Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad
Archives for February 2016
Blizzards mean different things to different people at different times in their lives. To a fifty-year-old drama critic recovering from congestive heart failure who has to make his way to and from the theater district in two feet of blowing snow, a blizzard can be a fearful nuisance, depending on his schedule and his frame of mind. Fortunately, I live a block away from the subway and wasn’t in any great hurry. The streets and sidewalks were slippery but passable, and everyone I saw between my front door and the subway station was smiling. Most New Yorkers, however grumpy they may be on an ordinary day, respond festively to the short-lived chaos of a snowstorm….
Read the whole thing here.
“This work, which everyone had been impatiently waiting to hear, sickened me by its pretentious vulgarity. I did not realize that what I felt was merely the reaction of a Latin mind, unable to swallow the philosophico-musical jargon and the shoddy mixture of harmony and mysticism in what was an essentially pompous art.”
Darius Milhaud, My Happy Life
Mezz Mezzrow is one of those fascinating, exceedingly odd figures in jazz history about whom I could write instructively and at length if I felt so moved. Alas, I don’t, at least not today, so I’ll leave it to Wikipedia to briefly tell his story. Suffice it for now to say that Mezzrow wasn’t quite the worst clarinetist in the world, that he is widely and plausibly believed to have introduced Louis Armstrong to marijuana in 1928, and that (yes, I’m really going somewhere with this) he wrote a self-aggrandizing but nonetheless immensely readable autobiography called Really the Blues, originally published in 1946 and newly reprinted by New York Review Books, that I found altogether invaluable back when I was writing Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.
The reason why I bring him up now is that I ran across this passage, about which I’d completely forgotten, while rereading Really the Blues over the weekend. The date is 1926, the “Dave” referred to in the first sentence is the great jazz drummer Dave Tough, the Austin High Gang was a group of young white jazz musicians from Chicago that also included Tough and Bud Freeman, and “muta” and “muggles” are, of course, marijuana, of which Mezzrow was a celebrated dealer:
It was little Dave who gave me a knockdown to George Jean Nathan and H.L. Mencken, two guys who could mess with the King’s English too. Dave used to read The American Mercury from cover to cover, especially the section called “Americana” where all the bluenoses, bigots, and two-faced killjoys in this land-of-the-free got a going-over they never forgot. That Mercury really got to be the Austin High Gang’s Bible. It looked to us like Mencken was yelling the same message in his magazine that we were trying to get across in our music; his words were practically lyrics to our hot jazz. I dug him all the way, because The Mercury gave you the same straight-seeing perspective that muta does—to me that hard-cutting magazine was a load of literary muggles.
How could I possibly have failed to include that paragraph in my Mencken biography? Ah, well, you can’t think of everything….
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Tommy Ladnier and His Orchestra play “Weary Blues” in 1938. Ladnier is the trumpeter, and the performance also features Sidney Bechet on clarinet and soprano saxophone and Mezz Mezzrow on clarinet:
The French composer Darius Milhaud makes a rare TV appearance in which he talks about jazz in the Twenties, followed by a performance of his jazz-influenced composition Caramel Mou, Shimmy pour Jazz-band, Op. 68, written in 1920. An English translation of the text is read by Madeleine Milhaud, the composer’s wife. Dave Brubeck, who studied with Milhaud, is also seen briefly in this clip, which is drawn from a documentary originally telecast by KQED-TV in 1965. The actual performance took place at Mills College in 1963:
(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)
“In 1962 I was asked to talk about myself at an American college. I recalled my parents, who were so understanding, my wife, my son and his children, who have brought me nothing but joy. In short, I said that I was a happy man. At that moment I sensed general consternation—almost panic—in the hall. Some students came to talk to me after the conference: how had I been able to create in these conditions? An artist needs to suffer! I replied that I had managed to arrange things differently.”
Darius Milhaud, My Happy Life
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Lydia R. Diamond’s “Stick Fly,” which made it to Broadway in 2011, showed us a slice of American life, the black upper class, that is scarcely ever portrayed on stage. It didn’t quite work, but the best parts were so fine that I’ve been longing to see something else by Ms. Diamond ever since. Now Second Stage Theatre has mounted the New York premiere of “Smart People,” her latest play, and loud, long cheers are definitely in order: I have no doubt that it marks the decisive emergence of a distinctive voice in American theater.
“Smart People” is set in and around Harvard. The characters are Valerie (Tessa Thompson), a light-skinned black stage actor who would be struggling were she not the scion of a well-heeled family; Jackson (Mahershala Ali), a dark-skinned black surgical intern who runs an inner-city clinic on the side; Ginny (Anne Son) a Chinese-Japanese-American psychologist-professor who studies “race and identity among Asian-American women”; and Brian (Joshua Jackson), a white neuroscientist who believes he’s proved that white people are biologically predisposed to racism. All four are very smart, very attractive, very smug, very prickly, and competitively progressive, by which I mean that they preface every other sentence they utter by assuring you of the impeccability of their liberalism: “My politics are such that I can make that joke. With people who know me.” They are, in short, comfy inhabitants of the academic monoculture—but not nearly as comfy, or as pristinely free of prejudice, as they suppose themselves to be.
At bottom “Smart People” is a sharp-edged satire, and Ms. Diamond’s ear for the foibles of her subjects is so precisely tuned as to make “Clybourne Park” and “Disgraced” sound downright tone-deaf….
Stephen Karam’s “The Humans” stirred up a huge fuss when it ran off Broadway last year. Now that I’ve caught the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway transfer, I can’t quite figure out what all the shouting was about. It’s a kitchen-sink family drama about a Thanksgiving dinner gone wrong, the sort of play that appears to have been written according to an outdated version of what I think of as the Social Issues Checklist. (Dementia? Check. Middle-class unemployment? Check. 9/11? Check. Wait a minute—9/11?)
To be sure, “The Humans” is passably well made, or would be were it not for the way in which the author stirs up expectations of a spookily melodramatic coda on which he fails to deliver, but none of the characters says or does anything that isn’t perfectly obvious…
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To read my review of Smart People, go here.
To read my review of The Humans, go here.
Lydia R. Diamond talks about the writing of Smart People: