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Two trips in Italy’s Dolomite mountains, years and seasons apart, complete a circle.

Val Gardena, Italy, February late 1990’s.

Two trips in Italy’s Dolomite mountains, years and seasons apart, complete a circle. The first was a skiing trip, a coincidence, and a reason to return.

I flew into Milan from Las Vegas, took the next train to Bolzano, and luckily caught a bus to Santa Cristina Val Gardena where I stepped onto the snow covered sidewalk. It was snowing hard, and that was good. I was here to ski.

I’d picked the Italian valley of Gardena, Val Gardena in Italian, mostly because I hadn’t skied there before and knew little about it. I walked up the street, looking for a hotel for the week. I mostly travel without reservations and stop to inquire at hotels which look interesting. Sometimes they are full. Sometimes the prices are too high. Sometimes they recommend—and even call—another hotel or a house with a room to rent.

My ski bag was cutting into my shoulder, I was getting cold, and night was falling when I stopped at the Hotel Des Alpes. They had a room for a week, the price was right, and the sauna was already turned on. I was set.

Like many hotels in the European ski areas, the room was priced with half-board. Breakfast and dinner were included in the price if you ate there or not. Saunaed, showered, dressed and a bit late, I entered the dining room and was shown to my table. I was seated at a table with two other English speakers who had finished eating and were leaving. We said hello and chatted very briefly.

The snow let up the next morning and I had my first good look at the mountains. These are the Dolomites (Dolomiti in Italian) and they look quite different from the Alps nearby. Could it be my hotel was named for an image, not a location? The mountains rose quickly from the valley, nearly vertical at times, and had pancake flat tops in some spots and jagged peaks other places. The color was different too, with slabs of gray, chalk and light tan prevailing. It seemed to me there was more scree up along the ridgelines and definite striations like a layer cake. These are big shouldered looming mountains but with a different sort of heft than the sometimes soaring Alps.

At dinner that night we arrived together and introduced ourselves at the table. They were a husband and wife and professors at the University of Toronto. He was a Canadian native, she was Iranian by birth. Both were professors of geology. I listened to them and I said very little about myself. They asked how my skiing was. “Great,” I said, “and these mountains intrigue me. I’m not a geologist like you, but they look much like the mountains where I live.”

“Well,” he said, “in that case you must live in the Spring Mountain Range and probably near Mount Charleston.”

I was surprised. I said, “How did you know? I didn’t tell you where I was from.”

“It’s simple,” he replied. “These are the Dolomites, named for their mineral composition of calcium and magnesium. Without those two elements, they’d just be limestone. It’s a common but not abundant composition and your Spring Mountain Range outside of Las Vegas is well known to us geologists.”

I enjoyed my stay there, skiing the Dolomites. The region is a fascinating part of Italy, having changed hands between the Italian states and France and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Italian, German and Ladino are all spoken, and most towns have both an Italian and a German name (Selva di Val Gardena is the Italian version, Wolkenstein in Gröden is the German name; Ortisei also goes by Sankt Ulrich). The cooking tends to provide the best of both cultures.

I told this story enough times, adding the day-long ski on the Sella Ronda circuit, the wonderful blend of Italian and German cooking, and the beauty of the valley, that when it came time to do a trip to Italy and beyond with my wife and two of our friends, Val Gardena was our agreed starting point.

On the second trip, we flew into Venice, grabbed a bus to the train station, and deposited almost all of our luggage at the train station baggage check (holy cow! I joked that for the price we were paying for bag storage it was almost cheaper to get a hotel for our bags). The next train for Bolzano was in half an hour. On arriving, as before, there was enough time to have an espresso before boarding the first of two busses which would take us to Val Gardena. We stopped  in the beautiful mountain town of Ortisei. After a few minutes of wandering and finding several nice hotels fully booked, we checked with the Classic Hotel Am Stetteneck. They had great rooms, and we’d had enough travel for one day (literally, about 24 hours of travel).

Exactly how two trips in Italy’s Dolomites complete a circle is for the second part of this story involving hiking and sleeping in a mountain refuge.  That part will be posted next week.


President Clinton honored by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.

November 7 through 10, 2014

Road trip, friends, horse races, family and jazz . . . the Western Americana Road Trip continues.

After our Western Americana Road Trip from fabulous Las Vegas to soaring Downtown Los Angeles, we called it a night. The next morning we woke up in downtown Los Angeles, strolled down Grand Avenue for breakfast and—so L.A.!—watched the police cordon off the street for a movie shoot. Breakfast, coffee, checkout and ready for the road. Easy two-hour drive to Del Mar and the race track. We thought.

Rolled out of Los Angeles on Highway 101, merged onto I-5 south and looked forward to another 80 mile per hour run down open highway. Or so we thought. We understood the reason for the complete four-lane wide stop once be began creeping ahead slowly. There had been a one car rollover. The second time it was a car on the side which caught fire—and the fire trucks were already there, very impressive. The third complete stop was because everyone was gawking at a crash in the opposite lanes. Never figured out why we ground to a stop the fourth time. The fifth time was a crashed motorcycle in the opposite lanes, paramedics on site, and the highway barricaded so a flight-for-life helicopter could land to rush the cyclist to the hospital. Absolutely no reason for stops six and seven on what was now five lanes of traffic in each direction.

Arrived late at Del Mar but good parking was still available. We walked to the entrance and found our friends. We were ready to watch the ponies. Del Mar has a long history. It opened in 1937 and Bing Crosby was there to personally greet the patrons as they came through the gates. By the early 1940’s it was the place to see not only races but the Who’s Who of Hollywood. Del Mar was shut down at the beginning of World War II and used first as a training ground for Marines and then as parts assembly plant for B-17 bombers. The war ended, Del Mar reopened to a record crowd, and has been running ever since. The Hollywood connection isn’t so clear today, but its history is seen in the photo murals and streets like Jimmy Durante Drive.

Tradition is respected here at the Del Mar track “where the turf meets the surf” and every race day someone steps forward to sing “Old Del Mar.” Bing Crosby, who was a part-owner of the track, recorded the song first. Today, the track website has 7 versions, from the original to reggae to urban pop ready to listen to.

The stars may not be as numerous, but the crowds have increased. Del Mar responded just this year by adding to their traditional 36 day Summer Meet with an autumn schedule named Bing Meet. With races on the grass and on the dirt, and varying lengths, there’s a bit of racing for every fan. It’s a great place to meet friends, go down to the paddock to look at the horses and jockeys up close, make a few low-dollar wagers, have something to eat and maybe drink a beer in toast of victory or commiseration for the horse which should have won.

We left Del Mar and drove to the old coastal town of La Jolla, just north of San Diego. La Jolla still holds on to what made Southern California such a draw before everyone moved there—narrower streets, local businesses, but plenty of shops, bars and restaurants catering to the tourists, too. We checked into the La Jolla Inn, family-owned and recently renovated, but still a product of an earlier age. Located in the center of downtown La Jolla and a two minute walk from the beach, it was perfect for us.

I’d had enough driving for the day and was looking forward to a martini with friends at Jake’s Restaurant right on the beach back up towards Del Mar so for the first time we tried Uber, the hotly contested new entry into the transportation market. I’d already downloaded the Uber app on my phone, and all I had to do was type in the name of where we wanted to go, hit the button, and up popped a signal from a driver willing to take us there. I looked at my little blue dot on the Uber GPS map and the driver’s little blue dot was right around the corner. We had her name, her photo, and her car’s license number. By the time we grabbed a sweater, locked the room, and walked to the curb, she was sitting there ready for us. She knew my name and had seen the photo of me which I had attached when registering for Uber. She was a friendly single mom, making a little money on the side when her kids were in school or with friends. We had a nice safe drive, pulled into Jake’s, and my fare was automatically debited to my credit card.

Jake’s may have had humble beginnings, but it does a heck of a business now. My buddy likes it because when in law school, on those rare occasions that they had a few loose dollars, they’d go to Jake’s for the sunset. It’s hard to argue with the sunset, which makes one tend to overlook the about average food, and on a cloudy day or after dark that is still easily smoothed over with a martini. Another Uber beckoning, and we were headed back to La Jolla where we would stroll the beaches in the morning, watch the seals and the swimmers, and daydream with a cup of hot coffee while watching the California sun slice through the early fog.

It was an easier drive to Irvine. Now here’s a city I’ve never understood. It has nice neighborhoods, colleges, parks, some culture, but no real center that I’ve ever found. I’ve never been anyplace in Irvine I could look around at and say, “Here’s downtown” unless your idea of downtown is a series of business parks as if we would ever associate “business” with “parks” but of course now they are called “campuses.” But Irvine is where my cousin and his wife live, we are invited for delightful late lunch, and family—like a martini at Jake’s—can make me forget my quibbles with other things.

Back on the road, we retrace our steps—much faster than Saturday with only two or three complete stops on a massive freeway. It is back to 101 and up to Hollywood, rolling down Hollywood Boulevard, right on Highland, a quick left, another left and were at the Orchid Suite Hotel tucked directly behind the Dolby Theatre with the Chinese Theater steps away and El Capitan Theater across the street, the Egyptian Theater, Pig and Whistle and Musso & Frank’s Grill just down the street. The Dolby is new, but the rest of these spots are part of Hollywood history. Hollywood High is just south, around the corner from Mel’s Drive-In.
We check into the Orchid Suites where we’ve stayed before, park the car in the massive garage under the Dolby Theatre complex, and quickly change clothes. We’re headed to the Dolby Theater for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz’s International Jazz Trumpet Competition. We’re late, but we know the back entrance—not very glorious, but the quickest way in for us.

It seemed to be the quickest way for Don Cheadle, too, as we ended up walking four abreast into the complex. I’m not a big celebrity spotter, but if you are, this would have been the jazz jackpot.

