“Hi ho, Silver, away!”

I was three or four years old when I first met a horse. My mother and I were living out West and because she took me almost everywhere with her, I got to go riding at an early age. I won’t claim to have a vivid memory of this, but I feel like I remember it. I have some other very clear memories of that time in my life, clearest being the floor plan of our house in the cul-de-sac. I remember going to the hospital emergency room when I punctured my ear drum, swallowing a quarter, digging for worms, twirling a baton (or trying to), playing with a lamb (a real live one), eating a dog’s Milk Bone, and riding in a jeep. And I remember the picture on the wall over my bed. But my memory of riding a horse is hazy, just a feeling, perhaps from photos I’ve seen long ago, perhaps not. Still, it must have been a good experience because seven or eight years later I became a pretty good rider, albeit back on the East Coast and in an English saddle. The photo at left is yours truly at summer camp, age 11.

I was fairly fearless as a young horsewoman, not afraid to ride bareback (emergency dismount was easy), and eager to participate in the local shows at which I won an occasional ribbon. I also remember a horse we named Camel because he liked to lie down and roll in the sand dunes at the end of one of the trails. I recall a few spills but I always got right back on the horse who threw me. Now, more than a few decades later, I have a fear of falling, a sensation that I do not recall feeling back then. But I still love to ride.

It’s been more than ten years since I have ridden. The last time was in Oregon, on vacation with my girlfriend, Alice. We had flown to Portland, rented a car and driven many hours down along the Columbia Gorge. Our plan was to slowly wend our way back toward Portland, stopping to spend a day in each town along the way. One day Alice said she wanted to go riding and she found a place listed in the telephone book. We called and booked a half-day trail excursion for the next afternoon. It was absolutely beautiful, but oh boy, we paid for it, and I don’t mean in cash. The following day we could do little more than sit by the pool at the Motel 6; any and all movement was painful. But it was worth it!

So here I am, at it again; the picture on the right is from yesterday. I’ve been going once a week and this is my third time. The first time the trainer put me on Contessa. She’s an older horse, stubborn but not wicked like some of the 3 year olds. We stayed in the arena that day and Contessa ran the show; I was just happy to stay seated. Last week, a friend went out with us and they convinced me that I could handle Flicka. I was doing fine in the arena, but then my friend talked me into going out on the trail. Wow. Or more appropriately, Whoa. First of all, to get from the stable to the arena you have to ride down the street with an occasional car passing by. The horses seem used to the cars, but lawnmowers spook them. The arena is in a large park, but to get to the trail you have the leave the park and ride down Lincoln Avenue, a fairly major street. At times, we rode on the sidewalk. The only thing missing were the hitching posts. Given the price of gas right now, perhaps not a bad idea. It was an exhilarating trip, even if half of the exhilaration was just plain terror. I acquitted myself well, and had some measure of control over Flicka, though I suspect only as much as she allowed me. This time it was back to Contessa and I stayed in the arena. We battled a bit, but I felt more in control. I went out in flat shoes because last week my ankle gave out and it may have been due to the heels on the boots I was wearing (I haven’t worn shoes with heels in more than six years). This felt a little better, so perhaps I’ll treat myself to some boots without heels. We’ll see. Gotta keep those heels down.

Visiting Colleagues

Mr. Rifftides has riffed on my rant from the beginning of this week. He is more dispassionate in a personal context, but passionate about the subject of journalism. Go here to read his thoughts.

There’s nothing more fun than discourse, whether in person or from afar, direct or indirect. Sometimes I tire of listening and prefer to just write, alone with my thoughts, but eventually I need the stimulation of interaction. Today, in visiting Terry Teachout’s blog I find a letter from one of his readers and his response. Their subject is how to appropriately subtitle a biography; should it be “A Life of so-and-so,” or “The Life of so-and-so.” We titled the video documentary of my dad “Jim Hall: A Life in Progress” so you might think I agree with with TT’s correspondent, but “the life in progress” clearly would not have been correct, it would have to have been “His Life In Progress,” but that sounds, quite frankly, rather boring. The logic, understood by both the correspondent and TT is that “the” makes it sound definitive while, in fact, TT’s work as well as dad’s video do not pretend to be exhaustive biographies covering every facet of the life in question.

What makes someone buy one biography instead of another? For me, it is my curiosity about that particular author’s perspective, his or her version of someone’s life as different from someone else’s, and what that life looks like at a particular moment in time — if the person is alive, where they are in the trajectory of their path, and if deceased then what the past looks like from today’s perspective. So yes, people do have many lives, not only as perceived by someone else but as perceived by oneself and other over time.

