16 May

Thanks to all who have visited my blog to date, which have included 60 countries. As you may have surmised, the blog is on hiatus for an as yet undetermined amount of time. I am working on some interesting content for my resumption, which will be several months away.

Jazzwax Link to my StarrTreks Blog

25 Jan
Charlie working with Barry Harris on movie "Bird"

Charlie working with Barry Harris on movie “Bird”

Marc Myers, journalist and regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal in music and arts, and recipient of the 2012 jazz blog of the year for his www.Jazzwax.com blog, provided a link on his blog to my article on vibraphonist, Charlie Shoemake, as well as my former monthly music column. My article on Charlie Shoemake was originally published in the SLO Journal Plus magazine in June 2013, and on my blog on July 26, 2013. To see Marc’s reference to my writings, scroll about a third of the way down his blog for “2013 week 46.”

This blog, www.starrtreks.com., also features many other interviews with talented and interesting musicians, in addition to other cultural and travel experienes

Deep Musical Roots: Kenny Lee Lewis and Diane Steinberg-Lewis

15 Dec
Diane and Kenny Lee

Diane and Kenny Lee at Home with Sophie

After spending time the prior evening with old acquaintances, B.B. King and Peter Frampton, Kenny Lee Lewis and his wife, Diane Steinberg-Lewis enthusiastically shared their fascinating, intertwining respective lives and experiences. Kenny and Diane play music locally in their band, the Barflyz, but are more well-known for Kenny being a member of the classic rock Steve Miller Band, and Diane for her role as “Lucy in the Sky” in the 1978 American musical film, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (in which Peter Frampton was also cast). The couple, who has been together 37 years, was more interested in recounting the history of Diane’s influential musical parents, than talking about themselves. To that end, they are currently compiling documentation, which included talking to B.B. King after he performed in Paso Robles, California in September 2013.

Martha Jean on B.B. King Album Cover

Martha Jean on B.B. King album

Diane’s father, Luther Steinberg, played trumpet with legends Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, and Duke Ellington, was a Big Band leader, and did arrangements for artists including B.B. King. Diane’s mother, “Martha Jean the Queen,” was an African-American pioneer in radio and one of the first female D.J’s in the United States. She helped to bring R&B music to the airwaves for the general public. Diane showed a photo of her mother on the cover with B.B. King on his album, My Sweet Little Angel, recorded in the 1950’s, but not released until 1993. B.B. signed the cover of Diane’s copy during their recent meeting. Diane and Kenny Lee have plans to meet with him again soon to discuss more of these memorable experiences to add to their memoir of Diane’s mother:  Speaking of the Queen: from Memphis to Motown.

Born Martha Jean Jones in Memphis, she landed her first job there as a D.J.at WDIA. Its early format of country, swing and light pop was not successful. In 1947 WDIA became the first radio station to target programming to black audiences. It quickly rose to the number two radio station in Memphis, and then became number one after switching to all black music programming. B.B. King started working at WDIA in 1948 promoting medicine and then cigarettes, and became a D.J. in 1950 before launching his performance career. Though all genres of music are widely accepted today, in an era of resistance to integration of the military and Jackie Robinson playing baseball with white players, incorporation of black music into the mainstream was controversial in Memphis. When the “race” music being broadcast by WDIA reached the white suburbs of the south, it was the beginning of what would become the phenomenon of “Rock and Roll.”

Following her parents’ divorce, in 1963 The Queen moved with Diane and her two sisters to Detroit, where she continued as a D.J., and as a community activist through the 1970s. The Queen became involved in the ministry in 1984, and in 1997, after being named Michigander of the Year, purchased a radio station WQBH, an acronym for Welcome Queen Back Home where she worked until her passing in 2000.

