I was in the city at 7:30 this morning freezing my head off on the way to some appointment when the above message caught my eye. It was on one of those electric signs that rotates little factoids in between giving the temperature, subway delays, and other tidbits that pedestrians might find helpful. Thankfully I got my phone out and snapped the image a nanosecond before it flipped over to the next one. Just for fun I went to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, whose reviewer submitted the following in the next day’s edition. I love the way he employs the adjectives he does as compliments.
I hope everyone’s Thanksgiving weekend has been restful. I did not leave the house once yesterday. I spend so much time running that it was good to stay in. About two months ago in the waning days of summer I told myself I would watch Ken Burns’s 2019 “Country Music” over Thanksgiving weekend. I started Wednesday night and have now watched five of the eight two-hour segments. I mentioned in a post not long ago that late stage Burns has been his strongest period. His films have taken on a purpose and gravity that was sometimes lacking in his earlier work, especially some the projects from the mid-1990s and early-2000s. I believe it is his most-watched work, but parts of “Baseball” for instance are just so treacly and overly sentimental. There has been none of that in the recent projects that he and his colleagues have done.
“Country Music” does a great job of putting the genre into historical context. The music’s evolution is much more complicated than listeners tend to realize. Part of that, I suppose, is because those in the industry–and make no mistake, country music is, was, and always has been an industry–want you to think of this or that artist in the carefully created manner they have curated. The sooner we get past our conceits about “authenticity” the better.
I always read the media commentary when such films come out and am always taken aback at the lack of generosity from so many observers. Many cannot grasp the amount of work that goes into creating a film like this. They simply watch and take what they’re seeing for granted. Just digging up the thousands of still and moving images, let alone sifting through it all and creating a narrative around it all, is a task for which we should be appreciative. One can argue with this or that editorial decision, and I myself would have emphasized this or that artist a bit less or more, but one should respect anyone who puts themselves out there in any medium. If one is looking for a good place to begin exploring the genre, “Country Music” is a great place to begin.
(image/University of Missouri at Kansas City library)
I was doing a class this past Thursday in which the students were high schoolers taking one or two college classes to get a leg up on future course credits. They would have been born in the mid-2000s. Their regular instructor had sent me a list of topics selected by the students for their upcoming assignment. One of the students had selected artistic futurism. With that in mind I took two record albums from our library collection to show the students, one by Duke Ellington and the other by Miles Davis. My main purpose was to show the evolving nature of media itself, but I also wanted to make the point that what we think of as “traditional” was “modern” in its own time. What is more, we often regard some things as remaining modern even after they have long entered the canon; whereas other things come to be seen as staid and conservative. A century later the Cubism of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso is still considered avant-garde, but the music created by Ellington and Louis Armstrong at more or less the same time is perceived by many as nostalgia.
Above is the actual record set I showed the students, sides 1-2 of “This is Duke Ellington” released on RCA Victor in the early 1970s. Many had never seen an actual album, and so I took the record out of its sleeve and passed it around like the Rosetta Stone.
Charles Mingus was born one hundred years ago today on April 22, 1922. He is one of the most captivating figures in this most American of art forms. Mingus’s three biggest influences were Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and the Black Church. He also had a firm grasp of classical music which served him well when composing in longer form. Charles Mingus was working on another level. In terms of his personality two figures with whom I have always equated him were John Lennon and Frank Sinatra. Like those two, he was supremely talented and intelligent; all three could, and would, cut through the b.s. in any situation. Also like them, his personality was a combination of generosity and sensitivity interspersed with sexism, occasional violence, and gratuitous verbal cruelty. The hardest part in knowing Mingus would have been the unpredictability.
He died in 1979 of ALS, a cruel fate for any person let alone such an outsized figure as he was. Mingus Big Band was–and is–an ensemble put together by his widow Sue Mingus to keep the bassist and composer’s work in the public sphere.
Last night I finished watching the new PBS documentary “The Black Church.” Over these past several evenings I watched each of the four one-hour installments over four nights. I got into something of a routine where when each episode concluded I would email a friend who was also watching and we would compare notes, if you will, with our impressions. I can’t recommend the film highly enough. One of the things I like the most about Henry Louis Gates as a documentarian is the way he listens without judgment and lets the interviewee tell their story. One need not agree with everyone all of the time, or even any of the time, to respectfully let them have their say. The Black Church, like all human institutions, is a flawed—one might say fallen—institution whose stirring triumphs exist within the complexities and ambiguities inherent in human existence. Gates and his team capture that. It is hard to image an America without the Black Church and everything it has given over the centuries not just to its followers but to the country as a whole.
Last night the same friend sent me this article asking if I had heard of the recent opening in Nashville of the National Museum of African American Music. Almost twenty-five years ago now this same friend and I took in a great exhibit about jazz at the African American Museum of Dallas. I had not seen the opening of this new museum, or even heard of its creation. With the pandemic still very much on this is a tough time for a museum to open. Hopefully it can weather these crazy times until the world opens up again. I would love to visit this place some day.
(image/photographers Carl Van Vechten via Library of Congress)
Ooff. Long day. It was leavened somewhat when someone emailed me around noontime and told me that today was Dizzy Gillespie’s birthday. It had totally escaped me that today was the 103rd anniversary of Gillespie’s birth. In a nice piece of serendipity I was listening to Charlie Parker when I opened my friend’s message. In this case Bird was accompanied not by Gillespie but the young Miles Davis. Here is something I wrote on this date nine (!) years ago commemorating Dizzy Gillespie. My gosh, has he really been gone twenty-seven years. Though I never saw him live, I am glad I lived during his time. I stand by what I said all those years ago about Dizzy Gillespie being underrated and under appreciated despite the plaudits he received during and after his lifetime. Here is some listening for an autumn evening. . .
One Sunday afternoon in March 1989 my brother and I attended Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s final game in Houston against the Rockets. That was now more than three decades ago and my memories are naturally fuzzy, but as I recall I don’t think we knew when we bought the tickets that it would be the great center’s final game in Space City. Before the game they had the typical ceremony where the aging soon-to-be-hall of famer receives accolades and usually some cheesy gifts. Abdul-Jabbar said a few uncomfortable words and then the game was on. Houston was an important city in Kareem’s career: in the 1980s his Lakers lost twice to the Rockets in the Western Conference playoffs and in January 1968 then-still Lew Alcindor’s #2 ranked UCLA Bruins lost to the #1 ranked Houston Cougars 71-69 in the so-called Game of the Century before a nationally televised audience before tens of thousands in the Astrodome. (In March the Bruins would defeat Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels in the NCAA Finals.)
Abdul-Jabbar has always played a role in my and my brother’s popular culture narrative. Though sports mean less to me than they once did, you could not be a Boston sports fan in the 1980s and not think of Los Angeles Lakers. In retrospect I understand that our infatuation was partly based on our being uprooted from the Northeast and transported to the grim, humid Sunbelt in the 1970s; torn from our roots, we clung as we could to was there, which for us included the Red Sox, Bruins, Patriots, and–especially–the Celtics. These were the days before the internet or, for us, even cable television, and we often called the local newspaper in the late evening to ask the final score of this or that game before the next morning’s paper.
Abdul-Jabbar always seemed a shy and reserved man, less comfortable in the spotlight than Earvin Johnson. Magic’s affability and gift of gab probably took a great deal of strain off of the great center, which could only have been a relief. In the mid-90s I was working at a large chain bookstore in Houston when we were planning for some book signing event. That led to a discussion in the break room of previous public figures who had passed through in recent years, usually before my arrival on the job. One of them was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who my co-workers told me left though the backdoor halfway through the signing. If that even happened, who know why? Arrogance? Shyness? Social anxiety? Condescension? People are complicated.
A thoughtful and insightful individual, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has kept busy writing books and articles for much of the past thirty years. He recently wrote this fascinating story about Black Los Angeles for the LA Times. It especially covers the LA jazz scene, something that the retired basketball player turned writer knows more than a little about. Lew Alcindor grew up in Harlem and his father both a NYC transit cop and Julliard-trained musician who knew and played with most of the greats of the mid-twentieth century. Do check it out.
