Monday, May 23, 2016

Featuring Artie Shaw On Clarinet

Today is the birthday of Arthur Arshawsky (1910-2004), the clarinetist, composer, band leader, and author better known as Artie Shaw. To say that Shaw was complex and difficult would be an understatement. He was married eight times, greatly disliked fame, and resented the conflict between creativity and the music industry so much that he virtually abandoned music in the early 1950s. Perhaps his life illustrated a never ending search for perfection by a man who could have approached it in any number of fields. When he died in December 2004 at the age of 94, he was recognized as one of the century's finest jazz clarinetists and a principal force in the development of the fusion of jazz and classical music that would become known as "Third Stream Music." 

Entertainment Weekly said this about him in his obituary:

Artie Shaw, one of the most popular bandleaders of the big-band era and the choice of many critics and musicians as the best clarinet player in jazz history, died on Thursday at his home outside Los Angeles. The ”Begin the Beguine” hit maker was 94 and apparently died of natural causes.
As a swing bandleader in the 1930s and ’40s, Shaw aspired to be considered a high-minded composer of art music, but his popularity kept getting in the way, with fans always clamoring to hear such monster hits as ”Begin the Beguine” and ”Frenesi.” Though he loathed the comparison, he was inevitably likened to Benny Goodman. Both were immensely popular, clarinet-playing big-band leaders, both were children of Jewish immigrants (Shaw’s given name was Arshawsky), and both had been among the earliest white ensemble leaders to integrate their groups racially (Goodman with players like Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton, Shaw with Billie Holiday and Roy Eldridge). During World War II, he joined the Navy and formed a band that crisscrossed the globe playing for U.S. troops; the band literally toured to exhaustion, leading to Shaw’s medical discharge.

File:Artie Shaw in Second Chorus 2.jpg
Screenshot of Artie Shaw from the 1940 film, Second Chorus

Fed up with music he turned to writing an autobiography, several novels and short stories, and an unfinished historical fiction trilogy on the jazz era. For a more thorough examination of even more facets in the life of this restless musical genius, visit this link at Swing Music Net for his obituary and this entry for his Wikipedia biography. There is also a 1982 film biography featuring Shaw available on You Tube.

Here is Shaw and his band performing Begin the Beguine, one the "monster hits" mentioned in the quote above:

Technically, I think he was at the top.


Photos and Illustrations:
public domain photograph,,

Text: entry

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Frank Capra

One of the greatest names behind the Hollywood camera of the 20th century was that of writer, director, and producer, Frank Capra. He was born in Sicily on this day in 1897. Capra was certainly old school and confined virtually all of his film making to black and white. I read recently where young people have little interest in watching films unless they are in color. That means a huge inventory of significant motion pictures - including Capra's - may soon be neglected along with a major segment of the industry's history. How unfortunate because shooting in black and white is an art with focus on story line, the interplay of light and shadow, and texture. Color often limits or conflicts all of these elements.

Frank Capra.jpg
Frank Capra portrait from the 1930's

So what did Capra produce in his black and white world? Here's a small portion:

It Happened One Night (1934)

Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936)

Lost Horizon (1937)

You Can't Take It With You (1938)

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

War Department Film Series (1942-45)

It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

Here Comes The Groom (1951)

Each of these films received Academy Award nominations and all but one - It's A Wonderful Life - received Oscars in one or more categories.   Undoubtedly Capra leaves us a rich legacy in 20th century film entertainment. It's a legacy anyone can enjoy and there's a good chance we'll learn something about the human condition we share.


Photos and Illustrations:
portrait, public domain photo by Columbia Pictures,


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Katherine Anne Porter: Of Ships And Fools And Passing In The Night

The American writer, journalist and activist, Katherine Anne Porter, was born on this day in 1890 in the west-central Texas town of Indian Creek. She led an often troubled yet exciting and eccentric life. By the age of forty she was an acclaimed and widely read author but it took another thirty years and the publication of her novel, Ship of Fools, before she found financial security in her craft.

In the mid-1960's the University of Maryland awarded Porter an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. As a result of the association that developed between her and the university she moved many treasured personal possessions and her papers to the school to be housed in the Katherine Anne Porter Room, at that time located in McKeldin Library.   

For a biographical sketch illustrating her place in American literary history go here.

Readers interested in Porter as a writer will enjoy this 1963 Paris Review interview conducted as part of their Art of Fiction series.

On a personal note: Back in 1968 I spent about two weeks doing research in special collections on the top floor of McKeldin Library at Maryland.  At the elevator and in the hallways I kept meeting this small, elderly, white-haired woman with a jovial smile and friendly conversational attitude. She seemed far too helpful to be a typical university librarian.  Years later I read how much Porter loved the academic setting and interacting with students, learning about them, their studies, and their plans for the future. It wasn't long before the realization hit that my "little old librarian" was none other than Katherine Anne Porter. Oh to have those two weeks back. This time I'd ask the questions.


Photos and Illustrations:

Katherine Anne Porter,

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mother's Day 2016

Mom was the fourth of seven children born to a farm couple whose deep lineage in the western Virginia mountains has been lost to history before 1800. She and my dad met at a community dance in 1931 and married in the fall of 1933. By that time she had worked in a silk mill and as an etcher and designer in a glass factory. Later, she worked throughout World War II as a quality control specialist in a massive synthetic fabric plant that provided most of the war's parachute materials.




With my birth she became a full time mother and homemaker, but still found time to enjoy her church family, reading, gardening, nature, frequent visits with her large family, and vacations on Pattersons Creek in Burlington, West Virginia. She was taken from this world far too early in 1976 after a long illness. 




There's no question that I miss her and I'm sorry she did not live to enjoy her daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. Still, I feel her goodness has been with us helping to shape our family over these near forty years. Wouldn't have it any other way. She was a great mom, full of love, compassion, a wonderful sense of humor, and dedication to family and friends.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Orson Welles: "One Should Make Movies Innocently...."

There will never be another cinematic alchemist quite like Orson Welles. Interested in experiment and discovery in the performing arts, he was a remarkably talented actor, writer, director, producer, and more who was born this day in 1915. Before he was thirty, he had terrified the nation with his realistic Halloween presentation of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds (1938) and awed film audiences with Citizen Kane (1941). Welles was already a rather contentious artist when he achieved almost instant fame. His creativity and drive helped label him as a difficult, if not reckless, personality and he never endeared himself to the Hollywood in-crowd. As a result his film legacy was limited to a number of noteworthy productions and a long list of unfinished projects, and "may have beens." The achievement of early fame and the fast and loose pursuit of art at almost any cost gave him a unique perspective on creativity and the entertainment industry. Although he appreciated his solitude he was never one to shy from the limelight and delighted in interviews and personal appearances where he could deliver and endless stream of anecdotes in his rich, unforgettable baritone voice. 

Welles died in 1985 but many pundits could answer the question, "Whatever happened to Orson Welles?", by saying he had left his world decades earlier. This year his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, turns 75. The film continues to appear at the very top of "best of" lists and doesn't appear to be threatened by new technologies in the industry. I suppose Welles really struck close to the pure definition of art when he created that film. The industry - what's left of it in Hollywood - will always owe him immensely for what he brought to it and for the treatment his genius received at the hands of the motion picture cartel.

Here is the master at work in film and in a personal interview.

First, the famous "crane shot" from his 1958 film, Touch of Evil.

And here is Welles in a 1960 BBC Monitor interview discussing Citizen Kane.


Photos and Illustrations:

Title quote,, Orson Welles Quotes,  Interview with Leslie Megahey for The Orson Welles Story (1982); transcribed in Mark Estrin's Orson Welles: Interviews. Jackson. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2002, page 209.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Alan Shepard: First American In Space

Fifty-five years ago today Alan Shepard became the first American in space. The launch came about three weeks after Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first person to reach that void. Shepard was an Annapolis graduate - Class of 1944 - and one of the original Mercury Seven, those chosen to participate in the nation's first formal manned space flight program.

Alan Shepard in the 1960's

On that day, Shepard reclined 80 feet above ground at the top of a Mercury-Redstone rocket. I'm sure he didn't have time or inclination to worry much about the long string of embarrassing rocket failures that had plagued the launch vehicle program. Thorough testing, including the launch of a chimpanzee earlier that year, contributed to the acceptable risk limits that permitted human - greater great ape, so to speak - flight into space. I recall reading about the astronauts' insistence that a window be retained in the Mercury capsules to dispel the concept of "spam in a can" flying that even a monkey could do.

Here's a documentary video of that historic fourteen minute flight.

A decade later Shepard returned to space commanding the Apollo 14 mission to the moon. This time his launch vehicle - Saturn V - was a bit taller at 363 feet. He also got a chance to hit some golf balls very far into the moonscape. After his career as an astronaut he became a successful businessman and advocate for the commemoration and perpetuation of the exploration of space.

Today John Glenn is the last living member - he's 95 - of the Mercury Seven. Their human and technological story which actually begins during the latter years of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics - NASA's predecessor - is nothing short of remarkable. If you want to learn more about the early years of the American space program, I highly recommend Tom Wolfe's book, The Right Stuff. The movie adaption (1983) is worth watching as well but don't ignore the book and Wolfe's wonderfully entertaining style.


Photos and Illustrations:
photo by NASA, sourced from

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Jane Jacobs: At The Heart Of The Livable City

I was pleased to see that today's Google Doodle honored the birth of Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), an American pioneer in the planning of livable cities. There were no plans on my part to write a blog post about her but as the day wore on the thoughts reached a tipping point and what follows is the result.

Jacobs was an unorthodox thinker unconstrained by an academic specialty - she never got a degree - and shaped by some extraordinary career opportunities in New York, a city she loved and enjoyed for almost forty years. In the crucible that is the Big Apple she became a notable participant-observer and a defender of the occupants who called the place home. You could say she brought emotion and feeling into a profession dominated for half a century by the coldness of central planning and Modernist architecture. Today, wherever you live, be it Manhattan in New York or in Kansas or Anytown USA, the imprint of Jane Jacobs can be found in the public spaces around you.

Although she left us a sizable written legacy, I remember her for two books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and The Economy of Cities (1969). The first book is a landmark study in the concept of livability in the organic city. I read both books during urban geography studies in graduate school and later applied much of the contents to my work in historic preservation in Savannah and in national park planning, design, and operations in the Southeast. Wish I could say that about the thousands of other pages I had to read in "school."  

For more insight on the Jacobs legacy read this brief essay by Peter Dreier at the National Housing Institute website.

Her rather extensive obituary from the New York Times provides additional information and interesting anecdotes.


Photos and Illustrations: