Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"You Must Remember This"

Some nights ago I was out in my capacity as Volunteer Luminaria-lighter for my block, finally getting the knack of lighting the tips of little candlewicks ensconced in the sand at the bottom of the white paper bags. As I glanced back at the neat rows of light trailing off into the distance I recalled reading from Jeff Kisseloff's marvelous oral history of Manhattan, "You Must Remember This" an old woman's childhood recollection of watching the lamplighter come down her street to illuminate the evening on the Upper West Side of Manhattan circa 1899.
Olga Marx was born in 1894 and would have been roundabout 90 when Kisseloff interviewed her in the mid-1980's:

"When the lamplighter came in the summer, that usually meant it was bedtime. I loved to wait for him on the stoop (of her home on 77th St. and Columbus Ave.) On mild evenings you'd bring down a chair and sit out there, although my mother thought it a little vulgar to visit back and forth between neighbors.
One mild evening she said to me, 'Instead of just sitting on the stoop before you go to bed, I want to show you something.' She told me to look up and there was a sky full of stars. It was the first time I had consciously seen just a lot of wonderful stars."

An oral history of Manhattan is going to be singular because so much change would have been witnessed by those around long enough to have seen it and yet enough of the old buildings, streets, parks and so forth remain to aid the imagination in transporting us back in time.

Following the "sky" thread somewhat, here another recollection from Olga:

"We also loved to play on the meteors which were then out in front of the Museum of Natural History (on the edge of Central Park)
I remember saying to my fraulein, (her German nanny) 'Look, I'm standing on a star.' But she was so prissy, and she said, 'Get down immediately. I can see your panties.'"

Olga Marx, who later graduated from Barnard and became a poet and writer, was obviously from the "better-offs" but Kisseloff also interviewed Bullets Brennan who, though he also lived on the Upper West Side not too far off from Olga, came from from a poorer Italian immigrant family and lived out much of his childhood on the streets.
"In the summertime, we never wore shoes, Most times we went barefoot. We'd be jumpin' around the rocks near the river in bare feet. When there wasn't any work (school not being an option), so many kids just hung around the corners or in the park, or went swimming off the dock at 75th Street, Bare-Ass Beach."
Like many kids on the street Bullets became adept at stickball - baseball's street-worthy cousin.
"A guy like Howard Cook, who was a big gambler, he'd buy the balls, and he'd watch. They all went for that. Sometimes they'd bet cash on the games. They might play for a barrel of beer."

Kisseloff (the full title of his book is "You Must Remember This: An oral history of Manhattan from the 1890's to World War II") covers all of the major neighborhoods of Manhattan in his interviews from the Lower East Side and Chelsea up to Harlem and points north.
He manages to find surviving witnesses to the Triangle Fire, sheep meadows in Central Park, the old New York Giant baseball games at the Polo Grounds, and Fats Waller at the piano in Harlem.
I found the reminiscences of the Dakota Apartments on the West Side intriguing. Bullets Brennan recalls his ragamuffin pals serenading the high class occupants at Thanksgiving. The Dakota was home to well-to-do music publishers like the Schirmers and parties were held there with literary guests like Mark Twain, and Stephen Crane as well as musical luminaries from Tchaikovsky, to -later on-
Gershwin gazing out at Central Park.
By the way, my friend Steve Hinders notifies me that our modern-day luminary, John Lennon, chose residence at the Dakota because the architecture reminded him of places in Liverpool.

Skating in Central Park with the Dakota as background circa 1890's

Anyway, I highly recommend "You Must Remember This" by Jeff Kisseloff for those who admire oral histories. It is on a par with Lawrence Ritter's "The Glory of Their Times" and any number of the Studs Terkel books.

* a note on the meteors Olga Marx played on in front of the Museum of Natural History.
Quite possibly, one of these was the famous 15.5 ton Willamette meteor (from the Willamette Valley in Oregon) purchased by heiress Mrs. William Dodge for a tidy sum around 1904 from it's owners and turned over to the Museum. The meteor was held to be sacred by the Clackamas Indians of Oregon who referred to the meteor as a "being" called Tomanowos who arrived from the moon. I'm sure that little Olga would've loved to know that.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Davy Graham: Nov. 22, 1940 - Dec. 15, 2008

"A traveling man who made the journey down to Tangiers when the rest of us had our sights on Brighton Pier" - John Renbourn

Guitarist Davy Graham grew up in an immigrant section of London, with a Scottish father and a Guyanese mother. His skin-tone had a tinge of color from his mother which reminded him of his "otherness", and he was blind in one eye...

In the laissez-faire bohemian world of beatnik moving into hippie, Davy was an immaculate dresser sporting tight-cropped short hair, who early on made a conscious decision to be a heroin addict, and originally chose to feature a large block of Moroccan hashish as the centerpiece of his "Folk, Blues, and Beyond" album cover.
His version of Good Morning Blues here
He played jazz in London supper clubs and busked on the streets of Paris, studied the Koran, the musical forms Southern India and Western Ireland. He brought the crowd to it's feet with his version of Muddy Waters' "Im Ready" when I saw him at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1974....

