IF YOU MISSED GOING TO SUNDAY SCHOOL AS A CHILD, YOU MAY NOT BE FAMILIAR WITH THE STORY OF JOB, ONE OF THE WORLD’S OLDEST AND MOST RELEVANT STORIES OF MANKIND. ON TOP OF HIS GAME FOR MOST OF HIS LIFE, HE WAS SUDDENLY STRUCK DOWN, LOSING ESSENTIALLY EVERYTHING HE OWNED, AND FACE WITH FRIENDS TELLING HIM THAT IT WAS DUE TO ‘BAD KARMA.’
VOCALIST HILARY KOLE BEGAN HER CAREER ABOUT 10 YEARS AGO WITH ALL OF THE PROMISE OF BEINGONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT SINGERS AROUND. A DISC PRODUCED BY JOHN PIZZARELLI, FOLLOWED BY A COLLECTION OF DUETS WITH PIANISTS INCLUDING DAVE BRUBECK AND OSCAR PETERSON SEEMING POSED A BRIGHT FUTURE FOR THIS LOVELY YOUNG LADY.
AS KOLE WILL EXPLAIN IN THIS ARTICLE, SHE GOT BLIND SIDED IN SUCH A WAY THAT HER ENTIRE CAREER (AS WELL AS HER SANITY) WAS PUT IN JEOPARDY, BRINGING NOT ONLY HER PERFORMANCES AND RECORDINGS TO A SCREECHING HALT, BUT AFFECTING BOTH HER PROFESSIONAL AND PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS.
BY THE GRACE OF GOD, SHE HAS FINALLY RESURFACED WITH A NEW ALBUM (SELF PORTRAIT) A REFRESHED CAREER AND A STRONGER COLLECTION OF RELATIONSHIPS THAT SERVE AS A FOUNDATION FOR GREATER PROMISES FOR THE FUTURE.
WE RECENTLY CAUGHT UP WITH HILARY, WHO I LAST SAW PERFORMING WITH A BAND LEAD BY ALAN HOLDSWORTH IN A BREATHTAKING SHOW AT CATALINAS A HANDFUL OF YEARS AGO.
YOU DON’T SEEM TO BE PLAYING THS SMALL CLUBS ANYMORE.
I’m playing more at Performing Arts Centers. I’d love to play in smaller clubs, but it gets really difficult with a budget and everything.
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTERESTED IN MUSIC?
My mom’s mom, my grandmother, who is 97 years old, and if you can believe it or not, STILL books, was one of the first female agents around. At least in the Tri State area. She booked the Meadowbrooks Supper Club with a pretty well know group in New Jersey. So, I grew up with all of these pictures of my grandmother standing alongside all of these fascinating looking people and really didn’t think much of it. Then, when I brought my first boyfriend home for the holidays to meet everybody, he looked at me and said, “Do you know who these people are?” I said, “No, not really.” “Well, that’s Duke Ellington, and that’s Count Basie, and that’s Sarah Vaughan…”. Basically, she was a Julliard-trained musician pianist, and she was the one who paid for and was adamant about me taking lessons because I think she saw some natural talent.
But, my father is also a wonderful singer. He was a Broadway singer for many years. He performed in seven Broadway shows. His big claim to fame was that he replace Larry Kert and played Tony in the original West Side Story. He had, and still has quite a voice and is still singing. He taught me how to sing and he would bring me on stage since the time I could remember. I think I was even the New Years Baby when I was six months old! I’ve been on stage ever since; he was a wonderful vocal teacher. It’s a joke, but I use to say (because I am a good typist), “ I can’t type, so I might as well do music.” I have no other skills (laughs)!
WERE THERE ANY MAJOR BREAKS THAT CHANGED YOUR TRAJECTORY? HOW DID YOU GET THE RAINBOW ROOM GIG?
