This Saturday night Ellen Ciompi is singing cabaret at the Community Church of Chapel Hill, Unitarian Universalist. I was lucky enough to sit down for an interview with her in 2014. She painted me a landscape, let me inside the sultry songs of her heart, and shared her family story, a tapestry which has been woven with Durham thread for three, going on four decades.
Saturday night, behind the mic, she is going to offer a personal narrative and a New York story in song. She is accompanied by Glenn Mehrbach at the piano and Robbie Link on the bass. It makes perfect sense. Hers is a New York story.
And a Durham story. Ellen Ciompi moved here in 1982 with her husband, Arturo. But she was born in Queens. In 1981 she and Arturo were living in Washington Heights, an old Jewish neighborhood in Manhattan that was rapidly changing and paying $450/month for a sixth-floor, one-bedroom apartment.
Like all of our Durham stories, and all of our life stories, it is rooted in connection, Arturo’s father, Giorgio told them about a teaching position Arturo could take at Duke.1 Her mother-in-law pointed out that they could rent (in 1982) a four bedroom house in Hope Valley with a big deck for $500/month.
When they arrived, Ellen she thought they’d probably stay for a little while2, but likely, eventually move back to New York. Thirty-odd years later she can still bust out with the New York accent, “I can tawk like dat if ya want…”
But she hasn’t moved back.
I have been telling people since the Clarion Content became Durham focused that there are pillars and bedrocks of Durham culture that deflected our path from ending up where Camden or Detroit are today.3
Durham wasn’t a cultural void in 1981. The American Dance Festival was already here, bringing world class performance to the city. Ellen also noted in our conversation that there were great chamber music groups in the area, and recitals at Duke in places with finest acoustics, like the Nelson Music Room. She sang in the Duke Choral Group.
From Hope Valley, the young couple relocated to a rental on Ruffin Street, living a one car existence and walking much of the time. In a largely pre-computer era Ellen worked as a freelancer, hand recopying music for Steve Jaffe, extracting the individual parts in work written for ensembles from quartets to full orchestras. In the subsequent years Jaffe’s works have been played everywhere from Tanglewood to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Ellen is a repository of Durham story. By the mid-eighties they had moved to Oakland Avenue in the Oval Park area, Laura and Diana were born a few years later, and her children still refer to it as “their park.” Motherhood became Ellen’s primary narrative and was woven into her tapestry of Durham’s community story. The kids walked to E.K. Powe Elementary as Watts-Hillandale burgeoned with a small but growing coterie of young people, mixing into the elderly and empty nesters.
Time brought a difficult merger of the city and county school systems. E.K. Powe saw a huge influx of students. Ellen describes a bevy of inspirational teachers handling all they could. She recalls Duke as an active neighborhood partner. Durham’s property tax base and school budgets were suffering shock, after shock in this era.
I can certify that like so many Durham children raised in this era, the Ciompi kids have passed on to thoughtful, imaginative, conscious adulthood. There was something about the Durham melting pot of that era that gave us the creative flowering we are sharing in today. Daughter Diana is an outstanding artist, daughter Laura is a certified Physician’s Assistant looking to work in Durham and serve the community. Ellen is now the VP of the Board of The Scrap Exchange (speaking of Durham bedrocks).
Ellen and Arturo still live in a gorgeous Watts-Hillandale home on West Club Boulevard. They are part of the long standing Club Boulevard, Halloween Trick-or-Treat festivities. If you are unfamiliar, the classic homes along Club Boulevard are decorated in their scariest garb and thousands of Durham kids descend, queuing and running, re-queuing and running again from door to door to door. Ellen reports they quite literally give out in excess of 1,000 treats per anum. (And have been for years!)
To me, this tradition is emblematic of what we talk about when we say, “the Durham win-win psychology.” In an era of trunk-or-treat and people in subdivisions that look like Soviet-bloc style housing, too alienated to talk to their neighbor, Watts-Hillandale welcomes children to their doors, and most of them from outside the neighborhood, with grace and enthusiasm. The way the Ciompi’s and their neighbors treat Halloween is to invest in their community. What are the returns? I suspect joy, good cheer, comradery, a feeling of neighborliness.
In 2002 with her daughters getting a bit older, Ellen had an opportunity to look up and around and think about her own interests. Perusing a Duke Continuing Education brochure, a class called “Singing from the Heart” caught her eye. It promised not voice lessons, but the opportunity to learn the art of song interpretation.
The class was taught by Glenn Mehrbach, a cabaret pianist with a large repertoire honed from years of touring the cabaret circuit. It only took that one class; Ellen was hooked. She had always loved that style of music rather than pop music of her own generation. She credits her Mother, whom Ellen says always had music on from Tony Bennett to Sammy Davis, Jr. to the Broadway show tunes of the era.
Mehrbach’s creed and now Ellen’s is that songs are lyrics driven. Find a key that’s comfortable and get into the song. What is the song about? What is it telling you? What’s the story? The emotion you are conveying? She says music isn’t just about what it means, it is what it means to you.
I have interviewed a great many artists from Kora players to heavy metal guitarists, and let me tell you Ellen Ciompi gets it. Artists dig into story. Humanity frames our experiences in story. We relate. Sometimes painfully, sometimes powerfully, sometimes with elation and other times with crushing despair. It is why every love song sounds more profound after you have just suffered a break-up.
Music has been with us since the caves of our prehistory.
Merhbach told Ellen in that first class, you don’t have to sing like Ella Fitzgerald. Sing like Ellen Ciompi. She says it was an amazing transformation. In literally twenty minutes, she was singing differently.
Now when she contemplates Miss Pipperidge and her romance with Enoch Snow in “Carousel” she doesn’t just think about Rogers and Hammerstein’s great music and lyrics. She thinks, too, about her own husband, his concerns, her own marriage, her friends’ marriages and lives, and experiences and stories, they all inform her performance. One could roughly analogize that she might be considered a “method” singer.
But Ellen Ciompi sees it is more inherent than that, the singer can’t separate themselves from their life. They are singing to you from the corporeal and literal who they are. She gave the extremely powerful example of Judy Garland’s “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” Cimopi has me sitting next to her in her beautiful living room, on the kind of ornate and delicate couch that as I youth I thought was for looking at, not touching.
Her voice gets throatier as the emotion catches and she explains how much Garland respected that song. How she understood it so intensely that it was hard to perform. It isn’t just the Wizard of Oz. “Somewhere over the Rainbow” is the desolate, struggling Americans’ tale of The Depression and a prayer for hope and deliverance when we faced times so tough starvation was a reality and homelessness commonplace.
Ellen tells me how Garland never mocked that song, never made light of the story behind it, and in fact, rarely performed it publicly despite it being her signature song and one of the most revered American songs of all-time. Her performance at the London Palladium is one of the few that were ever captured on film.
Ellen tells me and I know it to be the revealed truth, one creative to another,
“Art isn’t easy.” She may as well be saying, “Life isn’t easy.”
She sings to me on the couch and it makes me recall my mother singing to me as a child, in a rocking chair, in a bed. The intimacy of song, the power and the primal nature, has me thinking about how it must have predated the ability to purchase art. Song was ephemeral. Words and notes hang in there in the air and then they are gone. Mothers were soothing babes with this elemental art, long before the first “works” of art were ever commissioned, before the process of commodification had even begun.
She loves the piano/bass backing combo. It is music one has to engage with to hear, Ellen oozes this primality in her art and through her voice. She reminds me of Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark wherein the young artist from the small town continues to pursue her career through all the barriers arrayed against women in that era, through all the travails that even the greatest of artists face.
The parallel lies in the difficulty of commercial success. Only the grandest, worldly cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans have viable cabaret scenes. Ellen performs an annual show on Valentine’s Day in the Regulator Bookshop. There is an Emily Dickenson-esque vibe to art this beautiful happening quietly in a basement in front of a small crowd. It doesn’t diminish the art or the vitality of the artist, it belies the false dichotomy pushed on the creative youth the 21st century. Stardom or bust is a lie. Millions of great artists live, love, and thrive in between.
It feels like this is the kind of rare Durham cultural treat that Laura Richie should be slotting into one of those Carrack secret music shows where you can suddenly catch a world class band or life changing spoken word poetry at a moment’s notice in 111 West Parrish Street.
J.K. Rowling wrote alone for a long time before the world found her. And I don’t mean to insinuate Ellen needs that kind of success to verify her creative works. She is a testament to artistic intensity. She has become her story through years of work at her craft. Her life, her New York to Durham tale radiates, bleeds, heals, and lives all in turn, all through the majesty of voice and the power of song and story.
One night only, this Saturday night, Ellen Ciompi sings the cabaret songs of her New York story at the Community Church of Chapel Hill, Unitarian Universalist, #106 Purefoy Road, Chapel Hill. Stay afterward and have a glass of wine with her, Arturo, and the other musicians. I bet if you ask, she’ll happily “tawk New York” for you.
1He is the founder of the renowned Ciompi Quartet.
2A story that sounds familiar to the Editor as well as likely many of you.
3Decaying, city services being shut down, bankruptcy, state control of the police force, etc