Friday, January 09, 2009

Eartha Kitt: Original Diva

It seems that in the natural course of events that I have had to write several obituaries on this blog journal in the past year. Of course the critical reality of life is that "people come and people go" each and everyday. Obviously, proximity is the governing fact with regards to the effect that someones passing has on your emotions. For those who are close, loss can be a debilitating, immobilizing event that can take years to overcome. I have indeed felt the paralyzing effects of the passing of good friends as well as the less personalized but spiritually evolved response to the passing of brief acquaintances and strangers.

Recently, I was informed of the passing of a musician that I had played with on several occasions: Winston "Wags" McDonald. He wasn't a famous musician but he was a drummer who did have a rare gift. Wags knew how to propel the "engine room" of percussion that powers a steel pan orchestra. Winston had that special energy required to get people to "jump up" to the "jump-up beat". Now, if you're not West Indian, the simplicity of this statement might elude you but for we Caribbean people it speaks volumes for the man's worth as a musician. I've had the opportunity to perform with countless drummers who have garnered more fame and fortune from music than did Winston McDonald but I never met anyone who could quite put the "K" in Kaiso like wags when he felt the inspiration. When he got his momentum going, I felt like I was in Despers' pan yard in Laventille.

On the other end of life's spectrum, I was informed of the passing of musical theater, film and recording diva Eartha Kitt and that brought back memories as well.

I was very fortunate to have been associated, ever-so-briefly, with this unique woman. I had been commissioned to write a 24-piece band arrangement by choreographer George Faison ("The Wiz") for two dance numbers that he was directing for Ms. Kitt. The special 'Mother's Day Concert' was unique because it featured two shows in two separate major venues in one day! The matinee was at Avery Fisher Hall and the night show was at Carnegie Hall. Since it was the first time anyone had asked me to arrange music for such a big band, I was absolutely terrified! Being only twenty-one at the time I can made many embarrassing mistakes on the written charts but I got through it somehow. Equally terrifying was meeting la grande dame herself. She had an immense presence, on and off stage, that defied her diminutive physical stature and could not be ignored. Years later, I can now say that I actually worked with Eartha Kitt and I marveled at the command that she wielded over her adoring audiences that long ago day in May.

If you are not familiar with Eartha Kitt just check her out singing: "Santa Baby" or starring opposite the legendary Nat "King" Cole in the film: St. Louis Blues".

Eartha Kitt was not only a performer but also a critic of American racial and foreign policies and like Nina Simone, Josephine Baker and Miriam Makeba, she was "black-listed" by the American show business community and forced to live abroad as an exiled ex-patriot.

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