Saturday, January 16, 2021

January 16, 1938: The Day When Jazz Gained Overnight Respect

On this night,  Benny Goodman and his band, along with select members of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands, performed a concert at Carnegie Hall. 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. Over eighty years later 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. 

Benny Goodman in New York City, 1946

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 saxaphone, Harry James on trumpet, Goodman on clarinet, and Jess Stacy in a masterpiece of improvisation on piano.

Recordings of the concert have remained in print as best sellers since 1950 when tape masters were found in Goodman's home and in 1998 with the discovery of the original aluminum masters. What more can be said?


Photos and Illustrations:
Library of Congress

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Depths Of Winter


The warmth of the joyous holidays of Christmas and News Year's Day are behind us. I suppose that leaves most of us looking forward to the natural warmth we see in the world outside our windows. Who among us doesn't enjoy the early flocks  beginning their migrations, rising sap that brings a faint and sudden redness to young branches, and a impatient crocus popping out of leaf litter. Earlier this week as I completed my astronomical calendar for the new year I was reminded that January 9 - 12 is on average the coldest period of the year in this part of the Georgia Piedmont. 

This year the three days seem to be living up to its reputation quite well but tomorrow shows some promise. Outside my window at midafternoon it's barely 40 degrees and the light rain and drizzle hasn't stopped since sunrise. This kind of day compels me to abandon the office and move to a southern exposure in a room walled with windows. Overlooking our woods there, the opportunity for distraction is high but matched by the opportunity for inspiration. I'll take the risk.  

For most friends in the eastern United States there's a good chance that your dates for the depth of winter correspond reasonably with mine. And if you're like me, don't care much for winter, and haven't made it to tropical Florida this year maybe its time to celebrate the coming of the migrations, rising sap, and renegade flowers.  It's a bit late today now that darkness is upon us but think ahead to tomorrow and find a southern-facing window overlooking a cherished landscape large or small. Get comfortable. Relax and look at it. In time you'll hear it, smell it, taste it, even touch it. A bit of George Winston's piano, soft and distant, may help set the mood. 

It may be winter and the season of rest but landscapes are very much alive. Stay warm!

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The First Sunday In Epiphany: The Feast Of The Baptism Of The Lord

On this, the first Sunday in Epiphany, many Christians celebrate the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.  

The Baptism of Christ                William Blake, about 1799                 

From Mark 1:4-11 (NIV)

4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with[a] water, but he will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit.”

The Baptism and Testing of Jesus

9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

 And from Martin Luther's 1534 sermon on the baptism of Jesus:

So we should learn to understand baptism and cherish it, because it contains the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—or even just the name of Christ, as reported in Acts.10 It is sufficient to be baptized in the name of Christ, because the Father and the Holy Spirit are there [where he is]. So don’t separate the water from the word, but say, “The water is ordained by God to make us pure for Christ’s sake, for the sake of the Father and the Holy Spirit. They are there in the water to purify us from sin and death.” Whoever is in sin, stick them in the baptism[al water], and their sin will be extinguished. Whoever is in death, stick them in the baptism[al water], and death will be swallowed up. For baptism has divine power, the power to break sin and death. That’s why we are baptized. If later we fall into error or sin, we have not thereby demolished our baptism; we return to it, and say, “God has baptized me, plunged me into the baptism[al water] of his Son, of the Father and the Holy Spirit. There I return, and I trust that my baptism will take away my sin—not for my sake, but for the sake of the man Christ, who instituted it.”

Here is some music for the day, J.S. Bach's Cantata BWV 7, "Christ our Lord came to the Jordan." Titles for its seven sections are based on the first line of each stanza of a Martin Luther hymn of the same name.  


Photos and Illustrations:

Wikimedia Commons, File: William Blake - The Baptism of Christ


 Word & World, Volume XVI, Number 1 Winter 1996

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Carl Sandburg: Speaking American

Today is the birthday of the American lecturer, journalist, poet, biographer, editor and folk singer, Carl Sandburg. He remains my favorite American socialist. Those of us who had a childhood in the 1950s grew up knowing Sandburg rather well as he enjoyed near iconic status as a literary figure. By 1950, his most significant work had already appeared but he maintained a busy working retirement at his farm, Connemara, located in western North Carolina, where he produced about one-third of his total literary output.

