Saturday, February 06, 2016

`The Greatest Contribution to World Culture'

Gene Lees, Eugene Frederick John Lees (1928-2010), was born in Hamilton, Ont., the son of British expatriates. He grew up in the small city of St. Catherines in the Niagara peninsula, just ten miles from the American border. Lees dropped out of the Ontario College of Art, worked as a newspaper reporter in Canada, and moved to Kentucky in 1955 to become music editor of The Louisville Times. He edited Down Beat magazine from 1959 to 1961, and went on to write fifteen books, the best of which are drawn from his profiles and essays in Jazzletter, the magazine Lees founded in 1981 and published out of his house in Ojai, Calif. In “The Prez of Louisville” (Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White, 1994), Lees writes of his boyhood in Ontario:

“But then I thought all black people were gods. This was because most of my idols were black, men named Benny carter, Nat Cole, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Joe Thomas, Ray Nance, County Basie, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Wilson, Arnett Cobb. Dozens of them. One young friend of mine, who played trumpet and shared my awe of them, said that whenever he saw a Negro (the requisite polite term in those days), he wanted to get his autograph, even if the man was a railway porter.”

Not only were his heroes black; they were American. Lees goes on:

“Small wonder that so many of us had an identity problem, one symptom of which was that we approached whatever Canadian art or entertainment there was with a conditioned condescension, imposing our own doubts upon it. That problem left me permanently sympathetic to the black-identity problem in the United States.”

In “Sudden Immersion” (You Can’t Steal a Gift: Dizzy, Clark, Milt, and Nat, 2001), Lees continues his exploration of national identity. He was always contentious and increasingly cranky as he aged, happy to criticize, and celebrate, both of his countries:

“Unlike immigrants from the world’s sundry tyrannies, I was not fleeing [in 1955] some hideous dictatorship. Canada was in some ways a more democratic and much freer country than the United States. This was, after all, only five months after Joseph McCarthy had been condemned by the Senate for what, in effect, was a reign of political terror.”

Lees condemns what he calls “a sense of inferiority toward European culture” still felt by many Americans,” especially in music: “To this day, all too many `cultured’ Americans do not  appreciate the genius of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and others at the upper level of popular music , which very term they transcended. And in general Americans do not have anything approaching an adequate appreciation of the greatest contribution to world culture the United States has made: jazz.”    

Friday, February 05, 2016

`A Monument as Fragile as the Grass'

I was warned to be prepared, like any good Boy Scout. Seasoned bloggers offered cautious encouragement, though I could hear the unspoken message: “He won’t last.” I half-agreed with them. Consistency had never been among my virtues, and I worried about my digital incompetence. Then one Sunday, ten years ago today, almost impulsively, like a kid diving into a quarry for the first time, I posted something. I have just forced myself to read it again, and I shiver in shame. If I have accomplished anything in a decade of blogging, it’s that my writing is tighter, less effusive, more attuned to linking words to thoughts and less devoted to making an impression on imaginary readers. I work hardest at writing, not reading.

At first I envisioned the blog as some variation on a commonplace book, a repository for whatever was memorable in what I happened to be reading. But I have never been a passive reader, though I don't fancy myself a critic. Even a lousy book stirs a reaction, so I soon began using books, or minute passages in books, as grit in the grit-to-pearl metamorphosis. This came naturally, like breathing, and so I have posted something every day for ten years, 3,911 posts as of this morning. I find the germ of this practice in my years as a newspaper reporter. You don’t argue with a deadline. Without an editor I have every writer’s dream – utter independence. On second thought, I do have an editor and he works cheap – Dave Lull — mon semblable, — mon frère! I also thank Helen Pinkerton, Joseph Epstein, Bruce Floyd, Mark Marowitz, R.L. Barth, Bill Vallicella, the late D.G. Myers, Terry Teachout, Nige Andrews, Mike Gilleland and others.

My unscientific impression is that some of today’s finest poetry is written by Canadians, whether by birth, or present or former residency, including Marius Kociejowski, Eric Ormsby, Norm Sibum and David Solway (to list them strictly alphabetically). Likewise in their company is Robert Melançon, author of For as Far as the Eye Can See (trans. Judith Cowan, Biblioasis, 2013). Here is the last of that collection’s 144 twelve-line almost-sonnets, which says something about Anecdotal Evidence and the fate of most writing:      

“I have built up a monument as fragile as the grass,
as unstable as the daylight, as fleeting as the air, and
as fluid as the rain we see running in the streets.

