Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 12, 2014

Jazz radical Charlie Haden dead at 76

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

Jazz great Charlie Haden has died after a long illness.

The NY Times has an exemplary obituary that makes sure to highlight his radical politics:

The Liberation Music Orchestra, which released its debut album in 1969, was Mr. Haden’s large ensemble, and an expression of his left-leaning political ideals. The band, featuring compositions and arrangements by the pianist Carla Bley, mingled avant-garde wildness with the earnest immediacy of Latin American folk songs. Mr. Haden released each of the band’s four studio albums during Republican administrations; the most recent, in 2005, was “Not in Our Name,” a response to the war in Iraq.

Mr. Haden, who liked to say he was driven by concern for “the struggle of the poor people,” hardly restricted his opinions to the Liberation Music Orchestra. While playing a festival with Mr. Coleman in Lisbon, in 1971, he dedicated his “Song for Ché” to the black liberation movements of Mozambique and Angola, and was promptly jailed.

I strongly recommend reading the entire obit.

This is a tribute I wrote to Haden in 1999. It overlaps with some of the material in the NY Times obit but from a fan’s POV. I follow it with some prime performances by Haden with various groups at the early, middle and late stages of his career.

Charlie Haden

I have been moved to write about jazz bassist Charlie Haden after listening to his latest and greatest CD, “The Art of the Song”. It is consistent with a number of others that he has released over the past half-decade evoking a sort of romantic and retro approach to jazz, strongly influenced by a vision of the more innocent Los Angeles of post-WWII years and of movie culture.

The songs on the latest include some decidedly obscure tunes drawn from even more obscure films. Typical is “You My Love”, a ballad originally sung by Frank Sinatra in the 1954 “Young at Heart”. With west coasters Ernie Watts on tenor sax, Larance Marable on drums and Alan Broadbent on piano, vocals by Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson, and a 28 piece string section, the lush mood created is reminiscent of Charlie Parker’s famous (infamous to some) Verve records backed by string section and led by Mitch Miller.

I am not sure what led Haden to make these kinds of old-fashioned CD’s, but I have a feeling that it is the same impulse that leads me to buy each one faithfully when they come out. Haden, like me, is somebody who was deeply involved with the 60s radicalization but on the cultural front. Although his politics have not changed, his mood has become more wistful and nostalgic, not unlike my own. Perhaps this is what it takes to keep old time radicals going in a cold and heartless world, where cash seems to be the only thing that matters.

Haden, who is white, burst on the scene in 1959 as the bassist in a combo led by African-American Ornette Coleman, who played a white plastic alto saxophone. Ornette Coleman had completely redefined the jazz idiom by emphasizing his own highly original approach to melody in a departure from the typical bebop style of the time. The beboppers, still strongly influenced by Parker who had died only 3 years earlier, played superfast improvisations over tightly wound “heads” derived from popular tunes, scarcely recognizable from their source.

Coleman believed the bebop obsession with chords or key changes had led down a blind alley. He also had ideas about rhythm at odds with conventional thinking of the time. His drummers sounded more melodic; his bass players were freed from having to signal chord changes. Ultimately, this type of music gave more freedom to the players, but it also required more responsibility. Coleman was constantly evolving each tune during performances and demanded that the musicians’ listen to each other with much more attention than the beboppers were used to. In a typical bebop performance, each musician took lengthy solos and it was not unusual for one to walk off the stage in the middle to go smoke a cigarette until it was their time to blow. The collective improvisation of the Ornette Coleman combos was in some ways a throwback to the earliest days of jazz in New Orleans, before the solo had been invented.

After 40 years of avant-garde jazz, none of this sounds particularly controversial but in its day it unleashed tremendous passions. In 1959, when Coleman’s band made its first appearance in New York at the Five Spot, fights broke out between Coleman partisans and those convinced that he was perpetrating a hoax. One night, Miles Davis showed up and sat in; another night, a stranger walked up to Coleman and punched him in the face. Coleman was 22 and his bassist, Charlie Haden, was the same age.

For all of their connections to the avant-garde, both Coleman and Haden had roots in working-class dance hall culture. When Coleman was traveling around the country in the ’40s and ’50s with rhythm-and-blues bands and in tent shows, Haden was performing with his family, a country-and-western troupe from Springfield, Missouri. In the liner notes of “The Art of the Song,” there’s a 1942 photo of the Haden family standing in front of the American flag at country station KWTO. They are all wearing cowboy boots, including the 5 year old “cowboy” Charlie. A January 19, 1997 LA Times profile on Haden reports:

His father, Carl, was an itinerant Midwestern country singer who married another singer, Virginia Day. A country vocal group with echoes of the Carter Family and the Delmore Brothers, they played the Grand Ole Opry. A little later, when children arrived, they became Uncle Carl Haden and the Haden Family. Charlie was born in Shenandoah, Iowa, in 1937, a brief stopover before the family settled in Springfield. Carl began broadcasting daily radio shows from the Haden home. The house was full of country music and products from radio sponsors–Green Mountain Cough Syrup, Sparkalite Cereal, Cocoa Wheats with vitamin G. Chet Atkins and Roy Acuff performed on the shows with the family, and Charlie remembers the Carter Family visiting and Mother Maybelle singing him to sleep.

“My mom would sing to me at night, but she didn’t know that I wasn’t really sleeping,” Haden says. “I was checking everything out, you know? Then all of a sudden one day, I started humming with her, and then one day I started humming the harmony with her. This was like when I was 11/2 or something, and when I was 22 months old, that’s when they first took me to the studio and I started singing. Charlie Haden made his musical debut with a version of “Little Sir Echo.”

Brother Jimmy was considered the black sheep of the family, drinking as a teenager, spending a few nights in jail; he also played bass on the show and was a jazz fan who owned Billie Holiday, Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie records. When Jimmy was out of the house, Charlie would play his brother’s bass. When Charlie and his dad caught Charlie Parker on a swing through town, the Future Farmers of America lost a prospect.

Haden eventually moved to LA, where his jazz career began in earnest. Paul Bley, the famed pianist, remembers the country boy bassist showing up barefoot for his audition. One night Haden went to a club to hear Gerry Mulligan’s group. The LA Times reports,

“The place was packed; there was barely room to stand. And then a well-dressed guy carrying a white plastic saxophone squeezed his way to the front. This was how Ornette Coleman performed back then: a shy, deferential insurgent requesting to sit in.”

“He starts playing, man, and it was so unbelievably great I could not believe it. Like the whole room lit up all of a sudden, like somebody turned on the lights,” Haden says. “He was playing the blues they were playing, but he was playing his own way. And almost as fast as he asked to sit in, they asked him to please stop.” Spotting a kindred spirit, Haden ran out after Coleman into the alley, but the saxophonist had already disappeared into the night.

Haden eventually tracked down the musician with the white plastic saxophone. Haden describes the scene at Coleman’s apartment:

There was music blocking the door; you couldn’t get the door open. Finally it opened, and the place was filled with music. Manuscripts, things he had written out all over the rug and chairs and bed and everywhere. I got my bass out, and he picked up one of the manuscripts off the rug and said, ‘Lets play this.’ I said, ‘Sure,’ but I was scared to death. He said, ‘Now I got some chord changes written below the melody here that I heard when I was writing the melody. You can play those changes when you play the song, but when I start to improvise, make up your own changes from what I’m playing.’ I said, ‘With pleasure.’ Man, we played all day and all night. And the next day we stopped to get a hamburger and we came back and we played some more.

