Editor’s note: This posting was authored by Pat Ford. Many years ago, Pat served as the executive director of ICL. Most recently, he was the executive director for Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. Pat lives in Boise, Idaho, and periodically contributes to the ICL blog.
On the way to a wedding, I detoured through New York City last month to go to Birdland. It’s a jazz club on 44th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, and it was night two of a five-night stand, two shows per night, by Curtis Stigers and his combo.
I see him any chance I get in Idaho, where he lives. This was my first chance in a place where he makes his living.
Because I’d walked around Lower Manhattan all day, my head was in Idaho. I re-lived, not so much my college days in the city, as my later recognition that those years made me an Idahoan. Even in daytime New York City seemed dark: clogged streets and crushes of people, many wholly heedless of anyone else; block on block demolition, construction, repair, barriers, below-street work; tides of "waste" on streets, curbs, and stairs, as if the landfills to which much of it was bound were shouldering in with orders to take the city. Contrasts were startling and brutal, noise was isolating. Time, or perhaps occasion, had dissolved my city carapace. In ten thousand caves around me people sought refuge. I ducked instead into my Idaho cave within – a place with its problems, but familiar.
Mr. Stigers’ head was not in Idaho. After dinner and drinks, maybe 150 people listened to five fine musicians – trumpet, piano, bass, drums, saxophone – and the knockout singer among them.
He whispers, wails, coos, growls, croons, shouts, scats. He moves from one to the other on dimes or measured turns, up, down and across registers. Through every move he carries the constant, the emotional line, the soul in the song. It’s where the moves come from.
Toward the end he sang I Wonder Why. An old song, that as he and his band mates do it now is rhythmic magic: entering, gathering, backing off, backing in, full throttle; propulsive, hesitant, rising, dying; irresistible swing, heartbreak story. It took me near tears, and lingered afterwards when I told him he had an Idahoan in his audience, babbled "you have a gift, thank you" and walked out into the city astonished at the inadequacy of what I’d just said.
Yes, he has a gift. And a courage for total emotional exposure, ambition to the highest standards, training and craft sustained daily over decades, sure song choice, zest for the moment of play and perform…. The list he has goes on.
If there’s a next time I’ll get a ticket to the second show. It was early, only 11. He was getting started.