I hadn’t given this quandry any thought when I suggested that my Luther Henderson book (“a” work in progress) be titled “Seeking Harmony: The Life and Music of Luther Henderson.” Does that imply to you that it is a definitive, exhaustive, soup-to-nuts, heavy-weight tome? If so, I will need a new title. Or, if one believes that the writer can distill the essence of a person, then perhaps “the” is still correct; after all, we are not claiming “the one and only life of” whomever. Still it would only be my perspective of his essence.

But of course it is my perspective, I am the author. I know that and you readers know that. That is why our English teachers, and editors, told us to delete the words “I think” from our pieces. You know it is what I think because my name is on it. If someone else thought or said or wrote it I would have told you so — and if I didn’t, well that’s plaigerism and another story all together.

Missing In Action

Action being the operative word, it was a very busy week and included my second foray on horseback (more about that next week) and fending off a gazillion phone calls asking if it is true that John and I got together when I was 11 years old — ha ha — no, it is not true.

What could have been a lovely feature story in Friday’s Pasadena Star News was, sadly, full of factual errors, and worse, it was woefully short on substance. Errors included my age — I am 50 years old, 44 years younger than John, not 55 years younger than John which would make me 39 (and no, I don’t wish it were so); and we won’t even mention that there is no jazz musician I know of named Jim Hail. Okay those are two errors that are personal to me and I’m feeling snarky, but there are many others errors and a few misquotes as well. Whether due to shoddy/sloppy journalism practices or lack of experience I can’t say for a fact, but I do have an opinion.

Even though the reporter did request (and receive) a free copy of “Men, Women and Girl Singers,” John’s life story written entirely by yours truly (as John himself told her), I guess she didn’t have time to read it or any of the materials on the web site. However, she did interview John for two hours, consulted twice at length with his publicist, even called me with questions, and there is so much she could have written about.

Yes, he was the first African-American manager of jazz artists, but more importantly he was the first to encourage musicians to retain the publishing rights to their own compositions and he went so far as to set up the publishing companies that were fully owned by his clients. When gigs were not abundant, he produced his own shows at venues such as the Apollo, featuring his clients. He even produced records for his clients. He was a forerunner in his field. His years of success in all of these areas earned him an impeccable reputation in the entertainment industry, where he is both respected and admired by other managers, booking agents, concert promoters, entertainment lawyers and accountants, record company executives, and last but not least, the artists themselves. There a million people from whom she could have gotten a quick quote. He has been a role model for many in the business because of his integrity, business acumen and his unselfish dedication to the world of jazz, and that is why he was given the NEA Jazz Master Award, not because he happened to be the first Black manager in the jazz/pop field.

So what did she write about? She mentions his jewelry (how can someone describe a sapphire pinky ring, plain gold wedding band and zodiac pendant as “bling”), talks about his being home in Brooklyn for only 3 or 4 months out of each year and implies that it caused three divorces (he traveled a lot for a few years between 1949 and 1953 and it had nothing to do with any of his divorces, all of which came later), says he used to smoke but doesn’t anymore and has a drink every so often (is this important?) and can walk for several hours at a time (not true unless you count window shopping in New York City once every couple of years), claims he doesn’t have any aches or pains from old age (maybe in his dreams — she wasn’t paying attention)…need I continue?

Longtime DevraDoWrite readers know that I look up to writers such as Walt Harrington, Gay Talese, and Truman Capote, journalists who bring people to life by using what Harrington calls “intimate details,” but such details should not be gratuitous and must do more than suggest that the writer was there to see them, they are supposed to reveal character within the context of the story being told. (When teaching writing workshops I always use these stellar examples of detail in description.)

They ran a very lovely and extremely large photo of John — too bad they didn’t use some of that space to educate their readers with more substance.

So now that I’ve vented, and hopefully in the process corrected a few facts, do you want to know what else kept me busy this past week? Two pilates workouts with my trainer, two interviews for the Luther Henderson biography, two long distance phone conferences with six people dialing in for each, lunch with a girlfriend at a wonderful dumpling house in Arcadia, coffee with my publicist at my favorite neighborhood bakery, a visit from the Sears repairman, and oh yes, a glorious two and a half hours atop a horse named Flicka, riding down the streets of Altadena and onto the trail that surrounds JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab.) I plan to write more about horses and other things later in the week.
Addendum: I have just found that the online version of the Pasadena Star News article is a little different. It does have a little more information, mostly in the form of lifting quotes from the book, so at least the reporter skimmed through the pages. Unfortunately, more info also brings with it more mistakes. John’s office is not mahogany-lined (maybe she is referring to the hardwood floor, but that’s not mahogany) and he no longer has his old bass, a beautiful full-bodied upright, having given it away decades ago. The bass in the corner gathering dust is a body-less electric bass that I bought for John in a fruitless effort to get him playing again. Some of you may know that years ago I used to be a publicist – “all press is good as long as they spell your name right” – and I couldn’t understand why it was like pulling teeth to get clients to agree to do interviews, especially with smaller publications. Now I get it.

You Better Believe It

Given the level of deception and deceit to which we are exposed on a daily basis, whether by virtue of deliberate act or ignorance, these words from Buddha offer one good and true measure:

“Do not believe in what you have heard;
do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations;
do not believe anything because it is rumored and spoken of by many;
do not believe merely because the written statements of some old sage are produced;
do not believe in conjectures;
do not believe in that as a truth to which you have become attached by habit;
do not believe merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.

After observation and analysis, when it agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

Gautama Buddha — (Spoken 2,600 years ago)

I am not a Buddhist (not yet, anyway), and am not even particularly well-read in that field. I happened upon these words via guitarist Tony DeCaprio’s web site in the Deuterium section. His commentaries also explore a spiritual approach to life and jazz.

Family Kudos

Last month one of Terry Teachout’s Saturday Wall Street Journal pieces was about one of my favorite Jim Hall albums, Concierto. And around the same time, Mr. Rifftides complimented Jim mightily in a post about Christian Scott:

…a musician of Hall’s commitment, integrity and talent is unlikely to be able to sell out even if he makes the effort, simply because of his inability to tune into frequencies lower than those of his artistry.

And today I stumbled upon FretsOnly.com, a commercial website that looks to be in the UK (their prices are shown in pounds) selling the Jim Hall documentary – they like it a lot (thank you very much):

A Life In Progress presents a very unique inside look into Jim’s life past and present. Written by Devra Hall and produced by Jane Hall and Jon Snyder it is a truly personal experience and a must for any Jim Hall fan.

I get a kick out of the “written by” credit because there really was no written script and no narrator. I conducted the interviews, but you never hear me, and the only time you see me is a family shot of us walking down by the lake with our dog, Django. When it comes to video bios of living persons, I want to hear from the source, and that’s what we presented. You’ll see and hear dad in the studio recording tracks for his Textures album, and many of the interviews with him and with Pat Metheny, Greg Osby, Joe Lovano and others were done during the breaks. We did some additional interviews with Chico Hamilton, Nat Hentoff and John Lewis in my parents’ New York co-op and the rest was shot at their hideaway in the country.

Of course you can buy the DVD stateside, too. Here‘s one of many places that carry it.


A DevraDoWrite reader, knowing of my interest in memoir, sent me word today with two references, one to a Wall Street Journal article and the other an NPR interview with my friend Bill Zinsser.

Writers are the custodians of memory, says Bill Zinsser. In the NPR piece On Memoir, Truth, and “Writing Well” Bill talks about the difference between memoir as therapy or retribution, “a debased form” usually written by whiners, and those works written as an act of healing by survivors who write well and often with humor. He believes in writing for oneself, whether or not a work gets published (agents and publishers don’t know what they want until they see it) and he views the writing of family histories as important work. Bill chooses his words as carefully in speech as he does when committing words to the page; I encourage you to listen to this 8 minute segment.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

…publishers plan to put out twice as many [memoirs] as last year…
This spring sees memoirs by a transvestite art director (buttoned-down nerd by day, drag queen by night), a tell-all from the Beatles’ publicist; a book about the year in the life of a Catholic seminarian; a cartoon memoir about surviving cancer; Helen “I Am Woman” Reddy on life as a feminist icon; and a memoir by “Maude” daughter and horror queen Adrienne Barbeau.

Clearly memoir is still “hot” as genres go, and the path is a lot smoother if you are already a well known author, a celebrity of any sort, involved with a celebrity, or have the inside scoop. Not really news to me, but the best part of the article for me was finding a new word — kerfuffle — used as follows: “Given the recent kerfuffle regarding Mr. Frey’s book, publishers say that they’re likely to scrutinize memoirs more closely before releasing them.”

Perhaps you know this word, but I don’t recall ever hearing it before. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says:

Etymology: alteration of carfuffle, from Scots car- (probably from Scottish Gaelic cearr wrong, awkward) + fuffle to become disheveled
chiefly British : DISTURBANCE, FUSS

And the World Wide Words site provides a little background:

A commotion or fuss.
You will most commonly come across this wonderfully expressive word in Britain and the British Commonwealth countries (though the White House spokesman Ari Fleischer used it in January this year). It is rather informal, though it often appears in newspapers. One of the odder things about it is that it changed its first letter in quite recent times. Up to the 1960s, it was written in all sorts of ways—curfuffle, carfuffle, cafuffle, cafoufle, even gefuffle (a clear indication that its main means of transmission was in speech, being too rarely written down to have established a standard spelling). But in that decade it suddenly became much more popular and settled on the current kerfuffle. Lexicographers suspect the change came in response to the way that a number of imitative words were spelled, like kerplop and kerplunk.

I’m going to add kerfuffle to my vocabulary list.

I’ve Got Mail: A Compatible Quote

Mike Davis writes from across the pond in Shropshire, England:

I was interested in the Gerry Mulligan advice. . .sound common sense. Here’s something in similar vein that Hampton Hawes once had to say (as passed on to me by Carol Kaye a few years ago) Quote: I don’t know about these young people today. They all want to analyze me, and I tell ‘em, ‘Don’t do it. . .don’t analyze; just listen, it doesn’t matter if I put a Rudebaker 9th with a Cabbage 13th. . .what really matters is that you listen; then if you like what you hear, enjoy the music. . .

Mike is the co-author (with Roger Hunter) of “Hampton Hawes: Bio-discography.”


This quote is floating all over the net and in lots of mail order catalogues without attribution — I rather like it:

I want to be an outrageous old woman who never gets called an old lady. I want to get leaner & meaner, sharp edged & earth colored, till I fade away from pure joy.

Granted, I have a ways to go…or at least I hope so.

Disturbing Documentary

Pianist Larry Goldings just sent me an email with a link to a very disturbing video documentary about 9/11. You can watch it online (though it is over an hour long), or you can download and watch at your leisure. I’ve only seen the first 13 1/2 minutes so far — it’s running as I post this — but I’d say it is worth checking out. It’s here on the Google film page. As Larry said, “It might change the way you view that day.”

Poetry & Music

April is National Poetry Month, but unless you are an avid poetry consumer, the celebration of this art form is likely to be eclipsed by other seasonal holidays. A poet and chapbook publisher in an article for the Boston Phoenix opined, “No wonder America’s National Poetry Month begins on April Fools’ Day!…Poetry is not now and never has been in America an art for the faint-hearted.” I wouldn’t characterize most Americans as faint-hearted, quite the contrary, but poetry does remain elusive to many. How many poems can you recite? (“Roses are red…” doesn’t count.) On the other hand, everyone sings songs.

When poet Dana Gioia became the Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts in 2003, he noted that the mission of the NEA is not only to “foster excellence in the arts, but to bring art to all Americans.” He knows that this is not an easy task. As he explained it to a Philadelphia newspaper, “…there’s a difference between entertainment and art. Entertainment provides a series of predictable pleasures. It allows an audience to enter and leave more or less the same. Art affords at least the possibility of transformation. So we need to make some room for art in this overwhelmingly successful entertainment world.”

That possibility for transformation is afforded by an artist’s ability to embody his or her own transformative experience in a work of art – be it a poem, song, painting, or other art form.

Jazz pianist Fred Hersch is no stranger to poetry, having at the age of 18 been moved by Walt Whitman’s works — that was in the mid 1970s. Nearly thirty years later, Fred re-read “When I Heard at the Close of the Day” and was inspired to embody it as an instrumental piece. That one composition led Fred to an entire album based on Whitman’s poems — the orchestrations are for an 8 piece ensemble plus singers. The words are important: “…so many touchstone lines…words that represent to me what is the best about America,” Fred explained in an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition two years ago.

Fred talks also about the universality and timelessness of the poems’ meanings. “If you don’t have love, it’s just a bunch of stuff on your resume.” Long-form jazz-based works often receive critical attention, sometimes acclaim, but seldom do they resonate as positively with the audience. Happily, reports are that Hersch’s Leaves Of Grass is a crowd pleaser. In March of last year a New York Times concert review by Ben Ratliff concluded as follows:

“I have often experienced audiences palpably losing interest in long-form jazz pieces well before the finish. This one brought a full house to its feet.”

And in February of this year, Nate Chinen, also writing for The New York Times, reported:

“Buoyed by the success of “Leaves of Grass,” which has become one of the best-selling titles in his catalog, Mr. Hersch has plunged into another large-scale cross-disciplinary work. “It’s a song cycle for the stage with the poet Mary Jo Salter,” he said recently by phone from the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where he was finishing a five-week residency. “The working title is ‘Hold Still!’ It’s a whole evening of about 18 songs loosely connected around the theme of photography.”

What is the secret alchemy that occurs when words are married to music? It might be said that music makes poetry more accessible to the average person, or that it touches the soul in ways that words alone cannot. This is not the first time I have pondered this question and a year or so ago I emailed my friend and noted arts critic Terry Teachout, asking him to comment on this question. [For those of you who may not yet know of Teachout, he is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the music critic of Commentary, as well as contributor to publications such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, National Review, many other magazines and newspapers, and he blogs about the arts almost daily. He wrote back:

“When Igor Stravinsky saw the ballet that George Balanchine made out of his Movements for Piano and Orchestra, he said, ‘The performance was like a tour of a building for which I had drawn the plans but never explored the result.’ That must be what it feels like to have your words set to music by a good composer – it tells you something about your own writing that even you didn’t know.”

I wonder what Walt Whitman would have said upon hearing Hersch’s opus.