These days, you often can’t give them away, and many fine pianos actually end up in the trash. The market doesn’t care about family or sentimental values or the fact that music may have kept the family together or at least brought home the joy of making music.
In 1931 at the height of the Depression my parents bought a new Steinway grand for their new Chicago apartment. I was born three years later, and the piano (along with 78-rpm records) became my introduction to music—a lifelong passion. My mother played Christmas carols and simple classical pieces on it, dad would hammer out old show tunes, and some notable jazz musicians like Barbara Carroll entertained us at parties.
Other musicians recognized what a great instrument this piano was. When the family moved on from Chicago, so did the piano, to a new home in Highland Park. In 1950 my parents hosted an affair with the Louis Armstrong All-Stars, and Earl Fatha Hines played it and loved it. In the mid-1960s it came to rest in my New York apartment where in 1971 Sir Roland Hanna, the noted jazz musician, came to a party I had and played it. For its later years it took up space at my ex-wife’s house in New Hope, PA.
When Sally and I split up, we had a fight about who would get the piano. At that time she had a house and I was moving around, starting a new life in Rhode Island and doing a lot of itinerant communications work. So she got the piano, and I got the divorce. I think she did play it, a little. But mostly it sat for ten or more years, tuned but unplayed.
When she died the house had to be sold, and I undertook to sell the piano. I wrote to local music schools and got a lot of nice responses and no-thank-yous. I lowered the price and finally got a bite from NYU’s Music Department. They sent two people out from New York to audition the piano. They found it “a very fine instrument” and so we had a deal. Since I used to teach at NYU years ago, I thought it was a perfect home for a pedigreed old Steinway.
Grand pianos are big clunky objects, very heavy. Many people today are perfectly happy with mobile electronic keyboards that offer cheesy programmed accompaniments and sound enhancements. They are light and convenient for band musicians and those content with digital music. As readers of this blog know, I’m never content with digital music even though I do have a Yamaha electric piano to (sometimes) practice on.
Our old family piano in a way held the family together emotionally when we were all younger, analog people. It was more than a fixture; it was a memento of good times and the power of music to create a joyful connection.
Some of you know I had a partial career as a music critic years ago. (Most everything is now “years ago,” it seems.) I wrote about jazz, the record business, ‘70s rock and, later, classical. My writings were all ephemeral; but the music is not. Most all of it is on record in one form or another, the wine and the dregs.
When I was growing up, a lot of Beethoven echoed in my house. Music was an intrinsic part of our lives, and Beethoven was at the heart of it. I’ve talked about that here and in a book I wrote but not much about Beethoven. Well, the Eroica symphony was a revelation to me as a teenager because it completely broke new musical ground. When I began to really listen to the string quartets in college, they became touchstones of my musical life. Jazz was my daily fare, Beethoven the haute cuisine.
Last night, over leftover noodle casserole, I listened again to all three Rasumovsky Quartets, from Beethoven’s middle and troubled years. There is no music in the world like this. Here is Opus 59, no. 2 of these masterpieces.
I won’t give you a critique here, rather some thoughts that the music evoked. First, the surprising turns this music takes: I remembered that critic Whitney Balliett once called jazz “the sound of surprise.” The three quartets embody surprise in abundance. Second was the stark contrast between the world this music projected and our own disjointed times—the ways in which Beethoven could render his disjointed life and times in the coherence and power of his musical speech.
Later I was to think about how the Eroica Symphony and later the Rasumovsky quartets revolutionized the music of Haydn and Mozart. Here’s how Joseph Kerman put it in his classic work on The Beethoven Quartets:
A new world was being explored, and if the string quartet was going to find a place in it at all, it had to smash the fragile, decorous boundaries set by the classic image of chamber music, . . . a new “symphonized” quartet necessarily had to come into being (p. 151).
Haydn and Mozart provided the building blocks, but the decorous age was clearly over, another instance of the surprising ways the 18th century changed thought and art.
There is no analogue today. The crudeness of our pop music and the irrelevance of much contemporary classical offer no relief from the social and political chaos around us. When I’m hungry I go back to Beethoven.
The recording I listened to is a two-SACD set by the Tokyo String Quartet. The sound is extraordinary, their interpretations exemplary. I have other different but interesting renditions on vinyl by the Guarneri, Budapest, and Juilliard ensembles.
Beethoven would go on to even greater heights of expression in the Late Quartets, one of which (the C-Sharp Minor, Opus 131) would change the way I thought about music forever. More on that later, perhaps.
