Straighten Up and Fly Right

I am on a rant tonight against people, in all sorts of fields, who deliberately misrepresent themselves. As a nonfiction author and journalist I have a real problem with lies of all types and sizes. Today I read a 1500-word piece about a local event, 20% of which was devoted to quotes from a man who represented himself as the event’s producer. This man is always looking for exposure; he’s a player, all talk and little, if any, action. I was a publicist for many years, so I am no stranger to “marketing” tactics, but I draw the line at deceit and deception. People who give themselves false job titles are bad enough, but you have to be really stupid to lie to the media about it when there is someone else around who actually holds that title. Then again, it seems that many newspaper writers today (especially at local papers) do not bother to check the facts, so the lies get printed and become fact to those who do not know any better. My local Weekly is full of inaccuracies, mostly caused by writers running quotes (often from a friend or community gadfly) and not bothering to verify it or, if on a controversial subject, to check for rebuttal. People who deliberately mislead, and those who perpetuate the deception, whether knowingly or by virtue of their own laziness or stupidity, need to stop it.

The Merry Merry Month of May

DevraDoWrite is now one month old, and I had to look back to see where the month went so fast. At a glance, my May calendar shows not enough live music – only the one concert celebrating Gerald Wiggins’ birthday. I’m hoping to make up for that next month and especially have my eye on a tribute to Oliver Nelson (June 6th at Catalina’s), as well as the trio of giants — Ron Carter, Russell Mallone and Mulgrew Miller — appearing at The Jazz Bakery June 14-19). My new bass-playing friend has a few gigs in June and I’ve noted in my planner her trio appearance at The Westin Hotel near LAX on June 29th.

I only saw one movie in May – Ladies in Lavender starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. A couple of weeks back The New Yorker published a wonderful short piece about these two ladies – Two Dames – by one of my favorite writers, a dame of another sort named Lillian Ross. I felt as if I was right there, sitting at the table enjoying a lobster salad and glass of wine, before embarking on a whirlwind of interviews when I’d rather go shopping. I also enjoyed the movie immensely, and loved the scene where a bunch of towns people get all dressed up in their Sunday best to sit in a living room parlor and listen to a classical concert on the wireless.

Also in the leisure mode, I had three lunch dates with girlfriends, and today (Memorial Day) my husband and I went to the home of Roy and Pat McCurdy (jazzers know Roy as the drummer for Cannonball Adderley and Nancy Wilson, among others) and ate some finger-lickin’ bbq.

Work wise, I had a handful of meetings and did some interviews for my school district marching band story, and also watched on Book-TV (C-SPAN2) Nonfiction Page Turners: Finding the Story, a panel discussion with Dava Sobel, Sebastian Junger, Hampton Sides, and Melissa Fay Greene, sponsored by Authors Guild Foundation.

The month ended with a crunch of activity: I attended the 3-day National Critics Conference and on the last day was a panelist on The Art of the Interview session. With Q&A we ran a tad overtime, and I had to speed my way from downtown Los Angeles to the Rose Bowl to catch Clairdee’s vocal set. Clairdee is a wonderful singer based in Northern California, but she came down here to be part of the Playboy Jazz at Summer Fest, one of Playboy’s annual free events leading up to the big Playboy Jazz Festival that takes place at the Hollywood Bowl. (Disclosure: my husband is Clairdee’s manager, so don’t take my word for it, check her out for yourself.)

I’ve got high hopes for June — time will tell.

On My Mind, 1, 2, 3

What is most on my mind lately is the lack of arts education for young children. This issue is coming up everywhere I turn.

1. I’ve been working on a story about an urban California school district on the outskirts of Los Angeles where two hundred middle and high school students were inspired to join together to create from scratch a high-caliber marching band that would qualify to march in the parade of parades, The Tournament of Roses Parade, in only eighteen months. The music programs were decimated years ago, the district faces ever-increasing budget shortfalls, and community apathy is rampant. Yet, though music, this diverse group of kids, ranging in size, shape, and color, from varying cultural and economic backgrounds, not only achieved their dream of marching in the 2005 Rose Parade, they began a new tradition, represented their schools with pride, gained the admiration of their peers, and helped to unify the school district.

2. JazzAtWingspread was all about asking questions such as: How do we raise the marketshare for jazz? How do we reach teenagers to gather new appreciation for this music? How do we encourage the appreciation of the arts? My question is “Why has no one mentioned education?” I know there’re a whole bunch of “jazz educators” — all those high school and college band teachers — but they should be the icing on a cake, not the cake itself. Our society is loosing ground because of the lack of arts education in our elementary schools. That is where arts appreciation must start.

3. The National Critics Conference kicked off this morning. It is presumably the first time the national organizations for dance critics, fine arts critics, classical music critics, jazz critics and theater critics have converged to discuss the arts and media coverage of the arts in today’s world. Many of the concerns I heard today are no different than those at the Wingspread conference – “how to we increase the size of the audiences interested in the arts?”

I truly believe that we must expose young children to the arts. I also believe that rather than take time away from “core subjects” or the 3Rs, the arts can be used to explore those subjects. Study the geometry in paintings by Mondrian, the science of sound by exploring different musical instruments, drama of the ancient Greeks, folk dances of foreign cultures, squaredances of the American settlors… Trite as it may sound, children are out future. And, although I really did not plan it this way, that brings me back to the childrens books I spoke of at the beginning of this week.

I’ve Got Mail

The ebb and flow of people in one’s life is always amazing. I have had the great fortune to count among my friends a lot of wonderful jazz people. Our paths cross, then diverge, then cross again somewhere down the line. Often, years intervene. Back in the days when I was enjoying Monday nights at the Vanguard, or any night at Bradley’s (a tiny bar on University Place that hosted the world’s best jazz pianists and was the musicians’ late night hang out), one of my favorite people to hang with was Carol Sloane. Carol is a superb interpeter of a lyric, truly one of the best jazz singers, and sadly underrated. If you are not familiar with her work, get thee to Amazon now! One of my favorites is the 1988 recording Love You Madly, with Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, Akira Tana, Art Farmer and Clifford Jordan. It’s one of Carol’s favorites, too.

Anyway, about the mail. Carol wrote to fill in a few details about Joe Williams’ recording date with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra:

Memories of this record date flood back to me. I was there, as Joe’s guest. He had been singing at The Half Note, and he told me that the date was scheduled for a few hours’ hence. He came to my apartment (35th & Third) and flopped on the sofa for a while. Slept a bit, I think. Then we went uptown for some breakfast and on to the date.

She also questioned my memory of “the plaintive sounds of Bob Brookmeyer’s arrangement of Willow Weep for Me.”

I asked Bob to listen to a recording of Mildred Bailey’s gentle version of a song I liked called “Willow Tree”. He responded to it, and of course, eventually wrote a gorgeous chart. He may also have written one on “Willow Weep For Me”, but I suspect you may have confused the two. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Well, it turns out we are both right. First I looked at my CDs and found that the band had recorded both ‘willow’ songs, but the credits did not list the arrangers. Still in a quandry, I decided to go to the source. I called Brookmeyer, who promptly informed me that he wrote five charts for that fine band: St. Louis Blues, ABC Blues, Samba Con Getchu, Willow Tree, and Willow Weep For Me. He also happened to mention that he is about to launch a new project online with ArtistShare. When he launches, I will let you know, and at that time I will tell you more about the brainstorm that is ArtistShare.

Branding – part two

Well, I was just over at the jazzatwingspread blog reading the comments that have been posted thus far. It seems that one or more people are hot and bothered, and I can understand why. I said that I was a friend of MCG Jazz, and I am. I like the Pittsburgh venue, and applaud the quality of the music they present – both live and on CD. I believe their hearts are in the right place. What worries me is how awfully hard it is to stay clean when you’re playing ball.

