Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Corner of 47th & Lex

The controversy surrounding the milk chocolate sculpture of Jesus Christ to be displayed at The Lab gallery in the Roger Smith Hotel, first reported by Arma Virumque and its subsequent cancellation has been well documented. If you actually go to the corner where “My Sweet Lord” would have been displayed, you would see how inadequate a space it would have been for such an exhibition.

Last night, Yuliya Lanina’s Flights of Fantasy dance/performance art piece was finishing its run, probably enjoying greater crowds thanks to new notoriety of the venue. With dancers dressed as butterflies, buzzing around flowers to a variety of music (including John Zorn), against an animated backdrop, Flights may have been a little goofy, but was actually kind of sweet. It would have made good programming for Easter week.

Instead, the milk chocolate “anatomically correct” Jesus was set to move in for Holy Week. Former gallery director Matthew Semler gave contradicting stories to the press whether it was deliberately “intended as a meditation on the Holy Week” or “that the Holy Week timing was an unfortunate coincidence.” Regardless, it is far fetched to feign surprise that many were outraged by the sculpture.

The space in question is a converted corner store front. The sidewalk is about average for New York, but it is currently more confined due to scaffolding. It would not be the ideal location to get the full effect of any large installation and the resulting gawkers and protestors would have likely caused pedestrian congestion and perhaps even safety concerns.

Semler described the outcry as a “Catholic fatwa,” but he should really climb down off his milk chocolate cross. (As others have pointed out, he should try a Mohammed installation before throwing around the term “fatwa.”) In truth, he got the exact response he was hoping for, except his corporate sponsor, the Roger Smith Hotel, was less than thrilled about the project when it came to light. As in previous art war skirmishes, the partisans have a symbiotic relationship. One side needs to cry “censorship” in their bid to become a cause celeb. The other capitalizes on people’s outrage to build their organizations. The losers are everyone who believes in building coalitions (public or private) to support art that enriches the spirit.

The worst part about Semler’s decision is that it estranges people from the art world. When people in Middle America look at these exhibitions and think “I don’t know much about art, but I don’t need anymore of this,” they’re right. There is more to the art world than these deliberate provocations, but when most people are not exposed to more edifying art through the media, they can’t be blamed for taking a cynical view of art and artists.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Today’s Chicago Blues

Today’s Chicago Blues
By Karen Hanson
Lake Claremont Press

There are two commonly held opinions on Chicago Blues. One expressed by Tracy Nelson in the Chicago Blues Reunion DVD suggests that the current Chicago blues scene is a pale remnant of exciting high water mark of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Contrarily, some like David Whiteis in his book Chicago Blues argue that there is still a vital blues scene with strong ties to the community—one simply has to know where to look. Karen Hanson expresses the optimistic view in Today’s Chicago Blues, essentially a travel guide to the contemporary Chicago Blues scene.

TCB profiles many of the blues venues in Chicago proper. While many blues enthusiasts will already be familiar with clubs like Buddy Guy’s Legends and B.L.U.E.S., there are some lesser known establishments included here. Particularly useful for blues tourists with wheels will be the section on suburban clubs. For instance, according to Hanson a club called Genesis “located, in true suburban style, at the end of a strip mall on 183rd Street just west of Cicero” features Billy Branch’s group the Sons of Blues as their regular Wednesday night act. (p. 46)

Hanson also gives the run-down on the annual Chicago Blues Festival and blues shrines like the Leland Hotel and the former Chess Records studios (now a museum operated by the Blues Heaven foundation). Unfortunately, the city’s heavy handed use of eminent domain has taken a toll on its blues heritage. The Maxwell Street Market was a real community institution that used to feature many blues musicians playing for tips. Forced out of the Maxwell Street area, the new market evidently now bears more resemblance to a professional Manhattan street fair. Gerri’s Palm Tavern was another important blues venue, which hosted blues musician Fernando Jones play I Was There When the Blues Was Red Hot! According to Hanson: “In 2001 the City of Chicago used eminent domain to close down the historic building. To date no plans have been announced for the property.” (p. 170) Thanks for nothing, city planners.

If you are going to Chicago and want to check out some music, then TCB will be useful. Hanson compiles handy profiles of clubs, musicians, radio shows, and tourist attractions all related to the blues. It looks like it should help musical tourists get a more genuine taste of the real thing.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Brown Street

Brown Street
By Joe Zawinul with the WDR Big Band
Heads Up/BirdJam 2-CD set

Considering Weather Report’s legacy is a complicated matter. The fusion super-group formed by Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter has no shortage of partisans, pro and con. WR’s albums were generally well reviewed and were very successful commercially, particularly by jazz standards. However, some of the less successful, synth-heavy LPs have to an extent defined how many remember them: as a precursor to disco-influenced pop-jazz. By revisiting his past WR tunes with the backing of the swinging WDR big band, Joe Zawinul refocuses attention on the actual compositions for an exciting evening of music captured live on the double disk Brown Street.

The title track is a perfect flag waving opener. Starting with the steady groove of Zawinul’s keyboards with Heiner Wiberny’s soprano sax, it continues to build until the entire band comes roaring in past the three minute mark. Like WR’s greatest hit, “Birdland,” (so widely covered it was skipped for this project), “Brown Street” is a fun tune, played with verve by Zawinul and soloists Wiberny and guitarist Paul Shigihara.

As a change of pace, “In a Silent Way” follows. It is a bit of ringer, since Zawinul wrote it while he was with Miles Davis, but evidently WR often performed it live. John Marshall steps into the trumpet spotlight for a pensive solo over Zawinul’s synthesizers which harkens back to the Davis original.

The big swinging “Fast City” follows with take-no-prisoners solos from Marshall and Paul Heller on tenor that would be a surprise to most WR detractors. Indeed, many of the tunes have a very different vibe than one associates with WR albums, thanks to the WDR and the arrangements (all but one) by Vince Mendoza. For instance, “Badia/Boogie Woogie Waltz” is particularly intriguing in its evolution, from a spacey opening to a blistering close.

“A Remark You Made” is another familiar tune that effectively recasts WR fusion into big band jazz. Heiner Wiberny’s alto takes on a smoothish, romantic sound playing over a lush arrangement.

The train whistle introduces “Night Passage,” a return to the overall tone of Brown Street: upbeat, up-tempo, and brassy. Featuring a great flugelhorn solo from Kenny Rampton, it really is a standout track.

Brown Street is useful as a reevaluation of WR, demonstrating the adaptability of Zawinul’s compositions. Ultimately, it illustrates why WR was so successful. Even in a different context these are catchy, fun tunes, masterfully played by Zawinul and the WDR band.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

New York: CSI City of Choice

Law & Order may have Fred Thompson as the DA New York ought to have, but CSI: NY is my choice for crime drama, standing head and shoulders above the other franchise cities. It has the best Who theme song, “Baba O’Riley,” although it applies least to crime solving (“we don’t have to fight to prove we’re right?”). It does have some sharp writing that is among the most center-right friendly currently on television.

The lead played by Gary Sinise, is Det. Mack Taylor, a former Marine who served in Beirut, whose wife was one of those murdered on 9-11. He is a practicing Catholic, not lapsed or questioning. Early in season one, we saw a photo of Pres. Reagan in his office. If that does not make him likeable enough, last season we even learned he plays electric bass at a fictional jazz club called Cozy’s.

