Joy to the World and a Pox on Wall Street!

Americans For Financial Reform web site exhorts you to “sing your displeasure.” Here’s a sample:

    (Jingle Bells) Goldman Sachs, bankster hacks, bailouts every day…
    (Deck the Halls) Wrecked our homes with loans of folly…
    (Joy to the World) Joy to the banks, the crash has come, the Feds reward their sins…

Click here for more lyrics.

And on a more serious note, check out what else you can do at Showdown America: The American People vs Wall Street Banks.

Music Makes a Difference

I am not one of those people who walks around all day with an iPod streaming my favorite music direct to my brain via ear-buds, but I do listen to music while driving. Not just on the very occasional long trip up the coast, but daily when doing local errands, and when stopped at a traffic light at a major intersection, or near a freeway off ramp, I often wonder if music would make the homeless people I see there looking for a handout feel better too. “The Soloist” comes to mind (book by Steve Lopez, movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr) but Nathaniel Ayers was cello prodigy training at Juilliard in New York when schizophrenia took hold. And there are lots of homeless playing music on the streets and hoping for tips in return.


I imagine myself driving around handing out free iPods filled with wonderful music of all types – classical and jazz, hip-hop and opera. I can picture scores of homeless toe-tapping their way through our streets, heads bobbing, eyes smiling. But then I have visions of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and realize that medicating with music doesn’t solve any of real problems.


Food for the soul is nourishing, and the homeless seem to agree. In New York, violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins been performing in shelters for five years — she calls her program Music Kitchen. Recently, at the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church shelter, one of her listeners told a New York Times reporter “I look at music as something to get my mind focused off of the other things I’m going through,” and another explained “I’m not stable right now. To hear them play, it motivates me to do what I have to do in the future.” (“For the Homeless, Music That Fills a Void” The New York Times, December 19, 2009)

I spent a little time this morning looking online for any other stories about music and homelessness. I found several reports of concerts to raise money for groups that help the homeless, and some wonderful programs for children like Rock For Kids, a chicago-area non-profit that brigs music classes to homeless and underprivileged youth, but I was looking for stories that explored the beneficial impact that music can have on people. I’ll leave it to you to imagine the look on my face when I read a blog post about a city commissioner in Florida who thinks that “piping opera or classical music into the Five Points area might disperse some of the homeless.” I had a few of my own choice prescriptions for him. Meanwhile, I continue my quest, so if you’ve heard of any pertinent stories, please let me know.

A Reluctant Reviewer

There are several dozen CDs awaiting my attention, many sent by publicists who likely have long since given up on me – some have been waiting for more than a year. Some came directly from the artists themselves. Back in August of 2007 I explained that “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 used to be very selective in what I choose to write about, and my selection criteria is admittedly based on my personal taste.” (Read the entire It’s My Party post here )

As readership grew, more submissions arrived. When it comes to the roles of music critics and reviewers, I am conflicted about whether I wish to be one. Today I am leaning toward “no.” Duke Ellington is often quoted as defining two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. I have a minimum of three categories, carving out a subsection of Good for the Truly Great. The truly great songs, singers, musicians, arrangements, and performances (live or recorded) are those that transcend the quotidian and make a lasting mark on my soul.

Still, a number of people have sent me these stacks of CDs and I now feel obligated to respond. This feeling will not continue into the new year. Be forewarned: while you are welcomed to send review copies, please know that I will only blog about those I really like. I may from time to time include something for intellectual reasons, allowing for its evolutionary impact, or rail against something I find offensive, but from here on out my primary criteria for a mention on DevraDoWrite will be to share only the music that has touched me. Luckily there are many ‘“reviewers” and “critics” out there who relish the assignment of screening it all for you and they will be the ones who will reap the joy of a new discovery — I am just not one of those people.

So now, here are a few discs that I placed in a pile marked “well done” – they don’t deserve a spot in my forever time capsule, and they do not even rank near the top of the Good list, but they are enjoyable nonetheless.