Sandburg was widely known as the voice of the American people, especially the working men and women who built a new and prosperous nation out of dreams and sweat. In spite of his popularity, he was a family man at heart who loved the warmth and activities associated with his close-knit family consisting of his wife, Lillian Steichen Sandburg and their three children and their families.

Carl Sandburg in 1955 Library of Congress photo 

For about forty years now, Connemara has been preserved as the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site . During my career I was honored to work for several months with the staff and resources there and was offered the opportunity to manage the place in the mid 90's. As time and fate would have it I declined that offer thus preserving my sole family tie to Lillian and Carl Sandburg at Connemara, that being my late goat farming father-in-law and his business with them and their award-winning Chikaming herd.

If you find yourself near Connemara and Flat Rock, North Carolina, a visit to the historic site would be time well spent. Penelope Niven's 1991 work, Carl Sandburg: A Biography, is an essential resource for those who want to know more about the three-time Pulitzer Prize winning writer and his family.

Here is Sandburg reading his work for a Caedmon recording released in 1959.

The Way Of Alan Watts: It's Just The Dancing Pattern

By the 1960's he had become rather well-known on the American scene as much for living "in the moment" in alcohol, experimental drugs, and other excesses as for his writings. Classical Zen masters criticized him for practicing a light version of Buddhism. Many in the youth rebellion of the time latched on to his eccentricities and independent thought as a beacon in what they viewed as a western world in decline. Either way, he would say that he was what he did. We can do nothing more or less than accept the full man. 

His name was Alan Watts. He was born January 6, 1915, in Britain where he developed a keen interest in Asian studies. He moved to the U.S. in the late 1930’s and became an Episcopal priest in 1943. After seven years Watts left the church and returned to the study of Asian philosophy and religion full-time. When he died in November 1973 he left the world over two dozen books, hundreds of pamphlets and briefs, and well over a thousand hours of audiovisual recordings offering his original thoughts on the Western expression of Zen/ Zen Buddhism and Asian philosophy. For further reading I recommend his autobiography, In My Own Way, published in 1972. It is an entertaining book providing readers with a memorable glimpse of American culture and character in the generation following World War II.

And how did I come to know of Watts and his world? In 1968 documentary filmmakers, Irving and Elda Hartley, produced a fourteen-minute film entitled Buddhism: Man and Nature. Watts wrote the script and provided the narration. For the Hartleys, it was an award winning addition to their series on spirituality and religion. For others, particularly those studying or working in natural resource management, education/interpretation, and related fields, the film was a compelling prescription for understanding and appreciating our natural world. It is in that context that I encountered it in the early 1970’s as a new employee of the National Park Service.

Within days of seeing Buddhism: Man and Nature I found myself alone on a summer evening at a place I had known from early childhood. In my years there I grew to love a rich landscape of distant mountains, woods, fields, and water, an attachment that shaped my career. The film narration I transcribed later that night would travel with me for the next 36 years as I fulfilled a mission helping people appreciate, understand, and preserve some of the finest natural and cultural landscapes throughout the nation.

The film never influenced my personal religious convictions but the Zen concepts certainly impacted my understanding of the human place and role in natural landscapes. Alan Watts’s powerful script as well as his transcendent narration motivated me to look deeper into the man and his writings. Over the next decade his books on Zen, human behavior, and Asian philosophy and the West's response, grew to occupy well over three feet of shelf space in my library.

And what about the transcript I pounded out on my trusty Smith-Corona portable typewriter that evening? Now fragile, well-tattered, torn and coffee stained, it sits enshrined in the household safe.


Photos and Illustration:


Epiphany 2021: Bearing Gifts For All

Today is Epiphany, the celebration of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus, and their recognition or revelation of Him as the King of Kings. With them they brought three precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And journeying from afar to Bethlehem they brought notice to the world that this King of Kings was for all humankind. What precious gifts!

The Adoration of the Kings                  William Blake, 1799

There is but one popular American carol for the celebration of Epiphany. It was written by the Episcopal clergyman, John Henry Hopkins, Jr., and appeared in print in 1863 in a collection of his sacred music.

And speaking of gifts here is a post I wrote in 2009 about a gift-giving tradition from my childhood. 

