Chicago and Havana: A Musical Connection At The Auditorium Theater

I recently enjoyed a scintillating evening of international cultural exchange featuring a concert of orchestral musical magic at Chicago's famous Auditorium Theater. The program entitled Scenes from Life: CUBA! starred Orbert Davis and his esteemed Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (CJP) with special guest artists and students from The Universidad de las Artes (ISA) in Havana Cuba - Cuba's most prestigious arts academy. I savored every minute of this enthralling two-hour musical experience and feel the need to share a truly memorable night and how it came to be.

The concert was the spectacular finale of a collaboration of two musical entities from two countries that was seeded several years ago, encouraged in part by the recent opening up of a US and Cuba political relationship by President Obama and President Castro of Cuba - and supported by funding from a plethora of corporate, foundation, and individual supporters.  It happened that Scott Pulley and a 60 Minutes crew were in Cuba on December 17 during their visit and included an interview with Orbert Davis and Mark Ingram that was later included in a segment of the Sunday evening program.

The challenges of visas, transportation, and other logistics were successfully met by the CJP staff, the U.S. Embassy, and a corps of volunteers who worked tirelessly to make the event and weeklong Chicago residency by the Cuban students happen.

International cultural exchange has always been applauded as an avenue for exploration of other cultures, providing individuals, schools and organizations opportunities to broaden their skills and share their knowledge with people from other countries. Music presents probably the most auspicious discipline for exchange because it is the universal language of mankind. And so I report that Orbert Davis, one of Chicago's most applauded musicians, educators, conductors, and composers, was the leader in organizing a musical exchange project with a focus on Jazz and a first for Chicago and Cuba.

 Orbert Davis has summarized his inspiration as follows:

"My personal mission as composer was to be inspired by Cubans. I wanted the music I would write to be the soundtrack for the people I would meet, and the musical expressions we would share together. I also wanted to discover my African roots through Cuba."

The Start

In October 2012 the CJP team visited Cuba to do research for collaboration with Chicago's River Dance Company. The resulting composition Havana Blue by Orbert Davis was performed on stage at the Auditorium Theater with the dance company in May 2013.

During this visit to Cuba, Orbert (under what was officially designated as a People to People tour) visited ISA, and what happened on a very special outing there was as serendipitous as any artistic encounter could possibly be. In Orbert's own words:  on the University grounds one day during a campus tour:

"There were only general music classes, private lessons, and individuals who were practicing- one of whom was a young trumpeter named Silvano. So I introduced myself as a jazz trumpet player from Chicago, and it just so happened that he was in the middle of practicing Clifford Brown and Miles Davis ideas. Of course I had to play with him.

As Silvano and I shared ideas, it turned into a lesson, and that lesson turned into a jam session as other students raced into the room - piano players, saxophone players, drummers, bass players, guitar players, and even vocalists. The jam session turned into a class and that experience left such an impression, we knew we would return."

And so they did.

Call it exchange or collaboration, a relationship between Chicago and Cuba blossomed when in December 2014 five members of CJP traveled to Cuba to perform with 60 students from ISA at the Havana Jazz Festival.

Next stop residency and Auditorium Theater Concert

The synergy from the Havana Jazz performance continued to grow with a plan that resulted in an opportunity for 37 students and two professors from ISA to travel to Chicago for a weeklong residency. Our visitors participated in classes and discourse with students and faculty at the University of Chicago, Chicago State University and Northwestern University, plus rehearsals for the big concert.  And I should add that students enjoyed some sightseeing and local Chicago hospitality. They were well prepped for the concert at Auditorium Theater where an enthusiastic audience of nearly 1500 people cheered a program that opened with beautiful orchestral arrangements of the national anthems of both countries.                                                     

The concert program, including CJP and the IAS students offered several movements of Havana Blue, Orbert Davis soulful celebration of his first visit to Cuba- and an audience favorite. Selections also included 'Diaspora' and his moving ode to the Windy City anniversary 'Chicago at 173'.

The IAS musicians, led by conductor Ernesto Limas Parets, were in charge for the second half of the program. Their exuberant repertoire of classical and traditional Cuban favorites, interspersed with brilliant percussion riffs and vocals, ending with the iconic composition by Orbert Davis 'Orlando's Walk' that brought the audience to their feet.

The program ended with a standing ovation for these talented young musicians who put their hearts and prodigious talents into a presentation that was truly spectacular.

Pat Johnson

Grannies on Safari

Up Close With A Very Smart Orangutan At The Indianapolis Zoo

After six decades of Zoo visits on five continents, and a number of safari treks through animal habitats in Southern and Western Africa, I frankly thought I had seen it all. However, a few weeks ago I realized that there were members of one of the great ape families in a Zoo very near my home that I hadn't become acquainted with - Orangutans, to be exact.  These colorful apes have surprising talents and abilities that were very impressive and new to me. I was sad to also learn that they are among the most endangered species on earth.

I observed these stunning black eyed orange/red haired, long armed creatures living in a 21st century architectural wonder enclosure that allowed us homo sapiens to view them as they scampered through a multi story, 40 to 80 feet high glass, steel cabled, and concrete village skyscraper - with no trees in sight. I refer to the Indianapolis Zoo's $26 million dollar Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center that opened in May 2014, a part of the 64 acre Zoo site near downtown Indianapolis in White River State Park.

The exhibit houses eight Orangutans of assorted sizes, ages and temperaments who scamper up, down and around an environment that allows them to congregate in small groups or find space for solitary reflection. The reviews on this groundbreaking avant-garde architecture have been mixed. Some visitors find it an alarming multi- story space voyager contraption, with no resemblance to Orangutan environments in their native Asian habitats.

Other visitors, including me, were struck by the ease and flexibility of the very nimble mammals to scout out their enclosed and open-air environment and make eye contact with their genetic cousins on the other side of the glass.  After a little over one year of occupancy, they have adapted well to their new habitat. I should note that these Indianapolis Zoo residents have always lived in captivity and therefore can't miss something they don't know. All of them had arrived from other Zoos.

The most surprising and enlightening experience of my encounter was with the very well known Azy who demonstrated his cognitive skills with his teacher, Dr. Rob Shumaker, during a computer showcase. Dr. Rob, Orangutan expert, evolutionary biologist, and researcher presents his exercises with Azy to daily visitors to the Zoo. The Professor noted that he works with his pupils individually. He doesn't want to encourage competition or jealousy among his small Congress, the official name of a group of Orangutans. 

The Star Azy (and a long time research subject) was already in the studio when the audience was seated. Behind the studio glass enclosure, he looked completely non-plussed on his platform perch in front of a large touch screen computer.  He glanced at the audience and his instructor, while waiting to begin his tasks, looking alert and ready.

The entire demonstration lasted about 20 minutes. Dr. Bob led Azy through a series of computer prompts requiring him to respond to graphic and numerical symbols using mathematical calculations and identifying relationships between symbols. After Azy completed each of the series of computer commands by touching his computer screen, he was rewarded with a treat that he either devoured immediately, or set aside for the moment. 

By my calculation, Azy was correct on the majority of his responses. The quiet but attentive interplay between the two reminded me of a confident and well schooled interaction between two humans with a meaningful history. This session confirmed for me: Orangutans are smart! It was a real treat to be seated very close to Dr. Bob and Azy. You won't find this kind of encounter at any other Zoo in the world.

 Factoids on Orangutan

·      Orangutans are the largest arboreal animals on the planet.

·      Approximately 35,000 to 50,000 live in either Borneo or Sumatra.

·      10 percent of their populations die because of loss of habitat each year.

·      Orangutans can live to 60 years in the wild or in captivity.

 Pat Johnson

 Grannies on Safari



A Hidden Gem In Indianapolis, Indiana: The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art

I visit Indianapolis quite regularly now that my daughter and her family moved there two years ago.  It’s a nice city, not too big and not too small.  It’s a sports city – the Colts, Pacers, Indy Speedway and the home of the NCAA. They have a zoo that is known worldwide for its design and conservation/research efforts on behalf of Orangutans, and many colleges and universities with national standing. 

I’m a big museum person and was delighted to hear that there was a museum dedicated to Native Americans – their culture and art – on the western edge of downtown Indianapolis, in White River State Park.

Off I went.  As you approach the building you can’t miss the bronze “White Tail Deer” sculptures beautifully designed by Kenneth R. Bunn on the front lawn. They seem to leap and dash away as if they are in a forest and we are intruding.  In fact, there are several sculptures throughout the grounds, most created by artists of Native American descent. I especially like the “The Greeting,” sculpture – positioned near the entrance of the main building. It’s an impressively large statue of a Blackfoot Indian with outstretched arms and feather, created by artist George Carlson. I didn’t see the gardens but I understood from the registration desk person they are beautiful.  Another reason I need to come back.

The architecture of the buildings is stunning.  The museum was commissioned by an Indianapolis businessman, Harrison Eiteljorg, to educate, inspire and promote a better understanding of art from the western part of the United States.  His other objective was to build a museum that paid homage to Native American culture, art, and history.  The museum opened in 1989 (a new contemporary art wing was added in 2005), and was designed by John Hess.  Mr. Hess visited the U.S. Southwest to get a feel for the architecture, colors and ideas from this part of the country as he developed his design.  

The Eiteljorg is the only museum of it’s kind in the Midwest and houses art, artifacts, exhibits and documents from most of the Native American tribes in North America with a concentration on those from the current United States.

