On the Matter of Black Lives & White Privilege

I recently posted on Facebook a graphic proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. It was a whisper in the storm that erupted after four cops’ killed George Floyd in Minneapolis (the most recent last straw.) It was my small way of trying to be an ally.

Soon after I posted, two Facebook friends responded with that vapid rebuttal “All Lives Matter.” One of them, while responding to an earlier post of mine, had insisted that “there’s no such thing as white privilege,” a claim that inspired first some harsh rebuttals and then some venomous counter posts from the “all lives matter” crowd. I deleted the post. Since then, I’ve been taking deep breaths and trying to figure out what to say.

My blog audience is very small, even when I link to Facebook, but I’m here to tell whatever readers I have that both history and our present times have taught black people that in America their lives do not matter, while we white folks have always enjoyed the “privilege” of knowing that ours do. 

I put “privilege” in quotation marks because I’m not confident it’s the best word. I know I got defensive myself when I first heard the term, some time in the late ‘80s. Most people understand privilege to mean special treatment, a path free of hurdles. If one is “privileged,” one is pampered and spoiled, enjoying unearned gifts and treats. With this sense of the word in mind, it’s easy to see why poor white people, lost and abused white people, and even successful white people who have overcome all sorts of obstacles are likely to bristle at the idea that they are privileged. They are not pampered or spoiled. The label seems unfair. And besides, some skeptics ask, haven’t others suffered terribly? Do we really need a slogan for every group–LatinX Lives Matter, LGBTQIA Lives Matter, American Indian Lives Matter–when we could instead simply remind everyone that All Lives Matter?

But these arguments ignore the fact that the Black Lives Matter Movement arose in a certain historical context, as everyone saw, thanks to cell phone videos, the horror of unpunished, racist, police brutality. And the full context must include all of American history–all of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and both systematic and systemic oppression for four hundred years.  Those in the Black Lives Matter movement have never suggested that others’ lives do not. They are throwing down their own claim precisely because those brutal videos–the truths that they recorded–demanded that we all take notice of one particular and horribly racist issue: Cops have long been killing black folks and going unpunished. Which is to say, they have been killing black people with impunity.

And that impunity brings us back to the issue of white privilege. I cannot imagine a cop pressing his knee into the neck of a middle-aged white man on a public street, and maintaining the pressure on that white man’s neck for over eight minutes, while being begged by bystanders to release the pressure because, as that white victim insists, he cannot breathe. And I especially cannot imagine the cop’s doing this smugly, hands in his pockets, adjusting his weight and staring blandly back at the cell phone camera, all while two fellow officers put their own knees into that white man’s spine and another, also with hands in pockets, looks on with indifference.

Recognizing the policing crisis and its historical context, we can understand why “Black Lives Matter” has become widespread, supported by the majority of white Americans. We also need to understand why more and more white people are acknowledging ways in which they are “privileged.” Start by defining the term: “White privilege is not the suggestion that white people have never struggled. Many white people do not enjoy the privileges that come with relative affluence, such as food security. Many do not experience the privileges that come with access, such as nearby hospitals. And white privilege is not the assumption that everything a white person has accomplished is unearned; most white people who have reached a high level of success worked extremely hard to get there. Instead, white privilege should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort” (Teaching Tolerance). 

What I’ve had to learn is that the “built-in advantage” I enjoy comes from the fact that I am not unjustly dis-advantaged in ways that nearly 40% of people in the United States are, simply because of their race or ethnicity. Which is to say that whatever difficulties I have faced in life, the color of my skin has not been one of them. In America, only white people can say that. Surely that is a kind of privilege. Understanding that it is a relative term, I know that, compared to George Floyd, I am privileged indeed. 

I hope–and polls suggest I have reason to hope–that almost no one still believes that Floyd’s story is an aberration, the “exception that proves the rule” that cops are mostly good and that a few bad apples get all the attention. If you still hold tight to that theory, you need to  consider the unsettling examples of police brutality we have seen over the last weeks of demonstrations. Yes, some cops were brutally treated also, but no one becomes a cop without realizing that there are criminals and sociopaths and enraged, frightened people who will try to hurt the police. Those are the people who make policing necessary. But there is no necessity for cops to gas, pepper-spray, mace, and beat peaceful protesters. 

It has become clear that even white folks (see Buffalo and New York City) can lose something of their privilege if they march against police brutality. That’s a good thing, if it forces us to acknowledge that feeling safe in white skin has always been a privilege, one more sharply felt when it is taken away, even briefly. Maybe all white lives matter until we accuse police departments of racism and brutality, and then our safety and our rights stop mattering, too, at least to some cops. 

If there were some way I could do it, would I let my privilege go? No white person is eager to become unprivileged, to face the prejudices faced by Black people. But we need to be eager to do all we can to share our privilege, extending it to every person. It’s going to take hard work to drive assumptions about race out of every brain, heart, institution, and system in America. But that’s the goal. I’m working on understanding how I can contribute to reaching it.

In Praise of Bruce Before Born to Run

#8 In My List of 10 Albums Vital (To Me)

In July of 1975, one month before Born to Run was released, I saw Bruce Springsteen in concert for the first time.  It was outside, at the Carter-Barron Amphitheater in D.C., and even though I had listened to his first two albums almost obsessively, I was not prepared for what I’d see. I was there with friends who were also fans of the first two albums, neither of which had sold well.  I had come to see a romantic and a story-teller, the contemplative young man in the close-up photo on the album’s cover and the author of incredible narrative lyrics. Of course, I had thrilled to the rock-and-roll dreams of “Rosalita,” and I wanted to be around when Kitty got back to town, but I was especially awed by the story-telling poet. 

I didn’t expect the skinny kid who did backflips from the grand piano, his guitar strapped in place, and who landed on sneakered feet without losing the song, and who kicked excitement into our sky-topped venue. He shot us full of energy. He lifted us up with songs about hustling, daring kids who lived among aging would-be saints, and who were also full of need, desire, and dreams.

Unlike Born to Run, the huge breakout of his career, E-Street Shuffle is pretty  unpolished. The horns that open the title tune are a little off key, Bruce falls slightly flat on the ascending notes of his guitar’s closing on “Incident on 57th Street,” and there’s some cloudiness in the overall recording quality. Bruce was not yet the exacting perfectionist he would become when he had to, on Born to Run, when his career was suddenly on the line because of his earlier album’s tepid sales and because of the hype from Jon Landau’s famous promise that Bruce was “the future of rock and roll.” But listening to E-Street Shuffle even now, I’m taken by the charm of those early flaws. They give us that feeling of hearing the music in a small, good club where this upstart band is raising the roof with bravado, is throwing its heart, all players together, into a poetry that offers a world’s worth of characters rich as any novel’s.

Laundou clearly felt something like that in 1974 when he wrote that famous review of  Bruce’s opening act for Bonnie Raitt, at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge, MA. (Bonnie was also there!! Man, I wish I’d been.)  Landau’s full column containing the rave about Bruce is actually a kind of confessional memoir that leads slowly to his praise of Springsteen. You can find it here.  It contains this key passage about the impact of that night.

“When his two-hour set ended I could only think, can anyone really be this good; can anyone say this much to me, can rock’n’roll still speak with this kind of power and glory? And then I felt the sores on my thighs where I had been pounding my hands in time for the entire concert and knew that the answer was yes.

“Springsteen does it all. He is a rock’n’roll punk, a Latin street poet, a ballet dancer, an actor, a joker, bar band leader, hot-shit rhythm guitar player, extraordinary singer, and a truly great rock’n’roll composer. He leads a band like he has been doing it forever. I racked my brains but simply can’t think of a white artist who does so many things so superbly. There is no one I would rather watch on a stage today.” 

All that Landau found magical is captured on The Wild, The Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle.  In fact, Born to Run was at first a slight disappointment to me. It seemed too polished, too impeccably produced. I missed the rawness of the first two albums. I did quickly learn  to love Born to Run — for its great songs and amazing energy (and for the mere fact it contains the opening image captured by  “Screen door slams. Mary’s dress waves”). Indeed, everything I loved about Bruce’s first albums are also right there on Born to Run. But let’s not dismiss those first two albums for their awkwardness or rawness, their lack of professional polish. The impulsive energy and searching need of Bruce Springsteen are clearly present and beautifully inspirational on his first two records and especially, I think, on The Wild, The Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle. I ask you, for instance, to come up with a title greater than that. 

And so…to the album itself.

As off-tune as those opening horns may be, they remind me of the music I heard on Frenchman’s Street in New Orleans — and I mean truly out in the streets when I was there — and I really love that naturally raucous party sound that kicks in the “E-Street Shuffle.” It’s all strut and cockiness, as the lyric takes us down a seething street of individual characters, just “as the sweet summer nights turn into summer dreams.” After the break, guitar and mandolin and drums start driving us on to the fade, but not until the horns come in to take us out. In 1974, that whole song felt like an adventure.

Sandy comes in next, as the “fireworks are hailing over Little Eden tonight, forcing the light into all those stony faces stranded on this warm July.” The song is all about a yearning for escape, and in daring to bring accordion up front it breaks ground immediately. I know folks who say this is the Big Song, the sweet anthem of teenage angst and yearning that, without pulling punches, still  manages to be free of whining and full of hope. 

Later, Spanish Johnny shows up as the hero of an “Incident on 57th Street,” where “out of the shadows came a young girl’s voice / To  say Johnny don’t go.” It’s plaintive and aching, and when Johnny assures us “It’s all right, Jane,” we sadly know that this “cruel Romeo” won’t deliver in the end. After all, “The cops have found the van.” It’s film noir come to rock’n’roll. It’s easy money leading all the romantic boys astray. It’s James Dean and Cagney and Bogart and Brando. It means that “I’ll meet you tomorrow night on lovers’ lane” is an empty promise, but still a promise from the heart. 

I won’t run down the full playlist. I’ll trust every reader who knows the album to love the party of “Kitty’s Back,” and those who don’t get a rush from “Rosalita” are probably beyond my reach anyway. But let’s take time to see that Bruce brought the tuba to rock with the great arrangement on “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.” Don’t forget that maracas and congas and celeste and Clarence’s tenor and even David Sancious’s brief soprano sax take their place on the album. It’s a record full of young Springsteen’s excitement, curiosity, and need — real need — to see that he has everything to express himself is available and beautifully deployed. It’s an explosive album.

And there is also the masterpiece. “New York City Serenade.” It opens with Bruce’s strummed mandolin, and then David Sancious on piano comes in with classical mastery that slides into jbluesy bluesy jazz before the melodic entry into the essential song. Bruce’s guitar comes in, then bass, and then Bruce’s vocal begins to tell the story of Willy, 

down by the railroad tracks, / sitting low in the back seat of his Cadillac. / Diamont Jackie, she’s so intact / as she falls so softly beneath him / …It’s midnight in Manhattan. This is no time to get cute.

The story isn’t over, but the setup is complete and thorough, and David Sancious’s string arrangement swells and sobs. (Sancious left the band after E-Street Shuffle, and I’ve missed him ever since.)

I’ve seen Bruce live only two more times. One was at SUNY Oneonta in ‘75 or ‘76, where a drunken crowd voiced their enthusiasm by singing drunkenly along with the songs. At the end — when Bruce came out for an encore, alone at the piano, to sing a sweetly melancholy version of “Growing Up” off his first album — they booed and jeered, calling out for “Rock and Roll!”   Many years later, I went to see him at Nassau Coliseum, a hockey arena in which the acoustics made every mix muddy. 

Both events were irritating, but nothing has made me lose respect for Bruce. If I’m less excited by his much later work, that may say more about my aging than about his. Nothing that came later could erase my love of his solo album, Nebraska, his commitment to The Ghost of Tom Joad, or his tribute to Pete Seeger.  Whenever I see him interviewed, I pay close attention and feel full of thanks.

He has evolved. He has remained committed to his art and to social justice. He has paid respects to his roots and to all who inspired him. I have no more to ask of Springsteen, even as I remain devoted to the early, full-blooded, full-throated anthems that he gave us.  

Miles Davis Earns 2 Spots on My Top 10 List

#7 Out of 10 Albums Vital (To Me)

In 1975, I came home one day from my job at Liverpool High School north of Syracuse, and I found, on the living room table in the decrepit farm house I rented with three fellow teachers, my copy of Miles Davis’s 1969 album Bitches Brew. On it, my housemate, Dave Eagle, had taped a note that said, “Ginger. Take this back to Del’s room.” Ginger was Dave’s cockapoo, and the note was Dave’s way of giving me a hard time about my taste in music.

I laughed and took Miles up to my room. I wasn’t an avid fan of Dave’s sweet folk rock (though he had an admirably sweet voice and fine guitar himself), so I had no need for him to applaud my choices in music. Besides, I was the one with the unusual taste. My housemates wanted music to be pretty and romantic or danceable or suitable to street fighting maybe, but not dense and “intellectual” and weird. But to me, Bitches Brew wasn’t intellectual; it was emotive and gripping and sometimes transcendent. And that did not feel weird to me.

Nor to an awful lot of other people. Bitches Brew is Miles’s second highest selling album, and it’s the one that launched Miles once again into the role of most popular jazz musician in the country and probably the world (even as traditionalists said he’d abandoned jazz altogether). In some ways it  meant to Miles’s career what Sgt. Pepper’s had meant to The Beatles’, certainly by being so dramatically original, but also by being dependent not just on musicianship but also on technology and studio editing, as Miles’s long-standing producer, Teo Macero, shaped the recordings into four sides of revolutionary music.

If George Martin was the 5th Beatle, Macero was the 2nd Miles. He had produced all of Miles’s records since Davis signed with Columbia in 1955. As he had with Miles’s earlier album In a Silent Way, on Bitches Brew “Macero used the recording studio in radical new ways…There were many special effects, like tape loops, tape delays, reverb chambers and echo effects. Through intensive tape editing, Macero concocted many totally new musical structures that were later imitated by the band in live concerts” [Wikipedia]. The album is in some ways a collage, something like Matisse’s cut-outs, though Matisse used paper while Miles relied on the inventiveness and exploratory courage of all the other musicians. 

Fourteen musicians join Miles on Bitches Brew, and several of them are also giants of modern music. But many were nonplussed, if happily so, by the strangeness of working on the album. In his excellent short book about Bitches Brew (and really about Miles’s career), George Grella, through interviews with the musicians, describes the recording process, explaining that, although every minute in the studio was recorded, only Miles and Macero were even permitted to hear playbacks. That way no player would hear something he liked in what he’d done and then strive to repeat it when he returned to recording. Spontaneity and lack of direction were the whole point. Bennie Maupin, bass clarinetist on the session, told Grella that “Miles would set up these rhythm patterns and conduct. He’d use hand gestures and facial gestures and he walked around while the tape was rolling and motion for certain people to play and they would play for a moment and then he would wave them out…I had never been in a recording situation where anyone had done that, plus the music was just really basically totally improvised” [58]. Of course the resulting album was totally original.

Should we say it was ahead of its time? Maybe. But if so, its time has yet to arrive. Even Miles moved on to funk without seeing his accomplishments in the Bitches Brew era turn into a movement.  Others have called the album influential, but without imitating its sound. George Grella argues that the album has remained “a sub rosa presence in rock and jazz,” offering up ideas that “are still rippling out along the surface” of our culture [6]. But ripple out as it might, Bitches Brew has no imitators, or at least none that have garnered a fraction of the attention that Miles earned with this album. He went from playing concert halls to filling arenas. And Grella, too, in a later part of his essay, recognizes the radical singularity of the record.  “There is literally no other recording anything like Bitches Brew,” he writes, “and there is little in or outside music like it” [8-9]. 

On my list of ten most influential albums, Bitches Brew is probably the one I now listen to the least. It’s not my favorite Miles Davis album; it’s not in a league with  Round Midnight, Kind of Blue, or Miles Smiles. Even when it comes to the electronic Miles, I listen to In a Silent Way more. But I’m nearing 70 years old and am quieter and calmer–and less thrilled by the shattering of traditions–than the 18-year-old who had his mind blown by Bitches Brew

Still, when I went out walking today, wearing my mask and isolating against the threat of Covid-19, I listened to Bitches Brew and found myself going happily along for the ride. I could attend to each distinctive thread in the collective improvisation, each musician’s spontaneous yet searching contribution to the mix. At the same time I could let my mind drift with the current of the music. It flowed and curved, dropped and lifted, paused and rippled, all with no sense of progress, no need for a destination, as I made my way back home.

Grella, George. Bitches Brew. Bloomsbury Academic. New York. 2015

My Love Supreme For John Coltrane

#6 On My List of Vital Albums

San Francisco is the home of the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, established in 1969. I am not a member, but even I, adamantly agnostic, understand why Coltrane has led his listeners towards God, whoever or whatever That might be.  It is a journey that surely began with, and probably still has at its heart, A Love Supreme.  

The Facebook challenge to name ten important albums in one’s life is kind of ridiculous (he said, while devoting hours to that very challenge). Who can name ten winners without feeling foolish about the many albums left off the list? All the same, I think that, if the challenge had been to name only one album that had significantly influenced my understanding and appreciation of music, and in fact of life, I could single out A Love Supreme. Coltrane’s music on this record revealed the eternal to me in ways that music never had before. It shaped me very much the way I was shaped by my most profound experiences of nature.

When I discovered this Coltrane masterpiece, I found it somehow echoing Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” the poem that arrested my attention not only by what it said and how it felt, but by how profoundly it altered my consciousness, lifting me out of my small sense of self to experience–if only briefly, I know–an abiding sense of wonder at how small I am. In singing the song of himself, Whitman may seem all ego, but he in fact sings to celebrate his equality with, even his fusion with, all others. I am with him as the camera moves from a closeup of his face (and my face) where he (and I) loaf at ease in the grass, and then it moves up, higher and higher, revealing a multitude of other faces as well as forests and buildings and gardens and ships and roadways soldiers rivers mountains animals oceans…until a fulfilling joyfulness washes in, the sudden knowledge that something grand and sublime is at the heart of things. 

It’s hard to write something like that, knowing how much it smells of 1969, around when I was first discovering both Coltrane and Whitman. The fact is, I had always gone about my days, as I still do,  in a pretty mundane fashion. I am, like most, caught up in quotidien concerns. I am political as hell (and Hell, no doubt, is full of politicians). But I do have touchstones that take me to a different sensibility, one that removes me from bustle and despair, busyness and anxiety, and even from the sources of pleasure that are plentiful in my blessed life. It is a spiritual thing, for lack of a better and less culturally loaded word, and A Love Supreme explains it to me. 

When Coltrane breathes massively through his tenor, he in-spires me. I am rocked back by the sound.

When McCoy Tyner creates cleansing storms on his piano, I am rocked back by the sound.

When Elvin Jones throws down torrential joy from his drums, I am rocked back by the sound.

When they all come together, with the heartbeat of Jimmy Garrison’s bass, I am swept away.

I, who follow no other form of worship, who shrugs off all theology, who rejects dogma and church discipline, can feel, nonetheless, A Love Supreme.

