In 2014 my wife Dorothy and I — tired of snowdrifts, leaky roofs, and steep stairs — moved to Beaumont at Bryn Mawr, a retirement community owned by its residents. Dorothy wanted a pool and exercise classes. My needs were two — an apartment big enough for our grand piano, and a room where I could continue weekly jam sessions with my jazz band. Beaumont suited us both. One day Evelyn Isom, a resident and new friend, brought Alan Tripp and me together around the piano. He turned out to be a tall 98-year-old with a quick smile, wrinkled for sure, but with a firm grip, still-youthful walk, and an enviable head of hair. Alan had enjoyed stellar careers in advertising, marketing, product innovation, and radio/TV production. I’d had a number of careers too, and we soon bonded around a love for old cabaret and show tunes. Aside from boundless creativity, Alan was an enduring romantic. He began jamming with my band and won us over us with his versions of “Alice Blue Gown” and Cole Porter’s wonderful “Miss Otis Regrets.” At dinner, we amused ourselves recalling old classics. “A fine romance,” Alan would sing, and I’d answer, “with no kisses.” How about “Fish gotta swim,” I offered. Instantly Alan added, “And birds gotta fly.”
He also wrote verses non-stop. On his 99th birthday, Alan invited a few of us to his apartment and read aloud “Best Old Friends,” a poem celebrating senior life at Beaumont. I played the piano for years, sustained by the masterworks of Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, and Cole Porter. Alan’s verse energized me in the same way. At age 86, I was determined to write my first song. I would set “Best Old Friends” to music for Alan’s 100th birthday. When you play jazz, you create new melodies on the fly. How hard could it be to write one? It turned out to be harder than I thought.
Matching notes to words and staying true to a song’s emotional content, required me to learn a new skill. Chuck Anderson, my jazz teacher, offered song-writing tips. I borrowed a few chords from a tune I liked and — after hours of trial and error — created a melody for Alan’s lyrics.
The chorus begins —
When we were young, you’ll remember, I’m sure —
We all had good friends and felt nice and secure.
Then some moved away and others just died,
But a few hung around and stayed fast by our side.
The last lines read —
By magic we meet
All the right folks somehow,
Who are more than just friends . . .
We’ve become Best Old Friends now.
I intended my gift as a surprise. Alan, meanwhile, planned to throw himself an elaborate 100th birthday party. He reserved the huge Beaumont Room and invited 150 relatives and friends. He recruited my band to play and selected 14 songs starting with “For Me and My Gal” from 1917 — the year of his birth — to Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” written in 1973 but still popular and a perfect mirror for Alan’s self-image in 2017. The list included “Stormy Weather” from 1933 — when he graduated high school — and “I Married an Angel,” from 1942 — when he wed Maggie. For each song, he told a story, sang a verse, and had band members perform excerpts. He opened the mic for comments, then treated us all to grand wine, cheese reception, and a catered dinner. He recorded the proceedings and made a DVD for everyone who was there.
I held back my gift, and about a week later I invited Alan to my apartment and played the tune for him. He smiled, thanked me, and sang a few bars. I never intended to write another song. A week later, I found another verse in my mailbox. Thus began our unplanned collaboration. For a year, my new best-old-friend and I put to music the ups and downs of love and life in elder-land. It was hard work and great fun. At Alan’s prompting, I composed ballads (“Looking in the Mirror,” “Goodbye Forever”) and easy swing tunes (“I Just Can’t Remember Your Name,” and “Never Too Late for Love”). He urged me out of my comfort zone with “Wonder Woman,” an homage to rock and roll in memory of Maggie — who had died after 73 years of marriage. In his 101st year, he drove himself to Maine for the summer. By then he had a new love interest, a former Bryn Mawr professor in her late 80s, for whom he wrote:
Because I Care For You,
I will be there for you.
Always take care of you.
Do you like that?
“It’s a tango,” said Alan. I dutifully downloaded a few tangos and tried melodic variations on my keyboard until I got the hang of it.
Alan had written verses since childhood. He’d never made a record. My band, Wynlyn Jazz Ensemble (WJE), had released a studio CD of standards and played 60 gigs at Beaumont. Alan realized that we had — as TV cops might say — motive, means, and opportunity. He offered stipends to the band and recruited Chuck Anderson as musical director. We rehearsed for a few weeks, then spent five Saturdays in a professional recording studio. Linda Madara, a Beaumont resident and veteran photographer, memorialized us with dramatic photos. Alan hired Beaumont’s marketing consultants to publicize the result.