(image/photographer, Fred William Carter; Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)
People have been emailing and texting these past 24 hours with the news of the passing of jazz pianist McCoy Tyner. He is the final member of the John Coltrane classic quartet to pass away. In one email back and forth I mentioned to a friend, a very observant individual and part of the New York jazz scene in the 1970s, how one can scarcely if at all articulate in words what the Coltrane classic quartet created, that they tapped into a Higher Force or whatever one might choose to call it. My friend and I wondered if even the four of them were even able to put the experience in words, or if the force passed through them and they accepted it. Years after it was all over, when asked how they accomplished what they did, the drummer in that quartet, Elvin Jones, told an interviewer, ‘You gotta be willing to die with the motherfucker.” It is not clear that Jones was joking. Maybe that’s as close to the articulation as one can get.
Here is that classic quarter playing “Naima” in Belgium in 1965. This footage is near the very end for the Tyner, Jones, Garrison, Coltrane lineup. Tyner for one would strike out on his own not long after this and pursue his solo career. Coltrane died two year later.
I came across this article from The Atlantic and thought I would pass along. I googled the author and, based on his saying that he was twenty-three when he took the job, this story would have taken place around 1981 or ’82 depending on when Sinatra actually came in. I cannot say I am surprised he would buy $800 in books, as he did in this reminiscence told from the perspective of the sales clerk several decades later; largely self-taught, Sinatra was a more erudite and intellectually voracious guy than people might realize. Charlie Parker was the same way. And like Parker, Sinatra was a man of incredible flaws but who at his best could grasp the essence of a person or situation with just a quick glance. It is part of what made them the artists that they were. Anyways, in the lead-up to the anniversary of Sinatra’s birthday this coming week here is a little something to read for those so inclined.
I was bemoaning the recent fallowness of the blog to a friend earlier this week. With the semester in full swing I haven’t had the time over the past ten days or so. Last night however a friend and I ventured up to the CUNY Graduate Center to watch Geoffrey C. Ward give the annual keynote for the Leon Levy Center for Biography. The Levy Center was founded by David Nasaw in 2007. While attending the Graduate Center in 2005 I took a class on the Gilded Age with Professor Nasaw in which I learned a great deal. At the time he was just about to release his biography of Andrew Carnegie. I can’t say I really know Professor Nasaw and I doubt he would remember me–I haven’t spoken with him in thirteen years for one thing–but as I understand it he founded the Levy Center because he believed that academics were not receiving professional credit for writing biographies. If that is indeed the case, and I suspect it is, I imagine it’s because tenure and promotion boards see biography as esoteric, which is misguided and unfortunate.
Ward is the author or co-author of sixteen books but focused his keynote on his two-volume biography of FDR and his exposé of his great-grandfather Ferdinand Ward. This was of course the swindler who cheated Ulysses S. Grant and so many others in the ponzi scheme that took down Grant & Ward in 1884. Geoffrey Ward told the audience that while working on the book he concluded that his ancestor literally had no conscience and was probably a sociopath. Franklin Roosevelt however proved more inscrutable. Ward explained that when he began researching Roosevelt he wanted to know if the polio that touched Ward’s own life had taken away any of FDR’s optimism or indomitable spirit. Ward never found the answer during his research and writing but the answer may have appeared, he explained, in the diaries and letters of Margaret Suckley that turned up after her death in 1991 at the age of 99. In those pages Roosevelt confessed to his friend and confidante the depression and frustration to which he occasionally succumbed due to his physical impairment.
Ward gave a thoughtful presentation and had the audience’s attention. On the way out of the auditorium we ran into a mutual friend and the three of us talked on the Fifth Avenue sidewalk about the talk. I mentioned FDR’s public persona and compared it to the presentation of self of none other than Duke Ellington My friend look quizzical and so I repeated it. Strange as the comparison may seem, Roosevelt and Ellington in their individual ways presented impenetrable public versions of themselves. Of course everyone does this, especially public figures, but few are able to hold the visage together as tightly and for as long as Roosevelt and Ellington. Many people in their inner circles thought they understood the two men, when in reality the president and jazzman rarely gave all of themselves to any one individual. They both were, and to an extent still are, enigmas wrapped in puzzles. Geoffrey Ward collaborated with Ken Burns on the Jazz documentary twenty years ago and spoke of Ellington’s public countenance. This is entirely speculation on my part but I strongly suspect that when Ward was discussing Ellington he was comparing him to Franklin Roosevelt.