Jazz, Pizza, Art and Old Friends: What More Could a Gal Ask For?

By Leslie Westbrook   |   October 19, 2021

“New York City is back!” I exclaimed to Gianni Valenti over a drink at Birdland, the 70-plus-year-old jazz club and theater cabaret that he’s owned for the past three-plus decades, on 44th Street in New York City.

“It’s half back,” he corrected me, adding that his longtime landlord was very understanding of the economic climate during the pandemic and helped with the rent. Most of Valenti’s staff has returned to the fabled jazz club in the heart of the theater district, but on what would normally be a packed night — a Sunday with the terrific regular Sunday night band, Arturo O’Farrill and his Afro Latin Jazz band — the sultry restaurant and club was only half full.

Still, that didn’t keep enthusiastic and fawning fans from coming up to Arturo (who teaches at UCLA and divides his time between New York and Culver City) during the break to express their love and gratitude for the killer music and messages. Lucky for us, O’Farrill (who is Cuban/Mexican/Irish/German) will be performing with his hot Latin fusion full orchestra and the Villalobos Brothers, marrying the richness of Mexican son jarocho folk music with the intricate harmonies of jazz and classical music, this Friday, October 15at Campbell Hall as part of UCSB Arts & Lectures reopening.

You won’t want to miss this show that also celebrates O’Farrill’s new album Fandango at the Wall, which has an accompanying documentary that is airing on HBO Max and was filmed at the San Diego/Tijuana border wall as well as in the state of Veracruz, Mexico.

The Grammy-winning pianist and composer’s orchestra was deemed “one of the best jazz orchestras in existence” by The New Yorker. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: O’Farrill is the son of noted Cuban composer/arranger/conductor Chico O’Farrill. A transnational project that prompted the album, a book, and the documentary, Fandango at the Wall was inspired by the annual Fandango Fronterizo Festival at the Tijuana-San Diego border.

In fact, if you are on the fence about this concert, O’Farrill the elder once said, “The mixture of jazz and Afro-Cuban music is a very delicate marriage. You can’t go too much one way or the other. It has to be a blend. But you have to be careful with how different styles come together. Otherwise, music labeled Latin jazz could end up being like Glenn Miller with maracas, or Benny Goodman with congas. Latin jazz is much deeper than that.’’ 

If that isn’t enough to convince you, the concert is being presented in association with the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee (full disclosure, I am a member).

But back to the Big Apple and Birdland.

Gianni Valenti in his jazz club, Birdland

Gianni is an impresario force of nature – he’s franchised and/or opened Birdland Jazz Clubs throughout the world (Umbria, Italy, which was really hit hard by the COVID shutdown; Melbourne, Australia; and Tokyo). One can only hope Santa Barbara would be so lucky to have a much needed, great jazz venue.

Gianni, a native New Yorker, knows everybody in the jazz world. The photo lined walls of the bordello red decorated club attest to that. My favorite male jazz crooner, Tony Bennett, even popped in recently and signed a photo to Gianni, despite the effects of his Alzheimer’s disease.

“I wasn’t really sure what he was writing,” the jazz promoter said and sharing, that much to his delight, Bennett had inscribed Gianni’s name.

It should be noted, residents with the “Key to NYC” vaccination proof passholders – out-of-towners can show their vaccination card which is compared with your ID — was in full effect at the nightclub, as well at museums (all with timed entrances) and other indoor venues I visited during my week-long stay.

When I mentioned I was going to hear the premiere of jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s Metropolitan Opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Gianni noted, “I’m surprised Terrance isn’t here tonight, he’s usually here listening to the artists.” (Just my luck to miss him.)

A First

Watching Fire Shut Up in My Bones in New York’s Times Square

Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones was the first work by a Black composer to be presented at the Met. I happened to be there during opening night. Based on New York Times columnist/author Charles M. Blow’s memoir (of the same name) and featuring a libretto by Kasi Lemmons, I checked on ticket prices to the Lincoln Center premiere, which holds 4,600 fans. They ranged from $85 (too far away to see) to $400 (too rich for my pocketbook), with nothing much in between available. Then it was announced that the opera would be livestreamed for free in a park in Harlem and in Times Square. I decided to check out Times Square with friends. To watch an opera on a big screen with even bigger screens was rather distracting. My friend, Bloomberg Opinion writer Mark Whitehouse quipped about one particularly large screen with flashing promos for the Army, Navy and Air Force: “That’s a U.S. military recruitment center, I almost signed up for the Army!” However, the sound was very good, as were the free seats, despite the smaller-than-wished-for screen amidst competing mega-screens.

*Ironically, I sat next to a woman at Manny’s French Bistro on the Upper Westside the afternoon before the premiere who works at Lincoln Center for the Metropolitan Opera guiding the hoi poloi. She bought $85 tickets in the gods – and opera glasses – for her friends informing me, “The best sound is up there. True opera buffs sit there and know this due to the chorus and orchestra blending off the 24-karat gold ceiling.” Who knew?

Getting There

The rooftop at the Met

I had a funky start to this journey.

It was not surprising that my back went out the morning of my departure to NYC: I hadn’t lifted a suitcase in over a year and a half. I should have done “suitcase curls” at home during the COVID-19 lockdown and before lift-off. 

Thankfully, the American Airlines ticketing agent at Bob Hope Airport in beautiful downtown Burbank said, after I mentioned my back went out: “We’ll have someone meet you at your gates. Do you need assistance now?”

“Thank you, no, I think I can make it…” I muttered, expecting a short walk (not the long one I encountered) to the last gate at the compact airport.

Temple of Dendur at New York’s Metropolitan Museum

So began my glorious fall journey to New York City — to see art, friends, visit museums including a lovely ferry ride to the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City (sublime); most of a day at MoMA to see the amazing Cezanne drawings show; and wandering the huge Metropolitan Museum where there’s never enough time or energy to take it all in. 

Back be damned! I thought to myself, I had places to go and people to see. Or so I thought… At my first stop to change planes in Dallas, I was met at the gate by a nice man who escorted me to a very uncomfortable electric cart with narrow seats for up to six weary travelers. My seat companion (a woman wearing a back brace) informed me that Rick Steves recommends wearing a backpack with successive days of weight increase to get ready for a journey. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

We changed transport and cart drivers three times at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. On the flight, I encountered great seatmates (contemporary video artist Bill Viola’s editor and his boyfriend) and was thrilled to be chatting with (masked) strangers again. A stunning nighttime descent into the city with a full harvest moon hanging high in the sky made for a glorious descent into the city that never sleeps.

My last airport helper, 20-year-old Wilber, at the refurbished La Guardia Airport, wheeled me in a chair to baggage claim and to my awaiting car transport into the city. 

“I’m a skateboarder!” the kid told me as we whizzed up and down an unrecognizable airport Terminal B, pausing briefly to watch the amazing million-dollar dancing water ceiling fountain with special effects projected into the droplets, part of the airport’s $8 billion (yes with a b) much needed redevelopment. 

Young Wilber quoted President Joe Biden:

“If I took you and blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you must think I must be in some third world country,” Biden said on February 4, 2014.

Biden would now be mighty amazed by the improvements to date at the airport that’s a quick 20-minute ride into Manhattan.

So began my first real journey – on a plane – since COVID.

The Noguchi Museum

It was a full week – a perfect week. I was able to connect with a couple of old friends and even make a couple of new ones. I took a Saturday train ride along the scenic Hudson River to the town of Beacon for a sunny fall day outdoor lunch at The Roundhouse (which also has an adjoining hotel), with friends old and new, with lovely views of a river and waterfall. We didn’t have time to visit Dia Beacon Art Foundation, but did visit an artist friend’s studio/loft.

Fortunately, my back was fine in a day or so, and I was able to hit the ground running and I walked until my shoes were stretched out. On the food front, I ate great pizzas from trendy Marta (delivered by friends) and paper-thin ones outdoors at the very New York Vezzo. The day my back was still out, I ordered delicious traditional Sicilian food that did not disappoint (panelle, grilled stuffed artichoke, pasta with fungi) delivered from a place that looked absolutely charming from the pictures, called Norma in Murray Hill.

Ladies lunch at MoMA on the sixth-floor café deck was lovely and delish (great potato chips with onion dip) and provided respite after copious Cezanne. A casual pub dinner in a quiet outdoor tent with a hilarious waitress at Tavern on Jane in Greenwich Village (once owed by Trip to Bountiful playwright Horton Foote) with theater friends, playwright Gregory Murphy (The Countess), and his wife Ludovica Villar-Hauser (Parity Productions) was a personal highlight — where the indoor bar-pub (entered gingerly on a skip to the loo) was jumping — just like the old days.

New York, New York: I love you, I miss you, and I can’t wait to come back for all that jazz… and more!

To Learn More Birdland Jazz Club: www.birdland jazz.com 

Paper-thin pizzas from two very different places: Marta in the ultra-hip Redbury Hotel, on East 29 Street – martamanhattan.com (tip: order the $22 Fungi with Hen of the Wood mushrooms); Vezzo, a neighborhood joint where you might get yelled it to “hurry up and order, we’re closing soon” but it’s worth it. Part of the downtown (and Brooklyn) thin crust pizza group. www.nycthincrust.com

Norma, Gastronómica Siciliana: www.normarestaurant.com

Tavern on Jane: Burgers, salads, strong drinks, and such, www.tav ernonjane.com

Day trip: Beacon, New York is a $23, 90-minute train ride from Grand Central. For lunch (great lobster rolls) by a waterfall: The Roundhouse – www.roundhousebeacon.com; visit Dia: Beacon, Dia Art Foundation. www.Diaart.org


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