Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 25, 2018

How can you not love Mark E. Smith?

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 10:07 pm

Mark E. Smith, 1957-2018

I just counted 16 CD’s of The Fall, more than any other group or single artist in my collection. Led by Mark E. Smith who died just yesterday, The Fall was not a group in the sense that the Beatles or the Rolling Stones were. If Smith died 30 years ago, The Fall would have died with him. With his mercurial temperament, Smith hired and fired musicians the way that George Steinbrenner hired and fired managers. Unlike Smith, Steinbrenner’s only gift was being born with a spoon in his mouth. Born to a humble working-class family, Smith never achieved the fame or fortune of a Bob Dylan but for my money he was a much better writer than Dylan and as deserving of the Nobel Prize in literature as W.B. Yeats or T.S. Eliot.

Unlike Dylan until he went “surreal”, Smith’s lyrics were not endowed with any particular message about saving the world. But unlike Dylan’s highly self-conscious surrealism, Smith’s lyrics were far more evocative since they employed plain language rather then linguistic tricks. For example, “I am Damo Suzuki” begins:

Generous of lyric, Jehovah’s Witness (2)
Stands in Cologne Marktplatz (3)
Drums come in
When the drums come in fast
Drums to shock, into brass evil  (4)
What have you got in that paper bag? (5)
Is it a dose of Vitamin C? (6)
Ain’t got no time for Western lesson (7)
I am Damo Suzuki
The park alight with acid rain
Give it to me, danke, every day (8)
Who is Mr. Herr Stockhausen? (9)
Introduce me
I’m Damo Suzuki
Soundtracks, Soundtracks (10)
Melched together, the lights
The lights above you

It should be emphasized that it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern the words in a Mark E. Smith performance since he deliberately slurred his words as if he had marbles in his mouth. In his earliest records, the words were crystal clear. Perhaps as a punk musician (he was inspired to start a band after seeing the Sex Pistols), this was the ultimate rejection of commercialism. But this didn’t matter if you saw his slurring in the same way you saw Dylan’s reedy, nasal twang. If you were looking for beautiful singing, you might as well listen to Gordon Lightfoot. What you got in Dylan was drama, after all.

Mark E. Smith was dramatic in his own way. The snarling, slurring, syncopated delivery—akin to Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme—was as much poetry as it was singing. It didn’t matter that much if some of the words got lost in the shuffle. What you gained was exposure to the ultimate outsider musician, as antithetical to the norms of polite society as Charles Bukowski. Like this:

A cottage industry grew up to decipher the lyrics of Mark E. Smith’s songs. The words above to “I am Damo Suzuki” were decoded on the The Annotated Fall website, whose unnamed owner offers these rather democratic recommendations:

This site is dedicated to annotating the lyrics of the Fall (the vast majority of which are written by Mark E. Smith) and corrections and suggestions are always very welcome. A quick word about interpretation: many of the Fall’s lyrics are resistant to a single reading, and none of the interpretations offered here are meant to be the final word or claim to be the only correct way to understand a lyric. I also encourage readers to freely use the comment section below each song to expound on the matter in any direction they choose, as well as to offer suggestions and corrections.

The annotations are a labor of love. As you can see from the footnotes to “Damo Suzuki”, this requires the same kind of research as interpreting T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”. For example the Annotated Fall explains in footnote two that Damo Suzuki, a singer with the German experimental rock group Can, became a Jehovah’s Witness. And so on. Frankly, this matters less to me than the sheer incongruity of starting a song with the words “Generous of lyric, Jehovah’s Witness”. When you’ve listened to Fleetwood Mac or Beatles songs for a decade or so, such a lyric is elevating—not that you can really make out the words. You only go to a website dedicated to deciphering Mark E. Smiths if you, like me, are dedicated to Mark E. Smith.

I never paid much attention to Smith’s biographical data but just might track down something that will flesh out the details in this must-read profile that appeared in the Independent in 2011:

The Fall were an unusual group from the start, in that they seemed to arrive fully formed: an aberrant powerhouse that, over the years, would prove to be, in John Peel’s words, “Always different, always the same.”

Peel once told me, talking about Smith, who was probably the DJ’s most consistently cherished protégé, how he found it odd to admire somebody’s work, “when you suspect you’d find some of their attitudes utterly unappealing”.

“It’s true,” says Smith, “that we didn’t meet often.”

“But you were a good left-wing boy when you started out, weren’t you?”

“Yes. SWP. Hard left.” He fell out with his local Labour group after they opposed military intervention in the Falklands.

“I’m much more left now, though. I think Stalin had the right idea. Take one out of five fucking newspaper editors, and MPs, and shoot them. Then they’d buck up.”

Smith bursts out laughing.

“Listen, you know I’m not really like that. Members of my family are social workers. They work hard. And now, after 13 years, they’re being sent for an interview to re-apply for their job, competing with some graduate from Wilmslow. A friend told me he met Cameron, who said he was at Live Aid. We have fucking Glastoheads running the country. People like Geldof, who is a dickhead. They’re not even as intelligent as him.”

How can you not love Mark E. Smith?

August 21, 2017

Mama Africa

Filed under: Africa,Film,music — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

If “Mama Africa”, the fine new documentary about Mariam Makeba, was nothing more than a compilation of her performances going back to the songs she sang in Lionel Rogosin’s groundbreaking anti-apartheid film “Come Back, Africa” in 1959, it would be well worth seeing. But it is more than that. It is a portrait of a leading Pan-African activist who deserves to be ranked alongside Paul Robeson as a tireless fighter for human rights for all people.

In a way, Rogosin’s film launched her career as a freedom fighter since everybody involved with it understood the risks they were taking. She only appeared briefly on stage, and sang two songs lasting four minutes but made such an impression on those who saw “Come Back, Africa” that she was invited to perform in London and New York, where she met and impressed Harry Belafonte who had by now established himself as an outspoken opponent of Jim Crow. He helped her get her first recordings made, “The Click Song” that was based on the highly percussive Xhosa language and “Pata Pata”, a dance tune she considered superficial.

One of the things that struck me about early her professional history is how much it overlapped with the folk music revival that to a large extent relied on great musicians like Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte who had been part of the Communist Party’s cultural milieu. Songs like “Wimowe” (The Lion Sleeps at Night) were often performed side-by-side with “This Land is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome”. By 1959, the battle against Jim Crow in the South and apartheid in South Africa were closely linked in the minds of young people like Joan Baez or Peter, Paul and Mary.

Mariam Makeba was not in South Africa when the Sharpesville Massacre occurred a year later. She was anxious to attend the funerals of two family members were victims of the racist cops but discovered that her passport had been revoked. Like Paul Robeson, she had become an unperson. Because of the massacre and the violation of her right to travel freely, Makeba became even more outspoken and dedicated to eliminating apartheid.