Jammin’ by the Jay T. Vonada Quartet is Vonada’s debut release. I got nervous when I realized that it was a self-produced novice production comprised entirely of original tunes, but my ears were pleasantly surprised. His compositions have form and flow, and he displays versatility (blues, Latin, swing, bebop, ballad…) This young man has been studying, shedding, and striving. Being a youngster, he has a way to go, but this release bodes well for his future in jazz.

Morning Glory features flautist Dotti Anita Taylor backed by a lady’s trio: Bertha Hope, Miriam Sullivan and Bernice Brooks. This easy swinging CD is a mix of original compositions and well-knowns ranging from a jaunty Time After Time to a contemplative A Child Is Born (Thad Jones). The recording was produced by Houston Person and the trio is joined by percussionist Steve Kroon, saxophonist Patience Higgins, trumpeter Eddie Allen, and guitarist Dave Tunnell on a few tracks.

Our Delight by the Paul Gormley Quartet features Paul on bass, Sam Most on flute, Paul Kreibach on drums and Larry Koonse on guitar. Toe-tapping with the pros from the opening notes, these gents have clocked a lot of hours on the bandstand. The ensemble is tight, the solos good, and the wide-ranging collection of tunes includes compositions by Tadd Dameron, Nat Adderley, Horace Silver, Cole Porter, Henry Mancini. Very enjoyable!

If you want to hear some standards, old-style, take a trip down memory lane with Since You by vocalist Josie Courreges. And if you’re also a movie buff you might appreciate Jazz and the Movies featuring vocalist Jack Wood backed by a number of Los Angeles-based heavy-hitters including George Gaffney and Llew Matthews, Luther Hughes and Jim Hughart, John Pisano and Peter Woodford, Pete Christlieb and Buddy Childers. The songs come from 11 different movies, penned by the likes of Marilyn & Alan Bergman, Arlen/Mercer, Cole Poter, Gershwin, and more.

Fela! Dance Music With A Political Message

Back in the day, I was a New York City child of the sixties. I attended a private progressive elementary school and my friends and I were fairly savvy and politically active — protesting war toys, stumping and stuffing for Bella Abzug, marching on Washington… My friends and I were also music , dance, and theater lovers, singing folk songs, dancing weekly at Michael Herman’s Folk Dance House, attending Broadways musicals and then performing them in our living rooms. Torches have been passed to next generations, and my best friend’s son has learned his musical, social and political lessons well. Barnaby is no longer a kid. Now he’s a young man with two jobs — a 9-5er by day and musician by night. His band (and Barnaby himself) is featured in this video promo for the Broadway show “Fela!”

I did not know that Fela! and I shared a birthday and that on that day last month (October 15), “Felabrations” were held all over world. A happy belated discovery.

In the words of director/choreographer Bill T. Jones “a confrontation of power is always relevant,” and Fela! is is “a wake up call” that hear you can “hear with your hips.” Click here to watch Jones and biographer Dr. Carlos Moore discuss Fela Anikulapo-Kuti on YouTube.

John Levy Celebrated at Farnsworth Park

thankyou.jpgjohn_headshot.jpgjohnheadshot2.jpg This is a cross-posting from and includes some extra photos.
On Saturday evening, August 15, 2009, half-way through the free concert in the amphitheater at Farnsworth Park in Altadena, a plethora of plaques and commendations were bestowed upon John. Every summer, the Sheriff’s Support Group of Altadena (SSGA), sponsors a series of free concerts sampling a wide variety of musical genres. Saturday night featured smooth-jazz guitarist Brian Hughes, and tho his style is a tad more contemporary than the music John played and the artists he managed, it was fitting nonetheless and we were delighted to be there. Brian even surprised us with a lovely nod to Wes Montgomery in the second half.

[Many thanks to photographer Leroy Hamilton for sharing these pictures. Click on each image to enlarge and view in a separate window.]

ssga_certificateofspecialrecognition.jpgWe knew, of course, that the SSGA was going to honor John, and I suspected that he might get a proclamation from a local politician’s office, but neither of us were prepared for the number of awards that he received. First was the SSGA certificate of Special Recognition presented by the group’s president, Robert Klomberg, in recognition of John’s “achievements in the music world of Jazz, as a performer, Manager, and Produce of the greatest names in Jazz, and as an Altadena resident…”    sheriffsdept_certificateofappreciation.jpg

Then Bob turned the mic over to Capt. Roosevelt Blow who gave John a Certificate of Appreciation from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept, signed by Leroy Baca, in tribute to John’s “dedication, unprecedented professional accomplishments, and lifetime commitment to music.”
Next came an award from the NAACP, presented by Charles Pulliam, III. We are very familiar with the annual NAACP Image Awards, but this was a Certificate of Merit and so is quite special. In the presentation, they acknowledged that John’s history was just 3 years shy of theirs as the organization is commemorating its centennial, and in an accompanying letter, Branch President Barbara Bigby spoke of how John “paved the way and set the standard for those who enter unchartered territory.” 

lacounty_commendation.jpgCapt. Blow also did the honors on behalf of the California Senate, presenting a Certificate of Recognition for John’s “Lifetime of Music” signed by Carol Liu. Then came a beautiful hand-crafted County of Los Angeles Commendation (click here to see the special detail – a bass depicted to the right of John’s name) from Supervisor Michael Antonovich, “In recognition of dedicated service to the affairs of the community and for the civic pride demonstrated by numerous contributions for the benefit of all citizens of Los Angeles County.” congressionalflag_capitolbldg.jpgcertificateofspecialcongressionalrecognition.jpgAnd last, but certainly not least, Congressman Adam B. Schiff sent not only a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition, but also a flag that once flew over the Capitol Building.



coolidgegang1_4×6.jpgJohn never seeks the spotlight, and Saturday night was no exception. In his acceptance speech he deftly turned the spotlight on his friends. Eight households from our own little block turned out in force (with their children!) as well as many friends from the greater neighborhood at large. coolidgegang2b.jpgAs much as he appreciated the official commendations, nothing touched John’s heart as much as this show of love from our friends who are as close to us as family and who embody the true meaning of community. Thank you Neil and Brenda; Bill; Joe and Jen; johnmcintyres_4×6.jpgRobert and Sue; Richard, Jan, Jessica, and Christopher; Wayne, Cheryl, and Emily; Tom and Judy; Phil, Susan, and Robin; Byron and Regina; Laronda; William and Erin. Also our friends from Fox’s, Diana, Ron, and Spree; friends from across town, Valerie, Kit, Lynn and Mary; and…. (I am bound to have forgotten someone, if so my apologies.)
autographing-books.jpg Events like this require a lot of behind-the-scenes work, and had we known all the participants before-hand, John would have been able to thank them at the time. Now, after-the-fact, we want to at least acknowledge as many a we can, publicly via the Internet, and extend our heartfelt thanks for all that they did. Capt. Roosevelt Blow who spearheaded this effort, Robert Klomburg, President of the SSGA, the group that sponsors this annual series of free concerts in Farnsworth Park, and Angelica Calleros of Parks and Recreation. Also: Carolyn Seitz of the Sheriff’s Community Advisory Committee; Jamie Bissner, member of SSGA and the Altadena Town Council; all the members of the Altadena Sheriff’s Station including Lieutenant Sheila Sanchez, Sergeant Marsha Williams, Sergeant Dan Bartlett, and Deputy Sammy Estrada; Sussy Nemer and Rita Hadjimonukian in Supervisor Antonovich’s office; William Syms in Congressman Schiff’s office; and District Director Tahra Goraya in Carol Liu’s office.

Life and Death and Michael Jackson

Is Michael Jackson really THAT important? More important than protestors in Iran? Famine? What about the millions of AIDs deaths in Africa? OK, music provides a soundtrack for our lives and Michael’s music has touched many millions of lives, and yes, death is sad for those of us still here, especially when death comes early in life. But really, can any one person be so important as to obliterate all other concerns?

At first I was sickened by the overabundance of Michael everywhere I turned, and admittedly, to some extent I still cringe, but reading Sarah Weinman’s June 25th post on Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, I found her perspective to be more in keeping with my thoughts, and the comments from her readers gave me hope as well. Readers commented on his “troubled life” and hoped that in death he would be at peace. “The guy only seemed to come fully alive onstage,” wrote J.D. Rhoades. “In front of a crowd, he was damn near superhuman. But you can’t live life onstage 24/7, and he could ever seem to adjust to life on Earth.”

Weinmn saves her greatest appreciation for his dancing, writing that Jackson

“represented the ultimate American narrative, reared from an early age to work hard and produce, to support a family rife with internal tensions and jealousies and to appease the hangers-on, trapped by his penchant for excess and flaws tragic and monstrous….But when it comes right down to it, what brings me back to MJ’s classic songs, his groundbreaking videos and those breathtaking live performances is the way he moved, his total command over space, the upward slope of his arch and downturn onto the balls of his feet.”

For many years now, when I hear Michael’s name his music is the last thing to come to my mind. Media attention has focused on his private life more than his music, and the videos that capture his dancing prowess are somehow overshadowed in my memories by his crotch-grabbing. But last night, Johnny Pate called and mentioned a beautiful song by Michael that he heard at the end of Ann Curry’s NBC report. The song was Gone Too Soon from his Dangerous album. I don’t own any MJ recordings, but I do remember this beautiful song in the context of Michael dedicating it to Ryan White and shining a spotlight the importance of AIDs research. (It also garnered a lot of attention when Princess Diana died and was on a compilation CD titled Diana Princess of Wales Tribute.)

It’s sad that Michael lived such a tortured life, and it is sad that he died, but even sadder to me is the current state of our culture that feeds more on celebrity-gawking and not enough on arts appreciation.

Update: Interesting article in The New York Times – His Moves Expressed as Much as His Music

Long Narrative Articles

DevraDoWrite readers may remember the name Thomas French, a masterful narrative writer I admire. (Disclosure: he was my mentor in the Creative Nonfiction masters degree program at Goucher College.) I am delighted to find that OGIC over at About Last Night has recommended one of Tom’s long articles “Elegy For The King And Queen.” This is actually a short piece in the world of Tom French and was a precursor to his 9-part Zoo Story series that ran in December 2007.

(Maybe you already read “Zoo Story” as I mentioned it in my March 11th post Multimedia Enhanced Reporting)

One of Tom’s earlier series, “Angels and Demons,” chronicling the murder of an Ohio woman and her two teenage daughters on vacation in Tampa Bay, won a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1998.

The online version of these narratives afford the inclusion of extensive audio and video extras, including interviews and commentaries from reporters and participants as well as many more photographs than ever get to run on newsprint. As a reader I love the extra photos and added perspectives, tho as a writer I sometimes chastise myself for this pleasure thinking that the idea of “a picture paints a thousand words” might encourage lazy writing — on my part, not in Tom’s case!

Other narratives by Tom include

    The Hard Road“, reports the case of an elementary schoolteacher involved in a hit-and-run accident.
    The Exorcist in Love” is a story about a mother of five investigating the paranormal.
    South of Heaven,” a 1991 series about a year with students at Largo High School, also became a book bearing the same title.

Sadly, this type of long-form narrative journalism, which was already a rarity in newsrooms across the country, is now being deemed economically unsustainable. Tom is no longer at the St Pete Times, but he is one of he lucky ones — lucky for him, and for us. As noted above, several of his serials found their way to full-length books, and such is the case for Zoo Story, slated for release later this year. Meanwhile, students at the Indiana University School of Journalism are also very lucky as Tom has joined their faculty.

Of Interest

I often watch Bill Moyer’s Journal but I missed the April 17 episode with producer David Simon:

The executive producer of HBO’s critically-acclaimed show THE WIRE, David Simon talks with Bill Moyers about inner-city crime and politics, storytelling and the future of journalism today. After a dozen years covering crime for the BALTIMORE SUN, David Simon left journalism to write books and tell stories for NBC and HBO, including his Peabody-winning cop show THE WIRE, which looked at the drug wars and the gritty underbelly of the inner-city. Simon is now producing the pilot for a series about musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans, called TREME.

