The Jazz Baroness

The Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter–French Resistance pilot, Rothschild, patron and muse to Thelonious Monk and other jazz greats–has been in the news a fair amount in the past 4-5 years. Now her great-grandniece has published a biography of the enigmatic great-aunt who was virtually disowned by her family after she moved to New York to better provide emotional and financial sustenance to Monk, Charlie Parker, and a great many musicians of the Bebop Generation. It is important to remember that jazz in postwar America had not yet reached the institutionalized stage it has today. There was no Jazz in July, let alone at Lincoln Center, in 1950s and early 1960s America. A jazz artist then was more likely to be an alcoholic or heroin addict than the college-educated vegetarian many are today. Many aspects of the life were indeed squalid and unseemly–Charlie Parker died on her living room sofa at the age of thirty-four. The only thing worse than what Parker and his acolytes did to themselves is the the realization that it was all self-inflicted, an incredible waste and squandering of human talent. Yet, at their best, the jazz musicians of the time had a wit and worldliness the the Beatniks who clung to them could never in their wildest dreams have penetrated. Many of the Beats mistakenly believed that improvisational jazz meant that the musicians simply stepped on stage, began jamming, and produced what they did. There was an ugly whiff of the myth of the Noble Savage in the whole thing. In reality, these men–and they were mostly men–worked hard on their art, meeting regularly in small, basement apartments across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens and often playing for each other after hours to hone their skills. I intend to read Hannah Rothschild’s book this summer.

The day before Thanksgiving in 2008 I had a dentist appointment in the city and swung by the Hermes store on the Upper East Side afterward to catch Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats at the boutique’s upstairs gallery. The wealthy baroness used Hermes leather notebooks to mount photographs she had taken of Monk and others. We’re not talking Francis Wolff here. These are not professional photographs but images captured in relaxed and informal moments by a person taking pictures of her friends. The video below that I found is wonderful but does not quite capture the immediacy of seeing the actual, original, photos, which look no different from photos you or I might have taken except for the fact that they depict Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and others. The exhibit was called Three Wishes because the baroness liked to ask people what they would ask for if they could have any three desires fulfilled. Of course I shamelessly ordered the companion volume for the library where I work.

We are looking forward to going to the Jazzmobile at Grant’s Tomb come July and August.

92 today

I just finished the draft of a encyclopedia article, which I am going to proofread tomorrow and email off to the editor. In the past year I have written a series of these, about eight altogether. Most, but not all, have had a Civil War-related aspect to them. This one is on the Union League and came out to about 1,250 words. I have been trying to build my resume and portfolio, and this has proved a useful way of doing so. Encyclopedia articles are a good way to build one’s writing chops because they teach a person how to write to spec, keeping to the rigid word count and focusing on the aspect of the subject the editor wants to highlight. They say if you want to write, write. This will probably be the last one I do. I am going to focus my attention on the summer at Governors Island, where I will hopefully give some tours and write some content for the website. Yesterday I pulled out my well-thumbed copy of Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage for a brush up. I do not read as much fiction as I used to, but decided to get back to it this summer. Yesterday I downloaded Shelton Johnson’s Gloryland to my Kindle and have been enjoying it a great deal. I intend to write more about the novel when I finish. You may remember Ranger Johnson from this video I posted awhile back.

Our temperature hit 92 today. Getting ready for summer here in the Big Apple.

Memorial Day

Come up from the fields father, here’s a letter from our Pete,
And come to the front door mother, here’s a letter from thy dear son.

Lo, ’tis autumn,
Lo, where the trees, deeper green, yellower and redder,
Cool and sweeten Ohio’s villages with leaves fluttering in the
moderate wind,
Where apples ripe in the orchards hang and grapes on the trellis’d vines,
(Smell you the smell of the grapes on the vines?
Smell you the buckwheat where the bees were lately buzzing?)

Above all, lo, the sky so calm, so transparent after the rain, and
with wondrous clouds,
Below too, all calm, all vital and beautiful, and the farm prospers well.

Down in the fields all prospers well,
But now from the fields come father, come at the daughter’s call.
And come to the entry mother, to the front door come right away.

Fast as she can she hurries, something ominous, her steps trembling,
She does not tarry to smooth her hair nor adjust her cap.

Open the envelope quickly,
O this is not our son’s writing, yet his name is sign’d,
O a strange hand writes for our dear son, O stricken mother’s soul!
All swims before her eyes, flashes with black, she catches the main
words only,
Sentences broken, gunshot wound in the breast, cavalry skirmish,
taken to hospital,
At present low, but will soon be better.

Ah now the single figure to me,
Amid all teeming and wealthy Ohio with all its cities and farms,
Sickly white in the face and dull in the head, very faint,
By the jamb of a door leans.

Grieve not so, dear mother, (the just-grown daughter speaks through
her sobs,
The little sisters huddle around speechless and dismay’d,)
See, dearest mother, the letter says Pete will soon be better.

Alas poor boy, he will never be better, (nor may-be needs to be
better, that brave and simple soul,)
While they stand at home at the door he is dead already,
The only son is dead.

But the mother needs to be better,
She with thin form presently drest in black,
By day her meals untouch’d, then at night fitfully sleeping, often waking,
In the midnight waking, weeping, longing with one deep longing,
O that she might withdraw unnoticed, silent from life escape and withdraw,
To follow, to seek, to be with her dear dead son.

–Walt Whitman

Whitman’s Patent Office

A year ago right now, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, I was on the Boltbus heading to DC. Needless to say, the National Portrait Gallery was on my list of place to see (again). I had never been to the NPG until about two years ago and become more intrigued every time I visit. Sometimes I will go in the morning, break for lunch and get a sandwich across the street, and visit again refreshed in the afternoon. What it fascinating is not just the art–though the NPG collection is one of the finest in the world–but the building, The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and AMerican Art Museum are in the U.S.Patent Office. Clara Barton worked there in the 1850s. During the war the Patent Office was, like so many structures, used as a hospital. It was where Walt Whitman nursed the wounded and dying. When you are in the building you become filled with what I can only describe as a sense of continuity.

Enjoy your weekend.

Summer 2012 now in session

Governors Island, May 2012

Hey everybody, it is Memorial Day weekend. I took the day off today to go to Governors Island for the annual island walk around. Each year just before the start of the season the Interpretation Division schedules an interpretive tour of the island with primarily other staff and volunteers serving as the audience. The purpose is to give rangers experience in front of a live audience before the opening of the island for the season. Each of about ten rangers speaks for 10-15 minutes on a certain aspect of the island’s long and rich history. It is great fun and quite informative. The rangers and volunteers are all dynamic and bring their own personality to what they do. It was especially good today because we got to see the inside of Castle Williams, which will be open to the public as of tomorrow after an extensive renovation. One will even get to visit the roof, with its million dollar views of New York Harbor. Tours of Castle Williams are free, but tickets are required. If you have never been t0 Governors Island, you are in for something special. It is even more meaningful this year with the bicentennial of the War of 1812 now upon us.

Castle Williams with Manhattan in the background

Whatever you do between now and Labor Day, make the National Park Service part of your summer.

Paul Fussell, 1924-2012

Paul Fussell has died. His The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) is the ur-text on how the people of the twentieth century chose to remember and mythologize the Great War, and war in general. As an infantry officer in the Second World War and, later, a literary theorist, Fussell was uniquely positioned to explain the writings of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and the rest of the War Poets. Modern Memory is to World War 1 what David Blight’s Race and Reunion is to the Civil War, seminal books one must confront for a fuller understanding of those conflicts. That is not to say one must agree with everything each scholars says. Even when disagreeing, however, one must analyze their arguments, take them seriously, and think hard in formulating a response. That is a greater tribute than mere agreement.

Fussell was a provocateur who also wrote about travel, class, anti-intellectualism, and whatever else was on his mind. His most notorious piece was Thank God for the Atom Bomb, which the New Republic published in the early 1980s.

(image/a young Lieutenant Fussell, May 15, 1945, one week after V-E Day; U.S. Army)