But it was the insides of the museum that took my breath away.  You enter through massively carved wooden doors, and the first thing you see is a building with wide aisles, high ceilings and a large open stairway leading up to the second floor exhibition halls behind the registration desk.  But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

There are three main collections in the museum; Native American Collection, Western Collection of works from 1820 to present, and a Contemporary Collection of art related to the west and Native American cultures. It would take hours to see it all so I concentrated on the Native American exhibits on the second floor.  I had a personal reason for this focus because in my family history. Like many American’s, I have Native American roots – my great grandmother was one of the Indian children taken away from her family and sent to a boarding school in Philadelphia. The other reason I was interested in the Native American exhibits was that it featured artifacts, history and art from the eastern Native populations of United States and Canadian tribes, which I knew little about.

As I made my way through the galleries my senses were stimulated with all the simplicity and beauty of the many artifacts.  The exhibit on the Southwestern Natives brought back fond memories for me.  When I was a young girl I had a dollhouse I shared with my sister.  Someone gave us a collection of Native dolls from the Hopi and Navaho.  I remember the white leather dresses and beads on the headbands, the dancing male figures with feathers and the small drums that came with them. I didn’t understand their significance but I loved their mysteriousness. There was a great silver jewelry exhibit from this area too, and I was glad that two years ago my husband and I visited Santa Fe where I purchased silver bangles from one of the artists on the plaza, that I wear then proudly.

I knew little about the Eastern and Midwest Native American cultures and was intrigued by the variety of collections associated with the artifacts, practical tools, religious materials and jewelry on display. 

I had limited time but was able to sneak a peek at the first floor galleries and see the array of contemporary western art – the O’Keefe’s, Remington’s and others I wasn’t completely familiar with.  I have to go back!  I also loved the gift shop and purchased some things for my grandchildren. 

This museum is important on so many levels.  I felt connected to our history, to our land and to our people.  By studying our Native American heritage we learn who we are as a people – the good things we did and the bad things.

Visit the Eiteljorg any time of the year, you won’t be disappointed.

Granny Regina – feeling my Native American roots.



Discovering The 1000 Islands In New York State And Ontario, Canada

One of the most memorable travel experiences I could imagine would be discovering a place on the planet of extraordinary beauty that I had never known about - but had lived very close to over forty years ago in upstate New York. Straddling both the State of New York and Ontario Canada, this archipelago of 1000 Islands (really about 1800 islands) is one of the most beautiful waterways in North America and attracts visitors and seasonal residents to enjoy the confluence of the Great Lakes (Huron, Michigan, Ontario, Superior, and Erie) as they flow into the St. Lawrence River/Seaway headed into the Atlantic Ocean.

People with a variety of lifestyles are drawn to the region, especially east coast residents and Canadian families, plus the rich and famous from Europe and Asia. They are attracted to North America's most panoramic and eclectic mix of riverside abodes and scenic vistas. There are structures from the lean-to, cabin, contemporary two story and ranch style homes, to mansions and a few castles, all posed in a picture perfect nautical setting, many with lush forest cover.                                                                                                                            My close-up view of the 1000 Islands was from the deck of a sparsely populated ferry boat cruiser that steered close to the islands, some with iconic buildings and structures (including at least 100 of the islands). This year on a warm and sunny September day my leisurely two hour cruise through very clear waters on a Big Ben ferry, included commentary on legends of the waterway, and accounts of the development of the region from the late 1800s to the present.

As a Midwesterner, I learned that Chicago based Pullman Railroad car developer, George Pullman, was one of the early industrial giants to bring national attention to the islands when he built a summer cottage on one island, and invited his rich friends to discover the enticing ambiance of the waterway. Soon dozens of masters of the universe (mostly from New York) were building fancy fishing cottages on the islands and mooring their boats while enjoying a summer escape from the bustle of the big city. Over the decades less wealthy families who enjoy fishing, boating, and water sports, have built more modest get-away accommodations on hundreds of these islands both in New York and Canada. There are still dozens of unoccupied islands, many of which are populated bird perches and sanctuaries.

The 1000 Islands are, I learned, at their most sublime in the summer. Between May and September thousands of tourists descend to the region and populate not just the waterways and islands, but clusters of nearby delightful little towns in New York and Canada. My arrival came at the end of the high season when there was easy occupancy availability in B&Bs, motels and a newer delightful 4 Star hotel, the elegant 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, perched right on the water.

I have lived across the street from or within short walking distance to Lake Michigan for over 30 years of my life. When I didn't have this particular privilege in Chicago, I fondly recall my life on the west coast when I lived across the street from San Francisco Bay and Rochester, New York where Lake Ontario was close to my little apartment. I guess, as any Pisces, I am drawn to the waterways.  My visit to the 1000 Islands was a special treat. It was an introduction to one of nature's special gifts to the continent that I should have known about, but didn't. It was a discovery that I will be sharing with whomever will listen to my high praise for this exquisite resort region, for years to come.