Antisemitism is much in the news lately. So a big controversy continues over Dave Chappelle’s monologue on Saturday Night Live last week. I found most of his comments about Jews perceptive and funny. Others did not. You can read some excerpts and watch his full solo gig here; a verbal transcript is here.
Chappelle was really targeting the kind of phony socio-political correctness that informs the way we talk and think about matters racial. One commentator put it this way: “If Jews are on the receiving end of the jokes that forces this conversation, that is certainly uncomfortable, but it is also important, and not antisemitic.”
Well, Jewish humor often hits on the faults and foibles of their coreligionists. I’ve heard Italians privately do this too, and Chappelle often takes comedic whacks at black people. Who knows the in-group better than one of its members? Still, there’s the old saw that a lot of people still find true: It’s OK to joke about Jews if you are Jewish; otherwise it’s antisemitic.
As a secular Jew, I’ve often made fun of my people. It affirms my connection and the Jewish uniqueness. When outsiders do it we should look for the line between satiric humor and hate. This is usually not hard to find. The Reverend Al Sharpton used to dispense more than his share of loathing for Jews. Black folks let him get away with most of this repellent antisemitism.
Many negative comments about whites began in the “Crow Jim” era as some black jazz musicians protested against white attempts to play their music. In 1950s Chicago, friends of mine lived across the street from Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam temple, home to his radical Crow Jim-ism. Meaning all things black would finally shake off the inferior white culture and escape its attendant evils. We used to watch these guys get into their black Cadillacs to go and play golf. We would talk with them without any discord. Black Power was both understandable and unachievable.
Today racial hypocrisy is very much on the rise. The old metaphors become dangerous: when was the last time you heard “calling a spade a spade”? But in a way that’s what Chappelle was trying to do. I watch a lot of CNN and sports channels. Almost every ad for every product now features black or brown people. It’s quite amazing. You could call it advertising’s guilty attempt to make up for years of excluding these folks. The obviousness of the gesture conveys its own crudity.
Chappelle made a couple of foolish statements in his monologue. He said that African Americans can’t be blamed for the Holocaust. Wake up, Dave, nobody’s doing that. It’s ridiculous to defend idiots like Kanye and Kyrie Irving but he did so while poking fun at them. Herschel Walker he finds “observably stupid.”
I think Dave wants to be an equal-opportunity comic, but it’s hard to do that these days. He made some great comments on Trump. Still, I tolerate his flaws because he’s perceptive and funny.
I read yesterday that Pharoah Sanders had died. By most accounts he was a kind and gentle man, though his music explored the limits of sonic tolerance. His work in the ‘60s with John Coltrane and Albert Ayler “helped pioneer a frenetic blend of spiritual jazz that, through shrieking horns and loose rhythmic structure, was meant to summon higher powers. The idea, it seemed, was to blow the sax so hard that the music reached God’s ears.”
So says Marcus J. Moore in The Nation, then going on to render an appreciation of Sanders’ development in later years, pointedly with Promises in 2021, an album I haven’t heard in which Moore finds greatness. I do have a couple of albums wherein Sanders and Coltrane are apparently searching for Karma or God on their horns. They are hard to listen to today.
When I was music critic for The New Leader in the late ‘60s I went on a couple of rants about free jazz—how screeching and emotive self-indulgence had taken over the music. Since I’ve become old and crotchety I haven’t much changed my opinion about free jazz though I’ve mellowed a bit. It’s not popular anymore for a lot of reasons, but Pharoah was one of the few to try keeping it relevant, and we salute him for that.
Free jazz proponents talked a lot about freedom. Yet when jazz tends to anarchy it can sink into expressionistic bedlam. John Coltrane’s music in the ‘50s and ‘60s was a revelation to me. When he later focused on his intense spiritual quest I simply couldn’t follow him.
For me, music must have some form or purpose or content its listeners can relate to. Free jazz leaves most musical norms behind, and “all notes are created equal!” It began as protest music and, in my opinion, evolved to self-indulgence. There’s more to it than this, of course. Below is a very good, somewhat complicated explanation of how free jazz takes different forms. I’ve never heard a better one.
When forms like serialism in classical music die out, as free jazz mostly has, what comes next? Ornette Coleman, a unique kind of free jazz musician, showed us one way. Hear “Lonely Woman” from The Shape of Jazz to Come, 1959:
The impulses—musical and social—that created free jazz were not always noble. Mingus and Miles used to say that these folks were jiving the public, trying to make money off black protest. Mingus was very vocal about this: “if the free-form guys could play the same tune twice, then I would say they were playing something . . . .”
When Mingus or his band “played free,” as they often did in his later music, they never got lost in their explorations. There was always a tonal center or a melody or chords to come back to. Mingus was also a master of the many modes and moods of jazz. These traditions and roots were his stock in trade. I’ve always felt that the free jazz people never cared much for these things.
The great viny comeback: is it a music, technology, or cultural story? Or a who-cares story? For me, a longtime vinyl lover, it’s always been just a better way to hear all the music that was recorded. Others find it satisfies different needs. Here’s a piece about vinyl’s psycho-social appeal.
I moved so many times before coming to Mexico—each time sorting and boxing some 1,500 records (classical and jazz mostly, some rock and blues)—that people used to think I was nuts. The process of keeping vinyl clean, the necessity and cost of a good hi-fi system to properly render it, the cumbersome ritual of playing it: for years now these have been impediments to vinyl’s widescale acceptance.
Before CDs and streaming audio captured the market, vinyl was always the default medium of choice for music lovers. Around 2005-2006 it began to stage a comeback. Today there’s a small but still rapidly growing market for “records,” mainly to younger buyers. London’s Financial Times, an unusual source, tells us that vinyl sales for 2021 went over a billion dollars, the highest level in 30 years.
I grew up with stacks of my father’s 78-rpm shellac recordings, then graduated to vinyl and later CD. I’ve talked about this here. Vinyl LPs became
the medium I depend on for my musical fix. It’s also, given the vagaries of my collection, one person’s version of the history of music and, certainly, a history of my taste.
As to the sound, CDs have gotten generally better in the last few years, but vinyl still has the edge in terms of warmth and fullness. It’s closer to the sound of live music, and that after all is the goal of musical reproduction. As to streaming and most online music, well, one writer put it this way: “Streaming is much like fast food, it’s not the greatest but the convenience is really nice. Records are more like cooking a really nice meal at home, you enjoy the whole experience.” I do cook a lot at home.
My father had a decent vinyl collection, and the two of us always enjoyed the musico-technical pleasures of hi-fi. But when the CD arrived, around 1982, he was captivated by the new technology and gave away all his records to the guy who serviced his stereo setup. His son was not pleased at this musical perfidy, which repeated his giveaway of all those stacks of 78s when the LP arrived (around 1948).
The way we listen to music has begun to change in the last few years. Particularly in the ‘90s people became addicted to hearing specific tunes, never a whole album. The convenience of Walkmans, downloads and cell phones made it so easy to hear one’s music that it began to function as background, almost like Muzak.
This didn’t happen for classical and jazz lovers. They never gave over the values of the concert hall—deep listening and abstracting oneself from the nonsense of the day. So, albums and LPs began to come back as preferred vehicles. I guess the moral is slow down your life and listen.
I wrote recently about my associations with Sy Johnson, jazz’s Renaissance man. Now, in a slightly overdue but well-crafted obit, the New York Times pays its respects. All jazz fans should take notice. Sy and I had many conversations about doing a possible book together, and I’ve transcribed a few excerpts below.
SJ: I was trying to be an avant-garde player, like Monk and Cecil Taylor, but I could play perfectly conventional piano too. But then I could not stop myself from being Monk or Cecil Taylor. There were also times when I couldn’t make a mistake. Which brings me to something we should talk about—it’s the zone, suddenly you surrender control of your mind and hands and they behave like they are somebody else’s. And you’re amazed at the music coming out. It’s a really, really profound thing. Playing with Gary Peacock, my onetime roommate, we would hit the first chord and immediately we’re playing things we never thought of, never heard before. . . .
First weekend I was in NY I resolved to go to the Museum of Modern Art, very important and high on my list, and I turned a corner and was confronted by Jackson Pollock’s Abstraction No. 5, or whatever, and it was a revelation. Because it confirmed that the things I was trying to do as a jazz musician entered into other abstract forms of art. I had lots of recording sessions, hanging out with Paul Bley, later with Ornette Coleman, and wanted to find my way into that kind of music. It was a confirmation that, yes, not only could I do that, but other people had gone there before.