I was really lucky. I was going to The Manhattan School of Music as a composition major. I really wanted to be a film score composer; I wanted to be John Williams. I still do. That’s really why I love jazz so much-the improvisational quality of it. It’s exciting to me; I get to use those compositional chops. While I was studying there, one of the teachers in the vocal department said that they were looking for a singer in the Rainbow Room. I didn’t even know what that was, but I did a demo. I was very very lucky to get that gig. It was the first professional job I ever had in Manhattan. It was quite a way to start! (laughs)
I basically joined the band. It was nine or eleven pieces; a little big band. I played six nights a week. You know, the Rainbow Room has re-opened, but it breaks my heart because the first thing I wanted to do was to take my husband to the Rainbow Room and go dancing, but unfortunately they only have it one day a week and it’s like from 5-9! I remember that the music started at 7:30 and we would go until 1:00 am, with dancing until then every night of the week except for Monday nights. And, it was PACKED! It was incredible; I got to sing for two presidents while I was there. President Carter came up just to dance! And, President Clinton (who was the sitting president at the time) also came up and danced. It was an incredible part of Old New York. I always say that I was one of the last chick singers in New York.
DID ANY OF THE GUYS IN THE BAND GIVE YOU ANY CAREER TIPS?
The first night I performed there I was so nervous I thought I would die. The entire office I was hired by this big entertainment office called Steven Scott, and this was their big account. They had us and Windows on the World. Get a load of that, so they had The Rainbow Room and Windows on the World. The Baum family owned both of those restaurants; we were probably the biggest client that Steven Scott had. I’ll never forget it; ALL of them, the whole office came walking in and took up a whole table. About 12 suits, and here I am; it’s the first performance of my first night in my first professional setting ever . I had lied to them and told them that I had this huge professional repertoire, and I only really knew a few songs. So, three weeks before I went and started learning every standard that I could get my hands on!
Of course, I didn’t even realize that the singer before me had cheat sheets, and everyone had lyrics. But I didn’t know that, so I learned EVERY song. I sang for 5 ½ hours, and at the very end, they all left, and the last one of them turned to look at me and gave me a thumbs up. I’ll never forget that, because I was so nervous the whole time. I don’t remember anything about that night except being nervous and his thumbs up. And they never fired me. That was my audition night, and I just kept going to work (laughs).
THEN YOU WENT ON TO BIGGER CLUBS LIKE THE ALGONQUIN
That really started it for me. I met a wonderful singer by the name of Christopher Gines. He had this idea of writing a tribute to the music of Frank Sinatra. He was the stand-in crooner for when the bandleader was out. He came into the Rainbow Room and we met. I loved his singing and he liked my singing; he has that Vic Damone sound which no one does anymore. We became great friends and he asked me to be a part of this thing. He introduced me to Eric Comstock, who was the third writer, and the three of us wrote this show called “Our Sinatra” which was put on at the Algonquin Hotel.
We ran for two weeks. That’s all that it was supposed to be. But, we got what they call a “Money Review” as the New York Times loved it. The next thing you knew it was really like a New York Story. As soon as the reviews came out-Eric had a little bit of a following, but I was completely unknown and Chris was pretty unknown-the next thing we knew we were sold out for the next two weeks and within three months we had an Off Broadway show being produced of it. I can’t really believe it even now as I’m saying it. I was very, very lucky.
HOW DID YOU GET THE GIG WITH OSCAR PETERSON?
I met Oscar when he was playing at Birdland. We became friendly and I took care of him while he was playing his gig . He was one of the sweetest and most wonderful men I had ever met. I kind of took care of him when he needed some help; I would get him ice cream between sets and things like that. I was the lucky one who was able to talk to him and we’d talk about everything. We talked about Ella, Nat Cole and his family. And because he was such a wonderful man, he wanted to know all about me, so he knew I was a singer.
One night, he asked me sit in with him, and so I was able to do that. To tell you the truth, it actually did not go well. We did not have any rehearsal; he played great, he band was not used to playing with a singer, I guess. It was not the best performance, and as we got off the stage he said “I owe you one, kid.”The owner of BIrdland at the time said “Why don’t you record with her?” and he said okay. The next day he came into the studio and we recorded four tracks.
I was very lucky, just getting to know him. Even more than recording with him I spent some time up in Canada with him; I spent his 81st birthday with him. He was a remarkable man, just so full of love for the music. No ego, just a wonderful person, so I feel very lucky to have worked with him.
I was also able to work with Dave Brubeck before he passed away.
SO, HOW DID YOUR FIRST RECORD (HAUNTED HEART) COME ABOUT?
I had been working for many years before. I was trying to find the right producer and the right songs. Because I come at it as a composer, I feel like it was hard for me to figure out what I wanted to say to the world. The first records is both a big deal, but it can also be paralyzing. I had this repertoire and was singing all of the time without a record.