One anonymous commenter wrote “The big record companies only look at sales numbers and not in devloping the art. Members of your own panel are guilty of this.” Absolutely true. I took a look at the list of attendees and mentally crossed off several as being high on the list of exploiters, those who I know for a fact have taken advantage of jazz artists.

Another comment, actually a long rant posted by “conscience,” made several good points, one of which is that artists who wish to perform or offer clinics at the IAJE convention have to pay their own way and receive no fee. Having been a jazz publicist for many years, I am all too familiar with the rationale – “it’s good exposure.” Jazz musicians are tired of giving it away, and I don’t blame them.

Conscience also wrote “Branding just sounds like raising the price of jazz – rather than making the music and its infrastructure and universe more inclusive,” and suggested the result would be similar to the pharmaceutical industry where drug prices are so high only because they must cover the cost of advertising.

I am all for raising jazz awareness and increasing revenues, but only if the music makers, the artists themselves, get their fair share. Without them, there is no music.


In 1998, having relocated to sourthern California, I needed new business cards. I could have replicated my old cards that had WRITER in addition to my name and contact information, but I thought it too plain. I needed something that would be descriptive, unusual, and therefore memorable. I consultated with a friend and we came up with a tag line that is still on my cards and letterhead — “Biographies and other expressions of the human condition.” I still use it, not because I think it’s done much for me, but because I don’t have anything better in mind.

Most of us creative types — writers, musicians, painters, and so forth — don’t seem to have the business gene. Oh, some of us are organized, some have learned to schmooze and sell, but real marketing know-how is something one has to study and cultivate. It is an art form all its own. And those creative types who are born with that gene, well they work on Madison Avenue and make the big bucks creating ad campaigns for Aflac, Nike, milk, and California cheese. Perhaps I’d have more business savvy had I completed that MBA degree I started when still in my 20s. But maybe it’s not too late to learn a few of the secrets.

I’ve got my eye on a most interesting happening that will be taking place from Tuesday evening (May 24th) through midday on Thursday (May 26th). A group of the jazz world’s powers-that-be (think Jazz at Lincoln Center, Blue Note Records, Concord Records, BET on Jazz, Jazz at Kennedy Center, Monterey Jazz Festival…) will be meeting together with some management and marketing gurus and a few artists to discuss “how to work together to raise market share for jazz.”

Being a jazzer myself, as well as a close friend of MCG Jazz (one of the conference organizers) I have more than a passing interest in this event. But the truth is that I will be watching closely because I hope to learn something that might be applicable to myself and to others who are close to me.

My peephole into the event is the Jazz at Wingspread blogsite , where I and others will read about the initiatives to be discussed and may post our comments and suggestions. Check it out.

Childrens Stories

I remember that as a child I read Winnie the Pooh, all manner of fairytales, Eloise, Madeline, Stuart Little, and Charlotte’s Web, but the story that stands out most is The Little Engine That Could. I grew up believing that you could do anything if you put your mind to it. I still believe that.

I don’t have any children, but I do have some children’s books on my shelf, mostly a few of my own tattered and scribbled upon childhood tomes that I somehow rescued from the give-it-away or trash piles. The Little Engine That Could was not among them, so a few years ago, for what reason I can no longer recall, I bought a brand new copy from a 1991 printing. The original copyright year is 1930 — that’s what I call a long shelf life.

Even as a child, I loved biographies, but I remember listening to more biographies than I read. I think it was Riverside Records that had a wonderful series of recordings called “A Child’s Introduction to…” Each record was the story of a different composer, narrative tales with sound effects and, of course, music. I knew the life stories of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart as if they were my best friends. The series no longer exists, but I do look for it from time to time, hoping that someone will discover the masters and reissue these aural productions on CD. Meanwhile, I still like Peter and the Wolf along with the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and a few years ago I found some good audio children’s tales, notably Beethoven Lives Upstairs and Mr. Bach Comes to Call.