To our amazement, the Senior Song Book CD went viral in the fall of 2019. Within weeks CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, and Brazilian TV sent video crews to Beaumont. Having by then 190 birthdays between us the media branded us “The oldest song-writing team in the US.” We appeared on Canadian Television and in People magazine. We had 10,000 hits on YouTube. A few thousand bought or downloaded our CD. Kelly Clarkson offered to fly us to California to appear on her TV show for 15 minutes. We settled for FaceTime from Alan’s apartment. (I knew nothing of Kelly until my grandkids began treating me like a rock star.)
In March 2020 the global virus ended our 15 minutes of fame. Exhausted by then, I’d already had three minutes too many. My lifelong dream was jamming with friends. I didn’t care about fans and records. Alan’s dream was Broadway. Ever ebullient, he had barely warmed up. “You don’t retire from something,” he told an interviewer. “You retire to something.” Alan phoned music publishers. He sought a film deal for a romcom using our songs. He solicited aging artists like Carole King and Barry Manilow to cover our tunes. No luck. He was now 102. That slow Alan? Not at all. That year he had a minor auto accident, was threatened with a suspended license, went to court, and got to keep it. The incident inspired a lyric:
When your kids won’t let you drive the old Mercedes
And your favorite barman says you should abstain,
You can tell them all to go to hades, and —
Complain, Complain, Complain, Complain,
When I suggested a blues, Alan obliged with:
I got the ‘I’m-gettin’-older-
I checked off my bucket list,
All of the don’ts and the dos.
I”m gonna go for broke
‘Cause I ain’t got nothin’ to lose!
When he needed help walking securely, he wrote:
And if I’ve lost a step or two,
Just a simple cane will do,
Happy news! I’ll never lose
My Love of Life.
He addressed his final lyric squarely to me. The verse reads —
Dear Mr. Songwriter, here’s my request,
Slightly old-fashioned but give it your best.
Then followed an “A, A B, A” chorus with each section double-length at 16 measures. The first stanza makes plain what he’s after —
Write Me a Waltz, make it three-quarter time,
Something that’s rhythmic and soft and sublime.
You can delight me and even excite me
If you’d only write me a waltz.
So, I wrote him a waltz. He loved the classic feel of the lead sheet, but when I played it for him as a jazz waltz, he shook his head emphatically and said “No syncopation! Straight one-two-three!”
Therein lay the difference between us. Alan’s dream was writing hit songs. He loved the limelight and yearned for Broadway. My musical ambitions began and ended with our weekly jam sessions. I liked all kinds of music, but jazz was what I wanted to play. I never cared who listened. To this end, about 25 years ago, when I was in my 60s, Dorothy and I began hosting weekly jam sessions with a few friends, in our 100-year-old carriage house, not far from Beaumont. The jams evolved into “open-mic” jazz parties where 50 or so friends, neighbors, and guests could listen, socialize, and perform. Larry Serinsky, our Wynlyn Road, neighbor and a regular, had a friend who owned a local studio. Larry proposed we share the cost and treat ourselves to a professional CD. We practiced up and produced, Good Company in 2012. The band needed a name. That’s when our weekly free-for-all became the Wynlyn Jazz Ensemble.
Dorothy and I, when we sought to simplify our lives in 2014, looked for a place where the band could move with us. Beaumont’s marketing director assured us that WJE was welcome to continue jamming there. We signed up, and a few months later resumed our Saturday morning free-for-alls in Beaumont’s big meeting room. One day, our executive chef appeared in his high white hat listening and smiling. From him, we learned that no residents played publicly.
Soon after Dorothy and I went to eat in the Bistro, the newest of several dining rooms. It had TVs and was billed as a “Sports Bar.” Most tables were empty. The dining director told me that very few people showed up for ball games OR dinner. (I had sensed that on Super Bowl day when I peeked in to see how the game was going and met just one of our 250+ residents.) On a whim, I suggested an experiment. I’d invite the band to play in the Bistro one night and see if we could draw people in. We’d call it the “Bistro Supper Club.” That conjured images of the Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby movies of my youth. The next Saturday evening, having posted an announcement, we moved our jam session to the Bistro and played two sets to a full house during dinner. At the end, I asked if we should do it again. We drew smiles and applause, a new experience for me.
