There’s simply nothing like a song by Kitty Margolis.
Every artist is concerned about emotional freedom, and Kitty’s apparently easy access to it comes as a great pleasure to the listener. But no artist just gets there. The work that’s needed to achieve graceful, artistic self-expression is more than most people are up to, ever. But when you listen to Kitty, you know how hard she has worked to do what she does, because she does it with such seeming effortlessness.
The consummate jazz musician, Kitty has performed in some of the most important venues in the world, including The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, The Sydney International Festival of the Arts, the Monterey Jazz Festival, London's Royal Festival Hall, Gstaad’s Yehudi Menuhin Festival, the Tel Aviv Opera House, the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, Hamburg’s Schleswig-Holstein Festival, the San Francisco Jazz Festival, and with The Boston Pops. She's also sung at many of the world's top jazz clubs.
But her favorite place — at least, in memory — remains Keystone Korner in San Francisco, sadly now defunct. It was a very small club on Vallejo Street that was directly across an alley from a police station. There were very few fights or other eruptions of anger around Keystone Korner, no doubt because so many men in blue were so close.
The place was frequently in debt, and Miles Davis, who had appeared at Keystone Korner a number of times, played a benefit for the club that I also attended. This was when Miles was at the height of his Bitches Brew period and had long been a world figure. The music was Miles at his best, and his appearance saved the day for Barkan, although only temporarily. The club was to close in 1983, despite the efforts of so many musicians and fans, including Kitty herself who was a marquee attraction to a Keystone Korner “rent party” in 1983, with the superb pianist George Cables.
Today the space in the building where the club was located is occupied by a T-Mobile store. Probably more peaceful for the cops, more relaxing for the cell phone devotees who go there in need of an earpiece or whatever, but surely not the vital jazz powerhouse that it was for so many years.
The last person I saw perform there was Flora Purim.
Kitty and her husband Alfonso Montuori recently invited me and my amor, writer and storyteller Beatrice Bowles, to sit down together for a glass of wine at their home in San Francisco. It happens that they live a half-block from the old Keystone Korner. When we were talking about the jazz scene of that time, Kitty smiled broadly at my mention of Flora.
“Flora Purim was actually the first jazz singer that I fell in love with,” Kitty says. “I was about sixteen, working at a bookstore in Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, and I was on a lunch break, sitting on the stairs at Aquatic Park that look out on the bay. There was this guy listening to music…you know, with earphones, and he invited me to listen.”
The birth of creativity is the subject of vast libraries. Much ink has flowed in the effort to discover when that moment comes, and why it comes, the moment in which a youthful artist, thus far un-anointed by the ecstatic caress, suddenly feels its touch.
“And, oh, my God,” Kitty says.
She sighs and looks down at the floor, her transfixed admiration for what she heard that day still bright, still evident. Then she chuckles. “Up to that point, I was playing Joni Mitchell songs on my guitar.” She shakes her head. “I only had the job at the bookstore because it was owned by a friend of my mother, who I guess felt it was OK there, that I wouldn’t get in trouble.” Kitty flashes the smile that so often comes when she performs, the joyous gesture. “But I managed to get into trouble anyway, talking with strangers…and especially being turned on to Flora Purim.”
The Brazilian singer whose music with the percussionist Airto Moreira is a kind of breathing, dancing paean to freedom of voice and the ultimate percussive groove, is planets away from Joni Mitchell’s work. “Although Joni is one of the pre-eminently sophisticated musicians of our time,” Kitty remarks. “Harmonically, rhythmically and lyrically.” For Kitty, the moment she first heard Purim simply swept her away.
It had been different a few years before.
“As a second grader,” she says ironically, “I was everything you might not want to be. I felt so different from everybody. I was smart, for one thing. And sensitive.” Kitty was the daughter of prominent Bay Area neuro-psychiatrist Dr. Lester Margolis and his wife Patsy, who was herself a fourth-generation Californian descended from Gold Rush pioneers “who also helped develop the cable cars in San Francisco,” Kitty smiles.
