Monday, January 22, 2007

Remembering a jazz legend

Published on 1/21/2007


Jazz performer Richard Wetmore grew up during the Great Depression, but lived a life of great joy. Friends and family remember him as a man rich with humor and compassion, who saw himself as an instrument to entertain and encourage others. When he died on Jan. 4, a few days short of his 80th birthday, the personal legacy he left was as impressive as his place in jazz history.

"Dick was such a youthful spirit, and we just had a heck of a lot of fun, which is really what music is all about -- or can be, if given a chance," said Tom Tracy, a Cape Cod-based musician who was Wetmore's performing partner during much of the 1980s and '90s.

"I have seen him get up and play and other musicians would just quit playing, their jaws hanging open," remembered Mary Lu Wetmore, who is married to the late violinist's nephew, French.

Wetmore was born and raised in Glens Falls, the youngest child of Louis, an architect, and Laura (Bemis), the daughter of a prominent local doctor. His mother, an amateur musician, had high hopes that one of her children would become a professional classical performer, and Wetmore seemed to be on his way for awhile. He started playing music at 6 -- on a toy violin from the local Woolworth's -- and studied with regionally renowned violinist Virginia DeBlasiis throughout his childhood.

He was drafted into the Army in 1945, at age 17, marking the end of his time in Glens Falls and the beginning of his jazz career. Since the Army band had no violins, he taught himself to play the cornet (a type of horn), and got a part in the Hattiesburg, Miss.-based 391 ASF Band.

"That's really where he learned to improvise; learned jazz and Dixieland and bebop," said his great-nephew, Jameson Wetmore, who has studied his uncle's career and collected all his recordings. "From there, it just took off."

His mother wasn't thrilled, but the public was, according to family members. The violin was an unusual vehicle for jazz at the time, and Wetmore's knack for improvisation and unique style of playing -- he sometimes plucked the strings like a guitar -- quickly earned him a measure of fame.

After his year of service, Wetmore started playing in the Boston area, where his parents had moved during his absence. He played back-up gigs for the likes of Peggy Lee, Mel Torme and Rosemary Clooney, formed his own quartet, and eventually enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music. At the conservatory, he met composer Bob Zieff, who wrote the music for Wetmore's self-titled album released in 1955.

Wetmore's career continued to blossom over the next few years. He became a frequent guest on radio and television programs, including The Tonight Show. He was featured on several more recordings as part of a string jazz quartet led by Vinnie Burke, and played gigs all over New York City with jazz legends like Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughn, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

But as Wetmore's professional successes piled up, so did his personal problems. He drank so much that he did not even remember some of the gigs he played, and later told his family that "the only reason he was alive was because he was scared of needles" at a time when heroin use was common among jazz musicians, his great-nephew said.

"He was lucky in a number of ways, but the alcohol certainly did stunt his career. He couldn't quite jump up to the next big level, although he did put out some very great albums," Jameson said.

Wetmore's life changed when a friend convinced him to join an Alcoholics Anonymous support group. He stopped drinking in 1972 and stayed sober for the rest of his life, using his experience to mentor others through addiction problems.

Joyce Getty of Salem, Wetmore's niece, said her uncle seemed to have "found himself" in his later years.

"He told me that he was an instrument -- that he had a purpose, and that was to make music, guided by a higher power," she said.

He moved to Cape Cod and stayed away from the music scene for several years because it was so connected to the bar scene. One summer night in 1978, he went to a Brewster bar called The Woodshed to hear the popular local jazz duo of Tom Tracy and Pete Buscemi.

Tracy was skeptical when Wetmore, who was 20 years his senior, approached the duo after the show and suggested playing together. But when they gave him a chance, both men were "blown away" by Wetmore's skill and creativity.

"He was the real deal," Tracy said. "My only relationship with the violin before that was hearing it played classically, so that was a real eye-opener." The next night, Wetmore joined the duo at the Wood Shed, and "he just knocked the socks off the crowd," Tracy said.

By 1980, Tracy and Wetmore had forged a musical partnership called "Where's Harry," playing off their first names -- Tom and Dick. They played all over the Cape for most of the next 14 years.

Wetmore moved to Florida in 1996, but their friendship remained strong, Tracy said. "One of the things he used to say was, 'Just keep showing up.' That was his motto in the world -- just be there, 100 percent," Tracy remembered. "He always did that as a player, and as a human being, and brought a lot of love to people. I'm going to miss him a great deal."

In the early 1990s, Wetmore joined his nephew French's family in Indiana for Thanksgiving. Marjorie Bach, French's mother-in-law, impulsively switched the placecards at the table so she could sit next to Wetmore, "since we were the only two single people there," she said. They hit it off, sparking a long-distance romance, and married a few years later.

"I just thought Dick was a pretty neat guy to spend the rest of my life with," Marjorie said. "I feel very privileged, especially now that so many people are showing how much they adored this man. I had one over them -- I adored him, and I had him."

Some of her favorite moments were simple day-to-day routines, like drinking coffee together in bed each morning. In recent years, as Dick's emphysema sapped his strength, that ritual could last several hours before he felt able to get up, she said. They passed the time with jokes and songs, competing to see who could remember the most words to old tunes.

"I tried my darndest not to let him get sad," Marjorie said. "We found that we could entertain ourselves, and survive the trauma that we were going through."

The couple moved from Florida to Indiana last May to be closer to family members.

"It was going to be an adventure," Marjorie said. "Of course, we didn't know it would be such a short one."

The hardest part of everything, she said, was the day she realized her husband would never again play the violin.

"He could make that violin talk. I don't really think there's anyone else that has been that versatile and marvelous," she said.

And if Wetmore's mother had lived to see it, she might have been proud that her son did eventually perform with a professional orchestra. In 1996, the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra featured Wetmore as a jazz violin soloist, improvising on the tunes of George Gershwin and Jerome Kern.


Monday, January 08, 2007

The spirit of Shabat

Published on 1/7/2007 in THE POST-STAR

GLENS FALLS -- Peter Shabat doesn't look like a rich and powerful businessman. He looks more like the Maytag repairman, with a Jewish twist -- blue work pants and sneakers, a Carhartt vest embroidered with the words "Northway Service," and a faded black yarmulke that nearly blends into his dark hair.

His office is in a former feed store on South Street, near several bars and a tattoo parlor. Grimy fingerprints cover the cash register and photocopier, and a trickle of chicken feed occasionally lands on his desk from the ceiling.

He doesn't need to be there. He has enough money to retire. But while the Maytag man is known for having nothing to do, Shabat works at least 60 hours a week. He spends his days darting among his office, his pickup truck, and businesses around the region, checking up on malfunctioning bagel ovens and malfeasant tenants.

In his office, he is nearly always on the phone, though most of his conversations go like this: "Seeyouattwothankyoubye."

The only day he takes off is Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath -- "Shabbat" in Hebrew.

This is what Shabat, 55, calls "slowing down" after open-heart surgery several years ago.

He grew up in Israel, as his accent still reveals after 35 years here. He had little money when he arrived, but a wealth of motivation. He started an appliance repair business, which eventually grew to include restaurant equipment sales and service from three locations in Albany, Schenectady and Glens Falls.

By the 1990s, Shabat owned three hotels in Lake George and what he estimates was 80 percent of South Street's commercial real estate. He has sold many of his properties and downsized his repair business in recent years, but still owns four South Street buildings and handles most repair calls personally.

"When you're poor, you work hard and save...Now that I have the money, I can't stop working," he said. "What am I going to do, sit home? I have to use my hands; my mind."

His most notorious investment is the Madden Hotel, a boarding house with a reputation that matches its battered exterior. The tenants are mostly people with troubled histories, struggling with things like mental illness, substance abuse, debt and disability. As a result, Shabat admits, the Madden has a troubled history of its own.

"There's a lot of people coming in there who are just coming out of jail, having nothing...some have problems with drugs. I can't say there is no drugs there now, but it is a lot better than what it used to be," Shabat said.

Long-term tenants say they do their best to improve conditions by reporting those who damage the property or commit crimes. Those who end up on Shabat's list of "troublemakers" are banned.

"A place like that, it's what you make it," said Brian Black, who has lived at the Madden since 2001. "A lot of transients come through and say, 'It looks like he (Shabat) doesn't care about it, why should we?' But there are those of us who do...we used to have fights in there constantly, and drugs in and out of the place, but we've pretty much cleared that out now."

Black stepped into the lobby of the Madden a few minutes later, taking a reporter on a brief tour.

"Ah, shoot. Someone stole that lightbulb again," he said, glancing up.

Shabat said he keeps the building up to code, but it can be a challenge. When he first bought the Madden about 20 years ago, he renovated the place "from the ground up," he said.

"We made it nicer to begin with, but it didn't do any good. They break it, we fix it. They break it, we fix it. It gets expensive," he said. "Some people keep their rooms nice, but others are like animals, punching holes in the sheetrock and breaking doors."

The property is for sale, but Shabat said he won't sell it unless the buyer agrees to provide housing for the current Madden tenants. He hopes to work out a deal with the city.

"I could close that hotel, and it's never going to affect me financially, believe me. But there's a lot of people who, either mentally or physically, have no place to go," he said. "What would happen to them?"

Black, who is disabled by vision loss, said he, for one, doesn't know what he would do.

"If the Madden closed, I haven't a clue where I'd go. It would be a serious inconvenience, because right now I've got everything a stone's throw away," he said.

Shabat said he's "not desperate to sell," although there are days when the property is more trouble than its worth. Evicted tenants have retaliated with everything from swastikas to baseball bats, and the tires of his truck have been slashed several times.

"I don't think anybody else is going to take as much abuse as me," he said with a wry smile. "But you can't throw out the whole bunch because of a few bad apples. You can't give up."

He also insists that any potential buyer agree to keep renting space to the adjacent soup kitchen, called The Open Door.

Last year, a portion of the Madden's brick facade crumbled and fell through the roof of The Open Door, nearly landing on Rev. Bruce Hersey, the Open Door's director. But the falling wall didn't damage Hersey's opinion of Shabat.

"I've watched him over the years, and quietly, he has been very generous and kind," Hersey said, explaining that Shabat was the only South Street landlord to welcome the soup kitchen when Hersey started it from the back of a van about 15 years ago.

"He has come by numerous times to fix equipment for free," Hersey said. "And on Christmas day, he and his Jewish friends took care of feeding people so we could have a day off."

Shabat is an Orthodox Jew, the youngest of nine children born to North African immigrants in the Israeli village of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem. "I started working when I was 9 years old in a little market, and picked vegetables in the summer," he said. "I paid for my own bar mitzvah. My parents were very poor."

Shabat joined the Israeli Air Force at 15, and was still a teenager when he fought in the Six-Day War of 1967. When the Air Force sent him to Pensacola, Fla. for a training exercise a few years later, he fell in love with a girl named Lynne who vacationing there from Glens Falls with her family.

"I thought when I came here, it was only going to be for a year or so, but things change," he said.

He moved to Glens Falls, married Lynne and had two sons, but they divorced a few years later. He remarried and had a daughter, then lost his second wife to cancer. His children are grown now, have jobs in law and health care, and live in other states.

"I don't really want to talk about all of that," Shabat said, a weary look in his eyes.

Light returns to his eyes at the mention of another woman -- Ornit Reindorp, his longtime girlfriend. She also grew up in Israel, and served a year in the Army there before moving to her mother's hometown of Glens Falls about 15 years ago.

Shabat heard of her arrival from other members of the local Jewish community, and welcomed her to the neighborhood with what Reindorp considered a precious gift.

"He came over with an Israeli newspaper!" she remembered, her hazel eyes glowing.

When Reindorp stopped by the soup kitchen during a recent weekday lunch, many of the regulars greeted her affectionately. She said many of them have asked Shabat for help in the past, and they usually receive it, under certain conditions.

"If you come up to him and ask him for five bucks, he'll give it to you...but you have to show that you are willing to work for it. I mean, when he came to Glens Falls, he had holes in his shoes, he was so poor. But he was willing to work," she said.

Elvis Whorf, 25, said Shabat has "always been a motivator" for him to get his life on the right track.

"I can remember many times when I've been without a place to stay, and Peter's said, 'Hey, I've got a room.' He worked with me on rent when I couldn't pay it all at once," said Whorf. "I think he's got a heart of gold."

Reindorp looked thoughtful. "He has a unique personality," she said. "I never met a person with so much patience."

That patience does have its limits, however, as Shabat noted.

"I really don't have any conflicts with people, unless they don't pay their rent or bills," he said. "Then, I take them to court."


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

What local officials want from Spitzer

Published on 1/1/2007 in THE POST-STAR (Local News)

Santa's not the only one who's been swamped with wish lists lately.

In the weeks between Gov. Eliot Spitzer's election and his inauguration, legislators and local political leaders have written, called and met with his transition team to express their various wishes for the incoming administration's priorities -- and they're eager to unwrap his first speech for hints of good things to come.

"You always get a flavor in the State of the State for what the budget is going to be like, so I'm hoping I hear about government reform, about a balance between environmental and economic issues, and a commitment to many things that include the North Country's economy," said state Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, R-Willsboro. "And certainly, property tax relief is my top priority."

Like the fabled guy in the red suit, Spitzer has so far managed to gain the public's affection without revealing many details. He campaigned on vague, widely appealing principles like government reform and accountablity, and has promised "change on day one."

While no one knows exactly what form that change will take, one things seems clear -- no one is eager to land on the "naughty" list of such a powerful and popular figure. Local Republican legislators all spoke positively about Spitzer and said they wish him well, despite the differences in their political parties.

"Certainly, whenever there's change, there's hope. So I look forward to this coming year. I'm sure it will be interesting, to say the least," Sayward said.

Sayward said she has written two letters to Spitzer so far, each with a budgetary suggestion. She would like the new budget to include more municipal aid for revenue-starved communities, as well as funds to help counties cope with a recent 26 percent hike in fees charged by the Office of Child and Family Services.

State Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, said she is "encouraged and optimistic" about the new administration, and hopes Spitzer will use bipartisanship to follow through on his campaign promises.

"I've already written to the governor-elect and talked to him about reducing property taxes," Little said. "I said I would like to be involved, and I'm happy to see that's a priority of his as well."

State Assemblyman Roy McDonald, R-Saratoga, wants the Spitzer administration to pay attention to rural upstate communities, which he believes are often the victim of "geographic discrimination" by Albany's power brokers.

"I think it was unintentional, but New York state government has become urbanized, and programs and services are geared to urban areas," McDonald said. "I think it's a concern of his, and I look forward to working with him to turn that around."

Even brighter visions dance in the heads of leaders from Spitzer's own party.

"We're hoping to see that he has some grand plans for fixing the economy, especially upstate ... for creating jobs, and actually accomplishing some of things Pataki's been talking about for the last 12 years," said Larry Bulman, chairman of the Saratoga County Democratic Committee. "He (Spitzer) wants to take us to the next level. ... I'm very excited about it."

Bulman said he's already had two meetings with members of Spitzer's transition team, and plans to continue pressing for change in areas like health care, economic development, property tax relief and renewable energy.

Glens Falls Mayor Roy Akins, whom Spitzer endorsed in person during the 2006 mayoral campaign, said he doesn't have any specific requests for the governor at this point, but "wherever the state can help the city, I'll certainly reach out and ask for it."

Queensbury Town Supervisor Dan Stec said if he wrote a wish list to the Spitzer administration, his top request would be to stop "unfunded mandates" from the state to counties and municipalities, and to reform the Medicaid system. He said he also hopes the state will pass laws requiring the civil confinement of sex offenders and restricting where child sex offenders may live.

"If they want to start making some changes, these are just a few of the most achievable ones," he said. "But I'm not going to hold my breath. I don't have a lot of faith in Albany."