His original guitar tune "Anji", has a simple lilt and swing that the more well-known, virtuosic versions by both Bert Jansch and Paul Simon do not.
I would have loved to have sat down and had tea in an English garden with him...
She Moved Through the Fair

Monday, December 15, 2008

de Nuncques: Unseen in the Seen

"What is line? It is life. A line must live at each point along its course in such a way that the artist’s presence makes itself felt above that of the model.... With the writer, line takes precedence over form and content. It runs through the words he assembles. It strikes a continuous note unperceived by ear or eye. It is, in a way, the soul’s style, and if the line ceases to have a life of its own, if it only describes an arabesque, the soul is missing and the writing dies."-Jean Cocteau

"To make a painting, all you need to do is to take some paints, draw some lines, and fill the rest up with feelings." -William Degouve DeNuncques

Being a musician who uses up any "remains of the day" at home in the creating and practicing of music, in my spare time at my day-job I am lately driven onto a differing but somehow parallel path - drawing and pastel work. Or, at the least, thinking about it! Oil painting would be my first choice but requires more set-up and a larger space to make a larger mess. So, circumstances encourage me take the path of the "smaller mess" - pastels.

Curious to know what other artists have done with pastels - particularly those who, like Degas, also worked in oils - I came across someone unknown to me, the Belgian painter-pastellist, William Degouve de Nuncques. His pastel of a city park with lanterns as pictured above is hardly distinguishable from his paintings in oil. Our man Nuncques (as i'll call him!) is thrown in with that odd sliver of turn-of-the-century-and-beyond artists, The Symbolists.
It happened that the young Nuncques married another painter, Juliette Massin, and was introduced by his wife to Symbolists - both poets and painters. My guess, based on the scarce available biographical material, is that Nuncques was more of a "natural" Symbolist, and no follower of doctrine. His scenes, to me, derive more from a feeling than conveyance of a thought or principle.

Seeing Nuncques' pastels and paintings I immediately felt a thread connecting them. His style is simple and almost book-illustrative and not so boldly individual at first glance as, say, that other noted Symbolist, Redon. However, there seems to me something very strongly "internal" about them. An unlikely light is often juxtaposed against darkness and at times even a brightly lit daytime scene glows from within. Here the internal light of the unseen worlds seap through the seen; a ghost figure lingering as if to say "well, I'm going to take you part way there, and if you're drawn inside you'll find your way to the rest." Ultimately, the witness to this art is the invisible strand of light that seals the delicate haunting by his own intimations.

I introduced my lengthy Cocteau quote at the top of the page to these slender notes, not to call attention to the linear style of Nuncques' paintings, which are not particularly linear (in the way of Ingres or Picasso) but because I'm taking Cocteau's "line' to be something closer to the sense of it as a thread - something essential woven through an individuals work that connects it all with a subtle signature; not always overtly a "style".

The painting at the right is called the "Pink House" and was an influence on another Belgian, Rene Magritte, whose "L'Empire De Lumieres" takes similar delight in lights emitting mysteriously through the darkness.

Nuncques spent a great deal of the early 1900's traveling with his wife Juliette and painting in various locales. They settled for some years in the Balearic Islands off Spain where he painted the picture at the very top as well as the grotto scene. When she died in 1919 Nuncques was devastated and lost the use of his right hand for almost a decade. When, in the last years of his life, he remarried a woman who helped through his crisis, his facility was born again and he turned out a number of snow scenes from Stavelot, Belgium where they lived. His touch of the "unseen" remained.
The photograph of William Degouve de Nuncques seems to reveal someone, perhaps with a touch of madness, who has endured much and remained steadfast in his art. Interesting that his sometime roommate and fellow-painter, Henri De Greux, used him as a model for a painting of Christ. The photo of Nuncques suggests a Dostoeyevskian take on a Christ-like character.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Paul Caponigro: Hearing Through the Eyes

"Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art."
- Frederic Chopin

Paul Caponigro is my favorite photographer. I know little about the analysis and technical aspects by which great photos are judged but I am always compelled to linger over his images. There is a stillness and mystery simply portrayed in his photos, which are largely black and white (silver tones) and devoted to landscapes, arrangements of natural objects, or ancient remnants of man now subsumed into landscape.

Caponigro was born in Boston and was strongly affected by jaunts with his family to the woods and shores of New England. He later traveled and absorbed the particular
landscapes of California, Arizona, Ireland, Britain and Japan. In the 40's and 50's he received formative, personal instruction from Ansel Adams and, especially, Minor White; retaining aspects of their approach in his own work but forging a different style.

He was also a musician; well-trained as a classical pianist since early youth who chose not to follow the rigors of classical performance and training which were not aligned to the intuitive and mystical bent of chance-taking that photography provided him with. However, music remains a parallel love that would seem to permeate his work.
The musical thread surfaces in many of his own thoughts regarding his work: for example, "At the root of creativity is an impulse to understand, to make sense of random and often unrelated details. For me, photography provides an intersection of time, space, light, and emotional stance. One needs to be still enough, observant enough, and aware enough to recognize the life of the materials, to be able to 'hear through the eyes'."

Caponigro cites a lesson from his piano teacher that guided him in his art, "...that the effort, diligence, and care required in practicing must be quickly suspended when pressure coming from anxiety or a desire for fast results causes them to degenerate."

