Thursday, November 30, 2006

Til Tomorrow

Til Tomorrow: Remembering Marvin Gaye
By Cassandre McKinley
MaxJazz (MXJ 123)

Maybe there’s something in the air, but jazz artists seem to be taking stock of the Marvin Gaye catalog. After the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s reinterpretation of What’s Going On, Cassandre Wilson sings songs associated with Gaye on her debut Til Tomorrow.

Cynical jazz observers sneer about the new formula for crossover success—combine an attractive female vocalist with some well chosen pop standards given jazzy arrangements and unleash a marketing campaign. Maybe it is a formula, but it’s not necessarily a bad one. In this case, McKinley has the most important part of the equation. She has a strong voice, with great tone and clear diction.

McKinley sounds great throughout Tomorrow, the only quibble being one or two weak arrangements. No such caveat applies to “Trouble Man,” the first cut that really shows McKinley’s facility at various tempos in a rendition that gets to blues at the core of Gaye’s music.
The gospel-tinged take on “Night Life” (a Willie Nelson tune via Gaye) is another fine feature for McKinley. It’s a very satisfying jazz track, with nice trumpet work from John Allmark. She also handles a swinging up-tempo “Pride and Joy” with stylish zest. The real standout track is McKinley’s rendition of “Let’s Get It On,” undeniably the most famous Gaye hit on the CD. She credits Kenny Rankin as the inspiration for the spare arrangement for guitar and percussion. Her voice had to carry the tune, and it does, fully expressing the desire and longing of the tune. It’s a track that should make converts of Norah Jones and Cassandra Wilson fans.

After “Let’s Get It On,” one just wants to sit back and say “ah, yes.” Unfortunately, it is followed by a jarring disco-sounding intro of background singers, rain sticks, and synthesizers for “After the Dance,” which kills the mood. The simple piano accompaniment of “Yesterday” trusts the power of her voice and works much better for it. Also notable is “You’re the One for Me,” which even features a little scattish vocalizing and effective sax work from Dino Govoni.

Til Tomorrow is a very strong debut (apart from some self-released sessions which do not seem to be readily available). Also worth noting for J.B. Spins readers who support Americans in uniform, McKinley dedicates the CD to her sergeant brother. Hearing McKinley’s voice, you have to conclude she is the real deal.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

J.B. vs. PW

Normal people do not read Publisher’s Weekly, but you might recognize the name from snippets of their positive reviews reprinted on book covers. PW is the trade publication of the publishing industry. Its pre-publication capsule reviews do not normally sell books to consumers, but they can have an effect with bookstore and library buyers. Of course, they cannot review everything published. So how often do they review jazz books?

Of the 39 books reviewed here this year, and the one coming hopefully at the end of the week, PW reviewed nine. That’s nine out of forty. Out of that nine, two were graphic novels (comic books), Bluesman and Stagger Lee. Granted, I specialize, whereas they have to narrow the field of every book churned off a press. I will not fault them for ignoring David Brown’s Noise Orders, at times a thought-provoking book, but clearly not destined for great bookstore distribution. It is harder to get space for scholarly titles, illustrated books, reprints, and paperback originals. Still, there were some surprising omissions.

Stanley Crouch’s Considering Genius was eagerly anticipated for the debates it would ignite on jazz discussion boards. Crouch is a national figure, instantly recognizable from his appearances in Ken Burns documentaries and his column in the NY Daily News. Previous Crouch collections have been reviewed, but no love for Genius?

Pete Turner’s Color of Jazz will be the coveted jazz gift book of the season for everyone who loved CTI’s bestselling 1970’s LPs. Illustrated books are not as likely to be reviewed, but past Turner collections have been, yet no review this time.

Linda Dahl’s Haunted Heart, the tragic biography of Sussanah McCorkle, is a compelling read with what could be called Oprah appeal (abuse, mental health). Her Mary Lou Wiliams biography drew a mixed review from PW, but no ink for Heart?

Libraries rely on trade reviews more than anyone to shape their buys. Frankly, their patrons tend to be older, more likely to remember Dick Haymes. Ruth Prigozy’s Life of Dick Haymes could well have been of interest to them, but no notice in PW.

When PW does review jazz titles, they have generally been positive. Two of the nine titles we both reviewed, received starred reviews, denoting exceptional merit: Sancton’s Song for My Fathers and Kahn’s House That Trane Built (deservedly so). They also gave solidly positive reviews to most of the other nine, including D’Rivera’s My Sax Life and Burns’ Keeping the Beat on the Street.

PW is not able to review everything, so it will necessarily miss some jazz and blues titles. I seem to be able to fill a good part of that void, but I would welcome some competition. It would be good for the music to receive any kind of additional publicity, and good for bookstores too, as jazz listeners tend to be more affluent and better educated than the average person—in other words, good customers.

The nine:
Stagger Lee:
House That Trane Built:
My Sax Life:
Great Black Way:
Keeping the Beat on the Street:
Song for My Fathers:
One O'Clock Jump:
Harlem of the West:

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Jazz Consciousness

Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race and Humanity
By Paul Austerlitz
Wesleyan University Press

Collections tend to be uneven—the good aspect of that being if one selection is the flat, the next entry may show signs of life. Musician and ethnomusicologist Paul Austerlitz collects and rewrites studies of jazz heavily informed by figures like W.E.B. Dubois and Frantz Fanon in his ideologically tinged collection Jazz Consciousness, which exemplifies this tendency.

Austerlitz’s general thesis relates to a duality of jazz, as both a connection to America, particularly African Americans, and as a cultural connection to the African Diaspora writ large. His strongest pieces are profiles of Machito and Mario Bauzá and a survey of the development of jazz in Finland. Unfortunately, he starts slowly with liberal doses of racial politics, making arguments like: “While some critics, however, might laud jazz’s aesthetic ‘integration’ as an epitome of ‘American democracy,’ I argue that the inclusiveness of jazz is atypical of dominant trends in the United States.” (p. 20) As evidenced by the quotes on “American Democracy,” Consciousness starts with a high quotient of ideology, but it does get more informative as it progresses.

In telling the history of Bauzá and Machito, Austerlitz tries to explain the aspects of America, in addition to jazz, which attracted Bauzá:

“This philosophy of black self-help, perhaps inspired by Booker T. Washington, was consonant with Bauza’s attraction to the Harlem Renaissance: instead of looking to the white world for solutions, successful African Americans kept their dignity intact and their pocketbooks full by forging black institutions.” (p. 56)

Machito and his Afro-Cubans gained enormous popularity in New York, fusing the jazz Bauzá learned in America with the Afro-Cuban rhythms Machito brought to the band. Long ensconced at the Palladium nightclub, the Machito band enjoyed the cross-fertilization made possible by the understanding reached by local club owners. According to Austerlitz:

“the Palladium and Birdland were situated within blocks of each other. The owners of the two venues had an informal agreement whereby musicians working at either club could enter the other one free of charge. Players could thus keep up on what the others were doing.” (p. 90)

In discussing Machito, Austerlitz makes much of the fact that he never played in his Cuban homeland, offering some explanations, like his baritone, which was not widely heard as a solo voice in Cuba. He fails to mention that the fact that Cuba has been ruled by an oppressive dictator since 1959 (who was quite hostile towards jazz until the 1970’s and Irakere) which would have made a Machito tour there extremely difficult. [Another Cuban note: Austerlitz mistakenly suggests Pauito D’Rivera came to America as part of the Mariel boatlift. (p. 113) Actually he defected in Spain while on tour with Irakere.]

Austerlitz’s strongest piece is a survey of Finnish jazz, probably because he is cognizant of the ironies of the story he tells. Writing on the German model for the first Finnish jazz band, Austerlitz quotes a scholar of Finnish music, who wrote: “while Finland was looking for a German king, the first ‘continental jazz band sounds’ were being played by the German Kings of Jazz.” (p. 125) More staid musical critics became leery of jazz as it gained popularity in the 1920’s. One anti-jazz publication Austerlitz quotes warned of: “over-stimulation of shot nerves, and even nudity.” (p. 131) I’ll bet that really scared the kids off. Jazz would have lean years in Finland, but learning that Finns would eventually settle on the Tango as the consensus alternative to 1960’s rock and roll is reason enough to read Consciousness. Austerlitz explains:

“many agrarian and working-class Finns were ‘now looking for a music which would sound truly Finnish, and somewhat paradoxically . . . adopted the tango. Either you supported the Beatles or the tango.’” (p. 142)

Sometimes Consciousness is fascinating and sometimes it is tedious. It is a decidedly mixed bag, but where else can you hip yourself to the story of the Finnish tango craze?

Monday, November 27, 2006

I Hear Fanaticism

Take a look at the self-selected face of the extreme anti-war left. It is Malachi Ritscher, a documenter and recorder of Chicago’s avant-garde jazz scene who self-immolated on November 3rd in protest of the Iraqi War (some background). Now there is an effort among extremist bloggers to celebrate this tragedy, with blog posts titled “I Heard You, Malachi.” I won’t link to any, but you can find them on technorati here. Their goal is to publicize Ritscher in the MSM to make him a martyr, and the AP duly picks up the story today.

Those who now seek to canonize Ritscher, and thereby exploit his tragedy, downplay his obviously disturbed state of mind. Ritscher left a statement of intent that includes a fantasy about missing an opportunity to assassinate Sec. Rumsfeld:

“I passed Donald Rumsfeld on Delaware Avenue and I was acutely aware that slashing his throat would spare the lives of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people. I had a knife clenched in my hand, and there were no bodyguards visible; to my deep shame I hesitated.”

He maintained a website titled killthepresident dot net. In years past, these would be considered concrete evidence of mental illness, but violent assassination discourse seems to have been normalized by the anti-war, anti-Bush extremists. For Ritscher, immersion in such a fanatical political climate culminated in his suicide.

Those ghoulishly seeking to exploit this tragedy castigate the media's alleged “conservative” or “corporate” biases for not covering the story in a big way, dismissing the legitimate “copy-cat” concerns, for which news outlets are ordinarily reluctant to cover suicides in general. More than that, a sympathetic media is simply trying to save the extremist left from its self. Making a man who self-immolated and harbored fantasies of political assassination the public face of the “anti-war” movement would not be astute PR move. It might well be appropriate though. What Ritscher did was the act of a fanatic, idealized by fanatics.

Richard Roeper has taken flack from those same fanatics for a column in which he wrote:

“with all due respect, if he thought setting himself on fire and ending his life in Chicago would change anyone’s mind about the war in Iraq, his last gesture on this planet was his saddest and most futile.”

Fanaticism is not attractive to most Americans, so publicizing Ritscher’s suicide would likely prove counter-productive to anti-war extremists. One feels enormous sympathy for his friends and family. It would be a disservice to Ritscher’s memory to make his name synonymous with his final act. Most who are now blogging about this tragedy, would not know Ken Vandermark or Fred Anderson or any Chicago musician from Adam, but it was Ritscher’s work documenting Chicago’s challenging jazz artists that should be remembered as his real legacy.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

So There

So There
Steve Swallow with Robert Creeley
ECM XtraWatt 12

Poetic collaborations with jazz are often frustrating. Unless one is a passionate devotee of the reciting poet, they rarely withstand more than one or two spins. However, there is an overall musicality to Steve Swallow’s posthumous collaboration with Robert Creeley, So There that does indeed reward repeated listening.

The poet did record the vocal tracks in 2001, but his death prevented anticipated follow-up sessions. Combining the jazz of Steve Kuhn on piano and elements of classical chamber music with the Cikada String Quartet, Swallow worked for years to compose the appropriate musical accompaniment for Creeley’s recorded words. Unlike other jazz and poetry efforts, Swallow’s arrangements do not fall into the predictable format—poet recites, musicians play a few bars, poet recites again, etc—that characterize too much of the subgenre. Swallow’s music, by necessity written around the pre-existing Creeley tracks, serve to frame and support his words in a unified whole. As a result, the poet is often not heard until relatively late in a track, but usually to great effect.

For instance, in “Sufi Sam Christian” Creeley’s words are not heard until around the 2:25 minute mark, after the beautiful melancholy of Swallow’s bass solo and the mournful strings. When Creeley speaks in a soothing, world-weary voice: “Lift me into Heaven slowly, because my back’s sore, and my mind’s too thoughtful,” rather than jarring, it is a fitting conclusion to an elegant track.

Steve Kuhn, a frequent collaborator with Swallow, is also employed to good effect, bringing a light bluesy touch to tunes like “Later.” The overall tone of the CD is wistful, but not maudlin. Indeed there is a strong rhythmic drive to most of the tunes, like “Just in Time,” which artfully combines the jazz piano and bass duo with the string quartet.

There is humor of the unexpected too. “Riddle,” a Monkish sounding piece, showcases Kuhn solo, until Swallow’s bass introduces Creeley asking: “What did you throw it on the floor for? Who the Hell you think you are?” Through out So There, Creeley’s vocal tracks are seamlessly integrated, as on “Ambition,” where Kuhn’s piano perfectly echoes the poet’s staccato delivery.

So There is beautifully conceived and crafted. Creeley’s voice blends so effectively with Swallow’s music one has to concentrate to hear his words distinct from the whole. So There is a high water-mark for jazz and poetry, which should challenge future such collaborations with its refreshingly original conceptions.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Life of Dick Haymes

The Life of Dick Haymes: No More Little White Lies
By Ruth Prigozy
University Press of Mississippi

State Fair was the only Rogers & Hammerstein musical originally conceived and produced as a motion picture. It was a hit, seeming to assure a long Hollywood career for featured co-star Dick Haymes, a former vocalist with the Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Harry James big bands. It was not to be. Ruth Prigozy chronicles the long disintegration of the one-time golden boy’s career in The Life of Dick Haymes.

Haymes was frequently compared with Sinatra, his predecessor as the male vocalist with the Dorsey band. Both saw their careers take-off as independent acts as an unintentional consequence of the American Federation of Musicians union’s ban on member recording in 1942. As Prigozy explains the rise of Haymes and his contemporaries:

“all began their rise to success as independent vocalists in this period. They didn’t need musical backup—as they proved—performing a cappella with such groups as the Song Spinners and the Mills Brothers substituting for musicians.” (p. 53)

Eventually Hollywood would beckon, seeing Haymes contracted to the 20th Century Fox studio, which successfully paired with Betty Grable, the wife of his friend and former boss Harry James for two reasonably successful musicals. His best remembered picture from his Fox contract (or from any studio) would be State Fair. Prigozy argues Haymes did not take an active interest in his film vehicles, until he movie career was effectively over. After Fox, he landed at Universal for two forgettable films that hastened the downward trajectory of his film career, although Up in Central Park, the first film under Haymes’ contract, had some potential according to the studio’s publicity plans. Prigozy summarizes its story: “The plot concerns Boss Tweed’s rigging of a mayoral election by hiring disembarking immigrants to vote in the name of persons who were dead or otherwise unable to make it to the polls.” (p. 104) Hard to imagine such things happening today . . .

