In life, as in theatre, you should always be ready to make room for the unexpected. …leaving my first rehearsal: Cindy Oxbury, the Assistant Director, asked if I’d like to find some time with Bill Bolcom? I said “yes”, assuming this meant for the following day when the composer would be in town. –Ah, no; I’m working with a collection of ‘get-it-done’ professionals! [Note to me: for the duration, be careful what you ask for.] The composer was on a train from New York, but in response to a previous query as to his arrival and evening plans, Cindy had a waiting email from his assistant, suggesting: ‘He has to eat, maybe you can get together with him for dinner.’ Two phone calls and an hour of rest later, Bill Bolcom was off the train and walking into the River Inn with us. Conversation was an easy interaction to have with him. Dressed in smart black casual, he was very excited to be in DC for the opera. But he became even more engaged as talk began to press into unanticipated terrain. I mention having read about his working with Eubie Blake. Bill’s face picks up a warm smile. “I think Eubie was my last real mentor. When Joan Morris and I were married, you know he came to the wedding and played the Wedding March. In ragtime. -…I think what I really learned was how to be – well.. Eubie felt that ‘composing’ and ‘performing’ were two aspects of the same thing; he didn’t see himself as one or the other. Neither do I.” I am glad to have this ‘entry’ to segue into the rhythms of jive and bounce, still in my ear, caught scatting throughout the piano score. “I felt your affinity with jazz very evident in the piano reduction; the currents are so clear. The opera is full of jazz syncopations.” Bill nodded. “Eubie never liked to call it that; he used to work in a brothel. There, ‘jazz’ is what you did in bed. So he always called it ‘ragtime’. Yes, it’s in the work. There’s also ‘doo-wop’, ‘blues’, ‘swing’, the whole soundscape you’d expect to encounter pouring out of open windows in a Brooklyn immigrant neighborhood of the 50’s.” But the mesh which binds the neighborhood’s disparate ‘soundscape’ is the composer’s personal musical language, which honors not only the jazz roots of American music, but the ‘song craftsmen’ who best put a handle on making American dialects and idioms lyrical. “Gershwin. Kern. Irving Berlin. Irving Berlin is American music. The American song – ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime’, ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ – these people were models for the nexus of ‘word’ and ‘note’; the whole bolt together is out of heritage – the insoluble amalgam.” We are finished with the meal by this moment in the conversation. There is a little wine left in Bill’s glass. He eyes me, pleased and slightly suspicious. “You’ve got me thinking. I answer questions all the time. Suddenly, I’m having to re-enter situations and look at them differently. That’s good.” ..it is best, however, for people trying to understand the wrestle when speaking of “American opera”; it comes out of a source which has no monolithic style, but is a crucible of acculturation. And suddenly, we’re speaking about Arthur Miller…
Bill, in a 2009 interview, even more expressive of his association with Eubie Blake..
A little of the artistry of Eubie Blake; from a performance at the age of 98..