catherine o'brien

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extract from catherine o'brien's story

At that time, in the early 1990s, I believed my career as a piano player was seriously limited due to ongoing pain when practising following a car accident in 1988. I'd really hoped to develop my piano playing further into solo jazz or classical and was frustrated by the fact that after a few hours practicing I had neck pain. I could practice two or three or four hours a day but I couldn’t practice 10 hours a day. I could continue as a pianist and vocalist but couldn’t see myself becoming a solo or concert pianist. With the recession, regular piano vocal work was disappearing. I needed to diversify. One door closes. Another one opens.

LA OR BUSK One day I visited a piano player by the name of Dick Hughes, he was playing in The Shakespeare Hotel in Surrey Hills. We were talking about Clifford Brown, a favourite trumpet player of mine. He told me that in his opinion, the best trumpet solo of all time, was Billy Butterfield playing the Bob Haggart composition 'I'm Free' recorded with the Bob Crosby Band 1938.

The original title of the musical composition which later became "What's New" with lyrics by Johnny Burke, recorded by Bing Crosby in 1940. I found this intriguing. Dick is also a journalist as well as a jazz pianist and historian and I suggested to him that he put lyrics to the original title, he said that wasn't his bag.

My very first thought was "Why did Bob Haggart call this hauntingly beautiful composition 'I'm Free '"? As I lay in bed at home that night, I mused over this. I found myself formulating some lyrics. They flowed so easily once the first two words 'I'm Free' were in place. I got up, rushed to the kitchen table and wrote down the first verse. Went back to bed, got up again, wrote down the second verse and before morning, the song was in shape.

I contacted Dick Hughes again and told him my lyrics, he was impressed and offered to lend me the original recording. I taped 'I'm Free' and another track by Bob Haggart and Hilton Lamare called 'My Inspiration' (the title appealed to me). When I got home I sat down with 'My Inspiration' and put lyrics to that. 'My Inspiration' is a beautiful piece played on the original recording by Irving Fazola on clarinet, it sounds like he is playing in the middle of a forest!

I was beside myself with the discovery that I could create something! I contacted Ron Tudor, the first Australian music publisher (the Fable label) now retired, who had been helpful to me in the past. He rang me on a Sunday morning. He told me that I "really had something there".

I used to go to the Gaelic Club in Devonshire Street, Surry Hills on a Sunday night where jazz musicians would congregate for a 'session'. Peter Piercy aka 'the judge', a jazz pianist-accompanist, he used to accompany Billy Eckstein and the like, found a music chart for "My Inspiration", and one night at the Club I sang to the 'musos' my renditions of 'I'm Free' and 'My Inspiration'.

Some of these musicians played music from that era and were really tickled with what I had done. They said that my lyrics fitted perfectly. They got Bob Haggart's phone number in Florida from Bob Barnard, the Australian jazz trumpeter, who had performed with him. I was curious to ask Bob Haggart why he called the music 'I'm Free' and to see if he liked my lyrics.

I rang him in the wee small hours from my flat in Bondi and sang the songs to him over the phone. He was delighted. He said "Do you ever get over here? I'm doing a gig at the LA Classic Jazz Festival on the Labor Day Long Weekend in September". This was 1994. I received a postcard from him, saying how much he enjoyed hearing my lyrics and that he hoped we could meet. I was keen to follow up this invitation from Mr Haggart. I was receiving encouragement from industry people here.

So I wrote a sign, it said 'LA or Bust', then 'L.A. or BUSK', put it on my guitar case for donations whilst busking. (I still have the original sign and others, signed by 'punters ' and Bob Haggart!)

Busking is a very interesting occupation, people can surprise you or they can be predictable. I had a lot of comments: "What does that mean, 'L.A. or BUSK?' Occasionally they would hang around long enough for me to explain. Though many of them might not have believed my explanation, they'd contribute all the same.

I kept in touch with Bob Haggart and told him I was trying to get over there. He told me he was playing at the Airport Marriott Hotel and the dates. I tried with the airlines to get a discounted or partly sponsored ticket unsuccessfully. I tried to get a loan from the Arts Council but was told that only established recording artists were eligible. I was $50 short of the fare the first year (if I'd not paid my phone bill or rent for a week or two). I was amazed that I got that close. My mother offered to give me $350 but I guess pride prevented me from accepting.

I really wanted to earn the money myself! The second year, I had the fare plus $50! Still not enough to arrive with any degree of independence and respectability to meet Mr Haggart.

The third year, I had enough money to cover the fare and some expenses and my sister, Miriam, gave me authority to use her credit card as security. So I went. The year was 1996.

I had managed to extract the direct phone number of Neil Gillis, the Vice President of Copyright, at Wamer-Chappell LA, (the publisher of Bob Haggart's music) from John Brommel, the Managing Director, Warner-Chappell, Sydney with whom I had had initial and various subsequent contact regarding the songs.

After several attempts I got through to Neil Gillis in LA who agreed to a brief appointment. (I arrived in LA end of August 1996). The appointment lasted over an hour and the Director of Copyright, Ernie Petito was also present. Neil was aware of the project and when we met he said that all he cared about was that the standard of the lyric was comparable to the standard of the music and in my case, he said that it was.

He raised the matter of the other lyricist, Johnny Burke ("What's New?" 1940) and that I may need to get permission from his publishers in New York as well as from Mr Haggart when I meet him at the Jazz Festival. He gave me the name of the person to contact in New York, told me that he would write a letter for Mr Haggart to sign and wished me luck.

I would like to mention that I was very conscious of the ages of the parties involved As the music was written in 1938, Mr Haggart was 83 now and though we had been in touch constantly, I wanted to avoid putting him under any pressure. The same applied to the Burke family (of the "What's New?" lyrics, 1940). Mr Burke was deceased but his wife and children held copyright of his lyrics.

When I finally met Mr Haggart with the letter from Warner-Chappell and photos of my meeting with them, he was really surprised and impressed that I had met with them and he took the letter. He told me the history of the songs and their recordings over lunch -fascinating stuff!

I stayed for most of the Festival, met many of the other musicians playing there who all thought what I had done was terrific, they could see that my lyrics would further extend appreciation of the music to a new audience and generation of people. I went to New York and after a few days received the letter from Warner-Chappell with Bob's signed approval.


Catherine O'Brien
"zino's" new york bob haggart on bass, buckie pizzarelli on seven string guitar, john bunch on pianoI met up with Bob Haggart again in New York while he was performing with John Bunch and Buckie Pizzarelli at Zinno's in Greenwich Village. He was still excited about the whole project and was keen to be involved, making suggestions of possible contacts that he had.

As it turned out, I recorded these songs with Doug de Vries on guitar in December 1996 on my CD 'LA OR BUSK' together with other co-compositions. My sister, Rosaleen, played keyboard on two of the tracks. The session was arranged by Ron Tudor at Seed Recording Studios in South Melbourne, for which I remain grateful.



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