Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 15, 2014

Nathan Weiss: in remembrance

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 3:54 pm

Scan 83

Nathan Weiss being sworn in as President of Kean College

One of the reasons I have few regrets about Joyce Brabner torpedoing my memoir is that I am still free to dig into my memory bank without her permission. While this blog is mostly about film and Marxist theory, I will occasionally wax nostalgic, as I am about to do.

On May 27, 2013 I learned of the death of Nathan Weiss from Parkinsons at the age of 90 in my hometown newspaper; he was known to villagers as Nate. He was one of a group of remarkable high school teachers at Fallsburg Central who were mentioned in the acknowledgements of “The Cultural Front” by Yale professor Michael Denning, who was the son of a Latin and French teacher at my old high school:

My parents grew up during the depression and World War II, but I was not a red diaper baby. Like many Americans, I inherited the Popular Front’s laboring of American culture without knowing it; Cold War repression had left a cultural amnesia. It was not until I was working on this book that I learned in a historical study, that a neighbor during my childhood had been a veteran of the Lincoln Brigade. For my education in the Popular Front I am indebted to my high school history teachers, Sam Michelson and Jack Leshner, who, I now realize, continued the arguments between New York’s American Labor Party and Liberal Party into the 1960s; to the librarian at Sullivan County Community College, who assembled the collection of Folkways records I devoured; to Michael Harrington and the DSOC member, who told stories of Shachmanites and Cannonites late into the night at socialist youth conferences; to Stanley Aronowitz, whose stories began for me many years ago in St Cloud and whose influence on this book is much greater than the footnotes indicate: to Paul Joseph for many years of conversation about the left old and new and especially to Edwina Hammond Pomerance and the late Bill Pomerance for embodying the art thought and activism of the Popular Front.

I remember Jack Leshner fondly, who is still alive. He and Nate Weiss were called social studies teachers, which meant that they covered a mixture of history and politics. In the late 50s and early 60s this meant teaching us about the evils of Communism even though from the standpoint of post-New Deal liberalism of the Truman/Stevenson brand rather than Reagan-era neoconservatism.

Weiss was the most popular teacher. He gave lectures that held us captivated, punctuating them with strictures to “take that down, students”. This was usually interpreted as a warning that it would appear on a test at some point.

In 1961, I was a junior in high school all set to skip my senior year and go to Bard College. My mother judged correctly that another year of high school would probably land me in a mental hospital. If you go by George Lucas’s “American Graffiti”, a film that depicted high school existence in those years, you would think that it was the best of times. For me, it was the worst of times since I cared more about Jack Kerouac than Jack Kennedy. When I got to Bard, I met young bohemians who had been just as alienated as me, but who now felt liberated.

In a bid to preserve my sanity, my mother would drive me over to Nate Weiss’s home every few weeks where we would have “intellectual” conversations. I honestly can’t remember much of what we talked about, but I always felt elevated afterwards.

After completing his PhD Nate Weiss took a job at Kean College in New Jersey, where he eventually became president. In assembling some material on Nate for a blog post , I discovered that he wrote a short memoir titled “The Streets of Newark to the Halls of Academia” that was available from Amazon.com. It is the quintessential story of a man from my father’s generation, a child of the Great Depression and a WWII veteran who enjoyed success in the postwar years. The memoir will give you an idea of the sort of person who taught at Fallsburg Central and helped me retain my sanity in an insane time.

Nate grew up in Newark during the depths of the Depression, the son of Eastern European Jews. His father was a truck-driver and a member of the Teamsters Union. Early on Nate became a bookworm just like me (unlike me he went on to become a good athlete, excelling in football). In elementary school he became fascinated with American Indians, as would be the case for me but at a much later age.

He not only took books out of the local library on Indians but also sent letters out to the Department of the Interior requesting literature to the point where he exhausted their supply as they eventually informed him by letter. Apparently it became something of an obsession with him, cutting up a rug in his parents’ basement and turning it into a tepee. He caught hell for this.

