It’s My Party

As most of my readers know, I do not consider or even intend for this blog to be an impartial journal or source of news as in ‘all-the-news-that’s-fit-to-print. I receive tons of press releases and even some review copies of books and CDs, but I am very selective in what I choose to write about, and my selection criteria is admittedly based on my personal taste. If I post a blatant plug — and I do from time to time — it’s to let you know about something that I like, or plan to attend, or wish that I could attend. Sometimes I choose to share my negative opinions about a performance or recording, but usually those opinions are not intended to attack a particular person as much as to address an issue or make a point using that particular performer or performance to illustrate. For example, one of my pet peeves is the substitution of technique for creative talent. Another pet peeve is the audience’s acceptance of this ‘substitution.’ These themes come up repeatedly on this blog and date back to its inception — see It Takes More Than Chops, or It’s About the Music, or of course the more recent post about the Benny Carter celebration.

Three comments were posted about my Benny Carter celebration piece and I’d like to respond to each. The first was from Wen. In addition to the comment he posted on my blog, he also sent me an email message:

roberta has “soul or feeling” . you got to be kidding. listen to her 2 cds

First, this guy doesn’t know me or anything about me. If he did, he’d know that paycheck notwithstanding, I am the first person in line to criticize some of Nancy’s performances. In particular I am not fond of those selections on which she tends to over-emote, and I much prefer her very early recordings (1960s) and a few of her more recent (especially RSVP), while I usually skip over most of her 1970s releases. But when it comes to reading a lyric, telling a story, few can match the talents of Carmen, Sarah and Nancy, and neither Roberta nor Marlena came anywhere near close. I don’t know what Wen means when he says Nancy is “on her way out,” but I don’t believe in “giving” anyone a break — breaks are to be earned. There may be some right-time-right-place luck involved, but you have to be ready if you’re going to become anything more than a flash-in-the-pan or B-list performer. Success can be bought, but not talent; nurturing one’s talents takes a lot of hard work.

Second, I am going to take this opportunity to suggest to Wen that he consider some rules nettiquette — all caps is considering shouting, it’s rude, not to mention hard to read. Also, the beauty of a blog is that it is there for those who wish to read it, and rss feeds allow people to choose to be notified of new postings. ‘Choice’ being the operative concept here. Some websites and blogs also have a mailing list to notify subscribers; subscribers being those who ‘choose’ to sign up or register. Adding someone to your e-newsletter list without asking if they’d like to subscribe is now considered to be spamming by most internet providers. (Wen, please take note.)

The next comment was posted by Valerie, a good friend of mine. We often agree to disagree, but I do want to comment on some of the things she said. To support her appreciation of Roberta Gambarini, Valerie suggested “just ask folks like jimmy heath, james moody, slide hampton, hank jones and, if it were only possible to ask benny, i’m sure he’d agree also. ” I have my doubts about that. These guys are nice guys, Gentlemen with a capital G, and I have heard them encourage all sorts of people, including some who lack even a shread of talent. Heck, a few such notables used to encourage me to sing, even sit in at a gig, and I can assure you that I have no talent whatsoever as a vocalist. Way back when, in those days when I might have been described as “a fine young slip of a girl,” I did have the nerve to sit in on occasion at gigs in out-of-town clubs (ie not in NYC). One summer, Sweets Edison nearly coaxed me onstage at a major European jazz festival; good thing I had some sense left! I reiterate, I have no vocal talent, none, but that didn’t stop some very notable folks from saying otherwise.

Valerie also said that “the choice of singing ‘here’s to life’ was obviously a huge mistake!” I don’t think the selection was a mistake; I took umbrage not to Marlena’s selection of the song, but to her treatment of the song and what felt to me to be her lack of appreciation of the lyrics. Finally, I do have to agree with Valerie that Q’s hosting that night left much to be desired. As close as Q and Benny were, I think that his participation in the event was ‘a must,’ but perhaps he could have spoken briefly from his heart and then maybe conducted a piece, or, if hosting was to be his lot, the script should have been written more specifically with the speaker in mind – his voice, his cadence, his speech patterns, etc.

The last reader comment contained a very gentle reminder about Jon Hendricks’ lyrics to Ellington’s instrumental Cottontail. (Chris, thank you very much!) Whatever crevice of gray matter in which my prior knowledge of that song is stored must have been malfunctioning. (I know, that’s just convoluted speak for “I must have been having a senior moment” or more appropriately “how could I be so dumb?”) I used to love Carol Sloane‘s rendition of Cottontail (Carol, where are you? why didn’t you chime in to correct my gaff?) Here’s a YouTube link to a swinging audio rendition by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross with story graphics.

A line in the song — “carrots and you make a very good stew” — gives rise to the thought that my opinions may yet land me in the stew, but, to corrupt a song from my youth, “it’s my party and I’ll write what I want to….”

Media Matters

In a Rifftides post last week (Other Matters: Freedom of the Prez) the Prez in question referred not to Lester Young but to the Press, i.e. journalists, and to SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists) president Christine Tatum’s blog titled Freedom of the Prez.