Indeed, the film is social history as well as a personal history of Marian Makeba. As the Civil Rights movement gave way to the Black Power Movement, Makeba’s path crossed that of Stokely Carmichael, the leader of SNCC who had coined the term Black Power and become a leading Black nationalist and afterwards a Pan-Africanist who adopted the name Kwame Ture. After Carmichael and Makeba married in 1968, her songs took on a sharper political edge and were performed at rallies in the USA and Africa.

The film benefits from interviews with some of the key people who knew her as fellow musicians or activists. We hear from her bass player and drummer from the early 60s who offer thoughtful assessments of her as a person and a musician. She was beloved by everybody, especially for her readiness to prepare an elaborate meal on a moment’s notice. We also hear from her grandson Nelson Lumuba Lee who fleshes her out as a personality. He states that the accidental death of another grandson at a young age from accidentally swallowing some pills left her disconsolate and probably made performing and activism more difficult, especially as she grew older.

Makeba was able to return to a free South Africa in 1990 and became an enormous influence on younger female vocalists who pay tribute to her in the film. Indeed, it is hard to exaggerate the impact she had on African music and politics. It must be said, however, that Hugh Masekela, her most famous collaborator has a dim view of South Africa today, describing it as a neo-colonial state dominated from the West and the East.

“Mama Africa” was directed by Mika Kaurismäki, the older brother of Aki Kaurismäki—my favorite director. Mika directed a wonderful film titled “The Girl King” that I also recommend highly. It is the story of the lesbian Queen of Sweden who was tutored by Descartes—no that is not fiction! It can be seen for a mere $1.99 on Youtube.

Unfortunately, a disabled Macbook prevented me from posting this review until today but I urge my readers to try to attend a screening as indicated below:

Parkway Theater, Baltimore – 8/18 to 8/24

Austin Film Society – 9/23 & 9/30

Virginia Film Festival – 11/10 & 11/12

IFC, New York City –1/19/18 to 1/25/18

Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, Toronto – 2/27/18

I would also advise checking the distributor’s website to check about other screenings.

December 16, 2016

All That Hollywood Jazz

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,music — louisproyect @ 3:59 pm

All That Hollywood Jazz

Let me start with my own connections to jazz that run as deep as those to Marxism and film, the other two passions in a long and largely quixotic lifetime. In the summer of 1961, just before I headed off to Bard College for my freshman year, I sat at a table in a pizza parlor in the Catskills enjoying a pie with my buddies when someone put a dime in the juke box to play a tune that left me thunderstruck: Miles Davis playing “Summertime”. That it was on a juke box in 1961 should tell you something about the difference between now and then.

After finding out more about Miles Davis, I began taking jazz records out of the well-stocked Bard music library and became conversant in the music of the day, which was arguably jazz in its classic period with hard bop and the West Coast style prevailing but with the avant-garde making its first appearances. In my freshman year, I heard the Paul Bley quartet in concert featuring saxophone player Pharaoh Sanders whose “sheets of sound” paved the way for the New Thing a few years later. As New Thing icon Albert Ayler put it, “Trane was the Father, Pharaoh was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost”.

Read full article

May 22, 2016

A guide to classical music programming on the Internet

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

The Sonos Playbar: my salvation from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”

As probably many of you know, I am married to a professor who works in the CUNY system and like all those on the tenure-track is obligated to publish articles or—as they put it—perish. This means that when she is at work on an article in the living room, I cannot play CD’s or listen to the FM on my beloved high-end stereo.

A year or so ago we bought a 40 inch flat-screen Samsung TV for the bedroom that came at a very reasonable price from Best Buy since it was probably toward the end of its market life-cycle. Not long afterwards, I decided to get a Sonos Playbar that replaces the TV speakers with amplified speakers of a much better quality. It costs $700 and is worth every penny since not only is it great-sounding, it is also an Internet streaming device that allows you to listen to Spotify et al but also Radio by Tunein  that gives you access to FM stations all around the world as well as “cloud” based streaming services that are sometimes funded by advertising. Although the Sonos is no competition for my Dahlquist DQ-20 speakers in the living room, they are quite listenable and more importantly don’t interfere with my wife’s research. Needless to say, they will sound a lot better than any speaker that comes with your computer or even those that are sold as a substitute from companies like Logitech.

Before identifying my “bookmarked” Radio by Tunein sources, a few words about the question of classical music programming are in order. One of the reasons I looked forward to having access to Internet-based streaming was the utterly bankrupt nature of WQXR, NYC’s only station devoted to 24/7 classical music programming. I hated it when it was a commercial station laden with Volvo and Heineken ads, but I hated it just as much when it went “non-profit” after being sold to NPR. It has the same annoying commercials every 15 minutes but now they are called “underwriting” spots.

In a perceptive article for the NY Times (the station’s owner before it was bought by NPR) dated September 30, 2009, Daniel Wakin reported on the new WQXR. Right at the top of the article he warned listeners “Don’t expect to hear much vocal music.” Such music obviously is not geared to the sensibilities of what station management views as its ideal audience. Wakin continued:

Tradition, though, appears to top boat-rocking. A mission statement prepared by WQXR’s new programmers said, “There may indeed be times when the more radical and unfamiliar pieces work, but we will not favor them over the work that speaks directly to the needs of uplift, beauty and contemplation.”

“Greatness matters,” it added. “Bach trumps Telemann.”

Yeah, well, Bach might be greater than Telemann but if that means the 37th time in a given year there’s a Brandenburg concerto, I’d much rather hear some obscure and “minor” work by Telemann. When you repeat even the greatest composition ad infinitum, the effect is almost as grating as a Trivago commercial.

Wakin continued:

The mission statement proclaims a philosophy of “the right music at the right time.”

“Monday morning, when you’re trying to get your kids to school, you won’t hear the large choral works,” said Limor Tomer, the executive producer for music.

The programmers also provided a sample list of “core composers” and the works that would most likely play on the radio versus the Internet. They stressed that the list was but a guideline.

Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Wagner were there. So were Copland, Janacek, Gershwin, Satie, Sibelius and the ever-popular Vivaldi. Mahler was missing.

Schubert symphonies were deemed radio-worthy but not the piano trios or songs, which were reserved for Q2. Radio received Ravel orchestra music but not solo piano works; Sibelius’s symphonies but not his tone poems; Janacek chamber works but not operas; Brahms symphonies but not choral works; Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos but not the late piano sonatas, songs or chamber works.

Vivaldi had sweeping approval. Except for “shorter sacred works.”

Right, the “ever-popular” Vivaldi who had “sweeping approval”. Except for me who upon hearing “Four Seasons” feels like a prisoner in Abu Ghraib having Billy Joel blasted into his cell 24 hours a day.