Later, we were sitting in Sy’s apartment listening to some CDs I had brought for him to comment on. One was a 1954 Thelonious Monk version of the classic “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
SJ: Monk’s solo piano playing was very much out of the stride piano tradition. Secondly, his arrangements never vary far from the melody. Furthermore, once he made an arrangement it was the same in every rendition of the tune–like Art Tatum playing “Tea for Two.” You hear pretty much the same solo all through. Monk loved to play solos, and I would steal from them; I used to play with the same kind of attack he had, couldn’t stop myself. So I was playing pretty strange stuff in jam sessions. What becomes distinctive is the idiosyncratic parts of a Monk solo, that’s what’s interesting. It doesn’t sound like anybody else. You suspend your feelings about what a conventional romantic ballad might be, how it might be played because it’s Monk and he’s a genius and it’s inimitable and also a key to understanding Monk playing his own tunes. You hear tritones and flatted fifth kinds of fills he plays in the middle of things, whole tone runs. And he doesn’t do a lot of that in the standard songs. And when he has something more complex to play, he stops his left hand. Plays it in the right and then picks up the oom-pah thing in the left. He loved to play standards and played them all day long, 8 hours a day.
People would walk in and find him playing the piano at home and he’d talk while he was still playing. So what we just heard is a very conservative representation of the Jerome Kern classic song. Another thing I noticed is that he doesn’t really hit the bridge right. I mean the bridge changes key, what’s called a common-tone modulation, and it’s about the third bar here before you really do hear the modulation. Not a clean break into the new key, sort of muffed a bit. But this is a classic performance of a great American songbook song, and it’s inimitable.
JG: What can I say? . . . A couple of things: I love that record, think that for all the reasons you stated it’s a classic, conservative piece—and it represents the essence of Monk.
SG: Because it’s not a Monk composition you don’t have to figure out where the song is going next, you’re dealing with a song that you know. It’s part of your inheritance, you’ve heard it forever, and so you can begin to see Monk’s style in context. Because you’re looking at it as a known landscape, like the lake in Central Park. You also remember that Central Park was a very different place when they hung all those orange banners up; it was fascinating what Cristo did, both man and wife, the park was transformed. The landscape had its molecules changed in a way that you could see, transformed in winter. The banners weren’t significant in themselves, they were a means to an end, ingenious as an engineering problem, very well thought out.
But none of Monk’s tune here is really an improvisation—he never takes off from the chord changes or theme—you’re hearing an arrangement, decorated with Monkisms. No rhapsodic effects, no sentimental baggage. He takes it clinically, strips it of all the Broadway schmaltz. I see this as one of the bridging songs from the tradition of Sigmund Romberg, who was a brilliant melodist but part of the florid operetta tradition. Before Monk got his hands on it Jerome Kern had taken that tradition and made it into very characteristic compositions of his own. Kern was a different kind of composer, far more lyical, bordering on the ecstatic. His songs are romantic but modern in development.
We began to talk about “All the Things You Are,” perhaps Kern’s greatest creation. Sy sat down at the piano to illustrate its chord changes and then played a tune he wrote based on them. Maybe an audio clip of that soon.
You see a picture like this, and what comes to mind? Robert Colescott, who painted it, is gone but there’s a new show in New York featuring some of his most confrontational works. Says WaPo’s reviewer Philip Kennicott, work like Colescott’s “confounds almost every piety about race and gender in operation today, sometimes with humor, though not the kind of humor that makes you laugh.”
What I immediately flashed on was Charles Mingus’s great sendup “Eat That Chicken,” from his 1962 album Mingus/Oh Yeah. I still have the original vinyl that was instrumental in turning me on to Mingus. “Eat That Chicken” features another musical prankster, Roland Kirk, whose hokey, honkey-tonk solos perfectly complement Mingus’s vocal antics.
In the ‘60s and ’70s I was privileged to spend time with both of these gents and learned a lot about how black humor works. (I don’t have to capitalize “Black,” do I? Do we capitalize “White”?) Colescott brought another, more discomfiting aspect to it in his paintings. These include such gems as “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware,” which portrays the great black scientist in a boat full of cast-offs and stereotypes—including “a mammie figure performing a sex act on the flag bearer standing just behind Carver.” This is heavy blackface satire executed by a black man.
It’s a bit like what Jewish comedians over the years have done with Jewish culture: they appreciate it and often make fun of it. But for a black man (he was half-black, actually) like Colescott to produce art like this was to categorically pierce the sanctity of black identity, at least as it’s vouchsafed to us in our prevalent cultural politics. We need more of that.
Mingus’s “Eat That Chicken” was supposedly done as a tribute to Fats Waller. I don’t know if that’s true. Fats wrote funny “novelty” tunes like “Your Feets Too Big,” which I heard on the radio as a kid and loved. But “Chicken” has more of a happy bite to it, if you’ll excuse the metaphor. It makes a nod to Jelly Roll Morton and some of his novelties, the Dixieland tradition, and the earthy gospel-ish stuff that Mingus grew up with.
Anyhow, we surely could stand a little less sanctity about race in America.
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 JohnsonLet 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.
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.
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.