cipriano, pianist Tom Ranier, guitarist John Chiodini, trumpeter Ron Stout, bassist Chuck Berghofer and drummer Joe La Barbera – are all present on Cat’s new album. And it was also no surprise that Cat – like all singers hosting a CD release party – devoted her program to a collection of songs from the CD.

The Cat Cpnner Band

The Cat Cpnner Band

Any of Cat’s many fans will attest to the fact that the Canadian-born songstress is always a joy to hear, regardless of the circumstances. And even more so when all the musical elements are firmly in place, as they were in this outing. Appearing comfortable, relaxed and completely at ease from the first moment she stepped on stage, Cat underscored the appealing musical empathy of her program with an equally engaging interaction with her audience.

Cat Conner sings with her band

Cat Conner sings with her band

The musical highlights of her performance were especially present in her choice of songs from the album. And especially so in such varied selections as a briskly swinging ‘How Much Do I Love You,” a vocalese version of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and such varied American Songbook classics as “You Are My Everything,” “Baltimore Oriole” and “What A Little Moonlight Can Do”

Cat Conner

Cat Conner

Topping off her program, Cat added a poignant original song, “People Say (Song For Rob).” Written for the infant son she gave up for adoption many years ago, she introduced it as “a song to finally allow me to say how I felt for all the years of yearning for him.”

It was an extraordinary ending for a memorable musical evening, an evening glowing with convincing evidence of Cat’s ability to find the heart of a song – from jaunty swing tunes to richly emotional ballads.

All of which is equally present, as well, on her new CD Cat House. And fans of jazz singing who were not present to share the pleasures of her CD release party are hereby advised to check out the album for a full musical offering of Cat Conner’s vocal artistry.

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Photos by Faith Frenz


Live Theatre: Robert Wilson’s staging of “The Old Woman” with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe at Royce Hall

November 16, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

Los Angeles, CA.  Whether dancing and crooning like a Dadaist Bob Hope and Bing Crosby or wailing like dying coyotes, Baryshnikov and Dafoe bring a scorching vitality to the stage as they interpret through spoken word, dance, and song the absurdist universe of the Russian poet, Daniil Kharms, as seen through the magic lens of Robert Wilson.

With hints of Russian avant-garde theatre, Surrealist cabaret, English music hall, American vaudeville, and nineteen-seventies experimental theatre of Lower Manhattan from which Wilson evolved (and Dafoe participated in with the Wooster Group); this night of divine lunacy has Baryshnikov dancing flamenco with a pair of dentures as  castanets and Dafoe capering with a string of sausages. They wear dusty dark suits and ties, their toupees are arranged in a curious corkscrew of hair pointing sideways, and their faces are painted Geisha-girl white with black circles rimming their eyes like spectacles.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe

Mirror images of each other, the duo performs symbiotically: sometimes they repeat the same phrase in unison; sometimes Baryshnikov translates Dafoe’s English into Russian.  But whether they act as the writer and the old woman, or as two best friends, or as the oppressor and the oppressed, together they are a force of nature – clowns caught up in an indifferent world, shrugging off pain with a jab of the arm or a kick of the leg.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe

Adapted for the stage by Darryl Pinckney, the novella, The Old Woman, is an evocation of a writer and his travails over the taunting corpse of an old woman. Kharms, born in St. Petersburg in 1905 suffered, as so many of his fellow artists did, at the hands of the Soviet Regime. His writings read more like fragments of thought, narrative, and pain wrapped up in a package of absurdist humor.    Pinckney fractures the tale even further, giving us repetitive verbal vignettes compressed into twelve scenes. Sometimes the repetition weakens the work – one could wish for a bit more of Kharms’ text from the story to find its way into the dialogue – other times it adds to the humor.

The evening has its maddening moments with all the repeated phrases, a bit like a stuck recording. But the quiet grace of scenes such as Baryshnikov confiding in the audience in Russian (discreet titles in white positioned on black panels on two sides of the proscenium translate), or Dafoe and Baryshnikov in a poignant embrace offers a counterpoint to the aggressive repetition.

“The Old Woman”

Wilson’s sets have the strong flavor of Russian Constructivist theatre design from the nineteen twenties and Vavara Stepanova and Liubov Popova’s designs in particular.   Suspended trapezoidal window frames, a giant swing, linear angled and mangled furniture, a chicken coop, and a giant suitcase, all set on a stark stage, form the platforms on which Dafoe and Baryshnikov sit, recline, and cavort. Whether creating a Constructivist pallet of black, white, and red or using vibrant primary colors, the lighting concept of Wilson (light design by A.J. Weissbard) paints the scenes with luscious pops of pigment. But Wilson’s world, though it glimmers with artistic and theatrical influences, is unique to our times and sets the bar for contemporary, Minimalist design and staging.

The recorded music, assembled by Hal Willner, weaves standards like “Tiger Rag” and “Goodnight Sweetheart,” with Tom Waits’ boisterous, carnival-esque “Innocent When You Dream.” In the more pensive moments there is Arvo Part’s haunting music. For a few moments we are treated to the singing talents of Dafoe and, a surprise, Baryshnikov singing sweetly in Russian. As far as the dancing goes (there is no credited choreographer), Dafoe’s long legs kicked, strutted, and spun around the stage like a pro’s.

And Baryshnikov? Just to see him point a foot or display a graceful hand enthralls. But he does far more than that. His body takes on the attributes of in turn, a vaudevillian, an old woman, and a young lady. The duo dances everything from an absurdist tango to a soft shoe with walking sticks. Though the song and dance elements of the piece are not its driving force, let me ask: Could this be the beginning of a beautiful partnership?

