Friday, June 29, 2007

Reading and Art Exhibit

Next Saturday, July 7, there'll be an opening of an exhibit of my art at Alternative Books, 35 N Front Street in Kingston, NY. The reading is scheduled for 5 pm, as part of Kingston's First Saturday art walk.

I'm still mulling over what to exhibit, but since it's a bookstore, I'm thinking I'll devote at least some of the space to my arts portraits -- poets, musicians, artists.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Les Fleurs du Mal

Today is the 150th anniversary of the first edition of Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal." This is Charles Baudelaire, not one of Lemony Snicket's unfortunate orphans, and here is a website devoted to the book.

Here's a sampling in English.

The Jewels

Naked was my dark love, and, knowing my heart,
Adorned in but her most sonorous gems,
Their high pomp decked her with the conquering art
Of Moorish slave girls crowned with diadems.

Dancing for me with lively, mocking sound,
This world of stone and metal, brittle and bright,
Fills me with rapture who have always found
Excess of joy where hue and tone unite.

Naked she lay, suffered love pleasurably
To mould her, smiled on my desire as if,
Profound and gentle as the rising sea,
It rode the tide toward its appointed cliff.

A tiger, tamed, her eyes on mine, intent
On lust, she sought all strange ways to please:
Her air, half-candid, half-lascivious, lent
A new charm to her metamorphoses.

In turn, her arms and limbs, her veins, her thighs,
Polished as nard, undulant as a swan,
Passed under my serene clairvoyant eyes
As belly and breasts, grapes of my vine, moved on.

Skilled in more spells than evil angels muster
To break the solace which possessed my heart,
Smashing the crystal rock upon whose luster
My quietude sat on its own, apart,

Her waist, awrithe, her belly enormously
Out-thrust, formed strange designs unknown to us,
As if the haunches of Antiope
Flowed from a body not yet Ephebus.

Slowly the lamplight sank, resigned to die.
Firelight pierced darkness, stud on glowing stud,
Each time it heaved a sharply flaming sigh
It steeped her amber flesh in pools of blood.

Translated by Jacques LeClerc .

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Jazz Labels

In my youth (well, not my extreme youth, because I only started listening to jazz when I was about 18), I used to confuse the names Ira Gitler and Rudy Van Gelder, I guess because I saw them so often in the same place -- on the back of so many jazz albums on Blue Note and Prestige. Of course, there was no other connection between the two, other than that their names started with "G" and ended with "R." Ira Gitler was a good jazz critic, and Rudy Van Gelder was a great recording engineer.

I say "good" for Gitler because there are no great critics, unless you count people like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Benedetto Croce, and today maybe Umberto Eco. Van Gelder, praise be to the Almighty, is still working, remastering some of his great vinyl triumphs to digital, finding a way to preserve the warmth of the originals.

If I'm grouchy about critics, it's not Ira Gitler's fault, at least not at the moment. I've been reading some books about jazz recently, including Castles Made of Sound, Larry Hicock 's excellent biography of Gil Evans; and Blue Note Records: The Biography by Richard Cook and The Making of Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece by Eric Nisenson (not to be confused with Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece by Ashley Kahn, which I haven't read). Anyway, both of the books with Blue in the title (that I've read) contain a lot of good research and interesting historical stuff, and I'm glad I read both of them, even though I had to grit my teeth when the authors got into their supercilious jazz critic mode. In addition to the fact that I don't care what they think are subpar solos by the giants of jazz on some of the greatest records ever made, their vocabularies of criticism are kinda limited. I thought I might well throw "The Making of Kind of Blue" out the window if I read about "fragile lyricism" one more time.

Maybe I should try Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, which is published by Da Capo, which is pretty much the gold standard of books on jazz.

But anyway, Blue Note Records: The Biography has a very nice section on Rudy Van Gelder and his importance to Blue Note, and to the whole jazz scene, and all of this got me thinking about Blue Note and Prestige, and thinking about what were the greatest of jazz labels?

I decided to limit my thinking to indie labels that really specialized in jazz, and I also decided to write this from the top of my head, without going back and researching stuff I wasn't sure of, which is not the way I generally write, but it's the way Miles Davis generally made a record, mistakes and all, so how bad can it be?

So that meant post- WWII, which was really the birth of the indie label. There were small labels in the 20s and 30s that were hugely important, like Vocalion and Okeh, but they were really subsidiaries of the big labels. There was Black Swan -- the first black-owned label, and here's where it starts to hurt that I've vowed not to look anything up...who owned Black Swan? It was someone important...W.C. Handy? Anyway, it couldn't compete with the big ones. It wasn't until after the war that small entrepreneurs really cracked the record business, because before that the big labels had a stranglehold on the pressing plants.

