Sunday, May 31, 2015

In "Cloudburst," Eric Whitacre Is My Weather Man

Lightning Over Atlanta                                 David Selby, Wikimedia Commons
In commemoration of the many cloudbursts rumbling over our ridge this last week in May I turn to the amazing choral music composer, Eric Whitacre:

The southeasterly trade winds of summer roared into Atlanta on schedule this year. All is right with the world of weather. 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The King Of Swing: Benny Goodman Has A Birthday

In the shadow of bebop: Benny Goodman, 1946

Today we celebrate the birthday of the clarinetist and bandleader, Benny Goodman (1909 - 1986). You can read about him here in a biography prepared for the Jazz: A Film By Ken Burns PBS website. Mention "Palomar Ballroom" and "Carnegie Hall" in the same breath and any popular music historian will follow with "Benny Goodman." Both performances are landmarks in the history of swing and jazz.

In 1935, his orchestra performed regularly on an NBC Radio program entitled, "Let's Dance." It was broadcast live across the country. Young people in the East were fast asleep when his orchestra hit the airways, but it was perfect timing for the West Coast. A strike ended the broadcasts after a few months and the band decided on a coast to coast tour. In the interior states, the tour was a disaster because people didn't care for "upbeat" jazz arranged for orchestra. The band was looking forward to the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles as the last stop and an end to the pain. When they arrived, thousands of young fans who had heard them on the radio were waiting to hear them in person. What was to be a welcome end to a disaster turned into the beginning of the Swing Era.

Eighteen months later , the now famous Goodman Orchestra was invited to present a jazz review on 
January 16, 1938 in Carnegie Hall, a venue historically reserved for "high brow" music. Several members of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras and others joined on stage to perform a concert ranging from traditional to unconventional. No jazz bandleader had ever performed there. The concert was a sensation, reaffirming Goodman as the "King of Swing," and jazz as serious American music. In the eyes of many music critics and historians, this concert remains the single most important event in popular music history in the United States. Superlatives aside, the concert was a study in swing music history and jazz improvisation. 

After several curtain calls at the end of the concert, Goodman announced to the screaming fans that an encore would follow. Sing, Sing, Sing was the last song in that set. It already was a popular piece for the band, but this performance lifted it to holy status in the swing jazz genre. Featured players: Gene Kruppa on drums, Babe Russin on saxophone, Harry James on trumpet, Goodman on clarinet, and Jess Stacy in a masterpiece of improvisation on piano.

Music historians generally regard this legendary performance as the most important in the history of jazz. After January 16, 1938, jazz became mainstream American music. 
Recordings of the concert have remained in print as best sellers since 1950 when masters were found in Goodman's home. What more can be said?

Photo: Library of Congress, William Gottlieb Collection

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day 2015

Today, we call it Memorial Day and, though both its date and scope have changed over time, its central meaning remains strong. At virtually every crossroad town from sea to sea, there will be old soldiers, flags, a speech or two, and prayers. These events will take place at memorial walls bearing the names of the honored dead. Invariably, the audiences will be small, but firmly dedicated to the idea that the nation will always remember the cost of freedom.

A Soldier's Burial

Not midst the chanting of the Requiem Hymn,
Nor with the solemn ritual of prayer,
Neath misty shadows from the oriel glass,
And dreamy perfume of the incensed air
Was he interred;
But in the subtle stillness after fight,
And the half light between the night and the day,
We dragged his body all besmeared with mud,
And dropped it, clod-like, back into the clay.

Yet who shall say that he was not content,
Or missed the prayers, or drone of chanting choir,
He who had heard all day the Battle Hymn
Sung on all sides by a thousand throats of fire.

What painted glass can lovelier shadows cast,
Than those the evening sky shall ever shed,
While, mingled with their light, Red Battle's Sun
Completes in magic colors o'er our dead,
The flag for which they died.

General George S. Patton (1943)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Artie Shaw: All That Jazz

Artie Shaw performing his Concerto for Clarinet, 1940 

The famous jazz clarinetist, Artie Shaw, was born on this day in 1910. When he passes away in 2004 at the age of 94, 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.