Paul Caponigro describes photos as "dreams locked in silver.", that grant us admission "if only for brief moments, to sense the thread which holds all things together."

To enclose the circle and exit the proceedings with gentle flourish, I offer up (courtesy of myspace) a recital of Chopin's Grande Polonaise Opus 22 A

*I am much indebted to the fine photography site, Soul Catcher Studio for quotes and a wonderful selection of his pictures.
* Please note that Paul Caponigro is not to be confused with his son John Paul Caponigro, who is also a talented photographer working in digital-based color imagery.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Whiskey Before Breakfast

Noticing lists of summer listenings by some of my fellow blogposters, I can't help but indulge myself in the same.
What I have here is a list (with a bit of rumination) of 7 songs that I keep playing OVER AND OVER again.

Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams, Lady In Red - Stan Getz (April 14, 1950 NYC)

Getz (tenor sax) Tony Aless (piano) Percy Heath (bass) Don Lamond (drums)

The 23 year old Stan Getz was already nicknamed "the Sound" for his incomparable tone. Getz was a tempestuous personality who ironically, at the time of this recording, oft played with a gently diaphanous, high-register, detached sound, like an angel flitting about on Cloud 9 removed from worldly cares. On these two tunes he introduces a more varied, full-bodied, though still light-in-weight, sound, that dips more frequently than usual into the lower registers.

More importantly these cuts have a quality of utter effortlessness and swing. The beginning of "Wrap" has Stan floating right in on Cloud 9 with a round fogtone reminiscent particular recordings his his idol Lester Young did on one of his brief reunion sessions with Basie, in 1944, that featured Lester Leaps Again and After Theatre Jump.

To my ears, Getz rarely sounded so naturally melodious, spinning continuous, flowing, thread after thread and I can't conceive of ever getting enough of these tunes!

Here is a soundclip of Stan Getz playing There's a Small Hotel from earlier the same year, demonstrating the same qualities as the above tunes. Here he is playing with the rhythm section he was sharing with Charlie Parker at this time; Al Haig on piano, Tommy Potter on bass, and Roy Haynes (still very active today!) on drums.

Dixie Chicken, Fat Man in the Bathtub Little Feat (1973)
Guitarist Lowell George was a gifted slide guitarist and songwriter with a soulful voice, now enshrined as a "rock-star casualty" legend for his early demise. He formed the band Little Feat which was notably off the beaten path, forging a style as portrayed in these particular tunes, that fell somewhere in between New Orleans funk and rhythm and blues, and slide-driven southern roots rock. George was a bit of a Renaissance man of the musical world having early on mastered harmonica, flute, oboe, and baritone sax (he was even in on some Frank Sinatra recordings playing the latter two) before mastering the guitar. The Rolling Stones and Jimmy Page were both ardent admirers and Bonnie Raitt said she moved out to California solely to meet and hang with George, whose slide-guitar work she so admired.
"Dixie Chicken" and "Fatman" are great examples of Lowell's impassioned vocals, songwriting, guitar-playing and - with hats off to his bandmembers including New Orleans percussionist Sam Clayton - infectious New Orleans groove.
Here is Dixie Chicken.

Whiskey Before Breakfast, Under the Double Eagle
Norman Blake (1976)

On a recent visit to NYC I was delighted to find a small record shop in the East Village that had a cd version of one my favorite long lost lps, Norman Blake's Whiskey Before Breakfast.
Blake is one of the premier flatpicking guitarists on the planet. He is the epitome of taste, never resorting to lightning pyrotechnics unless they lend themselves to the musicality of the piece.
Blake, a native Tennesseean, was longtime accompaniest to June Carter and later a longstanding meember of Johnny Cash's touring band. Subsequent to that he drew "mainstream" attention for his work on Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline. More recently he caught some attention, not for his flatpicking but for his nofrills vocal rendition of "You Are My Sunshine" featured in the Coen Bros., "O Brother Where Art Thou". He is not an exceptional vocalist but an unaffected and, upon gradual familiarity, pleasing one.
The tune "Whiskey Before Breakfast" has Irish origins (shocking, I know) and Blake delivers it here with Appalachian panache minus the TV hillbilly hokum. Another favorite of mine is his version of "Under the Double Eagle". In fact the whole album is a great listening experience for anyone with a liberal musical ear; no need to be a hardened bluegrass fan.
Here is a youtube clip of Norman playing Under the Double Eagle from Whiskey Before Breakfast

Rain and Snow The Be Good Tanyas Blue Horse(2001)

The Be Good Tanyas are an endearing, engaging, multi-instrumental, multi-vocal trio of gals out of Vancouver who play what i would call for the sake of convenience Old Timey American Root and Original music.
Rain and Snow is an old-time traditional tune that I first encountered as a regular set-piece at the Grateful Dead concerts c. 1969-1972 in Sunny California. Yes, as many of us are tired of repeating and many are tired of hearing, you had to have been there and see them live to know what the fuss was about, (I don't even mention this any more to the uninitiated because, well...); as I believe David Crosby said "there is nothing like the Dead on a good night!" - and, before you roll your eyes, chemical reinforcement was not necessary - trust me!
In any case, here the Tanyas deliver a this tune with their own unique spin and groove. Here is a myspace recording of the Tanyas doing Rain and Snow.
Here is a youtube soundclip of the Be Good Tanyas playing one my favorite of their tunes Ootischenia

Monday, June 16, 2008

Burne-Jones and the Sleeping Princess

A few weeks back I slipped into my local Art Museum, intent on (at the least) seeing the three Edward Burne-Jones paintings that were part of the "Passages To Europe" exhibition passing through.

The Burne-Jones pictures featured in this exhibit were three paintings comprising his 1st series of "Briar Rose" illustrations. They portray 3 stages of the Sleeping Beauty story as inspired by an Alfred Tennyson poem.

Since childhood I'd been drawn to Burne-Jones, having come across his "King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid" in a massive hard-bound book of Art Masterpieces of the World that my father had round the house and that I had been concurrently using as the base for some imagined medieval fortress.

Burne-Jones is a master of exquisite subtle color and flowing line and I don't give a
hang as to whether the pictures are decorative, over-romanticized, dated, over-literary irrelevant Victorian fluff, or whatever epithets (sometimes justifiable) are available for the tossing.
< King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1880-4)

Arthur Ruskin encouraged and, in fact, initially paid for Burne-Jones to journey to Italy in the 1860's to bring back studies and sketches of the masters for him. Burne-Jones gradually became quite smitten with the Italian Renaissance painters - in particular Botticelli - and subsequently made journeys to Italy of his own accord to immerse himself in the art. He would soak up the linear rhythms and coloring of the Botticelli paintings; it was nothing for him to devote a whole session sketching the the flowery patches of ground from the Primavera in the Uffizi gallery. Coincidentally, Burne-Jones' father was a gilder and carver and Botticelli apprenticed with a goldsmith and their attention to textured delicacies of detail may be linked back to the fine craftsmanship they were exposed to in youth.
Burne-Jones himself sheds light on this influence, saying,

"I love my pictures as a goldsmith does his jewels. I should like every inch of surface to be so fine that if all but a scrap from one of them were burned or lost, the man who found it might say whatever this may have reperesented is a work of art, beautiful in surface and quality of color."

detail from Botticelli's Madonna of the Magnificat

The Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty painting, seen at the top of the page, is not the one I saw at the exhibit which dates from 1871 but from a later series (completed in 1890) based on the same composition. The earlier version, that I saw - which seems to be unviewable on the net due to copyright issues- is somewhat softer and dreamlike with a twilit blue tone to it (I would liken it more to a blend of Correggio and Fra Lippi) while the later version is more detailed and jewel-like with warmer colors.
Gazing long at the 1871 Sleeping Beauty painting (which was about 1" by 4") in the museum, I marveled at both the precision of the tiniest pink rose set against the cloth folds as much at the perfect balance of the whole scene; the eye following the lines of the the sleeping maids at the foot of the bed flowing into the supine Beauty and then down to the maid sitting at her side, head bowed in sleep, hands resting in fallen and withered petals. In the later, 1890 picture the hands of the maids are more expressively modeled, Botticelli-like, and the eye seems to finally rest on hand of the seated maid on the far right, resting on the ground, palm opened, like a flower awaiting a drop of rain.
I recommend to anyone a close inspection of the details of these paintings. either in person or through a decent reproduction. As David Corbett puts it in his excellent - aptly titled :) - short book, Edward Burne-Jones,

"The paintings use the rich textures generated by combining different media -

gouache, shell gold and platinum paint - to create a scintillating surface that marries

precision, in its description of fabric, flesh, and angel's wings, with an extreme assertion of the capacity of these media themselves to attract and seduce the spectator's eye.

Burne-Jones' works often perform this double process - on the one hand the detailed and evocative description of an imaginary world, and on the other the concrete realisation of imagination itself in the form of pigment, color, and line. "

* Corbett's book features excellent color reproductions of both the earlier and later
Briar Rose Sleeping Beauty paintings.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Strand: Postscript Word Trip

From the first entry for the word "strand" in the Oxford English Dictionary:

strand (straend) sb [OE. strand = OFris. strond, MLG strant(masc), ON. strond (strand-)fem. border, edge, coast (Sw., Da. strand).]
1.a. The land bordering a sea, lake, or river; in a more restricted sense, that part of a shore which lies between the tide-marks; sometimes use vaguely for coast, shore. Cf. SEA-STRAND. Now poet.., arch.. or dial.

Going back to 1000, the OED then cites various quotes using the word "strand", in the above sense, in English.

For instance, from Chaucer in 1386;
"Thanne longenfolk to goon on pilgrimages. And Palmeres for to seken straunge

Then later, a poem of Shelley's in 1817:
"On the bare strand
Upon the sea-mark a small boat did wait."

The love of a person, place or thing is a layering of many parts and threads; when any one of those parts and threads is singled out and examined closely they become less and less significant in isolation, losing the drawing power of the whole, and (to drag out the oft-used physics simile) like subatomic particles under microscopic view, utterly lose materiality, or rather, their materiality appears and disappears in waves. On the other hand, more threads may be revealed; an endless road of them. Knowing this, if only intuitively, my inclination is to lay back with an attitude of acceptance or gratefulness - content not to see or comprehend the whole picture, enjoying the detailed pathways and detours, but accepting the "mountain obscured by mists".

For me merely the sound of "strand" resounds, by a myriad of associations, with a feeling of refuge and repose, stretches of sand and tide to walk along.

In America we generally associate the word "strand" with the condition of being stranded, "he was stranded on a desert isle" or "I was stranded in traffic", and to a lesser degree, strands of hair.
In England up until the 1600's a "strand" usually signified a beach or shore. Those words gradually supplanted "strand" which was retained in placenames and poetic usage.

The shoreline of the Thames lent its name to Londons's Strand Street and district - once the site of vaudeville and "serious" theatres. Sherlock Holmes was first featured in stories published by The Strand Magazine.

In Ireland however, to this day "strand" retains its old meaning and commonly refers to a beach, shore, or a riverbank.
In the case of Ireland the usage of the word is more likely to come directly from the Danish and Norwegian vikings who gained a foothold there beginning in the early 800's. As they took a liking to the estuaries and coastal harbors reminiscent of their Scandinavian homeland the enterprising Norsemen proceeded to found what became the major Irish towns; Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and Wexford to name a few. Scandinavian words connecting with sea travel and trade thus entered into the Irish language. Eventually the Norsemen and later the "conquering" Normans (descendants of Danish vikings themselves) were absorbed into the culture and bloodlines of the Irish; leaving not but the towns, castles, surnames (Macmanus and McAuliffe from the Norse; Fitzgerald and Burke from the Normans) and a few words like "strand".

When I hear the word I also think of the lovely irish jig "The Lark On the Strand".

There are many varied samplings of it to be heard on youtube and trad Irish records. My favorite on youtube is this one, a rendition by the young harpist Michelle Mulcahey. The Lark on the Strand is the second tune of the two jigs. This is the clearest and most fluent, affecting version in my mind and I enjoy watching the movement of her hands on each side of the strings, weaving the melodic line.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Strand

We pass one another on the library stairs from time to time, each of us heading in opposite directions, up or down, to or from one of the 5 floors of the building. Although I don't know this young woman's name we have exchanged pleasantries. We work in different departments, with different hours; but this occasional ritual passing is an island in time, like seeing a blue heron or a shooting star. Why? Because she always carries an orange canvas bag that says:

new york city


b o o k s t o r e

Whenever I get to Manhattan I make a point of going to The Strand bookstore on the corner Broadway and 12th St. It has been there since 1956 and was previously, beginning in 1927, on 4th Avenue amongst "Book Row" where there were once 48 bookstores.

The Strand is in some ways the antithesis of the modern-day corporate store; mostly used books in an atmosphere of some disarray it is a browser's paradise. For those that love books and are happy to come across a forgotten or obscure surprise it's a place to get lost in.

A week ago, my friend and co-worker Rebecca and I were in the library lobby at closing when she espied the Lady With the Orange Strand Bag. When I mentioned The Strand connection with the bag Rebecca pointed out that Joyce Carol Oates had a short story about two young girls in The Strand.

I promptly read "Three Girls" in the Oates collection "I Am No One You Know". In the story set in March of 1956 two teen-aged self-anointed "girl-poets", NYU students, and seeming lovers, are browsing in the store. One of them notices a conspicuously familiar woman reading in the stacks and notifies in a whisper to her pal, who narrates, that she should discreetly take a look.

".....I perceived an individual in the aisle, pulling down books from shelves, peering at them, clearly absorbed by what she read.....in a man's navy coat to her ankles and with sleeves past her wrists, a man's beige fedora hat on her head, scrunched low as we wore our knitted caps, and most of her hair hidden by the hat except for a six-inch blonde plait at the nape of her neck and she wore black trousers tucked into what appeared to be salt-stained cowboy boots. Someone we knew?....I was about to nudge you in the ribs in bafflement when the blond woman turned, taking down another book from the shelf (e.e.cummings' Tulips and Chimneys - always I would remember that title!), and I saw that she was Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe. In the Strand. Just like us. And she seemed to be alone.
Marilyn Monroe, alone!"

The girls follow Marilyn's every move in the store - torn between their own rapture and the need to protect and preserve her anonymity. When Marilyn finally begins to approach the counter with her pile of books, the narrating girl approaches her and offers to intercede and buy the books to save her from being recognized. When they hand her the books outside, Marilyn pulls out a copy of the Selected Poems of Marianne Moore from her bag and hands it to them before disappearing down the street.

The photographer Eve Arnold took a picture of Marilyn right around this time. She is seen in an untypical pose, reading a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses. according to Arnold this was not a concocted pose (speculation, predictably rampant, about her reading the sexual monologue of Molly Bloom near the book's end). Marilyn told her that she had been reading bits of it every day and though she found it tough going at times enjoyed reading passages out loud.

I was pleasantly diverted to know that Marilyn, in the story had given the girls a book of Marianne Moore's poems. Marianne Moore first came to my attention when I heard she was a great baseball fan of the New York City baseball teams; the Brooklyn Dodgers in particular - she lived in Brooklyn herself. She knew the poetry of the game and graced the page with it now and then.