 Pat Johnson

Grannies on Safari





Sleeping With Wolves and Camping in a Boreal Forest: Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean (Québec, Canada)


Wolves have always fascinated me, and when at a very early age I read "The Call of the Wild" and "White Fang" by Jack London, I was hooked on wolf lore forever. Any movie, book or article that discussed wolves was high on my list. I loved watching "Dancing With Wolves" - although the film wasn't really just about wolves, and Kevin Costner was good to look at too!

When the movie "The Gray" came out I was there on opening night at my local movie theater. I must admit this movie scared the crap out of me and I developed an even healthier respect for wolves. I've followed the entire debate on their endangered status in Alaska and other parts of the lower 48 states and in Canada. I just can't see how killing this magnificent animal does any good for anyone. When I learned that every 20 minutes we lose an entire species on this planet, it makes me sad - and to think we might also lose wolves makes me even sadder.

You can imagine my excitement when I learned that there are places in this world where one can meet, sleep near or gaze at wolves in their natural habitats. Last November at a gathering hosted by Québec Tourism, one of the presenters mentioned that they had an adventure experience "sleeping" with wolves. Of course I jumped at the opportunity and volunteered to go on this trip.

It was all settled, I was going. I thought that this was such a wonderful opportunity not only for me but what if my 11 year-old granddaughter Alex, went too? I'm all about intergenerational travel and found having a younger person on a trip makes the experience more rewarding for me; introducing travel to young people helps them understand the world is a lot bigger than their own neighborhoods.

So, on July 13th we were off to the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region in the Québec Province - Alex and me! Before we left however, Tourism Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean had another surprise. We were not only going to a private wolf sanctuary, Aventuraid, but also to an animal wilderness park - Zoo sauvage de Saint-Félicien. The zoo was in a stunning boreal forest, and we looked forward to experiencing a camping, canoeing and hiking adventure.

We arrived in Canada and were greeted by a perky, pretty and knowledgeable Tourism Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean guide - Amélie Simard. Not speaking one word of French made having her there a very good thing because all the road signs were in French!

Since this was Alex's first time in Canada and on an adventure with me, I asked her to share her impressions of our trip. What follows are her journal notes. Enjoy!

'I was invited by my grandmother to go on an adventure in Québec, Canada. It was my second trip out of the country and I was excited to visit another country and have the opportunity to sleep over night at a wolf conservation camp and inside a real wild animal park!

We left Chicago and flew to Montréal, where we changed to a plane I had never seen before - it had propellers and vibrated a lot. My granny said it was a Bombardier Dash-8 and was a rugged, reliable plane. She would know, because she worked for an airline for 30 years. I loved it because it didn't fly very high and I could easily see the ground. What an adventure!

When we landed, Amélie, our guide, was there to meet us. I really liked her and she spoke English really well, and that was good because I couldn't speak a word of French!

The next morning we drove to Aventuraid Base-Eco Aventure 4 Saisons, the camp where we would be spending the night with the wolves. The first person we met when we arrived was Mr. Gravelle, who told us he worked with the sled dogs. He took us down a road where we saw a lot of dogs tied up near little doghouses. He told us that there were about 60 dogs used for dog sledding in the winter. The dogs seemed happy and barked and wagged their tails at us. I'd really like to come back and try dog sledding here, as it's a little closer than Alaska.

We then met Mr. Granal, one of the other owners who took us on a tour of the grounds. He was also a wolf expert and worked hard for the conservation of wolves. As we walked through the area we saw fenced off areas where he told us he had gray and Arctic wolves living. I didn't see any but he told me they were there. Maybe it was hard to see them because they were shy, and maybe they were just checking us out! Mr. Granal then took us on a tour of the places you could sleep in near the wolf compounds. There was a "Teepee," a really pretty Mongolian Ger, (granny said some people call them" yurts"), and several wooden hand-made cabins. We slept in one of the wooden, hand- built cabins. It was vey comfortable and had three beds and a loft too. But the cabin had no bathrooms and if you had to go you had to go to the education building. That night, the owner's wife sent over baked chicken made with maple syrup. It was really good. Looking out of our cabin window near dark I saw a white shape. Then I saw more. They were the Arctic wolves all coming to the fence. We were very quiet because we didn't' want to scare them. They were big and beautiful. That night we heard them howling and calling to each other. Wow, that was exciting!

In the morning Mr. Granal went into the Arctic wolf exhibit and many of the wolves came running and surrounded him. He seemed really comfortable and I was impressed that the wolves seemed to really like him too. I'm not sure I could have entered the wolf area, but on some occasions Mr. Granal says some people are able to do that. If I visit again maybe I'll try it.

I didn't want to leave the wolves but we had to leave and drive to the wild animal park - Zoo sauvage de Saint-Félicien!

When you entered the main building you were in an educating center displaying facts about some of the animals we would see. Our guide Audrée Morin met us and explained that we would be a part of a small group that was experiencing the overnight camping and hiking adventure. In our group were people from Switzerland, Belgium and France. I met a girl named Clara who was my same age. She didn't speak English and I didn't speak French but it didn't matter. We had so much fun hiking, canoeing, exploring the campsite, and looking for caribou. I plan on contacting her and maybe taking her up on her invitation to come to Paris and visit her!

Our group was driven through the park so we could see the animals that lived in this part of Canada and the northern part of the U.S. - musk oxen, black bears, bison, caribou, moose, grey wolves and much more. We also stopped at a pioneer farm and met two ladies who were dressed like settlers from the early 1900's. They cooked a really good lunch for us and made jokes as they served yummy chicken and blueberry pie. They ware so funny, and acted like they had never seen cell phones or cameras before.

We went on a hike though the "boreal" forest where we learned all about the type of trees and animals that lived there. Once we entered our campsite we saw tents with our names written on chalkboards. Inside our tent I found a cute green paper caribou cutout with my name placed on my bed. The beds smelled great and were made of fresh spruce boughs on the bottom and a comfy sleeping bag on the top. I loved it and even my granny was happy too.

But before we had dinner that was being cooked over an open fire, a mother moose and her baby came strolling into camp. The guides told us to get out of sight and that this was the very first time they had ever done this. Scary but really cool! Our meal was great -fresh fish and vegetables. They had marshmallows too but didn't know about 'smores' and didn't have graham crackers or chocolate bars to melt. Clara and I still had fun eating the marshmallows.

The entire experience was the best ever. I learned a lot about Canada, animals living in this part of the world, and met a new friend. My granny told me that this experience was one of the best for her too and that she loved sharing it with me. I will always remember my adventure with my granny and seeing wolves and other animals up close.'

I agree with everything Alex says. This was a special and extraordinary trip with my granddaughter. What a great companion. She was supportive of me when I struggled to get into the canoe (fear in my eyes I must admit), or as we hiked in the forest with nets that covered our heads as a way to ward off the mosquitoes. Alex was as real trooper. The people we met were really nice and we developed a friendship with many of them that I know will last.

In each camp we had great food - fresh and tasty and well seasoned. Our guides were outstanding and well versed on their areas of expertise. Most of all, we were so happy to have Amélie with us and have now adopted her as part of our family.

Québec is beautiful, and a perfect place to take the entire family. A visit to the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region is a must. Check out their website and think about planning a visit - there is so much to do there! For more information about this region of Canada visit -

  • Mr. Granal Wolf Expert - Aventuraid

    Mr. Granal, knows everything about these Arctic wolves. He enters their compound and interacts with them. These are not tamed or domesticated wolves. Some days he does not enter their exhibit, as he says it is really up to them if they want to interact with him! On some occasions he will bring guests into the compound with him but he is very careful to "read" the wolves to make sure they are comfortable with strangers. Photo: Grannie on Safari


Mist of the Earth: Denise Milan: A Stunning Exhibition Of The Brazilian Atlantic Forest Region


Brazilian artist, environmentalist and visionary, Denise Milan, has been an enriching part of my personal and professional life for over twenty-five years. We met in São Paulo during the 1989 São Paulo Biennale when as Executive Director of the Jamaica Arts Center, the community based arts organization in New York, I led an enthusiastic group of art lovers to São Paulo to attend the opening of our installation of sculpture by Martin Puryear, the official U.S. representative to this prestigious international exhibition.

 It was during this visit to São Paulo that a budding acquaintance with Denise was spawned. I was drawn to her work and a world of discovery that she presented to me through her stone constructs and the multilayered tableaus that resonated throughout her installations in São Paulo. When asked to describe her body of work she says, she uses the stone as the creative axis and inspiration for her work. I should add that the breath of her output since I have followed her includes: public art, performing arts, poetry, printmaking and video. She is a driven artist.

 Our connections, deepened through the decades, have resulted in collaborations on projects in the U.S. that have included a major stone sculptural permanent installation - America's Courtyard - on the lakefront near the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, a photographic exhibition 'Mist of the Earth” at the Chicago Cultural Center, and recently presented at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Denise has been absorbed and challenged by the topography of Brazil. Its often hidden history, particularly the Amazon, the Atlantic Forest, Salvador de Bahia, have spurred her research into the essence of its treasures and the threats. She has discovered through continuing treks that have included her intrepid photographic documentation and her relationships with residents of villages, struggling to survive, and a place that she needed to share with the world.

Manuela Mena, Senior Curator of 18th Century Painting at Museo National del Prado summarizes the exhibition, "Denise Milan presents the Atlantic Forest as the vision of a fascinating world seen through the artist's eyes and imagination. The photos, taken over the course of several years at Cairucu, near Paraty, of the jungle, have been used in a process of metamorphosis going deeply beyond the species appearance, to an understanding of the intimate fusion between nature and its inhabitants."

