July 2007 Archives
Were I still in New Orleans, tonight I'd be at a slamming jam session (the likes of which there are too few) celebrating, and raising funds for, a great New Orleans musical tradition: Satchmo Summer Jazz Camp.
For the past seven years, I've driven up to Downeast Maine for the last weekend of July to serve as volunteer-producer of the Deer Isle Jazz Festival at the Stonington Opera House. I fell into this role naturally. Erica and I happened upon this place and fell in love with the charming coves, the pink-and-blue sunsets, the unparalleled lobster, the chilly nights, the warm unassuming atmosphere, and the creativity that seemed to bubble up everywhere we went. One afternoon, we made a left turn and right in front of us stood a once-grand then-decrepit opera house. "Hey, let's quit our jobs," I said dreamily (I had one at the time), "buy this place, fix it up, and turn it into a nonprofit arts center!'
We didn't, but a group of enterprising women did. (You can read more about them and their Opera House Arts here.) Soon, we got to talking: Let's bring jazz musicians up here, create a festival that celebrates not just music but improvisation and its connections to creativity of all types, someone said. Before long, saxophonist Dewey Redman was onstage, opening the inaugural event. Matt Wilson, then his drummer, played a separate set: a forty-minute duet with slide guitarist David Tronzo. Tronzo meanwhile, had spent two weeks at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts (in a festival-related residency): a glassblower had created a series of custom slides that Tronzo used in performance. At one point in the set, Tronzo coaxed tiny squeals from his guitar by rubbing a plastic up against his strings, coaxed along by Wilson's skittering beat. The audience stuck with it, dug it: I knew we were on to something. Since then, the 250-seat former vaudeville house has played host to Brazilian singer Luciana Souza in duets with guitarist Romero Lubambo and pianist Fred Hersch; saxophonist Greg Osby's quartet with pianist Jason Moran; my own favorite male jazz vocalist, Andy Bey; French horn player Vincent Chauncey; free-jazz hero bassist William Parker; and 80-year-old master pianist Randy Weston.
Listening to Abbey Lincoln's latest recording, Abbey Sings Abbey (Verve), I'm struck by how, in terms of trappings and production, it's the least jazzy recording in her catalog -- yet it may be the truest to her identity as a singer and songwriter. The power and purity of her achievement may be enough to free up jazz singers and listeners previously enslaved to narrow visions of what a song can be or how it can be sung. At 76, Lincoln outdoes all those thirtysomethings who thrive on vibe, slow-strummed accompaniment, and well-turned phrases.
She's also a liberating presence for those fortunate enough to know her. Below is an excerpt from my recent piece on Lincoln in the Wall Street Journal:
A while back, Bethany Bultman, an unflappable supporter of New Orleans musicians, told me of a fairly straightforward promotional effort aimed at airline passengers: Get brass bands to play at Louis Armstrong airport, at baggage claim, to entertain newly arrived tourists and perhaps to offer up flyers listing the various brass-band and traditional-jazz gigs around town. Apparently, this went on for a short while with funding from the Musicians Clinic, then fell flat when the city failed to take interest in offering further support.
But have no fear: The great minds at the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau have come up with a dazzling new plan to promote culture (which apparently makes use of the latest advances in food-photography technology)! Here's a press release I just received, the hilarity of which should make Onion staffers and satirists elsewhere heretofore obsolete:
Please let me share my enthusiasm for the publication of Music in the Post-9/11 World (Routledge). It's a collection of essays on musical responses to the World Trade Center attacks and the changing cultural contexts shaped by our continued "war on terror". Subjects range from John Adams's Pulitzer Prize-winning piece "On the Transmigration of Souls" to Bruce Springsteen's "Rise Up" to, in the case of my chapter, expressions of Sufism through a Moroccan arts festival and the recent work of African singer Youssou N'Dour.
The year I spent at as a National Arts Journalism Program Fellow at Columbia University was transformative, not least because it began in September 2001: The World Trade Center attacks took place on the second day of the second week of the fall academic semester. My contribution to this book grew directly out of that experience and, not coincidentally, from my writing for two editors who are NAJP alumni. Here, I'm in the company of a distinguished list of scholars, who let me play in their sandbox despite my lack of obvious credentials.
It's a scholarly book -- $95 for the hardcover, $25 for the paperback. But I think the theme and particular subjects essayed are of broad and even popular appeal, footnotes notwithstanding.
Here's are some brief excerpts from my chapter, "Exploding Myths in Morocco and Senegal":
A schoolyard basketball court under a strong sun isn't the best place to discuss race and politics in America, certainly not for two middle-aged white under-the-rim players wilting a bit from the heat. But that's what I found myself doing yesterday, in between games, sharing with my buddy some of the details of my last trip to New Orleans, for the Essence Festival.
(My piece in Salon.com on Barack Obama's appearance at the Superdome Thursday night is here.)
Anyway, one thing led to another and said buddy ended up advancing the idea that issue analysis and electorate-segmentation by race is no longer useful or even accurate -- that there is no black vote or voice, per se (I'm paraphrasing him here, so apologies to said friend). His logic went that the races are commingling biologically to a point where things are literally "no longer black and white"(he said that part, I'm sure), and that divisions and coalitions along the lines of income, class, region, religion, and profession matter as much or more.
I will admit that a recent academic study that found racial bias in the calling of fouls during NBA games seemed nothing more than badly skewed statistical silliness (like I said, the basketball court doesn't lend itself well to such discourse). But I know that especially during my time spent in New Orleans, I've met a while lot of black folks who are quite sure of their distinct identity as both a potentially empowered voting block and as clearly designated focus of disenfranchising efforts. I'm not sure where I'm heading with all that, and likely toward little more than trouble, but that's what came up when we put the ball down.
One thing the Essence Festival -- a three-day conglomeration of concerts, seminars, book signings, and merchandising - makes clear is that there are some 20,000 attendees and a convention center full of marketers, not to mention politicians and activists who are banking on the fact that there is a black market to be courted for votes, social and political activism, and product promotion. And the presences (or not) were telling, if unsurprising. The two leading Democratic candidates were there; not even a flyer for a Republican was in evidence. Sony was there, Apple absent.
brought the love, but not the jazz
If Louis Armstrong wasn't born on the Fourth of July, 1900, well, he should have been. In any case, that fact was long believed until someone discovered baptismal records placing Armstrong's real birthdate as August 4th, 1901. But let's not let that to spoil the party.
And let's include Armstrong -- who was as American as apple pie, hot dogs, and capricious commutations of sentences for White House cronies -- into our celebrations today.
Armstrong's life and legacy transcended mundane facts as easily as his trumpet's sound and his vocal phrasing danced across a bar line. His horn, his voice, his rhythmic sense, and his approach to music in general helped signal a distinctly American sound, a decidedly 20th century cultural development. And his presence brought simple human joy, along with conscience of political and social imperative, to bear in any and every context.
Here are some things trumpeters have told me about Armstrong: