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.

Lukas Foss, R.I.P.

Lukas Foss, Composer at Home in Many Stylistic Currents, Dies at 86 (The New York Times obit) Back in June of 2007 Laurie (my girlfriend from elementary school days) was in the chorus of the revival of Lukas Foss’s major cantata, “The Prairie.” It had been decades since this work was heard in a New York performance.

The concert at the Rose Theater celebrated Foss’s 85th birthday, and he was present for the concert celebration. Professional soloists were backed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic and The Greenwich Village Singers (Laurie has been a longtime member) with the Choral Society of the Hamptons forming a chorus of over 100 voices.

Laurie said the piece reminds her a bit of Gershwin, with some Copeland-esque sounds, “but it is not at all derivative–in fact, it’s wholly original and just a very cool piece of music. Very difficult not to like, even for those of you who do not ordinarily listen to choral music.”

You can read more about An American Awakening: The Rediscovery of a Choral Masterpiece on The Prairie Project website. The text, which was adapted by the composer from Carl Sandburg’s “The Prairie,” is posted there, along with the composer’s commentary a seen in the program from the 1944.

Tenor and Brass on TV

On Sunday, November 11, 2007 beginning at 8:00 p.m. Public Television will air The USAF 60th Anniversary: A Musical Celebration featuring The United States Air Force Band with special guests “The Tenors – Cook, Dixon, & Young” and “Empire Brass”. The brass quintet is noted for presenting works from Bach and Handel to jazz and Broadway. Similarly, the tenors are well versed in both the European and American musical traditions, so it’s no surprise that the broadcast will include American classics such as American Salute, Ain’t Misbehavin’, America the Beautiful, and a rousing full-cast finale of God Bless America.

I’m not familiar with the brass players but have read that all five have held leading positions with major American orchestras and that the ensemble plays over 100 concerts a year in major cities throughout the world. I am more familiar with the tenors. Victor Trent Cook received a Tony Award nomination for “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” Rodrick Dixon has been a featured performer in several roles with the Los Angeles and Michigan Opera companies, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and in Broadway’s “Ragtime.” Grammy Award-winning vocalist Thomas Young has appeared as a soloist in major concert halls around the world; he’s also created operatic roles for contemporary composers like John Adams and Anthony Davis. Their talents encompass jazz and blues (here’s a video clip) as well as the classics (here’s a video clip of Roderick)

I know of Cook, Dixon, and Young as “Three Mo’ Tenors,” so I wondered why the billing changed to read “The Tenors.” In an online Variety article published 9/27/07 I learned that

“The “Three Mo'” franchise was started by [Director Marion J.] Caffey with singers Victor Trent Cook, Rodrick Dixon and Thomas Young in the title roles. Producer Willette Murphy Klausner soon joined up, and the group received much exposure courtesy of a 2001 PBS showing. Performers and management thereafter split acrimoniously, leaving Klausner and Caffey with rights to the title; Cook, Dixon and Young still perform together in the three tenor format, presumably with more star power than any of the six tenors alternating at the Little Shubert.”

I have never been in favor of spin-offs, musical franchises and/or ghost bands, and while I’m sure that all of the tenors currently performing on Broadway and elsewhere as “Three Mo'” are very talented, I’ll stick with the originals of whom I’ve been fond ever since their debut in the summer of 2000.

Of course I also love the original originals – Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras – The Three Tenors with three capital Ts. Ay, Ay, Ay.

July 4th kicks off USAF summer series

All of the military branches have marvelous musicians, but I have friends in the Air Force who keep me apprised of their concerts.

The Ceremonial Brass will be on the Today Show first thing in the morning. Come evening, The Airmen of Note July 4th Celebration begins at 6:00 p.m. at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (6th Street and Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC), and the Concert Band and Singing Sergeants celebratioin begins at 8 p.m. at the Air Force Memorial (One Air Force Memorial Drive, Arlington, VA).