Finally I was playing at Birdland one night and John Pizzarelli was there. I knew him peripherally from being in the business together. He said, “You need a record. This is crazy.” I told him that I hadn’t found the right project and producer, and he said “I’ll produce it!” Well, you can’t say no to that!
So, we did it. I worked with John, and he was wonderful. We laughed the whole time; it’s amazing we got anything done, but in two days we had Haunted Heart done and recorded. He’s playing on the record with my bandmates. It was an incredible experience; we did it in two days, there is was and there I was out in the world!
THEN, YOU DID AN EVEN BETTER ALBUM, THE DUETS WITH VARIOUS PIANISTS ON “YOU ARE THERE.”
What happened was that, after working with Oscar I realized that there was something very special about the singer in the duet setting. I love my band; I still work with my guys and they’re my dear friends and I love working with orchestras and big bands, but there is something unique and very special about recording with just another person. It’s like a dance.
So after the recordings with Oscar I really wanted to explore duets more. The producer (who is my “ex” and the owner of Birdland) and I decided to create this project. We weren’t really sure if it was going to be a record or not; I just wanted for myself to work with some of these great musicians, and I was lucky enough to know people like Hank Jones, Cedar Walton, Benny Green, Kenny Barron and Mulgrew Miller. These were not just people that I knew, but people who were legends and that were inspirational to me.
We went one by one. It took a very long time because people like Michel LeGrand live in Paris. He came to NYC once a year and was wonderful to work with. So, over a 3-4 year process we recorded these guys when we could. We’d go into the studio; we’d never have music. I think I asked Kenny Barron to play “Lush Life.” I think it was the only thing that I was thinking of ahead of time. Everything else us just picking a song and going with it. I didn’t want to have any charts or any encumbrances; I wanted it to be a “behind the scene” session.
We were almost done and a friend of mine, Michael Bourne (who is a writer and disc jockey) had a demo that I had made for him and he had sent it to Dave Brubeck. I told him “I’m never going to get Dave Brubeck.” He doesn’t know me and I don’t know him. Well, Dave got the demo and said “Yes”! It was just remarkable.
I remember that we were on deadline and had already promised the record to Japan. Dave said “I’d love to do it, but I’m in Florida for the next three months.” I said, “No problem; we’ll fly to Florida!” I flew to Naples, Florida and had to find a recording studio there. It was hard to do, by the way! Most people are not recording Dave Brubeck in Naples, Florida. We also couldn’t find a recording studio that had a real good piano, so we went to the Bosendorfer piano store and we rented a Bosendorfer piano because we had to have a good enough piano for him. It was the whole thing. Even while we were doing it, the people there were saying, “Dave Brubeck? He’s not coming here.”
Of course, the day of the recording, Dave Brubeck comes walking in. The Bosendorfer owner and studio owner were both falling over him. Dave sat down and recorded not just one, but two songs with me, and they are just wonderful. I was so lucky have been able to know him. And, again, not just the music, but going to dinner with him and finding out stories about him. He was just a remarkable person.
For example, Dave’s “Meadowlark,” was in a very low key for me. It was one of my favorite songs, and I really wanted that song to be on the record, but the verse was just too low for me. There was no way I could do it, and I tried everything; I tried smoking, I tried getting a cold…I just couldn’t do it. It was too low. So, he changed the melody for me! I’ll never forget that. That is the kind of person that he was; no ego at all. I’ll never forget this; I looked at him and I had to say something because I felt so nervous. So I said, “Mr. Brubeck, I’m sorry, but I’m just so nervous.” He looked at me, took my hand and said “So am I!” (laughs)He then said “Call me ‘Dave’” and it was all about the music.
So, that project is very close to my heart.
SO, YOU’RE ON THIS GREAT TRAJECTORY. YOU’VE RELEASED TWO GREAT ALBUMS AND THE FUTURE LOOKS GREAT. THEN THE BOTTOM FALLS OUT, AND THERE’S A “WHERE’S WALDO” MOMENT. WHAT HAPPENED?
Well, my former fiancé is also the owner of Birdland. We had a recording contract and a management contract that towards the end of our relationship was entered into (I’m not going to get into all of the details)and unfortunately when I decided to leave the relationship he was not very happy about it. It was unfortunately a situation where you have your personal life and your professional life colliding in the worst possible way.