The Genius of Charles Mingus

#5 On My Facebook List of Albums Vital To Me

It was some time in the mid ‘70s that I heard Charles Mingus live at The Village Gate in New York. I’m sorry to say that I never saw him play before or after that one date. He was a musician I held in awe, one whose records I played repeatedly and whose stature grew larger and deeper the more I listened to them. He started that set at The Gate in his very particular and [in]famous way, by demanding silence from the audience. On one of his albums you can hear it: “No talking. No pushing of chairs. No shaking the ice in your glasses.” Mingus was demanding, of his musicians and of his audience, and he had no interest in being a nightclub entertainer. He was a serious classical/jazz musician who, he insisted, should have been playing in concert halls. He was right. And today, as occasionally in his lifetime, that is where his music is played.

Later that night, I got to stand right beside him when he was otherwise alone and offstage, but I was too intimidated even to suggest to him how much I loved and admired his music. He was tall and barrel-chested, with huge hands and a wide, imposing face, and I didn’t know how to strike up a conversation with genius. And besides, we were standing at adjoining urinals during his break.

I was a little surprised by a few of my Facebook friends who gave a Like to my choice of Mingus, Ah Um. I had no idea that some of them followed jazz, much less that some would know Mingus’s work. Even though many critics have recognized his brilliance as a bass player, band leader, and composer, and even though he has a cult following to this day, twenty-one years after his death from ALS, not every jazz fan is a Charles Mingus fan. He was sometimes too raucous; in his later work, he sometimes went overboard with strange harmonics; and he sometimes too avidly promoted the idiosyncrasies of Eric Dolphy, probably Mingus’s favorite reed player. Those (including Dolphy) are among three of the things I most love about Mingus, but they are also the things that lost him some audience, even while he became one of the most highly respected figures in “jazz.”

Mingus Ah Um contains great elements representative of all his small-band compositions and musicianship: driving rhythms; haunting melodies; horn arrangements that make a septet sound like an orchestra; Danny Richmond’s propulsive drumming; the energy and fine funk of Horace Parlan’s piano; and, always Mingus’s bass playing, which earned him the moniker “The Boss” (long before Springsteen came along). In addition, there are the horn solos–especially John Handy’s and Booker Ervin’s–that once again show that great players, when they work with Mingus, play their greatest. And there are the hand-claps, the chants, and Mingus’s sung cues that the rest of the band immediately follows, moving into the next phrase of the arrangement, the sometimes surprising but always perfectly fitting section of the composition. 

There’s tremendous variety on the album, showing off the range of Mingus’s heart, the masterfulness of his skills as a composer, and the reverence he had for so many of his jazz predecessors. The opening jubilance of “Better Get It In Your Soul,” is followed by the sweet mournfulness of “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” Mingus’s paean to the great saxophonist Lester Young. Moves like that, from jubilation to eulogy, continue, as do the tributes–to Jelly Roll Morton, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington, in whose big band Mingus played for a while–and whom Mingus revered. 

Mingus Ah Um is not the only album that turned my head and heart to Mingus. There was also Oh, Yeah, recorded live at The Jazz Workshop. It contains, one per side, only two pieces: “New Fables” and “Meditations for a Pair of Wirecutters.” Bothare remarkable, one an expression of contempt and rage, the other of sorrow and despair, and both about civil rights and setbacks. There was The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, a poem and, to me, a ballet that I wish had been choreographed by someone by now. But as I write this, listening to Mingus Ah Um once again, there is little doubt that it was his first record to surprise and delight me so greatly that I would go on to make Mingus an ongoing source of musical joy. 

I would also go on to read critical analyses of his work and articles about his musical evolution, his bands, and his exploits on and off the stage. He was a tempestuous personality. I would read and reread his memoir, Beneath the Underdog, which helped me understand his music, his intelligence, his creativity, his rage, his tenderness, and the modern history of racism in America. He made me know about vital aspects of music, of creativity, and of the kind of passionate commitment that genius seems always to demand.

The Joy of Kind of Blue

#4 of The Albums That Are Vital (To Me)

In 1974, I was traveling in Nepal and became sick with what turned out to be a combination of dysentery and hepatitis. I got past the worst of it in a British missionary hospital, a series of quonset huts in the foothills of the Himalayas. Before flying home to get my health fully back, I recuperated a while in a cheap, beautiful little hotel in a forest outside Pokhara. There I met a joyous young guy named Gary Starr, a musician from Toronto. He hung out in my room, helping me recover just by being friendly and, as he got to know me and my interests, by scat singing all the saxophone solos, both Cannonball Adderley’s and John Coltrane’s, from Kind of Blue. There was no doubt he rendered them accurately–and well. I had them pretty much memorized, too.