Though not an avid watcher of The Wire, I have appreciated Simon’s past work at the Baltimore Sun, and am now intrigued by this potential new series.

Also worth noting is his testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee kindly reposted here by ReclaimTheMedia

Thanks, Ken, for bringing these links to my attention.

Bea Arthur & Luther Henderson

On August 15, 2005, at 11 AM, Bea Arthur buzzed me through the gate to her Brentwood home on North Rockingham. When she opened the font door wearing a terry-cloth robe and skippers I thought perhaps she had been out by a pool. “Forgive me,” she said, “I forgot you were coming. Make yourself comfortable.” It took her only a few moments to throw on a jogging suit and fold her 6-foot-9-plus-inch frame into the pillows of a comfortable couch. “Good thing this was not a video interview. Looking good takes so much effort these days.” Bea Arthur shared a few personality traits her most famous characters, Maude Findlay and golden girl Dorothy Zbornak, so I easily imagined each of them explaining that the golden years are not always so golden.

I had met Ms. Arthur almost a year earlier at a memorial service for Luther Henderson. He had played a major role in the careers of many singers. From 1947 to 1950, he worked as pianist and musical director for Lena Horne, and during that time, and for decades to follow, all the singers wanted him to write their shows, Bea Arthur, Robert Goulet, Diahann Carroll, Nancy Wilson, Goldie Hawn, and Florence Henderson among them.

At the memorial, Bea Arthur told us a story about her invitation to sing a song called “It Amazes Me” at an affair honoring Cy Coleman twenty-five years earlier.

“I thought, ‘I know there’s going to be a lot of terrific talent honoring Cy,’ and I decided that rather than just slide in and go to rehearsal next day, I thought, ‘No. I’m going to go a day earlier and work with Luther and really kill the people.”

“So I did, and we worked; we worked all that day. Quite wonderful. And then the night of the event, which was, I remember, at Peacock Alley at the Waldorf – black tie, oh, I mean it was fabulous – a number of people got up and performed Cy’s stuff. And then Tony Bennett came and started singing and, of course, he leveled the place, just tore the place up to such a degree that – I don’t know if you remember this, Billy – that he had to do an encore. So Cy sat down at the piano and Tony sang…“It Amazes Me.” I never in my life … I was so devastated! So after that, we just went to the bar and got loaded.”

And after telling the story, Ms. Arthur, then casually dressed in white pants, tunic top, and sandals, regal as ever, began to sing, accompanied by Billy Goldenberg. Even without a microphone, her voice was strong and sure, her delivery, striking.

I wanted to know more about her relationship with Luther Henderson and that is what had brought me to her house for an interview. She was very apologetic about her memory, but she provided a few pieces to the the jigsaw puzzle of Luther’s life. He first worked with Ms. Arthur in her ingenue days (late 1940s) and she remembered going to his studio:

I was told about Luther, who was a coach and had an arrangement with a voice teacher. I forget exactly what street it was on. I was going to say 48th. No, the theater, the New School theater was there. But I started working with Luther who saw something in me because he never charged me because I didn’t have any money anyway.

It was the time when everyone was emulating Lena Horne. And Luther taught me, among other things, to play the lyrics, to make sure you hear the lyrics, which of course was Lena’s big thing.

And he took me, I don’t know, some place up in Harlem to some black club there where I sang. I, with Luther’s help, auditioned for one night club called One Fifth Avenue. I remember they billed me as “Bea Arthur, Songs from the Heart.” I think I lasted one night. I mean I was fine when I was singing, but I never knew what to do in between songs. I was so up tight, I couldn’t say, ‘Thank you ladies and gentlemen … for my next number I’d like ….’ I just kind of froze there with a shit-eating grin on my face, you know?

This reminiscence corroborates other accounts. Luther’s notes about studying the Schillinger method at the NYU Graduate School of Music (1946-47) included a mention: “During this time I had set up a studio as a freelance arranger/orchestrator and vocal coach on 47th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.” That would have been Vamp Studios. According to a newspaper advertisement saved in Luther’s papers at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, VAMP stands for “Voice Action Music Production,” and Luther, along with Richard Camillucci and Buster Newman, offered “songs, arrangements, and special material written.”

