Marlene VerPlanck - a celebration

Leon Nock attended - and took part in - a celebration of the life of Marlene VerPlanck, along with Daryl Sherman, Bill Charlap, Mike Renzi and many more

They brought the curtain down on a fine, long, and distinguished career - 60-plus years in the entertainment business - at the Shea Center for Performing Arts at William Paterson University on the last Sunday in September when they celebrated the life of Marlene VerPlanck (pictured right) who died, aged 84, on 14 January 2018.

Her lifelong affinity with jazz - on her very first album, vinyl and 10”, for Savoy in 1955 she was backed by Hank Jones, Kenny Clarke, Joe Wilder and Herbie Mann - was reflected in the players who showed up to honour her: Mike Renzi, Jay Leonhart, Warren Vaché, Ted Firth, Tomoko Ohno, Ron Vincent, Boots Maleson, Daryl Sherman and Bill Charlap accompanied her to a fare-thee-well in some superb Arlen and Porter.

The Jazz Studies Program at William Paterson is one of the five oldest in the country (1973) with Thad Jones the first full time member of the jazz faculty. Marlene often performed in its Jazz Room and is now named alongside her late husband in the Marlene and J. Billy VerPlanck Scholarship, designed to help gifted students fund their studies. Billy’s own memorial concert was held at the same venue in 2009 and I was privileged to attend. Having been present at both events I was able to note a peculiar symmetry: in 2009 Daryl Sherman opened the proceedings with Rainbow Hill, a ballad with lyrics by Marlene’s maternal grandfather Carmen Biase and music by her husband, Billy; in 2018 Daryl closed the concert with the last solo number, that same Rainbow Hill, before the entire cast got together for the finale.

Marlene often spoke to me of her nephews and nieces and I’ve actually known Barbara’s daughter Janice for several years but what no one, least of all Marlene, ever said was just how talented kid brother Phil’s two children were. It was in fact Paul Pampinella, looking as clean-cut and wholesome as Bob or Ray Eberle, who kicked off the proceedings, accompanied by three like-minded friends known collectively as Vintage Vocals - if you closed your eyes you’d swear it was The Modernaires/Pied Pipers - who harmonised the bejeesus out of Undecided, Stardust, and Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring before stepping aside for Paul’s sister Kristen Deppe, who weighed in with a lovely reading of Skylark.

Next up was Annette Sanders who should have been backed by Mike Renzi, Jay Leonhart, Ron Vincent and Warren Vaché. Alas, Warren blew two notes and walked off stage. Mike and Jay tried to coax him back in vain. The two numbers - I Thought About You and Some Other Time - survived intact but Marlene’s memory deserved better. Jay was joined by Tomoko Ohno and Vito Lesczak for two screwball numbers of his own that had appealed to Marlene, Playboy Club and Me And Lennie. The William Paterson Saxomania Group and The William Paterson Trombone Three (including two recipients of the J. Billy VerPlanck Scholarship, Matthew DeLeon and Caleb Rumley) then laid two Billy VerPlanck charts on us, Something To Live For and Everything But You - this is only worth mentioning because Billy’s charts were notoriously difficult for even the finest musos - and the first half wound up with Caleb Rumley’s arrangement of J.J. Johnson’s Say When.

There were several lyricists in the audience, including myself, who had written for Marlene and after the interval host Ray Hoffman chatted to us in turn about our various takes on the process and then performed one of his own lyrics, Sing Me To Sleep. The highlight as far as I was concerned was Sandy Stewart - one of the few extant vocalists fit to be mentioned in the same breath as Marlene VerPlanck, long a favourite of mine, but whom I’d never heard live. She was accompanied on the piano by her son, Bill Charlap (who I reviewed at last years’ London Jazz Festival) on Harold Arlen’s A Sleepin’ Bee, topped by an exquisite reading of Cole Porter’s After You, which she dedicated to Marlene and Billy.

There was only one number to close with, one that Marlene used as a closer herself year after year, Before The Parade Passes By, and the whole ensemble did it up brown. Afterwards Barbara and Phil hosted a dinner for one hundred of MJPs closest friends and an era slipped silently into the ether.

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