Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 17, 2014

Tomas Young, Army Veteran, Dies at 34; Critic of Iraq War in Film

Filed under: antiwar,Iraq,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:23 pm


Tomas Young, who was paralyzed in the Iraq War, with his wife, Claudia Cuellar, in March 2013. Credit: Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star, via Associated Press

Paralyzed from the chest down, the Iraq War veteran is seen in a 2007 documentary film taking dozens of pills for spasms, pain and depression. He speaks agonizingly about his sexual problems. Viewers watch him marry and, eight months later, divorce.

In the film, “Body of War,” Tomas Young is the body. Co-directed and underwritten by the television personality Phil Donahue, the film sought to show, through Mr. Young, the devastating human cost of a war that the filmmakers argued should have never been fought.

Mr. Young died at 34 on Nov. 10 at his home in Seattle. When asked the cause, his mother, Cathy Smith, said, “His body just wore out.”

“Body of War” received the National Board of Review award for best documentary. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave it strong consideration for an Oscar nomination. Reviews were mixed, but almost all said it was hard hitting. Mr. Young spoke of his ordeal on “60 Minutes,” “Nightline” and “Bill Moyers Journal.”

But the film, though applauded at film festivals, was not released theatrically; its producers could not find a distributor. (It can be found, however, on Internet streaming services.) In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Donahue suggested one possible reason distributors shied from it. “It’s not a take-your-girl-to-the-movies movie,” he said.

Another reason may have been its polemic tone. Images of Mr. Young’s agony are interspersed with shots of the congressional debate over the resolution giving President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq in March 2003. The film shows Mr. Young in the forefront of demonstrations against the war by veterans and lobbying members of Congress to stop it.

Six years after the film came out, Mr. Young drew news media coverage when he announced that pain and depression had pushed him to decide to commit suicide. He wrote an open letter to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on behalf of “the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.”

The movie had its roots in Mr. Donahue’s antiwar commentary on his MSNBC talk show in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. In February 2003, the channel canceled his show, citing low ratings, particularly compared with its direct competitor on Fox News, “The O’Reilly Factor,” whose host, Bill O’Reilly, was a strong supporter of the war.

The seeds of “Body of War” were planted in the spring of 2004 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where Mr. Young had been taken after sniper fire severed his spine on his fifth day in Iraq. By her account, Ms. Smith asked her son, who had long been interested in politics, inspired by her liberal views, if there was anybody he wanted to meet in Washington. “Ralph Nader,” he said.

She called Mr. Nader’s office, and he agreed to meet Mr. Young. He asked Mr. Donahue to accompany him. The two had met on Mr. Nader’s presidential campaign bus in 2000. Mr. Donahue said he was “blown away” by Mr. Young’s wounds and came to see the young man as a potential vehicle for showing the sacrifices the troops were making in Iraq, which he thought had been deliberately hidden from the public.

Mr. Donahue said he had considered writing a book but was persuaded that a movie would be better. He teamed with Ellen Spiro, an experienced filmmaker, who shared producing and directing duties with him. Another veteran of Mr. Nader’s presidential races, Eddie Vedder of the rock group Pearl Jam, volunteered to write and perform two songs for the film.

In the movie, Mr. Young recalls enthusiastically enlisting in the Army after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But he became disillusioned, he says, beginning when he was sent to Iraq rather than Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden had masterminded the attacks.

“If I had been shot and hurt in Afghanistan, I’d have been upset about what I have to go through, but there would be no ‘Body of War’ film,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 2008. “I’d take my government check and sit home. I would not have felt my wounds were received in an invalid war.”

Tomas Vincent Young was born in Boise, Idaho, on Nov. 30, 1979, and grew up in Kansas City, Mo. His mother and father, Thomas Young, divorced when he was a boy. Tomas enlisted in the Army at 17 but was discharged because of a shoulder problem. Returning to Kansas City, he took a succession of minimum-wage jobs. Then came Sept. 11.

“I called my recruiter after hearing Bush say he was going to smoke the evildoers out of their caves,” he told the Kansas newspaper The Topeka Capital-Journal in 2007. His shoulder passed muster in February 2002, and after basic training he landed at Fort Hood, Tex., as a private in the First Cavalry Division.

He was shot in Baghdad on April 4, 2004, while lying in an open truck as it rolled through the Sadr City neighborhood. He had emergency surgery in Germany before being flown to Walter Reed.

