Friday, March 28, 2014

Paul Whiteman: The King Of Jazz

We've had quite a few significant musical birthdays this week. The honor today is reserved for "The King of Jazz," Paul Whiteman. A strong-willed innovator and perfectionist, he became the most popular band leader in the U.S. during the Roaring Twenties. Whiteman encouraged many talented artists and composers through his interest in fusing jazz with 
other musical styles. He appreciated experimental music and sponsored several concerts featuring new compositions and artists. For one of these concerts asked his friend and collaborator, George Gershwin, to compose a "jazz concerto" for his series of experimental music concerts. Though faced with a short performance deadline, Gershwin reluctantly agreed.   In two weeks, he completed the new piece and entitled it Rhapsody in Blue. After two weeks of orchestration and eight days of rehearsal, Whiteman premiered the piece at the Aeolian Hall in New York in February 1924 with Gershwin at the piano.

Today Rhapsody in Blue is beloved throughout the world, but Whiteman is all but forgotten as the man behind the music. There is a backstory here worth knowing. After all, Whiteman gave early exposure to some of the best, including Bing Corsby, Mildred Bailey, Bunny Berigan, Jack Venuti, Bix Beiderbecke, and Jack Teagarden. Many people today won't recognize most of these names but they should be aware that these unknowns helped shape much of the music - especially jazz and vocal pop - we hear today.

Here's an important interview with Whiteman about Gershwin and the creation of Rhapsody in Blue. It's well worth every second of talk and includes about three minutes of music:

Whiteman was quite the showman as can be viewed in this excerpt from the 1930 film, King of JazzThe film was the first to use a prerecorded studio soundtrack "made independently of the actual filming." It was also one of the earliest Technicolor films.  George Gershwin is at the piano.

It wouldn't be proper to let Whiteman's birthday pass without an opportunity to hear his celebrated orchestra performing the popular music that made them famous. This 1928 recording features 25 year-old Bing Crosby singing his first number one hit. Of course, most of us know that he would go on to shape popular singing for the rest of the century:

And we should also remember other shapers like Paul Whiteman who played a monumental role in American entertainment but have ended up lost to new generations.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Always Sassy Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughan, 1946     William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress
The American jazz singer, Sarah Vaughan, known as "Sassy" and "The Divine One," performed for almost fifty years. Twenty-four years after her passing popular music and jazz fans still wait for a singer who can approach her amazing voice. I must say that Jane Monheit has done a fine job of blending the Vaughan recipe with her own spices to bring us much of the magic we remember so well. Here is Sassy performing the signature song from late in her career, Send In The Clowns:

Now that is performance in song. It was recorded twenty years before Auto-Tune and other pitch correction and vocal tuning software could turn tone deaf studio metrosexuals and assorted hotties of any sex into so-called stars.  We've come down a long way in what passes for popular music over the past generation. Of course, there are exceptions but for the most part real singing has become subordinate to other aspects of presentation, performance, and spectacle. And once more I ask the question, "Where is jazz, a genre birthed in the United States?"  It is alive in many small markets across the country but it remains a small portfolio in the financiall departments of our corporate music industry. 

So as the Jane Monheits, Diana Kralls and others keep jazz alive let us honor the memory of one of its greatest interpreters, Sarah Vaughan who was born on March 27, 1924.  For another taste of her magic, here she is near the close of her career performing Tenderly, her original signature song:

A three octave vocal range, no Auto-Tune, singular perfection.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

March Birthdays For Two American Literary Icons

Robert Frost in 1951
Tennessee Williams in 1954

They may share March 26 as a birth date but that is about all Robert Frost (1874- 1963) and Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) have in common. The Academy of American Poets has this to say about Frost:

Though his work is principally associated with the life and landscape of New England—and though he was a poet of traditional verse forms and metrics who remained steadfastly aloof from the poetic movements and fashions of his time—Frost is anything but merely a regional poet. The author of searching and often dark meditations on universal themes, he is a quintessentially modern poet in his adherence to language as it is actually spoken, in the psychological complexity of his portraits, and in the degree to which his work is infused with layers of ambiguity and irony. 

Read the full article here

The Public Broadcasting Service's American Masters series online biography of Williams opens with this paragraph:

He was brilliant and prolific, breathing life and passion into such memorable characters as Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski in his critically acclaimed A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. And like them, he was troubled and self-destructive, an abuser of alcohol and drugs. He was awarded four Drama Critic Circle Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was derided by critics and blacklisted by Roman Catholic Cardinal Spellman, who condemned one of his scripts as “revolting, deplorable, morally repellent, offensive to Christian standards of decency.” He was Tennessee Williams, one of the greatest playwrights in American history.

 The full article on Williams is available here

Frost and Williams. Together their American experience may be so broad as to admit no exception. Let the research begin!

Myst The Cat Turns Eighteen

In early April 1996 our twins spent their Spring vacation with some classmates and their parents on Edisto Island, South Carolina. In the week or so there everyone got to know the mother cat and her three kittens who claimed the space under the stairs as their very own condo. When it came time to leave, the bonds had been cemented and both families claimed two felines. Our friends took the mama cat and a little male. Our children claimed the two females. I will always remember the phone call  from my son excitedly declaring, "Dad, we have cats!"

Caramel, a short-haired calico, brought us great joy and companionship for sixteen years. Her sister, Myst, a long-haired grey and white, now carries on those roles as the last baby in the family. Today is her eighteenth birthday. We can't be sure how many of those "nine lives" Myst has left but we hope she reserved a few of them so we can enjoy each other well into the future.

Birthday Baby At Eighteen

It's true that you never own a cat. You have a cat. They are truly enigmatic and amazingly entertaining. Rescue one today!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Flannery O'Connor: Today The Spirits Of The South Converge!

One of the nation's finest writers, Flannery O'Connor, was born on this day in Savannah, Georgia in 1925. She spent her early childhood there on Lafayette Square with its moss-draped live oaks, colorful azaleas, abundance of birds, and towering spires of The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Things haven't changed much on this beautiful square. I'm sure it still has a interesting spectrum of regular visitors. Children play on the sidewalks and lawns. And every day, the cathedral bells remind the people of God's love and their obligations as His children. I think as long as you can visit 

Lafayette Square, say on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, you can know O'Connor well.

The family moved to Atlanta in 1938, where her father was diagnosed with lupus. Soon after, they moved to her mother's family home in Milledgeville, about 100 miles southeast of Atlanta. After his death in 1941, O'Connor moved a few miles north of town to her uncle's farm where she lived with her mother. Eventually, the farm would be called Andalusia, and become a refuge following her own diagnosis with lupus in 1950. At Andalusia, she would weave her rural Georgia experience and her childhood memories into some of America's finest literature.

Lupus took Flannery O'Connor from us in 1964 when she was in her 39th year. You can visit both her childhood home and Andalusia thanks to foundations that preserve the landscapes and memories she cherished. And, thanks to her, you can visit the South anytime by simply opening one of her books.

Many years ago the management at Andalusia removed scores of the offspring of O'Connor's beloved peacocks to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, a large Trappist estate about two and a half miles from our ridge top home. At that time the area was still quite rural and the peacocks flourished in and around the monastery grounds. On a quiet evening it was not unusual for us to hear them calling faintly in the distance. Eventually , they were removed and for a decade or so there has been no  call to break the silence. But we do remember those urgent and sometimes fearful calls in the dusk. Today the woods remain a gallery of sounds. Some we know well. Others we may not recognize so easily. Those of us who know O'Connor and her work well may find it difficult to distinguish between the peacock, the author's veil, or the rich spirit world that inhabits her American South.  After all, in the ancient traditions of the Catholic world the peacock is the symbol of immortality.

If you have never read O'Connor, there is still time to visit the netherworlds she cherished. But don't wait too long!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Another Side Of Spring

If your taste in music happens to draw you to jazz, pop, singers and swing channels - or maybe you're just curious - then you are in for a seasonal treat from Power Line's Scott Johnson. His post today is a reprise - with updates - from 2009 about Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most, a 1955 torch song by Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolfe.

As loyal readers know I am a serious fan of Johnson. Somehow I missed his original post, but not this time around. Here is your link to some fine interpretation, a bit of gumshoe work, and an extraordinary performance of the song in question by the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald.

Young readers, I acknowledge it's a fifty year old song performed by a singer who left us almost twenty years ago, but I can assure you both song and singer will be around into your old age.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Spring Returns To The Northern Hemisphere

On March 20, 2014, the plane of our planet will pass through the center of the Sun. It is an equinox day, a day when the length of light and darkness are just about equal anywhere on the planet. This year I don't care to get more technical about the facts. It's the first day of Spring that matters even if the northeastern U.S. could get nailed with another snowstorm next week. 

And when it comes to calendars and changing seasons, it's hard to beat the French Revolutionary Calendar (1793-1805) teasing us with the warmth and color of Spring. For starters the spring equinox marks the first day of the month of Germinal. Every day has a name appropriate for the season.  A revolutionary idea, I'd say. So here are the fecund thirty days of Germinal (March 21 - April 19):

1. Primevere - Primrose

2. Plantane - Plane Tree

3.  Asperge - Asparagus

4. Tulipe - Tulip
5. Poule - Hen
6. Bette - Chard Plant
7. Bouleau - Birch Tree
8. Jonquille - Daffodil
9. Aulne - Alder
10. Couvoir - Hatchery
11. Pervenche - Periwinkle
12. Charme - Hornbeam
13. Morille - Morel
14. Hetre - European Beech Tree
15. Abielle - Bee
16. Laitue - Lettuce
17. Meleze - Larch
18. Cigue - Hemlock
19. Radis - Radish
20. Ruche - Hive
21. Gainier - Judas Tree
22. Romaine - Lettuce
23 Marronnier - Horse chestnut
24. Roquette - Arugula or Rocket
25. Pigeon - Pigeon
26. Lilas - Lilac
27. Anemone - Anemone
28. Pensee - Pansy
29. Myrtille - Blueberry
30. Greffor - Knife

Here are some sounds for the season:

Even a poem:

May you have a most enjoyable Spring 2014!

Illustration: Liberty Leading the People, Eugene Delacroix, 1830
Text: Wikipedia
Poem: William Blake, Songs of Innocence, 1789

Monday, March 17, 2014

St. Patrick's Day 2014

Pleasant surprises abound across this great country, some of them in the most unexpected places. Savannah will host one of those wonderful annual surprises today. At 10:15, rain or shine, the Saint Patrick's Day parade will step off for the 190th time.  Half a million people will line the streets and squares of this historic city to watch a family-friendly event. Organizers have worked hard over the past years to keep the "Saint" and sanity in the holiday, confining most of the adult revelry - drinking and excessive partying - to River Street following the parade. That was fine with me even in my early thirties during my second adolescence. It's only since the arrival of "the book" - Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - and the discovery of Savannah as a significant tourist destination that issues with irreverent activities have become serious. [See my "A Night[and Day] in Old Savannah," August 23, 2008, for details.]

My first parade there was in 1977 when I lived on Jones Street in the historic district. Over the years, I lost count as the events merged one into the other during my tenure in the Coastal Empire. Eventually, my children celebrated their Irish/Celtic heritage for a day and were part of the parade. They sat on the folded top of a hot convertible and waved their green, white and orange flags to the crowds. Those wee bairns - now in or near their 30's - have plenty of ancient Celtic ancestry and thanks to we know they're about 2% Irish genes, but no one was keeping score. It was simply great fun. Almost all of those parades we attended were complemented with fine spring weather and thousands of azaleas blooming throughout the city.

Those were the good old days? To be honest, the parade is a fond memory. Life has moved on and left me with a deep love for Savannah and the Golden Isles. Haven't been to the parade for several years, although I plan to watch it on the Internet. 

If I were you, I'd put this event on the bucket list. The Savannah parade has been around since 1813. It's a wonderful event for your children and grandchildren. It's held in what many consider the nation's most beautiful city.  That said, I suggest you make your reservations tomorrow before March 17, 2015 becomes "No Vacancy."

Thursday, March 13, 2014

What's A Grecian Urn?

Powerline's Steven Hayward has found a top competitor for Best Obituary Ever. Walter George Bruhl would be pleased to have you enjoy his obituary in all its hilarity. Here is you link to laughter after death. Remember the comments! A short but entertaining list.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday, The First Day Of Lent 2014

Today in the Christian world we are marked with ashes and made so very much aware of our sin. This day also marks the beginning of forty days of prayer and abstinence leading us to Christ's death and resurrection.

Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness

According to the multitude of Thy mercies do away mine offences.Wash me throughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults: and my sin is ever before me.
Against Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that Thou mightest be justified in Thy saying, and clear when Thou art judged.
Behold, I was shapen in wickedness: and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
But lo, Thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.
Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness: that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.
Turn Thy face from my sins: and put out all my misdeeds.
Make me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Thy presence: and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.
O give me the comfort of Thy help again: and stablish me with Thy free Spirit.
Then shall I teach Thy ways unto the wicked: and sinners shall be converted unto Thee.
Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, Thou that art the God of my health: and my tongue shall sing of Thy righteousness.
Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord: and my mouth shall shew Thy praise.
For Thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it Thee: but Thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt Thou not despise.
O be favourable and gracious unto Sion: build Thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt Thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness, with the burnt-offerings and oblations: then shall they offer young bullocks upon Thine altar.

Credits: Miserere translation: Wikipedia

Sunday, March 2, 2014

American Novelist Tom Wolfe Turns 83

The first wave of Gonzos - a term coined around 1970 by Hunter S. Thompson to describe a wing of New Journalism advocates - is all but gone these days. Tom Wolfe, who turns 83 today, remains it's most famous surviving member in the U.S. It's been a long way from The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby to tackling the Great American Novel for Wolfe. He's always been quite happy interpreting the American experience as an outsider looking into other worlds and he's certainly surpassed Thompson and others in his school with a matured Gonzo style. The stories seem written as much for entertainment as for traditional reportorial honesty and often involve not only the writer's observation but also his participation. And there are those long daydream passages of vivid description that end with a quick snap back to reality.  In addition, Wolfe's style has always retained muted elements of the "wildness" that made such journalism amazingly popular into the 1990s.

In 2012 Wolfe took on the immigration theme and the Cuban-Americans community dominating the scene in Miami. Back to Blood hit the market with high expectations but performed poorly. This article reprinted from New York Magazine appeared with the release of the novel and remains a pleasing blend of biography and book. 

So what does the future hold for a successful writer whose life has entered its descending arc? Most of us would like to think there is more compelling reading to come from such a wise observer.  Let's hope so, but better we should leave prediction to heaven and immerse ourselves in the great wealth of observation of the American experience Tom Wolfe assembled for us. 

His non-fiction is a fine place to start:

The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965)
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)
The Pump House Gang (1968)
Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970)
The New Journalism (1974) edited with E.W. Johnson
The Painted Word (1975)
Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine (1976)
The Right Stuff (1979)
In Our Time (1980)
From Bauhaus to Our House (1981)
The Purple Decades (1982)
Hooking Up (2000)

Credits: Photo: New York Magazine