Fond Memories and Strong Opinions

Cannonball Adderley’s Big Man: The Legend of John Henry starring Joe Williams, Randy Crawford and Robert Guillaume

Yesterday, engrossed in an audio research project, I lost track of time. I was listening to Cannonball Adderley’s Big Man: The Legend of John Henry starring Joe Williams, Randy Crawford and Robert Guillaume. I hadn’t heard this two-disc LP in many years, having long ago retired my turntable. (For those of you too young to know, LP stands for “long playing” and refers to those old 12-inch vinyl records.) It’s never been released on CD, so I had a production house make a digital copy for me.

Big Man, conceived as a jazz opera, was released in 1975, shortly after Cannonball’s untimely death. In the words of Nat Adderley, “Cannon considered Big Man one of the most important projects of his whole career. Since he had a pretty big career, you can get some idea of what it meant to him to compose the score for a full-scale musical play, and particularly this musical, dealing with a theme that has major significance for all Americans and particularly for all black Americans.”

My life as a publicist brought me in contact with all three stars. Joe Williams, who was my first retainer client, introduced me to his manager, John Levy. (Recently I mentioned John’s biography here). John had also been Randy’s manager at one time, and they remained friendly. Those of you who remember a television show called “Benson” will remember Robert well, but unless you saw him in Guys & Dolls (1976) or Phantom of the Opera (1990) you may not know that he was a wonderful song and dance man too, and that in 1959 he was part of Quincy Jones’ road tour of Harold Arlen’s jazz musical Free and Easy.

I first heard the Big Man recording in the early 1980s, and my memory of it was that it was wonderful! It sounded more like a Broadway musical than an opera. The bigger-than-life role suited Joe, Randy and Robert were also in good voice, the man-against-machine story was timeless, and the project was creative. In a way, I am glad that Cannonball did not live to read the reviews, because the jazz critics were not kind — “an eclectic hash” was one of the nicer descriptions. In their estimation, Cannonball, one of the jazz gods of his time, had done something that did not meet their jazz expectations. The Black press wasn’t very nice either.

Perhaps it was the innocence of youth, or more likely the fondness I had for the performers, that left me with such sweet recollections. Listening now with more seasoned ears, I might admit that Big Man is not the best musical show I’ve ever heard; the dialogue may be a bit thin and some sequences overly repetitious, but it has a few pretty songs (“I’m Gonna Give Lovin’ A Try” and “Stayin’ Place” among them), some good arrangements, it was entertaining, and the world is much richer for its existance.

Now I have friends who are critics, and they may take exception with me here, both about my opinion of Big Man and about my next statements. I believe it is unfair to expect artists, whatever their metier, to deliver one increasingly superior work after another. Nor do I think that an artist should have to stick within the confines of any one style or format, or even genre. I appreciate artists who stretch their creative muscles and take risks, even if I don’t particularly like the result. Sometimes the work truly falls flat, an experiement that didn’t work; other times a creation may be ahead of its time, not yet understood by its audience; and sometimes, just sometimes, magic happens and everyone knows it. It’s easy to be dismissive, and tempting to write clever barbs, so I appreciate critics who stretch themselves to provide constructive criticism that not only educates audiences but also encourages artists to grow. Now having said that publically, I have to acknowledge that I, myself, am too often guilty of substituting witty repartee for worthy reflection. I will try to do better.

Behind Schedule

“I might be late, but did you think I wasn’t coming?” and “When the wolf gets off your back, the lion’ll still be on your trail” are two expressions that feel appropos at the moment. For those of you who stopped by last night or earlier this morning and were disappointed not to find a new posting, I apologize. I had started out with a regular routine of of posting after dinner, but, well, life got in the way. Come back in a few hours and I will tell you all about it.

By the way, the opening lines of this post were borrowed from a friend who liberally peppers conversations with such colloquial constructions. Others include, “Ain’t no shame to my game,” “Walkin’ up and ridin’ back,” and “Don’t go to a banquet with a sandwich in your hand expecting dinner.” One day soon I am going to research their derrivations and write about them.

See you in a bit.

Happy Birthday “Wig”


Gerald “The Wig” Wiggins
Jazz Pianist
(b) May 12, 1922 –

Whether playing solo, leading a small group, accompanying a singer, or driving a big band, for more than sixty years Gerald Wiggins has been an ongoing contributor to the innovative art form called jazz. Those whose ears are well steeped in jazz might hear hints of the influences of Art Tatum and Erroll Garner, but such traces are fleeting and quickly give way to a style that is unique and recognizable. “The Wig,” as he is known to fans, friends, and family, has remained a true original. He is a quiet and unassuming man, not quite shy, but definitely modest; Wig is one who lets his music speak for itself.

Wig plays with an intriguing blend of lyrical simplicity and intricate harmonies that when combined yield subtle surprises that swing regardless of tempo. Writers, in an attempt to preserve the fleeting moments in which jazz lives, use words as diverse as witty, wry, mischievous, sensitive, subtle, soulful, spirited, elegant, funky, saucy, frivolous, whimsical, and masterful to describe Wig’s playing. But how can one describe something that evolves within each moment? As renowned jazz critic and historian Leonard Feather put it, “Wig has a style that transcends eras and idioms.”

Read More…

NOTE: Friday night the Music Department Jazz Series at Santa Monica College will “Celebrate Wig” with special guest artists: Ernie Andrews, John Beasley, Oscar Brashear, Cora Colman, Leslie Drayton, Keith Fiddmont, Tootie Heath, Paul Humphrey, Jon Mayer, Herman Riley, Patrice Rushen, Lesa Terry, Nedra Wheeler, John B. Williams, and Ricky Woodard. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, celebration starts at 8 PM. The address is 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA. Free admisssion and parking.

I’ve Got Mail

Yes, I want to hear from you. I know many bloggers allow readers to post comments directly, but I am not ready to open the gates when so many spammers are clamoring to get in. It is also for that reason that I have not posted a convenient “click here to email me” button, as those are quickly harvested by spammers as well. My email address is my first name, Devra, AT DevraDoWrite.com. I look forward to hearing from you.

Several people wrote to share in my dismay about casual Fridays at the concert hall. One wrote:

It almost seems to me a bit disrespectful of the majesty of orchestral music. When I was young, my parents insisted that I behaved better, and performed better, when I was “dressed for the part”. While I am certain that many musicians are capable of great performances irrespective of how they are dressed, I suspect that at least some perform better in “concert black”.

and another wrote:

Bless you for writing about the people who go to concerts in their clean-out-the-garage clothes. They do so not only on Casual Friday, you know. The music is the thing, of course, but standards matter.

My favorite email last week came from a friend on the East Coast who wrote:

As you’ll discover about reaching 50, one of the luxuries of our “certain age” is not giving a rat’s ass about what anyone thinks about our work. If we think it has value, the hardest test has been passed.

I’ll try hard to put those editors and publishers and reviewers out of my mind, you know, the ones who can make or break a career. Seriously. My friend is right. I know a lot of artists, both writers and musicians, and those who work hardest at their craft are inevitably their own toughest critic. Often, they pan work that their audience found pleasing nonetheless, and, as Martha might say “that’s a good thing,” as it drives one to do even better. And on those occassions when an artist feels the magic — those are the moments to live for, moments that can’t be bought. As the commercial says, “some things are priceless; for everything else there’s Mastercard.”

Caveat Lector

A friend sent me a link go a an opinion piece by Adam Cohen that ran on Sunday in The New York Times (The Latest Rumbling in the Blogosphere: Questions About Ethics).

Being a newbie in the blogosphere, perhaps I have yet to earn the right to chime in on whether bloggers should be held to the same jouralistic standards as the mainstream media, but the arguments that I have heard seem to be off-point. To me, blogging is a medium, not the message.