But let’s backup a minute. Thelonious Monk was/is one of the gods of jazz. If he wrote just “Round Midnight” and ended it there, that would have made him a composer of note. He started his piano studies in classical music at age eleven, but found his way to jazz within five years. Monk’s performing life spanned four decades, starting with the big band era, jumping in with early bebop and finding new expression through the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s. After a series of long illnesses, Monk died of a stroke in 1982 leaving a legacy of intricate, complex and demanding jazz. The Thelonious Monk Institute provides musical education and opportunities to play jazz, grants scholarships, and participates in US State Department performances world-wide.

I was 17 years old, clearly underage, and had bluffed my way into New York City’s famous jazz joint, the Five Spot Café, to see Monk in person. I managed a table close to the stage, watching over Monk’s right shoulder as he attacked the keys—and attacked is the correct word—he went after keys with magnificent power, scarring the dark wood above the keys on his Steinway piano with both his heavy rings and, at times, his fingernails. During a break, I made my way through the dimly lit room into a brightly lighted restroom. I came out quickly, fearing I might have missed a minute or two of the next act. My eyes hadn’t yet dilated to accommodate the darkness in the narrow hallway and I collided with a very large black man, in a black suit, bent over the cigarette machine. I grabbed to steady him at the same time my eyes adjusted to the light. “Oh my god, it’s you. You’re my hero!” I managed to stutter to a very surprised Thelonious Sphere Monk. He adopted the middle name “Sphere” to remind people he was so much more than simply square.

Now, back to the jazz jackpot. The Dolby Theatre—home to the Oscar presentations since 2001—was jammed. Don Cheadle, brief walking companion of your humble author, was the lead-off host. John Beasley was Musical Director. The rhythm section for the evening was Reggie Thomas, piano, Rodney Whitaker, bass, and Carl Allen, drums.

Doing turns as performers were legends such as the great vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, guitarist Kenny Burrell, pianist Billy Childs, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, trumpeter Theo Croker, trumpeter Jon Faddis, bassist James Genus, host and pianist, 14-time Grammy Award winner Herbie Hancock, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, saxophonist Jimmy Heath, singer Chaka Khan, the astounding Queen Latifa, vocalist Taj Mahal, guitarist and singer John Mayer, electric bassist Marcus Miller, drummer (and son of Thelonious Monk) T.S. Monk, saxophonist Joshua Redman, songstress Dianne Reeves, saxophonist Bob Sheppard, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, host-actor-singer Kevin Spacey, drummer Jeff Watts, keyboardist-drummer-singer Pharrell Williams, trumpeter Dontae Winslow, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, pianist Kris Bowers, vocalist Kellylee Evans, and bassist Ben Williams.

Sharing hosting duties were Goldie Hawn, Quincy Jones (over two dozen Grammys), and Billy Dee Williams.

This was the International Trumpet Competition, and the field had been cut to three finalists, to be judged by trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire, Randy Brecker, Roy Hargrove, Jimmy Owens, Arturo Sandoval and the multi-talented award winner Quincy Jones. Candidates Adam O’Farrill, Billy Buss, and Marquis Hill all played great sets to showcase their skills, and Marquis Hill was judged the first place winner, receiving a recording contract as well.

Another musician, saxophonist-President Bill Clinton, stepped forward to receive the Maria Fisher Founder’s Award for his lifelong support of both jazz and of the Thelonious Monk Institute.
President Clinton honored by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.
© Photo and all Rights, The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, http://monkinstitute.org/

Once Marquis Hill was announced the winner, nearly all of the participants came back on stage to play as an ensemble. Never before, and probably never again in my lifetime, have I seen or will I see that many recognized jazz giants playing in such giant, whooping, gleeful, celebratory harmony.

Jazz, America’s only original music, was honored and consecrated on stage that night. It was not just a sight. It was a glorious hallelujah of sound.

No more famous sign than this!

November 7 through 10, 2014

Sometimes I just need a Western Americana road trip headed down a wide-open highway towards a fine steak, ponies and jazz.

Sometimes I just need to a Western Americana  road trip headed down a wide-open highway towards a finely aged steak, ponies at the track, and jazz as my soundtrack. This was the weekend for it, and we are hitting the road.

By 10:00 in the morning we had the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign in our rearview mirror and Interstate Highway 15 ahead stretching across moraines sliding down from low, creased mountains, greasewood and sage smearing a smudge of light green across the Mojave Desert’s tan, brown and black surface cut red like dried blood where the iron oxide flowed in the lava a million years ago.

iPhone jacked into the sound system, starting with Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” loud enough to be heard over the thudding roar of road noise at 80 miles an hour. The highway: caravans of huge trucks—53 feet of trailer and a lot of cab ahead of that, tires taller than small cars, chrome exhaust stacks reaching a dozen feet or more into the air, bellowing the residue of engines which themselves weigh a ton and a quarter. The highway: with wild plants sprouted so sturdy they don’t wave in the wind and you get hit with gusts you never saw coming. The highway: with six, eight even ten divided lanes each dark gray with black stripes in every center, the deposit of millions of cars and trucks dripping just a little oil and fluid each until the stripes reach forever. The highway: no place for nuanced music but we play Coltrane anyway. Turn it up.

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