It was in and round Paraty, a colonial enclave, where a few years ago I observed the essence of this paradise during an escape of unrivaled "take your breath away" beauty when I was a guest at her beach house.  I found the spectacular magical setting touchable. A Lonely Planet tour guide narrative describes Paraty: "set amid jutting peninsulas and secluded beaches with a backdrop of steep, jungled mountains plunging into an island studded bay."

 To learn more about Denise Milan her work, and to see this exhibit visit:;,

 Pat Johnson

Grannies on Safari


Alvin Ailey At The Auditorium Theater – The Celebration Continues

The 125 Anniversary celebration of Chicago's illustrious Auditorium Theater continued last month with a two-week residency of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. And boy was I ready.  In fact I am always ready to plant myself in a seat in a theater where they are performing because they are my favorite company in the United States. To see them once again in my hometown, in a venue that members of the company love, has special resonance for me. In fact members of the company remarked, in an anniversary video, that 'the Auditorium Theater is home'

Alvin Ailey, visionary founder of the company in 1958, was a brilliant and modest man who created 79 ballets in his life. Committed to developing a dance corps representing the African America cultural experience, including the aesthetics of music (jazz, gospel, blues, ragtime) and the written word. He poured his life blood into the nurturing of what continues to be one of America's most esteemed companies, and becoming an ambassador of American culture around the world. The company has performed in 71 countries on six continents and continues to reign as a symbol of dance excellence.

 He left us much too soon. I attended his memorial service in December 1989 at St. John the Divine church in Manhattan where over 4,000 thousand friends, family and fans celebrated the everlasting imprint his work would leave on American culture while we cried and laughed at his genius during a moving celebration of his life

He left the company in the hands of the talented dancer Judith Jamison who continued Alvin's legacy, and with her leadership, pushed the company to new heights. Her seminal performance in 'Cry', choreography by Alvin Ailey, remains in my memory forever.

Ms. Jamison retired after 21 years and turned the artistic reins over to the brilliant choreographer and dancer Robert Battle who has inspired the company through vibrant and cutting edge repertoires that are simply stunning.

The final piece of the program in Chicago was, of course, 'Revelations'. The audience would have been disappointed if it hadn't been presented. For me it has an honored place in the canon of modern dance. It remains Alvin Ailey's masterwork. I must have seen it dozens of times; but it always reminds me that Alvin Ailey's touch is still with us.  He lit the contemporary firmament of dance that still glows.

The celebration at the Auditorium Theater continues through June with the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg (May 8-10), Chicago Rhythm Fest (May 6), and concludes with the acclaimed Royal Ballet of London (June 18-21). The season has been an amazing presentation of the best of dance on the planet.  I have been blessed to have shared in the magic and brilliance of world-class talent in a world-class venue. 

 Pat Johnson

Grannies on Safari














The Quest for the Best Grilled Cheese Sandwich in America: Found At Eli's Table, Charleston, S.C.!

Those who know me well also know that there are two things I like to eat most - bacon in any form and grilled cheese sandwiches. It doesn't matter where I go, I order one or both of these yummy food treats. I've had bacon in countries where bacon is not considered a food to even ask for.

As an example, when we were shooting one of our Grannies on Safari travel shows in Morocco, I yearned for some bacon. While eating breakfast in a five-star hotel in Casablanca, I was moaning and groaning about no bacon. A few moments later a waiter leaned over and whispered in my ear, "I can get you bacon. Shall I bring you some?" I whispered in awe back to him, "Yes, oh yes" (I know, it seemed very romantic). Later, he gently placed a beautiful plate of bacon in front of me and walked away. Did I share my treasure with the rest of the crew? Well, yes I did. And, from then on during our time in Morocco, I was considered a hero because every hotel we stayed in, I was able to get bacon.

Grilled cheese sandwiches may seem like pedestrian food but a good grilled cheese sandwich is a work of art., and hard to find. I'm not talking about processed cheese and white-bread sandwiches; I'm talking about a golden, crusty-bread creation made with a rich, creamy cheese served hot and "melty." To me, it's all about the butter and bread, and the right kind of cheese - Gruyere, Brie, Wisconsin cheddar, Monterey Jack, Mozzarella, Swiss, or any cheese that easily melts.

In my quest for the tastiest grilled cheese, I've tried them all from sea to sea, and on many continents - delicate, buttery finger cheese sandwiches and robust, hearty sandwiches. But, my favorites are those that are full of melted cheese with fresh vegetables - tomatoes, basil, grilled onions, etc. Of course, if anyone throws in bacon then it's an additional plus for me.