Thus began monthly Supper Club nights featuring tunes from the Great American Songbook, a loose compendium of 800 or so time-tested “standards” (no one knows how many) played thousands of times since the 1920s. Most were composed for Broadway shows and Hollywood films. Composers wrote thousands of songs over the decades. Only a handful became classics. What sets them apart were lyrics that touched the hearts of vocalists and listeners, even when extrapolated from the plot lines that inspired them. The best ones had melodies and harmonic possibilities that inspired jazz musicians to improvise new versions. Even now those of us of a certain age instantly light up hearing “Stardust,” “As Time Goes By,“ or “Satin Doll”.
That first year Alex Mykietiuch, my friend for decades, who played guitar for a living in his youth, became a Saturday night regular. Rob Stone, another old pro, joined us on tenor sax. The nucleus of the original group remained. Allan Kobernick, a friend for many years, played drums and harmonica. Larry Serinsky, my neighbor, expanded his vocal interests beyond rhythm and blues. Mark Hollern, who sang with a 100-voice choir and had perfect pitch, showed up wanting to add popular tunes to his repertoire. Len Pavel, who’d played drums with an Army Air Corp band in the 1940s, became a regular. At a friend’s art show I met Sandy Crow, a church choir singer who’d grown up on Broadway tunes, and her husband, David Zopf, a retired physician who had played acoustic bass with symphony orchestras and toured with the Buddy Morrow big band during college. Roz Spigel, born to sing in late night clubs, showed up at a jam session and stayed on. By 2017, we had six musicians and four singers. Evelyn Isom and Alan Tripp were sitting in as guest artists. Our ages ranged from 60 to 90 years plus Alan at 100.
It didn’t seem to matter what we played nor how polished our renditions were. Friends and neighbors mouthed the words and tapped their feet. A few got up and danced. That was an unplanned treat. We began ending each evening with a sing-along, everybody joining in. The residents and band were becoming a community of folks who loved the old tunes. The chef began creating special menus befitting a Supper Club. The Bistro now had a waiting list even when the band didn’t play. On band nights, those without reservations could not get in. We and our gear preempted three tables. This was never our intent. By the end of 2017, we decided to change our format and venue. We began playing a one-hour Cabaret Night program, in our 100-year-old Music Room once a month before dinner for about 60 people. No reservations, space for all who wanted in, snacks and drinks available. By year’s end, we had added a monthly Jazz & Cocktails evening — a casual trio playing favorite tunes and requests. We put on programs: celebrating holidays, WWII milestones, Women’s History Month, the birth of jazz in New Orleans, love in its many guises, the seasons of the year, and the lives of our favorite composers. By the time the Covid pandemic shut us down we were doing 20 gigs a year.
No longer jamming, we practiced weekly in the Music Room. Listeners dropped in and out. It never occurred to any of us to write songs about aging. By the time I set Best Old Friends to music for Alan’s 100th birthday, we had behind us three years and hundreds of songs performed in the Bistro, Music Room, and Beaumont Room. In each venue, the crowd grew. Alan had witnessed all of it, never missing a performance, often singing with the band. Neither of us anticipated the emotional impact these monthly infusions of recognizable music would have on our friends and neighbors. I had never considered us performers. Now I was paying attention to the reactions of the audience.
Seeking enlightenment, I went back to a book I had read a decade earlier, This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitin, a musician and neurophysiologist. By age 6, Levitin wrote, we all become expert listeners, “able to make quite subtle determinations of what we like and don’t like, even when we’re unable to articulate the reasons.” Our teen years, his research showed, are “the turning point for musical preferences.” In our adult years, the music that stirs up nostalgia and becomes “Our music” turns out to be what we were hearing at age 14. I found myself thinking about how I came to love the songs WJE plays. When I was 10 in 1941, an older cousin introduced me to the singing of Frank Sinatra, a skinny kid from New Jersey, who had teenage girls in bobby socks “swooning.” For a time, he was featured on Your Hit Parade. My parents tuned in every Saturday night. They also collected vinyl albums from the golden age of musical theater: Oklahoma, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, Finian’s Rainbow, Kiss Me Kate, and Guys and Dolls.