Haymes next home was Columbia for a pair of even more forgettable pictures. His time there was most notable for his introduction to his next wife, Rita Hayworth, whose tempestuous relationship would lead to some of the worst publicity of Haymes career. Prigozy takes issue with Hayworth biographers who have not been kind to Haymes, particularly Barbara Leaming, author of a 1989 biography. Prigozy protests:

“Leaming does not use even one source remotely friendly to Haymes and relies on gossip columnist Earl Wilson’s remark, ‘Dick plainly did all the thinking and talking for her,’ to conclude that he was conspiratorial, manipulative, and controlling husband.” (p. 133)

Prigozy does her best to rehabilitate the Haymes image, taking issue with many reports of Haymes’ abusive behavior, and emphasizing his generosity. She describes an incident after Haymes final recording session with pianist Loonis McGlohan when Haymes volunteered to sing at small gig the pianist was called to play at the last minute.

Haymes was scarred by a chaotic childhood, suffered from alcoholism, and was plagued by what might be called chronic irresponsibility. Prigozy is clearly sympathetic to her subject, and her account of his life is highly readable. Her book will be of interest to both scholars of the big band era and the golden age of Hollywood. However, despite Prigozy’s skill as a biographer, it is hard not to lose patience with Haymes. He had many gifts, but failed to live up to his early promise.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Goin’ to Kansas City

At 81, Robert Altman left an impressive, if uneven body of work. In obituaries of the director who died on the 20th, Kansas City, his 1930’s jazz and crime drama is usually unfairly categorized as a failure.

Featuring artists like David “Fathead” Newman, Joshua Redman, James Carter, Geri Allen, Cyrus Chestnut, Ruseel Malone, and Nicholas Payton, Kansas City is richly and lovingly scored with the sounds of Kansas City Swing. It painstakingly recreated the ruckus town ruled by boss Pendergast. Its critical dismissal has always been a little puzzling, perhaps explained by the film’s frank depiction of corrupt Democrat operatives, working hand-in-glove with Pendergast’s mobsters.

At one point Steve Buscemi’s small-time tough organizes his battalion of low-life “voters,” telling them: “you’ll be exercising your God-given right to vote. However, you’ll be voting the way I tell you to vote, and as many times as I tell you.” As they file into a polling place, gangsters outside tell them, “remember you’re a Democrat,” before gunning down a poll watcher who asks too many questions.

It was refreshing that someone of Altman’s politics could paint such an accurate picture of the corrupt political machine that actually brought Harry Truman to the national stage. The film also stars Harry Belafonte in an unforgettable performance as Seldom Seen, a mobster who is “seldom seen, and rarely heard.” (If only that were true for the actor, as well.) The closing scene of Belafonte counting his money as Ron Carter and Christian McBride play a bass duet of “In My Solitude,” is a pitch perfect conclusion.

Ignore the critics—Kansas City is a great film, one of many in Altman’s filmography. Based on news accounts from Tennessee and what I’ve personally heard from sources in Connecticut, it is timelier than ever, and the soundtrack stills sounds fantastic

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Tragedy and Rhetoric in Chicago

The suicide by self-immolation of Malachi Ritscher, a recorder and photographer of Chicago’s avant-garde jazz scene is a personal tragedy that has left those who know him shocked and confused. That he did it in protest of the Iraqi war makes it no less tragic. Rather than reflect on what may have contributed to this tragedy, many seem to celebrate it as an act of political theater, as witnessed by many on-line comments. The alacrity with which some have leapt to capitalize on this shocking act is nothing short of ghoulish, like the offensive ranting of “Sweejak:”

“yes this should be plastered all over the MSM. Talk about taking info-war seriously. At least it ought to be sent to every newly elected official and preferably plastered onto W's tricycle or whatever the fuck he drives around in.

I have no problem understanding the mind of a suicide bomber, it isn't mysterious or unfathomable, while not as pre-meditated it's the same reason people jumped out of the burning WTC.... no option.”

There is a burgeoning debate on jazz blogs whether this was an act of a deeply disturbed individual, a rational act of dramatic protest, or both. However, there seems to be little contemplation of the effect which the inflammatory rhetoric currently in vogue with the extreme left might have on someone in an agitated state of mind.

According to the obituary Ritscher wrote for himself, he maintained the website: killthepresident dot net. In his “Mission Statement” Ritscher writes of a real or imagined opportunity to assassinate Sec. Rumsfeld, writing: “I passed Donald Rumsfeld on Delaware Avenue and I was acutely aware that slashing his throat would spare the lives of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people. I had a knife clenched in my hand, and there were no bodyguards visible; to my deep shame I hesitated.” In the past, advocating for and fantasizing about political assassination would be considered a clear warning sign of mental instability, but current extremist rhetoric has normalized such sentiments in a way that might have had a profound effect on Mr. Ritscher's fate.

Self-immolation immediately brings to mind Jan Palach, the first of several Czech students to self-immolate in response to the Soviet invasion, which re-established hardline Marxist rule in then Czechoslovakia. Palach’s action was shocking because it seemed so logical to ordinary Czechs. There was no other recourse under Soviet authority.

Those who seek to glorify and exploit Ritscher’s death make false analogies. Despite claims to the contrary, dissent is not just tolerated in America, it is catered to. Just try to walk through Union Square without hearing criticism of President Bush. If good can come from Ritscher’s suicide, it will be from inspiring a “cooling off” period, as extreme partisans reflect on their rhetoric of recent years. Ritscher’s real legacy will of course be the hours of recordings documenting Chicago’s music scene. That he cut short his work on-behalf of the city’s musicians is a true tragedy. To exploit it to score cheap political points is simply ghoulish.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Noise Orders

Noise Orders: Jazz, Improvisation, and Architecture
By. David P. Brown
University of Minnesota Press

It is not uncommon to hear architectural terms applied to jazz solos—well structured, logically constructed, building to a pinnacle. There are always parallels to be drawn between art-forms, but most would probably prefer their improvisation in music than architecture, if asked. In Noise Orders David Brown finds a place for improvisation in both disciplines.

Brown’s book is clearly written for an audience well versed in the latest scholarly literature in the architectural field. He does however raise some interesting points for further discussion. Describing the impact of boogie-woogie musicians like Meade Lux Lewis on Piet Mondrian, Brown asserts:

“These rhythmic emergencies, which bracket boogie-woogie’s revival, show that boogie-woogie, in its reductive and clear articulation of repetition and variation, provided a rhythmic expression that propelled a further transformation of Mondrian’s work.” (p. 24)

Clear enough, but discussions of Mandrian’s concept of neo-plasticism may lose some readers. Ultimately, Brown seems to argue that architecture should be more informed by jazz, so it is better able to provide space for the improvisation, or ebb and flow, of everyday life. Unfortunately, Brown does not lead readers by the nose through his argument, instead presenting a string of ideas that were somewhat thematically related, under a general rubric of improvisation.

Whether they effectively promote his thesis or not, Brown frequently develops interesting areas of discussion. Of particular note are his explorations of musical performance dependent on physical action which defies notation. He describes Cecil Taylor’s attack in terms that suggest choreography when he writes:

“Architecture, in Taylor’s formulation of using sonorities to create three dimensions, is not limited to notated directions, definitions, organizations, and relations of sound values, because the ‘intricate network of formal relations’ that he produces by playing includes such seemingly nonmusical variables as getting to his instrument.” (p. xxii)

Brown does effectively take issue with Le Corbusier’s interpretation of jazz, particularly that of Louis Armstrong, in mechanical terms: “the equivalent of a beautiful turbine running in the midst of human conversation. Hot jazz.” (p. 65) Brown notes in contradiction the genius of Armstrong, in that: “Armstrong’s introduction of rhythmic variations in the rhythms Le Corbusier emphasized.” (p. 73). Indeed, jazz artists building on the Armstrong legacy, would bend and stretch time in various ways that would move the music far a field from the architects understanding.

Brown’s analogies are often under-developed. He seems to compare the cooperative musical organization, the AACM, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, with a Community Land Trust (CLT), “a non-profit organization that holds land in common for the benefit of a community.” (p. 111) The AACM survived, due to a flexibility that encouraged fellowship. According to Brown: “AACM members could play in any band; however, a band led by an AACM meber had to maintain 60 percent AACM representation as a show of musical support.” (p. 95) AACM members were also stylistically compatible. In Chicago, a city with a relatively small jazz community, it would probably have been difficult for members to organize bands that did not meet such a requirement.