A week or so ago, I was in Charleston, S.C., where I was invited to lunch at Eli's Table. What a classy restaurant located in the downtown area, and in walking distance to many of the well-known tourist destinations in the city. A "homey" feeling place known for its Lowcountry and Continental cuisine, I liked it immediately. Led to an outside table on the patio and, thanks to the friendly hostess, I felt as if I was invited to a private home. My lunch companion told me the executive chef, Joel Lucas, was dedicated to using farm-fresh ingredients along with ensuring the flavors and feel were consistent with the area's culture.

The lunch menu was really interesting and filled with good choices like the Crispy Oyster Salad, a BST (bacon, salmon, tomatoes and dill on sourdough bread), and Fried Green Tomatoes. But then I saw they offered a grilled cheese sandwich made with local tomatoes and basil. I had to try it along with my other favorite - onion rings. When the sandwich arrived it was perfect - melted cheese, fresh tomatoes and basil enfolded in buttery well-toasted sourdough. The tomatoes actually had flavor - I guess I'd been in the Midwest too long and forgotten how rich and sweet good tomatoes were. I inhaled the sandwich and the onion rings and decided that chef Lucas moved onto my best-grilled cheese sandwich list of all time. He was in good company because my other favorite place for grilled cheese is the Michael Jordan Steakhouse in Chicago. Their menu offers a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch every day - they just change the bread and the different types of cheese, with other ingredients. Yummy! I once had a grilled cheese on raisin bread with wonderful Brie.

So imagine my happiness to find Eli's Table and their offering of a grilled cheese sandwich. It was then I knew that Chef Lucas was a serious chef who understood the nuances of taste and the pairing ingredients that make what could be a common sandwich even better. The next time I go to Charleston you can bet Eli's Table will be my first stop - and not just for the grilled cheese, as his shrimp and grits and duck entrees are up next for me. Thank you, Chef Lucas!

So onward I go continuing to seek the tastiest grilled cheese sandwiches out there. If you find a restaurant that has great grilled cheese concoctions, let me know.



Natchez, Mississippi Up Close

I looked forward to my first visit to Mississippi. During decades of travel across the USA, I have covered much of the South, but had not wandered through or made any forays into the great State of Mississippi. This latest journey by boat on the American Queen Steamship was scheduled to be the perfect opportunity for at least a short stop in Natchez.

Located on a 200 foot bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, Natchez sits daintily on a stretch of land framed by 800 Antebellum mansions and churches (more than any other southern city) affording a continuous memorial to the images of the old south as it struggles for relevance and survival in the 21st century.

Old Natchez

Natchez is a very old Mississippi port city. It's first recorded occupants were the Natchez Indians who settled near the river and probably lived pretty contented lives until the French came along, followed by the British who basically killed them off.

With the arrival of the British and their cultivation of what was soon known as King Cotton and, of course, the slaves who planted and harvested this precious commodity, the town grew to become the second largest cotton producing region in the world. But the scenario changed with the introduction of the cotton gin. The civil war killed commerce in the South and with it came the end of slavery and the end of King Cotton.

20th Century Natchez

This city on the Mississippi presents itself as a little River jewel that connects to a multitude of Antebellum houses and churches -- many in fine restoration shape, some in need of caring attention, and many for sale. Several of us guests on the boat visited the Antebellum home of charming celebrity chef Regina Charboneau. She regaled us with stories of her life in Natchez and served a mean spread of delicious treats from her repertoire of recipes representing the gracious hospitality of her city.

A stop on the Hop-on Hop-off bus included the Visitor's Center where we viewed a short video summarizing Natchez' history and interestingly focused on the cultural experiences of the black and white populations of the city, equally divided about 50 Percent.

A highlight for me on this half-day tour was a visit to the William Johnson House. Mr. Johnson is recognized as one of the city's most applauded African American 19th century businessmen. A freed slave at nine years old (likely the son of his owner) Johnson managed to build several successful businesses and buy a home for his family in a fine neighborhood. He even owned slaves. His life ended tragically when, at age 41 he was murdered by a neighbor in 1851.

His accomplishments are heralded in a well-appointed museum on the grounds of his home and barbershop. The museum's didactic materials are informative and include pages from his manuscript on events in his life. His ruminations on life provide an important and rare documentation of the life of a prosperous free man.

The final stop on our tour was the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture. The Executive Director, Mr. Darrell White, welcomed us to this museum that is chock-a-block with photographs, manuscripts, artifacts, and books, documenting the history of Blacks in Natchez from 1716 forward.

Mr. White seemed genuinely surprised as three of us from the hop-on hop- off bus entered the museum. He offered a well-crafted history of Blacks in Natchez that was instructive and interesting. I wish we had had more time to examine more of the exhibits. I gathered from news articles that unfortunately, the free admission museum gets very few tourist Visitors.

Interestingly, I learned that one of my ancestors, singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, aka the Black Swan, was born in Natchez. Several other African American Cultural icons also were born here including writer Richard Wright, and singer Leontyne Price.