Unfortunately, he went out of his way to prevent me from recording and from working. It took me about two years, a long time, in the court system (where it takes a long time), but I was very lucky that the judge very quickly saw what was going on and nullified the contract, so that able to record. And then of course he then appealed the decision (as is everyone’s right in this country) so that took another six to eight months. There was then a unanimous 5-0 decision in my favor. So, I’m very happy to say that from that date forward, the day of the appeal, he has no control over my recording career or my professional life anymore. But it took three years, and of course as you know that takes a huge toll on you. And he knew that, very well. He was trying to let this go on as long as possible in order to create the most damage, and it’s unfortunate.
But, at the same time, I’ve come out at the other side, and I’m excited about the new record that I’ve just put out, Self Portrait. I’m in the most creative part of my life right now. I’m very excited about it. Personally, it’s the best decision I’ve ever made; It’s also the best professional decision I’ve made.
DID YOU SEE THE IRONY IN THAT YOUR FAMILY COMES FROM A MANAGEMENT BACKGROUND AND YOU HAD THIS HAPPEN TO YOU?
It was horrible. My father is 83 and lives in Florida. When we were a couple we had bought him a condo to live in because he was a musician so he didn’t have the financial resources. But my ex evicted my father; it could not have been uglier. I had to get an “order of protection” because it was a bad situation and I was afraid for my safety. It was a bad scene and he is a very powerful person in the jazz world, especially in New York City.
LOOKING BACK, WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY
(laughs) How much time do you have?!? There’s so much I would have done differently. Trust. It just goes so deep.
WAS THERE ANY ONE OR ANYTHING THAT HELPED YOU GET THROUGH THIS?
I have to say that there were so many people that had been afraid to work with me or who were actually fired from the club for working with me. Look, I didn’t expect anyone to fight my battles. I get it that people need to work. I never told anyone not to work at that club. I supported all of my friends; most of them work at that club every once in awhile. It’s just unfortunate that someone with so much power has the ability to threaten and control things in very subtle ways. People can get fired for any number of reasons, of course, but it is what it is.
What really got me through was my incredible family and the man that I’m now married to, who is wonderful. That helps a lot, especially when he is a man who was threatened by my ex as well, and kind of in the middle of things at the beginning of our relationship. He just stood up for what was right; it’s wonderful to be in a healthy relationship and he’s super supportive. He got me through every day. AND, I have to say although I lost a huge swath of what I thought my community was in NYC, there were so many people that came out of the woodwork. Some people that I expected but more often people I never expected that would just write me on facebook or emails. Just telling me that they support me and are thinking of me. I can’t tell you how much that has meant. So, my fans who kind of knew about the situation or found out about the situation have been incredible. And now, I’m pregnant, and that’s magical!!! I feel very very blessed.
They were really one of the main reasons I kept on singing. There was a point where it looked very bleak and it looked like I wasn’t going to do anything for years and years. And, to have that taken away from you when it’s the only thing you’ve ever done is really a scary thing. The people who got me through were my fans and my family, and I’ll never forget that. I dedicated the record to them because they made the difference. There were many, many nights where I didn’t think I could go on.
IT’S LIKE THE BOOK OF JOB, WHERE HE SAYS, “BUT GOD KNOWS THE PATH I TAKE, AND WHEN I AM TESTED, I’LL COME FORTH AS GOOD AS GOLD.”
You’re absolutely right about that. You find your strength and you find your faith only when you’re tested that way.
NOW, ON THIS LATEST ALBUM, YOU WERE OBVIOUSLY THINKING ABOUT NOT THE HEALTHIES RELATIONSHIPS!
It’s funny; I didn’t realize it at the time. These were just the songs that helped me through. Listening to “Lampside,” listening to “God, Give Me Strength” these were songs and artists I went to, which is why the album is not specifically standards. These were not the songs that would make me say, “Oh, I’m going to do a “Standards” records, and this is what I’ll do.” These were my songs and they were kind of my sanity. These were songs I’d listen to at 3:00 in the morning when I couldn’t sleep. Songs that I’d go to the piano and play.