It is almost mundane to include Kind of Blue on a list of influential records. Released in 1959, it remains the best selling jazz album of all time, has been reverently analyzed by jazz fans and critics much more perceptive than I, and was recently lionized on American Masters from PBS. But the fact that I am not alone in my enthusiasm, that in fact only a jazz apostate could speak ill of Kind of Blue, does not make my passion for it insincere. I loved it the first time I heard it. I love it just as much today. It never gets old.

There is Cannonball, whose alto glides from bluesiness to the sweetly melodic with ease. There is Coltrane, young and not yet the gigantic pioneer he would soon become, but already searching beautifully for the truth in music, and already showing off his heart and technical skill, as when his solo erupts on “Freddie Freeloader.” There are Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, holding down, with perfected subtlety, the pulsing but never thumping beat. And third in that rhythm section is the guru of delicacy and invention, Bill Evans on piano. (Wynton Kelly, the regular pianist in the band at the time, plays only on “Freddie Freeloader.”)

It was also Evans who wrote the album’s beautiful liner notes, in which he compares the group improvisation on the album, in which only a single cut needed a second take, to “a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere…The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.” As that artistic comparison suggests, and as other musicians on the album have said, even they, the players, were somewhat amazed by what they had made–always with a bow to Miles himself.

It was all to the credit of Miles, who had already given birth to the cool and now simply wore it, in his clothes, his shades, his every gesture, and his musical genius. Now, with these six compositions, he was advancing modal jazz and, as he had on albums throughout the mid and late 50s, he was blowing perfectly architectural solos full of tenderness. (Savor the yearning of his solo on “Blue in Green.”) I don’t know how Miles did it. In his autobiography, even he admits that he could be demanding and stern, with musicians, friends, and lovers (whom he often mistreated), but he clearly inspired his bandmates. They played almost beyond themselves while working with him, and they played together with great, listening sensitivity. In addition to his playing and composition, Miles was a stellar bandleader. Having heard this band on this album, I quickly went on to pursue other work from Cannonball, Bill Evans, and especially Coltrane. They are all in my musical pantheon.

I believe Miles sits on the top tier of that pantheon. I believe he is vital in the history of jazz, and I believe that, in the mid ’50s early ’60s (and often in later phases, too), he played with an unmatched gentleness, full of sweetness, longing, and romance.

In my senior year of high school, a young teacher told me that when he was in college (just a year or two earlier), if you approached a friend’s door and heard Kind of Blue playing behind it, you didn’t knock. It was just too likely there was love-making going on in that room. I believe that, too.

Dylan Came Into My Life

Why An Album Became Vital (To Me) #3

#3

It opens with the drunken party of “Rainy Day Women” (they’ll stone you, indeed) and moves into the surrealistic torch song of “Visions of Johanna,” and at that point I’m pretty well hooked. 

I wasn’t new to Dylan when Blonde on Blonde hit my turntable, some time around 1968. My brother had given me Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, for Christmas,  in 1965. The album was two years old by then, but it hadn’t made it to my suburban Pittsburgh life that early. In ‘65, though, my brother was a college freshman, and he was making discoveries about the broader world, and he was eager to serve as a guide to his little brother.  When I unwrapped Freewheelin’, I was immediately charmed by the now-famous photo of this amiably casual young man with an even more charming young woman pressed to his side, keeping them both warm on a wintry Greenwich Village Street. My brother knew that I was unaware of what I might find on the album, and he advised me to listen to it several times before passing any judgments. “Don’t let his voice, which doesn’t seem like a good singing voice at all, steer you wrong,” he said. “Let it grow on you. You’ll be glad.” 

He was right. I thought the songs were incredible. “Blowin’ In the Wind” of course was the first hit (Had I heard Peter, Paul, & Mary’s relatively insipid version of the tune at that point?), but the record is full of other classics:  “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”; “Masters of War”; “Corinna, Corinna”; and the amazing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” 

But Blond on Blonde went further. It didn’t just knock me out. It shifted my consciousness. It shifted Dylan from the wunderkind of folk music to the madman visionary poet of the new exploding culture. It was with the lyrics of Blonde on Blonde that Dylan began his journey towards the Nobel Prize in Poetry. 

There’s the opening to “I Want You”:

The guilty undertaker sighs / The lonesome organ grinder cries / The silver saxophones say I / Should refuse you. / The cracked bells and washed-out horns / Blow into my face with scorn / But it’s not that way / I wasn’t born to lose you.

And in track 2 there’s the selfish and yearning narrator, making love to Louise while longing for Johanna:

Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near / She’s delicate and seems like the mirror / But she just makes it all too concise and too clear / That Johanna’s not here. / The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face / Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.

I love these lyrics, but I know it is lines like this that often drove my students crazy (though I never did teach Dylan lyrics), because such poetry left them angry that they were supposed to do the work of finding the “hidden meaning.” I would tell them that if the poet is hiding the meaning, then the poet is a narcissist or solipsist. What kind of poets hide what they mean to say? But it is possible that the words are written not to offer an argument or point of view. To appreciate art, we sometimes must, as David Byrne would have it, “stop making sense.”  Some poems don’t lead with meaning; some primarily evoke a sensibility, a felt knowledge, just as paintings and rock videos and even commercials can sometimes say next to nothing explicit but pull us in and make us feel the world in a nonetheless meaningful way, perhaps even a strikingly new and provocative way. And even though Dylan also writes great lyrics that make perfect sense, that more surrealistic sensibility is what Blonde on Blonde gave to me. 

I could offer my idiosyncratic readings of what Dylan’s more obtuse lyrics “mean.” I could go mad for my admiration of “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.” But if I did that, I’d also have to acknowledge that many of his lines are, for me, just painted images hanging in the corridors of the songs’ narratives. And then I’d happily fall back on the music. On the fact it sounds so spontaneous as to seem unrehearsed, until we realize how beautifully tight the band is. Or on the importance of Al Kooper, another revelation on the album. Or on the fact that the melodies are sometimes so joyfully jaunty, sometimes so terribly haunting. Blend those sounds with the poems and you see that Dylan can almost simultaneously be cruel and judgmental, compassionate and empathetic.  [See “Just Like a Woman” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”]


Blonde on Blonde taught me to recognize the paradox of egoism wed to empathy, set to music that made my heart and breathing open wide and dance.

Why Bernstein’s “Rhapsody in Blue” Matters So Much (To Me)

#2 in my list of vital albums

I don’t know when I first heard this album, but I’m pretty sure it was in 9th or 10th grade, which means I had been taking piano lessons for about  seven years. I was already a fan of orchestral music. I had a record of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony (the Pastoral, which I first met in Disney’s Fantasia) and had listened to it dozens of times. I had by then also discovered jazz, so I was ripe for a love affair with Gershwin. I was also a budding romantic, as all adolescents should be, so I was enthralled by Bernstein. I didn’t fully appreciate the role of a conductor then, but I did appreciate his piano. He played with with richness and sweep, his pacing flush with energy and passion.

And there he was on the cover, pointing right at me.

I had no idea, until I googled this album in hopes of writing somewhat intelligently about it, that it is considered important. NPR claims that “Leonard Bernstein’s recording is a disc for the ages. It’s American music performed with mid-century flair, a moment never to be recaptured. Bernstein had the feel for Rhapsody In Blue, and he does full justice to the still racy and spontaneous score. His performance of the piano solo has a smoky, sultry jazziness to it, along with a brash exuberance; there is touching tenderness in the lullaby, riveting dynamism in the fast pages.” 

From the opening clarinet glissando to the dramatic conclusion, the rhapsody grabbed me, shook me, and made me almost laugh with pleasure. The great orchestration, the magical piano, and the propelling jazz of Rhapsody in Blue were another great discovery in my musical education, and I did indeed lie on the floor, headphones on, and listen to it over and over again. 

And one night, years later, some time in college probably, I lay in bed, waiting for sleep, and heard, without headphones or speakers or any equipment at all, the whole beautiful piece play in my head. Note for note. Vividly and at a fairly high volume. I have never understood how this could have happened. Drugs were not involved. I offer no explanation now, and at the time I was slightly scared. I only know that one night Bernstein’s version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue played, in its entirety, vividly in my head. 

I guess I had listened to that album a lot. 

Why These 10 Albums are Vital (To Me) #1

I don’t usually accept Facebook challenges but, nominated by a very good friend, I decided to take on this one, which opens with this explanation.

Nominated by [that good friend of mine]…

I have been given the task of choosing ten albums that have greatly influenced my taste in music. One album per day for ten consecutive days. No explanations, no reviews, just album covers. At the completion of 10 days, I will nominate someone new.

Each day, I am reposting that explanation and then adding a picture of an album cover, until all 10 albums are shared.

I suppose boomers, some older millennials, and other vinylphiles are the last people to think in terms of albums, and especially the last to have stretched out on the floor, examining an album’s covers while listening to its music for the first time–and maybe for the second, fourth, or even tenth time. In any case, based on my Facebook feed, it seems many are nostalgic for those covers.

I suppose an album that “greatly influenced my taste in music” might not remain among my favorites, but in my case, the chosen ten still matter to me. I return to them all, some on a pretty regular basis. They are dear friends, always welcome in my home.

More significantly, each one first hit me at a time when I was ripe for the hitting. Each one moved me. Each one introduced me to a musician, composer, or songwriter who demanded my further attention, and  each one sent me on a journey to find other music that influenced or was influenced by what that vital album contains. Thinking about that impact is what makes this whole 10-Album exercise interesting.

If you’re also interested, follow along as I reflect upon how each of the ten made my list. It will be like reading a memoir in ten short chapters.

#1

When I was in 7th grade, I had saved up some money by hoarding my allowance and by subbing for a friend who had a paper route so massive that he often asked me to help out.  And so at last I  had enough to buy what I most wanted in the world: a basic KLH turntable, tuner, and set of speakers. It was a beautiful little kit, and I held on to it for years, even after I’d moved on to bigger systems, until it was stolen from my classroom by, I later learned, a minor high-school gangster. (It’s a long a story.) This was the stereo that got me through college and slightly beyond, and its turntable carried several of these ten albums into my life. 

At first I bought albums sparingly and tended first towards whitebread folk music that I had discovered by watching Hootenanny on TV, but also towards profound Beethoven works I had discovered by taking piano lessons and by paying some attention to my parents. But that same year, The Girl From Ipanema was a huge hit on AM Radio (the only radio we had in 1964). It was the first song on this first album on my list, the still celebrated collaboration between American jazz saxophonist Stan Getz and Brazilian guitarist Jaoa Gilberto, whose wife Astrud Gilberto sang on Ipanema and deserves a lot of the credit for the success of that great song. The album itself was a huge success. As Wikipedia tells us, “Getz/Gilberto is considered the record that popularized bossa nova worldwide and was one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.” Still, I suspect I was one of the rare 7th graders who bought the album. 

It was a revelation. In my suburban room, at thirteen years old, I lay on my twin bed, my beagle Snoopy sleeping beside me, and through headphones took in the lilting Portugese of bossa nova, which pierced me with something mysteriously moving. Something that made me feel I was inventing romantic love. Both Gilbertos’ voices were breathy and soothing and, I now know, wonderfully sexy. Listening today, as I write this, I can still see that girl walking the shore at Ipanema. She is, of course, “tall and tan and young and lovely.” But what’s more, and more important, “As she passes, each one she passes, says Aaaaaah.” Oh, that sigh of delight, that exhalation of admiration and longing. And that gentle swaying, that sensual freedom, that saxophone lifting the melody towards the sky while somehow keeping us here on earth. Oh my, Astrud. Oh yes, Stan Getz. And thank you so much, Jaoa, for the chords and the rhythm. For the dance.

Whatever it was I felt in 1964, I felt it in a way more profound than I can muster now. But the album does take me back to the almost tidal movement of that music within my body when my body was increasingly confused and full of yearning. 

Given all that, who wouldn’t want to tune in to more of what jazz and Brazil have to offer–sometimes separately, sometimes together. Along with my older brother, whose influence on my musical taste cannot be overestimated, Getz/Gilberto launched me into my lifetime love of jazz and my less committed but real delight in the music of Brazil. Without Getz/Gilberto, would I have discovered other great sax players: Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter? Without this #1 album, would I have moved on to Carlos Jobim and more Astrud Gilberto? To Luiz Bonfa? To the remarkable film Black Orpheus or the music of Caetano Veloso or Seu Jorge? Almost certainly not.

I’ll be posting #2 tomorrow.

I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major Demagogue

If you don’t know the original lyric and inspiration (and why would you?), you can look here. And for a performance, capturing the mad rhythm of it all, you can look here.

I am the very model of a modern major demagogue,

I have employed each tactic in the neo-fascist catalogue,

I’ve lorded over lesser men, harassed all women in my path,

And planned my life accordingly, assured I’ll get the final laugh.

I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters pornographical,

Am happy with my ignorance of all things geographical,

I ably taunt folks black and brown and red, as well as all the Jews,

Encouraging supremacists who wield the torch and bloodied noose.

My rise to power’s clearly something wonderfully miraculous,

I’ve heard people say my birth was certainly immaculate,

In short, in all things written in the neo-fascist catalogue,

I am the very model of a modern major demagogue.

I know our mythic history and strive to make us great again,

Ignoring all calamities that marked our history way back when.

I bully all my critics, and I want them under lock and key,

And will at least take them to court if they should dare to counter me.

I’ve scoffed at televangelists and snickered at morality,

While mastering the falsities of my TV reality.

Indifferent both to Christ and God, and all anti-abortionists,

I pander still to all such rubes; I am a grand contortionist.

I always know exactly how to praise those wearing uniforms

Though phony bone spurs kept me out of all those dire East Asian storms.

In short, in all things written in the neo-fascist catalogue,

I am the very model of a modern major demagogue.

I understand the meaning of the clause about emoluments

But better grasp the joys of keeping all my dollars and my cents.

Experts advising me about my taxes earn my hearty thanks;

I get largesse by lying to loan officers at Deutsche  Bank.

I am immune to any talk of honor or integrity.

For power alone and not for love, I do embrace my family.

In short, if you examine all the world’s narcissistic egoists,

You’ll see I am the fair-haired one whose name sits bold atop the list.

My knowledge of the founding father’s bold and brave democracy

Is somewhat dim and scatter-shot and short on any accuracy,

So I embrace the tenets of the neo-fascist catalogue,

Proud to be the model of a modern major demagogue.