The documentary shows Mr. Young at one point saying goodbye to his younger brother, Nathan, as his brother deploys for the first of two combat tours in Iraq. It shows him marrying his high school sweetheart, Brie Townsend, who says she can handle the challenges they will face. And it shows them divorcing eight months later.

While Mr. Young was in a rehab center in Chicago, he met Claudia Cuellar, who had volunteered to visit hospitalized veterans to cheer them up. Though his condition had deteriorated, they wed on April 20, 2012. He decided against suicide.

The couple moved to Portland, Ore., because medical marijuana was available there. They then moved to Seattle, partly because Mr. Young had come to regard Mr. Vedder, who lives there, as a friend.

Besides his mother, Mr. Young is survived by his wife, his father and his brother Nathan; his sister, Lisa Harper; another brother, Tim Weaver; and two grandmothers.

November 1, 2014

M. Junaid Alam: presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

M. Junaid Alam

On April 26th of this year M. Junaid Alam informed his Facebook friends that he had just learned that he had stage four cancer. Two days ago I got email from Joshua Frank letting me know that Junaid had died. He was 31 years old.

Although I have not had much contact with Junaid in recent years, there was a time when I used to meet with him and his good friend Derek Seidman from time to time about a decade ago. Yesterday I spent about a half-hour talking with Derek, trying to pull together some personal information about Junaid that would be of interest to those who knew him. While Derek spent a lot more time with him than I ever did, our conversation did not reveal any telling anecdotes about his friend. As he put it, Junaid was not that interested in talking about himself, nor in small talk for that matter. His all-consuming focus was on global politics and his role in moving the struggle forward. Junaid lived to write and it is a terrible tragedy that this gifted—even prodigious—writer is no longer with us.

Junaid was the son of M. Shahid Alam, an economics professor at Northeastern University originally from Pakistan who was a contributor to CounterPunch, as was his son. He showed up on Marxmail on November 9th 2001 with this announcement:

Hello Comrades,

My name is M. Junaid Alam. I’m 18, college student in MA, USA. I work largely with the CMI [Ted Grant’s tendency post 1984] and am an ISO branch-committee member. Wanted to bring to your attention the PTUDC, www.ptudc.org.

Additionally, in the Boston area there’s a big anti-war conference this weekend, organized by the Northeast section of the 4 regional coalitions in the country. Nader will be speaking in conjunction with it.

Take care,


The next day he clarified his name:

For the record, I am “Mohammad Junaid Alam”; my CP articles [obviously a reference to CounterPunch rather than the CPUSA] appear under “M. Junaid Alam”. Gone by “Junaid” since birth, since everyone on my father’s side of the family has that first name, but since this is an e-mail discussion list I didn’t really care who calls me Mohammad and who calls me Junaid, or who calls me M., etc.

I am not sure to what extent his dad was an influence on him but in one of our meetings at my place he told me that he did not share his father’s Muslim faith. Later on Junaid moved toward a reconciliation with Islam, something I will get to in a bit.

Sometime in 2003 Derek and Junaid met with me in NY to exchange ideas about creating a website that could serve as a pole of attraction for young leftists trying to regroup the movement around a non-sectarian approach. By this point, Derek had quit Socialist Action just as Junaid had quit the ISO. They had been reading my critique of “Leninism” on Marxmail and had come to the conclusion that it made sense. To make sure there is no misunderstanding, none of the ideas I had been promoting were mine originally. They were all plagiarized from Peter Camejo. Frankly, if I had not read his “Against Sectarianism”  in 1983, I probably would have remained in a deep funk. The only value I added to his original analysis was looking into the whole question of “Zinovievism” and redeeming the American Socialist project of Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman.

Derek and Junaid decided to launch a zine called Left Hook. I would surmise that it was a nod in the pugilistic direction of CounterPunch. This is a screen shot of the first issue dated February 4th, 2004 courtesy of the indispensable Wayback Machine. Just look for issues between 2004 and 2006. Anything after that was junk that spammers posted after they hijacked the domain. The art work was all Junaid’s. He had artistic as well as political skills.

Screen shot 2014-11-02 at 3.53.05 PM

It had been a productive enterprise but was probably a bit ahead of its time. With the crisis of “Leninism” deepening, there have been relatively viable initiatives to create something in the spirit of Lefthook, mostly in Britain as a result of the crisis in the SWP. I suspect that even if the Leninist left in the USA never shoots itself in the foot as badly as the SWP leadership did, there will be a continuing discussion about how to move the left forward—spearheaded in part by ex-ISO members who left or were expelled over the past year or so.

After graduating Northeastern, Junaid came to New York where he began writing for a number of different outlets.

After getting married, he adopted a name that incorporated his mate’s: M. Junaid Levesque-Alam. His page at Alternet states: “M. Junaid Levesque-Alam, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, writes about Islam and America at his blog, Crossing the Crescent. He has been published in several outlets, including Altmuslim.com, Antiwar.com, Colorlines, and The Nation’s website.”

Like Lefthook, Crossing the Crescent is archived on the Wayback Machine. Anything after 2012 has been hijacked, just as was the case with Lefthook. I found it reassuring to see Junaid taking a nuanced approach to Libya in 2012. I regret that by this point we had not been in touch since I would have looked forward to seeing how someone focused on Muslim culture and politics was able to see the dialectical contradictions of an aspect of the Arab Spring that so many on the left disavowed.

The heart of this anti-interventionist argument—“you are a hypocrite”—is a moral one: but it is a heart that does not beat.

For while it is deplorable that policymakers apply their moral outrage selectively (in accordance with perceived national interests), that does not mean we should abandon the moral impulse altogether for the sake of consistency.

Consider, for instance, a scenario where ten innocent men are lined up to be shot. A bystander intervenes and saves the life of one or two men, but, for whatever selfish reason, leaves the rest to die. Now consider a parallel scenario, wherein the only difference is that the bystander does absolutely nothing and leaves all ten men to their demise.

Which is the better choice: consistency or hypocrisy?

Some arguments against intervention deserve serious consideration. The “hypocrisy” mantra, however, is not one of them.

One of the more intriguing items that is still extant was written for MRZine in 2009. Titled “Muslim in America: Identity and Isolation”, it likely reflected the sorts of issues explored in Crossing the Crescent. Since it is such a perfect jewel of an essay, I will reproduce it in full as the best way of remembering our comrade:

Muslim in America: Identity and Isolation

by M. Junaid Levesque-Alam

An early morning flight to D.C., day-long conference and empty cityscape drained me of energy.

Exhausted, I stepped out of my nondescript hotel into the street and felt a heavy air pregnant with moisture. Heading down the sidewalk to find dinner, I came across the shadow of a man who had the unmistakable gait of a beggar.

The homeless in D.C. are different from the homeless back home in New York City, where amid a shifting and seamless mass of indifferent women and men they are frequently seated — if cold concrete can be called a seat — with despair dampening their eyes and quarters rattling in their cups. Here, the homeless seem to move with the crowd but are not of the crowd. They zigzag aimlessly, hands often outstretched — and equally often, empty — amid professionals in pressed suits who stride by with confidence and turn at square angles.

Tonight, however, there were no crowds. As the man in the street stumbled toward me, he asked with some urgency whether I knew where the nearest mosque was. I hadn’t gone to a mosque in years aside from Eid functions, never mind one in the capital. I responded flatly: “No.”

But his question was actually an introduction. The man came closer and began to relate his story; gesticulating with a hand two fingers short, he claimed that he had a wife and child but lost his job, and asked me politely and pleadingly for any spare change I might have.

I paused for a moment, nodding my head understandingly but not reaching for my wallet. As I contemplated what to do, the sky cracked loudly with thunder and a rumble tore through the air as raindrops tapped the pavement, as if on cue in a cliché movie scene. I took this as a sign that I should help this man in some small way, so I unfolded my wallet and handed him a five-dollar bill.

In the Qur’an, after all, God constantly and insistently speaks to Muslims about His signs as expressed through nature; each “verse” in Islam’s holy book is called an ayah, or Arabic for “sign.”

“Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for those who are endowed with insight” (3:190).

Taking the bill from my hand, the man smiled at me broadly and thanked me profusely. He reached slowly for my face and, with a laugh, tugged gently at the end of my beard, saying, “I knew you were a Muslim because this” — meaning the beard — “is Sunnah,” or a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad.

I returned his smile — even a smile is charity, Muhammad had said, although I suspect the money might be more helpful — and laughed appreciatively. I said nothing else as he thanked me yet again and went on his way. I did not bother to tell the beggar that my beard, which was neither close-cropped nor particularly long, wasn’t an example of Sunnah but apathy: I had simply not bothered to shave it amid the stress of the past few days.

