Friday, March 31, 2017

The Dana Schutz Whitney Flare Up

Maybe you have heard that black activists are outraged that a painting by white painter Dana Schutz of Emmet Till in his coffin appears in the Whitney Biennial; indeed, outraged that it was even created, since there are certain subjects that a white artist should not even attempt, or if attempted, done in a certain acceptable way, i.e., in a realist manner. I just find it hard to accept this argument at all. My response basically boils down to exasperation. But, hey, it's definitely good for the protesters to express their opinions, and I don't want to dismiss concerns about race and justice out of hand. But, please, stop with the standing in front of the painting to block visitors' views.

Writing at Hyperallergic, author and artist Coco Fusco presents a defense of artistic free expression that is nothing less than a tour de force -- knowledgeable, tightly argued, and fluent. Read the very fine essay here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Yes, You Like Jazz, #5: "She Was Young"

Specifically, you like jazz poetry, a form that is hard to cozy up to, what with all the Kerouacian streams of consciousness and Beatnik mannerisms.* Fear not, Steve Swallow takes the opposite tack here, opting for concision and brevity. It works.

After a songful bass solo by leader Steve Swallow to open the piece, the words -- composed by the poet Robert Creeley -- enter at just over a minute in, and last just 15 seconds. Singer Sheila Jordan presents this resonant, strangely gorgeous riddle.
she was young
she was old
she was small
she was tall
with extraordinary grace
her face
was all distance
her eyes
the depth of all 
one had thought of
and again
and again
Then this compressed poetry expands out into improvisation that feels like mantra meditation, both still and moving at the same time. The transcendent piano is by Steve Kuhn, but the group interplay is what makes it. And underneath, or inside of it, are those 34 words, singing.

* Actually, and in all seriousness, the best spoken word with music I've ever heard is Kerouac reading the last page of On the Road, with the Steve Allen jazz trio. Will link it asap.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Robert Silvers and the NYRB

Robert B. Silvers, 1929 - 2017
And my wife tells me I should get rid of some books. For one group of people this looks like heaven, and for the other, hell. Count me in the former. That's Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books from 1963 to his death last week at the age of 87. I have read NYRB religiously for nearly three decades now, and I think religiously is the right word, both because of the regular pattern of my engagement with it (every Saturday morning) and because I feel it constantly pushes me to be better, in this case at thinking and writing, qualities not as distant from spirituality as one might think.

The tributes to Silvers at the NYRB website by their extensive and accomplished roster of writers reveal the extent to which they admired him both as a person and as an editor. As someone who engages in editing as part of my profession, I could only hope to aspire to a fraction of the editing virtues attributed to Silvers here. The thing about editing is that you need to push past the vague feeling that something is wrong or missing to put your finger on the actual shortcomings or gaps and then communicate them clearly and in ways that encourage. Not easily done.

I often wonder if by definition good editors must be good writers, or typically are good writers. I don't know about Silvers' writing abilities, but he edited a damn good publication that continues to enrich my life.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Monday, March 20, 2017

Covering Chuck Berry

It's an ancient and honorable tradition to cover Chuck Berry, just ask the Beatles and the Stones. Here's Ronnie Lane and Slim Chance performing "You Never Can Tell." Coincidentally (or cosmically) I was watching covers of this song for quite a while Friday evening, the day before Mr. Berry passed. To contribute this much good feeling to the world is no small thing. And how good are these lyrics? As good as Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin. May the covers continue forever.

It was a teenage wedding, and the old folks wished them well
You could see that Pierre did truly love the mademoiselle
And now the young monsieur and madame have rung the chapel bell,
"C'est la vie", say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

They furnished off an apartment with a two room Roebuck sale
The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale,
But when Pierre found work, the little money comin' worked out well
"C'est la vie", say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

They had a hi-fi phono, boy, did they let it blast
Seven hundred little records, all rock and rhythm and jazz
But when the sun went down, the rapid tempo of the music fell
"C'est la vie", say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

They bought a souped-up jitney, 'twas a cherry red '53,
They drove it down to Orleans to celebrate the anniversary
It was there that Pierre was married to the lovely mademoiselle
"C'est la vie", say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Tiny Houses: Make It Stop

Hey, before hipsters got involved, before tiny houses and locally sourced organic food trucks, we had things called mobile homes and roach coaches.

Caravaggio: Humanism and Severed Heads

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1610
Existing at the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum from the effervescent pop art of Mary Heilmann and Brian Wilson (both of whom I featured last week) is the tortured art of Caravaggio, who, among other subject matter, enjoyed depicting severed heads. In "David With the Head of Goliath" the severed head is actually a self-portrait. Maybe Caravaggio was a humanist the way that the punk rockers were: the violence they embraced was not anti-human but a corrective to the peace and love crowd, who in their view denied aspects of existence. Maybe it's just the old Rousseau-Hobbes dichotomy being played out in different times and places. One thing is clear: Caravaggio was conflicted. But unless we are a pure ideologue, we all are too.