Like so many other families, the Depression took its toll on the Weisses:

A few years later in the 1930’s, the country was knee deep in the Great Depression, and thriving cities ground to a halt. On a personal level, my family was not spared as my father was laid off from his trucking job. Throughout the city, the pressure for work was so intense and jobs were so scarce that any work—at any salary—was highly coveted. We literally lived on charity from the city along with the few dollars my father earned ($2 a day) at the Newark Farmer’s Market by unloading trucks.

As children, we were aware of our family’s plight and were deeply affected. An example was our dependency on the kindness of a grocer who allowed us “to live on the book.” It was my job to go down to the grocery store to get a bag of sugar or whatever was needed, and I hated doing this. While the grocer was a fine man, when he took out his book to write down my “purchase,” I was embarrassed and despised the circumstances we were in.

My father was out of work for two years. It was during this economic crisis, on one of my treks to downtown Newark that I observed the travails of other hard working men who were relegated to standing in lines for soup and bread. This was disheartening. Then one afternoon I came home from school to find my mother sitting on a crate and crying. We had fallen behind on our installment payments and the furniture was repossessed. This was devastating to our family, but we struggled on with my father picking up work at the Newark fruit and vegetable markets whenever he could. This was truly a tough time for all of us, and while the depression left its scars, it also bound us together as a family.

When he reached his teens, Nate became a football player and then after joining the army, a boxer. He was a barrel-chested 38-year-old when I was his student and not someone to be trifled with. I have a vivid memory of him breaking up a fight in the high school cafeteria between a shy but beefy “nerd” and the 6’4” center on the basketball team. The center sat at the jock’s table in the cafeteria and enjoyed baiting a kid with Downs Syndrome who bussed tables. After the nerd asked the jock to cut it out, words escalated to the point where they began duking it out. Nate separated the two with ease. I only wish that I had gotten his take on the fight since it epitomized for me at the age of 15 what it meant to stick up for the weak and the defenseless. In 1960 bullying was just as bad as it is today and anybody who took a stand against it was to be admired.

My guess is that Nate was just as disgusted as the nerd with the jocks but was not ready to intervene. But years earlier, as a trained boxer he was ready to assume a fighting stance on two occasions, once during basic training on his own behalf and once while stationed in the Philippines.

In Georgia:

During this assignment in Georgia, I experienced another run in with anti-Semitism. This event was triggered as I was leading our unit on a two-mile fitness jog. One of the disgruntled GIs muttered “god dam Jew bastard.” I overheard him and when the session ended, I confronted him and told him that I would meet him behind the gym after roll call. He never showed up; and after that, I never encountered anti-Semitism again in the squadron.

In the Philippines:

While I was recuperating, I heard an altercation taking place in close proximity to my tent. Even though I was weak, I got up to investigate, only to discover an old Filipino man being bullied by a hulking mechanic from our unit. I shouted that unless he let the little guy alone, I would “kick the shit” out of him. He mumbled something in defiance of me and retreated into the shadows. Eventually, my health was restored, and the only effect of this malady was that I would be unable to donate blood in the future.

After getting a BA on the GI Bill, Nate took a job at Fallsburg Central paying $2,500 per year. This will give you an idea of why he became everybody’s favorite teacher:

I was given a teaching schedule that included five classes of American History (8th grade), World History (10th grade), American History (11th grade), and Problems of American Democracy (12th grade). Teaching for me was an immense pleasure. I particularly enjoyed the use of theatrics as illustrations. For example, while teaching ancient history, I would take the window pole and jump on the desk and portray an Athenian hoplite (a heavily armed Greek foot soldier) at the Battle of Marathon. I doubt my students ever forgot the significance of this battle.

I was somewhat disappointed to learn that Nate butted heads with Louis Blumberg, the high school principal who worked closely with my mom on extricating me from high school hell and advising her that I was cut out for Bard College. Long after Blumberg retired, we would stay in touch by phone or by mail. He was a very smart and well-intentioned man but apparently being an administrator can lead to ethical challenges as Nate recounts. It should be understood that Fallsburg Central had a “tracking” system. The A group students went to private schools like Columbia University or Bard, while the B group went to NY state universities. If you were in the C group, you were destined for a job with the highway department or as a prison guard unless you were lucky enough to have a dad who would put you to work on his farm. Nate cared about all the groups. The Frank Kaplan alluded to below was a shop teacher and a really decent human being, who obviously had an interest in seeing shop students, mostly from the C group, succeeding:

At the end of a three-year probationary period, I received tenure. Shortly thereafter, I began to have difficulties with the principal of the Woodridge School, one of the two high schools in the Fallsburgh system. The principal, Louis Blumberg, and I clashed over a number of issues related to curriculum. One of them concerned the plight of the non-college-bound students. It was my contention that the Fallsburgh system focused all of its attention and resources on college bound students and as a consequence neglected the needs of the non-college-bound kids. This conflict led me to challenge the administration at the annual budget meeting, a factor which made me persona non grata to the administration and the board of education. As usual, my sympathy for the underdog and my propensity to fight for their rights guided my behavior. Eventually, at the behest of the principal, I was summoned to meet with the Board of Education, along with Frank Kaplan, a colleague who supported me. We learned through the grapevine that certain members of the board wanted to break our tenure and were ready to charge us with insubordination. Given this advance information, Frank and I contacted a lawyer who specialized in education law. He counseled us to focus on policy differences rather than personalities. The night of our appearance before the Board finally arrived. We were led into a room in which the members of the Board, flanked by the principal and a recorder, were seated. The principal alleged insubordination while we alleged policy differences. Our allegations were obviously heard and found credible, for the Board dismissed the charges of insubordination. The principal, however, never forgave us. Eventually, between the many disagreements and a vocal teaching staff, Mr. Blumberg resigned. I was then made curriculum coordinator and department chair.

There’s almost no information on how Nate Weiss conducted himself at Kean College. I imagine that he had to deal with the same conflicts of interest that any college president had to. The job almost necessarily involves attacks on the student body and faculty in the name of fiscal restraint. Since he became president emeritus long before the big assault on higher education began, he was fortunate enough to sleep soundly. May he rest in peace.

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


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.


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.


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.”

June 3, 2014

Long Live the Jewel Box Revue

Filed under: african-american,Gay,obituary,popular culture — louisproyect @ 3:43 pm

On Thursday the NY Times reported on the death of a legendary African-American lesbian and gay activist:

Storme DeLarverie, a singer, cross-dresser and bouncer who may or may not have thrown the first punch at the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, but who was indisputably one of the first and most assertive members of the modern gay rights movement, died on Saturday in Brooklyn. She was 93.

I encourage you to read the entire obituary but want to hone in on one paragraph:

There was a long period in Chicago, where, she told friends, she was a bodyguard for mobsters. From the mid-1950s through the 1960s Ms. DeLarverie was the M.C. of the Jewel Box Revue, billed as “an unusual variety show.” She dressed as a man; the rest of the cast members, all men, dressed as women. One of the show’s stars was Lynne Carter, a female impersonator who later performed at Carnegie Hall.

As it turns out, I had an encounter with one of the male cast members when I was about 10 years old. This is from the abortive memoir I did with Harvey Pekar (relax, Joyce, this is considered “fair use”):

Screen shot 2014-06-03 at 9.33.59 AM

The Kentucky Club was a hot spot in my little village that drew vacationers from all through the Borscht Belt. Buses used to drop off women from the local bungalow colonies and small hotels to take in what amounted to the original La Cage Aux Folles. They loved the Jewel Box Revue, especially the surprise ending when it was revealed that the male MC was actually a woman—Storme DeLarverie.

I refer to the dancer as Miss Vicky but in reality that was just a name I gave the man who was sitting next to my mother. In all likelihood it was probably Don Marshall, one of the few Black men performing in drag at the time (I couldn’t find his stage name).

Since I was only 10 years old when I met Don Marshall, I had no idea what being gay meant although I was quite puzzled to see a man wearing a dress. I barely could conceive of a man and woman having intercourse, let alone people of the same sex. A couple of years later I’d find a copy of “Marital Hygiene” in my parent’s dresser and things would become much clearer.

