Death is an abstraction until it’s not.

 

Death is the ultimate fact of life, notwithstanding all the trite stuff that’s been written about it. And of course it’s not all trite. I recently reread T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” surely the ultimate poem about this subject. It brought forth strong feelings about recent losses of people in my life:

“I had not thought death had undone so many,” says the narrator.

My son Ethan died in July from a fall in his apartment. He was fifty-two. Mentally ill for many years, his death ended a sorely troubled life and yet was so undeserved. We knew it might end this way; still, the shock of it jolted the family beyond words.

Two friends of mine from the music world recently passed—Sy Johnson in July and Charles’s wife Sue Mingus last month. I interviewed Sy in the early 1970s for my book Mingus Speaks (for which he provided photos of Charles and Sue). My reflections on Sy are here and here. We continued our friendship long after Mingus’s death from ALS (another horror story).

Sue and I had several engaging sessions of talk in the Mingus apartment—about Charles, the book and our life connections in Chicago/Milwaukee. We connected again more recently at gigs of the Mingus Big Band at the Jazz Standard in NYC. Sue managed the band and the other Mingus aggregations, attending every session and personally dishing out checks to the musicians at the evening’s end.

For many of us the dead are in suspended animation, a presence forever. Roger Angell, a fine writer/editor for The New Yorker, wrote an affecting piece in 2014 about the ongoing power of remembrance of those passed. I loved his stuff. He died in 2022, aged a hundred and one.

We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day. It’s no wonder we’re a bit bent. . . . The dead have departed, but gestures and glances and tones of voice of theirs, even scraps of clothing—that pale-yellow Saks scarf—reappear unexpectedly, along with accompanying touches of sweetness or irritation.

The dead maintain their presence in so many ways. Memories agitate or sustain us, fill out our lives with joy and grief. It’s like watching old shows on black-and-white TV.

Music, Freedom, and Form

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.

Computer-Assisted Headaches

Yesterday, all of a sudden, MS Word wouldn’t start. Do you know what this means to someone who writes? It’s like your car won’t start when you’re going to an important meeting. Or running  out of gas at night on a country road. Your word processor is your life.

I got it fixed because I know the vagaries and twitches of my old computer, and it just required a restart. I have a ThinkPad which I still love though it’s now ten years old, long past the fail date for most laptops. Its twitches have become more frequent, though nothing major bad yet. These signs have not gone unnoticed.

A new ThinkPad is out of the question: too expensive. Other new laptops have a lot of features I don’t want or need—and too few ports for all the USB peripherals I run. The mess of wires and cables beneath my desk is the typical rat’s nest. So you have to plug all that stuff into a hub.

I have been fooling with computers since 1984-5 when I bought two British-made Apricots for my business. These were great machines for the time and, along with my accountant, they taught me how to use software like Lotus 1-2-3. After I got the hang of earlier word processors like WordPerfect, my writing habits were absolutely transformed.

Apricot

As time has passed, computing has gotten much more complicated while the machines have gotten much better. As they now perform hundreds more functions faster and more powerfully, who can keep up (unless you’re a techie)? And who can master all the proliferating software? My old brain is not equipped for this.

Worse still is trying to deal with all the functions on a smartphone. I’ve had three or four of these over time, and each gets more fussy and complicated. They contain so much crap you don’t want, and some phones still come loaded with bloatware. They also hide the stuff you need to set or change in impenetrable sub-menus.

Doing regular things like cleaning the cache is like learning a new language. Making the phone behave as you want requires patience and perseverance. I have friends who just turn off their phones when they are idle. Y’all know what I’m talking about?

For most users, progress in the art of computing ought to mean getting things done that you need to do in the simplest, most effective way. Often it means spending inordinate amounts of time and frustration to fight your way through outdated instructions from Google, incompatible software, inscrutable tech talk, and incompetent support staff.

Like so much in contemporary life, our devices give us what someone else thinks we want in a frequently user-unfriendly form. Now we have AI to look forward to.

