Wynton Marsalis and Bill Maher accidentally help celebrate the 100th birthday of the Charlie Parker who largely invented modern jazz

29 Aug
Charlie Parker (far right with cigarette) and friends contemplate some charts — with Lennie Tristano (piano), Billy Bauer (guitar), and Eddie Safranksi (bass). Photo by Herman Leonard.

There are many ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charlie Parker, who largely invented modern jazz, on Saturday, August 29, 2020. Just google “charlie parker 100th birthday.” And eg “Join Jazz at Lincoln Center for the virtual Bird Lives! Charlie Parker at 100 Festival! … Aug 25–Sep 4.”

Or : “Jazz saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker, whose nickname was ‘Bird,’ was born in Kansas City on August 29th, 1920. For the past month, his hometown has been celebrating his 100th birthday, culminating in a series of public parties on Saturday.”

“Last Days of Summer” by prize-winning Toronto artist Michael Seward, August 2020.

Or yet again, for a view from New York City — where Charles Parker Jr. from Kansas City spent the arguably most creative and happiest years of his all-too-short life (1920–1955) — you can : “Commemorate Bird’s legacy with a digital celebration featuring a historic walk through Tompkins Square Park and a visit to Parker’s house …”

Finally, back in the old hometown(s) : “Jazz great Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on Aug. 29, 1920, and grew up across the state line [in Kansas City, Missouri], establishing his reputation here before moving to New York City to become a legend … The 100th anniversary of his birth will be celebrated in Kansas City and beyond … A sunrise ceremony will kick off the daylong activities of “Spotlight: Charlie Parker” at 6:15 a.m. Aug. 29 at the Charlie Parker Memorial Sculpture on the north side of the American Jazz Museum.”

Bill Maher next to his star on Hollywood Walk of Fame, September 2010.

The Friday, August 28, 2020 edition of “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO TV also offered an accidental but impressive and moving tribute to the great day on Saturday, August 29, 2020. Freshly re-installed in his old TV studio (though still without a real audience), Mr. Maher deftly and respectfully interviewed trumpeter and contemporary jazz giant Wynton Marsalis (in New York since 1979, but born and raised in New Orleans).

The underlying commercial rationale of the interview was the promotion of Marsalis’s just-released latest album, The Ever Fonky Lowdown — “a sprawling, 53-track jazz odyssey,” which the “internationally renowned trumpeter and composer describes … as a ‘groundbreaking, satirical look at democratic freedom, abuse of power, racism and cultural corruption.’” The album is “Performed with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra,” and “features vocalists Christie Dashiell, Ashley Pezzotti, Camille Thurman and Doug Wamble.”

“Random Act” by Michael Seward, August 2020.

I have quickly listened to a few preview tracks on The Ever Fonky Lowdown and they are almost as interesting as Bill Maher promised. I was even more impressed by what can only be described as Wynton Marsalis’s passionately reasonable American democratic political philosophy, as expressed in his interview with Bill Maher.

(And the political comic Mr. Maher’s talents shone brightly in the way he drew out and let Wynton Marsalis express a point of view that is especially interesting in the USA today. The interview is in the last part of what struck me as a very strong Bill Maher Friday night show — which may have already found its way onto YouTube.)

Charlie Parker’s mother, Addie Parker — who as he explained to a radio interviewer late in his all-too-short life was “well situated” as a property-owning senior hospital nurse in Kansas City. He telephoned her regularly after he left Kansas City himself.

Neither Wynton Marsalis nor Bill Maher mentioned the August 29 100th birthday of Charlie Parker in their interview broadcast to the USA (and Canada, and perhaps a few other places too?) on August 28.

Parker’s great advantage growing up in Kansas City was his remarkable mother. But he was also a child of the streets who started doing heroin seriously when he was 15 and died 20 years later. He had unsurpassed discipline in some ways (as in his astonishing alto saxophone technique, honed by rigorous youthful mastery of standard exercise books). But modern jazz in his hands is ultimately a spontaneous, improvised art.

