Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Louis Armstrong: "Satchmo" At The Top Of 20th Century Jazz

It's safe to say that Armstrong indeed helped make a wonderful world during his near six decades in jazz and popular music. He was a phenomenal jazz trumpeter, performer, writer, stage personality and all around good will ambassador who was born on this day in New Orleans in 1901. He was nicknamed, "Satchmo," short for "satchelmouth," as a child because of his prominent mouth. The moniker stayed with him as he blazed a trail of unforgettable music throughout his life. Although he passed away in 1971 his imprint remains large in popular music and jazz in particular.

Louis Armstrong                                        Adi Holzer, 2002

Here is a link to the Armstrong page at NPR's Jazz Profiles where you can listen to the master himself and to others as they describe his broad cultural legacy. Readers can learn more at the Louis Armstrong House Museum site.

And here are two pieces of the master at his trade performing Now You Has Jazz at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, and his signature song, What A Wonderful World:

In 1956 Armstrong joined with Ella Fitzgerald and the Oscar Peterson Quartet to make an album that to this day consistently appears in lists of the top ten jazz albums of all time. Here is a sample from this masterpiece:

It's safe to say that Armstrong indeed helped make a wonderful world during his near six decades in jazz and popular music. May his smile, his sound, and his goodness stay with us for a long, long time.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Happy Birthday To Tony Bennett - No Signs Of Stopping At 89

Tony Bennett is an interesting blend of vocal talent and showmanship, a well-tempered entertainer with a not so perfect voice. You have to learn how to appreciate the value of a permanent vocal strain and a sound out of vaudeville. For me, it was a long learning process, but I've come to appreciate and enjoy the total Bennett experience. He's had two careers, a fifteen-year affair with the Greatest Generation, and a now thirty-year reinvention with new artists, music, and audiences following a lull during the rock and roll era. Bennett has also been in the forefront of introducing current generations to the Great American Songbook. Back in 2011 he made an album entitled Duets II. It featured the jazz master singing in tandem with a host of well-known voices from a wide range of musical genres. The album was an instant hit even with the critics and it topped the charts on its debut. By their very nature albums of this type heighten creativity and versatility. And old-timers like Bennett can feel the chemistry at work as well as see the potentials and opportunities emerging from the unexpected. He turns 89 today. After more than sixty years on stage, he still draws huge audiences to his full concert schedule of tunes from jazz, to Broadway, to the Great American Songbook. So best wishes to the man for a happy birthday and many years to come in the spotlight.

As he sings at just about every opportunity, the best is yet to come, and indeed it has in his latest release in September 2014, Cheek to Cheek, a collection of old standards with none other than Lady Gaga. She does have an exceptional voice and some would say a hint of jazz in her music, but to me neither element comes center stage through all the industrial artpop electroganza and its pure sensory overload. Bennett had the skill and experience to see beyond the noise. In fact, he thinks she has one of the finest jazz voices on today's music scene. Jazz critics and fans agree as they have awarded the album high acclaim and record sales.  The reception was so good that Bennett and Gaga announced earlier this year they are working on a second album this time devoted to the music of Cole Porter. 

For a taste of what's causing the excitement among vocal jazz fans, here is a cut from Cheek to Cheek:

If you like what you hear, buy the music and help keep jazz, swing, and the Great American Songbook, each American musical invention, alive and well.




Saturday, August 1, 2015

MTV At 34

Screen capture from the MTV premiere broadcast in 1981

Yes, indeed. MTV made its debut 34 years ago today. This is how it started:

And this is the first music video to appear on the premiere show:

Independent.com had this to say about MTV on the occasion of its thirtieth anniversary:

Bucks Fizz had exploded after winning the Eurovision Song Contest, Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” hogged the radio airwaves and the popularity of Adam Ant and the other New Romantics meant men were parading around in their girlfriends’ make-up. Then on 1 August, just after midnight, a new television channel aimed at teens and 20-somethings launched with the words: “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.” It was called MTV.
Set up with the intention of playing music videos 24 hours a day, seven days a week, MTV quickly catapulted them into the mainstream. Not only did the channel encourage videos to be viewed as an art form, they also became a marketing tool for record companies. Artists were forced to embrace the medium or risk retirement. Madonna and Duran Duran were just some of the stars that benefited in the early years. Of course, it had its detractors and many thought the channel was devaluing the industry by placing the entire emphasis on the visual aesthetic rather than the music.
MTV’s viewers, a generation desperate to disassociate themselves from their baby-boomer parents, had no unifying identity: the civil-rights movement and Vietnam were their parents’ struggles. These cynical and dissatisfied youths came together, however, by tuning into this eclectic new channel. The MTV Generation was born.

But Buggles was right in the long run. Just as video killed the radio star, so the Internet killed the MTV format in just a few years. The channel resorted to some of the earliest versions of "reality programming," almost always low-rent and often provocative, but it sold the soap and brought in young audiences. The channel survives today as "entertainment" for teens. One could say MTV is Nickelodeon's tatted, pierced, and "recovering" sibling who occasionally has flashbacks about its glory days in the music industry.




Friday, July 31, 2015

Tonight's Blue Moon

Tonight offers us the second of this month's full moons. Today we'd call it a "blue" moon but around 500 years ago the best research tells us it was a "belewe" one.  Of course it was possible in 1515 to have a moon - full or not - actually colored "bleu," "blewe," or even "blao" but the probability of that happening was exceedingly rare. On the other hand, "belewe" moons or "betrayer" moons happened infrequently but often enough to be of concern if you didn't want to fast an extra thirty or so days during Lent. Yes, it's complicated. When you have a church festival based on the Spring lunar cycle having two fulls moons in the same month it does present issues. Only one of those moons could be the Lenten moon so the early moon was labelled a "belewe" or traitorous moon in the sense that it seriously disrupted the tradition of "forty days before Easter."

Thankfully, the explanation for a moon that appears blue in color is much simpler. When particulate matter in the atmosphere - especially from forest fires and volcanoes - is uniform and of the right size, light passing through it is refracted or bent and appears blue. It's a rare event but at least you don't have to wait for a full moon as blue moons can occur in any phase.

Lunar eclipse over an ocean horizon

I have watched the Moon - full and otherwise - all of my life and in a variety of settings but have yet to see one blue in color. No disappointment here; our closest celestial neighbor never fails to entertain me. That's especially true when it is full and rising or setting over the "lost horizon" of a desert or ocean, particularly the ocean. Standing on the beach at twilight you hear water dancing with sand. On the horizon the Moon's growing arc rises out of the netherworld of sea and air. Illuminated by the Sun's fire at your back, the Moon moves higher into the quintessence of space and paints a moving image on the sea. It is the classic five elements, a timeless simplicity, a remarkable unity.

Go find a beach. Be there tonight!


Photo: facebook.com/glenn.burns.54/photos, September 25, 2014 entry.


wikipedia.com, Blue Moon

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Words About "Old Perfesser" Casey Stengal On His 125th Birthday

Never make predictions, especially about the future.

He retired in 1960 only to return to the game two years later as manager of the "Lovable Losers", the New York Mets. Fans loved them and their "Old Perfesser" coach who captivated the press and broadcast media with his quips and comments, delivered in his famous "Stengelese" style, nurtured over his rich career.

Whether you love or hate the Yankees really doesn't matter today. It's simply a great day in baseball history for a beloved man of the game who happened to do well - very well - with the Yankees. His name was Casey Stengel, born on July 30, 1890, in Kansas City. Stengel took over as manager of the Yankees 1949 and won the World Series championship. They won again in 1950. And 1951, 1952, and 1953. It's a record of consecutive wins that still stands. Stengel went on to win two more championships with the Yankees in 1956 and 1958.

Stengal in 1953

For a kid born in 1946 and growing up in Lefty Grove's Georges Creek Valley, playing baseball was supposed to be a natural. It didn't work out that way for me. Rotten vision and Coke bottle bottom glasses rendered me useless on a baseball diamond, so I didn't play organized ball with my pals. On the other hand, I followed the sport just as fiercely, collecting my hundreds of baseball cards, listening to - later watching - the Washington Senators and the Baltimore Orioles, and arguing about those Yankees, love 'em or hate 'em.

I left the Georges Creek Valley in 1956 and have no idea what happened to my baseball pals. For certain, most of them left Appalachia in search of a better life. But regardless of their destinations, I imagine they never left the joy of baseball far behind. Though we are pulled in many directions, and obligations place demands on our leisure, the old pastime is still with us, thanks to icons like Stengel. If you want to honor the old man, go to a game today. If that can't happen, gather the fathers and sons in the family - and the girls who'll understand - and sit them down to watch Field of Dreams (1989). Chances are, Casey will drop by.

To learn more about Casey Stengel, visit his Baseball Hall of Fame page here. The page links to some good multimedia features, as well. Link to Wikipedia's more extensive biography here. The Official Casey Stengel Site has a great list of quotes here.

About the girls who'll understand...maybe they can find something else to do.


Photo: cover, Baseball Digest, October 1953

Text: wikipedia,com

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"...Mr. Bilbo Baggins...Announced That He Would Shortly Be Celebrating His Eleventy-First Birthday...."

Our title above comes from the opening sentence of the first of three volumes of high fantasy fiction that would indeed change the world of literature and beyond in the second half of the 20th century. Avid fans will easily recognize the source as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. The first edition of the book appeared on store shelves in the United Kingdom on this day in 1954.

Who was the man behind this beloved three volume narrative we know as The Lord of the Rings? Below is some footage released in 2010 of a 1968 BBC program interviewing Tolkien and exploring his real and imaginary worlds. The audio is not the best so viewers may want to use earbuds or headphones. 


Tolkien died about five years after this production. It would take another generation before a cinematic version of his great work would, perhaps could, appear. In the interim his imagination gave new energy to a full range of fiction writers. His is a rich legacy and one that will be enjoyed and expanded in the years head.



wikipedia.com, J.R.R.Tolkien

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Death In Leipzig: J.S. Bach, 1750

Statue of composer J.S. Bach in Leipzig, Germany

While looking over my usual list of sites, I discovered that today marks the passing of one of the great three "B's" in classical music, Johann Sebastian Bach,  He gave us some of the most sublime music in western culture and it would be an oversight, especially as a Lutheran, not to honor this master of the Baroque and pillar of Lutheranism. Here is a taste of genius whose work was largely forgotten for a century following his death.

From the St. Matthew Passion, here is the final recitative and chorus, a lullaby to Jesus as he lies in his tomb:

The gavotte from the Cello Suite No. 6:

Themes and variations from Goldberg Variations, Nos. 1-5. The performance is by the dazzling and eccentric Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, who was well-known for quietly "scatting" during his performances.  He drove sound and recording engineers batty.

Last we hear the Gigue Fuge. This composition is proof that not all Lutherans are stuffy.

Bach's music has been a part of me for so long that I couldn't begin to tell you when I first heard it other than to say it had to be in church at a very early age. The preludes. fugues, harmonies, the shear wonder of his work, it's all in my blood. And I can't play a single note of it. Wouldn't have it any other way. I simply listen and let it flow.

Music’s ultimate end or final goal…should be for the honor of God and the recreation of the soul.
                                                                   Johann Sebastian Bach - Leipzig, 1738


Photo: stlpublicradio.org, flickr/seabamirum