Exploring Subcultures

I feel very privileged to be friends with so many talented people, many who are actually renowned in the fields of my two primary interests – jazz and non-fiction writing. The other day I mentioned author/mentor Marita Golden, and today I received news from another guru/writing mentor/friend named Lee Gutkind.

Some years ago, James Wolcott, in one of his writings for Vanity Fair, dubbed Lee “the Godfather behind Creative Nonfiction.” It was not intended to be a compliment, but Lee has made good use of the title ever since, founding the Creative Nonfiction Foundation that publishes a journal of excellent writings, and also directing the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers’ Conference, all while continuing to write amazing books that immerse readers in worlds they are unlikely to encounter otherwise — the world of heart transplantation, veterinary medicine, psychiatric institutions, to name a few, and now the world of robotics. Here’s he promo blurb on his latest book titled “Almost Human: Making Robots Think”:

The high bay at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University is alive and hyper night and day with the likes of Hyperion, which traversed the Antarctic, and Zoe, the world’s first robot scientist, now back home. Robot Segways learn to play soccer, while other robots go on treasure hunts or are destined for hospitals and museums. Dozens of cavorting mechanical creatures, along with tangles of wire, tools, and computer innards are scattered haphazardly. All of these zipping and zooming gizmos are controlled by disheveled young men sitting on the floor, folding chairs, or tool cases, or huddled over laptops squinting into displays with manic intensity. Award-winning author Lee Gutkind immersed himself in this frenzied subculture, following these young roboticists and their bold conceptual machines from Pittsburgh to NASA and to the most barren and arid desert on earth. He makes intelligible their discoveries and stumbling points in this lively behind-the-scenes work.
(For more information on Almost Human: Making Robots Think, visit the official website.)

When I am dreaming up book ideas, usually I am either intrigued by a desire to learn about a world unknown to me, or driven by a desire to show a particular world to others. As a reader, I love books that bring me into a new world, or show me sides of a world I thought I knew, in ways that allow me to identify with the people and or circumstances. I face many challenges in writing the Luther Henderson biography not the least of which wll be how to make the reader understand just what it is that a musical arranger does, where the lines between arranging and composing blur, and why these people are seemingly invisible when their role is so crucial to the success of the people we all recognize as stars.

Lee Gutkind, John McPhee, Tracy Kidder — to name just three — they are all masters of this craft known by many names: creative nonfiction, immersion journalism, narrative nonfiction. Wednesday, March 21 you can hear Lee Gutkind on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation.” To find the stations nearest you that carry this program, go here.

Lee’s schedule includes a bunch up upcoming live appearances in and around Arizona, far closer to me than the Pittsburgh home of the journal, but I’m up to my eyeballs writing, so rather than travel I’ll have to make do with listening to him on the radio. In my neighborhood “Talk of the Nation” airs from 8-10 PM, but I’m also hoping that NPR will post the show online afterwards as they do with so many of their programs.

Testing Update

So now I’ve figured out how to create a little banner ad that floats at the top of the page instead of inside a blog posting, and it is also a link. If I created several of them they would rotate with each time someone visits the site. A pretty cool tool, and while I promise not to abuse it, I do think that I’ll leave that top banner up for awhile.

Why? Because I spent a lot of time over the last few days revamping the SnapSizzleBop website. It was confusing to visitors who were not sure what was there or how to go about finding stuff. I think–I hope–that it is clearer now, and on the home page I’ve included samples from each of the projects. I hope you’ll take a look.


I have been designing a lot of web sites these last couple of months – some are blogs, others are complex content managemet systems built with Joomla, and others are simpler html-based sites. Now a client is asking about advertising on a blog and rather than experiment with that site, I thought it might bebetter to experiment on my own blog site…just in case.

I just created two “ads” – one for each of my two ArtistShare projects. After this paragraph you should see one of them, followed by the last paragrph of my post. I think that every time someone comes to DevraDoWrite it will alternate.

People On The Page - Devra's online project exploring the issues, quandaries, crises, and considerations inherent in writing biographies.

Rest assured that I have no plans to sell ads on DevraDoWrite, but depending on how this works, I might continue to place inside a blog post an occassional announcement about my own projects. Or maybe I’ll try a thin banner at the top of the page. We’ll see…

Let Me Off Uptown

Tomorrow’s edition of “Jazz From the Archives” on WBGO radio features jazz vocalist Anita O’Day. You’ll hear tracks from O’Day’s 1952-62 work (thought by some to be her best recording years) on the Clef and Verve labels, with such arrangers as Russell Garcia, Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Holman, Quincy Jones, Johnny Mandel, Billy May, and Gary McFarland, plus small groups led by Gene Harris, Roy Kral, Oscar Peterson, and Cal Tjader.

Way back when, in my NYC hanging days (that would be about 30 years ago) I got to hear Ms. O’Day quite a bit in person at Michael’s Pub, an upscale room on East 55th street. Norman Simmons was her pianist then and I loved every minute of it. In those days I also used to go over to Jimmy Ryans club where Roy Eldridge ‘s group was in residence (Dick Katz on piano, Major Holley on bass, Eddie Locke on drums) and the standard repertoire always included Roy’s imitation of Anita singing “Let Me Off Uptown.” (here’s the original version)

“Jazz From the Archives” featuring Anita O’Day airs tomorrow, Sunday, March 18, from 11 p.m. to midnight, Eastern Daylight Time.


I have long had mixed feelings about events, awards, competitions, clubs, schools…that are segregated, i.e. that are solely for the benefit of one group to the exclusion of others. Separation based on race or age or sex or religion or whatever feels divisive and exclusionary. On the other hand, there are many good reasons to reach out to a specific narrowly focused group. Some will argue that disenfranchised groups need targeted opportunities to receive services and benefits to which they would not otherwise have access. Others will argue that two wrongs don’t make a right and will point to individuals who have found the ways and means to achieve their goals regardless.

It’s been awhile since affirmative action was a hot news topic, so why am I talking about it now? I just received an email and flyer from one of my writing mentors. Marita Golden saw a lack of institutional resources in the African American community dedicated to supporting creative writing either as an artistic expression or a professional endeavor. So she and a colleague created the Hurston/Wright Foundation to discover, develop, and honor Black writers. Now she was writing to announce a new Writers’ Week Workshop to take place in Washington DC in July, where an international community of Black writers will meet in a nurturing/safe space to discuss their work, its meaning, and unique aesthetic.

I’ve been debating with myself about whether or not I want to help them spread the word. I decided in the affirmative. Recognizing that such a unique aesthetic exists and should be nurtured, explored, developed and understood is a good reason for selective inclusion and therefore something I can support as an outsider. Plus they are offering a special tuition-free track for high school students, and I’m all for nurturing young writers. So if you know any aspiring African-American writers in high-school, please tell them about this opportunity. (Info and application details are here)

March Madness?

I just came across this quote in the February 2007 issue of The Writer magazine:

“I can’t write quickly. If I could write a book a year and maintain the same quality, I’d be happy. I’d love to write a book a year, but I don’t think I’d have any fans.” Donna Tartt, as quoted in the London Sunday Times

I’ve seen the work of many a hack who publishes pounds of fish-wrap in short order, but there are those writers — and bloggers — who can, and do, churn out what seems to me to be massive amounts of high-quality prose in short time-frames. (TT comes to mind.) I am not so consistent, though when I know what I want to say it does come more quickly and with greater ease. My delays are usually caused by a slow-down in thinking more so than hand-cramps. Either I haven’t worked “it” out yet or I haven’t even had time to think about it. When it comes to blogging, it is usually the latter.

Were I to dare call my writings “art,” I might invoke these words by Glenn Gould

“The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.” — from his 1962 essay Let’s Ban Applause!

implying that gradual construction might apply to the creation as well as the resultant experience.

In any case, I am sorry to be so often missing-in-action from the blogosphere, but it’s certainly not for laziness or lack of interest. I think about it daily and often dash off the beginning lines of a post or file away a note of interest for later…then later gets delayed. I also keep intending, and forgetting, to respond to blog comments. I’m not sure, though, whether I should respond with a comment myself, or in a new post. So here are a few aggregated thoughts:

1) In a post about Erroll Garner I excerpted John’s story about playing on Erroll’s very first recording. I distinctly remember someone commenting that the album John spoke of was not Erroll’s “first recording”, and not even the first with John playing bass with him. I can’t for the life of me find the posted comment (maybe it was removed by the sender) or perhaps it was email that I can’t find, but I did intend to answer it. The sender (I don’t remember who it was) made reference to an earlier recording in connection with Timme Rosenkrantz. According to John, who qualifies as a primary source, after hours lots of musicians would hang out at Timme and Inez’s home, jamming. Some may have been aware at the time, others not, that Timme was taping them, but they certainly weren’t “making a record” for release. So while someone mayhave captured Erroll on tape before then, it is John’s opinion that Erroll Garner’s first intended, or official, or professional recording was made for Savoy Records on September 25, 1945.

2) Under the Art & Music post about Ted Nash’s new suite, my mother commented that back in 1993 my dad recorded “Dedications and Inspirations,” a CD with three pieces inspired by Miro, Matisse, and Monet. True, but Dad does not claim to be the first. While interesting, published discogrphies are not always 100% accurate. I do not own, nor have I heard, any of the following, so I share these results of a quick discographic database search with the usual caveat lector warning.

— a 1968 recording by Astrud Gilberto with unknown accompaniment with the title “Lillies by Monet”
— German pianist Siegfried Kessler’s 1976 recording Les Mots Sont De La Musique that includes “La femme en blue d’Henri Matisse”
— a 1987 solo piano recording titled “Water Lilies: Richie Beirach Plays Musical Portraits Of Claude Monet”
— “Homage To Joan Miro” by the Emil Viklicky Quartet recorded in Prague, 1987
— Slalom, a 1988 recording by Jane Ira Bloom with Fred Hersch in piano that includes two tracks “Painting over Paris” and “Miro”  

Tangentially, I’d like to add that I have long been fascinated by the interplay of the arts, especially artists who themselves are multi-talented, people like Tony Bennett and Miles Davis And not just musician/painters, works by actor/painters such as Martin Mull, Richard Chamberlain, Gene Hackman, and Sylvester Stallone have also been sold at charity auctions and at galleries.

3) In Your Eye would have been the title of my response to TT’s first posting from Los Angeles. I had planned to tell him that the majority of us who live in what is loosely called L.A. do not live in any of the places he mentioned — many live “in town” which includes the Wilshire district and the increasingly popular downtown L.A., but even more of us live in other towns, from San Pedro to Pasadena, to Thousand Oaks and beyond. I also wanted him to know that in my nearly 30 years of living out here on the left Coast I have never, ever, dined at an In-N-Out Burger, and I set foot in Westwood as seldom as possible. So when he writes, “I’d say that was a real Los Angeles evening, wouldn’t you?” I would have to reply, “not hardly.”

I’d call my disappearing act March Madness but it’s been going on for months now and, as I steadfastly refuse to give up on trying to multi-task, it may be a persistent on-again off-again condition. If you’re reading this, it means that you have been hanging in there with me, for which I thank you very much.  (Of course, you could be a brand new reader of DevraDoWrite and I may have just scared you off….).  I’ll be back as soon, and as often, as I can.

On the air now

Just this moment received an email from old school chum Denardo Coleman. Yup, the drumming son of Ornette and I went to elementary and high school together. He just heard my dad and Ornette on the radio:

Every year radio station WKCR here in NY does a 24 hour ornette birthday broadcast, you can hear it today. Just heard your dad with him. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/wkcr/

Check it out.

I recently heard or read that the cost of internet radio fees was going to be so high as to be unaffordable to the broadcasters, so listen now, while we still can.