“I’ve contrived it to paper that will dry, and
which may burn, or be splotched by the damp
with a bloom of pink, or green, or grey mildew,

“and give off a pungent earthy odour. I’ve worked
in the transient substance of a tongue that will
cease to be spoken, sooner or later, or be pronounced

“some other way, forming other words to convey
other thoughts. I’ve pledged it to the oblivion certain
to enfold all that this day bathes in its sweetness.”

Thursday, February 04, 2016

`That Beautiful Soloist that I Had Heard'

The pianist Oscar Peterson (1925-2007) was born in Montreal, son of a father from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands and a mother from St. Kitts in the British West Indies. His father worked as a porter for the Canadian Pacific Railway. The most interesting passages in his autobiography, A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson (Continuum, 2002), are brief glimpses of family and teachers, and of life on the road. Sad to say, Peterson’s book is over-written when it’s not under-written, and always under-edited. An editor presumably would have discouraged him from including his poetry, most of it written in rhyming couplets, like this:

“I once knew a man who taught me to hate him—
Musically, that is; for I loved Art Tatum.”
Peterson discovered jazz thanks to his father, who listened to the radio late at night. The first name he hears during a broadcast is Benny Goodman. Later that week, with his father at work, the boy clandestinely turns on the radio in the living room:

“With my ear pressed tightly against the speaker so I would not have to play it too loudly and waken everybody in the house, I ever-so-slowly started moving the dial, searching for the sound of that big band, for the announcer had said that they would be broadcasting all week from the hotel. Suddenly my search came to an end. Here without doubt was that beautiful soloist that I had heard just nights before. He was in the middle of a tune that I was hearing for the first time: `Where or When.’”

Whitney Balliett described Peterson’s playing as “a pudding made of the leavings of Art Tatum, Nat Cole and Teddy Wilson.” He writes, “The arts have long come in two grades—the original and its popularization. Jazz is no exception,” and drew up a list to prove his point. Positing Art Tatum as an original, he pegged Peterson and Andre Previn (a wonderfully odd couple) as popularizers. This is not a blanket dismissal. Balliett concedes that popularizers are often “better technicians and steadier performers (read: mechanical).” That’s a complaint that dogged Peterson throughout his career. “At the same time,” Balliett says, “they are less inventive, less high-minded about their work, more ostentatious, and perhaps because they are borrowers, less sure of themselves.” The Peterson recording I listen to most often is Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson (1959), and mostly because of Webster. 

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

`The Courtesy of Clarity'

In his essay on Paul Valéry, Joseph Epstein formulates what we might characterize as an etiquette of writing:

“One of the keenest pleasures of reading derives from being in the close company of someone more thoughtful than you but whose thoughts, owing to the courtesy of clarity, are handsomely accessible to you.”

What we do at home in our notebooks is strictly private, and there we can behave as vulgarly and self-indulgently as we wish. But when we take the next logical step and presume to share what we’ve written with the world, the rules change. Good manners oblige us to exercise discipline, respect for readers and what Epstein calls “the courtesy of clarity.” In short, to write well. Mystification, whether intentional or through incompetence, is rude, among other things. If intentional, it suggests an ego-driven striving after obscurity, a desire to cull one’s readership to an elite worshipful few (think: Gertrude Stein); if unintentional, a willingness to strive after mediocrity or worse, coupled with a blithe disregard for readers (think: Joyce Carol Oates). Epstein’s observation came to mind as I read “Confucian Confusions,” Eric Ormsby’s review in The New Criterion of A. David Moody’s biography of Ezra Pound, the poet who epitomizes both sorts of mystification as described above:
“He will probably not be long remembered for The Cantos, his baggy, rambling and tedious `epic,’ the tutelary spirit of which is the hapless Confucius. Discontinuous flashes may work in a brief lyric but they tend to sputter out in a long poem, and The Cantos runs to over 800 pages. Or, if remembered as other than a miscalculation of colossal proportions, it will probably be as a monument to ungovernable eccentricity, a sort of Watts Tower of modern verse.”

Should I weep or laugh when contemplating the hours I spent as a young man pretending to understand and even enjoy The Cantos? So much of Modernism and what came after is an exercise in mass hypnosis. I’m too old for that.