The recent storylines are also notable for elements that break the mold of conventional Hollywood leftist clichés. Last week’s episode, “Daze of Wine and Roaches” (Season 3, episode 66), a celebrity chef was murdered by a weird pseudo-animal rights/environmental wacko to prevent him from smashing a cockroach. We also see Det. Taylor’s investigation of a murder involving the UN hamstrung by the department’s obsequiousness to French diplomatic demands.

Another recent episode, “The Ride-In” (episode 64) did revolve around a Noah’s Ark sect, but the portrayal of fervent religious belief was actually handled with nuance and tact. The secondary investigation featured a tobacco company, but the perp turned out to be a union organizer campaigning for a costumed mascot local—not exactly your stereotypical Hollywood storyline.

CSI: NY is refreshing because the killers are as likely to be annoying hipsters as they are evil business executives, like the Mandala artist killer in “Murder Sings the Blues” (episode 54). Maybe Sinise’s influence is partly responsible. He certainly seems to be a good guy, having performed over 40 USO shows for the troops (youtube videos here). He also co-founded Operation Iraqi Children, a charity to help rebuild and literally re-supply the long atrophied Iraqi school system. (As part of the 2004 RNC Convention’s community service efforts, I helped the NY delegation assemble school supply kits in coordination with OIC.) Not to make trouble for Sinise in his chosen profession, but according to Newsmeat, his only donation large enough to surface in online searches was $2,100 to Mary Bono (R-CA) in 2004.

At this point, compared to Law & Order, CSI just seems to have the fresher brand, and New York has the smartest writing. Tonight’s episode is a repeat, which doesn’t contradict anything I’ve written, as best I can recall.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Blues for a Dead Lover

Blues for a Dead Lover
By Charles Nuetzel (writing as John Davidson)
Borgo Press/Wildside Press

Some jazz collectors seek out long out-of-print jazz novels, looking for lost treasures. There are several ripe for rediscovery, like Nat Hentoff’s Jazz Country, Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Winter in Lisbon, and Ross Russell’s The Sound. The recently reissued 1962 pulp novel Blues for a Dead Lover, by prolific genre paperback writer, Charles Nuetzel writing as John Davidson, is not one such unsung gem.

According to Nuetzel’s new introduction, Blues was inspired by the anxiety caused by separation from his recent fiancé on her first visit to her native Germany. Nuetzel writes:

“What if Brigitte never returned to America?

Of course, said my ego, it wouldn’t be because she didn’t want to? So, of course she would want to return.

But: what if it was beyond her control? What if . . . what?

Well. She might be killed! Why not consider that kind of nightmare possibility?” (p. 5)

In a sense Blues is a somewhat morbid valentine to Nuetzel’s betrothed, but one wonders what she thought of the protagonist dealing working through his grief with constant binge drinking and tawdry sex. A thematic precursor to Leaving Las Vegas, presumably, there is a cult following for this kind of hard-boiled pot-boiler prose:

“She was tired. Tired in the way that only Las Vegas could make a person tired. The town was an insanity that got into your blood the moment you stepped into it, charging the nerves and pushing the body beyond the normal points of energy, until you were so dragged out you could hardly think.” (p. 135)

Writing about music is difficult, as it requires authors to describe intangible sounds with concrete prose. Writing sex scenes can be treacherous, as there are dangers in either sounding too juvenile or downright pornographic. Blues largely takes a pass on the first challenge, while falling into all the pitfalls of the latter. There is some jazz interest in Blues—as the bereaved lover is a trumpeter, his loyal friend is his bassist, and their vocalist is woman who tries to win him on the rebound—but not enough for mainstream readers. If only someone would reissue Jazz Country or The Sound, then we’d be getting somewhere.

(Reviewed from pdf file.)

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Wetlands, and What Plagues New Orleans

Wetland restoration is getting a lot of press agitation, but is it really the right priority for post-Katrina Louisiana? Certainly, protecting and eventually rebuilding Louisiana’s wetlands is a worthy goal. Louisiana’s swamps and bayous are important to its cultural and commercial identity. (Years before Katrina, I enjoyed a bayou tour, watching the gators snap up the floating marshmallows.) However, much of the rhetoric surrounding the wetlands issue is incomplete or misleading.

In the aftermath of Katrina, coastal geographers Robert S. Young and David M. Bush writing in the New York Times (yes, really) dispelled some myths:

“First, many people – scientists and otherwise – have insinuated that if we had begun wetlands restoration in the Mississippi Delta years ago, it would have reduced the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and the coast. This is highly unlikely. Storm surge waters approached the coast from the east, pushed into Lake Pontchartrain by the counterclockwise flow of the hurricane’s winds; the natural wetlands that used to exist downriver from the city would have done little to mitigate the damage.

Second, some have suggested that rebuilding the Louisiana barrier islands would protect the delta region in future storms. But just look what happened elsewhere: Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge quickly inundated the barrier islands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore off Mississippi, which are far more robust and vegetated than the Louisiana islands ever were, on its way to devastating the state’s shoreline. Let’s face it, even if reconstructed, the Louisiana islands would be little more than a speed bump to a storm the size of Hurricane Katrina”

Regardless of the efficacy of wetlands as a Hurricane defense, there are other concerns to take into account—namely mosquitoes. As the University of Arizona News makes clear, if you rebuild wetlands, you will absolutely be increasing the mosquito population. Mosquitoes carry diseases, like malaria, West Nile, and encephalitis. Currently, New Orleans’ healthcare system is in sorry shape. The city’s network of charity hospitals remains severely damaged by Katrina and LSU has been unable to open six neighborhood clinics in FEMA supplied trailers because of paralyzing city regulation and bureaucracy. If all the efficient state bureaucrats work in the Louisiana’s environmental department and successfully rebuild wetland areas, while the healthcare distribution system remains mired in incompetence, the health implications for New Orleanians could be perverse.

To put the potential health costs in perspective, look at the effect of banning DDT cited by Alston Chase. In the 1960’s malaria deaths were down to 100,000 in India and 13 in Sri Lanka thanks to the pesticide. However, under the influence of blind faith in the unproved dangers of DDT, the countries were pressured to switch to less effective (and more environmentally damaging) pesticides. The result: “The incidence of malaria in India is now back up to more than a million and more than 500,000 in Sri Lanka.”

New Orleans heath systems are ill-equipped to handle an upsurge in malaria cases or an outbreak of West Nile. Yet, this is a foreseeable result of a massive effort to rebuild the wetlands without an aggressive regime of pesticides. Hurricane protection is certainly important. Levee fortifications and new floodgates would more effective than wetland restoration, and would not have negative public health repercussions.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Come for the Dalai Lama, Stay for Genghis Khan

The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama recently opened at The Rubin Museum of Art in Clesea. Unfortunately, the Chinese will not be able to read a review of the exhibition here, because this site is now being blocked. (That was fast.) What you will see if you go to the Rubin is an uneven exhibit that takes far too much thematic latitude.

If you are expected a great deal of Dalai Lama portraiture, you might be disappointed. There is certainly some, and frankly it represents the best of the show. Chase Bailey’s “Evolution into a Manifestation” uses bold colors in its modernistic depiction. Some “portraits” were more cerebral, like Ken Aptekar’s “I Saw the Figure Five in Gold,” a cool “reincarnation” of Charles Demuth famous numeral painting of William Carlos Williams. There were some representations that were just weird like Sylvie Fleury’s “Kirlian” aura photography, produced from an old pair of his Holiness’ shoes. Even the Dalai Lama himself may have found that a little out there, as the exhibit card notes, when informed of the work: “he chuckled and noted that the shoes had been resoled several times and that the resulting aura might well be that of his cobbler.”