Having just seen a repeat of Bill Moyers’ conversation with constitutional scholar Bruce Fein (conservative) and Washington correspondent for The Nation John Nichols (liberal), I thought the blog-post title was well-suited to Prez Bush. Our current president has taken for himself great freedoms — freedom from interference of congress, freedom from the rule of law….freedom to do whatever he pleases.

Opinions of Bush, Cheney, et al not withstanding, Nichols also holds the press responsible:

JOHN NICHOLS: Let me mention the unspoken branch of government, which is the fourth estate: The media. The fact of the matter is the founders anticipated that presidents would overreach. And they anticipated that at times politics would cause Congress to be a weaker player or a dysfunctional player. But they always assumed that the press would alert the people, that the press would tell the people. And the fact of the matter is I think that our media in the last few years has done an absolutely miserable job of highlighting the constitutional issues that are in play. You know, you can’t have torture and extraordinary rendition. You cannot have spying. You cannot have a– lying to Congress. You cannot have what happened to Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, you know?

BILL MOYERS: When she was outed and they tried to punish–

JOHN NICHOLS: Plotted out of the vice-president’s office without question. Notations of the vice-president on news articles saying, “Let’s go get this guy.” Right? You know, you can’t have that and not have a media going and saying to the president at press conferences, you know, “Aren’t– isn’t what you’re doing a violation of the Constitution?” Now, just imagine if the– if the members of the White House Press Corps on a regular basis were saying to Tony Snow, “But hasn’t what the president’s done here violated the Constitution?” The whole national dialogue would shift. And Congress itself would suddenly become a better player. So I’m not absolving Congress. I’m certainly not absolving Bush and Cheney. But I am saying that we have a media problem here as well.

Having watched the program, I realized how little I know about the Constitution, the intentions of those who wrote it, and the predictions they made. I was fascinated by the discussion, and heartened that it took the subject of impeachment out of the realm of Bush bashing, or even partisan politics, and placed it in a solidly historical, impersonal perspective

Read the full transcript of “Impeachment: The Conversation Continues” and then check out the comments sent in by viewers.

Who would have thunk?!

I can’t believe I bought an iPhone. I am not an Apple person. I am strongly rooted in the DOS and Windows world, but that is only because that’s the bulk of my experience, not because I am pro Bill Gates. On the other hand, I am anti Apple. My Apple aversion is not so much because I don’t like using a Mac as it is because I don’t care for Apple’s policies. Way back in the dark ages, Apple blew their opportunity to carve a larger slice of the pie. They kept their operating system so close to the vest that third-party developers couldn’t code their programs for Mac use. That’s why there were so many programs and cool tools for PCs and so few for Macs. At that time, Macs may have had the better programs for graphic artists, but that’s pretty much the only edge they had, and that’s why, or how, Windows gained dominance.

Of course that’s old history. Today Apple tics me off by trying to control what I can do with my peripherals and music. I say “my” because “it” belongs to me. The first “it” was an iPod given to me as a gift on my 50th birthday. Within a year, the screen died, and when John bought a new iPod, Apple iTunes would not talk to it, nor would it allow us to un-install the old one or re-install the software. After several wasted hours, calls to tech support, and even a visit from a tech guru to try to erase the registry entry, we gave up. John returned his iPod to the store and I bought him a SanDisk Rhapsody mp3 player. And when it comes to music, if I buy it (download or disc), and decide I want to burn a CD for my car, or put it on my laptop, or share it with my husband, that’s my business. It’s not that I believe in file-sharing or copyright infringement, but I do believe in personal responsibility; I don’t want Big Brother on my computer determining how many copies I can make.

With this in mind, it was shocking to me when I found myself in the AT&T store fondling an iPhone, and then actually bought it. (No, I did not stand on line the day they went on sale.) I have to admit that I love using it and that it is just as easy as it appears on the television commercial. Having said that, I have heard that there is more to it, some surprising complexities to be discovered. So I now await receipt of my copy of the Pocket Idiot’s Guide to the iPhone, written by my friend Damon Brown who will undoubtedly be shocked to hear that, oh my god, I bought an iPhone.

Benny’s Birthday

As readers of Rifftides already know, yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bennett Carter. (If you missed the Rifftides postings go here and here.) Benny lived to see 95, and according to Quincy Jones, host of last night’s tribute at the Hollywood Bowl, Benny had a blast at his 95th birthday party.

Overall, it was an excellent concert featuring The Benny Carter Trio (Chris Neville, Steve LaSpina and Steve Johns) and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra with many spectacular soloists, plus several special guests. For me the high-note was Russell Malone‘s most beautiful solo guitar rendition of a Carter original titled “All About You.” Backstage, during intermission, Russell told me that he was visiting Benny’s home one day and Benny played it for him. “I asked him if he wrote it and he said ‘yes, yesterday’ and gave it to me.” Other moments of great beauty included the contributions of James Moody (who now drives Benny’s Rolls Royce with a license plate that reads: “Benny’s”) and Roy Hargrove (with whom Benny alternated sets during a week at the Blue Note in New York in 1994) — both played with great sensitivity and beautiful tone.