You can read the rest of the story here

Shaw not only lived a long life but also a diverse one. He has been described as an exceptional writer who left us with one published autobiography, several novels and short stories, and an extensive autobiographical manuscript running over 1000 pages.   

Here he is with his orchestra performing the two "monster hits" mentioned in the Entertainment Weekly post above:

These performances have certainly aged well over the past eighty years.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Fifty Shades Of Grey: The Musical

Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman in a scene from High Anxiety, Mel Brooks's riotous 1977 parody of Alfred Hitchcock  films

I'm sure many Old Tybee Ranger readers are well-aware of the Hampshire County, West Virginia, high school teacher who agreed to to show the film, Fifty Shades of Grey, to a class at their request. A school administrator thankfully happened to recognize the film - I wonder how - about ten minutes into the story and promptly shut it down. This week the teacher pleaded ignorance about the subject matter but was suspended without pay for the remainder of the school year. It's interesting to note that the Hampshire County Public Library announced the scheduling of the film earlier this month as part of its summer series. That news led to an uproar on a local basis, became a newsworthy story on a regional basis, and ended with the unfortunate cancellation of the entire summer program. I suppose the school story couldn't help but spill out on a national basis.

I know something about the greater Hampshire County situation because my family had a summer cottage just twelve miles from Romney, the county seat, For too many years, Hampshire has struggled to develop and maintain a consistently strong school system on several levels. There's no need to go into detail about the past here but let's say that this latest development does not speak well for Hampshire High School as a top tier center for education in West Virginia.

On the other hand, perhaps this is an opportunity for Hampshire officials to reconsider their decision and practice some seriously creative interdisciplinary education. Our film in question stands alone as an interesting niche in sex education but imagine its potential when viewed as a compare and contrast study with the Mel Brooks comedy, High Anxiety, pictured above. And just think of the possibilities in music history, composition, comedy, piano, and performance when you add the following:

I'm really not sure where all of this is leading other than my interest in what's in the Hampshire County water supply and the other titles in the library's summer film series. The situation does remind me of my high school experience in the early 1960's when our school officials made national news for setting aside an outdoor smoking area for students. That attention resulted in a swift reversal and an end to student smoking on campus after a few weeks. Makes me feel for those poor Hampshire High students. They barely got to smolder.

Photo: still from Mel Brooks's film parody, High Anxiety [1977]

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Season Of The Sprites

Sprites                                                         Lomonosov Moscow State University
With more and more thunderstorms rumbling across the country it's time to mention that we have entered the season of the sprites.  A sprite is a member of a family of upper atmosphere lightning phenomena called transient luminous events or TLE's. Other members of the TLE family include blue jets and elves. They are associated with thunderstorms and although observed earlier were unknown to science a little more than a generation ago.  Digital photography and advanced computer technology enabled both their imaging and analysis beginning around 1995. 

Centre Nationales D'Etudes Spatiales 
I find these atmospheric events fascinating, beautiful, and mysterious but the probability of observing them in real time is practically nil. For certain I won't be seeing anything from my woodland home in Georgia or the eastern U.S. for that matter. When you find yourself in a thunderstorm-rich location with unlimited visibility beyond the horizon you have found the ideal conditions for LTE observation. In other words, our readers in Oklahoma and Texas need only step out on the porch and into a comfortable chair to enjoy the possibility of seeing a rare and still mysterious show in the distant sky.

Often scientists pursue LTE research from the air. The rarified atmosphere and proximity to the events make for some spectacular detailed imagery. Below is a video of one such trip documented in At the Edge of Space, a 2014 episode in the Public Broadcasting Service's NOVA series. The action begins at 3:55 followed by historic high-speed photography at 6:45. 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Mother's Day 2015

She was the fourth of seven children born to a farm couple whose deep lineage in the western Virginia mountains has been lost to history. 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 synthetic fabric plant.

Mom in the summer of 1959                                       Burlington, West Virginia  

With my birth she became a full time mother and homemaker, but still found time to enjoy her church family, reading, gardening, nature, friends, frequent visits with her large family, and many weekends and summer vacations on Pattersons Creek in Burlington, West Virginia. She was taken from us far too early in 1976 after a long illness. I can't thank her enough for all she did for me. 