So...after the war. Dial and Savoy are the first ones -- they did all those great Bird sides. I don't know what happened to Dial. Savoy stayed around through the 50s, largely as a rhythm and blues label, and one of the best. Mercury put out some great records -- Dinah Washington, Clifford Brown -- but they were a major, as were Capitol and Decca, who also both did some important jazz -- Decca with Milt Gabler, who also had his own pioneering small jazz label, Commodore.

The Fifties. Blue Note and Prestige. The greatest jazz labels ever? Well, not to get ahead of myself, but the answer is yes. Riverside did those great sides with Monk, but I don't think of Riverside as having the same centrality. Atlantic? Atlantic was the greatest of all independent labels, bar none. And they did some incredible jazz, Mingus. Giant Steps. Ornette. And with all those amazing Lee Friedlander album cover photos. But I'm excluding them from the game because their main focus wasn't jazz. I was a charter member of the Jazztone Society, a sort of Book-of-the Month Club for jazz records. They didn't last, but they were kinda neat. I remember a Marylou Williams album, and Bird with Red Norvo and Slam Stewart. And a Sidney Bechet. So they weren't cutting edge, but they were good and they should have had a longer life. Norman Granz's labels, Verve and Clef (and I think there was another one) were important but idiosyncratic. Granz liked to mix and match, like putting Buddy Rich on a Charlie Parker session.

The West Coast -- West Coast jazz gets sneered at, but it's a bad rap. One of my first jazz albums was Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Larry Bunker, Chico Hamilton on World Pacific. Fantasy had the early Brubeck stuff.

Columbia entered the modern jazz world late, although they had John Hammond and a rich history, but they entered with Miles Davis and some of the most important recordings ever. But...they're a major. They weren't a jazz label.

Impulse! came later, and did some important Free Jazz, including so much of Coltrane's catalog. A lot of labels like Black Saint carried the torch in the days when jazz was really at a low ebb of recognition, but people like James Blood Ulmer and Sonny Sharrock were still burning brightly.

My friend Peter Jones and I have talked about that era. It was all good. You go over the Blue Note, the Prestige, the Savoy, the Riverside, the Atlantic jazz, the World Pacific catalogs, and you're not going to find anything you wouldn't want to own.

And Blue Note and Prestige were right at the center of it. Maybe more than anyone else, they defined what jazz recording should be.

Can we pick a winner? No. Blue Note not only was there at the beginning of the 50s jazz era, but it's still around, and still important. Hard to pick against it. But for me, it's Prestige. So many of my early, and most favorite albums were Prestige. The ones that started me collecting jazz. Mose Allison -- Back Country Suite, Local Color, Creek Bank. King Pleasure/Annie Ross. John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio, the album that brought me to jazz.

OK. Prestige.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

What English Professors Do

On Aantares, the news discussion bulletin board I administer, there's an ongoing lively discussion between liberal and conservative voices, with the conservs, as they are wont to do, often citing David Horowitz (I'll pass on linking to him) and railing against the lib stranglehold on academia.

With that in mind, I recently started a thread called What Libs Really Do In Academia, and I linked to a blog by AcadeMama, who discussed an assignment she'd given to a class in the Southern college where she teaches, where homophobia is pretty much a fact of life. The assignment was

to attend the not- too- far- away Gay Pride Parade in Very Large Town. They weren't given any agenda. Go. Check it out. Talk to people if they wanted. Observe. That kind of thing. Then, the only thing they had to do was to write thoughtfully and critically about the event (8 pgs. or so), how it reinforced/changed any previous assumptions they may have had about the queer community, straight people, consumerism, political activism (these are just a few of the prompts I provided, but they were free to take their own line of questioning).

She describes some of the approaches taken by her students:

One of the main comments was how "corporate sponsored" the event was. Many of them - and these are 18 & 19 yr old straight kids from small-ish country towns - said that it seemed like much of the purpose and political goals of the event were overshadowed by the fact that it was just another event at which to party and spend lots of money.

Another student commented, in response to one of the writing prompts that addressed hatred/discrimination, that she'd seen two lesbians holding a small girl (presumably their child), and the girl's hair had been buzzed and she was wearing the rainbow shirt. In the student's response, she suggested that this instance was no different than watching two parents take their child to a white pride rally, because the child was in effect being "brainwashed" from the start. She wasn't really being given the option of not supporting the event, and for the student, this was a problem.

Academama states that "Now, these responses received no feedback from me. As long as the writing was complete, thoughtfully, organized, etc. the student got the extra credit."

One of the Aantares regulars commented,

Now, Tad... a question for you... really the question the AcadeMama raised but didn't answer... should she have responded to the the students' writing?

If I were in her position, I'm not sure I could have limited my remarks strictly to the mechanics of the writings... but if I were one of her students, I'd be plenty displeased to put together 8+ pages of writing and receive only a, in effect, pass/fail feedback.

What would you have done...?

My response:

If it were me, and I'm sure it was the same for this professor, I would give feedback on a bunch of things. I'd start with the lead paragraph, because I always do. Is it well-constructed? Does it state the thesis? Is it well-written, because if people don't like your first paragraph, they aren't going to read the second. I would hold my students to the standard I always set for them in a writing class -- you have to establish yourself as a trustworthy guide. You have to let the reader know that you are the person to whom he/she should be listening, in regards to this subject. That means don't start out by saying something like "A Gay Pride parade is a very interesting subject to observe."

I'd critique them on their ability to stay on subject, to keep developing the subject, to avoid repeating themselves.

I'd critique them on the way they presented their observations. This is a paper on a live, first-person observation of an event, so I'd want to see real details of observation. Did it appear to be corporate sponsored, and a way of getting people to spend money? What were some of the corporations represented? What were some of the things for sale? Were they overpriced? Did the event seem -- on the basis of observation of the participants -- to be primarily drawing upscale, money-spending guppies?

And since this an 8-page paper, I'd probably want them to do some background research. What are the kinds of criticisms that are leveled at parents bringing their kids to a white power rally? What are your sources? Are you documenting those sources in proper MLA style? What parallels can you draw between one event and the other, and what's your logic?

Did these students just observe from the sidelines, or did they interview people? What do you think of the corporate sponsorship of this event? How is bringing your child to this event different from bringing her to white power event?

And I'd talk about the quality of the writing, especially redundancy, because that's a huge problem in student papers -- padding them by saying the same thing over and over, rather than developing them.

One thing I would not do, ever, is to tell them that their theories based on observation are wrong -- this event is about Gay Pride, not consumerism; there's no connection between bringing a child to a Gay Pride event and a white power event, and I'm giving you a D for suggesting it. Never ever. And I have no respect for any teacher who would. And I know they're out there. I hear about them, from other students.

Here's a little horror story from years ago. A freshman comp instructor - colleague came to me, in a state of high dudgeon, and asked me to read a paper a student had turned in to her. The subject was "My Most Memorable Experience" -- not a subject I would ever assign, but that's neither here nor there. Anyway, if you ask a bunch of 18-year-olds to write about their most memorable experience, there's always the chance that they'll tell the truth. And this one boy had done just that. And he'd done it tastefully, not bragging, not exploitive. His language was appropriate to a paper for school. Anyway, she had given him a D, and didn't I think she was right?

Well, what was I going to say? I stood up for the kid as best I could, but she sure didn't want to hear it. And -- I'm not sure that this should make any difference, but this particular instructor looked like a hippie earth mother type, with the long black hair and peasant blouses and beads and so on...well, as I say, I don't know if it should make a difference. But everything makes a difference.

Students learn this pretty quickly. There are some professors you can be open with, and some whom you have to give what they want, whether it's an interpretation of "The Mill on the Floss" or a theory of feminist history. And there are others who aren't that rigid.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Witter Bynner, You're Going To Have a Bitter Winter

Or so Hart Crane, in his cups, told Bynner one night. And it seems that the Academy of American Poets is ready to hasten him into it.

Why is there no mention of either Bynner or the Witter Bynner Foundation on the New Mexico page of their Poetry Map?

A little background -- this is a new feature of the Academy's website, and a kinda cool one. As they describe it:

Take a journey through the country's vast array of poetry resources and discover local landmarks, evocative poems, neighborhood celebrations, and hometown heroes. With countless new information added, each state page now features local conferences, festivals, event listings, poetry-friendly bookstores, journals, presses, as well as state-specific poets, poems, and poetic history.

But the journey has a few holes. Marvin Bell is not listed in Iowa, and his importance to the state (he's an ex-poet laureate) and to the Iowa Workshop cannot be overstated.

I'd have liked to see Victor di Suvero included among the New Mexico poets -- one of the founders of PEN New Mexico, the new Mexico Book Association, and the Poetry Center of New Mexico, he helped put the New Mexico poetry scene on the map, and he should be on AAP map.

But can they have left off Witter Bynner. From the time of his arrival in Santa Fe in 1922 to his death in 1968, no one -- with the possible exception of D. H. Lawrence -- was more important in establishing New Mexico's literary presence. The foundation he endowed continues to do important work for poetry.

Here's the foundation:

Through a bequest from Witter Bynner in 1972, The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry perpetuates the art of poetry. The foundation promotes poetry in American culture and encourages grant proposals that expand awareness of the positive effects of poetry on society.

Here's a poem by Bynner:


I come and go
And never stay.
I pick and choose
A night, a day,
I find, I lose,
I laugh along,
I will not know
Right things from wrong.

I pity those
Who pity me,
I ask no boon,
But being free . . .
And so the moon,
My polished stone,
Shines and shows
I lie alone.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Don't Drive Your Mama Away

My friend Linda from Frogville alerted me to this -- Shirley Caesar on YouTube.

Monday, June 04, 2007

I've been tagged by Jeff Newberry to list "Five Songs That Knock My Sox Off." Since I kinda shy away from "interesting stuff about my life" on this blog, I've tried to come up with five songs that not everyone who ventures in here will necessarily have listened to -- but everyone should. I've also kept it to songs with vocals, because otherwise it would just be too hard.

Parker's Mood
, by King Pleasure.

I want this one played at my funeral. It's evocative, yearning, and ultimately about that last journey alone. Bird probably did not want it played at his funeral. His waxing of lyrics set to one of Parker's most haunting melodies (and a tune that Parker only recorded once) came out in 1952, at a time when Bird was increasingly strung out and facing the bitter end of his own mortality. he did not want to hear what could have been his obituary blaring out of every jukebox.

Don't Drive Your Mama Away, by Shirley Caesar.

I heard this song once, on the radio of a cab in New Orleans, and could not rest until I had tracked it down. I haunted gospel music bulletin boards on Prodigy, describing the song as best I could, until someone was able to identify it for me.

Once heard, never forgotten. It sears, it soars, it has all the feeling that only the greatest gospel singers can put into a song, and a powergul story -- a variation on the Prodigal Son story, set in modern times, with a bittersweet twist. Composed by Shirley.

Lover Come Back, by Dinah Washington. "Parker's Mood" is a brilliant example of "vocalese," the technique of setting words to a jazz solo, but King Pleasure is still a vocalist. Dinah Washington, on this cut, is an instrument. Dinah jams, here, with Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Richie Powell, Clark Terry, Harold Land, and others. The session was recorded live in front of an audience that I would have given an arm and a leg to be part of. When people play the "what era would you like to have been born in?" game, for me it's always ten or fifteen years before I was actually born. And I would have liked to be born hipper than I actually was, so that I could have been on 52nd Street, and up at Minton's, to bear witness at the birth of bebop.

Voice as instrument -- I could have chosen Sarah Vaughan's Shulie a Bop just as easily...or anything by Louis Armstrong. The trouble with Armstrong is that there are so many great titles competing for one's attention, how can you choose one. But I'm happy to go with Dinah for this pick.

Banks of the Hudson
, by John Hall. I take enough pride in my own work that I'll choose one of my songs here -- lyrics by Tad Richards, music by John Hall, now The Honorable -- freshman Congressman from Dutchess County. Partially inspired (not the first time this has inspired me) by Thomas Cole's great "Voyage of Life" paintings, partly by love of my native soil, and the river that runs through it.

Ballad for Americans, by Paul Robeson. The greatest and most thrilling of American voices. I first heard "Ballad for Americans" as a child, and though some of the concepts of Americanism in it are a little dated, I wouldn't change one word of it, or one note of Robeson's magnificent voice. I interviewed Earl Robinson not long before he died, and he told me that he had deliberately written a melody simple enough that schoolchildren would sing it. I asked him if it was a surprise, then, to hear it sung by the greatest voice of his era. He said it was, and a pleasant one.

How could I leave out...? But I did. Had to leave out something. Anything by Ray Charles, I wouldn't know what to choose. Maybe "What'd I Say?" "Blue Suede Shoes" by Carl Perkins, which has much of a claim as anything I can think of to the title of The Great American Song. I hated to leave out doo-wop - maybe "When You Dance," by the Turbans, "Church Bells May Ring" by the Willows, "That's My Desire" by the Channels, "I Promise to Remember" by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. "Please Send Me Someone To Love," by Percy Mayfield, the Poet of the Blues. Specialty Records owner Art Rupe said of Percy that he suffered from a terrible self-image -- if he'd had the right encouragement, he could have been another Langston Hughes. I believe it.

I will tag someone new.