Sunday, October 14, 2018

Chuck Yeager's Big Day

The legendary test pilot, Chuck Yeager, is 95. Although he may be a bit slower these days he remains very active managing his foundation, traveling to select events from his home in California, and maintaining an interesting presence on Twitter. On this day in 1947 he was also in California and about to achieve a landmark in aviation when he flew his Bell X-1 into history on the shoulders of scores of aerospace pioneers who helped him reach that speedway in the sky.

Here, from is autobiography, is his description of that event:

... Bob Cardenas, the B-29 driver, asked if I was ready.
"Hell, yes," I said. "Let's get it over with.
"He dropped the X-1 at 20,000 feet, but his dive speed was once again too slow and the X-1 started to stall. I fought it with the control wheel for about five hundred feet, and finally got her nose down. The moment we picked up speed I fired all four rocket chambers in rapid sequence. We climbed at .88 Mach and began to buffet, so I flipped the stabilizer switch and changed the setting two degrees. We smoothed right out, and at 36,000 feet, I turned off two rocket chambers. At 40,000 feet, we were still climbing at a speed of .92 Mach. Leveling off at 42,000 feet, I had thirty percent of my fuel, so I turned on rocket chamber three and immediately reached .96 Mach. I noticed the faster I got, the smoother the ride. Suddenly the Mach needle began to fluctuate. It went up to .965 Mach - then tipped right off the scale. I thought I was seeing things! We were flying supersonic! And it was as smooth as a baby's bottom: Grandma could be sitting up there sipping lemonade. I kept the speed off the scale for about twenty seconds, and raised the nose to slow down. I was thunderstruck. After all the anxiety, breaking the sound barrier turned out to be a perfectly paved speedway.
I radioed Jack in the B-29,
"Hey, Ridley, that Machmeter is acting screwy. It just went off the scale on me."
"Fluctuated off?""Yeah, at point nine-six-five."
"Son, you is imagining things."
"Must be. I'm still wearing my ears and nothing else fell off, neither."
                                                                       . . .
And so I was a hero this day. As usual, the fire trucks raced out to where the ship had rolled to a stop on the lakebed. As usual, I hitched a ride back to the hangar with the fire chief. That warm desert sun really felt wonderful. My ribs ached.

His ribs ached but that ache had nothing to do with his record flight. He cracked two of them in a horseback riding accident a day and a half earlier but wasn't about to let the issue keep him from an important mission. This was but one example of many obstacles Yeager overcame on his way to legendary status in American aviation history.

Interested readers can learn more about the man and the early years of the nation's military aviation and aerospace history in Yeager: An Autobiography, an outstanding read originally published in 1985. A valuable companion book providing context and additional history on the nation's early manned space program is Tom Wolfe's 1979 classic, The Right Stuff.


Photos and Illustrations:
Yeager with Bell X-1, U.S. Air Force,
Cover photo, Yeager: An Autobiography, General Chuck Yeager and Leo Janus, Bantam, 1985.


quotation, Yeager: An Autobiography, General Chuck Yeager and Leo Janus, Bantam, 1985.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Art Tatum: A Jazz Piano Magician

He had perfect pitch and came from a musical family. He was virtually blind but that did not stop him from reaching the pinnacle of piano jazz. Art Tatum's piano technique was all his own. As a child he learned compositions by ear listening to recordings, piano rolls or the radio. He often had no idea that he was copying in two hands a musical performance by four hands. In time his skills made him a magician at the keyboard. Here is Tatum's famous 1933 rendition of Tea For Two:

And a bit more up-tempo, here is the master of improvisation with the tune, Tiger Rag, also recorded in 1933: 

When you have enjoyed jazz for fifty years and listen to Art Tatum you'll hear Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, Thelonious Monk, Johnny Costa and many others as Tatum dances effortlessly across the keyboard. He was so good, his legacy in music may be timeless. In fact, the great stride pianist, Fats Waller, once said upon seeing Tatum enter the club where Waller was performing, "I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house."