DeSantis

The guy shows you what Harvard and Yale educations can produce. He’s always in that dumb navy blue suit, the one he ordered from Trump’s tailors.

The MAGA Mafia has no shame about its actions because their quest for power and control will not permit it. And the DeSantis pugnacity reflects this in his every action. His Martha’s Vineyard hijack promises more of the same.

Dexter Filkins said this about him:

He’s very, very angry at the élites, even though he went to Harvard and Yale. He’s very angry at Washington. He’s very angry at the politicians. He’s rallying basically the white working class of Florida, of which the numbers are still quite large. He’s angry.

He doesn’t like gays, Disney, Fauci, masks, Washington, critical race theory. At dinner Friday night with some friends and fortified by martinis and wine, I indulged in a short rant about how futile it was to just bitch and complain about the loathsomeness of the far right. “The Democrats need to understand what motivates these people. What causes them to be so pissed off? We should hear their complaints. Know thine enemy.”

I prattled on about how politics is simply about winning the most votes, not just vilifying the other side. My assumption was, I guess, that some of the hoi polloi could be won over. It was really a Platonic response to all the hate that pols like DeSantis promote. As the fog lifted today, I’m thinking how nobly unrealistic such an approach is.

In military terms, you must take out the front-line defenses, attack them head on. That will not be easy with smart operators like DeSantis. Charlie Crist seems too nice and gentlemanly for that task.

Rather, we should learn from the Ukranians how to be stealthy and smart. Booby trap their meetings with stunts; enlist the Florida lefties who have been far too quiet lately; make more public noise about the governor’s odious actions.

The best weapon will be humor. Jimmy Kimmel: “Ron DeSantis is that guy you went to high school with who desperately wanted to be prom king but didn’t have any charisma, so instead, he just pulled the fire alarm and ruined the dance for everybody.”

Vinyl Reincarnated

Record store in Oaxaca

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.

A Wizard of Jazz

Sy Johnson, Lois MIrviss, Dan Morgenstern

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.

I’m Declassifying Everything I Ever Wrote

That includes everything on this blog, plus Mingus Speaks and the other books and occasional pieces I’ve written. Also, I formerly did a blog called jazzinsideandout.com in this space, which is now offline though I keep copies on my computer of all the junk I wrote for it. All that is now declassified, so you can now read it quite legally—if you can find it.

Trump told NBC News on Friday that he had declassified all the records now held in Mar-a-Lago. He waved his magic wand. No reason I can’t do the same.

Matt Bai wrote recently about how Trump never understood the transiency of the presidency, that a president is merely a temporary custodian of the office. “You’re just hired to manage the place for a while.” Trump instead thinks of himself as a sort of super-CEO, a Musk-like creature with extraordinary powers of command and control. He can wave the wand of declassification whether he’s president or not.

I also decided to take this step in clear violation of the copyright law, which gives me legal control over my writings but which also poses certain conditions I don’t like. People are supposed to come to me for permission to quote or reproduce my stuff. This is a completely out-of-date prohibition since the internet has made any and everything totally available.

Another thing I don’t like: “if employees create works that are within the scope of their jobs, the copyrights are owned by the employers as ‘works-for-hire.’” Wait a minute. Why should working for others take precedence over one’s own creativity? I’ve written a lot of good stuff for other people that they now own the rights to?

Writers are like children; they want to hold on to what they think rightfully belongs to them. Some seem to have never gotten properly toilet-trained. Well, it’s time for all that to stop. Matt, again, has a good take on this:

So, of course, Trump refused to leave the job until forced, and of course he held on to material that clearly belonged in public hands. When the presidency is an acquisition rather than an opportunity to serve, then everything that comes with it is rightfully yours to do with as you please.

Of course I don’t work for the government though I have done contract work for the Navy and government agencies in the past. I have no idea whether any of that stuff might be classified, but it’s  doubtful. So who really cares? I wave the wand of declassification anyway. Let ‘em come to Mexico and search my 58 bedrooms.

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.

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.

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.