Probably the best take on this kind of shitty programming can be found on Radio Survivor, the website of Matthew Lasar and two other editors who are committed to the idea of radio as a source of stimulating cultural material, both classical and popular:

I believe that contemporary classical music should be integrated into the larger classical music picture. Instead, most classical radio stations restrict themselves to a very limited and conservative version of the “common practice period” of classical music. You hear lots of Baroque (Bach), Classical (Mozart), and Romantic (Chopin) content on these stations, but not much else. Pre-Baroque content is filtered out because it is mostly vocal and most classical operations avoid music that foregrounds the human voice. Post-Romantic content is filtered for anything that smacks of twelve-tonalism, non-western scales, pop music hybridity, prepared instrumentation, and, of course, the human voice again.

The result is that your typical classical music radio station functions as a sort of a portable easy listening museum for the work cubicle. This is unfortunate and sad. Real classical music is the music of God, of history, of nations, of utopia, dystopia, empire, and revolution. It is a wonderful conversation about the past, present, and future of the human race full of tone poems, operas, sonatas, symphonies, song cycles, and solo performances. But for a long time San Francisco’s principal classical music station adopted the very odd motto “Everyone Remain Calm.” This has nothing to do with real classical music. Ludwig von Beethoven did not want everyone to remain calm. “Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman,” Beethoven famously declared.

I should add that WQXR does have a redeeming feature. It created an Internet-only auxiliary that is sort of its ghetto for interesting music. It is first rate and earns a spot on my recommended Internet sources. In fact, Lasar salutes it in the very article where he blasts WQXR for programming music for the work cubicle:

Hallowed New York City classical radio station WQXR’s “Q2” channel is now well over three years old. I am a big fan of the service. It is one of the few places in the classical music radiosphere in the United States where you can consistently listen to a high quality stream of contemporary classical music on a 24/7 basis. Let me dispense with my mixed feelings about classical radio in general before getting to the unqualified praise section of this post.

Q2 has a variety of program hosts, all of whom are passionate and expert about 20th and 21st century classical music. My favorite show is The Brothers Balliett, identical twin composers and performers who say that they “work tirelessly to one-up each other. This drive creates a self-fueling passion to write the best work, listen to the best music, and learn as much as possible.” I strongly recommend reading their “ten point manifesto,” which begins with “We are the Brothers Balliett” and ends with “We believe in the groove.” Then there is “Sample Rate,” which explores “adventurous sonic manipulations,” and “Hammered,” a show dedicated to keyboard music.

As these program descriptions suggest, Q2 plays avant-garde content, but not too much. Lots of wonderful tonal music pervades the stream. Right now the station is broadcasting its “new music countdown.” Q2 listeners were asked to send in their favorite compositions of the last 100 years. They were broadcast through the weekend and into this week. Here are the last ten compositions played (last time I checked):

Kaija Saariaho – L’amour de loin

Jean Sibelius – Symphony No. 7

Igor Stravinsky – L’histoire du Soldat

Edgard Varese – Poeme Electronique

John Adams – Short Ride in a Fast Machine

Edgard Varese – Ionisation

Caroline Shaw – Partita for 8 Solo Voices

Alban Berg – Lyric Suite

John Adams – The Chairman Dances

György Ligeti – Atmospheres

Béla Bartók – String Quartet No. 6

Any radio station that plays a Bartok string quartet deserves our unwavering support.

My recommendations come in two parts. The first are FM stations that before Radio by Tunein could only be heard on a conventional radio. This means that if you wanted to hear BBC Radio 3, you had to go over to London. I should add that I am not including it because in my view, it is not that much different from WQXR. While including much more vocal music, it has a tendency to keep selections to within 15 minutes or so. This means you will only hear an excerpt from a Handel opera rather than the whole thing. Finally, there are some conventional stations like WQXR that offer a streaming service as mentioned in the article above. This means that they can be heard on the Internet but not on a radio. As a bonus, these auxiliary services tend to use HD audio, which sound really good over something like the Sonos. They will be indicated below in italics.

The second part are “cloud” stations, which means that they are fairly automated without any on-air hosts. So you don’t get anybody putting the work into context but at the same time benefit from the absence of the sort of banal chatter that plagues WQXR and—to be honest—BBC Radio 3 as well.

FM Stations:

  1. WHRB: Harvard University’s station. It has jazz programming but the classical programming is dominant. Very original and often very challenging music as you might expect from a prestigious Ivy League school.
  2. WWFM: This is owned and operated by Mercer County Community College in New Jersey and features a lot of syndicated programming but of a very high quality, including for example Bill McGlaughlin, whose shows originate on Chicago’s WFMT. WFMT is much more famous than WWFM but I prefer this rather obscure but essential station near Princeton, NJ.
  3. KQAC: This is a nonprofit station in Portland that thankfully is not affiliated with NPR, which tends to the overly familiar despite its nominally nonprofit status. To give you an idea of the sort of thing you might hear, they are playing a Mozart symphony this afternoon but it is number 4 rather than the overexposed number 40.
  4. Toscana Classical Network FM 93.1: From Italy, of course. Can’t tell you much about the station except that the music is outstanding.
  5. WQXR-Q2: Described above.
  6. WTSU-HD2: This is the streaming service of Troy University in Georgia. This is a bare-bones operation that does not even offer a playlist on the website but the music is damned good.
  7. WGBH Early Music: WGBH is Boston’s classical music station and overrated like Chicago’s WFMT. Its main value is providing this streaming service that consists of an archive of live performances of early music originally heard on the station. Most of it is baroque and earlier but they do feature the occasional rarity from Schubert as I am listening to now.

Cloud-based programming:

  1. Ancient FM: Commercial-free programming of music from the renaissance and earlier. Just fabulous if your tastes like mine run toward Jannequin and Hildegarde of Bingen.
  2. Audiophile Baroque: Superb programming from Greece of all places, without any commercials. Considering the nation’s economic situation, this is a miracle.
  3. Twentysound: Devoted to 20th century music but with qualifications as the website puts it: “twentysound is an internet radio channel dedicated to classical music from the 20th and 21st century, focussing on those composers who have carefully developed the great traditions of the 18th and 19th century instead of following radical musical ideologies like twelve tone theory and serialism.” That’s okay with me since I prefer my Webern in very small doses.
  4. Venice Classical Music: From Italy, of course. Music spanning the ages with an emphasis on the unfamiliar, in particular Italian composers. Right now it is playing a Locatelli flute sonata. Yummy!

March 25, 2016

Re-imagining Miles Davis and Chet Baker

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 6:10 pm

Just by coincidence apparently, two narrative films open this week in theaters everywhere about Miles Davis and Chet Baker, trumpet players that were noted for their “cool” style and debilitating drug habits. They both can be described as attempts to “re-imagine” the musicians, a choice made by screenwriters and directors to avoid being confined by biopic conventions. Indeed, the term “biofic” might be coined to describe this genre since it blends fact and fiction, often at the expense of both art and the artist whose lives they seek to make more “dramatic”.

Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” is a total disaster. It is based on the premise that he bonded with a white Rolling Stone reporter who had come to his upper west side townhouse in the late 70s when the jazz legend had retired from the music scene and into a self-imposed cocaine haze. At first you are impressed with Cheadle’s ability to mimic his chronic hoarseness and glowering manner but it shortly becomes tiresome since it is a poor substitute for character development. There is a bit of mystery about why Davis stopped playing but it is obviously beyond the ability of Cheadle to offer some insights into why this happened.

It has been many years since I read Ian Carr’s “Miles Davis: the definitive biography” (a rather overweening title but accurate nonetheless). As I recall the section that dealt with his cocaine addiction and hermit-like existence on the upper west side is deeply compelling. Carr attributed the departure to a combination of sheer exhaustion from performing over a thirty-year period, physical ailments, and a paranoid tendency that made him want to avoid social contact. Once the cocaine habit kicked in, these tendencies were accentuated to the point of making it very difficult to break out of his shell.

Cheadle made an utterly inexplicable artistic decision to turn what could have been a powerful human drama into something resembling a Miami Vice episode. After Davis and the reporter (played by Ewan McGregor) show up at the head of Columbia records to wrangle over a tape that might serve as his return to recording and performing, it is purloined by a shady white executive and guarded by his gun-toting Black bodyguard. This leads to a series of confrontations involving car chases and gun battles that turn the jazz legend into a character out of a gangsta rap-inspired movie like “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”. In depicting the Rolling Stone reporter and Miles Davis as Black and white “buddies” taking on bad guys, it has the same kind of vibe as “Miami Vice”, “I Spy” or “48 Hours” but without the electricity. The film not only fails to deliver on Miles Davis the man but on the pop culture ambitions that Cheadle mistakenly took on.

In an interview with Rolling Stone (naturally), Cheadle explained what he was attempting:

Then, almost as an afterthought, I said, “I think we’ve got to make a movie about this dude as a gangster” — ’cause that’s how I feel about Miles Davis. He’s a G. All those apocryphal stories about how bold and dynamic he was, the gangster shit he’d do … you could fit all that into a biopic, I guess. But I just thought, let’s do a movie that Miles Davis would say, ‘I want to be the star of that movie. Not the one about me. The one where I’m the fucker running it, and I tell everybody what happens.’

I had high hopes for this film based on a snippet that appeared on YouTube early on. It showed Davis performing a number from “Porgy and Bess” backed by Gil Evans and a full orchestra, petty much a recreation of a YouTube video that depicted the original performance.

In my fondest imagination, I saw the next scene with Gil Evans and Miles Davis sitting over dinner discussing racism or their love lives. Foolish me.

While I can recommend Robert Budreau’s “Born to Be Blue” as a serviceable drama starring Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker, it too takes liberties with the musician’s life in order to frame the story around a familiar plot that ostensibly catered to the audience’s expectations, namely a troubled romance between the musician and a Black actress named Jane who is entirely made up.

Not only was she a fiction, she was also supposedly playing Baker’s first wife in a biopic film within the film—an African-American as well. In fact, none of Baker’s wives were Black and the only purpose in introducing such a character was to serve as a peg in the plot development. When Baker meets her parents, they look askance at the musician who—like Davis—is temporarily out of the business. Not only is a longtime junky, he is second-rate compared to Davis in the opinion of Jane’s dad.

In an earlier scene, when Baker meets Miles Davis at a club in Los Angeles in the early 50s when Baker was voted over Davis in a Downbeat poll as musician of the year, Davis contemptuously tells him that he was “the great white hope”.

Besides Chet Baker and Jane, the other major character is Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie), the founder of Pacific Jazz records, the label that marketed the so-called West Coast style and where Baker was once a major figure until heroin sank him into oblivion, deepened by a beating Baker suffered on the streets of New York that left him without his front teeth.

For most men in the music business, including club owners, agents and other musicians, Baker had become untouchable. In a poignant scene, Baker shows up at Bock’s elegant home in Los Angeles to plead for a second chance. After Bock turns him away, Baker picks up a potted plant with the intention (we assume) of tossing it at the front door. Catching him approaching the door, Bock intercedes and decides to give him a second chance. Like all other films about musicians with a drug habit redeeming themselves such as those about Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, “Born to Be Blue” moves along a fairly predictable but likeable story of overcoming the odds.

Unlike the Miles Davis story, I had little knowledge about Baker’s life except the bare essentials. To give me a perspective on “Born to Be Blue”, I saw the highly regarded 1988 Bruce Weber documentary “Let’s Get Lost” (99 cents on Amazon streaming).

Made a year before his death, the result of falling from a second story window in an Amsterdam hotel (an apparent suicide), Baker is the epitome of the ravages left by a lifetime of heroin addiction. With his scabrous features and half-closed eyes, speaking barely above a whisper, Baker appears more dead than alive. Weber obviously found this “late” Chet Baker as photogenic after a fashion, just as he and other photographers had found the young Baker an irresistible Adonis.

In the early 50s, Baker was a combination of James Dean and an idealized version of a jazz musician that many young people were attracted to like moths to a flame, especially the women that Baker collected, exploited and then abandoned like a used condom.

They are interviewed in the film and in many ways are far more interesting than Baker, including the singer Ruth Young who had Baker pegged as a loser even though she found him irresistible. She is funny, smart and articulate—full of life as opposed to the walking dead Chet Baker. Her appraisal of Baker is consistent with the one made in “Born to Be Blue” but if your only knowledge of the trumpeter is based on these two films made by obvious fans, you don’t know the half of it.

In a two-part article (part one, part two) on Chet Baker for CounterPunch based on a 440-page biography by James Gavin, Jeff St. Clair reveals someone much more like Mr. Hyde than the Dr. Jekyll of the two films.

Baker was a beater. He would berate and slap and punch his wives and girlfriends, often in public. His wife Carol was repeatedly seen sporting a pair of black eyes. He tried to strangle his longtime girlfriend Ruth Young with a telephone cord and later broke into her apartment, looted the place and sold her grand piano to pay for drugs.

There is only a fleeting reference to Baker’s violence in the documentary, and none in the biopic. The directors obviously preferred to create an image of a man more preyed upon than a predator. “Re-imagining” Chet Baker might be more accurately described as sanitizing him.

He had it in for gays as well as women:

In keeping with his other prejudices, Baker was something of a homophobe and his growing mystique in the gay community of LA and San Francisco unnerved him. He was determined to set the record straight. “There was a very mixed reaction when I started singing,” Baker said. “In the first place, a lot people thought – foolishly so – that because of the way I sang I, y’know, liked fellars or something. I can only say that that’s a lot of bullshit.”

Not only that, he seemed to be the sort of person who would vote for Donald Trump:

Years later Baker came to resent Davis and other black musicians. He deprecated Davis’ revolutionary second Quintet and his excursions into fusion. “They aren’t even songs,” Baker fumed. He couldn’t play the music and didn’t understand it. Chet was also an early proponent of the notion of reverse discrimination. He believed that music critics didn’t take white musicians seriously and that he was being denied gigs and record deals because he was white.