The work included for addressing themes related to the Dalai Lama, filed under headings like Tibet, Belief Systems, Humanity in Transition, and Empathy & Compassion, tended to be a mixed bag. Of course there is a predictably clichéd anti-Bush, anti-Iraq War piece from Tom Nakashima. There is a powerful take on Mao’s barbarism from Tenzing Rigdol titled “Brief History of Tibet,” which depicts the Chairman’s two-faced nature: the placid public mask and “the artist’s perception of Mao’s actual face, wrathful and demonic.” Of course the piece is labeled anti-war, rather than anti-Communist.

There is a virtual tour available, corresponding to the California leg of the traveling exhibit. It does not match the Rubin’s lay out, on the fourth, fifth, and basement levels of the museum. If you do go (free admission after 7:00 Fri.) definitely check out Mongolia: Beyond Chinggis Khan, which offers a somewhat revisionist look at the Mongol leader better known as Genghis.

The exhibit signage makes a compelling case for Khan, as someone who abolished torture, established religious freedom, and repealed taxes for doctors, clergy, and teachers. Whenever he expanded his rule to new lands it seemed a cultural renaissance followed shortly thereafter. Of course during Soviet control of Mongolia, the Communists launched a propaganda campaign against Khan, a Mongol national hero who represented a symbolic threat to their misrule. In 1962 they flip-flopped on their anti-Khan campaign, presumably trying to co-opt his national prestige. The exhibit includes relatively recent photos of Mongolia, including one of a 1962 monument to Khan the Communists built to mark the presumed 800th anniversary of his birth. Now the Communists are gone and the Mongolians openly celebrate Khan.

It seems perverse that in the west, we have largely accepted the attacks against Khan by the Communists and Middle Eastern states that have held a historical grudge against him. He was even portrayed by John Wayne in The Conqueror (1956), which should be enough street cred for any great historical figure.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life

Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life
Original Soundtrack
Blue Note Records

When PBS finally gave some primetime air to jazz, they did the music right. Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, which aired in most markets in February, profiled the man who served as Duke Ellington’s largely unheralded arranging and composing collaborator. The filmmakers understood the importance of Strayhorn’s music to their story, and gave extended screen time to performances of his tunes by some of top names in jazz today. While giving prominence to the music, they did cut off most performances at some point, so the Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life companion soundtrack is a welcome release, making the entire performances available.

Few musicians are as attuned to songwriters as Bill Charlap, so he is perfectly matched to this project. The disk opens with his jaunty solo version of Strayhorn’s little known “Fantastic Rhythm.” He later returns for another solo—a sensitive interpretation of Strayhorn’s classical composition “Valse.” Charlap also has the pleasure of playing a duet with Hank Jones on “Tonk,” originally a four-handed feature for Ellington and Strayhorn.

The personification of elegant swing, Jones is another natural for this endeavor. His solo feature, “Satin Doll,” is tasteful and sophisticated. Jones has developed a rapport with Joe Lovano, playing with him on a number of occasions and on several sessions in recent years. With stellar rhythm section-mates George Mraz and Paul Motian, Jones and Lovano keep that good thing going on tunes like “Johnny Come Lately” and particularly Strayhorn’s lovely, under-recorded “Lotus Blossom.”

The vocal tracks are a bit more of a mixed bag. Certainly one of the highlights is Elvis Costello’s “My Flame Burns Blue” (originally “Blount Count”). Costello, Mr. Diana Krall, has been doing more jazz oriented work, recording with the Metropole Orchestra and frequently performing for Jazz Foundation benefit concerts. The lyrics he wrote to the melody of “Blood Count,” first recorded with the Metropole and heard here with the stellar backing of Lovano and Charlap, well fit the milieu of Strayhorn’s work.

With six features, Diane Reeves has the highest profile in the film and soundtrack. She has a beautifully strong and clear voice, but on “Lush Life” she does not seem to connect with melancholy at the core of the Strayhorn classic. However, on “Something to Live For” she brings a convincingly hopefully sound to what could be a downbeat lament.

Lush Life has been sitting atop the Jazz Week radio play charts for several weeks, and it is easy to understand why. It features a nice blend of the well known Strayhorn and relatively recent discoveries, while the performances range from solid to beautiful.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Coming Soon: Offside

If you want to see a football (soccer) match in Iran and you happen to be woman, than forget it. To protect women from all the harsh language in the stadium, the paternal Iranian regime won’t let female fans attend live games. It may not be the most pressing human rights abuse in Iran, but as the subject of Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Offside, it most assuredly fell outside the bounds of acceptable fare for the state authorities, and is emblematic of the autocratic sexism of the Islamic-fascist government.

Offside (trailer here) tells the story of several young Iranian girls who try to sneak into the forbidden football stadium for a crucial World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain. They try to disguise themselves as boys, with varying degrees of success, but are eventually rounded up by the reluctant military conscripts working the security detail, to be turned over to the vice squad at the end of the match. As the young women cool their heels in a holding pen, they try to engage their captors, who have difficulty defending the policy they enforce. In fact, several of the female fans seem much more knowledgeable about the game than the soldiers guarding them.

Panahi filmed under difficult circumstances, without official sanction. When the film made the international festival circuit, Time reported:

“Panahi was denied a license to shoot Offside, so, using a fake name, he submitted a phony synopsis about a group of boys attending a football game and got the Ministry’s approval. Without the equipment or funding that the government hands out to other directors, he shot with a digital camera and small crew. Five days before the shoot was finished, the authorities discovered they’d been duped. ‘The police in Tehran were under orders to arrest us if they saw us shooting,’ Panahi says. ‘Luckily, the only scenes we had left were in a minibus, so we drove out of the city borders where they couldn’t find us.’”

Since Panahi was denied permission to film Offside, he shot on digital video, giving the film a cinema vérité look. He cast non-professional actors, to avoid any sense of affectation. Although the young actors are not always comfortable in their roles, some, like Shayesteh Irani as the tomboyish “Smoking girl,” are quite good.

As a film it is reasonably entertaining—sort of the dystopian version of Bend it Like Backham—and it is particularly interesting as a small unfiltered snapshot of Iranian life. Far from a full scale indictment of the Iranian regime, Offside is rather a small slice of everyday absurdism. To borrow an American cliché, one should not question Panahi’s patriotism. In fact, the film is suffused with a love of country, as the young fans want nothing more than to chant and cheer for their national team.

According to the Time piece reprinted in the press materials, even though Offside has only been screened once in Iran, at a film festival in an inferior time slot, word of the film helped temporarily overturn the ban on women at sporting events, until the religious authorities vetoed the policy change. Offside might seem slight—a group of women trying to simply watch a sporting event—but it signifies an act of rebellion, and indeed ends with a very minor rebellion of sorts. One can hope that the minor rebellions of Offside are baby steps leading towards more sweeping changes. Offside opens in New York and Los Angeles tomorrow, hopefully rolling out to further cities shortly thereafter.

(Thanks to Karol at Alarming News, who also finds the issues raised by Offside noteworthy. Gateway Pundit has more background here.)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Numinous Music

Joseph C. Phillips conducted the Numinous+ ensemble performing his extended composition Vipassana last night at Makor. The composition title and ensemble name testify to Phillips’ interest in Eastern spirituality. Drawing inspiration from sources as varied as Joseph Campbell, Steve Reich, Björk, the photography of Yann Arthus-Bertrand, the poetry of Denise Levertov, linguistics, anthropology, and archaeology, Vipassana is a deeply thought out undertaking. It has long, compelling trance-like passages that defy easy classification. It is a work that really calls for repeated listening, which will eventually be possible, as Numinous+ will be recording it shortly.

