Meredith d'Ambrosio's life reads like an Edith Wharton novel. For years, the Boston vocalist struggled with a mother and father who rarely spoke to each other, leaving her somewhat unprepared to deal with an early love and then a marriage that quickly fizzled. Through it all, Meredith managed to remain focused on studying visual arts, a safe harbor of sorts from the tension and strife in her personal life. Part of the difficulty at home was that Meredith's mother had to cope with two newborns in her 40s, a relentlessly unfaithful husband, and punishing anxiety.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, while still an art student, Meredith began to get jobs singing and playing piano at Boston jazz clubs. She also began hanging out at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she met pianist Roger Kellaway [pictured]. But pressing family responsibilities kept her from breaking completely free from home life.
In Part 2 of my interview with Meredith, the legendary jazz vocalist talks about her challenging relationship with her mother, a suitor who turned out to be a grifter, developing her eggshell mosaics technique, singing with pianist Roger Kellaway and bandleader Maynard Ferguson, and why she had eventually had to move home again:
JazzWax: Just before college began in 1958, you and your mother fought regularly. What was her big issue with you?
Meredith d'Ambrosio: Several things. For one, I couldn’t hold a waitress job in Maine over the summer to pay for textbooks, and my mother was furious that I didn’t apply myself and take the job more seriously. Just before my studies began at the Boston Museum School, our disagreements grew so bad and so frequent that I moved out.
JW: Did you enjoy the Boston Museum School?
Md’A: I loved it. But even before college started, my life was complicated, which certainly didn't help matters with my mother. When I was 17, I had the misfortune of falling deeply in love with a man who was a jazz pianist and three years older than I was. He asked me to marry him, and we became engaged. But soon I learned from his closest friend that within a two-year period, he had been engaged to 22 other women. He disappeared soon after I found out. I think my parents chased him away once they learned about his past. It took me many years to get over the emotional devastation of being deceived by someone who I thought was my soulmate. I had even thought about suicide. By then I had moved back home. [Pictured: First Snow, oil on canvas, 2008, by Meredith d'Ambrosio]
JW: You must have fallen pretty hard for the guy.
Md’A: [Laughs] That was only the half of it. Two years later, the same guy called and asked if I’d go to Europe with him. I turned him down, having learned my lesson. Or so I thought. Then, 18 years later, he called me again, this time from Colorado. We began to date when he came to Boston. He proposed to me again, I accepted, and I sold everything I owned to move out there with him. He took some of my eggshell mosaics to Denver to see if he could find an exclusive gallery for my works. I had been doing the mosaics since I was 18 years old. [Pictured: After the Blizzard of '78, eggshell mosaic, 1978, by Meredith d'Ambrosio]
JW: What are eggshell mosaics?
Md’A: It’s a technique I developed. On a thick wooden board, I make a sketch. After tearing the membrane from white eggshells, I paint the shells, crack them into small tessera [tiles], apply medium-rough mosaic cement in small areas to the board, and one by one, place each small painted eggshell onto the cement using a tweezer. Polyurethane is painted on the back to prevent warpage. The result is an image composed of painted eggshells.
JW: So what happened with the guy?
Md’A: I didn’t hear from him for two weeks after he left. When I called his brother to see if anything had happened to him, his brother told me he was engaged to another woman and a wedding was planned.
JW: That must have crushed you, to be duped twice like that.
Md’A: I was pretty shocked. I never thought I was going to get over him. But I did eventually—12 years later.
JW: Getting back to your college years, did you and your mother patch things up once you moved back home?
Md’A: After my first year at school, my mom and I resumed fighting bitterly. So I moved out again—into the basement apartment of a girlfriend. But she made my life miserable. She was a terrible bully. I had gone back to work at the hearing-aid factory to make ends meet and had to walk home from work in the bitter cold winter. Eventually I came down with pleurisy and bronchitis, which resulted in walking pneumonia. Eventually I got well. [Pictured: Elm Street Blizzard, watercolor, 2003, by Meredith d'Ambrosio]
JW: Were you still listening to jazz during all of this turmoil?
Md’A: Oh Yes. Horace Silver’s records in 1952 had first awakened me to jazz. The only way I could play chords was to try to emulate them while I was listening to his records. I was so taken with what he was doing. I also was aware of jazz through radio shows in Boston hosted by Symphony Sid and Father Norman J. O'Connor, the so-called jazz priest. I realized immediately this wasn’t swing like the music on my mother's records. It was straight-ahead jazz. And I loved it.
JW: What were you listening to in Silver's records?
Md'A: I heard the chords Horace was playing and was able to figure out his voicings. Art Tatum, too. He had full, full chords. I've always been able to hear the detail in recordings and figure out on the piano what I was hearing. When I went to Schillinger House in 1952 and 1953, I was taught basic chords. But by separating those chords, I could figure out what Silver was doing.
JW: By the late 1950s, were you good enough to get work playing and singing?
Md’A: Yes. I eventually found work playing at jazz clubs in Boston in 1959, when I was 18 years old. I also became friendly with the guys in Gunther Schuller’s jazz group at the New England Conservatory of Music. That’s where I met pianist Roger Kellaway. He would perform at clubs and ask me to sing while he played. We’d often go to Storyville, the Stables and the Crystal Club in Milford, MA, to hear Boots Mussulli [pictured], Conte Candoli and Serge Chaloff and to the Stables to hear Varty Haroutunian with Ray Santisi, Herb Pomeroy and others.
JW: You sang with Maynard Ferguson’s big band at a club?
Md’A: Yes. Maynard [pictured] was at the Crystal Club one night with his big band. Roger [Kellaway] said something to him, and Maynard asked me to sing with the band. We did I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good) and I Cover the Waterfront. Fortunately I was able to sing in the key in which they played. That was the first time I had sung with a big band. Maynard loved it, and so did the audience. Roger was very encouraging, and he remains a beautiful pianist. We had a Jackie and Roy thing going. We had many of those kinds of arrangements. He made me work hard, though, and I’m grateful for that.
JW: What did your mother think about your flowering jazz career?
Md’A: Not much. There still was no encouragement from her. Around this time she started to suffer terribly from depression and had another nervous breakdown. So I had to return home yet again to care for my youngest brother and sister. I became their surrogate mother. [Pictured: Popponesset Spit, oil on canvas, 2007, by Meredith d'Ambrosio]
JW: Did being pulled away from your art, singing and playing upset you or stress you out?
Md’A: No. For whatever reason, my mother's issues and my family chores never really pulled me away from my goals. I compartmentalized the two and never felt stress.
Tomorrow, Meredith talks about her first marriage, the birth of her daughter Cyd when she was 20 years old, her divorce and custody battle that ensued, an early-morning breakfast with John Coltrane and an invitation to tour with him, and why she had to turn him down.
JazzWax tracks: Meredith's first album, Lost in His Arms (1978) was followed by Another Time (1981) and Little Jazz Bird (1982), which put her on the map as a jazz singer. Meredith was joined on the album by Phil Woods (alto sax), Hank Jones (piano), Steve Gilmore (bass), Bill Goodwin (drums) and a string section that featured Gene Orloff, Fred Buldrini, Fred Slatkin and Julian Barber. Manny Albam arranged and conducted the date.
Little Jazz Bird includes Deborah Henson-Conant's How Is Your Wife (with Meredith on piano) and When the End Comes, both perfectly suited to Meredith's fireplace-warm voice. Phil Woods has a wonderful clarinet solo on I'll Only Miss Him When I Think of Him, and Meredith's version of There's a Lull in My Life is among the best you'll hear.
Little Jazz Bird is a download at iTunes and Amazon. Or on CD here used for a reasonable price.
Art exhibit and performance: If you're in Miami next Thursday (September 24th), swing over to the gallery at radio station WDNA (88.9 FM) to see the opening of Meredith's latest exhibit of 35 watercolors and oil paintings. Meredith also will be performing accompanied by pianist Patti Wicks. For more information and ticket prices, go here.
And for more about Meredith and her paintings, go here. [Pictured above: Ancient Stairs, Auvers-sur-Oise, oil on canvas, 2008, by Meredith d'Ambrosio]
JazzWax clip: Tacked onto the end of the Little Jazz Bird CD is The Christmas Waltz, which was recorded by Meredith with Hank Jones in 1980 for a compilation of various artists singing holiday songs. I know it's way early in the season, but please indulge me. Meredith's version is irresistible...