Today we fly to Canada, where my middle son already attends St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ont., and where my youngest son is scheduled for an interview on Thursday. An internet connection is unreliable, so I will post some Canada-related material in advance for the rest of the week, and perhaps add my two cents later.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

`The Underpainting of All Dark Writing'

“In the case of lyric writing, this surefootedness is even more necessary, for the lament is one of the main forms of the art, and the ability to walk that wire of pathos without falling into the pit of bathos is an indispensable element of the craft. You cannot write tragedy without a sense of humor; the lack of it produces something turgid and dull. Wit must be the underpainting of all dark writing.”

That’s the late Gene Lees writing in Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer (2004). Lees was a Canadian music critic, biographer and lyricist, who edited the monthly Jazzletter from 1981 until shortly before his death in 2010. He published a rhyming dictionary and wrote lyrics for, among others, Antonio Carlos Jobim. From the three sentences quoted above, you rightly conclude that Lees possessed good taste, good sense and a practitioner’s insight into the craft of songwriting. In passing I mentioned Johnny Mercer in Monday’s post and a reader replied: It seems a recording of Mercer singing and [Henry, the song’s composer] Mancini playing `Moon River’ surfaced in, I think, 2012. I am a big fan of Mercer’s. Have you ever heard Leon Redbone sing `Lazy Bones’?”

Yes, I have. About twenty-five years ago, he gave an outdoor concert in Albany, N.Y., as part of a downtown festival. Most of the crowd ignored him and his band, but friends and I sat on the edge of the stage, listened and watched Redbone remain resolutely in character. Go here for Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby’s version of “Lazybones,” written by Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael in 1933 for a long-forgotten movie, Bombshell. I grew up in the so-called Rock Era, yet absorbed dozens of songs from earlier eras. Television, radio and records contributed to a collective form of musical osmosis that no longer exists. Today, the technology exists for a listener to effortlessly access almost any music from any era. I wonder how many do, and how many are restricted to the ghetto of Today? My reader goes on to quote lyrics from several Mercer songs, including “I Thought About You,” written by Jimmy Van Heusen and introduced by Benny Goodman in 1939 with vocals by Mildred Bailey (Go here for Sinatra’s version):

 “Two or three cars
Parked under the stars,
A winding stream,
Moon shining down
On some little town,
And with each beam,
Same old dream;
At ev’ry stop that we made,
Oh, I thought about you!”

And here are the first two verses of “Early Autumn,” written with Ralph Burns (Go here for Jo Stafford’s recording from 1952):
“When an early autumn walks the land
And chills the breeze
And touches with her hand
The summer trees,
Perhaps you’ll understand
What memories I own.

“There’s a dance pavilion in the rain
All shuttered down;
A winding country lane
All russet brown,
A frosty window pane
Shows me a town grown lonely.”

The second verse always reminds me of a John Cheever story (except for the final phrase, which tries too hard). The definitive collection of Mercer’s work is The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer (Knopf, 2009), edited by Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger and Eric Davis. They quote Mercer on “Early Autumn”: “I think it’s one of my best lyrics . . . Not a big hit, but you can’t tell the public what they like—they usually pick the right ones.” A song’s impact is tough to pick apart. Burns’ melody is teasingly melancholy but so are the details Mercer chooses, especially “a dance pavilion in the rain / All shuttered down.” Without arguing the specifics, I find Mercer’s lyrics more emotionally potent and evocative than most poetry written today. He writes for grownups. Here’s Lees again, from his Mercer biography:

“The song is unique among literary forms, and by far the most exacting. It has the function of retarding emotional time, so that the listener can experience the feelings it is attempting to convey with an intensity comparable to the effect of watching the wings of a hummingbird in slow-motion cinematography. This is one reason a song can move you to tears.”

Monday, February 01, 2016

`I Find Out How Little I Know'

One is gratified when a rock musician can link subject to verb to object, and the result is coherent let alone witty or memorable. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a rock hater. Dylan, The Beatles and The Band fill out much of my internal soundtrack. But one doesn’t listen to rock music for the “poetry.” At their best, the lyrics are not self-indulgent gibberish. One can make a fairly solid case for Johnny Mercer and Ira Gershwin being songwriter/poets; not Dylan or John Lennon. But I have a larger point to make. I know from experience that rock musicians, unlike their cousins in jazz, tend to operate on the dim side of things. Only rarely are they bright or articulate people (there are exceptions: Tom Waits), and the same could he said for pipefitters and home-ec teachers. That’s not why anyone listens to rock, and it’s unfair to judge them by the standards of eloquence, linguistic sensitivity and intellectual complexity that we bring to poetry. Dylan is not Donne. 

Thanks to Andrew Rickard at Graveyard Masonry for linking to an unexpectedly interesting piece apparently written by Iggy Pop, né James Newell Osterberg, Jr. I say “apparently” because fraud is legal tender on the internet. Pop recounts his reading of Edward Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first in an abridged edition and later the full six volumes. Pop lists five benefits from reading Gibbon’s masterwork, the most admirable being No. 4: “I find out how little I know.” That’s precisely the reason ambitious readers read -- less to learn than to be reminded how small and inadequate is the knowledge we already possess. I hope Pop has gone on to read the volume often lost in the shadow cast by Gibbon’s History, his Memoirs with their beguiling introduction: 

“In the fifty-second year of my age, after the completion of an arduous and successful work, I now propose to employ some moments of my leisure in reviewing the simple transactions of a private and literary life. Truth, naked, unblushing truth, the first virtue of more serious history, must be the sole recommendation of this personal narrative. The style shall be simple and familiar: but style is the image of character; and the habits of correct writing may produce, without labour or design, the appearance of art and study.” 

[See Joseph Epstein’s recent essay devoted to Gibbon: “The true subject of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is human nature, and, in Gibbon’s recounting, it’s a far from pretty picture.”]

Sunday, January 31, 2016

`The Faculty of Pulverizing Other People'

“When he came to our house or we took people to his for a drink, he would arrive in the room full of hope and curiosity and exert himself to amuse. But so often his jokes fell by the way, were not recognized as jokes. Sometimes there was a brutal truth behind them which in conversation shocked people, so that although they might find his books very funny they did not find him funny at all….But he had the faculty of pulverizing other people, reducing them to silence.”

More than ever we could stand a hearty infusion of such people. Once among life’s chief pleasures, conversation is too often a litany of grievance, a coded ritual of political gestures, a spew of pop-culture allusions or a minuet of inoffensive pleasantries that offend with their dullness. To bore others is profoundly offensive and disrespectful. The writer quoted above is Frances Donaldson in her memoir Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of a Country Neighbour (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967). Published one year after Waugh’s death, Donaldson’s memoir is a friend’s corrective to the derision and incomprehension that greeted the writer throughout his career and after. “When a master dies,” writes Donaldson, who knew Waugh for the final twenty years of his life, “surely that is the time for those who possess the gift of tongues to sing his praise.” Here she is on Waugh and conversation:
“Nowadays it is often said that conversation is dead. No one could say that who had met Evelyn. It was a marvellous pleasure simply to sit and listen to him. It was not merely his control of an exuberant flow of language that gave this pleasure; by the unexpectedness of his thought and phraseology he could impart freshness to all the most ordinary and overworked words.”
When reading Waugh or reading about him, the specter of an earlier writer, Jonathan Swift, hovers over the page. It’s more than a shared sense of saeva indignatio. That sort of understanding reduces each man to his reputed pathologies, real or imagined. Rather, they share an aggravated sense of impatience with human folly, and a comparably  aggravated gift for expressing it with elegant, witty concision. They are the textbook for anyone wishing to effectively converse in English prose. In Mr Wu and Mrs Stitch: The Letters of Evelyn Waugh and Diana Cooper (1992), Waugh tells his friend he has just read Nigel Dennis’ Jonathan Swift: A Short Character (1965), and observes: “I found many affinities with the temperament (not of course the talent) of the master.”
In Walter Savage Landor: A Biography (1869), John Forster quotes his subject: Walter Savage Landor. A Biography  Walter Savage Landor. A Biography“I am reading once more the work I have read oftener than any other prose work in our language [Swift's Tale of a Tub]. I cannot bring to my recollection the number of copies I have given away, chiefly to young Catholic ladies. I really believe I converted one by it unintentionally. What a writer! not the most imaginative or the most simple, not Bacon or Goldsmith, had the power of saying more forcibly or completely whatever he meant to say!”
So too, Evelyn Waugh, except the part about the young Catholic ladies.