In contrast, CLT’s represent a host of issues that would be well informed by study of James Buchanan’s Public Choice School of Economics. Just who is set the rent for land parcels held by the trust? Who determines what constitutes the public good? Any expectation that those decision makers would not act in their best interest first, is naïve and impractical.

Brown’s Noise Orders is at times thought-provoking, but lacks cohesion, and his prose style is academic to a fault. It may well be of a piece with current thinking in architecture’s scholarly discourse, but as is doubtlessly clear by now, it is hardly the right title if your book club wants to read about jazz. Architecture has played a role in the development of the music. The shape of the Village Vanguard for instance, has serendipitously created the acoustics favorable for documenting great artists in historic live recordings. Truly, all art-forms have an impact on each other. Noise Orders’ tentative explorations suggest further thought on two disciplines not often associated together might be in order.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Confluence of Paquito D’Rivera

Fittingly titled “Streams Converge,” Paquito D’Rivera’s concert last night (repeated tonight) at Jazz at Lincoln Center was a night of connections and confluences. Programmed as a mix of jazz and classical performances, it was a night when many elements came together.

D’Rivera of course is a jazz artist of the highest order, an NEA Jazz Master, who became an international figure when he defected from Cuba in 1980. D’Rivera had been inspired by the sounds of American jazz from a young age, when he eagerly sought out underground tapes and clandestinely listened to Willis Conover’s Voice of America broadcasts. Fittingly, a collection of Polish jazz posters are currently on display in J@LC, right outside the Allen Room, where D’Rivera performed. In Poland, jazz was more faced less restrictive circumstances than under other Communist countries, but the message of freedom was unmistakable to musicians and listeners. Jazz became a kind of signifying, a secret form of rebellion with clues only the hip would pick up, and many of the later Polish poster artists would follow that lead.

D’Rivera led an international ensemble of musicians from America, Korea, Israel, and Italy through a set of Brahms, Stravinsky, Mozart (by way of Paquito), and others, thoroughly blurring the boundary of jazz and classical. Soo Bae on cello and Alon Yavnai on piano, D’Rivera performed straight, but lovely performances of Brahms.

At one point in the program D’Rivera joked about being upstaged at his own concert by the cellist, a talented and beautiful musician. D’Rivera is known for his good humor and it was on display Friday night. In another connection, George Wein of Festival Productions was in attendance and D’Rivera acknowledged him warmly and asked him a question about Benny Goodman. The clarinetist had taken the impresario to task for a festival screening of a documentary which whitewashed Castro’s regime in an open letter in Latin Beat magazine. Happily, fences seem to be mended.

From Brahms, the jazz factor started to increase. Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” was also performed quite straight, but the rhythms made it clear why the composer had been drawn to jazz, writing “The Ebony Concerto” for the Woody Herman band. Rivera brought the real thing for “Adagio on a Mozart Theme,” his exploration of the blues in Mozart. It is more than a John Kirby style jazzing up of a classic melody. One could call it a jazz contemplation of Mozart that blended the strings with a jazz rhythm section.

Bernstein’s “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs,” originally composed for Benny Goodman, another clarinetist jazz and classical double threat, seemed to have less room for improvisation, but showed the composer’s interest in jazz’s syncopated rhythm. D’Rivera concluded with an original (an original original) “Fiddle Dreams for Jazz Violin and Piano,” composed with Regina Carter in mind, for which classical violinist Nicholas Danielson nicely meets the challenge of filling those shoes.

Paquito D’Rivera is in fine form and his presence inspires his ensemble. It was a night of connections of diverse genres, and artists from various countries—some where the jazz survived underground—meeting at Columbus Circle, where it is celebrated. You can hear them play again tonight. If you have not been to Allen Room, already famous for its spectacular view of the Park and Central Park South, you need to check it out sometime. This is an excellent show to start with.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Satchmo Blows Up the World

Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War
By Penny M. Von Eschen
Harvard University Press tradepaper back

During the Cold War, Communist officials had a difficult time modulating the official party-line on American jazz. It was of course American, and therefore suspect. Jazz did however, have the advantage of being associated with the downtrodden, particularly African-Americans, frequent subjects of Soviet propaganda. Yet, the clear aesthetic of freedom at the core of American jazz was unmistakable, even to tin-eared party functionaries. While sometimes performances were sanctioned, jazz was more often prohibited. It was jazz’s spirit of freedom that made Willis Conover’s jazz show the most popular programming on Voice of America. With Conover as an advisor, the U.S. State Department established a program of jazz tours as a means of spreading that spirit of freedom during the height of the cold war, through Eastern Bloc and non-aligned nations. Penny Von Eschen’s Satchmo Blows Up the World, now in tradepaper, sets out to tell the story of these tours.

Unfortunately, rather than write what could have been a fascinating account of jazz history, Von Eschen preferred to write a didactic revisionist critique of U.S. Cold War policy. In Von Eschen’s world view, racist America was incapable of acting responsibly on the world stage, and exploited the touring musicians as propaganda tools in its geo-political struggles with the Soviet Union. It is certainly legitimate to condemn Jim Crow segregation, which in fact caused mixed feelings on the part of some musicians asked to represent America abroad. However, Von Eschen seems almost completely blind to the historical horrors of Soviet repression.

When relating an incident in the Russian port city of Sochi, in which members of the Benny Goodman band feared for the safety of the leader of the local jazz society, Von Eschen shows little of the outrage which permeates most of the book:

“Trumpeter Joe Newman and Catherman [of the U.S. State Dept.] were talking with the chair of the local jazz club and several members when ‘three motorcycle policemen roared up.’ The police ‘arrested the chairman, confiscated all the phonograph records and Benny Goodman books’ which had just been distributed, and then ‘roared off with their arrestee.” After aggressive intervention with the Soviet authorities by Catherman, the young man appeared the next day to say goodbye to the orchestra. He explained the arrest had been a mistake, but left the musicians and Catherman to wonder whether he was still at liberty.” (p. 112)

When the Soviet Army invades Prague, to Von Eschen it is simply an expression of the Kremlin’s “conservatism,” and hardly worth mentioning. When the CIA takes action against the Communist-aligned Lumumba government in the Congo, her outrage is palpable.

The real problem with Satchmo Blows Up, is not the ideology of the author per se, but rather the constant editorializing which hopelessly disrupts the book’s narrative flow. Von Eschen’s research is excellent. There is previously unknown information about the lives of great jazz artists, which their admirers will find fascinating. Ellingtonians will certainly read with satisfaction when Von Eschen quotes a State Department official describing Soviet functionaries as “scared of Ellington, both personally and politically because “they admitted they knew of his relationship with the President [Nixon], and because of the Duke’s importance in the United States in general.” (p. 206)

Indeed, her account of an aging Ellington representing America in Southeast Asia with the same grace and verve he displayed throughout his life is truly inspiring. Ellington’s belief in America’s Cold War mission and his personal relationship with Pres. Nixon is somewhat baffling to Von Eschen, who grapples for a historical explanation:

“In Ellington’s youth, the Republican Party was still the party of Abraham Lincoln. The Democratic Party was not only the party of the solid South but the party of Woodrow Wilson, the president who brought legal segregation to the nation’s capital and to the black Republic of Haiti after the U.S. invasion in 1915, when Ellinton was an adolescent.” (p.123-124)

That Ellington could have taken a hard look at Soviet’s record on human rights and found it lacking is never considered. Neither is Ellington’s music seriously considered. In fact, very little attention is given to the actual music played on the tours by any of the musicians sponsored by the State Department. Von Eschen’s accounts of the tours themselves often descend to an “if-this-is-Tuesday-this-must-be-Dakar” style of itinerary recitation. In fact, many of the cables from local Foreign Service Officers quoted in the book show more interest in the music than Von Eschen does.

One particular shortcoming is the contempt Von Eschen clearly expresses for Benny Goodman, as a musically conservative figure, who explicitly supported America’s Cold War mission. Goodman was notoriously autocratic as a bandleader, and legendarily tight with a dollar. He also risked his career and livelihood in 1936 when he led the first racially integrated combo to perform in public, with Lionel Hampton on vibes and Teddy Wilson on piano. While not perfect, Goodman deserves more nuanced treatment than the caricature Von Eschen presents.

The irony of Satchmo Blows Up, is that Von Eschen does exactly what she accuses the U.S. State Department of having done. She uses jazz musicians simply as propaganda tools, showing no interest in them as artists. She does so at the expense of her narrative, repeating the same rhetorical points constantly, even with the same paragraphs. Even jazz fans who wholly share Von Eschen’s politics are likely to be frustrated by this book, simply because it is poorly written. Jazz played an important role in the Cold War. It was a symbol of freedom to many musicians and artists. It is a story that deserves to be told in a better book.

(Note: citations from hardcover edition.)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Jazz Publicists, Writers, and Artists—Discuss

Publicists have a difficult job. I know, having seen many publishing colleagues bang their heads against media walls on behalf of authors. While pop music publicists might have a slightly easier time, this is not the case for their jazz counterparts, who face a daunting task pitching jazz artists to a mostly unappreciative media. The Jazz Journalists Association assembled some of the most successful for an informative panel discussion.

Big band leader David Berger actually set a positive tone for discussion when he described the impact of a review Nat Hentoff wrote for his Hindustan CD in the Wall Street Journal. Hentoff was not only positive, but personally evocative in his notice, resulting in a blizzard of sales and packed houses for his regular Birdland sets. It was generally agreed that the Journal is one of two top publicity outlets for generating sales—arguably the most effective. (It warms my heart to hear props for the Journal as a jazz sales engine, since J.B. Spins basically has a similar philosophical perspective, but with broader jazz coverage.)

Some salient points were made that hopefully enlightened some of the musicians in attendance. The most basic, but still worth repeating was that all the publicity efforts in the world will not make a difference, if the CD is a lemon. Good publicists do not hype mindlessly, but target like a laser beam. That process will be refined with the expansion of the blogosphere. While bloggers were only mentioned briefly, I would like to think there is an efficiency advantage to targeting appropriate blogs. With traditional media a publicist might convince an editor to greenlight a review, but then see it assigned it to an unenthusiastic critic, or conversely sell a freelancer on a story concept, who might have trouble placing it. Bloggers however, are both editor and writer. In dealing with them, publicists need not worry about making that two-tiered pitch.

Some writers on the panel made much of the fact that publicists are paid to promote their artists, while they maintain their editorial objectivity. I would argue that over states things, not giving publicists proper credit for advocating on behalf of this music. Whenever they place a story on one of their artists outside of the jazz press, it helps promote jazz as a whole. Call it “trickle-down,” but jazz needs more category leaders to get people browsing in the superstore sections.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

When Mismanagement Isn’t Newsworthy

11/20: Goya found.
To say that there are biases in the old media’s coverage of events is an under-statement. It extends beyond political coverage. One can see disparities in the coverage of turmoil within different professional sectors. Here in New York, there have been failures in local cultural institutions that would be framed as scandalous, if analogous events happened in traditional corporate America.

Yesterday it was revealed that Goya’s “Children with a Cart” was somehow intercepted by thieves, while in-transit from the Toldeo Museum of Art to the Guggenheim. The NYT reports the theft occurred: “in the vicinity of Scranton, Pa., while in the care of a professional art transporter.” According to the F.B.I.: “To vet tips, we’ve decided to release as few details as possible.”

Fair enough, but it certainly begs the question of how this could happen. Who hired the transporter and arranged the logistics? Evidently, the Toledo museum only insured it for $1 million, woefully under “market value.” This seems like a major story involving much mismanagement, but it has been deferentially played below the fold by the media.

Another major failure from the New York cultural scene is the closing of Twyla Tharp’s jukebox musical of Bob Dylan tunes, The Times They Are A-Changin.’ This story however, is hardly shocking, as the show was universally panned. Set in a dark otherworldly circus, the connection to Dylan’s song was obscure to most critics. Most reviews were basically a variation on the theme of “what the . . . ?” Again, according to the NYT: “It lost its entire investment of $8.5 million.” Its closing is hardly a scandal, more a case of fools being separated from their money.

Coverage of A-Changin’suggests this sort of failure is the norm. It is hard to imagine another industry throwing ill-conceived but expensive projects into the marketplace well before they are ready human consumption, time after time. Before A-Changin’ we saw major theatrical train wrecks like Lestat, Taboo, and Lennon briefly stick up stages in at a tremendous cost.

Is it a bias in favor of warm fuzzy cultural types that holds the media’s outrage in check when reporting on this mismanagement and waste? Is it because they generally share the media’s left-of-center world view? By the way, if you see any suspicious looking Goyas you can drop a dime with the Feds in Philly. There’s a reward of fifty grand, which would probably let you buy out every remaining ticket of A-Changin’ before it closes.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

From Afro-Cuban Rhythms

From Afro-Cuban Rhythms to Latin Jazz
By Raul A. Fernandez
University of California Press

There are few artists who can guarantee sold out shows in jazz these days, but Chucho Valdés is one of them. Latin Jazz has become the great new hope for the music, providing artistic and commercial impetus. Raul Fernandez traces the development of Latin Jazz from its rhythmic roots in Cuban musical forms, like the danzón, son, rumba, and mambo, and profiles some of its leading innovators in From Afro-Cuban Rhythms to Latin Jazz.

Latin rhythms have influenced jazz from the beginning. What Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish Tinge” Fernandez refers to as “sabor,” or flavor. He refers to a “gustatory imperative” in Cuban music that frequently references food, and likens Cuban musicians to chefs:

“The aesthetic of sabor is central to the ability of Cuban musicians to constantly mix formerly separate Cuban genres and to readily incorporate musical elements from other cultures, which are then re-elaborated and flavored to produce newer forms of Cuban music.” (p. 52-53)

Not surprisingly, percussionists have a prominent place in the development of Afro-Cuban Jazz. Mongo Santamaría pioneered a sabor blend: “his own particular fusion of jazz, soul, and Cuban sounds,” as exemplified by his hit recording of “Watermelon Man.” (p. 95) Armando Peraza, Patato Valdés, and Francisco Aguabella are given credit for bringing their particular drums to prominence in jazz. According to Fernandez: “What Peraza did for the bongos and Patato did for the congas, Aguabella did for the sacred bata drums in the United States.” (p. 124)

Valdés’ innovations even extended to the very design of his instrument with the “Patato-style” conga, featuring “tunable metal keys.” Fernandez describes the conditions percussionists faced prior to his invention:

“Chano Pozo, Mongo Santamaría, and others, had used congas with the skins mailed on the head of the drum. This required them to light small fires or to hold candles under the open end of the drum in order to tune the sound upward. Patato’s idea eliminated what was a cumbersome and even dangerous practice.” (p. 113)

Other instrumentalists get their due as well. Bassist Israel "Cachao" López is credited for his role in the jam session descargas. In a development analogous to the Bebop revolution in America, Fernandez describes the significance of the sessions as: “for the first time, the hottest Cuban music was played in a manner designed less for dancing (although it is possible to dance to the tunes) than for listening.” (p. 78)

Fernandez is clearly a passionate devotee of Cuban music and Latin Jazz. Oddly though, in reading From Afro-Cuban one would hardly get the sense that any significant happened in Cuba around 1959. Separating artistic considerations from politics is not necessarily a bad thing—commendable even. However, when so many of the profiled artists are living or lived away from their Cuban homeland, it starts to beg the question.

Fernandez’s reluctance to address the realities of the Castro regime is particularly conspicuous in the discussion of Celia Cruz, who became a revered symbol for Cubans living in exile. Admittedly not a jazz artist rather shoe-horned in, Fernandez argues Cruz popularized Cuban musical forms throughout Latin America. He also gives props to her savvy career management:

“She personally selected each of the songs that became successful commercially, often against the advice of composers and promoters who wanted her to record something else. Celia studied the lyrics and music of tunes brought to her attention, sang them to herself, and decided which to record as well as which to discard.” (p. 151)

Latin Jazz may well be the most vital current in the music today. Fernandez has done much to document and popularize the music, curating the Smithsonian’s Latin Jazz exhibition. From Afro-Cuban is scholarly authoritative, but admittedly incomplete. He is clearly most comfortable addressing pre-revolutionary developments. By keeping the blinders on and ignoring the implications of Castro’s rule, which lead to the defection of many prominent jazz musicians like Bebo Valdés and Paquito D’Rivera, Fernandez misses a considerable part of the story of jazz in Cuba.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Marian McPartland’s Jazz World

Marian McPartland’s Jazz World: All in Good Time
7 CD set read by Marian McPartland
Blackstone Audio

Jazz fans are good listeners (not to mention often older and more affluent), so it has always seemed odd there have not been more jazz books available on audio. Blackstone deserves credit for seeing the potential for Marian McPartland’s Jazz World, and having her read it is a definite plus. In addition to being a top-flight improvising pianist and knowledgeable writer, McPartland is an accomplished radio broadcaster, so she is clearly comfortable recording in a studio environment.

Much of McPartland’s early jazz experiences came through interaction with Americans during wartime. As outlined in the introduction: “she joined ENSA, the British counterpart of the USO in World War II, switched to the USO after D-Day, entertained troops within the sound of artillery fire at the battlefront in France, toured Allied facilities with a troupe headed by Fred Astaire, performed at Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces, Versailles for General Eisenhower, and propitiously, met and married a famous American jazz trumpet player, Jimmy McPartland.” McPartland herself goes in to greater detail about her early experiences, but does so much more modestly and self-deprecatingly.

Most of Jazz World consists of portraits of jazz artists McPartland has known, or at least admires, but she does include some biographical pieces, particularly reminiscences of her first important home as a performer, the Hickory House. She describes an unlikely venue for piano trio: “It was more of a hearty sportsman-type steak and potatoes restaurant than a room that featured jazz. Yet somehow John Popkin, the owner, had achieved the impossible by making a success of both good food and good music, and we managed to establish a solid rapport with our audience.”

Several of the musicians she profiles had at one time worked in her trio in residence at the Hickory House. Joe Morello, for instance, would gain renown as a member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Jake Hanna, on the other hand, may not be as well known. However McPartland cannot help laughing as she narrates an episode when Hanna unexpectedly gave her his notice, and a Waring blender as a random parting gift.

While most of the artists featured are recognized jazz greats, like Mary Lou Williams, Benny Goodman, and Bill Evans, McPartland does make an interesting case on behalf of the jazz chops of the late comedian-musician Dudley Moore, who had played with Johnny Dankworth before finding fame as an actor. She quotes Robert Mann of the Julliard String Quartet on Moore’s musical proficiencies:

“In my view Dudley could easily be a third stream composer using jazz as well as classical elements. He’s also an excellent chamber music player. When I first brought him the Beethoven, he cite read it, and he has the technique to play it as well . . . but if he had to chose between classical and jazz he would chose jazz I have no doubt. And you know he actually got me to like Errol Garner.”

One figure who looms large in Jazz World is composer and songwriter Alec Wilder. It was Wilder who played an important role behind the scenes to convince NPR to produce Piano Jazz with McPartland hosting. He was a longtime friend who often composed tunes for her. With great affection, she says: “the word curmudgeon might have been invented for him.”

Also included on a bonus CD are some excerpts from Piano Jazz shows. Oscar Peterson takes great delight in showing off for McPartland, a host who can truly understand his technical feats, before performing a lovely take of Johny Mandel’s “Emily.” Bill Evans was an important later influence on McPartland, and they seem to have a real affinity. Listening to Evans explain his approach to solo improvising as he demonstrates on “The Touch of Your Lips” is fascinating—something music students should be grateful to have available.

Marian McPartland is both jazz and class personified for scores of listeners. To have her available on audio narrating her insights on the giants of jazz is a listening pleasure. One hopes to see more jazz audio books, but is happy to hear Marian McPartland in any format.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Nina Simone Live

Live at Montreux 1976
Nina Simone
Eagle Eye Media

Like Miles Davis, Nina Simone was renowned for her uncompromising stage presence. As Live at Montreux 1976 documents, Simone knew what she wanted, and was not reluctant to let stage-hands or audience members have it, if they weren’t with the program.

The 1976 concert is a representatively classic Simone set. Tunes like Langston Hughes’ “Backlash Blues” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” are the kind of political statements (or tunes refashioned into political statements) that formed a significant portion of her repertoire. Nina Simone was another multi-hyphen jazz artist whose work crossed over into soul, folk, and pop. A tune like “Be My Husband” performed sans piano over her drummer’s rhythm exemplifies that genre defiance.

Montreux also captures Simone as a stern stage-manager. At one point she literally scares a soundman off the stage, when he has trouble adjusting her microphone. Towards the end of the show she breaks off from her encore of Laura Nyro’s “Stars” instructing a woman in the back of the hall: “Hey girl, sit down.” Watching Nina Simone at Montreux is always fascinating, although it gets a little uncomfortable at times, as when she keeps asking if David Bowie is in the audience. It is the full Nina Simone experience.

Montreux 1976 is nicely expanded with cuts from Simone at Montreux sets in 1987 and 1990. Amongst the “bonus” cuts are some songs most associated with her, including “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “I Loves You Porgy,” and “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” Simone’s Montreux performances also serve as reminder of her skills on the piano, which are often overlooked. Simone was originally trained as a classical pianist, and that background is clear on her intro to “Little Girl Blues” and in her recasting of “My Baby” from her original recording which then enjoyed renewed popularity from its use in a Chanel commercial.

The cuts from 1987 and 1990 largely omit any talk between songs from Simone. However, we do see her forcefulness as she directs the audience in the proper way to sing the chorus to “Liberian Calypso.” It is clear Simone knew what she wanted from audience and musicians alike, and got it.

Nina Simone was a unique artist, well captured in these Montreux sets. Few artists had the command (literally) of an audience as she did. It’s quite a show to watch.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Independents Need Love

Tower Records’ bankruptcy is a real downer for a number of reasons. First of all, a number of people will be out of work. It will also have a terrible impact on the music we enjoy, if your tastes are more advanced than the current crop of soulless pop tunes.

Independent labels produce jazz and blues as a labor of love, not in expectation of great financial remuneration. Tower was a substantial piece of their distribution. The loss of Tower as a customer is unfortunate for book publishers, like my house. For independent labels, it is a much more serious hit.

The long and the short is independents need love. They produce great music that enriches our lives. Check out the websites of labels like the great British reissue label Sepia and Arabesque, home to up-and-coming trombonist and big band arranger Steve Wiest. Visit their websites and buy direct. You can find other independent labels worthy of your support here.

The music will not go away. Indeed, many of us will need the resiliency one draws from jazz and blues now more than ever, so support those who make it possible.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Lady Sings the Blues

Lady Sings the Blues: the 50th Anniversary Edition
By Billie Holiday with William Dufty. New Forward by David Ritz
Harlem Moon


Without Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” never would have become the enduring protest song that became the "best song of the century" according to Time magazine. She also embodied the tragic jazz chanteuse archetype, an image shaped by her controversial memoir Lady Sings the Blues.

Many biographers and researchers caution readers not to accept the veracity of many episodes Holiday relates through Dufty. For instance, David Margolick claims in his book Strange Fruit: the Biography of a Song that Abel Meerepol, known pseudonymously as Lewis Allen, had written the song and had it seen it performed at various popular front gatherings well before Holiday sang it at Café Society. Holiday tells a somewhat different version of the tale, claiming:

“The germ of the song was in a poem written by Lewis Allen. I first met him at Café Society. When he showed me that poem, I dug it right off. It seemed to spell out all the things that had killed Pop.

“Allen, too, had heard how Pop died and of course was interested in my singing. He suggested that Sonny White, who was my accompanist, and I turn it into music.” (p. 94)

In his introduction, David Ritz cautions against focusing on discrepancies with the established historical record at the expense of hearing Holiday’s voice when reading Lady. He argues: “Her memoir is a song, a long and languid improvisation. In the mythopoetic sense, it is as true and poignant as any tune she ever sang.” (p. xii) While his point is legitimate, one still has to take aspects of the book with a grain of salt.

What is fascinating is getting Holiday’s honest take on many of the famous she jammed or rubbed shoulders with. Many might be surprised by how complimentary Holiday is to Benny Goodman: “Benny was a nice cat, never a drag. And we used to outwit my mother and his sister in order to spend some time together.” (p.56)

Another famous good guy in Holiday’s book would be Bob Hope, who came to her aid when a heckler tried to disrupt a performance of “Strange Fruit.” According to Holiday (through Dufty):

“When that cracker boy started, I stopped singing and Bob took the floor. Hope traded insults with that cracker for five minutes before he had enough and left.” (p. 105)

These kind of conversational anecdotes are the strength of Lady, giving a sense of what it might be like to get the legendary singer to reminisce over a late-night drink. As a biography, it is quite literally incomplete, ending as Lady Day faces yet another drug charge. Obviously tired of such ordeals, she still tough, Holiday wrote of the media: “Newspapers are good for one thing—they let your friends know you’ve been busted.” (p. 222)

Throughout Lady Holiday often uses the words “friends” and “fans” interchangeably. Indeed, she often relates incidents of fans she had never met reaching out to help her. Something in her singing has always reached people on a very personal level, creating a sense of intimacy. Lady Sings the Blues furthers that connection. Some fault it for furthering negative stereotypes of jazz artists as junkies, or for taking liberties with the truth. It does have the intimacy of Holiday’s recorded work and a plain-spoken directness, making it a book every Lady Day fan should read at least once and come to terms with.

The best way to come to terms with Holiday herself is through her recordings. For this anniversary edition of Lady there is a value-added tribute CD of songs associated with her, performed by contemporary artists. As is usually the case with tribute anthologies, some artists are better equipped to deal with the material than others. The highlight is Renee Olstead’s performance of “Good Morning Heartache,” which comes closest to capturing a Lady Day milieu. Erin Boheme also does well on an upbeat Holiday tune “Fine and Mellow.” On the other end of the spectrum, “Babyface” Edmonds’ cover of “Strange Fruit” was a flat-out mistake. There actually are some nice moments on the CD, despite its overall smoothish pedigree, but the real reason to get Lady Sings the Blues is the book itself. Whether it is her words as transcribed and shaped by Dufty, or her timeless performances, Holiday is always compelling to listen to.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Vote Tomorrow

Morning after update (11/8): It was a bummer, but we lost. Maryland was a particular heartbreaker. The good news is some weak candidates squeaked through in circumstances unrelated to their qualifications. Now is the time to start recruiting and campaigning for 2008. In the meantime, sit back, chill to some jazz and blues (look for some recommendations here, starting with Billie Holiday above) and enjoy the next two years of impeachment hearings.

Nothing new will be going up tomorrow, and frankly you should not be in front of a computer screen tomorrow anyway. There are plenty of worthy campaigns that will need help, once you’ve voted. Here’s a quick recap of the coveted J.B. Spins endorsements:

Here in New York, we have been disgraced by our corrupt comptroller, Alan Hevesi. His opponent, Chris Callaghan is, despite what Hevesi and his loyal allies in the media tell us in unison, eminently qualified for the job. He was elected president of New York’s Association of County Treasurers and Finance officers. For twenty three years he has presided over the lowest taxed county in the state. He is endorsed by the New York Times, NY Post, and NY Sun. Unlike the incumbent, he is not being investigated by the AG’s office and the Albany DA.

Robert Heim is what Spitzer purports to be. Formerly a high ranking prosecutor with the SEC, Heim has policed Wall Street, rather than shake down high-profile, deep-pocketed marks. Having campaigned with him, I can attest Heim is smart, reasonable, and personable. He is running against an incumbent who is nearly invisible in the district, but is unfailingly obedient to the Speaker Shelly Silver in Albany.

In Maryland, Lt. Governor Michael Steele has run a pitch perfect campaign despite some of the ugliest, and arguably racist, name-calling from those allied with his opposition. If ever there was a candidate who deserved to win it is Steele, who has also brought a welcome jazz esthetic to his campaign.

In California, I have to pull for Claire Yan, a former publishing professional who now works for a think tank. As a ten year veteran of the publishing industry and having interned at a think tank, I definitely think we need more people in Congress with her intellectual background.

Rebuilding New Orleans should be a priority for all Americans, and William Jefferson is going to help anyone get anything done. Regardless of who controls Congress, Joe Lavigne will be better positioned to work with Congress, the administration, and most likely given demographic trends, a new Republican governor in 2007.

Go vote, then Get-Out-the-Vote. I’ll be back late Wed. How late depends on how bad the election hangover is.

Co-Founder’s Night

When songwriter Ann Ruckert’s friends decided to organize a tribute for her, they naturally wanted it to benefit the organization she helped found, the Jazz Foundation of America. While the ceremony was free and open to all, contributions to the Foundation were encouraged.

There was some excellent music, particularly from her co-founder Dr. Billy Taylor, who knocked everyone out with a magnificent rendition of “Lover Man.” He also took a short but eloquent solo when accompanying Genie “Pepper” Swinson on “God Bless the Child.” Criminally under-appreciated trumpeter Jimmy Owens has also been a longtime supporter of the foundation. He and Mike Longo performed a great mini-set of bop standards, like Dizzy’s “Tour de Force” and Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce,” dedicated to the good doctor. Eugene McDaniels boldly sang lyrics he had written to Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” a tune that would seem to defy lyrical interpretation. Nnenna Freelon was the show-stopper, showing her power fearlessly on songs like “A Balm in Gilead.”

As a tribute to Ruckert organized by her friends, it is totally fair for some of her friends to talk touch on her progressive politics. Frankly, I was surprised that when Assemblyman Richard Gottfried made a remark about Democrats taking back the Congress, it only got polite applause from, I would judge, a little over half the standing-room-only audience. He seemed to be expecting a heartier reaction (as was I). Could it be the Democrat base is losing enthusiasm?

I actually like Gottfried. He is decent man who genuinely cares about his constituents, and actually participated in a debate sponsored by the TR/Gramercy Park Republican Club. He could only be elected on the Westside of Manhatttan or in Massachusetts, though. In addition to his official Assembly letterhead congratulations letter in the program, he attached a picture from 1973 of himself, Ruckert, and Ramsey Clark. I do not know if he heard, but Clark just lost a pretty big case this weekend. Granted, Gottfried could not have known when the Saddam verdict would come down when he submitted his tribute, but one would think he would have followed the case enough to lose some keenness for Clark, but whatever.

While we might disagree about politics, Ruckert seems very nice, and she helped establish a great organization that does tremendous work. Wisely, they hired Wendy as executive director, a wonderful person, who has helped thousands of musicians in need. If you did not give at St. Peter’s last night, you can do so here.

Friday, November 03, 2006

On Sunday

The Jazz Foundation of America is planning a tribute to one of its founders on Sunday. It will be a free show, but I expect there will be ample opportunities to donate (which I encourage). The details are:


A Concert Produced by Ed Keane of Boston and The Jazz Foundation of America at Saint Peter's Church 719 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street (entrance on 54th Street)

Sunday, November 5th, 2006 at 7:00 PM sharp Admission is FREE

Scheduled Performers: Grammy Nominee Nnenna Freelon, Grammy Nominee Gene McDaniels, the Great George Coleman, Mike Longo, and Pepper Genie Swinson.

The evening will be hosted by Dr. Billy Taylor, Cofounder, with Herb Storfer, and Ann Ruckert, of the Jazz Foundation.

It should be a good show from a worthy organization. If you go, you might even be helped to your seat by a shadowy blogger volunteering for the Foundation.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Congratulations NJ

Congratulations to my friends and former neighbors in New Jersey. According to you have the 91st and 89th most effective senators. Unfortunately, that's out of 100, of course. When averaging senate delegations, Jersey’s power ranking is the second lowest in the country, edging out Arkansas by a nose. When House clout or lack there of is factored in, Jersey’s combined state ranking rises to a lofty 47.

Number 89, Bob Menendez, is up for election to his first full post-appointment term. NJ voters can vote for him, hope he’s not indicted and eventually claws his way into the mid 80’s, or cast their vote for Tom Kean, and try integrity for a change.

The Musical Odyssey of Joe Jordan

From Barrelhouse to Broadway: The Musical Odyssey of Joe Jordan
By the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
New World Records

The list of Joe Jordan’s musical associates is long and distinctive: Will Marion Cook, James Reese Europe, Josephine Baker, and Clarence Williams. His song “Lovie Joe” made Fanny Brice a star. As an entrepreneur, he developed one of the first African-American office buildings in Chicago. Yet Jordan has largely been forgotten, likely due to the paucity of recordings under his own name. From Barrelhouse to Broadway is an excellent retrospective project recorded by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra to give Jordan his due as an important American composer.

Jordan cut his teeth in the ragtime piano scene of St. Louis, mentored by no less a figure than Tom Turpin. Jordan’s early works, rags and syncopated waltzes, were very much a product of this environment, as witnessed by early compositions like “Double Fudge” and “Nappy Lee.” After relocating to Chicago, Jordan became a prolific composer for musical stage shows, often working with the great Will Marion Cook. One such collaboration “Sweetie Dear: An Afro-American” is a beautiful love song, performed in a light operatic style accurate to the period.

Although Jordan claimed to have never written the blues, his “The Whippoorwill Dance” and “The Morocco Blues,” performed as piano etudes by Rick Benjamin are beautiful highlights of the disc that carry at least an azure tint. “Whippoorwill” was composed for Jordan’s wife Irene, but never previously published or recorded, so its inclusion here is a real event. “Morocco” demonstrates Jordan’s adaptability as popular music was becoming more syncopated and jazz-like and also reflects the emerging “Spanish Tinge” in American syncopated music, as Jelly Roll Morton called it.

There are some historically significant songs collected here, including Brice’s “Lovie Joe” and “He’s Coming Back! Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Song,” a campaign song for the former president that exhorts: “Back to the White House from Oyster Bay … prosperity once more we will see because he’s coming back.” Evidently, Jordan was a lifelong Republican who was particularly fond of TR. According to the excellent liner notes, after retirement “Jordan spent the rest of his life in Tacoma, happily embroiled in Republican politics.” Jordan was also a patriot who enlisted in the Army at the outset of WWII, first leading military bands, then touring with the USO when forced to retire due to new age restrictions.

Clearly, the PRO and Benjamin are deeply steeped in the music of the Ragtime era, and perform as a well disciplined ensemble, one which Jordan would appreciate. Their instrumental interpretations of Jordan’s work and a rousing tribute to the composer and effectively recreate the milieu in which it was originally produced. Like his contemporary James Reese Europe, Jordan is a fascinating figure who lived an epic, even cinematic life. As Europe’s work has received fresh attention in recent years, hopefully this disc will encourage others to rediscover the music of Joe Jordan and other figures from the transitional period that bridged ragtime and early jazz.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Haunted Heart

Haunted Heart: a Biography of Susannah McCorkle
By Linda Dahl
University of Michigan Press

Like British jazzman Ian Carr, Susannah McCorkle was a jazz (or jazz-influenced) artist who struggled with depression. While Carr has emerged from “out of the long dark,” McCorkle would ultimately succumb to her “black, black blues.” (p. 256) In Haunted Heart, Linda Dahl describes the tragic arc of McCorkle’s life and the music she was inspired to create.

Nobody can truly know the inner turmoil that led McCorkle to plunge to her death in 2001 but biographer Dahl documents a painful family history that clearly caused a lifetime of anguish for the vocalist. Her father and older sister, as portrayed by Dahl, arguably should have been institutionalized. Her mother Mimi was distant, overly critical, and competitive with the young Susie McCorkle. Dahl relates a childhood incident of Mimi’s mothering:

“She [Susannah] wished she could be far, far away. She was already in the habit of taking money from her mother’s purse to buy clothes; next, she began to stare at her jewelry, calculating its worth for her getaway. She was chilled, she added, when one afternoon her mother turned around, witch-like, and told her, ‘They wouldn’t get you far.’” (p. 23)

Sadly, McCorkle was poorly served by the psychiatric community late in her life, when she most needed help. However, she received a brutally accurate diagnosis from a Berkley counselor while in college: “Your family is a burning building. Get out.” (p. 36)

She did get out, living abroad for years, thanks to the financial support of her guilty parents. McCorkle had planned to pursue a career as writer, but she made a life changing discovery in Italy: recordings by Billie Holiday. As Dahl writes:

“By temperament, Susanna [as she then spelled it] was an introvert. As a writer, she was drawn to the compressed form of the short story, densely atmospheric, moody pieces. In Billie Holiday’s singing—and in the material she sang—Susanna sensed a powerful new kind of storytelling, what writer Will Friedwald describes as the ‘art of the miniscule.” (p. 67)

Although her inspiration was Holiday, stylistically she straddled jazz and cabaret, and the venue she would be most associated with would be the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room, the crown jewel of the cabaret world. Although McCorkle would have admirers from both camps, her in-between position may have contributed to her sense of isolation.

Reading Haunted Heart is like watching a runaway train speeding towards a certain derailment. Despite her successes, her family and what Dahl describes as McCorkle’s bipolar disorder, would pull her down time and again. The reoccurring references to self-defenestration can make one wince, as when McCorkle appeared on the great Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. Dahl writes:

“Susannah complimented McPartland on her playing. ‘You really brought out the sadness in the song,’ she told her. McPartland returned the compliment, then laughingly added, eerily in retrospect, ‘As long as nobody throws herself out of a window!’” (p. 246)

McCorkle would do exactly that the following year. Haunted Heart is an insightful book, but it can be a tough read (though compulsively readable). McCorkle was talented and tormented, as Dahl describes in at times painful detail. McCorkle comes across as someone understandably flawed. Given the history of abuse and depression Dahl compiles, one can never judge her too harshly.

When someone like McCorkle commits suicide there are always questions, and a need for closure. Haunted Heart is a compelling portrait of an artist who was defeated by inner demons that may supply some of those answers, delving deeper into the psyche of its subject than Shipton’s biography of Ian Carr. One suspects however, that McCorkle would have wished to retain more mystery. Though McCorkle wore many masks in her life, she revealed much of her pain through her singing. Whether she was jazz or cabaret, her loss was a music tragedy.