Homage to Sy Johnson

Some people get under your skin and stay there. So it was with Sy Johnson, the person connected with Mingus to whom I was closest in the jazz world. We met years ago when I was doing interviews for Mingus Speaks. Sy was a great talker, and after maybe a half hour I realized to my utter dismay that the batteries on my tape recorder had died. Sy said, “Jesus, I feel like I’ve been making love to a mattress!” And so we started over and soon got to be friends.

His comments were an invaluable addition to my book and to my thinking about music. And, since he was a dedicated photographer, I got him to contribute a whole series of Mingus photos to the book. When my publisher and I arranged for a book party at the Jazz Standard, Alex Foster, the dork who was leading the great Mingus Orchestra that night, called out Sy as the author. My nephew, who is a big guy, leaped out of his chair and was about to charge the stage. Cooler heads intervened, including Sy’s, and the evening went on to be a success.

We had many subsequent meetings, breakfasts and drinks in New York. I taped a whole series of our conversations, and soon I’ll try to go through them. Besides music they touched on culture, sports, quantum theory, and more. The best times were when I joined him and Lois, his better half, at the Jazz Standard for Monday nights with the Mingus Big Band. He was still writing for them and the other Mingus aggregations. His charts adorn most of their recordings.

Mingus gave Johnson Let My Children Hear Music to arrange, which featured two Mingus pieces, “Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife (Are Some Jiveass Slippers)” and “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clowns Afraid Too”. The album’s emergence was heralded with a live concert, Mingus And Friends At Philharmonic Hall, also arranged by Johnson and released as an album. Johnson continued to work with Mingus until his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1979. Mingus recorded two of Johnson’s compositions, “Wee” and “For Harry Carney”, and nominated Johnson for a Guggenheim Award following his own in jazz composition.

Sy spoke fondly about being part of the last Mingus session with Joni Mitchell. He wrote for many jazz greats ranging from Ben Webster to Benny Goodman, even Frank Sinatra. There’s a good short bio from the Mingus website here.

Sy passed on last week. He was 92. My son Ethan died at 52 the previous week, also in New York, after a long mental illness. For convergences like that there are no words.

Best City in the World?

Oaxaca was recently voted this phony accolade by Travel+Leisure magazine readers. Who are these readers? They are the upmarket travelers who don’t mind paying $500 a night for a bed. How can such people understand what a real city is? The photo above is a set piece for them.

Oaxaca is a great place to live, and I’ve been here for thirteen years. It has a colorful but sporadically gritty downtown, and if you have ever taken the drive in from the airport, you know what downscale urban sprawl looks like. Of it’s 300,000 or so people, many are poor and pursue a fractional existence. We’re in the midst of a messsy city-wide garbage strike now because the dump is full and can’t take any more.

OAX is not really the glamorous, historic, food-rich Mexican town that the tourists see. And yet it does have an overlay of rich chilangos who have moved here, moneyed kids who have come to study Spanish, and gringos who can fake a wealthy retirement because of the exchange rate. I’m one of the latter.

The Travel+Leisure-type endorsements we get just ruin things for us. They bring in money, yes, but we don’t want American culture or its values, particularly now.

In the eponymous capital city of Oaxaca, you can throw a rock in any direction and hit a hotel worth overnighting at. If you’re not afraid to spend a few hundred per night, you can enjoy the modern boutique beauty of Hotel Casa Santo Origen, or if you want something more old-fashioned, check in at Quinta Real Oaxaca—a 16th-century nunnery retaining a thorough throwback charm.

—where you’ll also spend a few hundred a night. Every new T+L piece or New York Times article just brings in more of these vagrant deadbeats. They descend on us like the locusts. So we, or some of us, find a perverse joy in taking their money and making fun of them. I guess that may be a form of smugness—or a way of showing that we love our city and don’t want it to change.

Enough with the Hearings

I guess my question is what more do we need to know? The only serious question is how much more info they can give to DOJ to make an indictment. The whole thing is getting to be a big drag, like everything about Trump. Many are getting fed up, as the ratings have shown.

The media keeps buzzing about how important tonight’s last hearing will be. It purports to be about what El Cheeto was doing while he watched the riot on TV. We already know or can guess what he was doing, and one CNN piece already gave us a pretty full account of those 187 minutes. You can read that report and avoid watching the hearing tonight.

But CNN-TV goes on and on, trying to build interest in the event, and its blah-blah anchors keep on spieling how significant this all is, inviting boring and constantly reappearing guests to comment. They almost sound like flacks for Trump.

We have two good friends coming over to watch. We will make a pleasant social event out of this. That’s all it deserves. I have laid in a good supply of booze.

A Plague on Both Their Houses

For Joe Biden, the sad sack who is turning into a liability for the Democrats, polls show that 64% of Democrats want him to step aside in 2024. With young voters, the figure is 93%. Top concerns are his age and job performance. If it’s Trump versus Biden again in 2024, I predict hordes of people will be moving to Mexico.

A recent NYTimes poll found that 10% would vote for neither one. I don’t think Trump could win if the Repubs are foolish enough to nominate him. (They have even asked Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to speak at the CPAC conference in August.) DeSantis in many ways will be worse.

Recent Supreme Court decisions on Roe and guns have riled up a lot of people. But the Dems show few signs of real outrage or responding to these issues in a way that relates to voters’ real agendas. As many have said many times, they don’t know how to fight. The White House issues its predictable talking points and shows, once again, that it doesn’t know how to engage persuasively with voters of different stripes. There’s no urgency or fire. And there’s no third-party candidate worth talking about.

The Democrats are like those in-laws that Carolyn Hax wrote about today in the Washington Post: they keep on bringing meat meals, one after the other, to a new mom who happens to be vegetarian. Fundamentally, that is harassment. For the White House, it’s plain pigheadedness and political ineptitude.

After the Highland Park shooting, Biden made a tepid, ill-timed patriotic speech with barely a mention of the disaster that had just unfolded. For me, that was almost unforgiveable.

For you, my readers, there’s no need to repeat the litany of worse-and-worse Republican treachery and folly. What we need now is people who know how to fight a most critical political battle.

Shooting Up My Old Hometown

I grew up in Highland Park and always felt that kind of fondness you have for the place you take for granted and call home. When the shooting started and the reports came rattling in, I couldn’t believe how affected I was. These graphic photos, however, showed a place very different than any I remembered from some sixty years (and more) ago.

The last time I had been there was for my 50th high school reunion in 2002. I really began to form my values in those years at Highland Park High School, where I met and formed great friends and began to learn about the world. The reunion did bring that time back, but the shooting unraveled all those memories, like running a movie in reverse.

I began to detach from home when I went to college, then returned for graduate school at the University of Chicago. But Highland Park was where my father and grandfather built their houses and their lives, so it was always a point of return for me. Chicago I loved but it was never home.

A lot of years have intervened between then and now. My life has taken so many turns since Highland Park that the town seems entirely divorced from my present existence yet so basic to it. This hometown shooting intruded on my expat life like a clap of thunder that wakes you from a deep sleep.

“How dare that freaky sonofabitch massacre those innocent people?” you ask. The answer, of course, is that these mass shootings will continue as long as our doddering political system permits them.

More than when I lived there, Highland Park represents the flourishing of the now-defunct American dream. It gets much media attention because of its affluence and image. Unlike the atrocities in Buffalo and Uvalde, the town has a good police force, the resources to recover, and the attention of a few more angry people like Governor J.B. Pritzker who just might make a difference.

Happy Birthday, USA

Richard Serra: “Four Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure”

For a change let’s talk about two of the good things in America. One of them is its art; the other its music. In my opinion they have nothing to do with patriotism or with politics, really. Protest art for me is almost a contradiction in terms. The fact that great art can still be created in America is one of the few promising elements in these days of retraction, reaction, and neo-fascist propensities.

Writing in The New Yorker, critic Peter Schjeldahl called Richard Serra’s work (shown above) “a tuning fork to gauge the degree of fact in other aspects of a world awash in pixelated illusions.” I take that to mean an assertion of solidity and truth against the world of illusions (pixelated and otherwise) that we too much live by.

The Matter of Time

With Serra’s art, says Schjeldahl, “You’re knocked sideways out of comparisons to other art in any medium or genre.” Great art always makes you fight for comparisons. It almost mocks language. Those of us who have written about music know this. Sviatoslav Richter, a Russian, played Bach like no other pianist.

His artistry has nothing to do with our present or past conflicts or with politics. Richter played to great acclaim in America and around the world. We appreciate and love his playing in ways that have nothing to do with nationality or policy. Art, as they say, makes strange bedfellows.

Great art is certainly no antidote to all the problems now facing the United States. Nor is it any kind of panacea for the many ills that plague us. The fact that America could create a music like jazz is, still, extraordinary. Composers like Gershwin and Ives, pianists like Monk, and newcomers like Cécile McLorin Salvant should be celebrated.

Like Richard Serra’s work, their creativity is part of America’s remarkably rich artistic culture, still surviving though always under one threat or another. Right now we could use a few celebrations.

Teaching in a Troubled Time

Our present turmoils have brought me to remember how violent the Vietnam years were, how frequent and widespread the disruptions were, and how we protested and coped. We will likely be in for a lot more of the same now. Have we learned anything from those disruptive Vietnam times? I gave up teaching years ago but my students taught me some lessons.

I was teaching literature at City College in New York in the early ‘70s when the Vietnam disaster was at its height. I had been protesting against the war for years, but now many schools were shutting down, and I remember feeling disdain for the kids who would take over Columbia but without any kind of program. They had to have an agenda if they wanted to accomplish anything, or so I thought. It took a while for me to learn that protests don’t work that way.

It was a very heady and disconcerting time. Columbia was in the throes of protests and takeovers, and they spread to City College. When most of our classes were cancelled, my students still asked to meet in my apartment and other places. They wanted to discuss and learn about literature. So we carried on, for maybe four or five sessions, and finally classes resumed.

Discussing 19th century French poetry while the war was raging and anger in the streets was rising just seemed futile and absurd. Yet there was a sense that doing this provided us a modicum of sanity and substance. I was still trying to be the voice of rationality: when my students began denouncing Nixon, I said (rather smugly), “The nation gets the president it deserves.” Than we all took a break to listen to jazz.

The Vietnam war gave liberals a focus for action. It’s clear that the protests (and the losses) finally did have their effect, changing the political will of those in power. The situation today is much more complex and grievously more dire. There are literally too many fires to put out:

All these calamities (and which did I forget?) are on the cusp of plaguing us for years to come. There are no clear-cut, nicely defined ways to deal with any of them. The plague of Vietnam, we thought then, could be addressed with focused political action. That effort drove Lyndon Johnson from office. Now we have daunting polarization, shifting targets and much-reduced political firepower.

Somehow, I take from my teaching years a faith in the generations to come and their eagerness to learn about literature in the face of a world that they thought was collapsing. I was about ten years older than most of my students—not too old to learn from them. Among other things, they taught me that political order is never fixed, that protests finally can work, and that we ignore the humanities at our peril.

Send in the Clowns

The circus was actually under a tent when I was a kid. It featured wild animals jumping through fiery hoops, high-wire acrobats a hundred feet or more in the air, and of course the clown car. I loved watching a dozen or so people emerge from a small red coupe, and the crowd roared in delight.

You know where this is going, right? In the Select Committee hearings the Trump lackeys are bailing out, repudiating for the world the Big Lie they all formerly endorsed, emerging en masse from Trump’s red coupe. How they all could manage to fit in that car, with such doubts about their boss’s sanity, is the mystery. Yet finally it is no mystery that they are trying to save their skins.

Like so much of what passes for politics now, I find this full of comic overtones—like something Kafka could have written. Our late-night comedians have big problems getting laughs from Trumpian politics. So many clowns have jumped out of the car that the gag just isn’t funny anymore. “But there is also a sense, as the president talks openly about defying the results of the election, that satire has not accomplished what its champions believed it could. Even the professionals seem disillusioned.”

Satire works best as a dark form of irony that makes its object look ridiculous. The audience must be in on the joke, or the attempt falls flat. One can cite Jonathan Swift, as I did regarding guns, and most people either don’t know who Swift was or they find the comparison bogus. Such are the perils of irony. If you mock Trump with humor you’re up against some sixty percent of Republicans who continue to believe the Big Lie.

But I still like the metaphor of the circus. For those who pay any attention to it, politics has become entertainment for the masses. The media could not survive without it. The poet Juvenal said this in Roman times: “Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt.” Are the Select Committee hearings merely a distraction or a diversion for most people? They aren’t “blood sport” for most people, as in ancient Rome, though they might lead to that.

Folks like Rudy Giuliani can also be expected to provide comic relief, as when the old drunk urged Trump to contest the results on election night. Or the wonderful press conference he hosted at the Four Seasons Landscaping Service. John Eastman, chief clown to the president, kept pushing for a plan to kick the election back to the states, even while he acknowledged its illegality.