Tatum at the Vogue Room, New York, 1948

Tatum was born on this day in Toledo, Ohio, in 1909 and died in Los Angeles in 1956. He was 47.


Photos and Illustrations:
William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

Art Tatum entry, wikipedia,com (for quote source see note 2)

Friday, October 12, 2018

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Painting With Sound

The English composer, Ralph Vaughan WIlliams, was born on this day in 1872. The brief introduction to his biography appearing on the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society website says all that need be said about this beloved interpreter of the musical themes and varied landscapes of England:

[He] is arguably the greatest composer Britain has seen since the days of Henry Purcell. In a long and extensive career, he composed music notable for its power, nobility and expressiveness, representing, perhaps, the essence of ‘Englishness’.


I suspect the quality of music education in the public schools, if the curriculum exists at all, is not nearly as comprehensive today as it was in the 1950's. In that decade Vaughan Williams was the beloved dean of composers in much of the Western world. In the half century following his death he remains a popular force in the music of our lives. Here are some likely familiar examples that renew themselves on every hearing:

Monday, October 8, 2018

Discovery And Columbus: It's A Matter Of Politics

Nine years ago I blogged about this interesting Columbus Day post by James C. Bennett on some surprising complexities regarding the holiday. Here's my summary paragraph from that post:

Caboto? Cabot? Yes, it's the same explorer. John Cabot, often identified as the "English" navigator, was really an Italian. In 1497 he financed his "discovery" of North America - not just a few islands as Columbus did in 1492 - with English money. Leave it to those crafty English to Anglicize him and create mass confusion among school children and armchair authorities for centuries to come.

Cabot in his Venetian robes, Guistino Menescardi, 1762

Putting aside Bennett's Calvinist Puritan "depravity of man" talk, readers know full-well my opinion on the superlatives and "firsts" regarding the exploration and occupation of the planet. Whether it's Leif Erikson, Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Kennewick Man or whomever, we should know by now it's the politics that matters. Given that, Glenn Reynolds contributes a fine recommendation for this day. He suggests we read Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, a superb biography by the renowned writer and maritime historian, Samuel Eliot Morison. See the link for a brief excerpt and segue into Bennett's opinion.

Enough said. My you have an enjoyable Columbus Day holiday and thank Bjarni Herjolfsson for staying out to sea.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

My Father's Birthday

It has been 111 years since the birth of my father on this day in 1907. That's a long time and one indication of why my value programming is different from that of most of my peers. In short, I was raised by parents from the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age while my classmates, friends, and colleagues had parents come of age during the Great Depression. Attitudes, opinions and beliefs borne out of such a circumstance bring both opportunity and challenge in the real world for those born somewhat "out of synch."

This is my dad at seventeen, a high school honor graduate and holder of his class medals in English and debate. The year was 1925. He was a mill town boy with high ambitions tempered by the security of a good-paying full-time job straight out of high school and into the midst of the Roaring Twenties. He never got the college degree he wanted but he was successful, building on his strong faith, a solid marriage, and a remarkable work ethic.

When I look at this picture I am reminded that he only had four "good" years before the Great Depression and World War II brought him and the country he loved into sixteen years of hard times. Through it all he survived as a member of the "Greatest Generation" and saw his nation prosper.

My children never knew him - he's been gone for over 35 years - but I think they know him well. I've done my best to teach them who he was and honor him by carrying on his many traditions. How fortunate I was to have him as a beacon in my life. He was a great and careful teacher and, though we had our differences, a constant and trusted friend. Most of all he was my loving dad. I thank him every day and will love him forever.

Happy birthday, Dad!

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Happy Birthdays

Today happens to be my birthday but it's also a day of coincidence. If I had to choose two personal favorites among American artists, I would choose Walter Inglis Anderson and George Gershwin. I discovered Anderson on my own in the 1970s during the dedication of a National Park Service visitor center in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. The award-winning center featured architectural elements incorporating his motifs as well as interior displays of his nature paintings. Unfortunately, the center was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. In regard to George Gershwin, I had an ear for him very early in life as my mom and dad enjoyed listening to his work on the radio, records, and television.