At a high school dance circa 1947, I stood mesmerized looking over Nat “King” Cole’s shoulder in the middle of the dance floor as he played piano and sang “Route 66” with his trio. In college, in the early 50s, I encountered more jazz and folk music. By the time I graduated, I owned dozens of albums paid for by waiting tables. I favored pianists — Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Marian McPartland, and, of course, Nat Cole.
From Levitin, I acquired a new perspective on my love affair with the songs of my youth. No matter how old we get our brains still recall lyrics, melodies, singers, and band names acquired from long-gone radio and TV shows, concerts, school dances, films, and musicals. Put on “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” or “Over the Rainbow” and I’m in a time warp. With the right song, so are most people. At Beaumont, I had seen Alzheimer’s sufferers, despite severe memory loss, easily repeat songs they heard as teens. Thus, does music help even those of us who can’t remember where we are, recall with clarity where we once were.
Recreating this music with my musical friends and sharing the joy with new best-old-friends and neighbors, was an unexpected gift of growing old. My friend, Alan Tripp, who lived longer than anyone I ever knew, understood how music connects the synapses. As a young man, he toured New York’s “Tin Pan Alley,” hoping to have his songs published. It was a hard sell. He discovered he had a talent for radio jingles and produced several successes, notably the Choo Choo Charley ads for Good and Plenty candy. Alan never stopped writing verses — romantic, touching, and often laugh-out-loud funny. His lyrics in old age resembled, in form, those of shows from Broadway’s golden age. However, Alan’s Senior Song Book storylines originated in his own growing old. He touched seniors where we live — our memories, joys, sorrows, fears, hopes, and fantasies. He wrote “Wonder Woman” about his late wife when he was past 100. At 101, he came up with . . .
I know I’m mad bout you
And all but lost without you,
And great affection for you I proclaim.
I know I oughta kiss you, but baby, there’s an issue:
I Just Can’t Remember Your Name!
Even a sad song like “Looking in the Mirror,” (reliving a failed love affair from his youth) evokes that familiar sense of how it-feels-so-good-to-feel-so-bad.
Do I see a collection
Of all my cares and woes?
Or just a sad reflection
Of the way that my life goes?
“Looking in the Mirror,
I can’t believe it’s true.
That the face I see looking back at me,
Looks a lot like you.
Mostly, Alan chose to channel the good-humored optimism he exuded every day — e.g.
I’m too old for running a stop sign,
Too old to settle for cheap wine.
Too old for handing out the same old line,
But Never Too Late For Love.
My melodic ideas, by contrast, derived from tunes I had heard in my youth. I wrote them after jamming with my friends for decades on hundreds of numbers from that flexible American songbook. When I set “Best Old Friends” to music, I thought it would be a one-off. When Alan heard it, he was driven into a flurry of creativity. He swept me along with one new lyric after another. Then, energized by the global reaction to our CD, he planned a sequel by his 105th. As I composed melodies to match Alan’s words, I found myself immersed in life lessons on graceful aging, camaraderie, everyday pleasures, and music-making for the joy of it. Unlike the paeans to nostalgia that I grew up on, Alan’s lyrics never conjured images of moonlight magic, dim cafes, or the children’s carousels of lost youth.
Alan, my centenarian troubadour of the here and now, wrote about the everyday lives of old people. He taught me how freeing it can be to belt out a line like “I got the ‘I’m gettin’ older, but I really don’t give a damn’ blues.” As for my music, if you’re the right age, you’d have no trouble with it. It sounds a lot like what you heard when you were 14.
Alan died in his sleep at 103 during the early hours of December 24, 2020. When I phoned him a few days earlier, he was still dreaming up Senior Songs for another CD by the time he hit 105. In his last years, Alan and I wrote 14 songs. We collaborated effortlessly, tweaking words and music until we both were happy. Although our output was a joint endeavor, the storylines were all Alan’s. It’s easy to talk about “aging gracefully.” It takes real work to do it. He taught me a great deal about accepting the vicissitudes of growing older one day at a time. He wrote lyrics joyfully, intending to live forever. The way I see it, he nearly did. •