The Airmen of Note is premier jazz ensemble of the U.S. Air Force, known for their distinctive mix of contemporary big band sounds and classics from the swing era. Their summer series officially starts swinging on Friday July 6, 2007 beginning at 1:00 p.m. at the Sylvan Theater located at the base of the Washington Monument, Washington D.C. Other July performances are on the 24th at 8pm (US Capitol Steps), July 25th and 27th 8pm (Air Force Memorial), and 31st at 8 p.m. (US Capitol Steps).

The Concert Band, a world class symphonic wind ensemble, team up with the Singing Sergeants to present an evening of entertainment ranging from light classics and popular favorites to classical transcriptions and original works for the band idiom. The Concert Band and Singing Sergeants series includes two more performances at the Air Force Memorial on July 6th and 11th, plus a July 10th concert on the West Steps of the United States Capitol, Washington D.C. — all at 8 p.m.

If Brass is your pleasure, you can hear the Ceremonial Brass Quintet on July 13th, or, if strings are your thing, join The Air Force Strings for an evening of popular and light classics on July 18th and 20th — all at 8 p.m. at the Air Force Memorial.

Also on the 17th, the younger crowd might prefer the Max Impact-High Energy Pop Rock Band on the West Steps of the United States Capitol at 8 p.m. This is “the newest performing unit in the Air Force Band’s musical arsenal,” said to fuse the elements of contemporary music from today’s hip-hop, pop and urban sounds-and everything in between.

The Prairie – a Lukas Foss Cantata

Laurie, one of my childhood girlfriends (elementary school days) has loved to sing for as long as I can remember. She’s been an active member of The Greenwich Village Singers for many years and on June 28th she will take part in a very exciting and unusual concert. She tells me that it has been decades since there was a New York performance of Lukas Foss’s major cantata, “The Prairie.”

On Thursday, June 28, we will present a revival performance of this significant American work at the Rose Theatre, which is part of Lincoln Center (but located in the Time Warner Center building at Columbus Circle). We will be performing it in the presence of the composer in honor of his 85th birthday. We and the Choral Society of the Hamptons will make up a chorus of over 100 voices, and under the baton of Mark Mangini, we will be accompanied by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, four professional soloists of outstanding talent, and solo concert flautist Carol Wincenc. In its thirty-one year history, The Greenwich Village Singers has never before undertaken a project of this significance and scope.

She also said the piece reminds her a bit of Gershwin, with some Copeland-esque sounds, “but it is not at all derivative–in fact, it’s wholly original and just a very cool piece of music. Very difficult not to like, even for those of you who do not ordinarily listen to choral music.”

To read more about this event — An American Awakening: The Rediscovery of a Choral Masterpiece — visit The Prairie Project website. The text, which was adapted by the composer from Carl Sandburg’s “The Prairie,” is posted there, along with the composer’s commentary a seen in the program from the 1944 premiere and information about the performers. You can order tickets online and for those of you in the press, there’s a link to the media contact as well. [Note: A second performance will take place on Saturday, July 7 at the Channing Sculpture Garden in Bridgehampton.]

Those were the days….

My ongoing, online, elementary school reunion (first mentioned back in June) suffered a brief hiatus when the politics got too hot and heavy, but I’m glad to say that we’re back in action albeit with more benign subject matter. We are currently focused on childhood memories of school plays, favorite foods, birthday parties and tv shows. One of the “boys” remembered playing frogman in the bathtub with another “boy.” The response?

Frogmen? In my bathtub? I remember being obsessed with scuba divers, having decided that this would be my future career at an early age after watching some TV show with Lloyd Bridges about divers. But I don’t recall playing with you in my bathtub.