I could blog as a news journalist checking all my facts and providing objective balance and opposing views, or as a partisan extolling one particular viewpoint. I might be a critic using my expertise in whatever field to provide comment and context for my considered opinion of someone else’s work, or simply a jane doe columnist providing personal essays and opinions.

Whether online or on paper, it should all depend on what the content calls for. For me, the one thing that does transcend the medium is the importance of being honest about one’s intentions. I believe that every writer has an unspoken contract with his or her readers, a contract based on the writer’s self-representation and the reader’s perception, and it is the writer’s responsibility to live up to that contract. If I am writing nonfiction, I must check my facts. If I proport to be objective, then I must present all sides. If I clearly state my bias, don’t expect me to argue for the opposition. And if it is just my opinion, take it for what it’s worth, no more, no less.

Peahens and Peacocks and Geese, Oh My

Being about as swift as a herd of turtles, it was nearly one o’clock by the time we arrived at the Arboretum. My girlfriend, her young daughter, and I strolled the paths until we found a small wood bench with a view of the pond. Several wood ducks – the ones that look like somebody painted them – were swimming about, sharing the waters with a couple of Canadian geese. Ashore, peahens ambled around the bench pecking at little nothings while mother and daughter walked to the water’s edge and I sat quietly.

The tram passed by the pond and its riders dutifully tossed bread bits at the ducks and geese, but it seemed an automatic gesture and they passed by without savoring the peacefulness of the scene or enjoying the personalities of its inhabitants. The passers-by didn’t notice how the male wood duck deferred to his female companions, allowing them the first choice of tasty treats before snapping up some chewy chunks for himself.

The riders thought that this was their habitat and that the animals and scenery were there to entertain them, not the other way around. Truth is that this is their world, their home, and if you listen closely you can hear them laughing at us – “those silly people,” the peahens whisper to one another while the Canadian geese honk their ridicule more loudly. But children understand, and are happy to inform you, pointing out the house that belongs to the ducks and the tunnel that belongs to the water.

I like to bask in the sun like the turtle on the rock watching the baby ducklings splash and play a few feet away. The air is filled with the cacophony of duck and birdcalls, then there’s a sudden moment of silence when all you can hear is the dribbling of water on the rocks and the wind whispering through the bare tree branches mostly still nude from the winter. But there is green all around – the grass, the bushes and the succulent ground covers with their smattering of colorful blooms.

Of course what may seem peaceful to me is not necessarily so to them. We notice the two male wood ducks who are clearly quarreling over a girl duck, and we watch two geese cross the grass with tails a-swishing to chase away a peacock who appears to be bothering no one. He retreats, dragging his plumage behind him, and the geese turn then to stare at us. The child is busy digging an indentation in the dirt and filling it with blades of grass. It’s a nest for the geese, but they are unimpressed and unappreciative of the maternal efforts of a three-year-old. They waddle away.

Ultimately, we too head for home, but not without a small detour through the forest of yellow and green bamboo where we search for lions or tigers or bears. “They must be hiding,” I suggest when no creatures appear. “No silly. There aren’t any tigers,” she informs me. “It’s just pretend.”

Book Me, Danno

I had hoped to get some reading done this weekend, but I did not make much of a dent — how could I when I have a stack of books awaiting me in every room of the house. I am serving a self-imposed lifetime sentence as a reader, and despite the fact that I am a relatively fast reader, the piles seem to multiply as I discover more memoirs and narrative nonfiction tales that intrigue me. Perhaps I will post a list of all the titles (an idea borrowed from The Millionsreading queue). That will take some time to compile, but for starters, and in no particular order, I’m looking at:

  • Pull Me Up: A Memoir – Dan Barry
  • Living With Jazz: A Reader – Dan Morgenstern
  • Book Ends: Two Women, One Enduring Friendship – Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine Stern
  • Getting Personal – Phillip Lopate
  • The Devil in the White City – Erik Larsen
  • Positively 4th Street – David Hajdu
  • These are in addition to All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life by Loren Eiseley, which I just picked up from the library on the emphatic recommendation of a friend, and The Everlasting Stream, a beautifully written memoir by Walt Harrington that I began reading last night. The Eiseley book looks to be intriguing, though perhaps a bit dark; but it’s too soon to tell. Here’s the beginning of the second paragraph —

    Make no mistake. Everything in the mind is in rat’s country. It doesn’t die. They are merely carried, these disparate memories, back and forth in the desert of a billion neurons, set down, picked up, and dropped again by mental pack rats. Nothing perishes, it is merely lost till a surgeon’s electrode starts the music of an old player piano whose scrolls are dust. Or you yourself do it, tossing in the restless nights, or even in the day on a strange street when a hurdy-gurdy plays. Nothing is lost, but it can never be again as it was.

    On the surface, Harrington’s memoir is about hunting. Being an animal lover, this is not something I wish to explore even from a distance, let alone ‘witness’ in the intimate detail for which Harrington is noted, but it’s the details that draw me in – that, plus the author’s self-awareness and his promise of a larger story —

    My story is about: Alex, Bobby, Lewis, and Carl; my father, my son, and myself; rabbits, dogs, and shotguns; flora and fauna; blood and death; guilt and responsibility; ambition, achievement, and satisfaction; affection of the old rugged male as opposed to the modern sensitive male; friends as family; conversation as ceremony and affirmation not therapy and revelation; pristine moments; and, most of all, memory–the memory of it all told and retold, sharpened like a good knife blade, until the minutiae of living becomes the meaning of life.

    Despite my quest to get these books read, I do hate it when a book I’m really enjoying ends. And I suspect that The Everlasting Stream will be a compelling page-turner for me and so will not last as long as I would like. Still, it will be good to check one more off my everlasting list.

    It Takes More Than Chops

    Modern Jazz Quartet, Paul Desmond, Jim Hall, Russell Mallone, Benny Green, the Heath Brothers, Ron Carter, Maria Schneider — jazz

    Not long ago my husband and I were invited to a ‘bar and grill’ that features local jazz on Friday and Saturday nights. Despite its proximity to our home, we had never been there before, but a friend of a friend was promoting a new jazz pianist and we agreed to go. The program notes explained that the pianist, who was classically trained with a degree in piano performance, had been studying jazz for the last three or four years. She had played a few gigs with other groups, and tonight was her showcase with her trio.

    Her opening was technically quite impressive, but anyone can attack the keyboard, it’s learning to caress it that’s hard. Still, flying fingers and big sounds go over well with today’s audiences. The more notes a player can squeeze into a single measure, the faster the tempo, the more brilliant the musician is assumed to be. Add in a modulation to a different key and the audience will be on its feet. We wished we could get on our feet too, not to applaud, but to head for the egress. Too many notes and not enough nuances are high on our list of pet peeves, but there were worse offenses to come.

    She never once played a tune as it was written; not once did we hear the original melodic and harmonic lines before she began improvising. Her musical abstractions were like aural crayon scrawls of a two-year-old who had not yet learned basic shapes or how to color between the lines, and I wondered if she actually had ever learned any of the tunes. I didn’t have to wonder for long. She soon announced that while her piano teacher wanted her to study a song for weeks, she would quickly become too bored. No wonder all the tunes sounded alike – same key, same approach, same feel. Only the tempos varied. Obscured by the influence of Coltrane, even My Funny Valentine came out sounding like Giant Steps.

    My husband often quotes Ben Webster talking about the importance of knowing the lyrics and telling the story with your instrument, and he ascribes the behavior of today’s audiences and young artists to inadequate arts education. There is an education gap, to be sure, but as the evening wore on, I began to view this pianist’s performance more as a rebellion against her classical training. I wished then, and I hope still, that someday she will return to some of the practices of the concert stage: the protocol that dictates some degree of formality in attire (unless it’s casual Friday), precludes long verbal digressions about one’s boyfriend or personal minutia, requires that the players learn the music, and obliges them to play as an ensemble (which is not the same thing as playing simultaneously). Such protocols, I would hasten to tell her, are not the sole pervue of the Mozart and Mahler crowd, they have been, and continue to be, well employed by the likes of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Paul Desmond, Jim Hall, Russell Mallone, Benny Green, the Heath Brothers, Ron Carter, Maria Schneider, and scores of other artists across all musical genres. Technique, alone, is never enough.

    No Longer In Contempt

    I was cleaning up my office today, riffling through a stack of papers, as yet unsorted, perhaps to be filed, perhaps to be tossed. This, like re-arranging the spice rack, is a favorite mode of procrastination, near and dear to the hearts of every writer. Sometimes, however, it also serves as a means of inspiration, especially if you serendipitously come across some scrap or memento about which you can then write. Such was my luck today. With dinnertime fast approaching, and not yet a written a word for today’s posting (not even an inkling of a topic), I came across a half-sheet of green paper with printing that slanted downward toward the right

    For some reason (probably the instincts of a pack-rat journalist), I had saved my Certification of Jury Service, along with two tri-panel brochures – “Trial Juror’s Handbook” and the “Where-to guide for Jurors on their lunch hour in Downtown L.A.” – a page titled Juror Orientation and a Notice to Jurors Regarding Postponement, Financial Hardship and Possible Service at Other Courts. Now I remember. I was going to write about this. Why? Because when the day was over I was surprised to find myself actually looking forward to being called again, and slightly disappointed that it would be at least a year before that summons would come. You’re surprised? So was I.

    In Los Angeles, you are notified of the week that you must be available, but you get to phone in each evening to see if you are needed the next day. If you are not needed, you do not go in, and if you do have to go in but are not appointed to a jury that day, you are excused from service until your next summons a year or more later. In short, unless you begin a trial, you never have to spend more than one day in the court house.

    The first night I had called in to find that I need not report the next day. I congratulated myself on my decision to not try and extricate myself from serving – a decision based not on any desire to serve, but on my own conviction that nothing would be happening in the court house during the week between Christmas and New Year. I was wrong. The next evening a recorded voice informed me of my 7:45 AM call time. The weather was predicting major storms and, given the fact that rain was already coming down in sheets, there was no room for doubt or hope.

    The drive into downtown on the oldest freeway in Los Angeles, a narrow curvaceous ribbon with lots of flood-prone dips, was truly terrifying, even at fifteen miles per hour. After puddle-jumping through the three blocks from parking lot to court house, placing my soaking wet belongings on the security scanner conveyor belt, and following the crowd down long hallways to and from the elevators, I took a seat in the Jury Assembly Room. No one wanted to be there and everyone knew it.

    The orientation spiel was well-scripted. By now they know exactly what to tell you, and they answer all the questions one might have before anyone needs to ask. Then, one of the judges came in to address the prospective jury pool. He was extremely dapper, wearing a three-piece suit that looked more like a frock coat than a banker’s suit. He asked how many of us were happy to be there, and two people raised their hands. (At least we were an honest bunch.) Then he asked how many of us believed in the right to a trial by a jury of ones peers; of course everyone raised their hands and his point was made. He then spent a few minutes actually thanking us for being there. That’s when my attitude, and the attitude of many others, began to change. Judge Frockcoat has made a very positive impression.

    Around 10 AM, a disembodied voice called thirty-five names, including mine, and sent us up to Department 126. The bailiff came out to give us juror numbers and ask us to wait in the hall. We had been told that the case was expected to last two days (not counting jury selection or deliberations), and by this time I was psyched – properly prepped and primed to do my civic duty. I had already figured out how to postpone whatever other obligations I had for the rest of the week and next. And I was not the only one who was now eager to be impaneled. But after about fifteen minutes, the judge himself, still robed, came into the hallway to tell us the lawyers had just settled, and then he thanked us for being there ready to serve.