Moore's poems absorb me like mysterious and beautiful puzzles; like Marilyn with Ulysses perhaps, I can never quite get the meaning, but the sound and rhythm and imagery and the little glimmer of knowing are enough to keep me coming back.

here is a short poem from her early years:


"It arouses my indignation that they should be so rare,
Yet I think I should be as willing to wear green
Sapphires as I should be willing to wear
Emeralds, the point of the thing's being, not to make people stare
But to have to wear, what keeps life from becoming a parcel of
uniformities -

What prevents its deteriorating into a bugbear:
To have what makes it start from its rut like the horse seen
Showing its might in the book of Job, where
The dramatist watches it leap like a locust in the air,
And swerving neither to the right nor left, bore its way
up into the heart of the breeze."

Friday, May 16, 2008

Voices Through the Crackle

Once upon a time back in the 1960's a poet-singer from South Dakota named Tom Rapp fronted, what they would call now, a "psychedelic folk" group known as Pearls Before Swine.

During that time, prompted by a song of "Pearls" I liked called "Drop Out!" (a directive for which i needed no prompting, attitude-wise) i picked up a copy of their 2nd lp Balaklava. Balaklava didn't have "Drop Out!" but i loved it anyway. This record was described as an anti-war record, but there was no shouting rhetoric or catchy obscenities ala Country Joe; in fact i don't even remember if the word 'war' was mentioned. An apocalyptic, world-weary tone was prevalent but there was a glimmer of hope that some how love would save the day or at least make the "last days" bearable.

What really riveted my attention and moved me in a way that protest might not, even more than the original songs, were some slivers of early archived wax cylinder recordings Rapp slipped in to color the proceedings.

The album opens with an actual recording of "Trumpeter Landfrey" made in London in 1890. Emerging from a crackling background, Landfrey (really Landfried) introduces himself as the surviving trumpeter at the Charge of the Light Brigade who sounded the fateful call to arms at the battle of Balaklava in the Crimean War. Through a "strategic miscalculation", the cream of the British cavalry was mowed down by Russian forces in a suicidal charge on October 25, 1854. This recording of Landfrey was made and distributed by a Fund to benefit remaining veterans of the war and inform the public about the bad straits and neglect fallen upon them.
In the recording, Landfrey, now an old man, concludes by lifting his trumpet and somewhat shakily sounding the charge from that day.

Later, on Balaklava, Rapp includes a another recording, made for the same benefit, this of Florence Nightingale who served so bravely as a nurse near the scene of the battle; fighting to bring better treatment and environs for the wounded.
She spoke this in her brief message on the wax cylinder, July 30th 1890, 36 years after the disastrous charge:

"When I am no longer a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my gallant comrades of Balaklava, and bring them safe to shore,
Florence Nightingale."

* postscript;
The wax cylinder recordings would seem to have inspired a song on the record composed by Tom Rapp called "Guardian Angel". With similar ancient crackle and hiss in the background Rapp delivers the fragile vocal as if through a megaphone, accompanied by a string quartet, and indicates fancifully on the album notes that the recording was made in Guadeloupe, Mexico c. 1929!
Easy to envision Rapp as the bespectacled expatriate proto-hippie poet, hand jittery from gin and cigarettes holding up his crumpled lines to the microphone...

"You say that the sky people don't even ask you your name
If it's you or another, it doesn't matter, to them it's all the same
But we live suspended in each other's mind
A bullet-proof sanctuary cathedral of eyes
That I offer you
that I offer you."

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Boudin, Le Roi Du Ciel

Now, with the last of winter tumbling into spring, the two seasons share a common space and the skies reflect the push and pull between them.

It's a time when I appreciate Eugene Boudin - the 19th century French painter to whom the master of the poetic landscape, Corot, proclaimed one day "You are king of the skies!".
Boudin,who was born in Honfleur in Normandy, spent most of his life painting in this vicinity, where the winds off the English Channel hit the seashore resorts of Deauville and Trouville. Here he loved to counterpoint his skies against the shoreline where the crinoline-clad ladies and top-hatted gentlemen, children and umbrellas, were all scattered and grouped across the horizon like so many colored stones or nestled villages.

Only on occasion would he venture abroad, notably to the emerald coast of Brittany where he met his wife, then in later years to Venice where he captured the calmer skies and watery reflections.

Though early in his career, he barely scraped out a living (at times facing starvation and contemplating suicide) he was already applauded by fellow artists and poets of renown. Baudelaire, as was his fashion, (at least with a chosen few) waxed rhapsodic after seeing a showing of Boudin's work.

"At the end, all these clouds in their fantastic and brilliant forms, these chaotic darknesses, these suspended and added the one to the others green and pink immensities, these gaping volcanoes, these firmaments of black or purple and crumpled, rolled or torn satin, these horizons in mourning or flowing of melted metal, all these depths, all this magnificence went up to my brain as a heady drink or as the eloquence of opium...."

I believe Baudelaire was referring, here, to some of Boudin's watercolors which were looser than the early oils. His oil renderings of the skies were not so much
spectacular in themselves but subtly suffused and enfolded the landscape beneath in the embrace of their delicate whims and dramatic moods.

Like Daubigny, Courbet, Corot, Whistler, and even to some extent Edouard Manet, Boudin was a godfather to the Impressionists; revered and even sharing exhibitions with them but always on the periphery of the movement. He never quite gave himself over to (and I'm personally relieved at this) the overriding absorption with light and color - "impressions" - that his early admirer Monet became noted for. Boudin retained a solidity of form and composition that was a remnant of an earlier time, despite the free flowing strokes that formed his skies and seas.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Giulietta, Lo Spippolo

Today is the birthday of Giulietta Masina, the Italian actress noted for her roles in the most well known of Fellini's early films, La Strada and Notti Di Cabiria. She also happened to be Fellini's wife for 40 some years until they passed away within months of one another; he in October 1993 and she in March of 1994.

Despite the close connection between the two, creatively and as polar personalities and physical opposites, Giulietta was a great talent regardless, winning accolades and awards as a supporting actress before appearing in her husband's films.

Giulietta had the natural whimsical grace of a mime and dancer and was often referred to as the female Chaplin in Europe. At a little under 5ft. she had waif-like appearance that made her a comic natural and an amusing counterpoint to Anthony Quinn's strongman, Zampano, in La Strada.

Fellini's own nickname for her was Lo Spippolo which is a slang word meaning "any small thing that inspires tenderness".

Early in life she displayed musical talent but with fingers that were to small to progress at the piano, she had more success at the violin. Her appearance on the dancing stage appeared comic or limited by her appearance and so, she was, in a sense, derailed into the theatre and radio where she found her niche preceding her film roles.

For myself and many others, the culmination and fulfillment of her screen talent was in the role of Cabiria, the resilient but perennially ill-fated prostitute in
Le Notti Di Cabiria
My favorite scene featuring Giulietta in this movie occurs when "Cabiria" wanders into a vaudeville house where a hypnotist ( masterfully; dare I say "hypnotically"? What the hell!) played by Aldo Silvani, is performing, taking volunteers from the audience. After he brings up the local jeering louts onstage and transforms them into amusing buffoons, he manages to convince Cabiria to "go under". What follows is a wonderful scene, a tribute to both Giulietta and Fellini at their poetic best.

see it here
.. i don't think you have to know Italian to appreciate it!
Andiamo amici!

* thanks to blitzey's posting on youtube for this marvelous scene!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Wardell at One O'Clock

The scene is the Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, April of 1948. On the stage are gathered a collection of jazz luminaries; Benny Carter, Howard McGhee, Red Callender and Vic Dickenson to name a few.

The pianist, Arnold Ross, takes an intro and kicks into a medium-up swinging blues, One O'Clock Jump and the Basie-style rhythm sections falls in, a sandy soft-shoe chug-a-chug chug train leaving the station, for the piano's two choruses in the familiar key of F concert....
then, in a surprise shift, there's a turnaround to the key of Db just as the thin-as-a-rail young tenor player, Wardell Gray, steps up to the microphone, signals his entry with a descending diminished triad, lands back up on the Db, and proceeds mow everyone down for 18 choruses of the swingingest jazz tenor solo ever taken.

Throughout the proceedings, on this live recording, a man in the background - I don't know if he's a fan or someone in the band - is clearly heard relentlessly inciting Wardell, like the crackle of kindling fire "Go! Go! Go!". Rather than this being the annoyance that it might be to the hi-fi connoisseur (who is already doubtlessly derailed by the roughness of the recording), I am RIGHT THERE with him, exhorting Gray to let it rip.

This solo is from a peak-time in Wardell's career; fresh from his sessions with Charlie Parker but still swinging in the Lestorian mode and playing with that gorgeous round bell tone that would gradually give way to a slight vibrato-buzz in the 50's before his untimely death in 1955.
This solo on One O'Clock is the longest on record from Wardell (his take on Blue Lou from the same performance, I believe, is another delightfully extended one) and I can only pine for the one's that got away.

An interesting, if brief, interview with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco was conducted by Abraham Ravett for his documentary on Wardell called Forgotten Tenor. Buddy played alongside Wardell in one of his short stints with the smaller version of the Count Basie band in 1949-1950. Here he has some insightful remarks regarding Wardell's playing and the rhythm of the Basie band:

"Wardell's ability to swing musically, maybe even now, I don't know what the younger musicians talk about but we used to talk about swing, whether swing isn't on top of the beat, behind the beat right on the beat, but I think swing has nothing to do with behind the beat, in front of the beat, or on top of the beat or on the beat. I think it has everything to do with the combination of the inherent gut or soul of the musician playing. In other words, I've heard some very intense players and if you analyze for instance, the great John Coltrane, some of his ballads especially, where he would play a million notes across a very slow four, none of the notes would be on the beat or off the beat at any given time. It would be on, off, late, forwards, and yet the pulse, the inherent pulse from the soul of the player was there, of John Coltrane. And Wardell had just a natural way of swinging and he could play, he could fool with the time, he could play behind, or forward or on it and make certain statements but there, the way he made certain statements is the way that made him swing so to speak.