Coleman solidified his free-jazz ideas at the Hillcrest Club, which closed down years ago. Like many famous venues for jazz, there’s only a barred front door today and no historical marker. (These are the Buena Vista Clubs of North America.) The Coleman group’s Hillcrest perfromances earned Haden a reputation among Hollywood hipsters. Actors Dean Stockwell and Bobby Driscoll came to hear him, and Martin Landau advised Haden that he might do well to try acting. Coleman’s band caused a stir that led him to the East Coast where fame and notoriety awaited them.

Haden eventually separated from the Coleman band and hooked up with the thriving avant-garde scene in NYC, where his political beliefs took shape. He eventually formed the Liberation Jazz Orchestra, which was co-led by Carla Bley, Paul’s ex-wife, and an outstanding songwriter and pianist in her own right. The 1970 classic recording of this band includes Spanish Civil War tunes “Song Of The United Front and “El Quinto Regimiento (Fifth Regiment) as well as “We Shall Overcome” and “Song For Che.”

A January 31, Minneapolis Tribune article on Haden describes the willingness of Haden to act on the belief that “music can’t be separated from politics.” In 1971, while appearing with saxophonist Ornette Coleman at a festival in Lisbon, Portugal, Haden dedicated his “Song for Che,” to the black liberation movements in the Portuguese African colonies. The day after the concert, he was arrested at the Lisbon airport. “I would actually have done some time if Ornette hadn’t gotten the American Embassy to come and get me,” recalled Haden. “It was really a fascist government then, and this was the first jazz festival that they had allowed there. But as soon as I made this dedication, they canceled the rest of the festival. It was scary.”

“Music can bring people of all races together,” he said. “My mom used to take me into the African-American church when I was, like, 8 or 9, and we’d sit in the back row and listen to the choir. That was one of the most meaningful experiences in my whole life.”

This is from an Ornette Coleman 1960 album titled “Change of the Century”. Although described as “avant-garde”, I regarded the album as clearly in the Charlie Parker tradition, in the same way that Charlie Parker was in the Lester Young tradition. I love the tune.

This 1983 record was undoubtedly the most political made by jazz musicians ever. Plus, it is great music.

This is from 2007 and displays Haden’s command of his instrument. Along with another Charlie–Mingus–he was one of the greats.

“Jesus, I don’t want to die alone…” Charlie Haden, friends, and family performs a musical tribute to himself.

June 19, 2014

Horace Silver, 85, Master of Earthy Jazz, Is Dead

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:15 am

NY Times, June 18 2014

Horace Silver, 85, Master of Earthy Jazz, Is Dead

Photo

Horace Silver in 1997. Credit Alan Nahigian

Horace Silver, a pianist, composer and bandleader who was one of the most popular and influential jazz musicians of the 1950s and ’60s, died on Wednesday at his home in New Rochelle, N.Y. He was 85.

His death was announced by Blue Note Records, the company for which he recorded from 1952 to 1979.

After a high-profile apprenticeship with some of the biggest names in jazz, Mr. Silver began leading his own group in the mid-1950s and quickly became a big name himself, celebrated for his clever compositions and his infectious, bluesy playing. At a time when the refined, quiet and, to some, bloodless style known as cool jazz was all the rage, he was hailed as a leader of the back-to-basics movement that came to be called hard bop.

Hard bop and cool jazz shared a pedigree: They were both variations on bebop, the challenging, harmonically intricate music that changed the face of jazz in the 1940s. But hard bop was simpler and more rhythmically driven, with more emphasis on jazz’s blues and gospel roots. The jazz press tended to portray the adherents of cool jazz (most of them West Coast-based and white) and hard bop (most of them East Coast-based and black) as warring factions. But Mr. Silver made an unlikely warrior.

Photo

His albums included “Song for My Father,” which featured his father on the cover. Credit Blue Note Records

“I personally do not believe in politics, hatred or anger in my musical composition,” he wrote in the liner notes to his album “Serenade to a Soul Sister” in 1968. “Musical composition should bring happiness and joy to people and make them forget their troubles.”

And Mr. Silver’s music was never as one-dimensional as it was sometimes portrayed as being. In an interview early in his career he said he was aiming for “that old-time gutbucket barroom feeling with just a taste of the backbeat.” That approach was reflected in the titles he gave to songs, like “Sister Sadie,” “Filthy McNasty” and “The Preacher,” all of which became jazz standards. But his output also included gently melodic numbers like “Peace” and “Melancholy Mood” and Latin-inflected tunes like “Señor Blues.” “Song for My Father,” probably his best-known composition, blended elements of bossa nova and the Afro-Portuguese music of the Cape Verde islands, where his father was born.

His piano playing, like his compositions, was not that easily characterized. Deftly improvising ingenious figures with his right hand while punching out rumbling bass lines with his left, he managed to evoke boogie-woogie pianists like Meade Lux Lewis and beboppers like Bud Powell simultaneously. Unlike many bebop pianists, however, Mr. Silver emphasized melodic simplicity over harmonic complexity; his improvisations, while sophisticated, were never so intricate as to be inaccessible.

Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silver was born on Sept. 2, 1928, in Norwalk, Conn. His father, who was born John Silva but changed the family name to the more American-sounding Silver after immigrating to the United States, worked in a rubber factory. His mother, Gertrude, was a maid and sang in a church choir.

Although he studied piano as a child, Mr. Silver began his professional career as a saxophonist. But he had returned to the piano, and was becoming well known as a jazz pianist in Connecticut, by the time the saxophonist Stan Getz — soon to be celebrated as one of the leading lights of the cool school — heard and hired him in 1950.

“I had the house rhythm section at a club called the Sundown in Hartford,” Mr. Silver told The New York Times in 1981. “Stan Getz came up and played with us. He said he was going to call us, but we didn’t take him seriously. But a couple of weeks later he called and said he wanted the whole trio to join him.”

Mr. Silver worked briefly with Getz before moving to New York in 1951. He was soon in demand as an accompanist, working with leading jazz musicians like the saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. In 1953, Mr. Silver and the drummer Art Blakey formed a cooperative group, the Jazz Messengers, whose aggressive style helped define hard bop and whose lineup of trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums became the standard hard-bop instrumentation.

After two and a half years, during which Mr. Silver began his long and prolific association with Blue Note, he left the Jazz Messengers, which carried on with Blakey as the sole leader, and formed his own quintet. It became a showcase for his compositions.

Photo

Another album by Mr. Silver is “Further Explorations by the Horace Silver Quintet.” Credit Blue Note Records

Those compositions, beginning with “The Preacher” in 1955 — which his producer, Alfred Lion of Blue Note, had tried to discourage him from recording because he considered it too simplistic — captured the ears of a wide audience. Many were released as singles and garnered significant jukebox play. By the early ’60s Mr. Silver’s quintet was one of the most popular nightclub and concert attractions in jazz, and an inspiration for countless other bandleaders.