Art historian Troy Thomas offers these observations about Caravaggio's painting, touching on the ways that Caravaggio himself was no stranger to violence:
Caravaggio may have created this painting in part as a meditative assessment of his murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni on a Roman Street in 1606, a crime prompted by the artist's pride, which led him to a duel. In this painting Caravaggio represents himself as damned, as the embodiment of evil. Through his gruesome portrait as the severed head of Goliath he reveals his failure as a Christian, having committed a mortal sin. The young David, Caravaggio's "slayer," shows a pensive mix of compassion and regret.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Nat Hentoff: Is Jazz Black Music?

I have been meaning to write a tribute to the late journalist Nat Hentoff, who died last month at the age of 91, and am finally getting around to it now. I first encountered him through his writing on jazz, which was foundational for me when I was young and learning about that great art form. In the 80s and 90s I would read his columns at the Village Voice, which focused mainly on free speech issues. (I should add that the Village Voice as a whole contributed greatly to my cultural and intellectual education. We don't just learn in school!) Finally, in the 2000s I would read his column in Jazz Times magazine. I guess you would say that his love for jazz was strong and deep but never sentimental.

In 2008 he contributed an essay to Jazz Times that I keep returning to, as it poses the eternal question: "Is Jazz Black Music?" Short answer: Yes. But that's not to say that white people haven't been and are not today integral to the music. Reflecting on his participation in a panel discussion held at Lincoln Center, Hentoff distinguishes between originators, originals, and influencers, which is a pretty good, if imperfect, way of thinking about it. Let's quote at length to capture some of the nuance Hentoff brings to the topic:
My partial list of originators-and I’m sure you have yours-includes Louis Armstrong, Mr. Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Lester Young. All were black, and some were influenced by non-blacks.

Lester Young told me that Frank Trumbauer, mainly known for his association with Bix Beiderbecke, “was my idol. When I started to play, I bought all his records and I imagine I can still play those solos. I tried to get the sound of the C-melody saxophone on the tenor. That’s why I don’t sound like other people. Trumbauer always told a little story.” But Trumbauer, though an original, didn’t affect, as Prez did, the stories of countless jazz musicians around the world.

The moderator that night at Lincoln Center was historian and jazz professor Lewis Porter. He made the salient point that although the roots of the originators were black, they had big ears and were open to an infinite diversity of influences. As Charles Hersch notes in his important new book, Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans (University of Chicago Press), the jazz culture there “included [transmutations of] quadrilles, mazurkas and schottisches.”

On the panel, I mentioned that world-traveler Duke Ellington absorbed into his music the colors, dynamics and stories of the regional and national sounds he heard.
Porter emphasized, “It’s typical of African-American music that jazz players are open to influences.” Eric Dolphy told me how hearing birds singing became part of his music. But again, the roots are black. Or, as Porter put it, being that open “doesn’t make it non-black.”

That’s true of both originators and originals. A necessarily partial list of the originals who are influential but didn’t profoundly change the course of jazz would encompass such non-black players as Bix Beiderbecke (at whom Louis Armstrong marveled during Chicago after-hours sessions), Pee Wee Russell, Jack Teagarden, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Bill Evans, Jim Hall, Phil Woods and bandleader Woody Herman.
I would add, among many others, white players such as Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheney, and Joe Lovano. Some examples: Lovano can't be said to have originated any paradigm shifts in the music, but he is a spectacular musician who has been very adventurous in expanding the settings in which jazz playing can be expressed. The accusation is frequently hurled at Baker that he was just a Miles Davis imitator who became successful watering down Miles' sound for white people. Aside from the fact that they both brought an introspective approach to their playing, Baker doesn't actually sound like Miles at all, and his sense of melody was all his own. Right now, jazz flourishes in Europe, with scores of white musicians performing very creative music that doesn't sound black in an any significant way, which is good, I think. But the fact remains that they wouldn't be playing jazz at all if it weren't for the black originators of the music.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Mary Heilmann's Pop Art

Mary Heilmann, "Malevich Spin," 2011, oil on canvas, approx. 20 x 20 in.
Unlike pop music, which for the most part focuses on the pleasure principle, what became known as the pop art movement isn't predominantly pleasurable. Rather it portrays the elements of mass-produced post-war popular culture: Think Oldenburg's hamburgers, Rosenquist's canned spaghetti, Warhol's soup cans, or Lichtenstein's comic books writ large. They aren't necessarily unpleasurable, but pleasure isn't the point. A painting like this one from Mary Heilmann, however, pushes pleasure to the limit, while somehow never wearing out its welcome, kind of like the Beach Boys "Wouldn't It Be Nice." I pulled this painting a couple weeks ago from the website of the gallery where she shows, with the intent of creating this post. In the interim, I've opened it on my screen a few times and without fail get a visceral kick. The title tells us the piece is a tribute to Kazimir Malevich, the pioneer of non-objective, or non-representational, art, which devoted itself to the pleasure and exploration of form and color, without reference to traditional narratives.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Pure Boomer Pop: "Wouldn't It Be Nice"