The ensemble performances were outstanding. There were excellent solo features for Dave Smith on trumpet and Ben Kono on soprano. There was also a section of wonderful interplay between pianist Deanna Witklowski (playing on her birthday, no less) and Tom Beckham on vibes. Vipassana is an ambitious, but accessible composition. Just recording the large ensemble will be something else, but it is nice to know the music will be documented.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Meet Me with Your Black Drawers On

Meet Me with Your Black Drawers On
By Jeannie Cheatham
University of Texas Press

In the 1980’s and 1990’s Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham led the Sweet Baby Blues Band, which helped re-popularize honest blues-based swing combos in jazz. The Cheathams were close musical collaborators and one of the great jazz romances. Sadly, Mr. Cheatham passed away in January, but Mrs. Cheatham’s memoir, Meet Me with Your Black Drawers On, is in many ways a valentine to her trombonist husband.

Jeannie Cheatham started playing gigs around Ohio, including Springfield (home to my alma mater), the scene for some Jim Crowism, evidently drifting over the Kentucky or West Virginia borders. Cheatham explains she and her band bought ice cream at a well known parlor, to the dismay of an elderly African-American woman outside the store. Cheatham recalls:

“‘Well,’ [bandmember] Shakespeare said, ‘Today is your lucky day! We gonna treat you to ice cream in Isaly’s on Main Street in Springfield!” She looked frightened, but we each took one of her arms and marched back into the parlor and ordered her choice: vanilla ice cream shaped like a pyramid.” (P. 99)

[In 1990’s, if Isaly’s was still in business, it had lost its place as ice cream of choice to Young’s in nearby Yellow Springs, where all customers were welcome.]

It was in Buffalo that the Cheathams met, eventually leaving for New York. Jimmy Cheatham would later accept teaching positions in Wisconsin and San Diego, where the Cheathams together invigorated the local jazz scenes. Eventually, they established the Sweet Baby Blues band, which hit at the perfect time, with jazz tastes embracing swing and blues again. Before signing with Concord they met with a producer, Don Cooke, who evidently did not anticipate the shift in tastes then brewing. According to Cheatham:

“He greeted us warmly, then settled back in his seat to listen to the tape. When the music concluded, silence settled over us. Don hooked his hands behind his head and declared, ‘This stuff will never fly! You have to bring it up to date. Add a funk beat. Maybe some electronics . . .” (p. 314)

“Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On” was written in a moment of inspiration the night before they recorded their Concord debut. It garnered a great deal of radio play becoming their breakout tune. Cheatham describes the good vibe of the recording session:

“The cup of intuition ran over. We requested that the studio be darkned, only the music stands lighted, so we didn’t have to dig too far down to feel that it was ‘round midnight in some roundhouse on the outskirts of town.” (p. 329)

Cheatham writes candidly, with a distinct voice. Jazz fans will enjoy the stories of legendary jazz artists she worked with and befriended, including Babs Gonzales, Papa Jo Jones, Pete Johnson, and Jay McShann. Drawers is a great package that comes with a sampler CD of their Concord work, which of course begins with the title song. The publisher clearly showed confidence in Cheatham’s memoir, going to the expense of printing several photo inserts throughout the book and embossing the cover (but the decision not to include an index was odd).

Reading Drawers makes it clear how well matched Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham were in music and in life, which makes reading it more touching given his recent passing. However, Cheatham relates a rich full life together that brought great music into the world.

Monday, March 19, 2007

New Orleans and this Year’s School Buses

The image of the fleet of school buses, languishing under flood water, rather than in use evacuating New Orleans residents, as per the city’s contingency plans, is a lasting image of Katrina ineptness. Now New Orleans has a new symbol of incompetence: six doublewide trailers, supplied by FEMA to provide primary care, still unused because of the City government’s excruciating red tape.

When the Times-Picayune titles an editorial “Slower than FEMA” that’s a heavy statement, but local officials have been nothing short of derelict in their duties. The Times-Pic writes:

“This outbreak can’t be blamed on state and federal agencies that failed to grasp the urgency of the situation. LSU started planning a temporary network of neighborhood clinics two months after Hurricane Katrina shut down Charity Hospital. FEMA delivered six double-wide trailers, each equipped with eight exam rooms last summer.

But New Orleans officials dithered and delayed over zoning concerns, and as a result, the trailers are still sitting in the University Hospital parking lot. Meanwhile, poor New Orleanians have had little access to health services and often end up seeking attention in overcrowded emergency rooms.”

According to the Times-Pic’s reporting the trailers were delivered in early July. Since then they have been consigned to a regulatory purgatory. LSU devised a plan, supported by the City Council President to locate the clinics at schools in neighborhoods where healthcare was severely affected by Katrina. However, two council members, James Carter and Cynthia Willard-Lewis put the project in limbo. According to LSU papers acquired by the Times-Pic:

“‘multiple calls to Councilman Carter and Councilwoman Willard-Lewis regarding the ordinance’ were placed between August and November. ‘Unable to get a firm commitment to pursue ordinance change,’ the timeline reads.”

Their zoning concern? Allowing the clinics could lead to unintended commercial development. Evidently, Carter and Willard-Lewis think over-development is the greatest challenge currently facing New Orleans. If the City of New Orleans cannot shepherd six emergency neighborhood clinics through its labyrinth of red tape in less than nine months, they hardly need worry about an invasion of commercial developers.

The council finally granted a temporary zoning waiver, but it still requires mayoral approval and permits from the city. This is the same local government led by Mayor Nagin, who has toured the country to boost NOLA’s economy. When city councilors are willing to stall neighborhood clinics in order to keep commerce out, he is not exactly promoting a business friendly environment. By the way, as an American taxpayer, you spent $761,000 on these unused trailers. Feel like you’re getting your money’s worth?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Curiously Sinister Art of Jim Flora

Curiously Sinister Art of Jim Flora
By Irwin Chusid & Barbara Economon
Fantagraphics Books tradepaper

Alex Kallao’s An Evening At the Embers LP is just okay (it is one of the thousands of sessions recorded by the beloved bassist Milt “the Judge” Hinton), but it is eagerly sought after by record collectors for its distinctive cover art by Jim Flora (website here), renown for his long stints with the Columbia and RCA record labels. While Chusid & Economon’s second collection of Flora’s work has far fewer LP covers than the first, it includes many images that will be of interest to jazz collectors in The Curiously Sinister Art of Jim Flora.

Baroque and subversive, Flora’s art has attracted a cult following. JD King’s forward recaps elements of Flora’s style: “At times we see the cubism of Picasso peeking out, Dali’s dreaminess drifting in, Klee’s linear quality, Miro’s absurdity, and Stuart Davis’s graphic color and shapes.” (p. 31) Chusid trenchantly writes:

“He didn’t simply paint the human face; he admitted to ‘tearing it apart, making it into something grotesque, or something sweet.’ He dismembered bodies, then rewired them like Calder sculptures.” (p. 13)

While there is only a smattering of LP covers included, Sinister has a large section devoted to Flora’s commercial art for Columbia Records that have been almost untirely unseen for years. There are banners, brochures, and point-of-sale materials featuring images of Gene Krupa, Harry James, Frank Sinatra, and Benny Goodman. Of particular historical interest are the promotional booklets Flora mocked-up and sent to Columbia to encourage more promotional efforts for their jazz reissues, which ultimately led to his employment with the label.

Flora had a clear affinity for jazz. Apart from his Columbia and RCA years, he produced images of Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson and a Mardi Gras inspired series. Illustrations like that for Marguerite Young’s short story “The Great Juke,” published in the October 1947 issue of Mademoiselle makes one curious to read the accompanying prose. There are even images of political interest, like those for “The Welfare State is Here to Stay” from Look magazine and “The FCC’s Expanding, Demanding Universe” for Fortune, which illustrate the growth of the government leviathan.

Chusid, the “public editor” of Donald Luskin’s Conspiracy to Keep You Poor and Stupid blog, writes with wit and authority. Together with Economon, he has assembled a striking collection of Flora’s art that most record collectors will flip over. They also maintain a Jim Flora blog, where you can find regularly updated Flora images and commentary.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Buried Alive in the Blues

Chicago Blues Reunion: Buried Alive in the Blues
Eagle Eye Media

Aside from maybe Clarksdale, Mississippi, few towns are as closely associated with the blues as is Chicago. The Windy City has a more vital scene, supporting more venues and musicians. Out of that scene, several young blues artists emerged, achieving a fair amount of rock & roll crossover success. They recently came together again for the Chicago Blues Reunion project and DVD.

The featured musicians of the Chicago Blues Reunion band, Barry Goldberg, Nick Gravenites, Harvey Mandel, Tracy Nelson, Sam Lay, and Corky Siegel, all had shared professional associations in common, the Mike Bloomfield Band being of particular importance. In his commentary B.B. King expresses his regard for the late Bloomfield:

“Mike Bloomfield was like a son. He was like a son—I knew him very well. Mike Bloomfield was one the great young guitarists—great young guitarists . . . Michael Bloomfield to me was on his way to be—sky’s the limit. We lost him too early.”

Of the featured blues artists, Gravenites’ has the more revealing segments. As music critic/on-screen commentator Joel Selvin says of “Born in Chicago:” “when Nick Gravenites talks about his best friend died before he was twenty-one he means it.” Probably better known for writing for others than as a vocalist, he stills belts the blues with the best of them. The subtitle track, “Buried Alive in the Blues,” originally written for Janis Joplin, is one of the standout performances on Reunion.

The credits of the band members are impressive. Drummer Lay recorded on Muddy Waters’ Fathers and Sons album and played with Howlin’ Wolf and James Cotton. Barry Goldberg recounts the experience of sitting in with Bob Dylan on his famous (or notorious) electric debut at the Newport Folk Festival. Arguably the most crossover success was had by Harvey Mandel, a veteran of Canned Heat, who tells of recording with the Rolling Stones and auditioning for the place eventually filled by Ron Woods.

It is worth noting that most of the crossover success for Chicago Blues musicians was had by white musicians like Mandel and Goldberg. Selvin points out some of the historical realities of race relevant to the Chicago Blues scene:

“White musicians picking up on black music had a lot of ramifications that went beyond the strictly musical, but this was going on from literally the beginning of rock & roll . . . the white audience, when they were confronted by this white blues music out of Chicago—they were unaware of Howlin’ Wolf. They knew nothing of Muddy Waters. Little Walter—who’s he? So they were getting their first taste of this music which was so familiar to the black community of Chicago.”

Besides Lay, the musicians of the Reunion band are obviously white. However, the interviews and archival footage suggest they were largely accepted by the predominantly African-American Chicago blues scene. Reunion is an interesting documentary, graced by the recollections of blues legends like the patriotically attired Buddy Guy and King (who retells the fateful origin of his guitar’s famous name in one interview sequence). There are some great performances, notably Gravenites on “Buried Alive on the Blues” and Lay on “I’ve Gotta Find My Baby,” which are also included on a bonus CD. Like many of the featured musicians, Reunion could serve as an accessible introduction to the blues for neophytes.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Big Band With Love

Big Band with Love
Charles Tolliver
Blue Note/Mosaic Records

Actors yearn to direct according to the old cliché. Leading a big band seems to hold a similar allure for jazz musicians, regardless of the accolades they may have already attained in their careers. Charles Tolliver did indeed lead one of the more acclaimed big bands of the 1970’s, and he was recently convinced to revive it with a multi-generational ensemble of musicians. The culminating release With Love testifies to the power of Tolliver as a trumpet soloist and as a chart writer.

Power is the key word to describe With Love. “Rejoicin’” sets the pace from the start, with Victor Lewis’ drums swinging the band, and Tolliver’s preaching solo building the intensity. The title track starts as more of a mid-tempo groover. It is a lithe swinger, featuring pungent statements from Bill Saxton and the leader, before concluding with a passage of stimulating ensemble interplay.

The sole standard in the set is Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” but Tolliver’s pen makes the familiar classic sound fresh. Tolliver’s frequent collaborator, Stanley Cowell takes a fleet solo that avoids Monk imitations, before the trumpeter takes over again on rich arrangement that blends equal parts power and delicacy.

“Mournin’ Variations,” adapted from the spirituals of James Weldon Johnson, starts with the pastoral sound of flutes and reeds, before the brass and drums come roaring in around 1:53. It is another intriguing arrangement that takes listeners through twists and turns, as Billy Harper on tenor, Stafford Hunter on trombone, and Tolliver contribute fiery solos.

From his notes to the album, it is clear Tolliver took tremendous satisfaction from “Suspicion,” as it featured his son Ched on guitar. Introduced by Cecil McBee’s bass, the addition of guitar gives “Suspicion” a funkier feel, while Tolliver trumpet solo and Lewis’ drumming build a nervous energy throughout the tune.

With Love is also notable as the first original production from Mosaic Records, the venerated reissue label, released in conjunction with their corporate cousin Blue Note Records. The resurgence of Tolliver as a big band leader and the resulting With Love attracted an impressive array of musical and production talent. Cowell and rising star Robert Glasper trade off in the piano chair. The reed section includes Harper, Saxton, Craig Handy, and Howard Johnson. Gil Noble, a well regarded broadcaster in New York (and past host of Jazz Foundation benefit concerts), contributed an introductory note. Tolliver’s muscular charts and inventive solos, and the efforts of his impressive band of musicians, make With Love a very rewarding and entertaining big band session.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Good Reviews in the News

Two rave reviews are in for rabidly anti-Israeli jazz musician Gilad Atzmon. One comes in the February IAJRC Journal (evidently hitting mailboxes a little late), and the other comes from David Duke (Democratic Underground’s latest heartthrob).

The IAJRC Journal is a labor of love for a few members, desperately soliciting contributions from the general membership, so it wouldn’t be fair to belabor their publication of the review. However, Andy Simons seriously glosses Atzmon’s politics when he suggests Atzmon’s “deeply serious CDs, mostly on ENJA, have made some way toward uniting Jewish and Arab culture.” In truth, Atzmon, the decidedly former Israeli, is not a uniter, but a divider, having chosen sides.

It turns out David Duke approves of the Atzmon’s chosen allegiance, reprinting an extended excerpt of one of Atzmon’s article on his website. Simons writes of “sharing much of Atzmon’s political and moral outlook,” but one assumes that does not extend to Atzmon’s cynical polemics on the Holocaust. Atzmon writes (and Duke approves):

“the Holocaust has become the new Jewish religion. ‘The Holocaust’ [Atzmon’s quotes] is far more than historical narrative, it indeed contains most of the essential religious elements: it has its high priests (Simon Wiesenthal, Elie Wiesel, Deborah Lipstadt, etc.) and prophets (Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and those who warn about the Iranian Judeocide to come). It has its commandments and dogmas (‘never again’, ‘six million’, etc.). It has rituals (memorial days, Pilgrimage to Auschwitz etc.). . . Most interestingly, the Holocaust religion is coherent enough to define the new ‘antichrists’ (the Deniers) and it is powerful enough to persecute them (Holocaust denial laws)."

When playing, Atzmon has a distinctive, passionate tone. When writing polemics, that tone becomes strident. Too often writers and critics whitewash the extent of his extremism (examples here, here, here). Even if his playing moves you, his constant attempts to minimize the Holocaust and embrace the advocates of terror should give one serious pause. As for his latest "Artie Fishel" project, a mean-spirited satire of klezmer music and Jewish culture, Simons describes it as “a single listening session concept album.” Talk about a euphemistic turn of phrase.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Presidential Salute

Every year St. Peter’s remembers Lester Young, "the Prez.," around the anniversary of his death with the To Prez. with Love concert. This year was a great opportunity to hear headliners like Jimmy Heath and Lee Konitz for only $15.

Lester Young’s influence on jazz is well documented. His cool tone on the tenor saxophone contrasted with the muscular sound of his predecessor in the Fletcher Henderson band, Coleman Hawkins. It took a while to catch on, but his sound would be tremendously influential, as is well documented with artists like Stan Getz, but less acknowledged in the case of Charlie Parker.

Young would also have an enormous impact on language. If you’ve ever talked about being “cool” or had “eyes” for someone, you’re talking Lester’s lingo. Cultural images of Young persist years after his death. Dexter Gordon’s character of Dale Turner in Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight, was largely a composite of Bud Powell and Young. Indeed, Gordon’s scenes with Lonette McKee’s Billie Holiday inspired character have more truth to them than the entire Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues.

Plenty of talented musicians came out to pay tribute. Jimmy Heath played an entertaining two tune set, with the very talented Aaron Diehl on piano. Heath opened with “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” which he said was known in Young’s lexicon as “Poker Chips.” Lee Konitz first played with his longtime colleague Dick Katz, and later returned with a young group led by Alan Ferber. Diehl also played an appealing duet with Dominick Faricnacci, of Cleveland (not Italy as WBGO’s Brian Delp first erroneously stated in his intro—close enough.)

Young died on the Ides of March, so the To Prez concert is typically the Sunday before. This year, we were not helped by the new D.S.T. and that lost hour of sleep—I took off by 9:30 before the festivities moved out of the sanctuary. Is this really saving energy, compared to time spent downloading patches and the like?

Friday, March 09, 2007

What Buddy Bolden Says

The Jazz Foundation of America has mailer out announcing the 6th Annual Great Night in Harlem benefit concert. It will be May 17th, presumably in the Apollo Theater again. As their key art they use of the most famous photos in jazz—a rare surviving photo of Buddy Bolden, the first jazz musician.

Bolden could have used the help of an organization like the Jazz Foundation. After blazing through the New Orleans music scene with a legendarily strong cornet tone, he was consumed by his mental torments, spending the last years of his institutionalized. Years later, we remain fascinated by Bolden even though we have no idea what he really sounded like, as he never recorded. Of course, legends persist of an early cylinder he is rumored to have recorded—the jazz equivalent of the Holy Grail, Lost Ark, and the missing reel of Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons, all in one.

Bolden has become more legend than fact, with apocryphal stories of him as the owner a barbershop and publisher of a tabloid called The Cricket, becoming accepted lore. However, Donald M. Marquis could find no evidence of either the shop or the broadsheet when researching his definite biography In Search of Buddy Bolden.

Both fabled avocations figure into Michael Ondaatje’s Buddy Bolden novel Coming Through Slaughter, which was adapted for the stage in Germany. The music featuring Dietrich Geese, Wolfgang Schmidtke, and Otto Beatus (none of whom I know anything about) among others, is actually pretty good, but presumably the script echoed mythical elements of Ondaatje’s book. Wynton Marsalis (him again) is involved with a Bolden film currently filming in North Carolina, which should continue to keep images of jazz’s Adam in our consciousness.

For some reason we remain fascinated with Bolden, the legendary Gabriel, whose horn could be heard all the way across town, only to be laid low by his inner demons. He is in many ways an apt symbol for what the Jazz Foundation does. See you May 17th uptown.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Citizen Wynton

There is no more cutting insult for Marsalis than the word “minstrelsy.” He applies it repeatedly to hip-hop culture in an interview with Bill Milkowski in the April Jazz Times. With From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, his most explicitly political CD in several years releasing this week, Marsalis is front-and-center in the jazz magazines.

Despite the feature stories, the reviews of Penitentiary, have been mixed (JT) to negative (DB). The lyrics Marsalis wrote, particularly his rap on “Where Y’All At?” have been particularly panned. It is an ironic turn, given the controversial response to Marsalis’ frequent criticisms of hip-hop for its vulgarity and misogyny. When Milkowski compares him to Cosby, Marsalis responds: “I was speaking out about it long before Bill Cosby.”

Marsalis seems to be a sort of Rorschach for jazz fans. They either see everything they like or dislike about the music embodied in the trumpeter. His detractors label him a neo-conservative, for his neo-classical approach to the jazz canon. In a separate JT review of the disc, Geoffrey Himes writes: “Marsalis sounds downright Republican when he attacks taxes, ‘modern-day minstrels’ and womb-vanquished dreams.’” This seems to overstate matters in what is an overall evenhanded review, particularly given the “Supercapitalism” track critiquing consumerist society.

On the subject of rebuilding his hometown, Marsalis is bluntly outspoken, yet more nuanced than one might expect. When given a cue to bash Pres. Bush, does not bite as hard as one might expect, telling Milkowski:

“it doesn’t really make a difference what party is in control. Like I said, ‘It don’t make a difference if it’s the left or the right/They’ll both get together and make your pocket light.’ Who do you want to rob you? It’s not like there’s been a big cry from the Democrats to get New Orleans right.”

Perhaps this political agnosticism is why many critics have not embraced Penitentiary and his jujitsu-like attempt to use the rap which he has scorned for years. Marsalis has never sugar-coated his opinions, so some seem to have a knee-jerk reaction to him. It is hard to argue when he blasts hip-hop for sexually objectifying women and deriding the benefits of education. Those who take issue with his every utterance seem to be harkening back to past arguments over the validity of Miles Davis’ electric years.

There is no question Marsalis is an enormously talented musician. There is also no denying he can be curtly dismissive of the styles he does not embrace, but even his harshest critics will give him credit for his educational outreach efforts. After his meteoric rise and his establishment of J@LC, Marsalis is probably the only jazz musician today for whom one name is sufficient with the general public—Wynton, like Miles. The second act of his career will probably be defined by his efforts on behalf of post-Katrina New Orleans, and may yet bring the inkblots into sharp focus.

(An ironic post to go up a day after giving credit to OutKast’s Idlewild. I can’t speak to their CDs, but the film did not have anymore adult language or sexuality than the average Hollywood release. The violence is actually presented in a moral context and the film concludes with a major character choosing his family obligations over the fast life. Whether Marsalis would enjoy the film, I would not want to guess and be wrong.)

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Directed By Bryan Barber
Universal Home Video

Wynton Marsalis’ new CD is featured in prominent stories in both Jazz Times and Downbeat this month, but is later panned in the review sections of both magazines. An attempt by Marsalis to rap on a track receives particular derision. It seems hip-hop and jazz fusions are reserved by critics for the downtown scene, rather than the more swing-oriented artists like Marsalis. Indeed, OutKast’s film debut, Idlewild, received a similar critical reception for its blending of hip-hop with elements of 1930’s swing.