Like Blakey, Miles Davis (with whom he recorded) and a few others, Mr. Silver was known for discovering and nurturing young talent, including the saxophonists Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson and Michael Brecker; the trumpeters Art Farmer, Woody Shaw, Tom Harrell and Dave Douglas; and the drummers Louis Hayes and Billy Cobham. His longest-lived ensemble, which lasted about five years in the late 1950s and early ’60s, featured Blue Mitchell on trumpet and Junior Cook on tenor saxophone.

As interest in jazz declined in the ’70s, Mr. Silver disbanded his quintet and began concentrating on writing lyrics as well as music, notably on a three-album series called “The United States of Mind,” his first album to feature vocalists extensively. He later resumed touring, but only for a few months each year, essentially assembling a new group each time he went on the road.

“I’m shooting for longevity,” he explained. “The road is hard on your body. I’m trying to get it all over with in four months and then recoup.” He said he also wanted to spend more time with his son, Gregory, who survives him.

In 1981, Mr. Silver formed his own label, Silveto. His recordings for that label featured vocalists and were largely devoted to what he called “self-help holistic metaphysical music” — life lessons in song with titles like “Reaching Our Goals in Life” and “Don’t Dwell on Your Problems” that left critics for the most part unimpressed.

Jon Pareles of The Times wrote in 1986 that Mr. Silver’s “naïvely mystical lyrics” made his new compositions sound like “near-miss pop songs.” On later albums for Columbia, Impulse and Verve, Mr. Silver returned to a primarily instrumental approach.

Mr. Silver was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1995 and received a President’s Merit Award from the Recording Academy in 2005.

Many of his tunes became staples of the jazz repertoire — a development, he said, that surprised him. “When I wrote them,” he said in a 2003 interview for the website All About Jazz, “I would say to myself that I hope these at least withstand the test of time. I hope they don’t sound old in 10 years or something.”

Rather than sounding dated, his compositions continued to be widely performed and recorded well into the 21st century. And while he acknowledged that “occasionally I hear an interpretation of one of my tunes that I say that they sure messed that one up,” he admitted, “For the most part I enjoy all of it.”

May 26, 2014

Herb Jeffries, Singing Star of Black Cowboy Films, Dies at 100

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

NY Times, May 26 2014

Herb Jeffries, Singing Star of Black Cowboy Films, Dies at 100

Photo

Herb Jeffries in 2006.
Credit Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

Herb Jeffries, who sang with Duke Ellington and starred in early black westerns as a singing cowboy known as “the Bronze Buckaroo” — a nickname that evoked his malleable racial identity — died on Sunday in West Hills, Calif. He was believed to be 100.

The cause was heart failure, said Raymond Strait, a writer who had worked on Mr. Jeffries’s autobiography with him.

Mr. Jeffries used to say: “I’m a chameleon.” The label applied on many levels.

Over the course of his century, he changed his name, altered his age, married five women and stretched his vocal range from near falsetto to something closer to a Bing Crosby baritone. He shifted from jazz to country and back again, and from concert stages to movie theaters to television sets and back again.

He sang with Earl Hines and his orchestra in the early 1930s. He starred in “Harlem on the Prairie,” a black western released in 1937, and its several sequels. By 1940, he was singing with the Ellington orchestra and soon had a hit single, “Flamingo,” which sold more than 14 million copies after being released in 1941. (His name had been Herbert Jeffrey, but the credits on the record mistakenly called him Jeffries, so he renamed himself to match the typo.)

He moved to Europe and performed there for many years, including at nightclubs he owned. He was back in America by the 1950s, recording jazz records again, including “Say It Isn’t So,” a highly regarded 1957 collection of ballads. In the 1970s he picked up roles on “Hawaii Five-O” and “I Dream of Jeannie.” In the 1990s he performed at the Village Vanguard. In the 2000s he performed regularly at Café Aroma in Idyllwild, Calif.

Deep into his 90s, he was still swinging.

“He called me over once and said, ‘Is this your place, kid?’ ” recalled Frank Ferro, who runs Café Aroma in Idyllwild, Calif. “He said, ‘I’ve had two nightclubs in Paris, and let me tell you, kid, you’re doing it all just right.’ ”

Mr. Ferro also recalled Mr. Jeffries saying: “You know, I’m colored. I’m just not the color you think I am.”

Mr. Jeffries’s racial and ethnic identity was itself something of a performance — and a moving target. His mother was white, his father more of a mystery. He told some people that his father was African-American, others that he was mixed race and still others that he was Ethiopian or Sicilian.

In the crude social math of his era, many people told Mr. Jeffries he could have “passed” for white. He told people he chose to be black — to the extent that a mixed-race person had a choice at the time.

“He told me he had to make this decision about whether he should try to pass as white,” the jazz critic Gary Giddins recalled in an interview for this obituary. “He said: ‘I just knew that my life would be more interesting as a black guy. If I’d chosen to live my life passing as white, I’d have never been able to sing with Duke Ellington.’ ”

In 1951, Life magazine published an extensive feature on Mr. Jeffries that dwelled heavily on his racial heritage.

“Jeffries’s refusal to ‘pass’ and his somewhat ambiguous facial appearance have let him in for so many cases of prejudice and mistaken identity that he is practically a one-man minority group,” the article said. It described his “smoky blue eyes” and noted that he was frequently mistaken for Mexican, Argentine, Portuguese “and occasionally a Jew,” but that he had chosen to be “what he is — a light-skinned Negro.”

Mr. Jeffries cited his race as Caucasian on marriage licenses. (All five of his wives were white; his second wife was the stripper Tempest Storm.)

Late in life he said that his father, Howard Jeffrey, was actually his stepfather, and that his real father was Domenico Balentino, a Sicilian man who died in World War I.

In a 2007 documentary about him, “A Colored Life,” Mr. Jeffries said that the name on his birth certificate was Umberto Alejandro Balentino, and that he was born on Sept. 24, 1913, two years later than he had sometimes told people. The documentary included a mock birth certificate bearing that name.

Firm evidence of Mr. Jeffries’s race and age is hard to come by, but census documents from 1920 described him as “mulatto” and listed his father as a black man named Howard Jeffrey. They give his birth year as 1914, which matches what he told Life in 1951.

“It’s always been the big question, you know — where do we really come from?” Romi West, one of Mr. Jeffries’s daughters from his first marriage, said in an interview.

Herbert Jeffrey was born in Detroit on Sept. 24, in either 1913 or 1914. In addition to his wife, Savannah, and his daughter, Mrs. West, his survivors include two sons, Robert and Michael; two daughters, Ferne Aycock and Patricia Jeffries; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Mr. Giddins, the jazz critic, noted that people tend to think of Mr. Jeffries primarily as a black cowboy star or as a man with a complicated racial story. But what was most remarkable about Mr. Jeffries, he said, was his voice.

“ ‘Flamingo’ was a really important recording,” Mr. Giddins said. “Partly because of that, RCA gave Ellington carte blanche in the 1940s. I don’t think he would have had that kind of complete authority in the studio if ‘Flamingo’ wasn’t making so much money for them.”

Mr. Giddins said Mr. Jeffries never seemed consumed with being successful. He noted that even as he became a star while singing with Ellington, Mr. Jeffries chose to leave to pursue other endeavors.

“He has these gorgeous tones, and he really knows how to phrase a ballad,” Mr. Giddins said. “The mystery is why that didn’t lead to a bigger career.”