The best introduction to gay performers can be found at http://queermusicheritage.com/, with news, for example, on the bearded cross-dresser Conchita Wurst who won the Eurovision Song contest. For information on the Jewel Box Revue, go to http://queermusicheritage.com/fem-jewl.html.

On December 4, 2012, Wayne Anderson, a LGBT rights activist and gay veteran of the U.S. Army, wrote about the revue in the Huffington Post. The opening paragraphs:

In 1939, during a time when gay people were viewed as abhorrent subversives and a threat to society, two gay lovers, Danny Brown and Doc Benner, created and produced America’s first racially inclusive traveling revue of female impersonators. It was staffed almost entirely by gay men and one gay woman and was known as the Jewel Box Revue. In many ways it was America’s first gay community.

A recent and insightful paper (http://www.lvc.edu/vhr/2012/Articles/dauphin.pdf) by Mara Dauphin argues that the early drag/female impersonation revues of the 1940s and 1950s were “highly instrumental in creating queer communities and carving out queer niches of urban landscape in post-war America that would flourish into the sexual revolution of the sixties.” And though there were other popular female impersonation clubs, such the famous Finnochio’s in San Francisco and the infamous mafia-owned Club 82 of New York City, with the exception of the Jewel Box Revue, all the revues were operated and controlled by straight people, who were not always very gay-friendly (a notable exception being the Garden of Allah cabaret in Seattle, which featured the Jewel Box Revue as their opening-night act in 1946). Robin Raye, who performed in several early establishments, including Finocchio’s and the Jewel Box Revue, once said of Mrs. Finocchio, “I don’t think she liked gay people, but she certainly knew how to use them.”

In 1955 there were very few out of the closet gays and lesbians. However, there were very many ways in which homosexual identity was conveyed under the radar. I would strongly recommend Vito Russo’s “The Celluloid Closet” for more on this, which can be seen on a Netflix DVD or Amazon streaming.

But for me the closest anything came to an open portrayal to a mass audience at the time was professional wrestler Ricky Starr who wore ballet slippers and minced around the mat before, during and after bouts. He used to toss miniature ballet slippers to the audience as a ritual before each bout. Years later, after Stonewall, gay men would tend to eschew the queen identity but in 1955 it was safer since it was seen more as being a “sissy” then being a “pervert”.

Here’s Ricky versus Karl Von Hess, who some regarded as a Nazi-identified wrestler but who had much more to do with traditional Prussian values.

I recommend a look at Sharon Glazer’s “Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle” on Google/Books. This is a scholarly analysis of the sport that in my view was a lot more entertaining in the 1950s than it is today. Here she is on the classic Starr/Von Hess contest:

Starr’s performance especially his taunting of von Hess, is explicitly (homo)sexual. He wiggles his buttocks under the other wrestler’s nose while pretending to straighten his shoe, performs a series of pelvic thrusts, and hops on and off von Hess’s back, controlling his opponent with apparent ease and leading the commentator at one point to worry half-seriously about the network censors: “Mr. Starr is just loosening up. Nothing wrong with that. With he would loosen up out of camera, though. This is a family network, you know.” As Starr continues, the commentator informs us that Starr was taught his moves by an old (male) burlesque star who went by the name of “Toots” and that: “This program [is] sponsored by bumps and grinds incorporated.” Von Hess snarls and plays it as straight as a villain can under the circumstances. Clearly the loser in the fan sweepstakes as well as the match, he is finally defeated by Ricky Starr’s rapid and proficient series of drop kicks. In a coda to the match, von Hess gets into a slugfest with the referee, which ends when Starr intervenes on the ref’s behalf, taking a hit himself in the process.

Glazer’s scholarly treatment of professional wrestling is matched by Amber Clifford’s dissertation “Queering the Inferno: Space, Identity, and Kansas City’s Jazz Scene” that will be published soon as a book. You can look at it on Google/Books as well. Here is Amber on Storme DeLarverie:

A clear example of how this silence about sexuality is prevalent in the history of male impersonators lies in the story of Storme DeLerverie. DeLarverie worked as a female singer in night clubs before joining the Jewel Box Revue in 1955. The Jewel Box Revue was a female impersonation floor show and touring act. Founded originally in Miami in 1939, the Jewel Box relocated to New York in 1955, where the Jewel Box had its base ofoperations until it closed in 1973. DeLarverie was the only female in the show, and the only African-American member of the Jewel Box Revue. [I have contacted Ms. Clifford on my contact with Don Marshall.] She joined the show as a male impersonator and emcee and gave birth to the Revue’s tagline “25 men and a girl.” Photographs of DeLarverie from the Jewel Box Revue program show a slender African American who looks liken a young man in a slim cut suit and tie, cl close-cropped hair and an inscrutable look, holding a cigarette on a pinky-ringed left hand. The caption reads “Miss Storme Larverie The Lady Who Appears Be a Gentleman”. Throughout the program, photographs of female impersonators show them in both costume and masculine street-clothhig. No such juxtapositional photographs of Storm DeLarverie appear.

Research about Storme DeLarverie and her work with the Jewel Box illuminates several aspects of Jacobs’s biography. First, according to scholar Elizabeth Drorbaugh, DeLarverie avoided any gendered or sexualized labels. DeLarverie’s cross-dressing helped spatialize her as ‘family” in the world of gender impersonation, a position she did not wish to endanger by discussing her own desires shares commonalities with Jacobs, who entered her work as an impersonator after a stint as a singer. Jacobs, perhaps, felt included in the community at Dante’s [a Kansas City drag club], the world she “learned a lot from,” and did not want to endanger that world by revealing her own sexual desires, whatever they were. Another aspect of this question of identity is pivotal to understanding the subjectification of gender impersonators, we cannot forget that they were performers. According to Drorbaugh, performers of gender impersonation resisted being read as one gender or another, preferring ambiguity to identification.

One can certainly understand the need for ambiguity in 1955. The homophobia was so intense you could have cut it with a knife. Let me conclude with another snapshot from my youth:

Screen shot 2014-06-03 at 11.31.17 AMScreen shot 2014-06-03 at 11.31.30 AM


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


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 11, 2014

Thoughts on Nat Weinstein’s passing

Filed under: obituary,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:55 pm


The young Sylvia and Nat Weinstein

Two days ago the Marxism list learned of the death of Nat Weinstein at the age of 90 from Carol Seligman, who worked with Nat on the magazine Socialist Viewpoint:

Nat Weinstein died early this morning. He was my main teacher in the socialist movement–mainly because he understood to the marrow of his bones the class structure of society and the class struggle; and he taught this to me among many, many people. He came to the socialist movement as a worker (in the Merchant Marines) and stayed a worker for his whole life.

One of his great contributions to the socialist movement was his early appreciation of and association with, Malcolm X. That association brought Malcolm’s ideas and militancy (and the ideas of self-defense and rejection of the ruling class political parties) to perhaps hundred of thousands of people with the SWP’s publications of Malcolm’s speeches and interviews.

He lead the struggle in the SWP to stay true to the revolutionary program of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, and James P. Cannon–a struggle which was lost, but carried out in a principled way that helped to preserve the revolutionary program for future generations of workers who will take up this struggle. He was imbued with revolutionary optimism for his whole life.

In trying to piece together some biographical information on Nat, I couldn’t even find a photo. Much more was available on his late wife Sylvia who was a public figure as candidate and activist in the woman’s movement. Ten years ago someone from Nat’s small group asked me to review Sylvia’s collections of articles titled “Fightback”–I can’t even remember whom. Despite the fact that I was fairly hostile to James P. Cannon (mostly for his party-building ideas rather than his often very useful primers such as “Socialism on Trial”) and that Socialist Viewpoint remained committed to resuscitating the Cannonite project, they thought I would do a good job. I think I did.

If you take a look at “Fightback”, you can find bits and pieces about Nat such as this from page 10:

My husband was in the Merchant Marine. We got married when he was 20 and I was 18. In Elkton, Maryland, in 1944, in fact. We had to live with my mother, because we could not afford our own apartment. Like millions of other working class young people, we always leaped before we looked. Of course, I immediately got pregnant. But both me and my husband thought this was really great. My husband had become a socialist while sailing on a ship to Venezuela. It was a three month trip, and he was a captive audience to a Trotskyist shipmate. I still have the letters he wrote me—three v-mail letters which started off with, “At last I have found the truth.” I thought he had become a Jehovah Witness.

Searching through the archives of the Marxism list and the SWP list on Yahoo for other material on Nat that could be used for an obit (let’s hope that his comrades can pull something together) I discovered this February 2007 post from Nat on the Yahoo group that explains why there is so little:

Dear Mikey,

I really would love to write about my life in the SWP and how it changed me from someone who had been searching for something without knowing what it was. The fact that I found it is testified to by that letter I wrote Sylvia from Venezuela during the war after I was won to Trotskyism by a comrade whose name was Eddie Emery (Party name, Eddie Robinson.) that caused her to think I had become a Jehovah’s Witness or something like that.

There’s a very good reason why I have not, and I think you will agree that it is a very good reason. And that is the fact that I put in almost all my waking hours in helping put our little magazine together, witing letters like this, and trying my best to tell our readers what I have learned in my 38 years in the SWP thanks to the Socialist Workers Party and my 17 years in Socialist Action, the Socialist Workers Organization and Socialist Viewpoint that I, my dear old comrade and loving life-long companion Sylvia, my daughters and some of my best friends had joined-the Party of Cannon and all those wonderful old professional revolutionists and working class militants who were his comrades and close collaborators and who were damn good leaders and teachers in their own right.

I used to have a pretty good memory for ideas-I believe memory is like that, for my memory for generalized information was more or less average-but I can remember phrases spoken by old timers like Morris Stein, Farrell Dobbs, Tom Kerry, Joe Hansen and even Murray and Dave Weiss (who had cliquish tendencies and personal qualities that I found repellant but both these comrades were good teachers) and of course Jim Cannon.

If I find time, I might get around to at least write a little something on the insightful remarks that opened up a new way to think for me. I’ll give you just one. It was Morris Stein who had given a lecture at the Party’s Mountain Spring Camp on an aspect of Marxist philosophy (he was a working plumber, not a philosopher). To drive home his explanation of a complicated dialectical problem I can still remember him saying the words, “Šthere are two ends to inevitabilityŠ.” I don’t remember what he was explaining but I learned something very important and has served me well ever since; that there are, indeed, “two ends to inevitability” and that they are always opposites-like the famous dichotomy between Socialism and Barbarism!, which are the two ends of inevitability now faced by the human race.

Comradely, Nat

A while back I wrote about the passing of Stu Singer, an SWP member I also had little personal knowledge about. One of the benefits of posting about him was that it spurred others to chime in who knew him better. I hope that this might spark some reminiscences about Nat as well.

Even though I never knew much about his life, I do feel qualified to say something about a man who was part of a generation, namely those who came just a few years into the party leadership after the first generation: James P. Cannon, Farrell Dobbs, George Novack et al.

Born in 1924, Nat was a bit young to have taken part in the CIO organizing drives like Farrell Dobbs or Bert Cochran for that matter. But he was not too young to take part in another epochal event of the sad 20th century: WWII. Nat, like Dick Garza, Sol Dollinger, and Tom Leonard, served in the Merchant Marines. When I get around to putting up a video interview with Sol that I did with Nelson Blackstock, you’ll hear about Sol’s ship being torpedoed on the way to Murmansk. It’s a shame that there are no such oral histories of Nat, as far as I know.

Nat, Sol, Dick, and Tom all knew what it meant to be poor and to be forced to work in a factory as opposed to those of my generation who went into a factory to do missionary work.

With Nat’s passing, this marks the end of the “greatest generation” of American Trotskyism, namely those men and women who knew and worked closely with James P. Cannon. Although I disagree with how they went about achieving the goals that have eluded humanity since the mid-19th century, the goals themselves will never disappear. It is too bad that Nat’s generation will not live long enough to see the working class radicalization they yearned for but I am absolutely convinced that when I reach Nat’s age, it will be a palpable reality.

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

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


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


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.”

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