Superficially alike as practitioners of a post-bebop “cool” style in the mid-50s, there were major differences between Davis and Baker both in terms of conception and execution. This is dramatized in their respective performances of “My Funny Valentine”, a tune that both musicians were identified with.

Without going into too many details, Miles Davis’s performance has a burning intensity while Baker’s is merely “pretty” by comparison. Ultimately, Miles Davis’s jazz is rooted in the blues tradition and can even be seen as a variation on Louis Armstrong with its bent notes and highly developed syncopation. Despite the fact that he preferred ballads as did Baker, there was always a feeling that the the slow tempo was much more akin to lava flowing down the side of a volcano than Tin Pan Alley.

I remember the day I became a Miles Davis fan. It was the summer of 1961 and I was sitting in a pizza parlor on Friday night when someone played “Summertime” on the jukebox, a tune off of Miles Davis’s “Porgy and Bess” album. My jaw dropped. What was that?

During my four years at Bard College, nobody ever played Chet Baker records in the dorm. The West Coast style was not exactly calculated to win the allegiance of aspiring beatniks. Indeed, as one interviewee in the Weber documentary put it, Baker’s sound was as rooted in the Los Angeles zeitgeist as the Beach Boys. Sunshine, girls and convertibles. And, just as was the case with Brian Wilson, it had nothing to do with Baker’s dark soul.

After graduating Bard, I gravitated to the New Thing in jazz, an avant-garde movement that bypassed Miles Davis and eventually became closely associated with the Black nationalist movement especially through the efforts of Archie Shepp who in many ways was simply extending the vision of predecessors like Max Roach and Art Blakey Jr.

Later on, as the New Thing faded (as did the Black nationalist movement that inspired it), I began to give West Coast jazz a hearing. Although this style is obviously associated with white musicians like Baker, Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz, it is wrong to assume that there was some kind of Chinese Great Wall that separated them. Keep in mind that the great Art Pepper, who made an echt West Coast record titled “Art Pepper + Eleven” led by Marty Paich, a West Coast figure of some stature, he also recorded with Miles Davis’s rhythm section in 1957 (Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones). If you heard this record without knowing the principals, you’d likely assume that Pepper was Black.

Also keep in mind that Miles Davis and Gil Evans collaborated on the “Birth of the Cool” record made in 1950 but that was first released in 1957. Two of the lead soloists besides Davis were associated with the burgeoning West Coast style: Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan.

My idea of a jazz film, either narrative or documentary, would explore how styles came into existence. For me, the development of a record like “Birth of the Cool” was far more dramatic than Miles Davis’s cocaine habit. Indeed, the most interesting moment in the Weber documentary involves the origins of the Mulligan/Baker pianoless quartet. It turns out that the two musicians were booked at the Haig, a small LA club, in 1952. When they arrived, they discovered that the piano had been removed from the stage since vibraphonist Red Norvo’s trio (an amazing group with Charlie Mingus on bass and Tal Farlow on guitar) had no need of the grand piano that had been brought in for an earlier engagement by Errol Garner. Once it had been stowed away in the cellar, Mulligan and Baker decided not to bother with a pianist. The result was considered one of the great moments in jazz and an indication of what Baker could have become if he hadn’t gotten hooked on heroin.

March 22, 2016

We Like It Like That

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

Although I confess to not having been a fan of boogaloo, a hybrid of Latin and soul music that was popular in the late 60s, I absolutely adored “We Like It Like That”, a new documentary that is available now on ITunes and VOD.

Director Matthew Ramirez Warren, who has written for the NY Times and NBC, began work on the film in 2010. The six years he devoted to making “We Like It Like That” were well-spent since it is a tour de force of musicology and social history, topped off by captivating interviews with musicians who played in this style. A year after the project started, Warren gave an interview to Rubber City Review where he explained how he got turned on to the music:

Unfortunately, I missed the boogaloo craze by quite a few years, I am 29 years old. Though I was exposed to Latin music growing up, I didn’t really discover boogaloo till about 10 years ago when I started DJing and collecting records. I would find these boogaloo records in used record stores and flea markets and they just blew my mind because they were so New York. I wanted to know more about them.

Boogaloo is essentially a hybrid of Afro-Cuban and soul music that frequently used English instead of Spanish lyrics. The title of the film is an adaptation of one of the monster hits “I Like It Like That”, which was written for the Pete Rodriguez band in 1967. Rodriguez, along with Joe Bataan, Johnny Colon, and other practitioners of the style now mostly in their seventies, is interviewed about how he began performing in the style. In each interview, the musicians go into considerable detail about how the harmony and rhythm departed from Latin music tradition, as well as singing or playing instruments to illustrate their points. It is the Latin music equivalent to listening to a Leonard Bernstein lecture on Mozart.

In the mid-60s Puerto Rican youth had lost interest in the music their parents danced to. Instead of playing Tito Puente, Machito or Tito Rodriguez records, they were into Motown or rock and roll. This reminded me of the time when I was good friends of a young programmer who had come to the USA from Cuba with his father, who had been a sergeant in Batista’s army. When we used to have lunch together when we were consultants at Nynex in the 1980s, we agreed to disagree on politics. Years later when he switched his major from computer science to anthropology at CCNY, he changed his mind considerably about Cuba under the impact of professors who, as he put it, were saying the same things as me.

We also disagreed about music but not so intensely. He was a fan of Billy Joel, Michael Jackson and INXS, as were most of his friends in Washington Heights who were all Latinos like him. At the time I was passionate about Afro-Cuban music and had amassed a considerable collection of records on the Egrem label, a Cuban company that had somehow managed to find a distributor in Queens. When he came over to hang out, I began to play Celia Cruz, Benny Moré, Alfredo ‘Chocolate’ Armenteros for him. He became hooked and started buying Egrem records himself. One day he told me that when his father heard a Benny Moré being played on his stereo, he came in with a big smile on his face. That, he said, was the band that he and his wife used to dance to at outdoor concerts.

Afro-Cuban music has had an ability to influence other styles over the decades as well as to be influenced as well. Much of modern African popular music has been influenced by Afro-Cuban music, the result of sailors on cargo ships playing their records in cities like Brazzaville and Dakar when they were on shore leave. Meanwhile, jazz and other styles have influenced salsa. If you’ve ever heard Eddie Palmieri, you’ll be struck by his obvious debt to McCoy Tyner.

Boogaloo was above all the style that echoed the culture of East Harlem, a neighborhood just ten blocks north of me. As Johnny Colon and other boogaloo veterans stroll along its streets, they convey the spirit of the times when Puerto Rican youth embraced a type of music that their parents might have hated. As one musician puts it, that is the key to any music’s success among teens. If your parents hated it, you loved it whether it was Elvis Presley or Joe Cuba.

Boogaloo became so pervasive that more traditional musicians were compelled by the marketplace to make boogaloo records, including Eddie Palmieri, arguably the greatest Latin musician who ever lived, and Larry Harlow—a Jew who grew up adoring Afro-Cuban music, so much so that he lived in Cuba for two years studying under the masters. He, like Palmieri, did not care for the music, but despite that made records that some consider boogaloo masterpieces.