Jogging back to the hotel to wait out the rain, I felt refreshed. In truth, I didn’t know whether this man had a child, a wife, or a need to find a mosque, but none of this really concerned me. What I was reasonably certain of already assured me: He was a Muslim, he was in need, and I felt a higher power had prompted me to brush aside the curtains of irritability and exhaustion and crack open a small window of kindness.

Meeting the poor man in the street reminded me of my own poverty in Muslim companionship. I realized that this was the first time I had even met another Muslim spontaneously in a long while. I had spoken to Muslims for articles, columns, and interviews, but this random, fleeting incident was the first time I had approached — or been approached by — a complete stranger because of a shared Muslim identity.

Despite my conscious attempt to learn, read, and write about the history, politics, and ethos of Islam, my personal lived experience with Islam in America was, I realized, impoverished.

My own neighborhood is only a mile away from significant Pakistani and Arab populations, where I frequently see women in gowns and headscarves and men in shalwar-kameez and prayer caps. Yet I had almost never introduced myself to any Muslims.

I often walk by a mosque and think about entering. But then I think again: Will they understand me? Are they “old uncles” with no experience of growing up as a Muslim in America? What is expected of me by others? Are there FBI informants here, those a little too eager to befriend and quiz newcomers? This barrage of questions has served as a barrier between me and a fuller realization of Muslim identity.

Such isolation may seem odd in America. Freedom of religion is a guaranteed and enshrined right. But the law does not preclude the existence of a chilling effect. Indeed, the very presence of law forces discriminatory groups to seek avenues more inventive than outright, crude repression. Consider, for instance, the vilifying smears, lies, and stereotypes paraded before the public in the run-up to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A naive observer may assume that such propaganda produces an impact only upon those predisposed to prejudice, leaving everyone else magically untouched. A more judicious observer, however, understands that the rhetoric of demonization ricochets and resonates: it creates a clanging noise that rings loudly in the ears of the target, and it desensitizes others such that the loud shouts of hatred gradually fail to register as even a whisper worth notice. How else to explain the relative ease with which reality has been stood on its head the past few years?

A monumental upset of reason has allowed forces once — and still — deemed “extreme” and “crazy” to implement deadly agendas with scant and scattered opposition: an invasion spun as liberation in Iraq, ethnic cleansing and occupation defended as justifiable security measures in Israel, a program of perpetual war hailed as part of the presumed path to peace, among other absurdities.

A complementary cavalcade of jargon, doublespeak, and coded terminology still marches triumphantly out of pundits’ mouths and across the newspapers, trampling plain language and clear thinking, which are conspicuous only by their absence.

What prominent national figures have spoken out in the last nine years not in the name of rubberstamped strategies, buzzwords, or mantras, but in the name of ordinary Muslims — the supposed beneficiaries of this gigantic war effort? Our television screens splash our retinas with images of young American soldiers killed in combat, and now, Iranian protesters brandishing a slain woman’s picture. Where on these screens are the images and names of the tens of thousands of ordinary women and children slain by our own bombs and bullets in the Middle East?

It is in this searing political context that I consider myself connected to Islam. I feel an inseparable link to those abroad, whose names I do not even know, who have suffered the impact of modern weapons unleashed on ancient pretexts. I insist on this connection precisely because the full weight of national propaganda is aimed at erasing, ignoring, and discarding the memory of these victims, these invisibles.

The cost of this remembrance, however, is alienation from Muslims around me. Just as an Islamophobe’s mind may produce menacing images when he encounters a Muslim, I see Muslims through the lenses of war, occupation, invasion, and torture.

If I see a woman in a hijab, my mind races to a recent surreal murder or questions about whether it reflects, for this particular person, a conscious choice of modesty, the inertia of tradition, or the weight of oppression. If I see a man in chapals and shalwar-kameez, I immediately begin to speculate about his politics, what grievances occupy and animate his mind and his degree of reconciliation with modern life.

In this politicized projection, the actual human being at the other end of one’s tinted lenses never comes into focus. The Muslim greeting assalam-alaykum, “peace be upon you,” is shorn of meaning because peace is neither in me nor bestowed upon most Muslims in these times; a few have violently rejected the concept altogether and have instead embraced a mindless nihilism.

The inversion of rational thinking that lies behind this absence of peace leaves me drained, tired and deflated. And it will, I think, take more than a chance encounter in the streets and a clap in the clouds to change it.