She never saw her daughter-in-law or her three grandchildren. Still, I think her love, compassion, wonderful sense of humor, and dedication to family and friends had a strong presence in our lives. It is a chain of being that I trust will continue within our family for generations to come. 

Happy Mother's Day, Mom!  

Portions of this post first appeared in 2014.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Johnny Unitas: A Legend Who Played When Football Was A Game

When you live in the Appalachian Mountains in a deep valley at the edge of the Allegany Front, and far-removed from television broadcast towers, the straight-line signals simply fly far overhead. Viewers had to rely on reflection in order to get decent reception. Getting a clear and consistent picture was impossible. That problem was rectified when citizens in our small town organized one of the earliest cable television systems in the United States. My dad subscribed to their service in 1953. It was the same year the Colts reorganized in Baltimore. We watched plenty of football and baseball games over the next three years, but I don't recall watching the Colts, only the Washington Redskins, and the World Series where the Yankees always won.

In 1956. my family moved to Maryland's Eastern Shore, a region anchored to the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore, and the Colts. A new face, Johnny Unitas, joined the team that year. He was a scrawny kid from Pittsburgh who played quarterback at the University of Louisville. He was

a ninth-round draft pick by the Steelers who ended up releasing him before the season began. The Colts coach, Weeb Ewbank, saw him as a promising walk-on. When the starting quarterback broke his leg early in the season, Unitas made a disappointing debut that he would soon overcome. In fact, late in the season he threw the first touchdown pass in his 47 game streak, a record that would stand for fifty years. Many of his other records have been beaten, but keep in mind that teams played fewer games per season in those days. The simple conclusion is that Unitas's passing records will be around for a long, long time.

I'll let you read more about him and his records at the links. I will say that Johnny U and the Colts gave my dad and me, and our friends and family, some exciting entertainment between 1956 and 1973. At first, the old black and white television was small, but it turned to color in 1962 and got bigger. The game was always big. Of course, the highlight of those years was the 23-17 National Football League Championship win over the New Yorks Giants in sudden death overtime in 1958. I turned twelve that year and I doubt I'll ever see anything to beat "the greatest game ever played."

Unitas retired from the field in 1974 almost crippled from years of play in the days before adequate protective gear. He remained active in the professional football family and firmly loyal to Baltimore and the fans when the Colt franchise rolled out of town in the middle of the night on its way to Indianapolis in 1984. He lived almost twenty years beyond that sad day quietly enjoying his family, friends and fame.

I don't think the kid from Pittsburgh changed much over all of his years. He became famous, but he did it the hard way, starting out when you needed an off-season job to make ends meet. Things are different these days. Today's players are instant stars earning mega-millions before they play their first professional game. Johnny U's magic arm helped make it happen for them.

Today is his birthday. The year was 1933, the place was Pittsburgh. Gritty origins for a star. It didn't matter to him in the end because he got to play the game. And what a game it was.

Wikipedia, Johnny Unitas, Johnny Unitas, Official Johnny Unitas website

Monday, May 4, 2015

Kent State - 45 Years Later

Today is the 45th anniversary of the Kent State University massacre in Ohio. On that day four unarmed students were killed and nine others injured by members of the Ohio National Guard. Years of conflict over the nation's role in the Vietnam War had Americans on edge.  Days before the event President Richard Nixon referred to some campus protesters as "bums." In seconds, 67 shots fired into a crowd of defenseless students marked a turning point in national opinion and the beginning of the end of an already very unpopular war.

Location map from the Scranton Commission r

In the days following the killing strikes involving more than 4 million students took place on almost 900 campuses across the nation. And barely a week after Kent State, police killed a student and a passerby at a demonstration at Jackson State College in Mississippi. An unquestionable sense of rebellion began to grip the nation. The Nixon administration was well aware of the situation and took steps to mitigate the danger and political erosion. One of those steps was the creation of  the President's Commission on Campus Unrest- the Scranton Commission - in June 1970. The commission was tasked with reviewing the incident.  After three months of work the commission concluded:

Even if the guardsmen faced danger, it was not a danger that called for lethal force. The 61 shots by 28 guardsmen certainly cannot be justified. Apparently, no order to fire was given, and there was inadequate fire control discipline on Blanket Hill. The Kent State tragedy must mark the last time that, as a matter of course, loaded rifles are issued to guardsmen confronting student demonstrators.

I have a feeling it is going to be a very long, hot summer of protest this year. Although the nature of the protests has changed, the right to protest remains intact. Let us hope that the lessons learned in 1970 will be uppermost in mind when the National Guard walks the streets to both insure our constitutional rights and also protect people and property from harm. Such an outcome would be a fitting memorial to the Kent State and Jackson State victims.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

American Song: Bing And Pete Share A Birthday

Carnegie Hall

Indeed, Bing Crosby (1903-1977) and Pete Seeger (1919-2014) share a birthday on May 3. Both men are icons in the universe of music and entertainment but they could hardy come from more opposite sides of the industry. Born in 1903, Crosby used his baritone voice and recording technology to develop a personal singing style that made him the nation's top entertainer for a generation beginning in the mid-1930s. Before the microphone came on stage singing required a carefully articulated, high volume sound blast in order to reach the rear of "the house" be it on Broadway in New York or Main Street in Anytown.  Such requirements made it nearly impossible to develop a conversational intimacy with an audience. Crosby and the microphone changed that and establish a model for virtually all vocal performance today. 

Young people today probably know little if anything about Crosby beyond his recording of White Christmas. He's been away from the scene for nearly forty years now, but that recording remains the best selling single of all time. I think he sits - with Bob Hope - at the pinnacle of the American entertainment industry in the 20th century and is well worth exploring if you enjoy popular culture. The Crosby family has authorized a comprehensive site about The Crooner if readers want more information. 

Seeger was born into a musical family in New York, took up the family's leftist politics, and made a name for himself as a "protest singer" in the 1940s. In 1950, he was a member of the folk group, the Weavers, and in the bow wave of a folk music revival in the U.S. It was short-lived, however, as the group was blacklisted in 1953 for suspected political reasons. 

Seeger found himself at the forefront of the 1960s folk revival as well. Over his last decades Seeger continued singing and pursuing his social, political, and environmental activism around the world. Putting his politics aside - in 2007 he announced unease with his communist past -  I think Seeger is our best-remembered if not loved folk musician of the last century. Woody and Arlo Guthrie, and Bob Dylan may come close as performers but there was something about Pete Seeger's sincerity and warmth that put him at the top. He had the best voice, too! For more information and a host of links, here is his Wikipedia entry.

For a taste of Pete Seeger the performer, here he is singing lead and playing his banjo with the Weavers on the first recording (1949) of If I Had A Hammer, co-written with Lee Hays - in the bow tie:

I can never get enough of the Weavers: Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman and Pete Seeger. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Festival Of Beltane

Maypole Dance, Bascom Hill, Wisconsin, May 1, ca. 1917

The Celtic festival day, Beltane, occurs on May 1 and is a cross-quarter day marking the beginning of summer in the ancient calendar. It is one of two "turning" days of the year and exactly six months apart from the other, Samhain, marking the beginning of the dead season of winter. Beltane celebrations began last night night with the lighting of bonfires, dancing and feasting long into the night. The celebration continued with the welcoming of the sun, the selection of the May Queen or earth goddess representing fertility, and the May King or Green Man representing vegetation and growth; a Maypole dance as a fertility rite; the decoration of houses, farms, and livestock; and more feasting.  

Here in the United States there isn't much associated with the day unless there's an opportunity to sell something under the May Day Sale label. Even schools don't have much interest in May Day but it was a day-long festival during my elementary school days in the 1950's. Actually the day was a big event for the whole community. It was so important that I recall the teachers having us out a few days early to practice the May Pole dance until the lattice pattern on the pole was perfect.  I wonder how enthusiastic they would have been had they known we were practicing a fertility rite.

May you have a festive Beltane.

Photograph: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections