A rendezvous in Paris

Savannah Morning News column

Jan. 12, 2014

I was looking for tennis player Serena Williams. Instead I found singer Julie Rose Wilde. That’s Paris. Not a bad trade. Serena, citing anonymity, likes to practice there. Julie, always looking to step up her musical game, thought it would be a great place to make an album. I wanted to practice my French, drink red wine without sulfides and see the Musee d’Orsay, once a grand railroad station, today a grand museum.

I wanted to get lost in this café society of liberte, egalite and fraternite. Which I did, somewhere on the No. 4 Metro line, on the way to find Julie. Lost in the “camera roll” of my phone.

“I take you there,” said a kindly conductor after the train stopped and everyone else had departed. No attitude. He backed up a stop, watched us get off the platform and smiled.

Then I took another gamble. In front of Julie’s rented apartment on rue Mouton Duvernet. I spotted an open door on the second floor balcony in this city of decorative wrought-iron balconies and spoke her name. “Julie?” No one should mind. There’s always a buzz in Paris. People linger. In the cafes. At the markets. In glassed-in patios. They plot. They talk. They hook their pocketbooks, hats or canes on a clasp under the bar and stay awhile. No one hassles you to leave.

It worked. She heard me. Paris is a big city, two-and-a-half million, but few buildings are taller than four stories, by design. They care about proportions. They appreciate aesthetics.

Julie and collaborator Austin Smith were putting the final touches on, “Mystery of Love in Paris,” a big band, gypsy, jazzy album matching Julie’s compositions and voice, Austin’s orchestration, and the strings, horns and talents of 27 local musicians.

“I feel like I’m in a dream,” said Julie, who lives on Isle of Hope, another dream. “I’m sitting in the Hector Berlioz School of Music, laying down tracks, doing the over-dubs and making this happen.”

Believe it. This woman can make things happen. She recorded her last album in Nashville, then went to Paris to promote it. She sang with street bands and in a cabaret near the Moulin Rouge. She raised funds on an Austin-produced Indiegogo Kickstarter campaign where Julie sings in a dynamite black dress, black gloves and red rose. She secured quarters in Paris. And that’s when she called Austin from Notre Dame and said, “You have to be here.”

“It’s been in my mind forever,” Julie said, “to go to Paris and sing.”

There were a few chapters that came first.

Like Garden City, where Julie grew up, where her father was the fire chief. Like West 36th Street, where she and her sister took piano lessons. Like Georgia Southern University where she got undergraduate and graduate degrees after skipping 12th grade at Groves High School.

In and around music there was her downtown shop, Native Secrets; and her current jobs as a vocal coach to some 20 students, and an interior designer for the Kessler Collection Hotels, including The Mansion on Forsyth Park.

But there’s always been music.  She taught for eight years in Savannah schools, then lived in Atlanta to work in a music theater. At an American Traditions workshop in Savannah she met a teacher in Los Angeles, where she went for more training. Then there was a teacher in New York City. Now there is her own group, The Bohemian Dream Band.

Before arriving in Paris Julie came armed with guitar parts from guitarist Bill Smith, Austin’s father. When she and Austin needed a guitarist at the last minute they engaged a prominent bassist, Bureli Lagrene, who lives in Strasbourg. When they needed more strings they secured a well-known French jazz violinist, Didier Lockwood.

“I can’t help myself,” Julie said. “This is who I am. I’m always thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we, well, you know,” she said, her voice trailing off. “I just love the process. I just think you have to take risks.”

For me, the only thing left to do on my last day in Paris was to go hear some jazz on a late Sunday afternoon. We took a Metro to La Chope des Puces, a club on Rue Rosiers, where Django Reinhardt used to live. As with all French gatherings there were kids, old people, young people (all wearing rakish scarves, of course). The guitarists, including Ninine Garcia, were polished, casual. They had a following. But I couldn’t help wishing that a jazz singer from the Isle of Hope was out there fronting the duo, offering a little swing, a little soul, a little mystery.