I know so many school bands throughout the United States that say we're going to play like Count Basie, so our ensemble is going to play behind the beat, which is basically how Basie's band operated. The rhythm was steady and the ensemble played behind the beat. However, it's not so much that they played behind the beat, as they inferred that they were behind the beat and that the soul, the feeling was from the depth of the organism. Late, of course, behind, a little bit behind but you couldn't put it into a computer and say here's how far behind the beat Count Basie's band played. You see? There were a lot of times where they played right on the money though, maybe a couple of times they might have gone ahead a little. So sum it up, swing is like feeling, it's like the feeling of Jazz. Swing is the ambiguous mysterious element, it's either there or isn't there. And Wardell had it."

This from Ravett's interview with Jimmy Lewis who played bass behind Wardell and Buddy in the same basie line-up:

"He used to seem to create as he went along, you know?, on his solos. You can always tell when something new pops into his mind while he's playing, because he'd always smile, you can see him smiling while he's playing his horn.

You know I'd like to see him featured in a film, where he could really show off his talent. Really show it off, say, it was just the band playing in the background, and put him out front. I think, when I was with Basie in his big band, and Wardell was featured on a tune, Wardell he gets out and he plays the first chorus, and right in the middle of the thing he says, come on, let's play, let's play now. Now this is right while the recording was going, and he played that thing, he played his heart out man, he just played and it looked, he gave the whole band a lift because he had so much to offer you know? He tried to put everything in his tunes, so Basie would say let him go, he wasn't supposed to have maybe one or two choruses and he ended up playing five or six choruses of the same tune you know?"

At the end of Wardell's solo on One O'Clock, I swear that I can hear our "inciter" saying to him, "Do it again, do it again!"

I highly recommend the website for Abraham Ravett's Forgotten Tenor. Aside from numerous interviews there is an excellent biography, discography, and a wonderful live clip of Wardell taking a chorus on "I Cried For You" with the pared-down Basie Band. Incomparable (except for Prez, of course!)

The above mentioned recording of Wardell on "One O'Clock Jump" can be found on
Wardell Gray on the Giants of Jazz label.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Charles Daubigny

Today commemorates the birthday of Charles Daubigny (1817-1878), a painter of the French "Barbizon" school.

Daubigny is one of those artists who are a link between the "plein air" painters of the Barbizon school and the Impressionists. Though he was invited to exhibit with the Impressionists, he remained independent of the "movement" and though his style became looser and more atmospheric he never quite abandoned himself to the effects of light over matter, continuing to remain comfortable with both.

In 1857 he bought a 29 foot houseboat for himself, called "Le Botin", converted it into a studio, and for much of the remainder of his life sailed up and down the rivers Meuse and Seine basking in the world of the riverscape.

I've often mused on the river-barge life. John Renbourn, the English guitarist who has been a longtime idol of mine, once lived on a houseboat in France, traveling about leading the young bohemian musician's life on the river.
Myself, though quite relishing the familiarity of a neighborhood and the rhythm and ritual of familiar friends and haunts, can well imagine traveling down the river; painting, playing guitar, stopping now and then to play saxophone in a local jam session, sell a painting to get by for awhile, and reconnect with the human race - knowing full well that the boat and the watercourse always would be there, waiting for me to come back to my senses.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Slow Light of Atget

Today, almost passed, marks the birthday of the French photographer Eugene Atget.

The great irony of Atget's life is that he considered himself merely an artisan, recording, first "documents for artists" and then, almost exclusively, the streets buildings, parks, vendors, prostitutes and ragpickers of his beloved "Old Paris" which was passing away into memory with the advent of cars, cinema, and advertisements. When his neighbor, the American surrealist, Man Ray asked him if he could include some of his prints in an avante-garde journal, Atget demanded that his name not be mentioned.
Yet, as it appears to the legion of great artist/photographers that revered him, it was the very innocence and denial of his personal "specialness" that allows his photographic subjects to speak through him, as if through a dream.

Atget used an old bulky, 36 pound, large format wooden bellows camera that favored slow, extended exposures and gave his photos a twilit, somnambulist air. When Man Ray offered to secure a more advanced up-to-date camera Atget demurred, saying that this model would be too fast for the slower workings of his mind. Atget had likely gone through too many years, taking an early morning train out to the suburbs, or arriving at a scene somewhere in the sprawling center with his old mechanical companion, the two of them poised for that just-right ephemeral afternoon light.
Many of his favorite subjects were to be found on streets just around the corner from a bustling crowded avenue that would have registered as so many blurs. In fact an occasional blurred figure will appear, ghostlike, in front of one of his shop-front or stairway scenes, unexpectedly and unavoidably captured, like a prehistoric firefly in amber.

In his youth Atget had worked as a sailor and actor in a traveling theatrical troupe. It was in this group of repertory players that he met, in 1886, the woman who was to be his lifetime companion, Valentine Compagnon. When she died in 1926 Atget soon followed suit, passing away on August 4, 1927. Berenice Abbott, the young American photographer who was an assistant to Man Ray, befriended him in his last years and she took a photograph of him only two days before he died. He never lived to see this photo, nor did he live to see the acclaim his photos would gather due to the tireless archiving of his works by Abbott who was to become a photographer of renown. Her photographs of New York City in the 30's are works of reverence much like Atget's prints of Paris.