May 10, 2014

Joe Wilder, Horn Player, Dies at 92; Elegance Was His Theme Song

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:33 pm

New York Times, May 10 2014

Joe Wilder, Horn Player, Dies at 92; Elegance Was His Theme Song

Joe Wilder performing at the Village Vanguard in 2006. Although Mr. Wilder spent decades as a sought-after sideman on trumpet, cornet and fluegelhorn, this was the first time he led a band on a New York stage. Credit Rahav Segev for The New York Times
 Joe Wilder, a lyrical trumpeter who played with some of the biggest big bands in jazz and helped integrate Broadway, radio and television orchestras, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 92.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Elin Wilder-Melcher.

Mr. Wilder, who played cornet and fluegelhorn as well as trumpet, lent his elegant tone to bands led by Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford and Benny Goodman. In 1962 he toured the Soviet Union with Goodman. He also worked, in concert and in the studio, with Billie Holiday, Harry Belafonte and many other singers.

A soft-spoken and stately man who never appeared in public without a tie, he developed a clear and even sound that reflected the years he spent studying classical performance as a young man. He aspired to a symphonic career but gravitated to jazz out of necessity.

“The opportunities for black musicians in the concert field were nil,” he said in an interview for the jazz archive of Hamilton College in 1996. His interest in classical music, he added, “inhibited my jazz playing a great deal” early in his career: “I was very stiff.”

Through the 1940s, Broadway was also off-limits to black musicians; few if any performed in the pit orchestras of musicals. It’s not clear who was the first, but Mr. Wilder was certainly one of the first — and even after he had crossed the color line he faced obstacles.

Fresh from stints with Lucky Millinder and Dizzy Gillespie, he was studying classical performance at the Manhattan School of Music and hoping to join the New York Philharmonic when he got a call to play in the band for the 1950 musical revue “Alive and Kicking.”

Shortly after that, he joined the “Guys and Dolls” pit band, which included two other black musicians, Benny Morton on trombone and Billy Kyle on piano. The three were accepted in New York, but when the show traveled to Washington it was a different story.

The pit band there consisted of local musicians as well as some key members of the New York ensemble. The producers had wanted the three black musicians to be part of the Washington band, but decided to keep Mr. Wilder and Mr. Morton out when the local musicians refused to play if they were in the horn section. (Mr. Kyle was allowed to be in the orchestra because, as a pianist, he did not sit with the other musicians.) Race was not an issue in 1955, when Cole Porter himself blessed Mr. Wilder’s choice as first trumpet in the orchestra for his show “Silk Stockings.” And race was rarely if ever an issue for Broadway pit bands after that.

Mr. Wilder played an equally important role, along with the bassist Milt Hinton and a few others, in integrating the studio bands of network radio and, later, television. Mr. Wilder, a member of the ABC ensemble from 1957 until the television networks did away with such bands in the 1970s, was heard on “The Voice of Firestone,” “The Dick Cavett Show” and other programs that used live music.

He later became a fixture in New York’s recording studios and on film soundtracks. In the 1980s he was in the pit band for the hit Broadway musical “42nd Street.”

Joseph Benjamin Wilder was born to Curtis and the former Augustine Brown Wilder on Feb. 22, 1922, in Colwyn, Pa., outside Philadelphia. He came from a family of musicians, and chose the trumpet over the bass, which both his father and his older brother, Curtis Jr., played professionally.

He was a regular on “Parisian Tailors’ Colored Kiddies of the Air,” a weekly Philadelphia radio show that featured young black musicians, backed by all-star big bands led by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and other stars. The show was broadcast live on Sundays, when jazz bands were prevented by Pennsylvania law from playing in public. (Reflecting the de facto segregation in the music industry at the time, another Philadelphia radio show featured only young white musicians.)

Mr. Wilder attended Mastbaum Technical High School, which was known for its strong music program but, like most programs at the time, did not teach jazz. After graduation he joined Les Hite’s big band as the first trumpet in a section that also included Dizzy Gillespie.

He worked with Lionel Hampton before serving in the Marines for three years during World War II, and rejoined him in 1946 after his discharge. He went on to work with Gillespie and others before migrating first to Broadway and then to ABC in the 1950s.

Mr. Wilder lived in Manhattan. In addition to his daughter Elin, survivors include his wife, Solveig; two other daughters, Solveig Wilder and Inga-Kerstin Wilder; a son, Joseph Jr., from a previous marriage; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Wilder did eventually achieve his goal of performing in a classical ensemble. After returning to the Manhattan School of Music and belatedly earning a bachelor’s degree, he performed occasionally with the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s.

But he was content to be a sideman for most of his career. He released only a handful of albums as a leader, among them “Wilder ’n’ Wilder” (1956), “The Pretty Sound of Joe Wilder” (1959) and “Among Friends” (2003). A week at the Village Vanguard in 2006, timed to coincide with his 84th birthday, was his first New York engagement at the helm of his own group.

In 2008 Mr. Wilder was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest honor for a jazz musician.

Mr. Wilder was often called “the gentleman” by fellow musicians, who respected both his musicianship and his generous, self-effacing demeanor. “He was trustworthy and honorable, and he would never curse,” his fellow trumpeter Warren Vaché remembered. “I once offered to pay him to say ‘damn it,’ and he wouldn’t take the money.”

May 6, 2014

More on Hawaiian slack guitar

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

(I wrote this review of a Hawaiian slack guitar concert in 1999. One of the artists was Dennis Kamakahi. I am including Youtube clips of the other two musicians who performed with him.)

Hawaiian Slack Guitar

The cattle that the British made as a “gift” to the great King Kamehameha in 1795 became like all species imported into an alien ecosphere: a destructive nuisance. As they multiplied out of control, they began to destroy Hawaiian crops, including the precious taro fields.

In desperation, the Hawaiian monarch turned to the Mexican government forty years later for help on pest-control, since much of Mexico, including the territory that was eventually stolen by the US, was dedicated to cattle ranching. So the Mexicans sent “vaqueros”, their cowboys, to help out. The vaqueros taught the Hawaiians cattle-herding techniques, as well as an art that no price tag could be placed on: how to play a guitar.

The Hawaiian cowboys (‘paniolo’, possibly derived from “hispañola) adapted the instrument for their own requirements. They loosened or “slackened” the strings to create harmonies more in line with singing than piano keyboards, which were rare. Last night (Friday, 2/12/99) at Symphony Space, under the auspices of the World Music Institute, three “slack key” guitarists played to a sell-out crowd. George Kahumoku Jr., Cyril Pahinui and Rev. Dennis Kamakahi took turns performing, while accompanied by three hula dancers.

The program notes explain the evolution of the style:

“Slack key means that some of the strings are loosened from the standard tuning, with the thumb playing the bass while the other fingers play the melody and improvisation. Slack key guitarists play in a finger picked style, often with a steady rhythm to accompany hula dancing and singing, while tuning their guitars down or up to match the range of the singer. The tradition continues to grow and evolve, and today’s players in developing their individual style, draw from family techniques and tunings handed down through the generations.

“Like the chant and the hula, slack key guitar has become another way of telling the story of the Hawaiian people and passing the flame of Hawaiian culture from one generation to the next. Many people were introduced to this music by the late Gabby Pahinui [Cyril's father], the first recognized master of slack key guitar. Called the folk hero of the Hawaiian music world, he inspired a whole generation of musicians and listeners with his performances and recordings, which were the first slack key recordings to get widespread distribution.”

There is nothing flashy about the slack key style. The songs are played at medium tempo and are generally addressed to themes of love and nostalgia. The Hawaiian language is among the most beautiful on earth and blends organically with the sweet sounds of the guitar. The slack key guitarist tends to be a modern day version of a troubadour and will find inspiration everywhere, especially on the islands themselves. George Kahumoko Jr. related an anecdote about an inspiration for one of his songs.

He found himself driving down a road on the southern Kona slope of Hawaii’s Big Island, when he spotted eleven waterfalls on the side of a mountain. He stopped his car immediately in the middle of the road and stepped out to admire the sight. The next thing he knew a line of cars had stopped behind his and the drivers had joined him on the road. A song came out of this vision.

One of Hawaii’s greatest song writers was Queen Lili’uokalani, the last reigning monarch. She wrote a love song “Ke Anu Mai Nei,” that included the Spanish words “Esposa,” “Mia Amante,” and “Buenos Noches” in homage to the Spanish roots of the slack key style:

“The cold is wind borne (Eia ke ko mai nei e ke anu) Where the chill is swift and icy cold (Hu’ihu hau kololio) The sacred calm of fond remembrance (‘O ke ano kapu o ka Hali’a) The betrothed one of the lover. (Ka Marido Esposa a ka ipo)

“Return, return to the uplands (E ho’I, e ho’i i ka uka) O bird that dwells in the lofty realm (E ka manu noho i ka ‘iu) Be careful, be watchful (E ao, e ao mai’ oe la) The cold blows the wind (Ke ko mai nei e ke anu) My beloved of the peaceful night (Mia amante o ka po la’ila’i) Goodnight to you and I (Buenos noches kaua) My restless companion of the lofty realm (Ku’u hoa kuwili o ka ‘iu) The plains so calm in its solitude.” (‘O ke kula la’I ano mehameha)

The colonization of Hawaii raises all sorts of interesting questions about “civilization”. Were the British with their horned pests and their gunpowder more civilized than the Hawaiians they conquered? Consider the poem cited above in contrast to all the works of the cast of royal cretins in Great Britain. Who is civilized and who is savage? A look in the dead-eyed face of Prince Charles should answer that question without hesitation.

How do we measure civilization? Is it the sum total of all the inventions and all the money that is amassed? Or is it equivalent to the quality of peoples’ lives? It should be elementary that any society that allows a young unarmed African to be shot 19 times by its centurions is uncivilized. Civilization, above all, should aim for the elimination of organized violence.

Cyril Pahinui explains why slack key songs are generally about the love of people or nature. He says that the Hawaiians used to have constant warfare until the 13th century, when all the chiefs decided that it was irrational to fight. They concluded peace treaties which eliminated war and allowed all Hawaiians to enjoy the bounties of their island. This peace was destroyed when Captain Cook “discovered” the islands in 1778.

Cook, cut from the same mold as Columbus, couldn’t understand the islanders. He described a topsy-turvy world where “not only their plantations, which are spread over the country, but also their houses, their clothing were left unguarded without the slightest apprehension.” This led Samuel Kamakau to give the Hawaiian take on things: “You foreigners regard the winds, the rain, the land, and sea as things to make money with; but we look upon them as loving friends with whom we share the universe.”

The imperialists, first British and then American, both saw Hawaii in the same manner, as a way-station en route to holdings in East Asia. Noel J. Kent has described this precise role in his “Hawaii: Islands under the Influence” (MR Press, 1983):

“Cook’s voyage broke Hawaii’s millenium of isolation from the world beyond Polynesia: within a few years, a varied assortment of Westerners were touching at the Islands on their way across an increasingly traveled Pacific. Hawaii’s role in the late eighteenth-century trans-Pacific trade became that of a provisioning station for the handful of U.S. and English fur traders bound yearly for China. As one merchant wrote with gratitude, ‘What a happy discovery these islands. What would the American fur trade be without them to winter at and get every refreshment?’ The impact of this early European intrusion was unevenly felt. The foreigners introduced the previously unknown concept of trade for profit in their dealings with the fishermen and agriculturalists: island foodstuffs and primary products–pigs, fowls, fruits, vegetables, yams, firewood–were bartered for simple manufactured iron objects and tools. (In 1795, for example, the going price was 1 English musket for 9 large hogs, while a chisel fetched 6 pigs.) The women quickly learned that their favors would be readily rewarded with the bright calico cloth and trinkets that every sailor had crammed into his sea chest. Some basic cultural beliefs were shaken. And yet the subsistence economy remained viable, with most Hawaiians living much as had their pre-contact ancestors.

“As early as a decade after Cook’s landing, then, we can discern the pattern that was to last for the next two centuries: Hawaii as a resource base for the dominant economic-political interests in the Pacific, repeatedly shifting its economic role in reaction to much greater economic transformations originating in the world’s economic centers. Thus in the eighteenth century, Hawaiians began to become integrated (in a marginal yet significant manner) in the economic grid that led from the fur-trapping camps of the Pacific Northwest to the entrepots of South China. Provisioning was the first mode of integration into this global economy, and yet when expansion from the center decreed change–in this case, when food production on the Pacific Coast reached the point where it could adequately supply merchant vessels–the trade quickly expired. This pattern was to be repeated with other goods and services throughout the ensuing centuries.”

Young Hawaiians were affected by the world-wide radicalization of the 1960s and developed new forms of resistance to the neocolonial status quo. This has taken many different aspects, from radical environmentalism to sovereignty demands. On August 8, 1898 the Hawaiian islands were illegally annexed to the U.S. To protest the annexation, Hawaiian activists organized an Aloha march. They have defined their goals:

“This is called the Aloha March because if we aspire to save our people, our ‘aina (land), and our way of life, then whatever we do, we must do it with ‘aloha’. Even though our aloha was and continues to be taken advantage of and exploited, to be ‘Hawaiian’ is to ‘live with aloha.’ We go to Washington D.C. with truth, aloha and spirituality. We strive to carry ourselves with a gentle dignity and pride which Queen Lili’uokalani would have been proud to see following in her footsteps. We honor our first hosts, the First Nations of Moku Honu, the Great Turtle Island (the North American continent), both on the journey and in Washington, D.C. We encourage those who cannot go to D.C. to plan an event on their island to run in conjunction with the Aloha March, to highlight the same issues and to promote lokahi (unity) and solidarity among our people and those who support our cause for justice and a healthy Hawai’i Nei.”

 

Dennis Kamakahi, 61, Hawaiian Guitarist and Composer, Dies

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:56 pm

NY Times, May 6 2014

Dennis Kamakahi, 61, Hawaiian Guitarist and Composer, Dies

Photo

Dennis Kamakahi in 2006 at a Hawaiian cultural gathering.

Credit Ronen Zilberman/Associated Press

Dennis Kamakahi, a prolific Hawaiian songwriter, an influential slack-key guitarist and a central figure in the 1970s cultural movement known as the Hawaiian renaissance, died on April 28 in Honolulu. He was 61.