The tv show seems to have been Seahunt, but I thought it might have been Diver Dan, which I remember watching. That led another classsmate to send me the lyrics and a link to hear Diver Dan:

Below in the deep there’s adventure and danger;
That’s where you’ll find Diver Dan!
The sights that he sees are surprising and stranger
Than ever you’ll see on the land!
He moves among creatures
Of frightening features:
Flashing teeth, slashing jaws,
Flapping fins, snapping claws!
He protects and he saves
His friends under the waves;
That’s where you’ll find Diver Dan!

Oh my, what we can find online. Suddenly, instead of working, I am trolling for sounds from childhood tv shows, such as Batman, Casper the Friendly Ghost ( I remember the visual, but I have no recollection of this audio), but I do remember this sound of the Chipmunks, and then there was Dick Tracy and of course Dudley Do-Right.

As you can see, I didn’t get past the Ds yet, but break time is over and it’s back to work for me.

NPR Goodies

Piano Jazz:

“The Ashby Brothers” Piano Jazz show airs the week of December 26, 2006. (Click here to find the radio stationin your area) The show will feature interviews with Marty and Jay Ashby, who will be joined by longtime friends and MCG Jazz collaborators, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Lewis Nash for the musical portion of the segment. The Ashby Brothers Quartet cover an array of music in the segment, from Duke Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me” to Ivan Lins’ “Norturna.”

Additionally, Bill Strickland, President and CEO of Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, was also interviewed by Mrs. McPartland to share the history of his success with MCG and its sister organization, Bidwell Training Center, and his plans to replicate the arts and technology program in major cities throughout the U.S. Bill Strickland’s interview is available as a podcast.

Charlie Brown:

Mr. Rifftides and TT both sang the praises of Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown music. Did you know that Guaraldi’s classic score almost never made it on the air. Check out Felix Contreras’ Behind Guaraldi’s Timeless Holiday Soundtrack that aired on Morning Edition last month and can still be heard online.

Lillian Ross:

On Morning Edition today I heard “The Long View: For Writer Lillian Ross, the Story’s in the Details.” Ms. Ross, a long-time staff writer for The New Yorker, has long been one of my writing heroines.

Rich details, status details, intimate details, telling details, these are the little facts observed that bring people to life on the page. (Of course I’ll be talking more about the use of such details in the months to come for People On The Page over at SnapSizzleBop.) It was no surprise that by the end of this morning’s NPR piece, Ms. Ross had turned the tables on interviewer Steve Inskeep.

Back in June 2005 i wrote about Ms. Ross and her techniques:

One of my goals as a narrative nonfiction writer is to make my readers to feel as if they are there, seeing the events about which I am writing. In order for that to happen, I have to evoke the readers’ interest and convey to them a sense of my reliability, letting them know that either I was there observing (and now they can watch through my eyes) or at least that I did thorough research. Lillian Ross is a master in this genre and I often try to analyze her work in search of techniques that I might employ. (read the whole piece here)

Here are some books by Lillian Ross:

Portrait of Hemingway (Random House Publishing Group, 1999)

Picture (Da Capo Press; Reprint edition June 2002)

Fun of It: Stories from the Talk of the Town (Random House Publishing Group, 2001)

Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism (Counterpoint Press, 2003)

I Call It Fun

A press release via email arrived to alert me to an anniversary CD+DVD release by The Rippingtons; included was a brief audio clip. A minute or two of an upbeat dance track titled “Bingo-Jingo” was enough to re-awaken memories of years gone by.

All of you straight-ahead jazzers may be aghast to hear that I rather like this group…I just wish that the word “jazz” was not used in the same sentence. Such is the way of the music biz, ascribing (or in many cases, usurping) niche identifications for the purpose of targeting sales. My dad says the term “music business” is itself an oxymoron. (Maybe just plain moronic would be more apt.) Of course the word “jazz” can also be used to mean “empty or insincere or exaggerated talk” as in “don’t give me any of that jazz,” but that’s another story.

