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.
I took this photo last Sunday and thought I would share. From the view from my window right now it looks like it should be a beautiful if warm day. Today marks the start of Harlem Week. Apparently this event is also called A Great Day in Harlem, after the Art Kane photograph taken sixty years ago this August. The photo is actually called Harlem 58. If you have never seen it take a look at this Daily News article from a few years back.
When this photo was taken the Harlem Renaissance was still within living memory. Many of the musicians profiled probably played in Paris in this years just after the Great War. By the late 1950s New York City was already beginning its post-industrial decline, even if that was not readily apparent at the time. From the Daily News: “The world represented by those 57 men and women — a world of late-night clubs, of gents in suits and hats and ladies in gloves, of martinis and Lucky Strikes — was already vanishing in the rear-view mirror of popular culture.” It all sounds good to me, except for the martinis and Lucky Strikes. I remember when the documentary about the film shoot came out in the mid-1990s and even that seems like five eras ago. Many of the principals, like Dizzy Gillespie, were still alive to participate in the film. It is hard to believe Sonny Rollins and Benny Golson are the only two who remain.
Harlem Week began as Harlem Day in 1974. Someone was telling me that this event used to be more anarchic back in the wild years of the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, with people sleeping overnight on benches in Riverside Park and that type of thing. The beauty of this city is that it is constantly reinventing itself. Today Harlem Week stretches a month, through August 25 this year. Come to Harlem this Summer of 2018 and experience it for yourself.
My good friend Molly Skardon, a fellow volunteer with the National Park Service here in New York City, wrote this guest piece about Percy Grainger, who was born this week in 1882. The musician and composer was already in his 30s when the war broke out in 1914. The next five years however would prove crucial in his personal and artistic development. Molly is uniquely suited to writing about Grainger. She has run the Oral History Project at Governors Island for many years and has interviewed many Army band musicians who were stationed on the island. She also works at Juilliard. New York City was the focal point for the American war effort, and even then becoming a nexus for the nascent jazz scene.
Happy Birthday to Australian musician Percy Grainger, born July 8, 1882. Grainger was pursuing an international career as a pianist and composer when the Great War began in Europe. Publicly criticized for not joining the British war effort, he sailed for America in 1915 and enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 1917, at age 34.
His first Army assignment was with the 15th Coast Artillery Band, stationed at Fort Hamilton, which is the ensemble pictured above. Grainger is the saxophonist in the center, above the small white X. Since it appears to have been chilly when the picture was taken, the time might be late 1917 or early 1918.
In June of 1918, Grainger came to Governors Island as an instructor in the program founded by the Institute of Musical Art (later part of what is now The Juilliard School) to train Army bandmasters and band musicians. Classroom instruction took place at the Institute, at Broadway and 122nd Street in Manhattan, and performing and conducting were taught on the Island.
Grainger was not particularly skilled on either the saxophone or the oboe, which he also played, but he was fascinated by wind, brass, and percussion instruments and wrote a great deal of music for them in various combinations, thus earning the gratitude of concert and military band players of succeeding generations. However, his most popularly known work is probably “Country Gardens,” an old English tune that he arranged for piano while at Fort Jay, as noted at the end of the published sheet music (“Written out, Fort Jay, Governor’s Island, N.Y., June 29, 1918”).
Grainger was discharged from the Army in 1919, and lived for the rest of his life in White Plains, New York just north of the city.
(image/Library of Congress Bain Collection)
I spent a few hours walking Green-Wood Cemetery this morning with a friend. When I got home, there in the mailbox was the new John Coltrane cd waiting for me. I have it on right now. I love stories of “lost” audiotapes, manuscripts, archival photographs, and whatnot. It is easy to be cynical about these things–it is easy to be cynical about a lot of things–but this is no filler or outtakes that should have remained in the vaults. These lost tapes are the real thing, another tile in the mosaic to help us better understand Coltrane’s legacy. I have always believed that Coltrane’s output in the 1960s, when he began going more “out there,” has withstood the test of time when others’ has not is because his music is rooted in both blues and his time in a Navy band just after the Second World War. Whatever the era, military musicians usually bring a discipline to their work. They respect tradition. The Lost Album will take a while to fully absorb and I can already tell will be part of the soundtrack to the summer.