The cause was lung cancer, his wife, Robin, said.

With his music, Mr. Kamakahi (pronounced KAH-mah-KAH-hee) formed a bridge between ancient and modern cultures. He paid frequent tribute to previous generations of Hawaiian songwriters, and his own songs have strong echoes of the cadence and narrative of traditional hula chants, along with pop harmony and inflection.

Of the roughly 500 songs that he composed, many have become beloved Hawaiian standards, including “Wahine ‘Ilikea,” “Pua Hone” and “Koke‘e.”

Mr. Kamakahi was a virtuoso of the ki ho‘alu guitar tradition, with its distinctive fingerpicking and open-tuning patterns. Now popularly known as slack-key, the style was developed in the 19th century by native Hawaiians on guitars left by Mexican vaqueros.

Mr. Kamakahi was one of the style’s popular ambassadors, often touring the world with just his guitar and his songs, delivered in a warm, avuncular baritone that occasionally shifted into a buttery falsetto.

Each of his three Grammy Awards, in the since-discontinued Hawaiian music category, was for his part in a slack-key compilation album. With his son David, a singer and ukulele player, he also appeared on the soundtrack of the Alexander Payne film “The Descendants,” which starred George Clooney.

In 2009 Mr. Kamakahi won a lifetime achievement honor from the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts. Last year the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History added one of his guitars to its collection, along with an array of albums, photographs and sheet music.

Dennis David Kahekilimamaoikalanikeha Kamakahi was born on March 31, 1953, in Honolulu. (His Hawaiian middle name means “the distant thunder in the highest heavens.”) His paternal grandfather played guitar in the slack-key style, as did his father, Kenneth Franklyn Kamakahi, a first-chair trombonist in the Royal Hawaiian Band. Mr. Kamakahi began with the ukulele, at 3, switched to guitar at 10 and added trombone in middle school.

As a freshman at Kamehameha Schools, he formed a group called Na Paniolo with two classmates: Aaron Mahi, who later became a conductor of the Honolulu Symphony, and Kalena Silva, now an ethnomusicologist and professor of Hawaiian language. This was near the beginning of the Hawaiian renaissance, a grass-roots reclamation of native culture and language, which were seen as gravely endangered.

At 19 Mr. Kamakahi was invited by the ukulele player Eddie Kamae to join the Sons of Hawai‘i, the musical group most indelibly associated with the Hawaiian renaissance, filling the spot vacated by the slack-key master Gabby Pahinui. Thrust into the spotlight, Mr. Kamakahi thrived not only as a guitarist and singer but also as a budding songwriter.

Dedicating himself to writing primarily in the Hawaiian language, he apprenticed with one of its chief scholars, Mary Kawena Pukui. “What she explained to me was, write about your time,” he said in 2009. “There’s a lot of songwriters, they don’t write about what’s happening today.”

Mr. Kamakahi composed some songs of historical scope, but he mainly wrote from his own experience, in lyrics rich with metaphor. Though unmistakably Hawaiian in character, his songs were often infused with elements of the blues or of folk music. He said that when he wrote “Pua Hone” (“Honey Flower”), a love song for his wife, he imagined the keening trill of bagpipes.

In addition to his wife and his son David, he is survived by his mother, the former Clara Aweau Ing; another son, James; a daughter, Marlene Kamakahi; a brother, Jeffrey; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Kamakahi was an ordained Episcopal minister, and though he didn’t formally serve a congregation, he often wore clerical vestments. But he was committed mainly to the legacy of Hawaiian culture, taking pains to differentiate its mission from some of the political activism that arose in its wake, including the state sovereignty movement.

In his opinion, “our music is our sovereignty,” he said in 2009. “Our music has always been here, our dance has always been here. But it just had to awaken.”

May 3, 2014

Juan Formell, 71, Cuban Dance-Band Leader, Dies

Filed under: cuba,music,obituary — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

NY Times, May 3 2014

Juan Formell, 71, Cuban Dance-Band Leader, Dies

Photo

Juan Formell accepting a lifetime achievement award in 2013. Credit Chris Pizzello/Associated Press
 Juan Formell, the Cuban composer, arranger and bass player who founded the group Los Van Van and made it into one of the world’s greatest dance bands, died on Thursday. He was 71 and lived in Havana.

Mr. Formell’s death was announced in the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma, but no cause of death was given. A report on Cuban state television said that Mr. Formell had died “suddenly” but provided no further details.

“With his death, Cuba loses one of its greatest and most prolific sons,” the official Cuban Institute of Music said in a statement. “The loss of Formell is without a doubt a hard blow to Cuban culture.”

From the time he formed Los Van Van almost 45 years ago, Mr. Formell’s intention was to expand the foundation of Afro-Cuban music by selectively incorporating rhythms and harmonies from rock ’n’ roll and jazz, an approach that proved immediately popular with Cuban audiences.

He called the resulting mix of styles “songo” and organized Los Van Van in similar hybrid fashion. The band’s original lineup included the violins and flute typical of traditional charanga bands and was heavy on percussion, but also featured Mr. Formell on electric bass and other musicians on electric guitar, electric keyboards and trap drums.

Last year, the Latin Recording Academy in Miami awarded Mr. Formell, who was a major influence on salsa performers like Ruben Blades and Gilberto Santa Rosa, a lifetime achievement Grammy for “artistic excellence.” In its official obituary, Granma described Mr. Formell as “one of the most important figures in Cuban musical culture in the 20th and 21st centuries” and praised him for “his special way of making us think and dance.”

Juan Climaco Formell Cortina was born in Havana on Aug. 2, 1942, into a family of musicians. His father, Francisco, was a pianist and flutist, and Juan began working professionally at the age of 15, playing acoustic bass in several well-known orchestras.

After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, Mr. Formell joined the band of the Revolutionary Police and also did radio and television work. By the late 1960s he had become musical director of Elio Revé’s orchestra, one of the most popular Cuban dance bands of its time.

He founded Los Van Van, whose name can be translated as the Go-Gos, late in 1969, taking much of the Revé group with him.

Throughout the 1970s, Mr. Formell honed his distinctive approach both in dazzling live performances and in a series of recordings that provided songs that have become standards of Cuban music, starting with the 1972 hit “Pero a Mi Manera.” By the 1980s, attentive to musical developments outside Cuba, he had also brought synthesizers and trombones into the band’s sound.

Los Van Van’s lyrics, some of which Mr. Formell had a hand in writing, were also innovative. Though careful to skirt overt political commentary, they cleverly commented on the way Cubans lived and the problems they faced, in slangy, salty, humorous language.

“I don’t like to get mixed up in anything political,” Mr. Formell explained in an interview last year. “I’d rather say it’s social, an example being songs like ‘Havana Can’t Take It Anymore’ and others. They’re stories that in the end have to be danceable and can’t be tedious, but of course the things that are happening in Cuba should be reflected in art.”

As Los Van Van’s records were gradually released in Latin America, Europe and Japan, the band’s reputation and audience outside Cuba grew, particularly in the mid-1980s with global hits like “La Sandunguera” and “Anda Ven y Muévete.” International tours helped burnish that image even further, with Mr. Formell leading exhilarating shows that typically lasted well into the night.