Photo by Lucie Jansch courtesy of CAP UCLA.

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To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

Jane Rosenberg Dance Book cover.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children

 


Live Music: Anna Mjoll At Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.

November 13, 2014

By James deFrances

What do jazz standards, Iceland and Bel Air have in common? Simple…the answer is the dynamic blonde haired Iceland-born diva Anna Mjoll. Last Friday night at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc., Mjoll crooned to a thoroughly filled house of diners and jazz enthusiasts alike. Only a day after Alpert and his wife Lani Hall played two sold out shows Mjoll managed to keep the blood flowing for a third consecutive night.

Her show ranged from light moving ballads to hard-driving bossa nova tunes. Impeccably supported by the #Pat Senatore trio, Mjoll did the Great American Songbook right.

Anna Mjoll and the Pat Senatore Trio

Anna Mjoll and the Pat Senatore Trio

Her voice possesses an airy, relaxed quality which makes the music even easier to digest. Her vibrato (no pun intended) is on tap when she needs it and her phrasing is uniquely her own. In between songs she keeps the audience in check by telling stories, asking questions and cracking jokes.

She asked the audience to say hello to her mother from Iceland, who was seated in the first row and only in town for the weekend. “I wish you would move to California,” exclaimed Mjoll. Mother and daughter maintained a lighthearted banter throughout  the entirety of the show.

Anna Mjoll and Pat Senatore

Anna Mjoll and Pat Senatore

Before singing “Taking A Chance On Love,” she reflected on her many marriages and philosophized on love. Perhaps the highlight of the evening, however, was when she sang “Nature Boy” with only bassist Pat Senatore’s accompaniment. She dedicated the song to Senatore, whom she said is the only man who never let’s her down. Also on the list Friday night were songs like “Come Fly With Me,” “Smile” and “Imagination.” For Mjoll who has a busy calendar it was just one of those nights and her closing tune appropriately enough was “Just One Of Those Things.”

But the large audience who remained long after she took her final bow was a sign of a job well done. Those who stayed late enough even got to hear the Senatore Trio play their “Sexy Late Night Set.” In the end, if you are looking for a night of Marilyn Monroe glamour and some hot straight ahead jazz Anna Mjoll with the Pat Senatore trio is your best ticket in town!

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Photos by James deFrances. 

 

 


Live Music: The Thelonious Monk 2014 International Jazz Competition Gala

November 11, 2014

By Don Heckman

Hollywood, CA. The 2014 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition came to a dramatic conclusion Sunday night in a All-Star Gala event at Dolby Hall in Hollywood. This year, the Competition was for trumpet players. And the three finalists each offered a display of their considerable skills in a setting that allowed each player to perform a pair of selections of their own choice. And it was no surprise that works by Thelonious Monk were popular choices.

Inevitably, there was a winner, a second and a third place finisher, as follows:

1st Place Winner: Marquis Hill from Chicago.

1st Place Winner: Marquis Hill from Chicago.

 

2nd Place Winner: Billy Buss from Berkeley

2nd Place Winner: Billy Buss from Berkeley

3rd Place Winner Adam O’Farrill from Brooklyn

But the prevalent thought that came to mind while hearing these fine young players in action was the firm belief that each of the prodigal musicians had displayed all the skills required for successful careers in the musical world in general and the jazz world specifically. And, win or place as a finalist, they all will benefit from the visibility associated with having placed so high in such a major competition.

In addition to the Competition finals, the Gala presented a concert clearly intended as a celebration of jazz itself, in its many shapes, sizes, styles, disguises and a lot more. As a result, much of the music was far more closely related to pop, blues, rock, soul and beyond. No problem there, except in the passages attempting to shoe horn those genres into a jazz setting.

In its best, moments, however – especially when singers Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves, and instrumentalists Herbie Hancock, John Beasley, Wayne Shorter, Marcus Miller, Stefon Harris, Joshua Redman and others were on stage – the program’s jazz roots were ever present.

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Taj Mahal

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Taj Mahal

The Gala concert was hosted by Kevin Spacey, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Don Cheadle, Goldie Hawn and Billy Dee Williams. It included performances by a multi-generational group of all-stars including Musical Director John Beasley, Pharrell Williams, John Mayer, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Wayne Shorter, Queen Latifah, Jimmy Heath, Chaka Khan, Taj Mahal, Dianne Reeves, Marcus Miller, Kenny Burrell, Stefon Harris, T.S. Monk, Joshua Redman, Jon Faddis, Billy Childs, Vinnie Colaiuta, James Genus, Theo Croker, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Dontae Winslow, Melissa Aldana and others.

President Bill Clinton and Herbie Hancock

President Bill Clinton and Herbie Hancock

As if the presence of all the stellar names on that list wasn’t enough, the Monk Institute also honored President Bill Clinton with the Institute’s 2014 Maria Fisher Founder’s Award. Each year, the Founder’s Award is presented to an individual who has made major contributions to the Institute, the perpetuation of jazz, and the expansion of jazz and music education programs. President Clinton received the award from Herbie Hancock, Chairman of the Monk Institute, with a smile and a wave to the crowd. He did not, apparently, ask to sit in on tenor saxophone.

The Gala ended with a crowded backstage party for participants and friends of the Monk Institute, enlivened by conversations already speculating on possibilities for next year’s Monk Competition.

Which was good news for music education. Proceeds from the All-Star Gala Concerts support the Institute’s jazz education programs in public schools across America.

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Photos courtesy of Steve Mundinger/Thelonious Monk Institute Of Jazz


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