Randi Cee sings with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks at Iguana in New York City. (photo by Neal Siegal)
Tragedy + time = comedy.
I won’t live long enough.
Money doesn’t buy happiness.
Can I please test this theorem?
A friend encouraged me to come perform in NYC. She would help produce it. She works in both the Broadway and television world. Between us I hope we could fill a small club. I ended up writing a biographical cabaret that used the jazz to punctuate the narrative often in ironic sardonic ways.
I used points accrued by my Amex card (who says debt doesn’t pay?) for the flight. I would stay with a friend in Brooklyn. I had heard Brooklyn was now cool and hip. Turns out Bedford Stuyvesant was only cool because there was snow. I asked my friend where I might get a cup of coffee. She said not too far—five blocks away. Herself not a drinker of that elixir I tried to explain to her I would need coffee to get to that coffee.
Doing a show in NYC was a lifetime dream. The last two years have been challenging on many fronts most notably financially stressful. I have not quite crawled out of that but I needed to push myself to do this show. My fear of failure was off the charts. Holding an audience’s attention for an hour seemed like I had come down with a new disease: Narcissistic Insanity.
I only have a few very good friends. I am an acquired taste…either you adore me or you’d rather have the chicken. The few friends I have are educated and sophisticated. They would also never hesitate to gently ask if I could perhaps get the airline ticket switched so I might have a nice trip to Peoria. When you love someone hurting their feelings is kinder than allowing them a mass humiliation.
When the agent husband of my friend from high school said to me, “You have something—it is good,” I wasn’t so much basking as I was relieved.
I got to NYC and within 24 hours I was sick. It had been a bad winter with allergies perhaps it’s just more of that. The cough was body contorting. I’d think: “Yes, it’s allergies and apparently the mucus has traveled south, so I shall bend at the waist to squeeze up the phlegm like a human tube of toothpaste.”
When it didn’t let up I got myself to an ENT who specialized in singers. I walked the four blocks to the subway in a snowstorm. Turns out after scoping me he said I needed an antibiotic and steroids. At this point I had zero voice. Sotto voce minus the voce. The doctor pronounced “the show will go on.” Well it wouldn’t be the first time a doctor was wrong. And the good news is no one died well…maybe a tiny bit of my soul.
I did all he prescribed and yet on March 24, my actual birthday, the day before the show and the day I had pushed our rehearsal to, I had to make the painful decision to cancel. My voice that morning had improved in that I could make sound that was almost audible. If the audience were canines I might have been able to pull it off. I was having these weird dizzy fatigue spells. The fact is, I probably had walking pneumonia. And the combination of a large dose of steroids with the antibiotics was not pretty on me.
The creating and performing of this piece was the most challenging thing I had ever attempted. Producing three shows was also difficult. I would come back to LA refreshed with the knowledge I had checked a career goal off my bucket list. I knew a successful trip would fortify me to get over the looming mountains ahead. Instead, a mountain of unexpected debt sans lift. Medical, venue cancellation fee, musicians to be paid, etc. (My god, over-the-counter Mucinex is a fortune.) The disappointment over the canceled show was brutal but the idea that I was headed home having added to my financial stress was gutting me. The tears were flowing like a keg party…if only I drank…I do like an occasional glass of champagne but alas not even on my birthday, it doesn’t mix with antibiotics and steroids.
So where is the pony?
The pony was the love and support I felt from so many people throughout this process. And the fact that quite a few people thought sharing my talent was worth the struggle.
A friend from UCLA, a successful Broadway actor, took me to breakfast. It was to be “breakfast by notebook.” Himself a singer with many war stories, he told me he and his wife had many notebooks from when they were force to save their voices for Broadway shows. It had been an unbelievably long time since we saw each other he had been following my recent path on social media he bought the CD the minute it came out and couldn’t wait to see me do my show.
This surprise boosted me in a way I can’t truly articulate. On what would have been the night of the show he took me to dinner. He has three young boys and a wife. He did not have to do that, his kindness was beyond anything I have ever experienced. What moved me the most was what he told me: “Many people if stuck in a maze for hours on end will say, ‘Okay, this is a good place to pitch a tent.’ You are not that person.” He later texted me, “Randi, don’t wait to reschedule —come back and do this show.”
The friend who encouraged me to bring this show to NYC made sure I got in to see some theater. Even getting me a seat to see the show I couldn’t begin to afford and most wanted to see, Hamilton. She also had paid for the videographer and had to pay their cancellation fee—and yet her words were, “Please don’t let this ruin your birthday”
The young woman I stayed with in the bowels of Brooklyn, I had met in New Orleans almost five years ago. I was there to study Trad Jazz and we met in the shuttle from the airport to the hotel and that entire week we were inseparable. This was our second time spending time together. On my birthday she encouraged me to move the pity party out of the bed. We decided on High Tea because you could drink lots of fluids and just sit. I was too tired for much else and me being a giver she was now in possession of some of my plague. We walked into the Williamsburg Hotel and a Trad Trio was playing. When they played “Bei Meir Bistu Shein” with verse, in my key, I had an ache. The leader of the band came over and we had a quiet chat he asked if I wanted to try to sing one. I knew I couldn’t.
Anyone who is a fan of early swing and gets to NYC Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks is tops on their list. I had plans to see them before I got so sick. The jovial Neal Siegal, a friend to Jazz musicians worldwide, insisted I be his guest on the last night of my stay. This is now four days into the steroids and my voice was now audible. It wouldn’t be back to normal for two weeks after I got home. Vince saw me and said maybe Randi will sing us a song. I decided that to leave NYC without singing with the Nighthawks would be more than my spirit could handle. I would selfishly inflict my rough voice.
I picked “It Don’t Mean A Thing If I Don’t Got That Swing.” I couldn’t even think of anything else that I could get thru. The drugs and illness were making my brain a colander. With Vince’s encouragement I told the audience a very short version of what had happened. For a few seconds that audience became a Greek chorus echoing the sounds of disappointment. I got thru the tune. As the Nighthawks were finishing up a woman came up to me at our table and had a notebook and pen and wanted my name and website info. She said, “You have a beautiful voice.” My eyes were glassy and my throat still hurt it wasn’t only the sick, it was partly the effect her comment had on me. No matter how rough and impossible it all seems humane humans appear from the ether to carry me thru to the next destination.
In February I was a guest vocalist at the Fresno Sounds of Mardi Gras festival. Linda Shipp and her gang put on a real party. I got there in plenty of time but my first set was an hour earlier than I originally thought. Just as that set was about to start I needed to get ready pulling some music. A man walked up to me and told me he flew to this festival to see me specifically he had not been before. I thanked him but I was very rushed. I didn’t worry because I thought I would see him again to do a proper thank you and hopefully talk more to him. IF you are reading this (you said you did enjoy the column) please know that it meant the world to me and I would have liked to have thanked you properly.
Much like Dorothy’s realization at the end of The Wizard of Oz the support and love was always there, but being as low as I was and being in an embarrassingly vulnerable state allowed me to recognize it. Karaoke is proof positive that singing feels good to the singer. To combine that with the knowledge that I have made someone else feel good is the reason I keep going.
Randi Cee is a bandleader and vocalist based in Los Angeles who specializes in swing and hot jazz. Visit her online at www.randiceemusic.com.
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