Because of political tensions, Mr. Formell and Los Van Van did not perform in the United States until 1997. A concert in Miami in 1999 was marred by protesters carrying placards calling the band members “agents of Castro,” but other American shows were widely praised, and in 1999 Los Van Van won a Grammy for “Llegó … Van Van.”

In recent years, Mr. Formell had largely ceded control of the orchestra’s live performances to his son Samuel. But he continued to supervise all aspects of its recordings, from song selection to arrangements, and at the time of his death was finishing a new CD, tentatively titled “La Fantasía,” due out this summer.

Survivors include his son Samuel and two daughters also involved with Los Van Van, Vanessa and Paloma. Further information on survivors was not immediately available. The Cuban news media said that Mr. Formell’s ashes would be on display to mourners at the National Theater in Havana and that a “Cantata for Formell” would be performed over the weekend.

“My life has been entirely dedicated to music,” Mr. Formell said in November when he accepted his lifetime achievement award at a ceremony in Las Vegas, “and only makes sense when people make it theirs and enjoy it.”

April 19, 2014

Cheo Feliciano, Debonair Salsa Singer, Dies at 78

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 10:20 pm

NY Times, April 2014

Cheo Feliciano, Debonair Salsa Singer, Dies at 78

Cheo Feliciano, a leading salsa singer renowned for both his love songs and his upbeat improvisations, died in an automobile accident on Thursday in San Juan, P.R. He was 78.

He was killed when the car in which he was driving alone ran into a light post, the police told The Associated Press. He was not wearing a seatbelt, they said.

A handsome and debonair baritone, Mr. Feliciano overcame drug addiction and became a celebrity in Puerto Rico and in the larger community of Latin music. He was equally impressive as a sonero — a singer who can improvise rhymes and melodies over Afro-Caribbean dance rhythms — and a romantic crooner, delivering suave, smoldering boleros.

During the 1970s he became a major star of salsa (the name was used by American marketers as a catchall for various Latin rhythms) when he recorded for the New York label Fania. His first solo album, “Cheo,” included songs that became his signatures: “Anacaona” and “Mi Triste Problema.”

“He was an icon, beloved by the females,” Joe Conzo Sr., a music historian and a longtime friend of Mr. Feliciano, said in an interview on Thursday. “His boleros, they had the women swooning.”

Mr. Feliciano spent several years in the late ’50s and early ’60s singing, in both Spanish and English, with the Joe Cuba Sextet, a popular ensemble that helped introduce Latin music to a mainstream American audience.  He also recorded with top Latin bandleaders including Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente, and he was a longtime member of the Fania All-Stars, the group organized by Fania Records that included virtually all the major figures of salsa’s ’70s heyday.

In 1973, Mr. Feliciano was with the Fania All-Stars when they performed at Yankee Stadium. A 1975 album of that concert, “Live at Yankee Stadium,” was inducted into the Library of Congress’s national registry of recordings that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically important.”

In 2008, at the Latin Grammy Awards, Mr. Feliciano was honored for lifetime achievement. The same year, he celebrated 50 years in music with a concert at Madison Square Garden, a performance reviewed by Jon Pareles, the chief pop music critic for The Times.

“Mr. Feliciano, who turns 73 on July 3, is still a formidable singer at any speed,” Mr. Pareles wrote. “His baritone voice sounds richly assured, even when he sings, as he often does, about the pains of love. Backed with the rumbas and guaguancós of salsa dura (hard salsa), he is a sonero who volleys percussive syllables and improvised rhymes over the beat. Easing the tempo back to bolero, he is an equally skillful romantic crooner steeped in Latin ballads, with a touch of Sinatra, who’s suave yet still rhythmically unpredictable. Guests joined Mr. Feliciano for duets, some improvising their own rhymes of praise for him. None outsang him.”

 Cheo Feliciano was born José Luis Feliciano Vega in Ponce, P.R., on July 3, 1935. His father was a carpenter, and the family was poor but musical. Young Cheo (a common nickname for José), who received some rudimentary musical education in a government-sponsored school, was initially a percussionist and established his first group before he was 10, calling it El Combo Las Latas — the Can Combo — because they made their instruments out of tin cans.

“Everything happening around us had to do in some way with music,” Mr. Feliciano said in an interview in 2000 with the website descarga.com. El Combo Las Latas, he added, “was all kids, but at that very early age we understood about percussion, melody and singing.”

When Cheo was a teenager his family moved to New York City, where he played congas and would sing when a group needed a vocalist. He met well-known musicians after he registered as a percussionist at the musician’s union, and he served as a band boy — a kind of errand boy and valet — to several of them, including the bandleader Tito Rodríguez, who gave young Cheo his first chance to perform in public.

Mr. Feliciano became addicted to heroin in the ’60s and by the end of the decade was forced to suspend his singing career. He returned to Puerto Rico, where he entered a program, known as Hogar CREA, to treat his drug dependency.

He spent three years in self-imposed retirement, and when he felt he was ready he initiated his comeback, signing with Fania. Over the next decades he made dozens of recordings, for Fania and other companies, and toured throughout Latin America and Europe.

Mr. Feliciano is survived by his wife, Socorro Prieto De Feliciano, known as Coco, whom he married on Oct. 5, 1957, the same day he made his debut with the Joe Cuba Sextet. The Associated Press reported that he is also survived by four sons.

In the 2000 interview, Mr. Feliciano remembered the youthful hubris that led him to take the stage as a singer for the first time. Someone, he said, had told Tito Rodríguez that a young man named Cheo could sing a little bit.

“Tito knew me as Cheo but he didn’t know they were talking about me,” Mr. Feliciano recalled. “ ‘What Cheo?’ ‘Cheo, Cheo, your valet, your band boy.’ He said, ‘Cheo, you sing?’ And I had the nerve to say, ‘I’m the world’s greatest singer.’ And he laughed. He said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to prove it now.’ ”

One night shortly thereafter, onstage with his big band at the Palladium in New York, Mr. Rodríguez introduced him to the crowd.

“He gave me the maracas and said: ‘Sing. Show me you’re the greatest,’ ” Mr. Feliciano said. “And I sang.”

April 13, 2014

Fred Ho, Saxophonist, Composer and Radical Activist, Dies at 56

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 2:35 pm

NY Times, April 13 2004

Fred Ho, Saxophonist, Composer and Radical Activist, Dies at 56

Fred Ho, a composer, saxophonist, writer and radical activist who wrote politically charged operas, suites, oratorios and ballets that mixed jazz with popular and traditional elements of what he called Afro-Asian culture, died on Saturday at his home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He was 56.

The cause was complications of colorectal cancer, his student and friend Benjamin Barson said. In books, essays, speeches and interviews, Mr. Ho said he had been at war with the disease, his preferred metaphor, since 2006.

Mr. Ho, who was of Chinese descent, called himself a “popular avant-gardist.” He was inspired by the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and by the ambitious, powerful music of African-American bandleaders, including Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Sun Ra and especially Charles Mingus. But he rejected the word jazz, which he considered a pejorative term imposed by Europeans.

Self-reliance was a priority for Mr. Ho. He rarely played in anyone else’s band. Among the exceptions were stints with the arranger Gil Evans and the saxophonists Archie Shepp and Julius Hemphill. Describing himself as a “revolutionary matriarchal socialist and aspiring Luddite,” he never owned a car and made many of his own clothes from kimono fabric.