For many, the very gravity of the hearings indicates that real dangers are lurking. So do the words of the witnesses. Yet a strong sense of artificiality often pervades. We hope the acrobats don’t slip and fall, even as we expect that they might. That tension is part of the circus appeal. Here we hope the clowns will go to jail though we know they may not.

Beyond Words

Fox News Offices this morning

I’ve just reviewed a ton of reactions to the January 6 Committee’s first hearing last night. If the hearings could change one person’s mind, that would be a positive. Other than repeating what the many opinionists have been saying, I don’t know what to add that would shed any great light or express how utterly awful the state of the United States union is.

Nor can I bring myself to write something that would be clever or penetrating. Taking that kind of approach now seems flippant and self-serving. We need fewer of these pronouncements, of which Jonathan Chait provides a good example. Writers seem to be captivated by others’ opinions, whether it be about guns, race, Trump or January 6. Yet one who tries for original thoughts on such subjects is not heeded, he’s just ignored.

The problems confronting the U.S. seem intractable. So, despite all the noise they make, the voters en masse basically ignore their solutions. I’m at the stage where I still keep devouring products of the multi-headed media, only finally to disregard much of what is said. The media is too much with us.

So I’m going to beg off blog writing for a while—until and unless I get my voice back. Let’s all take a break and go to the beach.

Watergate Fifty Years On

Many of us might wish we had Dick Nixon back instead of Trump. Until, that is, they remember Watergate which set the pattern for corruption and deceit in government. If you need an update on that, here’s a good one by Woodward and Bernstein, the reporters who broke the story.

 My friend Jack and I, in our mid-thirties and drinking a lot, were writing a book about our authoritarian fathers. The subject led naturally into the manifestations of authoritarian government and the recent scandals of Watergate. Here’s some of the conversation I recorded. How little has changed in fifty years.

JOHN: So this justice for the Supreme Court is asking [Alexander] Bickel, the attorney for the New York Times, “You know there has to be a clear and immediate danger to the security of the United States.”

The Justice: “Well, suppose it’s gonna kill 100 soldiers in Vietnam. Would you say 100 is a clear and present danger? Is it 90?”

The whole prosecution had such a specious argument. And John Mitchell, you know, he is just so ripe, the ripest fucking old Dad. What is he now, Nixon’s campaign manager? So he gets up and says—he and Nixon both said it—that the Washington police did such a great job with the Mayday arrests: 15,000 people were detained and arrested, for not doing a goddamn thing!

JACK: Wait a minute, they did a good job! I don’t know any other police department that could get so many arrested that fast. That’s law and order, get ‘em out of there. Like the army, dig ‘em up, move ‘em out. It’s like police call, arrest ‘em all [laughter]. I think they did a great job.

JOHN: Did you read the story that the White House was hosting a Finch College reunion since Tricia had gone there? And Grace Slick, another Finchie, was coming with Abbie Hoffman. The thing that wasn’t in the Times but was in Rolling Stone from an interview with Grace, was that they had all kinds of acid that they were going to dump in the tea, turn on the whole fucking crew, dump it in the samovar or whatever. Their great hope was that Dad might come down and share a cup with them. Greatest idea I ever heard of. But they wouldn’t let them in: husbands and boyfriends were not invited, it was Finch graduates only, so they got turned away.

JACK: Best line of the whole testimony before the Supreme Court: The government made the case that one thing of grave and immediate danger to the security of the U.S. was that Daniel Ellsberg had stolen some of the contingency plans for carrying out the war in Vietnam. And apparently Bickel, the defense lawyer, had seen the Pentagon Papers, and he said, “Mr. Justice, everybody knows what these plans are. Any reasonably intelligent high-school boy could probably draft them in about fifteen minutes. Either we’re gonna bomb the shit out of North Vietnam, A-bomb them into oblivion, or get out. What’s the big secret?”

JOHN: As it turns out of course it’s not saving the face of the U.S., but saving the face of all those assholes who made the policy.

In [Nixon’s] eyes, the publication of the Pentagon Papers confirmed the existence of a radical, left-wing conspiracy throughout the government and media, whose purpose was to delegitimize him and topple his administration. Nixon resolved to fight back with every tool at his disposal, making the fateful decision to break the law to achieve his ends.”