September 19, 2014

Jackie Cain, of the Jazz Duo Jackie and Roy, Dies at 86

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:49 pm

Jackie Cain and Roy Kral in 1962. They met in 1947 and were musical and marital partners until his death in 2002. Credit: Bernard Hollywood

Jackie Cain, who teamed with her husband, Roy Kral, to form probably the most famous vocal duo in jazz history, melding popular tunes and sophisticated harmonies for more than half a century, died on Monday at her home in Montclair, N.J. She was 86.

Her death was reported by the music writer James Gavin, a friend, who said she had been in declining health since suffering a stroke four years ago.

Performing and recording as Jackie and Roy, Ms. Cain and Mr. Kral, who was also a gifted pianist, created polished interpretations of Broadway standards, jazz tunes and even Beatles songs. They sang in a sophisticated bebop style, enunciating the lyrics crisply and playfully and often forgoing lyrics altogether for energetic scat singing.

Mr. Kral died in 2002.

“Such is their affinity that when they sing harmonies, her airy high tones cushioned by his supple, swinging lows, their notes could be holding hands,” Jon Sall wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times in 1997.

Their voices had similar ranges but were separated by an octave, which made for unusual harmonies. Their easy banter, and Ms. Cain’s striking good looks and sunny personality, added to the appeal of their music, which was routinely praised by jazz critics.

Ms. Cain’s admirers included fellow singers like Billie Holiday, who once said of her to Metronome magazine, “She’s my girl.”

Jacqueline Ruth Cain was born in Milwaukee on May 22, 1928. Her father sold office furniture and managed a community theater. Her parents divorced when she was a child, after which her mother took a job with a photo-imaging company and moved with her to a rooming house.

They could not afford a phonograph, but Jackie loved to listen to music on the radio. She also loved to sing: She was in the chorus in elementary school and an a cappella choir in high school, and she sang with a band organized by a local music store and on a children’s radio show.

“If people wanted someone remembered on their birthday, they’d send cards in or call the station with requests: ‘Please have Little Miss Cain sing this or that,’ ” she said in a 2009 interview with the writer Marc Myers on his blog JazzWax.

Ms. Cain’s first full-time job in music was with Jay Burkhart’s band, which she joined when she was 17. In 1947, a band member, Bob Anderson, took her to a jazz club in Chicago, where Mr. Kral was the pianist with the quartet that was performing.

Mr. Anderson approached Mr. Kral at the bar and suggested that he let Ms. Cain sit in. He said no. In the JazzWax interview, Ms. Cain recalled that Mr. Kral explained why: “Because they never know what they want to sing, and when they tell you their key, it’s usually in the key of Z.”

But she and Mr. Kral talked some more, and it turned out that she knew a song he also knew, “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe.” He let her sing it, she said, and “the club went nuts.”

In an interview with The Sun-Times in 1997, Mr. Kral suggested that other factors besides music had influenced his decision. “She was a voluptuous blonde, right out of high school,” he said. “She was very convincing.”

Ms. Cain and Mr. Kral began to work as a duo in Chicago clubs. Their breakthrough came when the saxophonist Charlie Ventura hired them for his band. They worked for him for a year and a half and briefly again in 1953. In 1954, they hit the cabaret circuit on their own.

Their relationship was strictly professional, Ms. Cain told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1995, until one day “I leaned over and kissed him. A big, juicy wet one.”

They married in 1949. They had two daughters, Dana Kral, who survives her, and Niki Kral, who died in a car accident in 1973. Ms. Cain is also survived by two stepdaughters, Carol May and Tiffany Bolling-Casares.

The two went on to record nearly 40 albums for Columbia, Verve and other labels. They also sang jingles on television for Halo shampoo, Cheerios and Plymouth. Their repertoire contained more than 400 songs; among their staples were “Mountain Greenery,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” “You Inspire Me” and “It’s a Lovely Day Today.”

After Mr. Kral died, Ms. Cain occasionally performed as a solo singer. Her last performance was in 2007 at a concert celebrating the centennial of the birth of the composer Alec Wilder, a good friend.

In the mid-1950s, Jackie and Roy recorded a harrowingly poetic lament with music by Mr. Wilder and words by Ben Ross Berenberg, “The Winter of My Discontent.” Ms. Cain later remarked that the song (“Like a dream you came, and like a dream you went”) was beyond her life experience at that time.

After hearing her sing it in a nightclub, she recalled, Mr. Wilder asked her never to perform it in a club again. “That’s a song for your last day on earth,” he said.

September 9, 2014

Gerald Wilson dies at 96; multifaceted jazz musician

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:27 pm

Don Heckman, the author of the obit below, has had a distinguished career as a jazz musician and jazz historian and journalist. I organized a jazz festival at Bard College in 1965 that included the Don Heckman-Ed Summerlin band. I am glad to see that Don is still going strong.

Gerald Wilson dies at 96; multifaceted jazz musician

Obituary: Grammy-nominated jazz musician Gerald Wilson was 96
Gerald Wilson, who died Monday, shaped jazz with dynamic movements and the elegant grace of a modern dancer
‘I’m a musician, but first and foremost, a jazz musician,’ said trumpeter Gerald Wilson, who died Monday

Gerald Wilson, a bandleader, trumpeter, composer, arranger and educator whose multifaceted career reached from the swing era of the 1930s to the diverse jazz sounds of the 21st century, has died. He was 96.

Wilson, who had been in declining health, died Monday at his home in Los Angeles, two weeks after contracting pneumonia, said his son, jazz guitarist Anthony Wilson.

In a lifetime that spanned a substantial portion of the history of jazz, Wilson’s combination of articulate composition skills with a far-reaching creative vision carried him successfully through each of the music’s successive new evolutions.

He led his own Gerald Wilson Orchestras — initially for a few years in the mid-1940s, then intermittently in every succeeding decade — recording with stellar assemblages of players, continuing to perform live, well after big jazz bands had been largely eclipsed by small jazz groups and the ascendancy of rock music.

Seeing and hearing Wilson lead his ensembles — especially in his later years — was a memorable experience for jazz fans. Garbed in well tailored suits, his long white hair flowing, Wilson shaped the music with dynamic movements and the elegant grace of a modern dancer.

Asked about his unique style of conducting by Terry Gross on the NPR show “Fresh Air” in 2006, he replied: It’s “different from any style you’ve ever seen before. I move. I choreograph the music as I conduct. You see, I point it out, everything you’re to listen to.”

That approach to conducting, combined with the dynamic quality of his music, had a significant impact on the players in his ensembles.

Wilson’s mastery of the rich potential in big jazz band instrumentation was evident from the beginning. Although he was not pleased with his first arrangement — a version of the standard “Sometimes I’m Happy” written in 1939, when he was playing trumpet in the Jimmie Lunceford band — he was encouraged by Lunceford and his fellow players to write more. “Hi Spook,” his first original composition for big band, followed and was quickly added to the Lunceford repertoire. Soon after, Wilson wrote a brightly swinging number titled “Yard Dog Mazurka” — a popular piece that eventually became the inspiration for the Stan Kenton hit “Intermission Riff.” It was the beginning of an imaginative flow of music that would continue well into the 21st century.

“His pieces are all extended, with long solos and long backgrounds,” musician/jazz historian Loren Schoenberg told the New York Times in 1988. “They’re almost hypnotic. Most are seven to 10 minutes long. Only a master can keep the interest going that long, and he does.”

In addition to his compositions, Wilson was an arranger with the ability to craft songs to the styles of individual performers, as well as the musical characteristics of other orchestras. It was a skill that kept him busy during the periods when he was not concentrating on leading his own groups.

“I may have done more numbers and orchestrations than any other black jazz artist in the world,” he told the Los Angeles Sentinel. “I did 60-something for Ray Charles. I did his first and second country-western album. I wrote a lot of music for Count Basie, eight numbers for his first Carnegie Hall concert,” he said.

He also provided arrangements and compositions for such major jazz artists as Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson and others, as well as — from various genres — Bobby Darin, Harry Belafonte, B.B. King and Les McCann.

Wilson’s longstanding desire to compose for symphony orchestra came to fruition with “Debut: 5/21/72,” commissioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1972 by the Philharmonic’s musical director, Zubin Mehta. His “Theme for Monterey,” composed as a commission by the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1997, received two Grammy nominations. In 2009, on his 91st birthday, he conducted the premiere of his six-movement work, “Detroit Suite,” a tribute to the city in which his music career began, commissioned by the Detroit International Jazz Festival.