    I spent the next hour and a half listening to a disgruntled retired schoolteacher, chatting with a building contractor, and solving puzzles. No, this is not some writerly metaphoria; the Assembly Room was well-stocked with 5000+ piece jigsaw puzzles that not only helped to pass the time, but also rekindled my love for a childhood pastime. Mercifully, the rain abated and, we were granted a ninety-minute lunch break. Having been provided with schedules for the twenty-five cent Dash buses and maps to shops, restaurants and sites that would do a visitor’s bureau proud, we dispersed to eat in China Town, shop in the jewelry district, and visit the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angeles.

    Two more juries were selected after lunch, but my name was not called. Shortly after 4 PM the voice let us know that we could go home. I traded in my badge for the green certificate, and headed for home. I was disappointed that we were not needed, and pleasantly surprised by both of the judges I had encountered.

    So what I wanted to know was, are all judges like that? I have a friend from college who is now a
    criminal court judge, so I inquired by email:

    Do they teach you to be so nice and polite to jurors in judge-training? I ask mostly tongue-in-cheek, but there is a part of me that really thought judges were to be feared (yourself not included, of course), much in the same way as we fear the police. I even noticed a good feeling among the courthouse staff, a camaraderie that I thought was a figment of TV’s imagination a la Judging Amy. So what do you think, is this the norm?

    My judge wrote back at great length, ending with:

    To sum it up, I would say what you experienced is becoming the norm. We are told at the judicial college that wearing the robe and just dictating won’t work today, you have to have a viable means of interacting with the public, which I’m glad about. With that said, however, we still have to maintain judiciousness and judicial authority, except that now, hopefully, the public will have enough information to respect, understand and accept the system…. One of the things I enjoy most about the position is the juror participation and my opportunity to interact with them. It’s the system at work.

    Enough said. Court is adjourned.

    Casual Fridays, Bah Humbug

    In today’s New York Times I read that the Mostly Mozart Festival “plans to reconfigure the stage at Avery Fisher Hall to create what it calls a greater sense of intimacy and a closer connection between musicians and audience.” The physical environment isn’t all that has changed or is changing in the orchestral world. How about casual Fridays? This may be old news, but I haven’t been to an orchestral concert in quite awhile, so it was new to me.

    A few weeks back I was gifted with a ticket to hear a Friday night Dvorak program played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall. This was my first visit to the new, more intimate concert hall and, according to my notepad, my first impression was “casual elegance.” Little did I know how prophetic the word ‘casual’ would be for me. I was so busy admiring the pale honey-colored wood, the sleek design lines that swoop and curve around the hall, the pipe organ that looks like an abstract sculpture, and my fabulous center seat with beaucoup leg room, that I had yet to read the program before the musicians came on stage.

    The program book made note of Casual Fridays, but without explanation. I find it disappointing enough that the audiences no longer “dress” to go to the theater or concerts, and I am sadly used to seeing patrons’ seats filled with worn and torn jeans, or even shorts and tank tops, but I was truly dismayed when this motley crew took their chairs, dressed to run weekend errands at best.

    The program opened with Legend in B-flat minor (Op 59, No 10), orchestrated for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, harp and strings. I tried to focus on the music, but the hairy arms protruding from a truly ugly short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt were too distracting and the 4-minute piece was over before I knew it. “What’s wrong with me?” I wondered. “Am I an elitist snob?” Clearly, what someone looks like has no bearing on the music. “Get a grip. Focus.” I listened to the Violin Concerto in A minor (Op. 53) with my eyes closed, and within a dozen measures of the opening Allegro I was happily lost in the sound of the solo violinist supported by a unified orchestra. Unity of sound was what I wanted to hear, but my eyes had been identifying individual musicians and my ears followed suit, zeroing in on this oboist or that cellist. I don’t want to see or hear the individual players; I want to feel the orchestra as a whole. I am not a classical critic, not even a connoisseur, but I would like to cast my vote for the abolition of casual Fridays.