After the initial coaching, Ms. Arthur remembered only two other professional interactions — an episode of Maude required her to sing, so they brought in Luther for a guest appearance, and the Cy Colman story told at Luther’s memorial — but they remained friends throughout the years. I asked her when she last saw Luther and to describe him for me.

“When we played Broadway and I was in New York for three or four months, I had a couple of dinners with Luther and Billie at Picholine, I think. … Luther was fuzzy. Kind of fuzzy and ticklish. You know, his humor was very low key and impish.”

Those dinners took place in 2002. Ms. Arthur remarked on how old Luther looked (“I was rather surprised to see him older”) but I doubt that she knew about his ongoing cancer battle as that was something Luther did not often discuss. She also mentioned a recent Ellington project (“he really got slammed”). The bad review actually occurred in at the end of September, 2000, almost 18 months before these dinners. Ms. Arthur may or may not have read the review in The New York Times from her Southern California home, but around the time of those dinners Luther was actively seeking funding for a follow-up project, Classic Ellington II, so his endeavors and the bad review were very much on his mind and likely discussed over meals with friends.

Piecing together snippets of someone’s life story and interviewing all sorts of people is the fun part of writing biographies. Many snippets never find their way into the final product, and whether Luther’s brief encounters with Ms. Arthur merit more than a mention in the final Seeking Harmony manuscript remains to be seen. Yet knowing all sort of seemingly trivial details informs the big picture, even if in intangible ways.

I have interviewed all sorts of people that I would never had met otherwise, and I am grateful that Ms. Arthur allowed me to spend a few hours with her.

Dorothy Donegan

While visiting recently (Ted Gioia’s piece on Denny Zeitlin piqued my interest), I also came across Scott Albin’s look back at Dorothy Donegan’s career. If you don’t know about her, you’ve got to check her out. I knew her quite well, and my two favorite personal memories of her took place several years apart.

The first was at the home of a friend of hers in New York City on the upper west side. I was living in the same neighborhood at the time. This person was also a friend of Sweets Edison, and it was Sweets who had invited me to join him for dinner. Dorothy was there too, and after dinner, we all went upstairs to the music room. Dorothy said she was just beginning to practice classical pieces as she was slated to appear some months later with a Symphony. She started playing a Chopin Nocturne, this one (no, that’s not her playing):

but she stopped midway in the second section, saying she didn’t remember the rest. I was in my early 20s. My conservatory-trained classical chops were in pretty good shape back then, and as befitting my know-it-all ultra-confident age, I said “move over.” I will always wonder if Sweets might have rolled his eyes, but I wasn’t looking and everyone was quiet; Dorothy gave way. I had just begun studying the Ballades and the Nocturne seemed easy by comparison. It’s not a difficult piece and I acquitted myself quite well. Dorothy was gracious, and then she sat down and played the Nocturne to perfection, and then some.

A handful of years later I ran into Dorothy at a bar. I had since moved to Los Angeles and used to meet Ernie Andrews at Tommy Tucker’s Playroom for drinks in the late afternoon when i got off work from my office gig. The Playroom was catty-corner to the old Parisian Room, a nightclub that used to sit on the south-west corner of La Brea and Washington. One day, Ernie and I were siting at the bar, and Dorothy came in and sat down next to Ernie. They started talking, and talking, and talking. She didn’t say a word to me and I was sure she didn’t even know me. Why should she? Two scotches later, Ernie excused himself for a moment and while he was gone, Dorothy leaned over and said, “So, are you still playing the F minor Nocturne.?” I nearly fell off my barstool and we remained friendly ’til the end.

This story never would have happened if I had ever heard Dorothy play Rachmaninoff’s Prelude In C Sharp Minor back in 1944. Take a listen from an Armed Forces Radio broadcast.

Scott’s reflections also include links to two YouTube videos: one from 1945, and one from 1993 at the White House. She was a show-woman from start to finish.