When Charlie Parker hung out in the bars he was well known for putting his dimes in the jukebox and listening to country music. Because he was Bird, none of his fellow jazzmen dared try to stop him; if Yardbird Parker wanted to listen to country music, then that’s what was going to happen. When they asked incredulously why he spent his time listening to that genre, his answer was always the same: “Listen to the stories, man.” A great artist–and make no mistake, Charlie Parker is on the shortlist of great artists of the twentieth century–understands that inspiration can come from anywhere and through anyone, whether that be Louis Armstrong, Shostakovich or Hank Williams. The reason I say all this is to highlight a podcast that has been preoccupying me for much of the past week: Tyler Mahan Coe’s Cocaine and Rhinestones.
Tyler Mahan Coe is the son of outlaw country musician David Allan Coe. Tyler spent his childhood years on his father’s tour bus, partying and listening to the stories as he heard them coming from the stage and the back of the bus. Father and son had a falling out somewhere along the way and apparently are estranged today. As Coe points out, everyone in country music is a historian because the music references its antecedents much more than most other styles. Plus, musicians have a great deal of time on their hands and spend a great deal of it swapping stories of what they have seen and heard along the way. Cocaine and Rhinestones wrapped up its first season of fourteen episodes earlier this year. So far I have listened to about 1/3 of those, starting with episode one about Ernest Tubb but skipping around after that. One of the things I like most about Coe’s sensibility is that he states explicitly that there is no purity test for what is and is not country music. Race, region, economic status, educational level: none of these are barriers for who is and is not a “country” artist. The only litmus test is sincerity.
He did an extraordinary job breaking down Loretta Lynn’s mid-1970s hit “The Pill,” explaining the sexism and hypocrisy that went into why more than sixty radio stations across the country banned it. Another episode explores Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee.” The degrees to which Haggard is parodying and/or paying tribute to Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority has been lost on less reflective listeners for the half century since the song’s release in July 1969. Coe’s conclusions about Haggard’s “Okie” are surprising, and I for one found his argument convincing. I felt Coe was unduly harsh on Herbert Hoover in the early part of this episode however, where he describes the early years of the Depression and the flight of the Okies from Oklahoma and its neighboring states to California. Hoover didn’t cause the Depression and he wasn’t the ogre people made him out to be. Every good story deserves a villain and Hoover was, then and today, the ideal scapegoat for Depression Era America.
Americans in that decade after the First World War began buying radios in record numbers, which transformed our culture much like the internet has transformed our own time. Without the radio there would have been no Babe Ruth as we know him today. The same goes for the music people listened to and shared. Someone, I believe it was Kris Kristofferson, once said that he never worries about country music, that its death has been greatly exaggerated and that it will always be here and move forward. Tyler Mahan Coe does a good job putting the music into historical and cultural contexts and explaining that the music business has always been . . . wait for it . . . a business. Greed, lust, abuse in its many forms, envy, shallowness and vindictiveness have intertwined with moments of great generosity, clarity and understanding within various artists and producers to create the canon that is country music. It’s a human tale, as old as Adam. One would be wise to listen to the stories.
(image/Library of Congress)
Pianist Howard R. Haviland began a series of concerts one hundred years ago today at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The show, put on for about 1200 workers and sailors, was the first in a series Haviland performed under the auspices of the YMCA’s National War Work Council. Haviland and the YMCA had set a high bar: to play at every camp in the United States over late summer and fall. Later that same week Haviland played at camps in Mineola and Hempstead, Long Island; Queens; and upstate at Plattsburg. Haviland was a Brooklynite who spent his summers playing in hotels in New Jersey. (Then and now New Yorkers got out of the Big City in July-August if they could.) Haviland had spent July playing at the Hotel Montclair, where he helped the Red Cross raise $100,000,000 for the war effort.
Haviland noted that “the boys” in the camps preferred lighter tunes to the classical stuff and wanted material with which they were familiar. His sets were heavy on light opera, which is a reminder that opera was not always Opera as we perceive it today: as a distant High Art, something for which you pay top dollar and put on a tuxedo to listen to. There was a time, not that long ago, when the genre was very much part of the popular vernacular. Think of the organ grinder and his monkey. Havilland’s tour was a smashing success. By early November he was back in Brooklyn at his parents house on Grand Avenue. Still he continued on with his war work. On behalf of the Red Cross he taught piano to advanced and beginning students alike to raise funds and awareness for the Allied war effort.