Less pleasing were the vocalists. Roberta Gambarini, may have great chops but to my ears she has no soul, no feeling whatsoever. And Marlena Shaw hit the most sour note of the night, complete destroying “Here’s to Life.” Both Joe Williams and Shirley Horn have recorded definitive versions of that song, each plumbing the depths of the song’s lyric and harmonic intent. I am not adverse to an artist refashioning a song, infusing it with their unique interpretation, but Marlena chose to disregard both the meaning of the words and the melodic and harmonic integrity of the composition, offering instead some pseudo-hip “jazzy” arrangement. I should have been forewarned when Quincy introduced the segment with a scripted story about Benny telling Marlena that lyrics don’t matter in jazz, it’s all about the improv. Having known Benny, I have my doubts about that story, or at least about what he meant by whatever it is that he actually said. It may be relevant that the tune in question during that discussion was “Cottontail.” I am aware of only two sets of lyrics for this song, the original being about how Easter bunny Peter Cottontail brings a basket full of goodies for children on Easter morning:

Here comes Peter Cottontail,
Hopping’ down the bunny trail,
Hippity, hoppity,
Easter’s on its way.

and Ella Fitzgerald’s version:

Come on, Wail
Wail, Cotton Tail
Benny Webster, come on and blow for me

hardly in the same league as Here’s To Life ( lyrics by Phyllis Molinary, music by Artie Butler):

No complaints and no regrets
I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets
And I have learned that all you give is all you get
So give it all you’ve got

I had my share, I drank my fill
And even though I’m satisfied, I’m hungry still
To see what’s down another road, beyond a hill
And do it all again……….

Also on point, not to mention speaking of Ben Webster, my husband has often told a story about Ben opining that you can’t really do justice to a song unless you know the lyrics. This is something I’ve heard many jazz musicians say. Luther Henderson (whose bio I am in he process of writing) used to go so far as write in the lyrics on the orchestral charts he was arranging so that the classical musicians might have a deeper understanding of the music.

Low-notes not withstanding, it was a lovely evening and, in these days prone to commercial pandering, I was especially heartened to see such a big turn-out to celebrate the music of Benny Carter. Those who miss him most will speak first of the classy guy whose style as a man was understated but whose friendship was fiercely loyal, and then they will regale you with stories of his prodigious talents.

A Circle of Friends

If you are a longtime reader of DevraDoWrite you might remember that writer Bill Zinsser is one of my heros, mentors, and friends. I mention him today because jazz singer extraordinaire Carol Sloane reports that she is now reading Zinsser’s book “Easy To Remember, The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs” – a copy of which graces my shelf, of course.

I posted a blurb about Bill Z back in June 2005 (Describing Real People) and mentioned Jerry Jazz Musician’s interview with Zinsser. In August, in response to a query about jazz in China, I posted the first paragraph from Zinsser’s “Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz”

In April 2006, noting some thoughts about memoir I cited Zinsser again (“Writers are the custodians of memory…”) and linked to the NPR piece On Memoir, Truth, and “Writing Well”. Other well-worn Zinsser books on my shelf include:

Bill Charlap is also a friend and a most amazing talent. Several years ago John and I were on a jazz cruise and Bill C did an afternoon concert — part solo, part with small ensemble. To this day I remember being blown away not just by his playing, but by the programming of his presentation, the meticulous crafting that went into his selection of material and the sequencing. Unlike those casual musicians who think that all jazz presentations should be ‘improvised’ — an impromptu jam, tunes called as they go along — Bill C’s approach is deeper, more considered, perhaps even philosophical. Here’s a quote posted a few years ago by Jazz Police:

“I try not to think about the piano per se, I’m not interested in bravura displays. Melody is the most sublime of all the utterances. Harmony is an emotional response. Rhythm is physical. Melody is an intuitive response that carries both the emotional and the physical.” -Bill Charlap

I can’t find an official Bill Charlap web site but AllAboutJazz has a brief bio and there’s this Fresh Air piece on NPR. Or even better see him on YouTube playing In the Still of the Night with Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums.

As for Ms. Sloane, who started this stroll down memory lane, she, too, is a friend. (Aren’t I lucky to have so many terrific friends?!) I first mentioned Carol, the supreme songstress and lover of lyrics, here on DevraDoWrite back in May 2005. If you are going to be in New York this Sunday (August 5th) you can hear her in a free concert at Riverbank State Park in Manhattan near 145th street (Jammin On the Hudson: Songbird Carol Sloane) backed by Norman Simmons on piano (If you’re not hip to Norman, he was a favorite accompanist and longtime musical director for several of our vocal greats including Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, and Joe Williams — and yes, Norman is also a longtime friend and fellow Libra).