OutKast released their CD of hip-hop tunes from and inspired by the film. However, a soundtrack album of John Debney’s orchestral score was announced from Varese Sarabande, but never released. That was a shame, since it featured trumpet solos from jazz musician and Cuban defector Arturo Sandoval, an entertaining musician in any context. It is hard dislike a film that gives credit trumpet solos in its opening title sequence, as Idlewild does.

For jazz listeners, Idlewild has some nice moments. Sandoval and Debney’s work is best heard over the opening montage of the young Percival and Rooster, growing up into their family businesses, undertaking and bootlegging, respectively. Also entertaining are the high energy dance numbers choreographed by Tony winner Hinton Battle, featuring Rooster, played by Antwan Andre “Big Boi” Patton. His rap delivered over big band swing inspired arrangements is clearly anachronistic, but kind of fun. Frankly, even the deleted song “The Clock” is a more worthy tune than this year’s bland Oscar winning song.

Idlewild is not perfect, but Barber’s flashy and colorful visuals keep things moving effectively. OutKast’s Patton and Andre “Andre 3000” Benjamin have decent screen presence, acquitting themselves well in their acting debuts. The screenplay could have used an additional revision or two, as there are several logical gaps in the storyline. Why Rooster’s club has to rely on bootleggers for booze in 1935, two years after the end of prohibition is never really explained—must have been a dry county.

It is not perfect, but based on Idlewild, it would be interesting to see another attempt at a musical film from Barber and company. Yet in Jazz Times’ 2006 “Year in Review” they dismiss the film as “some misguided amalgam of Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Kansas City and New Jack City. As jazz fans we’re disappointed, but as hip-hop heads we’re completely heartbroken.” Why the scorn? Marsalis might be a terrible rapper, but if OutKast takes inspiration from swing instead of more “left-of-center” jazz styles, so be it. Idlewild actually mixes swing attitude with hip-hop energy into an amalgam that is more fun than they generally received credit for.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A Long Story

A Long Story
By Anat Fort
ECM 1994

The title of Anat Fort’s ECM debut refers to the story behind A Long Story’s release, starting with Fort’s pursuit of the legendary Paul Motian to play on her session. At first reluctant, the drummer was so enthusiastic about what he heard, he championed her to ECM’s Manfred Eicher. Three years later: an overnight success story is born. Not to cut a good story short, but the important thing in the long run is the music, and Fort’s A Long Story is impressive.

Story starts with the first of three variations on Fort’s “Just Now” theme. The first is a pensive trio performance, in which Fort’s graceful melody unfolds patiently, as Motian’s supportive brushwork testifies to why Fort sought him out. It is followed by another beautiful original arranged for the trio, “Morning: Good.” Here Fort shows a delicate touch on the piano, giving ample solo space to Ed Schuller on bass, but maintaining the lines of the lovely melody.

Schuller’s bass introduces “Lullabye,” a quartet feature, adding Perry Robinson on clarinet, sounding bluesier than one might expect from his freer work in the past. As a free improvisation between Fort and Robinson, “Chapter Two” is probably closer to Robinson’s free jazz roots, but the mood is playful, not abrasive.

With the second variation of “Just Now,” a thoughtful piano solo for the leader, the hues of Story turn darker. The original “Not a Dream?” is an accessible, but unsettling melody. “Rehaired” has a nervous energy, given urgency by Motian’s cymbal accents. Story finishes with the third variation of “Just Now,” this one a brief, mournful quartet.

Born in Israel, one would expect to hear international influences in Fort’s work, and there is a certain exoticism in “As Two/Something ‘Bout Camels,” which starts as a piano/clarinet duet, segueing into a feature for Robinson on ocarina.

Fort’s compositions are consistently rewarding. In addition to the stand out “Morning: Good,” Fort’s “Not the Perfect Storm” is a fascinating composition that hints at a brewing storm and flirts with turbulence, before resolving peacefully.

Throughout Story, the interplay between the musicians is striking. Fort is a very talented musician and composer. One hopes Story is the start of a long major label career for her.

(Story releases today, and Fort will be celebrating with a special performance at Birdland March 13.)

Monday, March 05, 2007

Fire Music Sans Dissent

In a telling interview with Charlie Rose, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone told the PBS host, they only way to shock and rebel in Hollywood was to say nice things about Bush and declare themselves proud gun owners. In a liberal, one party town, that constitutes real dissent. So when John Murph’s article in the April Downbeat titled “Fire Music Renaissance,” speaks of “a surge of political dissent” it begs the question who are they dissenting from?

Profiling recent politically themed albums from the like of Vijay Iyer, Wynton Marsalis, and Soweto Kinch, Murph writes: “In the wake of such decade-defining events as the 2000 presidential election, 9/11, the Iraq war and overall war on terror, and the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, a sizeable number of jazz albums voicing sociopolitical angst have emerged.” However, throughout the piece there is not one single word spoken in favor of President Bush or the War in Iraq. This is wholly consistent with the opinions I have heard expressed at IAJE’s jazz and politics forum and other public events, like forums at Vision Fest. To qualify as dissent, your opinion must be contrary to that which prevails in your community. Again, where is the dissent in criticizing FEMA? It’s more like shooting fish in a barrel.

There are repeated suggestions that artists might be risking their careers by making politicizing statements, but as Murph concedes: “a number of the aforementioned albums were released on major labels.” Indeed, Blue Note released Marsalis’ From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, what was then Universal’s Verve label released Charlie Haden’s Not in Our Name and Savoy released Iyer & Ladd’s Still Life With Commentator, all at the time were major players on the jazz scene. One vocalist did flatly claim she had faced resistance to a song from station managers for its politicized content, and that could well be true. Of course, it is also easier to say the boss does not want to play anything political than admit you just don’t like someone’s song.

Marsalis’ Penitentiary sounds like the closest album to being legitimately controversial within the jazz community. In a sidebar, Murph describes it thusly: “The trumpeter addresses the current crisis in Black America and tackles such touchy issues of capitalism, misogyny, drug addiction and incarceration. The uncompromising piece positions Marsalis alongside other pundits such as Bill Cosby and Juan Williams.” Later in the same issue, James Hale reviews Penitentiary, giving it one star, writing “it’s so dogmatic that it puts good taste on the run.” So much for dissent in fire music.

I have not heard Penitentiary yet, so I cannot assess its artistic merit. Marsalis and all the other featured artists have a perfect right to make any statement they wish. I only take issue with applying the term “dissent” to expressions of political conformity.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Number 701

701—that is the cruel numerology facing New Orleans. It stands for the so-numbered article of the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure, which springs suspects from jail or bond obligations if an indictment is not filed after sixty days. According to the Times-Picayune, the term “misdemeanor murders” is gaining currency amongst the criminal classes.

The Pic reports:

“In the eight months before the hurricane, the city released 187 people on a 701, including eight murder suspects, prosecutors’ records show. In 2006, the number of releases soared to about 3,000. And last month alone, 580 people escaped legal custody of either jail or a bond obligation only because prosecutors couldn’t pull together a case ahead of the deadline imposed by law.

‘That’s 580 people,’ said Dalton Savwoir, spokesman for [DA Eddie] Jordan’s office, when asked to repeat the figure for clarity.”

Jordan’s office has already cost the City of New Orleans, even before Katrina. In March of 2005 he was found professionally, but not personally, liable in a racial discrimination suit filed by 44 white employees of the DA’s office, fired by operatives of fellow Democrat Rep. William “Big Freeze” Jefferson, when Jordan took office. Jordan is currently appealing the verdict.

Currently, Jordan is in a finger-pointing battle with the Chief of Police, Warren Riley. Jordan accuses the cops of not filing reports and not supplying proper laboratory evidence. The NOLA PD lost their lab facilities to Katrina, and are borrowing time in other cities’ labs. A major point of contention has been Jordan’s refusal to use evidence from field kits. WWLTV reports on a city council hearing Jordan and Riley attended, at which the issue ignited:

“‘Without a lab report, the prosecutor cannot say that these are in fact the drugs that the police officer claims were taken off this individual,’ explained Jordan.

But Riley said the federal government has used the field tests, which provide on-the-spot analysis of drugs, for nearly 20 years.

‘We have tried and want to encourage Mr. Jordan to use field testing kits on these narcotics cases,’ he said.

Jordan did agree to use the tests on ‘selected’ cases, which drew groans and some boos from the crowd.”

The NOLA PD has not exactly covered itself in glory as of late, but the DA’s record is simply pathetic. Of the 162 murders that occurred in 2006, they have an effective 2 percent conviction rate, having accepted only 54 percent of cases the police have referred. Modern crime labs are a recent development. The DA’s office could also rely on old fashion stuff, like eye-witness accounts and circumstantial evidence to buttress their cases, if they had the necessary skills and experience.

The AP reported on the testimony of one of the 44 fired by Jordan’s office:

“Another white man fired by Jordan testified that he was one of the rare fingerprint and ballistics experts in the district attorney’s office. The resume of the young man who replaced him was projected onto a courtroom screen, and it showed he had little experience other than being a lifeguard and doing some office work at a law firm.”

What was an employment dispute has taken on a larger dimension. Right now, the citizens of New Orleans desperately need the greatest available expertise and talent in the DA’s office, but a jury verdict suggests they do not have it. Not surprisingly, it is a connection the old media is not making.

Based on his poor performance, many residents, including the owner of Basin Street Records, are calling for Jordan’s resignation. The situation is becoming dire and it directly affects the jazz community. Musicians Dinneral Shavers and possibly Hilton Ruiz were murdered on the streets of New Orleans, yet there is no realistic expectation of justice from Jordan’s office. 701 could make the city a magnet for those looking to pursue criminal enterprises. After all, if you do the crime, you only have to do sixty days of time.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Jazz Behind the Great Firewall of China

As of today, this site is not censored by the Chinese government, according to a search run by the very enlightening Great Firewall of China. It is either encouraging that there are billions of potential Chinese readers out there, or discouraging that nothing posted here has been flagged as objectionable. I’ll take it as a challenge.

It also sparked a frustrating search for fresh news on the Chinese jazz scene. Most articles that turn up on Google are several years old. There is for instance, a CBC article on the Golden Angle Jazz Band, which they called at the time “the one and only ‘big band’ in China.” It was also comprised of soldiers from the PLA. That does not necessarily mean they are substandard musicians. Every branch of the American armed services has a first class big band or jazz ensemble. The CBC article did seem to be lowering expectations though. There’s hasn’t been much ink on them after 2000. Did they fall out of favor with the powers that be?

Also turning up is an article by Dennis Rea surveying the Chinese jazz scene, and giving the highlights of a 1996 tour that he and a group of western experimental improvisers made of China in 1996. He saw a surge of popularity for jazz in China, which he attributed to several factors:

“One obvious reason is that the country’s entry into the global marketplace has brought freer access to imported recordings and consequently greater public awareness of jazz and other foreign musical styles. A second factor is the continued suppression of live rock music, which has driven frustrated rockers to turn to jazz, seen as a much less threatening form of musical expression by the powers that be.”

Jazz seems to occupy the same precarious position it usually does in authoritarian regimes. At times tolerated, but never secure. Evidence of such would be the closing of the jazz club The Big Easy in the Beijing suburb of Chaoyang Park by the local authorities.

There does seem to be more exchange of musical ideas. Kenny Garrett’s recent pilgrimage to China produced one of last year’s best releases, Beyond the Wall. Yet, this is the same government that is blocking websites and the free dissemination of information. Recent mentions of jazz in China Daily just confirm the jazz café scene is still viable, and they briefly profile Liu Yaun, considered by many to be the top Chinese jazz artist.

If anyone has any fresher info on the Golden Angle band or Chinese jazz in general, please send me an email. Looking ahead, The Missing Peace, an exhibit of art inspired by the Dalai Lama opens at the Rubin Museum March 16th. Posting a review probably won’t be enough to get banned in China, but it should be a good start.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Accent on the Offbeat

Accent on the Offbeat
Featuring Wynton Marsalis and Peter Martins

Wynton Marsalis has been criticized for bringing a classical oriented repertory conception to jazz as artistic director of Jazz @ Lincoln Center. His ambitious commissions from major cultural institutions have fueled that perception of elitism and most likely not a small degree of professional envy. Accent on the Offbeat chronicles the making of one such commission, Jazz (Six Syncopated Movements) a collaboration between Marsalis and chorographer Peter Martins of the New York City ballet.

Marsalis is heard early in the film explaining the original conception:

“When we first met he said he wanted the ballet to be about American life, and that’s very easy for jazz musicians because that’s what our music is about. And the jazz musicians have never had to try to escape being American by genuflecting to deeply towards Europe or any of that. Our music is constructed from the American vernacular musics.”

Marsalis and Martins are seen as vastly different personalities. Of the two, Marsalis clearly comes off better. At first, Martins cannot seem to decide if he can deal with Marsalis’ music, or if he even likes it. When he finally starts working with it, Martins comes off as a demanding high art type, with a sizeable ego. Later, seeing Martins schmooze with Henry Kissinger in the makeup room before he and Marsalis appear on Charlie Rose will probably set a lot of teeth on edge, across a wide political spectrum.

For his part, Marsalis appears to be the one trying to make it work, well served by his laid back jazzman’s persona. When copyist Ron Carbo asks about a change Martins wanted, Marsalis slyly replies: “I’ll just play the first phrase and do a lot of smiling just giving him the impression that I’m doing what he wants me to do.” Marsalis later puts things in perspective for Carbo saying: “like my daddy always told me, learn how to work a job.”

Marsalis had a tremendous ensemble for the project, including J@LC stalwarts Herlin Riley, Victor Goines, Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson, as well as Wycliffe Gordon and Todd Williams, who have since left the Marsalis/J@LC band. Accent focuses on the rehearsals, so not all of the music is heard in its final, polished form. However, enough of the movements are heard to give viewers a good taste. Accent concludes with performances of two movements, starting with “‘D’ in the Key of ‘F’ (Now the Blues),” a beautiful feature for Anderson’s alto and Williams’ tenor. The jaunty “Ragtime” is also seen with its final choreography (and heard over the menu screen), showcasing Goines on clarinet and Eric Reed on piano, before Marsalis and the brass come in for some rollicking ensemble passages.

Martins’ publicist might not be happy with Accent, but give the New York City ballet its proper due. The dancers are very talented, and sound quite enthusiastic in interview segments. Accent is a consistently interesting behind-the scenes look at a major cultural production. It also very well photographed, looking great for a so-called “vérité” film. The music is available in its entirety on Marsalis’ Jump Start and Jazz.

Marsalis is frequently caricatured as argumentative and opinionated. Accent presents a different, nuanced perspective on a very public artist.