Both parents were music lovers, primarily of jazz…but jazz that predated Flora Purim and her contemporaries by many decades. The Margolises went frequently to The Dawn Club and the El Matador in San Francisco, a treat for them since Patsy had grown up with The Matador’s legendary owner, writer Barnaby Conrad. Patsy’s favorite singer was Lee Wiley, while Lester favored old blues recordings from the South where he had grown up, and both enjoyed Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald , Louis Armstrong and Count Basie.
“We had a democratic dinnertime every night,” Kitty recalls. “My parents got to play one of their albums, and then my brother and I got to play one of ours. So at the dinner table they had to suffer through our Jefferson Airplane while we had to suffer through their Billie Holiday.” Dr. Margolis was to see the day when Kitty herself would glory in the voice of Billie Holiday, but when Kitty was only thirteen or so, that day appeared a long way off.
Kitty counts on her fingers all the other things she worried about in herself when she was a second-grader. “I was not athletic. I had a patch over one eye because of a vision problem. I had orthopedic shoes.”
She reflects upon all this, and you can see, in her lowered eyes and her silence as she collects her thoughts, the kind of pain that she felt then.
“You know, the great jazz singers were rarely the head cheerleaders in high school.”
She laughs, but only for a moment.
“Boys threw rocks at me. I had to walk the long way to school because, if I took the short route, I would have to pass the rock throwers. One boy in particular, who lived across the street, was the worst.”
The history of art is filled with emotional wounds brought about by injuries real or felt. Proust’s asthma as a boy. Martin Scorcese’s asthma. Ray Charles’s blindness. Charles Dickens time as a child in the blacking factory. Edith Wharton’s ice-veined upbringing in wealthy New York society. Speculation about the artistic impulse often mentions such hurt, and indeed it was the subject of Edmund Wilson’s remarkable The Wound and The Bow, a classic of writing about literature, and the book that most clearly spells out the notion that emotional suffering can be the source of creativity.
I’ve often thought that one source for art is the artist’s use of her creative impulse to redirect the rage that would otherwise erupt from her abandonment, her wounds, her misfortune.
When Kitty’s father learned about the boy across the street and his harassment of his daughter, he went directly to the boy’s father and confronted him.
“Oh, yes, it ended…right then and there,” she says. But in her telling of this story, Kitty’s breath becomes shorter, her anger and hurt still pronounced. She disperses it with an anecdote about her mother.
“I had little smocked dresses when everyone else at school had dresses with a waist, and I even had the matching underpants that my mother had made, so that when I went on the jungle gym no boy would think he’d actually seen my underpants.”
Kitty goes silent for a moment. You realize that she’s thinking of her mother, remembering her with fondness.
“Well, the whole point was that the boys are supposed to see your underpants, Mom,” she smiles.
Then one day she went for a walk with her father. She was twelve.
“This was unusual because we never took a walk together,” she says now. “We always took the car. But we passed this music store, and I saw a guitar in the window. ‘Well, let’s go in and look at it’, he said.”
Again, the creative moment, suddenly, briefly clear in the traffic noise, the footsteps on the cement all around, the conversation between a girl and her father.
“It was eighteen dollars,” Kitty recalls. “And he got it for me.”
The creative key.
“He recognized something in me,” she says of that moment. Something in his daughter that perhaps he had not articulated before but now realized. “And then I taught myself to play it really quickly.”
With the guitar, Kitty’s identity — and sense of herself — immediately changed.
“I instantly became hip, and a girl that nobody messed with any more. It was clear pretty quickly that I was a good musician, and I’d go to San Mateo Park — near where I lived — sit on the grass and play there. A lot of mostly older boys did that. But I had learned Crosby, Stills and Nash riffs on the guitar, and I could teach those to my friends. And I could figure out the harmonies those groups were singing, and then I taught them to my friends too. Three-part harmonies. Four-part harmonies. Triads plus a color note. I could hear all that. The Beach Boys used those complex harmonies, too. Brian Wilson was amazing. And picking up those intricate harmonies was critical to my becoming a jazz singer.”
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