As a city with 800 antebellum mansions, Natchez is a natural draw for devotees of the old south and the traditions therein. Enthusiastic hoop skirted volunteers are eager to show off the stately homes as they pepper tourists with stories about the families that lived on the premises.
Natchez struggled through the twentieth century bruised and burdened by a failed economy. The twenty-first century saw more challenges, but cultural tourism has presented the town with a chance to showcase southern hospitality to visitors across the country and around the world. Movie crews have discovered the scenic real estate offerings and celebrities (Ala Mick Jagger) have come for the food, good friends, and the laid back ambiance.

I enjoyed the quiet and picturesque vive of Natchez. I can just imagine the beauty of blooming magnolias and azaleas in the Spring. The experience was a little step back in time-maybe time standing still would be a better moniker for her status. For sure, I hope the heritage tourism initiatives really drive future economic progress.

Cruising The Mississippi River On An American Queen

During the last four decades I have been able to travel on many of the great oceans and iconic rivers on six continents. The ships have been both large and small, some accommodating up to 2,000 passengers. Most have been elegant vessels traversing the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Mediterranean. Quite a few have been fragile but welcoming modest boats like feluccas that have transported me down the Nile and Ganges. My most recent Nile cruise was aboard the luxurious Oberoi, a cruise that was cut short by a revolution in 2011. But that's another story. My story now is about my first cruise on the fabled and glorious Mississippi River.

In February I took my first ever-domestic river cruise voyage on the great Mississippi River with accommodations on the truly magnificent and recently refurbished American Queen Steamboat - the biggest paddle wheel steamboat ever built.

( The nine-day trip on this pleasure palace (round trip New Orleans), up the Mississippi River was my opportunity to travel in great style and comfort in a region that was in my genes, but not in my experience.

My father was born and raised in New Orleans but returned infrequently after his family joined the great black migration in the 1930s. Over the years I have traveled to the Big Easy mainly to attend meetings or cultural events, rarely connecting with any family still living there - but always finding time to do some gazing at the Mississippi while in town,

Just seeing the American Queen docked, at the New Orleans pier and seeing this 400+ feet behemoth perched at the Marketplace Pier was exciting. Glowing from a just completed refurbishment of its colorful exterior and a soon to be discovered interior, I couldn't wait to get onboard.

Outfitted with all of the accouterments and technology of this century, she presents herself itself as a proud and statuesque replica of a bygone era of Mississippi River travel.

Arriving with fellow passengers we were welcomed aboard. The first things you see are the very grand but homey salons and public rooms. The main dining room, and the theater reminded me of the decor from the movie Show Boat. The public lounges, including one each for men and women, were appointed with quality antique furnishings and cozy seating that was much appreciated by many of the senior passengers, including me. In fact I spent several hours seated in the Women's Lounge writing on my IPad with my eyes often surrendering to the changing vistas and passing barges, container ships and big cruise ships heading to Mexico and points unknown to me.

American Queen provides what I would describe as low impact (relaxed) cruising. There are no walls to climb, no noisy casino, or flashy Broadway style musical productions, but there was Mark Twain onboard.

In residence during my trip, Mr. Twain was available to chat about the river, and it was fun to attend his show in the theater. It was also fun to catch him having a coffee on the boat's back porch, and listen to him reminisce about his working life as a steamboat captain. Our Mark Twain was as engaging as Hal Holbrook was decades ago in his award-winning one-man tribute to Mr. Twain.

Daily evening entertainment was provided in the comfy auditorium by a lively house band that shared the stage with the young and energetic production manager and singer/dancer who were a pleasure to watch.

A few cruise highlights in a few words:

• The dining experience was simply the best: great presentation, gourmet meals - tasty on all counts. Compliments to the staff for their friendliness and their endearing efforts to make our days on board as happy as they could.

• The comfy bed in my stateroom faced French doors, opening to a veranda, allowing me watch the flow of the river, and view river traffic that meanders by at all hours.

• The Hop On Hop Off bus (no cost) that allows guests to get the lay of the land first, and then choose to get off for a visit to all the cities the steamboat visited - Natchez, Vicksburg, Baton Rouge and a number of restored antebellum plantations.

• Dinner with Captain Willets, a fascinating gentleman who shared his life story and details of the history of he American Queen.

• A surprising connection to an almost forgotten ancestor of mine when we stopped at the African American Museum in Natchez. It was there where I viewed an exhibit of archival material on Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, a classical singer who toured Europe and sang for Queen Victoria.

• The ships gift shop was well stocked with a great selection of reading material on steamboats and the Mississippi River featuring books on the legends and history of America's longest river.

There could always be more to add, but let me just say that the combination of the "Mighty Mississippi" and the American Queen Steamboat is the perfect partnership for an unforgettable holiday in the good ole U.S.A.

Pat Johnson
Grannies on Safari