Allee Willis, Diane, Kenny Lee with Photo of "The Queen"

Allee Willis, Diane, Kenny Lee with Photo of “The Queen”

Diane was influenced by the encounters and events she was exposed to by her musical family. At age six, when she began “playing” the babysitter’s dilapidated piano her father purchased a new piano for her.  She still has this piano, which their dog, Sophie, “plays” when she wants a snack. As a child, Diane’s father brought home many talented musicians who helped her hone her craft. In 1997, her father, his siblings and their father received the W.C. Handy Award for Authentic Beale Street Musicians. In 2010, Diane’s mother was honored with a W.C. Handy Music Legacy Award for her years in radio, and on the same day the Steinberg family was presented with a Brass Note on the Beale Street Walk of Fame.

At college, Diane studied dance, and then music while simultaneously teaching high school.  In 1972, she got her first record contract with Atlantic, and later recorded for ABC Dunhill and Word. She performs both secular and gospel music, has written music performed by such artists as Natalie Cole and Cleo Laine, and wrote the theme music to An Evening at the Improv. She has performed with such music notables as Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart and the Steve Miller Band. Diane met her future husband when getting ready to record an album for ABC and she needed a new bass player. Kenny was recommended as a replacement. Diane said they fell in love and married in 1984; he gently reminded her it was 1983. She smiled noting many men are not sure of their anniversary. Diane has periodically returned to teaching in order to provide a more stable home environment to raise their two daughters. Diane recently recorded with Grammy Award-winning songwriter Allee Willis, with a picture of the Queen as inspiration.

Mary Wilson (Supremes), Allee Willis, Diane and Kenny Lee

Mary Wilson (Supremes), Allee Willis, Diane and Kenny Lee

Kenny was born in Pasadena, but was raised in Sacramento. He is self-taught, initially picking up the ukulele at age seven and then playing his brother’s acoustic guitar in the sixth grade. Not long thereafter, he started playing an electric guitar he had borrowed. He credits his parents for being supportive of his musical focus. He was playing professionally at 15 and went on the road with his first band, Sand Castle, at age 17. He attended Cal State Northridge for a semester, but left when he got the chance to go on tour. After becoming a successful studio session bass player, he and Steve Miller drummer Gary Mallaber started a band, and were pursuing a record contract.  Steve Miller contacted Gary asking for songs for an upcoming album. Kenny, Gary and guitarist, John Massaro submitted their eight demos, and Steve took then all. Steve then incorporated Kenny, Gary and John into his band. The album, Abracadabra, was released in 1982 which went multi-platinum. Kenny initially was guitarist for the band, but in more recent years has become the bass player. The band had recently finished a tour in Australia and New Zealand, and on the top of his television cupboard, a colorful boomerang peeked out.

Diane and Kenny moved to Central Coast of California after visiting a friend and falling in love with the area. They describe the local music scene as “creative” and “original,” with less pressure to follow trends than in the L.A. music scene. The Barflyz is one of their local groups, which Kenny described as an “acoustic pop-cabaret” band performing rearranged jazz, rock, blues, Latin, TV themes and original. The band includes stellar musicians Danny Pelfrey on sax and flute, Ken Hustad on bass, Dean Giles on drums.

For more information: www.barflyzmusic.com. www.kennyleelewis.com

Swan’s Songs

25 Nov
Mike Swan

Mike Swan

Although he did not realize it at the time, playing with the Lester Lanin Orchestra at the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana was one of the highlights of Mike Swan’s professional music career. This was one of a number of international music venues where Mike performed that had a formative influence on his varied musical repertoire. Presently, Mike performs his entertaining and diverse songs on bass guitar and vocals at La Bellasera Hotel in Paso Robles, California, on Thursday evenings with guitarist Adam Levine and Judy Philbin.

Mike always loved music and started playing the cornet in elementary school, and then went on to play the French horn in high school. He developed an interest in Dixieland music; when he and some friends formed a Dixieland band and could not find a banjo player, Mike borrowed a tenor banjo from family friends. Then he used a book to teach him to tune it and play basic chords. Once he got to the respected Reed College in Portland, he studied philosophy but continued his banjo playing by joining a “jug band.” During this time in college when folk music was big, he started playing the guitar, and later began playing bass guitar.

He left school to move to the San Francisco Bay area where he played banjo in a trio at the North Beach’s “Red Garter” which featured Dixieland music. Mike described the music they played as “cornball sing alongs” dating from the 1890’s through the Great American Songbook era. In 1967, the owner, Jack Dupen, offered Mike a job at the New York City Red Garter. Moving to New York with its 13 degree weather during the 1967 Christmas/New Year’s holidays was “like running away to the circus,” Mike joked. He also did some stints at the Red Garter’s Niagara Falls and Florence, Italy outposts, and subsequently started playing for competitor “My Father’s Mustache” where he led the band for two years.

Mike realized that if he wanted to continue to make a living playing music he would have to become a better guitar player and singer, and to that end he began studying with talented professional musicians in New York City. He honed his skills and expanded his repertoire which included jazz and ragtime. He learned songs in Italian, Swedish, German, and Hebrew/Yiddish which he performed at special events. The venues in which he performed expanded to private “society” parties for affluent patrons, Jewish celebrations, a private Aegean cruise, and Claridge’s in London while there for the royal wedding. When asked to share an interesting or fun experience, he related that they when he was playing with the Lester Lanin Orchestra they had a gig in Gstaad Switzerland, the second night the venue was at Eagle Ski Chalet which necessitated transporting their equipment by ski lifts. The themed party was pre-revolutionary Russian, for which attendees and musicians donned period costumes.

Besides his musical career, Mike also did corporate and IT work to help pay for raising his children and their college. In 2006, Mike said he and his wife were tired of their corporate work and the hectic pace of living in New York City. He stated, “Like a salmon swimming upstream,” they decided to return to California. They settled in northern San Luis Obispo County where Mike’s brother was living. Taking a break from music, Mike helped his brother with his import business. Then he received a call from a local Dixieland band which needed a banjo player, and with that, he became involved in the local music scene.

Mike is presently working on two CDs, having completed his first CD in “the early 2000’s” which consisted of a trio with him on banjo, along with a tuba and mandolin. Besides his weekly appearances at La Bellasera Hotel, he plays at many wineries where he jokingly described his function as “sonic wallpaper.” He also plays with Jazz in the Vines, and at private parties. He has been playing solo for hospice patients which he described as “rewarding.”  For more information on Mike and his performance schedule, go to http://mike-swan.com.

Best Family Vacations: Ojai

20 Nov
The Pink Moment

The Pink Moment
Courtesy: Ojai Valley Inn

We all hush at the magical “Pink Moment” when the sky to the east over the Topa Topa Mountains creates brilliant shades of pink as the sun sets in Ojai, California. This is one of the few places in the world where people can see this phenomenon due to the east-west orientation of the mountains.  Ojai is about 30 miles southeast of Santa Barbara or 90 miles north of LAX.

Ojai is one of my favorite places for a short stay with the family. We love the historic Spanish Colonial Ojai Valley Inn and Spa where I find the relaxing, casually elegant ambience evokes immediate relaxation. I can be perfectly content just soaking up the resort’s beautiful grounds, gardens and golf course, but we also enjoy the wide variety of activities for both adults and children on site, and in the town of Ojai. The Inn is pet-friendly and we enjoyed being able to take our dog with us.

I love the Mind and Body Studio located in the Spa Ojai building where they offer many different classes throughout the day, such as Pilates, several types of yoga, water exercise in the spa’s pool, stretching, cardio, spinning, Qi Gong, sometimes dance, and others. The Inn also offers classes for the mind such as meditation, physical wellness, and art classes at the Artist Cottage and Apothecary.

Ojai Valley Inn

Ojai Valley Inn
Courtesy: Ojai Valley Inn

The resort has a premier championship golf course, with excellent professional lessons and a sports psychologist to help with the important mental part of your skills. Upon arrival, staff take your golf clubs to the clubhouse where they clean your golf shoes and ready your clubs for your scheduled round of golf. Because it is such a popular course, reservations are recommended. The Inn’s storied tennis history dates back to the late 19th century and boasts being one of the top tennis facilities in a hotel or resort in the United States. Professional tennis instruction is available.

Outdoor Firepit

Outdoor Fire pit
Courtesy: Ojai Valley Inn

There are myriad activities that can be done alone, as a couple or a family including hiking, biking, basketball, fishing, softball, volleyball and tennis. Camp Oak offers creative, stimulating and fun themed half-day and full-day activities for five to twelve year-olds.  From 8 to 9 a.m., Acorn Hour at Camp Ojai hosts bonding for parents and their two to four year-old children by doing crafts or storytelling.  During the summer, there are complimentary movies to watch while floating in the main pool. Free popcorn is also provided.  The resort will arrange for horseback rides nearby that are suitable for the ages and skills of the riders; we have had fantastic experiences doing this.   A walk into downtown Ojai offers an opportunity to explore the inviting historic downtown area. Make sure to check out Bart’s Books, which is the largest independently-owned outdoor bookstore in the U.S.

In town, we like to have dinner at Azu, where they have Spanish- and Mediterranean-inspired comfort food.  They have many tapas style small dishes, as well as creative, tasty entrees. `The Ranch House requires a short but worthwhile drive for gourmet award-winning cuisine in a romantic atmosphere that has streams and lush plants.

There are several great spots to eat at the Ojai Valley Inn. The Oak Grill offers outdoor and indoor dining with the best Cobb salad I have ever had. Jimmy’s Pub is a good, casual après golf place for snacks, burgers, and drinks. More health conscious cuisine is available at the Spa’s restaurant, Café Verde. Maravilla is the Inn’s signature restaurant where they serve excellent, seasonally-inspired cuisine with locally-sourced produce featuring steaks, chops and seafood. The wine selection is excellent and the restaurant’s ambience is warm and inviting. Whenever we have been there on a week-end, in the evenings we have enjoyed entertaining live jazz in the lounge just in front of Maravilla while sitting near the warmth of the fireplace.


27 Oct
Judy Philbin

Judy Philbin

Judy Philbin smilingly sings a sublime samba to the delight of the audience. Whether performing to a concert audience or restaurants and wineries, Judy relishes the opportunity to be energized and inspired by her listeners. She is excited about her newly released CD, Keeping It Simple, in which she collaborated with local talented guitarist and composer, Adam Levine (see my March 2013 column www.slocoastjournal.com archives.) The CD includes jazz standards, pop tunes, and four originals with two written by her, and two more to which she wrote lyrics to Adam’s compositions. As the title reflects, they kept the music simple, and straightforward, with Judy on vocals, and Adam laying down from one to four guitar tracks for each song.

Judy always loved to sing, and retrospectively noted that she was privileged to start singing at age six in one of the stellar children’s choirs they had at the time at San Luis Obispo First Presbyterian Church. At six, she also began playing piano. Over the years, she learned a variety of instruments including percussion, stand-up bass, trumpet, and guitar. In the eighth grade, she noticed all the boys played brass and all the girls played woodwinds, so she decided to play trumpet, which she continued through high school. She also was active in choir. In high school, as was typical of the era, she played guitar and sang the typical “teen-age angst-filled songs,” and began singing in coffee houses.

After completing her college degree, which was not in music, she returned to her love of singing by becoming one of the founding members of the acclaimed San Luis Obispo Vocal Arts Ensemble. Motherhood led her to take a temporary hiatus from the time demands of performing, but when her children started school, she began collaborating with a friend to do sing-along concerts for kids. Her husband and two children were also involved, and they even performed on the Children’s Stage at the Live Oak Music Festival.

As a child, Judy felt enriched by living with her family in Guatemala for two years, from ages four to six years of age, while her father worked there. She was drawn to the simple, traditional music there, particularly marimbas and flutes, and has since enjoyed music from Central and South America. She and her professor husband decided to give their children a similar experience living abroad by taking his taking a teaching position in Denmark, where they became involved with the international mix of people involved with the school.  During her two year stay in Denmark, she was impressed by and drawn to the quality jazz music. Upon return to San Luis Obispo, she was inspired to start developing her jazz and standards repertoire. To that end, she attended a workshop with Phil Mattson, a conductor, arranger, and father of the vocal jazz movement. He encouraged Judy to explore solo vocal work, which she has been doing seriously for the last five years. In 2007, she released her first album, Candle in the Window, which is a compilation of songs to provide comfort for those who have lost loved one. As a result she has performed numerous times nationally at conventions for The Compassionate Friends, which provides grief support after the loss of a child. She and her husband, who also sings, have been involved with the annual Central Coast Follies Parkinson’s fundraiser at the Clark Center for seven years, and she noted that the benefit has contributed over $250,000 toward Parkinson’s research.

Judy presently performs locally at restaurants, wineries, public concerts, and private parties. Nearly every Thursday evening, she, Adam Levine, and bass player, Mike Swan perform at La Bellasera Hotel in the lounge/restaurant starting around 6:30 p.m.; there is no cover charge. For information on Judy and her performance schedule, go to www.judyphilbin.com.  Judy encouraged locals to purchase the new release, Keeping it Simple, at local businesses which include Boo Boo Records (San Luis Obispo), Volume of Pleasure (Los Osos), and Matt’s Music (Paso Robles.) It can also be purchased from her website, Itunes and www.CDbaby.com.


19 Oct

Beach on Ambergris Caye
Credit: Wikipedia

“I am a strong black woman,” declared Vanessa, as I will call her lest someone in her hometown of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, Belize should read this. While I was relaxing on the beach in the warm, tropical sun, a beautiful local woman watched as her two young children played in the ocean. The girl, who I learned was six years old, frolicked joyfully in the water while her more reckless two year old brother repeatedly dove head first into shallow water. Even though he sometimes swallowed some of the salt water, he was undeterred and continued his energetic romp.

Meanwhile a couple strolled down the beach with their dog which picked up clothing belonging to the little girl. About 20 yards down the beach the couple noticed the dog had an article of clothing in its mouth, and told him to drop it. The dog obeyed, but then I was surprised to see them continue to proceed down the beach without attempting to return the item to the rest of the obvious children’s clothing pile on the beach.

I then approached the woman, informing her about the dog taking her daughter’s clothing down the beach and the lack of basic courtesy by the pair who did not return the item. We began talking about the general deterioration of basic manners among people, along with parenting topics, and local issues.

After exchanging first names, we talked about the challenges of parenting. Besides the two young children with her, she also had a daughter in her final year of high school. We spoke of our common experiences of raising three children and the challenges of parenting. Vanessa said that even though she didn’t have much money that she emphasized education and good manners for her children. She proudly related her oldest daughter had recently received a full scholarship for University study the coming fall.

Having made many trips to Ambergris Caye and fantasizing about living there, I asked her what is was like to be a full-time resident. I noted that it appeared people of varied ethnicities and races all seemed to live peacefully together.  She said that there are ongoing racial inequities and political corruption. When asked, she gave several examples, including how a local woman committed a serious, violent crime, but due to her being white and married to a politician she was immediately released from custody and never charged with a crime. Vanessa related that she was never personally subject to any police investigations, but stated she sometimes did get treated poorly due to the dark color of her skin. It was at this time that she said, “I am a proud black woman,” and it was clear that in spite of this type of treatment she always comported herself with the utmost dignity and integrity.

The afternoon was getting late and it was time for her to head home. She summoned her children from the water. Her daughter immediately cooperated. Vanessa lovingly dried off her daughter and put on the dress that the dog had carried down the beach. However, her son did not want to get out of the water. He kept diving into the water and dodging her, but she patiently and quietly retrieved him, dried him off, and then changed his diaper and clothes. We said our farewells and best wishes. After they departed I reflected on the similarities and differences in our lives and how things like beyond our control like where we are born and the color of our skin can have lasting impacts on our lives.


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