Gerald Stanley Wilson was born Sept. 4, 1918, in Shelby, Miss. He began to take piano lessons with his mother, a schoolteacher, when he was 6. After purchasing an instrument from the Sears Roebuck catalog for $9.95, he took up the trumpet at age 11. The absence of a high school for African Americans in segregated Shelby made it necessary for him to begin his secondary school studies in Memphis. But a trip with his mother to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 stimulated a desire to move north, and he was sent to live with friends in Detroit, where he attended and graduated from the highly regarded Cass Technical High School.

An adept trumpeter while still in his teens, Wilson played at Detroit’s Plantation Club before joining the Chic Carter Band touring band. In 1939 he replaced trumpeter-arranger Sy Oliver in the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra, then one of the nation’s most prominent swing bands.

Wilson served in the U.S. Navy at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center during World War II, then moved to Los Angeles, forming his own big band in 1944. Despite the band’s almost immediate success, with nearly 50 recorded pieces and a string of national bookings in its first years of existence, Wilson was not satisfied with his own personal level of craftsmanship. He disbanded the ensemble to spend a few years filling in what he believed were gaps in his music education. He also went on the road with the Count Basie Band and Dizzy Gillespie’s group.

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Wilson was an established participant in L.A.’s busy music scene, arranging, composing for jazz and pop singers, big bands, films and television, while continuing to be active with his own orchestra. Eager to pass on his knowledge and experience, he taught jazz courses at what is now Cal State Northridge, Cal State L.A. and UCLA, and had a radio program on KBCA-FM (105.1) from 1969 to 1976.

As he moved into his 60s, Wilson viewed the commercial activity of his earlier years as the foundation that allowed him to concentrate on his creative efforts.

He had worked hard, he told the Boston Globe, so that in his later years he would no longer “have to go hustling any jobs. I have written for the symphony. I have written for the movies, and I have written for television. I arrange anything. I wanted to do all these things. I’ve done that. Now I’m doing exactly what I want, musically, and I do it when I please. I’m a musician, but first and foremost, a jazz musician.”

Besides his wife and his son, Wilson is survived by daughters Jeri and Nancy Jo, and four grandchildren.


September 6, 2014

Joan Rivers

Filed under: comedy,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:57 pm

Like most people on the left, I found Joan Rivers’s comments about Gaza reprehensible just like Howard Stern’s. That being said, I admired Joan Rivers for most of her career and remain a fan of Howard Stern. Both are quintessentially Jewish comedians who, like me, thrive on self-deprecating humor—the same kind found in Rodney Dangerfield and Woody Allen (at least when he was still funny.)

I first encountered Joan Rivers in the mid-60s when she was making appearances on the Tonight show and Ed Sullivan. As a standup, her act contained sharp observations about middle-class Jewish life as the Youtube clip above indicates. Her shtick was all about undermining Jewish-American Princess (JAP) values. In making jokes about the pressure on Jewish women to be married, she was actually helping to show the absurdity of middle-class values. It was not just pressure to get married; it was also the pressure that Jewish women came under to procreate. A large part of this had to do with propagating the Jewish tribe, a value that I came to reject after hooking up with the Trotskyist movement.

Rivers was not a topical comedian. That is why it was unfortunate that her remarks on Gaza were given such play. I have seen her perform on television dozens of times and she never had much to say about the heads of state, except for this sort of thing:

On Nancy Reagan’s hairdo: “Bulletproof. If they ever combed it, they’d find Jimmy Hoffa.”

On Queen Elizabeth II: “Gowns by Helen Keller.” “Nice looking. Not at all like her stamp. Wears her watch over the glove, though — tacky.”

The NY Times obit, from which the two quips above were found, also mentioned:

Even the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were not off limits. “A few days after 9/11,” Jonathan Van Meter recalled in a 2010 New York magazine article, “she called and asked me if I wanted to meet her for lunch at Windows on the Ground.”

Joan Rivers was no dummy. She graduated from Barnard College in 1954 with a degree in English. I don’t know if that was any kind of preparation for a career in comedy but her ability to wisecrack about anything and everything demonstrated fast-firing neurons.

The Times obit mentions that she was a member of the Second City troupe in Chicago in the early 60s. For those in the know, this was a breeding ground for some of America’s most accomplished comedians including Mike Nichols and Elaine May. To make it in Second City, you had to be really hip.

I lost track of Rivers over the years but more recently became a fan of her cable TV show “Fashion Police”. The show consisted of her and a panel making rude remarks about how celebrities were dressed. This is clip from that show and vintage Joan Rivers (“the first man ever to masturbate to a Madonna video just started collecting social security”).

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.”

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