Four years of survival

Savannah Morning News column

Jan 5, 2014

There’s so many different ways Austin Wallace’s life could have gone, so many cracks in the ice he could have fallen through. Instead, he stayed calm, he kept his focus, he looked at his parents – one in occasional rehab, one in prison – and on one level or another thought, “You know what? That is not the way I want to go.”

Austin is 18.

A year earlier, buffeted back and forth between cities, schools, residences, emotional stand-offs and stand-in fathers, he did a little research and found he could be “emancipated” – the words in the statute – at 17. So that’s what he did. He moved away from his mother and younger siblings in Dublin, Ga., and moved in with his mother’s ex-husband in Savannah.

Which is when he met Lashell Aldrich, his stepfather’s aunt, a hair stylist and a late-bloomer who is now in school to be a nurse. She cut Austin’s hair, gave him a family with her other four sisters and offered stability

Which is how he met Cindy Cupp, a 14-year beauty parlor client of Aldrich, an educator and a problem-solver.

These three are a team. They keep in touch. They pool their skills. They celebrate their victories. Lashell, 51, is good at numbers. When Cindy’s son was having trouble with the real estate license test, Lashell tutored him. When Lashell, who always wanted to go back to college, balked at the minutia involved in retrieving her transcripts and filling out the proper forms, Cindy stepped in.

When Austin had trouble locating his birth certificate – a requisite to apply for a Hope Scholarship and Zell Miller scholarship – Cindy, who fears no bureaucracies, finished the task.

Cindy, who has her doctorate in education, is the former director of reading for the Georgia Department of Education. Cindy, 64, is a fighter. When she deduced the Bush administration was handing off reading contracts to big publishers and ignoring the small publishing company she formed with her sister, Ginger Douglass, she made her findings clear, all the way to Congress.

Lashell grew up in Brooklet. She was a cheerleader, a member of the marching band, a bartender. She had zero aspirations for college. But now, two semesters away from a nursing degree at Armstrong, she has a 3.5 average and in her critical writing class she has grown to love Shakespeare, Othello in particular.

“I couldn’t put it down,” she said. “It was so compelling.”

When Austin came into her life, she couldn’t help but be impressed with his determination and heart.

As Austin recounted his story, Lashell interrupted to say, “I think maybe you forgot to mention that when you tried to go back and live with your mother it was because of your younger siblings even though it didn’t work.”

Later, in an essay Austin, who graduated with honors, wrote to get into college he said that leaving his sisters and brother was the hardest part, but that maybe his actions would be an example for them.

Austin’s first choice was Georgia Institute of Technology. When he didn’t get in he applied for and was accepted in the regents engineer’s transfer program at Columbus State University.

“He didn’t have many extra curriculum activities to show,” Cindy said. “He was working every night, dealing with his mother’s abuses and aggression and studying. Instead he put in four years of survival.”

Around this time Cindy, who was one of the founders of the Tybee Maritime Charter School, found dentists who would treat Austin free and people from the charter school who offered clothes, pots and pans, a bike and money.

And advice.

“I had to laugh at some of the things my compatriots told Austin,” she said. “They warned him to study and not party and not do drugs, all the usual good stuff. Well, they were talking to the wrong person.

“You know how some times you are shown what to do and you do it? Austin grew up seeing all the things you shouldn’t do. That’s what he took away from that situation.”

But wait, Lashell said. “Did you mention the notes he wrote?”

“You suggested it,” said Austin to Lashell.

But he followed up on it. Instead of texting his appreciation he bought three boxes of thank you notes and sent them all out.

“That’s what my cousin Wendell remembers,” said Cindy. “His thank you note. How often does that happen with large do-good organizations you contribute to?”

As Austin majors in bio-medical engineering and Lashell prepares to get her nursing degree both have set their sights a little higher.

“Now we’re talking about going to medical school together,” Lashell said.

I wouldn’t bet against them.