I had to make that decision: Do I make myself that vulnerable and do I share that with people? After thinking about it for a long period of time, I came to the conclusion that this is the most honest snapshot of where I am at this moment. Both the good and the bad. It’s mixed, because we’re all mixed. As you get older you’ve hopefully got a lot of stuff going on, and I had A LOT of stuff going on during the last three years. And, for an artist, the easiest thing is to do is release it like a catharsis through your art, and I’m so lucky that it’s out now and I can share it with people
I also felt like when it came out that a huge weight had been lifted off of my head.
WHEN YOU LOOK BACK FROM THE TRAJECTORY, AND WHEN YOU THINK OF THE SONGS FROM YOUR ALBUM AND YOUR COVER PHOTO, WHAT GOES THROUGH YOUR MIND NOW THAT YOU’VE RECOVERED?
How raw it all was. I can even hear it in my voice, compared to my other albums. Look, it was the first time I was in the studio in three years. Even just that-getting into the studio and having them do the first take-was a huge step for me. You start to doubt yourself: Can I do this again? Am I what I once was? And of course you’re different. How do you deal with that? I really wanted this album to be authentic; I could have made the vocals “prettier”; I’m good at that. But I didn’t want that. I wanted it to be just what it was; a self-portrait. And that means it’s not perfect. You’re seeing all of the flaws. You’re seeing the striation and everything. I think that’s why it’s a successful project because I can feel what I was feeling then (when I go back to the album).
It’s funny though; I don’t listen to it a lot because it’s hard.
A FRIEND OF MINE USED TO SAY, “ALWAYS TAKE ADVICE FROM SOMEONE WHO WALKS WITH A LIMP.” YOU NOW HAVE THAT “LIMP” AND HAVE BEEN HEALED, YOU CAN DO WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS, “COMFORT THOSE WHO ARE IN AFFLICTION WITH THE COMFORT THAT COMES FROM GOD.”
Absolutely. And that’s the thing about music; it brings people together. Look, I’m not the only one who’s ever had heartbreak; EVERYONE’S had heartbreak. But, up until these past years, I really didn’t know what heartbreak was besides “ Oh, I had a boyfriend in high school” and on and on. This was a whole different level of tragedy in my life and to go through it and process it and come out the other side makes you a totally changed person. And many people have gone through that, and if these songs, especially for women that are in relationships that are controlling and possessive, in which the women are unsure of how they are going to get out and go on when everything is taken away from them…if the album can be helpful, and if I can solace or a voice through any of these songs for them…that’s an incredible gift.
THERE’S A SCENE IN WOODY ALLEN’S MOVIE “LOVE AND DEATH” WHERE THE RUSSIAN ARMY IS GETTING SLAUGHTERED ON THE BATTLEFIELD. A RABBI RUNS BY AND YELLS “IT’S A TEST FROM GOD,” TO WHICH ALLEN RESPONDS “I WOULD HAVE PREFFERED THE WRITTEN EXAM.”
THAT IS HOW IT IS IN LIFE; WE PREFER THE EASY AND LESS BLOODY WAY OF LEARNING AND SHAPING OUR CHARACTER, BUT LIKE IT SAY IN THE BIBLE, “THE HEART OF MAN PLANS HIS WAY, BUT THE LORD DETERMINES HIS STEPS.” OR, AS IT SAYS IN THE MOVIE “BELLA,” DO YOU WANT TO MAKE GOD LAUGH? TELL HIM YOUR PLANS.
WE HAVE BEEN MADE SO THAT IT IS THE TRIALS THAT TRULY SHAPE OUR CHARACTER AND REFINE US. HILARY KOLE HAS LEARNED THAT ALL TOO WELL, BUT NOT JUST FOR HERSELF. SHE CAN NOW PASS ON HER LESSONS AND HER STRENGTH TO OTHERS WHO HAVE GONE AND WHO WILL GO THROUGH SIMILAR TRIALS, AND SHE CAN STAND AS AN INSPIRATION FOR THOSE NEEDING ONE. HER SINGING REFLECTS GOING THROUGH THE BAPTISM OF FIRE, SOMETHING THAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A VOCALIST AND A SINGER WHO TRULY TELLS A STORY. CHECK OUT HER ALBUMS TO SEE WHAT A DIFFERENCE A TEST CAN DO TO SOMEONE, AND LOOK FOR HER SINGING THE SONG OF VICTORY NEXT TIME SHE COMES IN TOWN.