In the last few years I have bought a few “new” children’s books, all of them about artists of one sort or another. A real favorite of mine is a very creative tale called When Pigasso Met Mootisse, by Nina Laden (Chronicle Books). Hyperion Books for Children have some great biographies — the two on my shelf are Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa, and Alvin Ailey, both by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney. My most recent acquisition is Roxanne Orgill’s If I Only Had a Horn: Young Louis Armstrong with illutrations by Leonard Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin Company).

What’s on your shelf – past or present? What books you remember from your childhood? What are the children you know reading today? Send me an email [devra AT] and I will compile and post a list.

Inspirations and Goals

Here are a few of my favorite quotations from books about writing, lines I enjoy re-reading because they inspire me to keep writing:

“Art, in essence, celebrates life and gives us our measure.” – Bernard Malamud (First Person Singular: Writers On Their Craft; compiled by Joyce Carol Oates)

“…the creative impulse. It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, you try to show this beauty in things to others…” – Brenda Ueland (If You Want To Write)

“Art is moral passion married to entertainment. Moral passion without entertainment is propaganda, and entertainment without moral passion is television.” – Rita Mae Brown (Starting from Scratch)

“An essay about those who shun the popular and profitable for that of seemingly small importance is an essay I want to write; it is an essay I want to read.” – Lisa Knopp (“Excavations” in The Essayist At Work, edited by Lee Gutkind)

Those are my goals as a writer: to celebrate life, to illuminate the lives and loves of people around me, to do so with skill as well as passion while creating works that are entertaining.

Memoir Thoughts

I have begun work on a memoir and I am finding inspiration in reading the memoirs of others. Some writers prefer not to read anything in the same genre as they are writing in at the time, but these works by others provoke me to think about questions that I might not have thought to ask myself. For example, in his memoir All the Strange Hours, Loren Eiseley writes about “the most perfect day in the world.” He says:

“It is never the same for each. For some it will be the memory of a woman, or a fading bar of music, or a successful night at a gambling table leaving you with the momentary illusion that you have won the game of life. Also the perfect day is apt to be so subjective that no one else who was with you will remember it in the same fashion, if he remembers it at all. It will be a day totally yours.”

And so I begin to comb my mind for memories of a perfect day, or if not perfect, then a day fully remembered, an important day. As I read on, I am surprised to find that Eiseley’s memory of his perfect day is totally lacking in the usual specificities. He doesn’t remember when it was, or exactly where, nor does he recall who was with him.

“I only remember that there were four of us. But out of all the towns and stations of those years, it was somewhere in Kansas in the wheat.”

Suddenly I realize that a memory need not be “an event” to be of importance, that a beginning, middle, and end are not requisite. Thoughts and feelings, moments recalled and perhaps savored, even if seemingly disjointed from time, these are what illuminate a life.

Freed from some unspoken and self-imposed constraint, my childhood mind opens and I smell the chlorine at the Leroy Street swimming pool where my dad and I went swimming, the incense wafting from every doorway on Greenwich Village’s Eighth Street in the 1960s, the burning wood and singed marshmallows of summer camp fires. I feel the heat on my chest from mother’s Vick’s VapoRub cures, the ache in my ankles after hours at the ice skating rink in Central Park, the exhaustion following a marathon at the Folk Dance House. I taste the cinnamon in mom’s rice pudding and an oyster from my grandfather’s plate. I hear my father reading Charlotte’s Web aloud and my mother singing to me to sleep.

What memories and musings will find their way into a manuscript remains to be seen. Meanwhile, I will keep conducting an ongoing self-interview, aided, in part, by questions that I see other writers pose to themselves.

A Worthy Reminder

“Journalists are always talking about how they write to inform the public, to defend democracy, to champion the little guy against the corporate mogul, to create a better world. I began my career 20 years ago, holding these high-minded rationales. But over the years, as I turned to writing about the everyday lives of people, it dawned on me that these explanations had become props: I no longer wrote stories in order to right wrongs or change the world. I wrote stories, as poet Rita Dove says, in order to feel.”

These are the opening lines of Walt Harrington’s introduction to “At the Heart of It: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives” a beautiful collection of portraits from everyday life.