Today, September 29, marks the birthday of Anderson and Gershwin. Both were filled with creative genius. Both lives featured tragic loss. Anderson died (1965) in his early sixties recognized as a local artist and obscure introvert wracked by schizophrenia. National appreciation of his contribution to American art would come slowly and long after his death. Even today he's not well known among general populations beyond the South. On the other hand, Gershwin would die of a brain tumor at the age of 38 at the height of his career and known throughout the world.

Walter "Bob" Anderson self-portrait, 1941

Walter Inglis Anderson, was born on September 29, 1903 in New Orleans. After training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the mid-1920s, he spent most of his career associated with Shearwater Pottery, a family enterprise founded in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Though deeply troubled with mental illness for much of his life, he produced thousands of vivid works of art - often called "abstract realism" - seeking to celebrate the unity of human existence with nature. I often describe his work as decorated illustrations that play freely with figure and ground and the positives and negatives of visual perception. His realizations of nature explode in the mind's eye. Observing Anderson is a meditative experience. Visit the Walter Inglis Anderson Museum of Art site to learn more about the life and work of this regional artist who only recently has taken on national significance.

Frogs, Bugs, Flowers        Walter Anderson, ca. 1945

George Gershwin was born in New York in 1898. He went on to become perhaps the most beloved American composer of the last century through his many compositions for the musical stage, the concert hall, and what has become known as the Great American Songbook. Gershwin's appeal comes in part from his colorful and lively incorporation of jazz motifs in all his music. He died in 1937 with what could only be called a spectacular career ahead of him. I often imagine what he could have brought to American music had he lived another forty years.

Gershwin in 1937

Studying these artists came much later in my life. In the last five years, that study led to a startling revelation: George, Walter and I were born on September 29. It's a coincidence from somewhere in the stars beyond time. I don't want to attempt an explanation. And there's no delusion here, my friends, I will never approach their genius. Not sure I'd want to. I'll simply leave it at that and enjoy their greatness knowing that we share a quiet and inconsequential commonality.

In closing, here is one of Gershwin's most beloved songs - with lyrics by his brother, Ira -  performed by jazz great, Ella Fitzgerald. The 1959 recording is one of 57 Gershwin brothers songs she recorded as part of her songbook series. The series of studio albums has been an annual best-seller among jazz recording for over fifty years.

Photos and Illustrations:
Walter "Bob" Anderson, Self-portrait, 1941. Walter Anderson Museum of Art, Ocean Springs, Mississippi;
Frogs, Bugs, and Flowers, Walter Anderson, ca 1945. Repository: Roger H. Ogden Collection. Copyright: Roger H. Ogden;
George Gershwin 1937. Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

William Faulkner: "Ninety-Nine Percent Talent...Ninety-Nine Percent Discipline...Ninety-Nine Percent Work."

Today is the birthday (1897) of William Faulkner, the celebrated world-famous writer and favorite son of Oxford, Mississippi. He explored the character of the South in a string of novels and stories predominately over a twenty year period beginning around 1920. This work earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. Later work was recognized with two Pulitzer Prizes.

Carl Van Vechten - William Faulkner.jpg

Faulkner has never been an easy read for this writer. His complexity and detail, along with the run on sentences and page long paragraphs, makes the experience as challenging as the analysis of his characters. Having lived four decades in the Deep South, I can appreciate in my own small way the 20th century Southern personality Faulkner captured. Folks here were different then. Now that regional character continues to change with a changing South. It is an interesting overlay.

In 1956, Faulkner sat for a Paris Review interview by Jean Stein. It became a seminal piece on the art of fiction as well as an insightful exchange on the writer himself. Readers can access the interview here

And here is the the author reading from The Sound and the Fury, the novel ignored by reader when first published in 1929, but would later bring him fame after the publication of Sanctuary in 1931.


Photos and Illustrations:
Faulkner photo, Carl Van Vecten Collection, United States Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.


title quote, from the Paris Review interview, 1956.