Toward the end of the film, we see Johnny Colon and Joe Bataan performing before adoring crowds in Central Park. Evidently, boogaloo is making a comeback largely as a result of young DJ’s playing classic records in trendy nightclubs. I doubt that I will be buying any of the new CD’s made by young musicians carrying on in this tradition but I totally recommend “We Like It Like That”, a film that celebrates the genre and gives it is proper due.

January 6, 2016

Thoughts triggered by the passing of Paul Bley

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

In 1961 I was a sixteen-year old freshman at Bard College with a real hunger to hear jazz. It was a new-found passion dating back to the summer when I heard Miles Davis’s performance of “Summertime” on a juke box in a pizza parlor in South Fallsburgh, New York. As soon as it came on, it was like being hit by lightning.

At Bard I was bowled over by the availability of jazz records in the college library. The late 50s and early 60s were the heyday of hard bop and I became a fan of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Charlie Mingus.

But it was also an opportunity to hear live jazz for the first time. That year Paul Bley came to Bard, a pianist that a friend described as a be-bopper influenced by Bud Powell. Smoking a joint beforehand, I strolled over to Tewksbury Hall and sat down for my first live jazz concert. Wow! I can’t remember who the bass player and the drummer were but I’ll never forget the saxophone player: Pharoah Sanders (this is not the same spelling as the Egyptian kings but it was the one that Sun Ra gave to his young sideman who was born Farrell Sanders.)

I had no idea that Bley was on the leading edge of the avant-garde that was just taking shape. I can’t remember much about the rhythm section but Sanders blew my fucking mind. Each solo started off with the standard chord progressions but somewhere near their apex, he began what can only be described as screaming through his horn. Whether it was the pot or the sheer power of Sanders’s solo, or a combination of the two, I was converted to a style of jazz that would become known as the New Thing a year or two later. Other musicians in this movement were the Ayler brothers, Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman.

It was no accident that in my freshman year I also heard LeRoi Jones, as he was known at the time, reading from his “The System of Dante’s Hell”. Like Pharoah Sanders, who would go on to make recordings like “Black Unity”, Jones was an early exponent of Black Nationalism. For me, the jazz avant-garde and Black Nationalism were my guideposts long before I got involved with the political avant-garde and perhaps made my transition a little easier.

You can hear Sanders playing with Paul Bley and Don Cherry, another New Thing proponent here:

This was the second time Bley had played at Bard. In 1959 he was part of a jazz festival organized by pianist Ran Blake who would go on to an outstanding career as an avant-garde jazz musician himself. I had some dealings with Blake in 1965 when I organized a gospel concert at Bard. Ran was pushing for the Sweet Daddy Grace band but the college chaplain put the nix on them performing in the school chapel since the last time they were there, they were too rowdy for his Episcopalian sensibility. Instead we booked Johnny Peoples and the Brooklyn Skyways who put on a memorable concert in the gym.

I have to admit that despite being smitten by the concert of Paul Bley’s band in 1961, I never collected his records. Indeed, I have been much more into his ex-wife Carla Bley’s recordings, especially those done in conjunction with bassist Charlie Haden who was a leftist like her.

But I do want to put in a good word for a record led by saxophone player Sonny Rollins made in 1963 titled “Sonny Meets Hawk” that included Bley on piano. Hawk, of course, is Coleman Hawkins. I consider it one of the 10 greatest jazz records of all time. It is distinguished by the affinity that Rollins, a modernist but not a New Thing musician, has with an ostensible swing relic Coleman Hawkins. In fact Hawkins was always eager to connect with younger modernist musicians going back to Charlie Parker who he played with in 1950:

In “Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation”, Eric Nisenson describes the great aplomb with which Hawkins met his younger cohorts:

The most amazing thing about this album is how unruffled Hawkins is by the often strange sounds being created by both Sonny and Paul Bley (the band was the same as at Newport. although Bob Cranshaw substituted for Henry Grimes at the second session). The first tune, on the album, “Yesterdays,” begins with Sonny’s unaccompanied introduction, during which he briefly alludes to the famous Bird blues “Now’s the Time.” As the tune goes into tempo, Hawkins states the theme, or rather implies the melody. His statement is typically dramatic and moving, never for a moment sounding anything but utterly modern and never sacrificing his inimitable musical persona. Sonny begins by emulating Hawkins’s brief trill at the end of his solo; Sonny makes it the core of his own improvised solo statement, using it as the basis of his solo just as he had in the past used melodic fragments for thematic development. The exploration of pure sound throughout this album prefigures the work of Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and, in the last couple of years of his life, John Coltrane.

And here’s the performance of “Yesterdays”. I would only add that Bley’s piano playing keeps everything sewn together like a golden thread. I find every note played by every musician completely haunting. In fact it is the spirit of the lyrics of the tune that dwells in this post:

Yesterdays, yesterdays
Days I knew as happy sweet
Sequestered days
Olden days, golden days
Days of mad romance and love

Then gay youth was mine, truth was mine
Joyous free in flame and life
Then sooth was mine
Sad am I, glad am I
For today I’m dreamin’ of yesterdays


Paul Bley on piano at a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert in 2000, accompanied by Charlie Haden on upright acoustic bass. Credit: Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos
Paul Bley, an obdurate and original pianist who began his career playing bebop and eventually became a major force in experimental jazz, died on Sunday at his home in Stuart, Fla. He was 83.

His record label, ECM, announced his death without giving a cause.

Mr. Bley’s style of playing was melodic, measured, bluesy, often polytonal and seemingly effortless. He took as long as he needed to finish a thought, and at the tempo he chose for it. He loved standards but distrusted the strictures of the 32-bar song form, and especially distrusted repetition. His notes could move slowly without telegraphing their destination, drawling down into nothing or cohering into bright, purposefully gapped lines, with backing chords that kept changing the tonal center.

Mr. Bley (pronounced “blay”) developed an influential language of phrasing and harmony — Keith Jarrett and Ethan Iverson were two of its many beneficiaries — but often talked about being eager to get outside his own habits. In the 1981 documentary “Imagine the Sound,” he professed not to practice or rehearse, out of what he called “a disdain for the known.” And he did not stake his work on traditional notions of acceptability, or the approval of the listener.


A 1965 publicity photo of Mr. Bley for ESP Records.

“I’ve spent many years learning how to play as slow as possible,” he told the Italian pianist and writer Arrigo Cappelletti in a typically provocative 2002 interview, “and then many more years learning how to play as fast as possible. I’ve spent many years trying how to play as good as possible. At the present I’m trying to spend as many years learning how to play as bad as possible.”

Hyman Paul Bley was born in Montreal on Nov. 10, 1932. His father, Joe, owned an embroidery factory; his mother, the former Betty Marcovitch, immigrated from Romania to Canada with her family when she was 9.

He started studying violin at 5 and piano at 8, and as a teenager began playing piano professionally as Buzzy Bley. In 1949, as a senior in high school, he briefly took over Oscar Peterson’s job at the Alberta Lounge in downtown Montreal.

Mr. Bley left for New York in 1950 to attend the Juilliard School. During his early years there, he played with the saxophonists Lester Young and Ben Webster, among others.

Keeping a hand in his hometown jazz scene, he helped organize the Jazz Workshop, a musician-run organization in Montreal that set up out-of-town soloists with local rhythm sections; in February 1953 he booked Charlie Parker for a concert and accompanied him. That concert was recorded, one of his first extant recordings before his first album as a leader, made nine months later with a trio that included Charles Mingus on bass and Art Blakey on drums. Through the mid-’50s, he was an adept bebop player with a spare style.

He met the pianist and composer Carla Bley, then known as Karen Borg, when she was working as a cigarette girl at the jazz nightclub Birdland; the two of them moved west, finally settling in Los Angeles, where in 1957 Mr. Bley secured a job leading a band at the Hillcrest Club six nights a week for nearly two years.

Toward the end of his time there, in 1958, he hired the saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the trumpeter Don Cherry for his band. He noticed that Coleman, in his compositions did not follow the standard 32-bar AABA song pattern, but rather what Mr. Bley called “A to Z form.” In his 1999 memoir, “Stopping Time,” he remembered that “it didn’t take more than a second to understand that this was the missing link between playing totally free, without any givens, and playing bebop with changes and steady time.”

Paul and Carla Bley were married in California in 1957, and during the following years he recorded a lot of her music: Her compositions make up most of Mr. Bley’s records “Footloose!” (1963) and “Closer” (1965), as he found his way toward his own kind of free jazz, intimate and almost folklike.

During that time, playing with the saxophonists Albert Ayler and Sonny Rollins, he defined as well as anyone the blurry line between the scratchiness of free improvisation and the virtuosity of the jazz tradition.

Paul and Carla Bley’s marriage ended in divorce. Another relationship, with the singer and composer Annette Peacock in the 1960s, resulted in more collaboration. Her compositions, which make up all of the trio record “Ballads” (1971) and some of the solo-piano record “Open, to Love” (1972), were important to his “slow as possible” period; using synthesizers, well before they became common in jazz, they performed together on record as the “Bley-Peacock Synthesizer Show.”

In 1973, with the video artist Carol Goss — whom he eventually married — Mr. Bley set up the multimedia company Improvising Artists, which released his music and others’. Ms. Goss survives him, as do his daughters, Vanessa Bley, Angelica Palmer and Solo Peacock, and two grandchildren.

Mr. Bley did much of his performing and recording from the ’80s onward in Europe, often with musicians he knew from earlier days — notably the bassist Charlie Haden, from Coleman’s group; the bassist Gary Peacock (former husband of Annette); and the saxophonist and clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, with whom he made two chamberlike trio albums in 1961.

Increasingly he made solo records, full of his onrushing, nonrepeating ideas — the best way for him to express what he described as a series of questions.

“My solo piano playing is a question in itself,” he told Mr. Cappelletti. “The question is ‘why?,’ and after ‘why?’ comes ‘what?,’ and after ‘what?’ comes ‘when?’ ”


June 26, 2015

Gunther Schuller Dies at 89; Composer Synthesized Classical and Jazz

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm

The NY Times obituary  for Gunther Schuller is must-reading for anybody interested in contemporary music. It pays tribute to him both as an avant-garde composer of atonal music but also as a pioneer of what was known as the “Third Stream” in the 1950s and 60s, an attempt to bridge the gap between classical music and jazz that was epitomized by the Modern Jazz Quartet. To some extent, Schuller was merely expanding upon earlier works of synthesis such as George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, Igor Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” that was written for Woody Herman, and Darius Milhaud’s “Creation of the World”, a ballet score that the composer wrote after being exposed to jazz in Harlem in the 1920s.

Although I have no deep insights about Schuller’s politics except that he hated racism, the MJQ saw the Third Stream as a way of breaking with the notion that jazz was “entertainment” served up for white audiences as some kind of “jungle music”. Ironically, Duke Ellington, one of the men most responsible for attempting to bridge the gap between classical and jazz, performed “jungle music” in the 1920s himself. Who said that popular culture and race were not complicated matters?

Schuller certainly was aware of the cognitive dissonances in his discussion of Paul Whiteman and Jimmy Lunceford, who was about as close to Duke Ellington in his mastery of the big band style even if he never reached Ellington’s prominence. To some, the aptly named Whiteman was the prototypical white appropriator of a Black style, in effect the Elvis Presley of his day who was the first to perform “Rhapsody in Blue”. In Schuller’s indispensable “The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945”, he ties the strands together in a brilliant synthesis:

Paul Whiteman in his biography Jazz writes of his father that he was “the best-balanced man” he ever knew—”He never had a drink until he was fifty-five and never smoked until he was sixty”—and he added that he was always “keen on athletics.” That happens to be also a perfect description of Lunceford.’ After taking a bachelor’s degree in music at Fisk University, followed by graduate work there and at New York’s City College (while working with the bands of Elmer Snowden and Wilbur Sweatman), Lunceford went to Memphis and taught music and athletics (sic) at Manassa High School. Here he met Wilcox and Smith, and when they went on to Fisk for further study, Lunceford followed them, and became an assistant professor of music at Fisk. By the time Wilcox and Smith graduated, the band, conceived back in Memphis, developed further at Fisk, and having added in the meantime two outstanding rhythm men—Moses Allen (bass) and Jimmy Crawford (drums)—had already acquired a considerable reputation throughout the South.

It is clear that Lunceford tried to emulate his teacher, Whiteman, Sr., in the same way that Wilcox and Smith at heart regarded Lunceford as their teacher and emulated his sense of discipline and exacting musicianship. Lunceford in fact was in some ways a black Paul Whiteman—down to leading his band with a long white baton.

But the similarities go further. Like the Whiteman orchestra, Lunceford’s band carried a whole retinue of arrangers; he insisted on painstaking rehearsing to achieve the highest possible technical and musical proficiency; he insisted further on playing a wide variety of that music most favored by audiences, developing among other things, like Whiteman, a superb dance orchestra. Lunceford also stressed in the band’s on-stage behavior—as John Lewis was to do with the Modern jazz Quartet twenty-five years later—that music was a profession to be respected and that, if musicians wanted to be considered respectable, they might begin by treating their music and their profession with respect. This was in startling contrast to the conduct ascribed to jazz musicians, then—and, alas, even now—as rather vulgar gin-guzzling inebriates, disreputable Don Juans, and worthless spendthrifts.

Lunceford would have none of that attitude in his band and cultivated a quite different image. As Wilcox said of Lunceford: “He didn’t like anything done sloppily, and that carried into his music.”

I am aware that for many jazz fans to link a musician to classical and “serious” training and, worse yet, to portray him as a disciple of Paul Whiteman amount to absolute anathema. But that is another myth that jazz in its maturity might finally dispense with. The notion that a black musician “tainted- by formal training of one kind or another is thereby inherently less of a jazz musician reveals a special inverse racism, as deplorable as its opposite. The theory of pedigree in jazz is simplistic at best. A man, a musician, is what he is; and what he produces as a musician is the sum total of all his talents. A musician’s antecedents and heritage neither guarantee nor preclude talent and quality, although they certainly may define and predetermine some of its characteristics. It is precisely those specific personal. intellectual, emotional, and psychological qualities in Lunceford’s makeup, influenced by his background and early training, that determined to a very large measure the quality of the Lunceford band’s music-making—its strengths as well as its weaknesses. That it was for some years one of the very finest jazz orchestras of its time is undeniable; and we cannot rewrite history in order to reconcile it with some preconceived premise. Not all white influences on black music are automatically negative in impact—starting with the early black ragtime and jazz musicians’ assimilation of white European harmony.

One thing that is not mentioned in the NY Times obituary was at least for me one of his greatest accomplishments—hosting a show in the early 60s on WBAI called “Contemporary Music in Evolution”. You can get a feel for how much the station has degraded by looking at program guide from 1960:

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 4.20.49 PM

It was that year that I first heard about WBAI and became determined to listen to it in my tiny village in the Catskill Mountains, a hundred miles from NYC. I had read somewhere, probably in Time or Newsweek, that there was this radio station in NY that had some daring offbeat programming. So hungry was I for something like this that I persuaded my father to have our local TV repairman mount an FM antenna at the top of a telephone pole in our backyard. You can imagine my glee when the signal came through loud and clear.

Up until I started listening to  “Contemporary Music in Evolution”, my knowledge of classical music was limited to the records I got from the RCA Victor Record Club or occasional jaunts into NYC to pick up vinyl at Sam Goody’s near Times Square. Mostly that meant listening to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, et al. Schuller’s goal was to illustrate how late 20th century atonal music, including the 12 tone style he favored, had antecedents in Debussy, Ravel, Mahler, and other composers who were still wedded to tonality. This meant serious and discussion on the air of excerpts from a piece like “Afternoon of a Faun” to point out how chromaticism opened the door to atonality. It was the most mind-blowing education I got in music that a lower middle-class child of high school graduates could have possibly gotten.

God bless Gunther Schuller. May he rest in peace.

April 23, 2015

Que maravillosa!

Filed under: cuba,dance,music — louisproyect @ 12:24 am

March 29, 2015

John Renbourn, 70, Eclectic Guitarist Who Founded the Pentangle, Dies

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:39 pm


John Renbourn in 1966, before he founded the group the Pentangle with with the guitarist Bert Jansch. Credit: Brian Shuel/Redferns

John Renbourn, an English guitarist known for his light-fingered fusion of classical, folk, blues and jazz and for his work with the group the Pentangle, was found dead on Thursday at his home in Hawick, Scotland, near the English border. He was 70.

He had been touring with another guitarist and singer, Wizz Jones, who was one of his earliest influences. When he did not show up for a concert in Glasgow on Wednesday, his agent contacted the police. The cause had not been determined, but a police spokeswoman said there were “no suspicious circumstances.”

Mr. Renbourn was both an antiquarian and an innovator — part of a generation of British and American guitar virtuosos who in the 1950s and ’60s reached deeply into traditions but were not bound by them.

As early as the 1960s, Mr. Renbourn delved with scholarly dedication intomedieval and Renaissance music; his “Complete Anthology of Medieval and Renaissance Music for Guitar.” a sheet-music collection of 28 pieces, was published in 1995. He learned British folk songs and sang them in an amiable tenor, and he was drawn to ragtime and the blues, particularly the fingerpicking complexity of early rural blues.

Mr. Renbourn at the Moseley Folk Festival in 2010. Credit: Simon Hadley/Rex Features, via AP

His music also used the harmonies and phrasing of jazz guitar and an occasional hint of flamenco, and he studied the sitar and the shakuhachi, the Japanese wooden flute.

He was a founder of the Pentangle — which he named after the five-pointed star, symbolizing five virtues, on the shield of Sir Gawain in the medieval Arthurian poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” — in 1968 with the guitarist Bert Jansch, the singer Jacqui McShee, the bassist Danny Thompson and the drummer Terry Cox.

The core of the group was the pairing of Mr. Renbourn and Mr. Jansch, who made their first duo recordings in 1965. They forged a tandem style that became known as “folk-baroque,” full of gnarled harmonies, spiky counterpoint and melodic filigree.

The quintet added Ms. McShee’s soprano — she had sung on Mr. Renbourn’s 1966 album, “Another Monday” — and a jazz-inflected rhythm section to make music that was mostly acoustic (although Mr. Renbourn played some electric lead guitar), intricately arranged and pointedly eclectic. Its repertoire included the group’s new songs, an a cappella medieval dirge, a girl-group remake, Charles Mingus pieces, blues tunes and traditional ballads.

The Pentangle first visited the United States in 1969, appearing at the Newport Folk Festival, at Carnegie Hall and — opening for the Grateful Dead — at the Fillmore West. The original version of the group made its last studio album, “Solomon’s Seal,” in 1972 before touring and then disbanding. The group reunited in the early 1980s, but Mr. Renbourn left before it made any new records.

The original quintet eventually regrouped for the BBC Folk Awards in 2007, and went on tour in 2008. It also played concerts in 2011, its last shows before Mr. Jansch’s death in October 2011.

Mr. Renbourn had a prolific career both before and after the Pentangle years. Born in London on Aug. 8, 1944, he got his start in folk clubs there and made his first album in 1965 with Dorris Henderson, an American singer based in London.

He also recorded extensively on his own and in collaboration with many luminaries of British and American folk music, among them the American folk-blues guitarist Stefan Grossman, with whom he made four studio albums and a live album, and Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band. Their collaboration (“Wheel of Fortune,” 1994) brought Mr. Renbourn a Grammy nomination.

Mr. Renbourn’s final studio album was “Palermo Snow,” released in 2010.

He had a pedagogic side. In the early 1980s, well into his career, he enrolled in a three-year music course at Darlington College in England, where he would later teach. He published sheet-music anthologies, including a piece from the revered Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan, and an instruction book, “John Renbourn Fingerstyle Guitar.” He taught guitar at universities in the United States (including Columbia), Canada and Britain, and held guitar workshops across Europe.

His marriages to Jo Watson and Judith Hills ended in divorce. He is survived by three children, Joel, Jessie and Ben.

Mitch Greenhill, who produced three albums by Mr. Renbourn, recalled him in an email: “He was most at home in his practice studio, sheet music on a stand, guitar on his knee, trying to channel the muse that hovered just beyond the temporal world.”

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.