It's not like there wasn't joyous popular music before the post-war baby boom. Louis Armstrong took the sound of New Orleans "second line" music global, and there's no music that feels better than that. The pop R & B of Louis Jordan, a precursor to rock and roll, was all about the fun; not any angst there. But the joy of the post-war sound was different: It was technicolor. It was optimistic. It was more youth oriented, too, and it was all set in motion by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and of course, Elvis. Not every piece of art needs to balance light and dark motifs. No, sometimes, as with Brian Wilson's "Wouldn't It Be Nice," as in so much of what we call pop music, it can be all light, like when you perceive the love that constitutes the beating heart of the universe. Sometimes when things look bleak or life feels like it's in a rut, you just need to emphasize, or re-emphasize, that "there is something good in feeling good," as John Trudell put it in his tribute to Elvis called "Baby Boom Che." The drum hit at 0:06 of "Wouldn't It Be Nice," is like an ecstatic, innocent cannon shot proclaiming the revolution Trudell described at the end of his poem-song:
It’s like we were the Baby Boom because
Life needed a fresher start
I mean two World Wars in a row is
Really crazy man
And Elvis even though
He didn’t know he said it
He showed it to us anyway
And even though
We didn’t know we heard it
We heard it anyway

Man like he woke us up
And now they’re trying to put us
Back to sleep
So we’ll see how it goes

Anyway look at the record man
Rock ’N Roll is based on revolution
Going way past 33⅓
You gotta understand man he was
America’s Baby Boom Ché
I oughta know, I was in his army
It's often observed that the Beach Boys' music reflected the optimism of Southern California. But how then do you account for the equally joyous music of the Beatles, which emanated from soot-stained Liverpool? No it wasn't geographical, it was spiritual, like Trudell suggests.

Snow/Sky Variations

M. Bogen, Cambridge, Mass, 3-10-17

Friday, March 10, 2017

Beast and the Beauty

The PR machine is hyped up for Disney's new live-action, big budget version of Beauty and the Beast. We have learned that it gets progressive props because it innovates a gay character. Not content with that, we had to learn in an interview at the Daily Beast with star Dan Stevens that this new telling is actually feminist, too, since it explores the balancing of feminine and masculine energies. Or something. (And, yes, they even called the adaptation "woke.")

I've got an idea for how they could really innovate here. Make the "beauty" a man and the "beast" a woman, and have them still fall in love anyway. Now that would demolish some stereotypes.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Robert Osborne and Those Old Black & Whites

Did you see that Robert Osborne died last week? He was the avuncular, knowledgeable host of feature films on Turner Classic Movies. I associate him and TCM with some of my most enjoyable viewing over the years. My rule has been that if they were showing a black and white movie it was probably going to be better than most contemporary movies. It's a ridiculously categorical judgment that probably wouldn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny, but I'll stick with it now for one reason, which is that it seems like before 1960 or so there was more attention to storytelling. The works of the director George Stevens provide a good example. He directed a wide range of films early on, including some Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers flicks, but after WWII his vision got a little tougher, and he produced his great trilogy: Shane, A Place in the Sun, and Giant. Shane is one of my favorite movies, and I saw it and A Place in the Sun on TCM within the past year or two. I discussed Shane here. As for Place, it stars Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters, and it portrays a doomed love affair. What I liked is the patient pacing of the story: we always know what is at stake -- there's no mystery per se -- but we are never bored because the character development is so vivid, both subtle and deep, and the plot unfolds inevitably. Also, Stevens was a master at getting the best work out of his actors. I guess that's why he created so many classics. Here's an excellent essay about Stevens.

Robert Osborne

Saturday, March 4, 2017

More Justin James Reed

If you want to be popular (and I do), you need to give the people what they want, right? Well, the people have spoken (according to Blogger Stats, where I crunch my Small Data) and they are clamoring for me to post more photos from Justin James Reed -- rather like how in a different sphere of existence people clamor for more Taylor Swift. In many of Reed's photos some offense has taken place. The broken plastic above is a bit disturbing, but then again, the idea of plastic over cinder block isn't so appetizing to begin with. In the photo at the bottom the perfect symmetry of the building becomes a bit sinister when you consider that no human has ever set foot on that lawn since it was sodded, with the closest human contact coming from the guy that goes by on a riding lawn mower. Reed's work is pretty diverse, but still coherent.