Despite his determination to stand outside the mainstream, he found support from grant-giving organizations, academic music departments, which hired him as artist in residence, and nonprofit arts institutions, including, in New York City, the Public Theater, the Kitchen and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Born Fred Wei-han Houn on Aug. 10, 1957, in Palo Alto, Calif. — he changed his surname in 1988 — he moved with his family when he was 6 to Amherst, Mass., where his father taught political science at the University of Massachusetts. He felt a powerful attraction to the art and rhetoric of black culture. As a teenager, he audited college classes taught by Mr. Shepp, the drummer Max Roach and the poet Sonia Sanchez, who were all putting progressive politics in their art. He never formally studied music, but began teaching himself baritone saxophone when he was 14.

In interviews, Mr. Ho recalled that his father physically abused his mother. “One of my first insurrections,” he told Harvard Magazine, “was to defend my mother against his physical beatings and give him two black eyes.”

He joined the Marines in 1973 and learned hand-to-hand combat before being discharged in 1975 because, he said, he had fought with an officer who had used a racial slur. In his 20s, Mr. Ho briefly joined the Nation of Islam and then the I Wor Kuen, a radical Asian-American group inspired by the Black Panthers. Like his two younger sisters, Florence Houn and Flora Houn Hoffman, he attended Harvard University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1979.

His sisters and his mother, Frances Lu Houn, survive him.

Mr. Ho moved to New York in the early 1980s to pursue a career as a musician. He formed the Afro Asian Music Ensemble and became associated with other Asian-American musicians working on a newly emergent hybrid conception of jazz. They included the pianist Jon Jang and the saxophonist Francis Wong. His first records, “Tomorrow Is Now!” and “We Refuse to Be Used and Abused,” were released by the Italian jazz label Soul Note.

In 1989, Mr. Ho had his first work performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the bilingual opera “A Chinaman’s Chance.” He then created two ballet operas based on the Chinese novel “Monkey,” by Wu Ch’eng-en, “Journey to the West” (1990) and “Journey Beyond the West: The New Adventures of Monkey.” Both used Mandarin Chinese in their librettos, and both reimagined Monkey, a trickster figure, as a political agitator, upsetting the power structures of the gods. Mr. Ho called them “living comic books.”

Other ambitious works, many of which were recorded, were on the subjects of Chinese folklore, physical combat, domestic abuse, the black power movement and revolutionary feminism — and sometimes all of those subjects together, as in the opera “Warrior Sisters: The New Adventures of African and Asian Womyn Warriors” (1991), written with the librettist Ann T. Greene.

That work imagined a meeting of Fa Mu Lan, the Chinese fighter who was the subject of a sixth-century folk ballad; Yaa Asantewaa, who in 1900, in what is now Ghana, led the Ashanti rebellion against British colonialism; Sieh King King, a young Chinese-American woman who agitated for women’s rights in early-20th-century San Francisco; and Assata Shakur, the Black Liberation Army activist.

After learning in 2006 that he had colorectal cancer, Mr. Ho documented his fight against the illness in a book, “Diary of a Radical Cancer Warrior: Fighting Cancer and Capitalism at the Cellular Level,” followed by another, more prescriptive one, “Raw Extreme Manifesto: Change Your Body, Change Your Mind and Change the World by Spending Almost Nothing!” He wrote about his treatment in a blog, naming the doctors he mistrusted, thanking his friends and theorizing about his illness.

In “Future’s End,” a lecture from 2010 that he published at the site of the artists’ collective Commoning, he wrote that the cause of cancer is “capitalist industrialism” and “social toxicity,” and praised Luddism, his philosophical passion, as the only alternative: “The opposition to technology (any of it) that is harmful to people or to the planet.”

Even in his final years, as Mr. Ho underwent multiple operations, he was still working: on “Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon!,” a choreographed martial-arts opera based on the 1970s manga comics of Kazuo Koike, performed for two weeks at La MaMa in May and June 2013, and on “The Sweet Science Suite,” for a 20-piece band and dancers. Dedicated to Muhammad Ali, it had its stage premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October 2013.

April 9, 2014

Arthur Smith Dies at 93; Wrote ‘Dueling Banjos’

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 8:45 pm

It turns out that the “Dueling Banjos” composer was a gifted guitarist who influenced Les Paul. In the clip below you will see the obvious influence of Django Reinhardt.

NY Times, April 9 2014

Arthur Smith Dies at 93; Wrote ‘Dueling Banjos’

Arthur Smith, a country musician known for the hit “Guitar Boogie” and for “Feuding Banjos,” a bluegrass tune that became “Dueling Banjos” in the film “Deliverance,” died on Thursday at his home in Charlotte, N.C. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by his son Clay.

A nimble guitarist and banjo-player, Mr. Smith was a virtuoso with an approachable manner. Inspired by Broadway show tunes, the gospel tradition and jazz artists like Django Reinhardt as well as by country music, he became popular playing on Southern radio stations as a teenager.

“Guitar Boogie,” an instrumental with a deft solo released in the late 1940s, was his first major hit, recorded when he was 24 and serving in the Navy. The song, a precursor to the rock ’n’ roll of the coming decades, has been covered by musicians like Les Paul, Chuck Berry and Alvino Rey.

Mr. Smith recorded the call-and-response banjo song “Feuding Banjos” with Don Reno in 1955. Another version of it appeared as a deceptively amiable musical duel in “Deliverance,” the 1972 film starring Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds.

Mr. Smith was not credited as the writer and filed suit against Warner Brothers after a version of the song reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart in 1973. The studio offered a $15,000 settlement, Clay Smith said in an interview, but Mr. Smith wanted to go to trial. The judge ruled in his favor.

“He recouped all past royalties and all future royalties, and the credit was changed” to show he had written the song, Clay Smith said. He added that the song has since been used in many commercials advertising, among other things, the Mini Cooper and Mobil and Mitsubishi products.

Arthur Smith was born on April 1, 1921, in Clinton, S.C. His father, a mill worker, taught music and played in a band. Arthur grew up in Kershaw, S.C., and was playing cornet with his father’s band by the time he was 11. By 14 he had a radio show in Kershaw, and by 15 he had made his first record, for RCA Victor.

He turned down two college football scholarships and an appointment to the Naval Academy to focus on his radio work. He moved to Charlotte in the early 1940s to work for a CBS affiliate radio station, WBT, then performed with the Navy band during World War II.

From 1951 to 1982 he hosted “The Arthur Smith Show,” a syndicated television country variety show that featured guests including Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. At its peak it was seen in 87 markets. He also wrote or collaborated on hundreds of songs, many recorded in his Charlotte studio, where James Brown recorded the 1965 funk hit “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”

Mr. Smith married Dorothy Byars in 1941. She and his son survive him, as does another son, Reggie; a daughter, Connie Brown; seven grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

More than a decade after “Guitar Boogie” was released, a nervous young guitarist bungled the solo during his first performance with a Liverpool group called the Quarry Men.

“When the moment came in the performance, I got sticky fingers,” Paul McCartney recalled in a documentary series whose title, “The Beatles Anthology,” bore the Quarry Men’s subsequent name.

He added, “That’s why George was brought in.”

 

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,769 other followers