Sometimes these appelations do more harm than good. I remember a few years back I was assigned to review a Rachael Z recording. The package arrived with the F word — Fusion — emblazoned on the front and had I not been on assignment it would have ended up in the round file without a hearing. That would have been my loss, and I said so in the review, noting that labels such as fusion, avant-garde, straight-ahead, and bop may be useful to the sales force, but they do little to illuminate our understanding as listeners.

But back to The Rippingtons. Despite the fact that they are billed as “smooth jazz pioneers,” their sound has a nostalgic appeal for me and I enjoy it for what it is…parts of it, anyway. Their “20th Anniversary Celebration,” a special CD/DVD retrospective, was released on July 25th on Peak Records, reuniting founding Rippingtons member Russ Freeman with past members, Dave Koz, Brian Mcknight, Jeffrey Osbourne and others.

The opening audio track has that electronic new-agey feel that leaves me cold, so I skip to track two, “Celebration,” which is the first of the four tunes that includes a horn section, the others being “Bingo Jingo,” “Rainbow,” and “A 20th Anniversary Bonus.” Those are the tracks I like best — they are jazzier and made me also want to revisit the sounds of those three-name groups: Blood, Sweat & Tears and Earth, Wind & Fire.

I wouldn’t describe The Rippingtons as playing deep music, but it is fun. And if you ARE a smooth jazz fan, The Rippingtons are among the best.

The DVD includes some cool computer-enchanced video of performances super-imposed over scenes of cavorting on the ski slopes (curves ahead) and sailing the seas (tourist in paradise). When I finally got around to watching the historical overview with interview snippets I was amused to see a tongue-in-cheek report from Canadian television grappling with how to describe the Rippingtons’ music, and gratified to hear Russ Freeman, back in his younger years, saying “I don’t even like the word jazz anymore.”

I’ll let Russ have the last word…today.

Spoils of War

Perhaps taking my cue from the jazz world, riffing off one another’s postings I take note of Mr. Rifftides latest post re our “conversation” about music being used as a weapon or punishment, a dispatch wherein he has included words penned by the esteemed Gene Lees. While Gene’s words were prompted by a prior Rifftides post in which Kenny Drew held forth on the subject of rap music (here), they are nonetheless right on target vis a vis my query.

You may remember that a few days ago I asked anyone who knew of any such stories to please share them with me. I made that request because for some time now I’ve been percolating an idea for a book about the myriad ways in which the America uses music to further policy objectives. My book proposal is making the rounds; here’s an excerpt:

While it is true that technological advances have made it no longer necessary to use musical instruments to command and control the troops in battle, music still has many wartime uses. Sometimes the employment of music seems heart-warming, such as when it serves to soothe and help heal the wounded, or even inspire perseverance in the face of adversity. Uplifting stories of entertaining troops on the front lines have always been fodder for fictional movies and factual newsreels. Troop morale is crucial, and while the world might think Bob Hope and the USO handled it all by themselves, the truth is that there are places that Bob could not go – places where the danger was too great, the need even greater….

Marching bands always stir up patriotic feelings; everybody loves a parade…. Music is used in ceremonial events, presidential funerals, state dinners, and official events galore. In towns large and small, all across the country, military buglers play taps, and military bands of all types and sizes march in parades to pay tribute to homecoming soldiers and honor those left behind.

But music can be applied and exploited for purposes that may be depressing, distressing, or to some, even despicable. One who finds beauty in music will likely be appalled to hear a young American soldier fighting in Iraq describe how he and his buddies patch rock music into the headphones in their tank in order to pump themselves up for the fight. While employing music to whip soldiers into a fighting frenzy may seldom be discussed, it is not uncommon. Nor is it unusual to use music as a weapon. As seen in the capture of Manuel Noriega and the Siege of the Church of Nativity in Israel, music has been an effective tool for soldiers in PsyOps (Psychological Operations)….

A friend, now retired from the US Air Force, once told me that music money is “miniscule in terms of the overall defense budget, but the payback is so huge, you can’t even begin to calculate how important it is.” Hmmmm….