Lorraine Feather: The Girl With the Lazy Eye

Carl L. Hager By

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While writing the tune "Scrabble" for her recently released CD Ages (Jazzed Media, 2010), lyricist and singer Lorraine Feather's songwriting partner, Dick Hyman, had an unusual request that bordered on a dare: could she work the name of the venerable pianist/composer's family friend Dushka into the lyrics? After all, the middle section of his stride composition "Barrel of Keys," the musical basis for what was becoming "Scrabble," was called "The Dushka Stomp."

"Figuring out how to work the name in took me longer than the entire rest of the song, but I'm glad I was able to," commented Feather. Soon after a critic's recent admiring mention of it, an obviously pleased Hyman showed the review to the now-bedridden Dushka and proudly played her the new song. The karmic wheel that had gone around was swinging around again.

In the hands of this black belt word nerd, a fictionalized Dushka becomes the mischievous landlady to a squabbling Scrabble player and her boyfriend while Stravinsky's darkly comic ballet is playing in the background:

Though his body isn't awfully sturdy,
And his manner is incredibly nerdy,
Conversation often overly wordy,
He's a heck of a brain.

Monday night we played our landlady Dushka,
While we listened to the score of Petrouchka;
Dushka put a double "o" in "babushka."
You could see his pain.

It was just a joke that sank like lead!
She's been known to mess with his head.

Lorraine Feather clearly understands Shakespeare's somewhat snide commentary that all the world's a stage, and the men and women—including herself—its players. She engages the lyricist's craft as an activity integral to the living of life. It is not a case of life imitating or being imitated by art, because art is itself a vitally important and indistinguishable part of it. Throughout the new compositions on Ages it is obvious that, despite her developed abilities as an observer, she is on some level involved in her characters' lives, delighting in their triumphs and feeling the sting of their losses. As they shuffle on and off this treacherous coil, their tumultuous exits and entrances, their loves, their treasons, their rambunctious joys and cherished dreams are seen through the lens of her uniquely empathic perspective on this, her most emotional, sardonic, hilariously poignant and piquant work to date.

As she did with her last CD, Language (Jazzed Media, 2008) she wrote these new pieces with contemporary composers. The lyrics are evocative and deeply imbued with her edgy trademarks: the self-referential humor, the smart-alecky jibes and the acute social commentary are all there, razor-sharp. Her rich contralto's bell-like tone, especially in the higher range, manages to drive the music with a whirlwind intensity, while her dulcet murmurs and sly intonations cut through the noise overload of modern life.

Among contemporaries, her poet's precision of language is on a level not heard since pop lyricists like Joni Mitchell or Randy Newman, and among jazz lyricists, Bob Dorough or Dave Frishberg. Her sensitivity to the subtleties of syntax, plus the exactness of her meter and rhyming, are unparalleled.

"Although I'm best known (though not, like, across the whole planet or anything) for my new lyrics to old music, I don't think it's an accident that my current and last CD, which were written all with the living, have been the most successful, or as [pianist/composer] Shelly Berg is fond of saying of his releases, 'went Wood!' My relationships with my composer friends have grown stronger over the years, and the co-writing felt especially organic on this album. They all have a deep appreciation for lyrics and a vast musical vocabulary. The give-and-take was so gratifying. I especially love the way a song may start out to be one thing and turn into another."

And once again, Feather gathered the cream of the crop of L.A. and N.Y. session players for her recording. "The musicians all did more blowing on this album, which was something I wanted because they're so incredible, as well as being cool people I love being around."

Chapter Index
  1. The Girl with the Lazy Eye
  2. To the Manner Born
  3. The Lyricist
  4. The Collaborationist
  5. Finding Her Artistic Voice
  6. Ages
  7. The Lyricist's Craft
  8. How Did We End Up Here?

The Girl with the Lazy Eye

"The Girl with the Lazy Eye" is a song on Ages that tells the story of an apparently introverted, socially inept young girl whose underachievement and awkwardness are of great concern to her teachers at school. Her lack of friends (Feather's wry lyric says: "She had a close friend one semester./ Ana's now back in Paraguay.") and her high IQ but mediocre grades, her notebooks of morbid poetry, all are embodied symbolically in her "lazy eye," a minor neuromuscular anomaly which can result in somewhat poorer vision in the eye when looking straight ahead. To accommodate it she quite often follows the eye's natural strength, and literally looks at her environment out of the corner of her eye. Feather uses this lyrically as a metaphor for not only all the mostly-misplaced concerns about the schoolgirl, but for the fact that she sees the world from a different angle and may perceive things more clearly than many of the other people in her life.

Feather's eye doctor has said her own lazy eye is "not that lazy," but she says her mother "used to say 'Turn your head straight!' when I watched TV because she was afraid I wasn't strengthening the muscles by compensating when I angled my head . . . I do have a habit of turning to the left when I look at things."

All the better to see you with. Previously, on Language, she turned her perspicacious gaze on the means by which we all communicate. On Ages she has taken on the even weightier subject of mortality, her own and ours. The subtexts of aging, its harsh and humorous incongruities, and the flimsiness of the concept of time itself, course quietly just below the surface of these sparkling lyrics like a powerful underground river. "The years from 50 to 60 had been the most interesting of my life. I had released five albums and performed a lot. I thought it was a good time to do an album focusing on different stages of life as I had known it up to age 60."

But aside from the brief, oblique glance at her early life afforded by "The Girl with the Lazy Eye," there is scant mention on the recording of her earliest days growing up in New York. This and the other slightly autobiographical references scattered here and there are difficult to detect because fact, fiction and synthesized yarns are woven into the fabric of her work so seamlessly.

However, her first dozen formative years become increasingly important for the insights they provide into how this girl trained her lazy eye, for what they show about the development of an artist who climbs on and off the merry-go-round of life as observer and observed so readily.

"The very first records I really got into were by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross [Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross, the premier vocal group of the 1950s]. My mother and I used to try and sing along, which was pretty much impossible but lots of fun." Although it may not have been all that impossible. Her mother Jane, earlier in her own life, had been a professional big band singer, though she never felt the driving ambition to make it her life's work.

Her father Leonard Feather, on the other hand, left his home in England at age 20 with precisely that level of ambition and purpose. In 1935 he came to America in pursuit of jazz's burgeoning art form and found it in Harlem, there flourishing as a record producer and composer while establishing himself in the pages of Metronome, Esquire and Down Beat as the first serious writer/critic the music ever had. On one of his first trips to Los Angeles, he was introduced at a dinner with singer Peggy Lee to her best friend, Jane Leslie Larabee, and proposed to her the very next day, resulting in a marriage that lasted the rest of his life.

Leonard Feather brought this same impetuous ardor to his work in the music world, and as a writer his liner notes, published essays and reviews numbered in the thousands. He was the first (and for a good while, virtually the only) reporter on the beat at the dawn of the Jazz Age, with the result that hundreds of musicians and other music business people knew him as a friend. He had opinions which he expressed freely. Not everyone shared them, of course, but friends or foes, everyone in New York knew him.

"It took me some years to shake off the LF's daughter thing. Not that I wasn't terribly proud of my dad, but every interview started 'So tell me some anecdotes about growing up around all of those jazz greats!' and some people still refer to me that way. At this point I don't really mind.

"Being my father's daughter brought me a certain kind of attention that was good in some ways, bad in others, and early on I was not ready for it, frankly. Some people worshiped him, others hated him. One famous jazz singer used to call and read my dad the riot act if he wrote a review of the singer's performance that was full of lavish praise and had one little caveat, like 'The medley before the intermission was not my cup of tea.'

"The flip side of people being worshipful of my dad was encountering those he had wounded, who would take me to task for things he had said. I felt bad about it, but of course we were two different people.

"It was his combination of brains, talent and emotion that worked so well together, and the fact that he came from across the pond caused him to appreciate American jazz in a particular way, also made him more painfully aware of American racism. When we moved to Los Angeles, at one point a famous musician friend was house-hunting nearby and a neighbor and local builder went from door to door telling everyone that Leonard Feather was "trying to get a nigger into the neighborhood." I was as proud of my dad's position at the NAACP as of anything. The bottom line for me is that he was a wonderful father. The fact that he and my mom brought me up in a world full of glorious musicians and fascinating artists was a gift I didn't fully appreciate until much later.

Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Leonard Feather

"Because Billie Holiday was my godmother and my first name is Billie, naturally when I began working as a singer and doing interviews, I was asked if I had any great anecdotes. I have one strong memory of coming home from grade school and meeting her. She was glamorous, queenly, wearing a lovely suit and a chic hat. She seemed very kind. My father and mother were crazy about her, and she about them. She knitted me baby booties. She wrote them letters from prison, once on toilet paper, my dad told me. The day she died, I went into my parents' bedroom and found him looking at the lurid headlines and crying. My favorite picture of Billie is one of her on skis in Switzerland. When my father first met her he tried to convince her to accept one of the offers she had to perform in Europe, but she was dubious. Years later, he did arrange a tour for her and she was a great success.

"To me, jazz is the music of the holidays, a homey sound. I had no thought of being a singer until I was in my late 20s and had been struggling miserably as an aspiring actress for years, tired of waitressing at restaurants of every ethnicity in New York. That music obviously permeated my soul, though. Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross were friends of my folks and I saw them at social functions as well as concerts. Jon was an ebullient personality and always told me we were Virgo soul mates. Annie was wry, sophisticated, down to earth. She came to see me perform with Full Swing [a vocal trio organized by producer Richard Perry with Feather, Steve March and Charlotte Crossley] in Santa Monica, California some 25 years ago. I had started writing a lot of material for the group. I hadn't run into her since I'd grown up, and after the show she came up to me and said, 'Those lyrics. My dear.' One of those nuggets of encouragement that you hold onto.

"The Ellingtons and my parents were close. Duke hired my father for Mercer Records when I was a year old and my parents had gotten badly injured in a freak automobile accident involving a driverless car that hit them while they were walking across the street. Later, Duke's sister Ruth lived down the street from us and her son Stevie and I hung out together, went to the amusement park, made popcorn and watched TV at the apartment on Riverside Drive.

"Dizzy Gillespie and his wife [dancer Lorraine Willis] were also close friends of my folks, often at their apartment for cocktail parties, hanging out with them at clubs or festivals. Lorraine once gave me a beautiful ballerina pin with rubies on her skirt and a pearl in her upraised hands. I lost it somewhere along the way, in my frequent changes of apartment in Manhattan. Dizzy was a real character, hilarious. [see photo at right, Gillespie in the surf at Nice]

"There were many musicians I only met in passing at festivals, or when my dad was interviewing them. After we moved to L.A. my parents took me to the Monterey and Playboy festivals, and we would see their musician friends. I remember when I was in my early teens, my parents introducing me to Miles Davis backstage. He was an intense presence. He pulled me aside and whispered in my ear, but his voice was so raspy that I couldn't make out what he was saying.

"My father was rather low-tech and would tape over a few of the million commercial cassettes he'd been sent, to re-use for interviews. When he died I gave all of those to the Lionel Hampton School of Jazz at the University of Idaho. I was there performing with Shelly Berg at the festival one year and saw a display case with some of my dad's memorabilia. There was a commercial cassette of John Denver—his name was crossed out and my dad had written, in red grease pencil, the name of that day's interviewee: Miles Davis.

"When we were moving from New York to Los Angeles [in 1960] my mother and I stayed at Peggy's for a time, my mom checking out the housing situation." Singer Peggy Lee and Jane Feather had known each other since the two of them shared expenses and roomed together in the early days of WWII—Lee was from North Dakota and had sung with Benny Goodman, while Jane was from Minnesota and sang in Manhattan clubs like The Famous Door.

"Peggy had two Pekingese named Little One and Little Two, and a white rug that was like their fur. Her Christmas tree was white too. A highlight of that trip was Frank Sinatra saying 'Happy New Year, baby,' when I passed him in the living room at Peggy's New Year's Eve party. She always gave me grown-up, glamorous gifts ... once, a beaded purse. She was 'Aunt Peg' to me. She and my mom lived such different lives, but we got together on holidays throughout the years."



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