We can only imagine what it must have been like to celebrate Christmas for twelve days. The festivities, including the giving of one gift a day, then opening all of them on Twelfth Night or the following day (Epiphany), must have filled children with both anticipation and unbridled delight. I suspect that more than a few of those gifts were modest by today's standards, perhaps as simple as an orange or bag of special candy. Indeed, that was the case with my grandparents. My dad once told me that as far back as he could remember - he was born in 1907 -  his Aunt Lizzie (shown here in 1912 when she was 24)  had always given her nieces

and nephews several gifts, including a popcorn ball wrapped in colored cellophane. I'm sure they were a part of Lizzie's childhood in the late 1880s and 90s when popcorn was wildly popular. 

Like many women of her era Lizzie never married, choosing instead to care for her parents and brothers. When her brothers and sisters married and had children of their own, she continued her generosity, including the distribution of those popcorn balls up through her last Christmas in 1958. By that time, her popcorn ball making had turned into a small industry that not only served her large family but also the neighborhood. And so, every Christmas for my first ten years, I eagerly accompanied my parents to Lizzie's home to exchange gifts and return with a bag of popcorn balls. 

For some reason, my parents never carried on Lizzie's tradition for their one and only, nor did I for my three children. Obviously it's too late for my kids, and grandchildren are somewhere on a distant horizon. On the other hand, many readers may find joy in making a historic Christmas treat for their children or grandchildren in 2021. For even more fun and adventure you could  ask them to help!  From her small, red, and tattered memo book, I offer the recipe for...

Aunt Lizzie's Christmas Popcorn Balls

8 cups of popcorn
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup of sorghum syrup
1/3 cup of water
1/4 cup softened butter
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla

Combine the sugar, sorghum, water, butter and salt in a saucepan over medium heat and stir until sugar dissolves. Continue cooking until the mixture reaches about 250 degrees or hardens when dropped into cold water. Remove from heat, stir in the vanilla, and pour over the popcorn. Working quickly, mix thoroughly, butter your hands and shape popcorn into balls about four inches wide. Let them cool on wax paper. Wrap each ball in red or green cellophane and secure with a ribbon. Distribute to wide-eyed youngsters or oldsters alike.

Sounds like a tradition in the making.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The Closing Day Of Christmas 2020: Twelfth Night Revelry


The quietness of the penultimate day of Christmastide 2020 has given way to the Twelfth and last day This day is important among Christians who maintain liturgical traditions: it marks the end of the twelve day festival celebrating the birth of Christ, it is the eve of Epiphany, and it is the beginning of the carnival season ending with Mardi Gras and the beginning of Lent. Those who are reluctant to bid Christmas farewell can take heart knowing that the tradition of Christmastide extends through February 2 or Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.

For some the Twelve Days of Christmas will end with elaborate costumes, masks, feasting, music, dancing, and theater at Twelfth Night festivities where misrule is the only rule. They are indeed topsy-turvy events. Only the Surveyor of Ceremonies will appear without a mask. He will direct the company through a series of games and other activities beginning with the distribution of the Twelfth Cakes. When all the party goers have arrived, each will select a small festival cake or cake slice. Three of those cakes contain a hidden bean or token designating them as the king cake, queen cake and fool cake. The lucky holders of the royal cakes oversee the evening's activities before returning to their normal lives, most likely "below the salt."

These Twelfth Night traditions have been part of western culture for over a thousand years. Some traditions carry over the night into Epiphany, January 6. This is the case in New Orleans where Twelfth Night parties have been popular for centuries due in part to their role as opening events of the Carnival season.

Twelfth Night festivities in New Orleans in 1884

We trust that you have experienced a wonder-filled Christmas. May you live throughout this new year in the spirit of Twelfth Night, finding joy and happiness in what often seems a disordered world. In the words of William Shakespeare, who had a bit to say about this evening in Twelfth Night, (Act II, Scene 5):

Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

Great or common - What you will!

And speaking of greatness here is music for the season, Johann Sebastian Bach's Magnificat in D Major. The composition was originally written in Leipzig for Christmas 1723 and contained four seasonal hymns.   In 1730 the composer revised the work by dropping the four seasonal hymns and changing the key to D Major. The second version is the one most often head today.