Marsalis grew up in a New Orleans musical family with a noted piano player as a father. He is a sober, meticulously dressed man who has won Grammy Awards in both “jazz and classical music.” He is now in his late 50s, and both artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center organization in New York and musical director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. He has had a much more disciplined and professionally successful career than Charlie Parker managed.

One can similarly guess that Wynton Marsalis is not Charlie Parker’s greatest admirer. “Bird” (who was at one point banned from the Birdland bar in New York named after him) does not offer a helpful model of the professional jazz musician’s career that others should try to emulate.

Wynton Marsalis.

Yet what modern jazz means politically and culturally — possibly half-summarized as “jazz is the music of democracy” — is something that I think Charlie Parker and Wynton Marsalis (and Bill Maher for that matter) share.

As urged last year on this site : “why is Charlie Parker so interesting in 2019, even if you are not deeply into either the alto saxophone or the story of modern jazz? … The shortest answer, I think, is just that Charlie Parker (1920–1955) is at least one of the great antidotes modern American culture has, to the at once destructive and retrogressive fake political philosophy of Donald Trump — who apparently to his own as much as many others’ astonishment is now serving as President of the USA today.”

That is also the voice I thought I heard Wynton Marsalis raising on Bill Maher’s August 28, 2020 TV show. To me it’s a very welcome voice in the current debate about what democracy in America really means, all so dramatically pointed towards the world-class US election on November 3. And it seems somehow appropriate that it was raised in public on the day before the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Charles Parker Jr. from Kansas City, who moved to New York and largely invented modern jazz.

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Early recordings of Charlie Parker’s Cherokee — from the Trail of Tears to Ko Ko in NYC, November 26, 1945

14 Jun

According to the first volume of Stanley Crouch’s masterful biography (Kansas City Lightning, 2013) both parents of the Charles Parker Jr. who largely invented modern jazz could trace at least part of their most visibly African American ancestry to the first peoples of North America.

This seems especially (and perhaps most openly) true of “Charlie Parker’s mother, Addie.” She “was from Oklahoma, the region once called Indian Territory … She was part Choctaw, her Indian blood probably the result of President Andrew Jackson’s policies.”

These policies had led to the infamous Trail of Tears — “a series of forced relocations of approximately 60,000 Native Americans … from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States, to areas to the west of the Mississippi River that had been designated as Indian Territory.” The Trail followed “the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830,” and “included members of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations.”

“Paradise Effaced” (pen and ink) by Michael Seward, June 2020.

On another account : “Taking place in the 1830s, the Trail of Tears was the forced and brutal relocation of approximately 100,000 indigenous people … Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole … to land west of the Mississippi River. Motivated by gold and land, Congress (under President Andrew Jackson) passed the Indian Removal Act by a slim and controversial margin in 1830.”

African-Choctaw American meets British Indigenous pop tune in late 1930s

Charlie Parker, 1941. Photo : Gregory Galloway.

On another page of his first volume Stanley Crouch summarizes all this in his account of Charles Parker Jr’s birth : “On August 29, 1920, a brown baby, with a red undertone to his skin, came yowling from the womb …”

It seems that Addie Parker made her only child aware of why his skin had a red undertone — which may help explain his deep attraction to the late 1930s pop tune “Cherokee.” (Charlie Parker is also not the only noted jazz musician with some Native American roots. And he recorded an indigenous blues tune of his own called “Mohawk” in June 1950.)

“Cherokee” itself was written by the British bandleader Ray Noble, as the first of five movements in his late 1930s “Indian Suite” (Cherokee, Comanche War Dance, Iroquois, Seminole, and Sioux Sue).

Charlie Parker (alto sax) and Gene Ramey (bass) in Kansas City 1942.

The Noble band recorded Cherokee in 1938. But it was an arrangement of the tune by trumpeter Billy May that became a hit instrumental for Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra — rising to “number fifteen on the pop charts” in 1939.

The road to the modern jazz legend of Ko Ko in 1945 (and 1947)

Charlie Parker would have first heard Ray Noble’s Cherokee on the radio in his late teens, and it does seem to have almost possessed him for much of his early career.

The most celebrated outcome of the possession was a brilliant recording made in New York City on November 26, 1945 — an astonishing “improvisation” on the Cherokee chord changes or harmonic structure, released without the Ray Noble melody as “Ko Ko” to avoid royalty payments.

“JACKKEROUAC‘ONTHEROAD’” by prize-winning Toronto artist Michael Seward, June 2020. Kerouac was one of the early Charlie Parker aficionados and proselytizers in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

As in many other cases, listening over and over to this late 1945 recording of “Ko Ko” — and then actually trying to play the transcription in the Charlie Parker Omnibook (first published in 1978) — is what finally helped me understand just why Charles “Yardbird” Parker Jr (1920-1955) was such an awesome innovator, in the modern jazz that took shape between 1940 and 1970 and still haunts us today (and perhaps especially) in 2020.

Charlie Parker at Carnegie Hall in New York City, 1947.

This November 26, 1945 “Ko Ko” quickly became a legend among the early aficionados in New York, Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and beyond (Toronto eg), who first recognized and proselytized “Bird’s” genius. A second version of “Ko Ko” was recorded at a Carnegie Hall concert in New York in 1947.

Two earlier expressions of Charlie Parker’s Cherokee possession

To me the Carnegie Hall Ko Ko recording of 1947 is somewhat less commanding than the 1945 original. It makes eminent sense that a written transcription of the 1945 recording is what appears in the Charlie Parker Omnibook of 1978.

The Yardbird and friends at Chicago’s Savoy Ballroom. February 29 fell on a Sunday in 1948, and that’s probably when all this happened.

Much more recently, however (and largely through the often astounding musical resources that now appear on YouTube), I have discovered (along with many others) at least two earlier expressions of Charlie Parker’s Cherokee possession, that retain the Ray Noble melody as part of the performance.

They certainly do not surpass the 1945 Ko Ko or in any way contest its status as the first great expression of the Yardbird’s talent and defining contribution to modern jazz. But the late great baritone saxophonist and arranger Gerry Mulligan much later reported :

“Somebody sent me a little bit of tape that had Bird playing at home when he must have been maybe seventeen years old or something with a friend of his, a guitar player, and of course he was playing ‘Cherokee.’ This was his number, man, he worked on that thing for years. Somebody said that when he did ‘Ko-Ko.’ It was not just a little accident that it came out the way it did. He had been layin’ for that thing for twenty years anyway. The solo he played on that is like a masterpiece in itself.”

Jay McShann Orchestra recording of Cherokee featuring Charlie Parker?

Charlie Parker (in middle of photo, wearing white socks next to Gene Ramey on bass) with Jay McShann band, at its first recording session in Witchita, Kansas, November 30-December 2, 1940.

Both the early Charlie Parker Cherokee recordings I have recently stumbled across myself illustrate just what Gerry Mulligan is talking about here.

(Allowing that “layin’ for that thing for twenty years anyway” is in an honoured older musician’s hyperbolic recollection : Cherokee was only first recorded in 1938 when the Yardbird was 18, and he recorded the original Ko Ko in 1945 when he was still only 25.)

The first of my early Charlie Parker Cherokee recordings is said to be by the Jay McShann Orchestra “featuring Charlie Parker.” This was the blues and swing big band based in Parker’s Kansas City hometown that he cut at least several of his musical teeth with in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

“Vital Heat” by Michael Seward, June 2020.

A gentleman called Rob Chalfen, commenting on the YouTube posting by jon ancker, claims that the group playing here is “not McShann, but house band at Monroes in NYC with someone named Tinney on piano, about ’42.” Mr. ancker appears to accept this claim, but I am far from dead certain myself. No one seems to dispute that it is Charlie Parker playing an extended alto sax solo on Cherokee (preparing for Ko Ko a few years later).

The 1942 (or 1941?) Kansas City Trio recording (and free transcription on the Net)

As a mark of what Charlie Parker turned it into, EG Jazz released an album with 19 different versions of the Ray Noble tune Cherokee late in 2015.

My second early Charlie Parker Cherokee recording seems at least very close to Gerry Mulligan’s “ little bit of tape that had Bird playing … with a friend of his, a guitar player.” And I think it’s considerably more interesting than the Jay McShann or Monroe’s house band recording of (maybe) “about ‘42.”

The documentation on the YouTube posting of this version of Cherokee reads : “Vic Damon Studios, Kansas City, September 1942 … Charlie Parker (alto sax), Efferge Ware (guitar), Little Phil Phillips (drums). There is also some reporting on the Net that sets the date in 1941.

Page 1 of the 5-page transcription. Many tks to dutchbopper.

I have stumbled across two further resources for understanding this early 1940s Kansas City trio version of Charlie Parker’s Cherokee. One is some interesting commentary from the young UK alto saxophonist Sam Braysher on what (to further complicate the universe) he suggests is a tune recorded in 1943, that certainly sounds like the YouTube “September 1942” version. The other resource is a free five-page transcription of what certainly is the YouTube “September 1942” version of Charlie Parker’s part in the Kansas City trio recording. (Although this transcription itself suggests 1942 or 1941 as the recording date.)

Of course the early 1940s trio version of Cherokee is not up to the same elevated standard as the 1945 quintet version of Ko Ko. It is part of the preparation for climbing the mountain not the ultimate climb itself. On the other hand, it is probably more immediately accessible for a somewhat broader audience than Ko Ko. And yet, at the same time, I have recently been trying out the new five-page transcription. And I can report that, as usual, attempting to play such things at all adequately remains a force for deep humility in my experience, at the very least.

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Remembering “Petite Fleur” : Sidney Bechet, Andrea Motis, and the remarkable Municipal School of Music in Barcelona

5 Dec
One version of the Sant Andreu Jazz Band in Barcelona. Photo by Joan Chamorro.

I woke up with the tune “Petite Fleur” stuck in my head. Later I had a chance to look into it on the world wide web (particularly the musically remarkable side of YouTube).

All this finally led to Joan Chamorro at the Municipal School of Music of Sant Andreu in Barcelona, whose graduates include the brilliant 24-year-old Andrea Motis (sax, trumpet, voice), her younger sister Carla (guitar), and Èlia Bastida (sax, voice, and especially violin — “tributo al gran violinista Stéphane Grappelli”).

Petite Fleur and Sidney Bechet

The good enough Wikipedia entry on “Petite Fleur” is one beginning. The tune is “an instrumental written by Sidney Bechet and recorded by him in January 1952 … In 1959 it was an international hit as a clarinet solo by Monty Sunshine with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band … peaked at No. 5 on the US Hot 100 and No. 4 in the UK charts.”

I remember the Monty Sunshine recording. (I am that old.) Somewhat later, I learned a little about Sidney Bechet. He began as a clarinet player but added a “straight” soprano saxophone to his act in his early 20s. He grew up in a musical family in early 20th century New Orleans, where he learned to play several other instruments more casually.

According to Scott Yanow at allmusic.com : “Sidney Bechet was the first important jazz soloist on records in history (beating Louis Armstrong by a few months).” In his mature incarnation he played the soprano saxophone with “a wide vibrato that listeners either loved or hated.” I find his sound suitably distinctive and intriguing, without exactly wanting jazz today to emulate it.

Bechet was also a “Creole of color” in New Orleans, with a surname and probably more that stretched back to the 18th century French American empire in old Louisiana. I had been dimly aware that his musical career had connections with modern France as well. But I knew no details until my current pursuit of “Petite Fleur.”

After early beginnings as a teenage clarinetist in New Orleans, Sidney Bechet first went to Europe with Will Marion Cook’s Syncopated Orchestra (out of New York City) in 1919. He returned to the United States where he began his recording career in 1923.

“Sidney Bechet (1897-1959) at Cabaret Chez Florence, Paris, in 1928 … Courtesy of the William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University.”

Then he was back in Europe in 1925 — with “other members of the Revue Nègre, including Josephine Baker.” (See what strikes me as the very good short Wikipedia biography.) In 1928 he led a “small band at Chez Bricktop in Montmartre, Paris.”

He was back in the USA by the early 1930s, where he performed and recorded over the next two decades. But by the late 1940s the postwar bebop revolution had begun to transform the American universe. The older Bechet found it harder to get work.

As explained by Wikipedia : “He believed that the jazz scene in the United States had little left to offer him … In 1950 he moved to France, after his performance as a soloist at the Paris Jazz Fair caused a surge in his popularity in that country, where he easily found well-paid work.”

It was in his new home in France that Sidney Bechet wrote “Petite Fleur,” which he first recorded in January 1952.

The last years of his career in his new country (and at least one of his old-world homelands) were a great success, musically and financially. Like too many practitioners of his craft, he nonetheless died too early “in Garches, near Paris, of lung cancer on May 14, 1959, his 62nd birthday.”

Sidney Bechet and Sidney Chambers : a footnote

As one sign of the broadly “European” if not exactly “American” popularity Bechet enjoyed in his late career (with something of a holdover even today), the Anglican clerical hero of the 2014–2018 “British ITV detective drama” Grantchester — set in the English countryside of the 1950s — recurrently plays Sidney Bechet records, to the dismay of some around him.

(And note that “Sidney Chambers,” the hero in question, finally leaves the series by marrying a visiting African American lady, and moving to the USA!)

Joan Chamorro, Andrea Motis, and the Sant Andreu Jazz Band in Barcelona today : An introduction

Andrea Motis, 16, plays Petite Fleur, 2011.

Sixty years after Sidney Bechet’s death in 1959, my world-wide-web pursuit of “Petite Fleur” soon enough led to a 2011 performance of his 1952 classic by a 16-year-old girl from Barcelona — in Catalonia, which may or may not also want to be in Spain. See “Petite Fleur — Andrea Motis, Joan Chamorro & Josep Traver” (on YouTube, like all the other music here).

From this point on my story can be pursued in several directions. And this installment could just be the first of at least two takes on the larger subject. It focuses on the remarkable career of Ms Andrea Motis, who is now 24 years old, and still apparently living in Barcelona (through all the recent political struggles there and in Spain at large).

Archie Shepp records Petite Fleur for album Deja vu, 2001.

Two quick background notes up front : First, before leaving Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur” altogether, another remarkable more recent YouTube performance of the tune (much different from the 1959 Monty Sunshine clarinet hit), is a 2001 tenor sax recording by the free jazz pioneer Archie Shepp (who was born in Florida in 1937 and grew up in Philadelphia).

Second, Joan Chamorro is a teacher in his late 50s whose work at Barcelona’s Municipal School of Music of Sant Andreu has developed and promoted such awesome young musicians as Andrea Motis. He has been called a “musician, music educator and band leader, creator and leader of the successful youth band Sant Andreu Jazz Band … coordinator of a network of musicians and … other people who … work … with SAJB … jazz musician who plays bass, baritone, tenor, alto and soprano saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, cornet and double bass.”

Andrea Motis so far seems the most widely known and accomplished younger musician to have evolved through Joan Chamorro’s Sant Andreu Jazz Band and related networks. There are now such things as the Andrea Motis & Joan Chamorro Quintet (in which Mr. Chamorro plays string bass) and the Motis Chamorro Big Band (where he also performs on baritone saxophone).

Joan Chamorro backstage. Photo by Èlia Bastida.

On YouTube the musical growth of Andrea Motis can be traced from a charmingly innocent 16-year-old who performs an enchanting version of Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur” on a “curved” soprano saxophone, in Barcelona in 2011, to a more worldly 24-year-old who sings and plays trumpet on the almost mournful “Dança da solidão” (in English “Dance of Loneliness,” by the Brazilian singer–songwriter Paulinho da Viola) in Zurich, Switzerland in 2019.

As Wikipedia explains, along with her saxophone and trumpet playing, Ms Motis “sings in Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese and English.” (The lyric to “Dança da solidão is in Portuguese.) I am most interested in her saxophone playing. But I’m intrigued that her combination of saxophone and trumpet has a precedent, in the happily long-lived career of the American jazz great Benny Carter — born in Harlem, New York City 1907 and died in Los Angeles 2003.

Andrea Motis at the Nice Jazz Festival 2016.

(Also intriguingly enough, in 2010 the then 79-year-old American alto saxophone disciple of the still unsurpassed Charlie Parker, Phil Woods, was in Catalonia to perform an arrangement of his Benny Carter tribute tune, “My Man Benny” with the Barcelona Jazz Orchestra. On baritone sax in the Orchestra was Andrea Motis’s early teacher and later bass player, Joan Chamorro.)

Andrea Motis’s saxophone playing (soprano and alto) shows its power early on with her 16-year-old “Petite Fleur” in 2011. She has listened hard to the Sidney Bechet recordings, and offers an updated reading of his sound with the side that some listeners hated turned off. She takes the old New Orleans Bechet (1910–1940 say) in somewhat new directions, without going as far into “modern jazz” (1940–1970) as Archie Shepp on his striking 2001 “Petite Fleur” recording.

Ms. Motis’s exact style of saxophone playing can vary as well with the history of the tunes she takes up. More than one YouTube comment writer on her entrancing alto sax performance of the Duke Ellington (and Carl Sigman) tune,“All Too Soon,” has noted similarities with the longtime alto sax master of the Ellington band, Johnny Hodges.

(And there is a beautiful Johnny Hodges recording of “All Too Soon” that Andrea Motis has almost certainly listened to. A purist might nonetheless want to point out that in the original Ellington band version of 1940 the melody is played by a muted trombone, and the only saxophone solo is by Ben Webster on tenor.)

There are at least two Andrea Motis performances of “All Too Soon” on YouTube, and on one of them she plays with the contemporary American alto sax master Jesse Davis (born in New Orleans in 1965). It is no accident that Ms Motis — along with Joan Chamorro and the Barcelona guitarist Josep Traver — has also played with Scott Hamilton (born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1954) : a “swinging tenor saxophonist” who “first emerged in the ’70s playing a style that hearkened back to the pre-bebop sound of artists like Ben Webster.”

Barcelona Blues Today : A too hasty initial assessment

Along with the New Orleans that invented Sidney Bechet, one side of the Motis-Chamorro-Sant Andreu Jazz Band inspiration in the early 21st century is the American “mainstream” or “swing jazz” era of the 1930s and 1940s.

Another is the French small-group jazz of the same era perfected by the guitarist Django Reinhardt and the violinist Stéphane Grappelli.

Yet another is the Afro-Brazilian music first identified with Antonio Carlos Jobim and bossa nova in the 1960s.

Still another is the American jazz of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s “that drew inspiration from gospel music and blues.”

Or at least that’s how an initial enthusiastic burst of YouTube listening has struck me, more or less. And (driven by an escalating sense that this first installment of “Barcelona Blues Today” must end soon), here are half a dozen tunes on YouTube that broadly illustrate my almost certainly too hasty initial assessment :

Josep Traver, Andrea Motis, and Joan Chamorro do “Tenderly” at the Festival Django Reinhardt, Samois-sur-Seine, France.

The best place to end this introduction to Andrea Motis, Joan Chamorro, and their many other friends is a more-than-an-hour-long YouTube video from just this past late September 2019.

It presents Andrea (singing and on trumpet), Joan (Chamorro, on bass), the guitarist Josep Traver, Andrea’s younger sister Carla also on guitar, Anastasia Ivanova (trombone and scat singing), an excellent young male tenor sax player, Joan Marti, and various other young musicians (including Elia Bastida as a vocalist), wandering in and out of the space in front of a bar on an early fall afternoon in the Sant Andreu neighbourhood of Barcelona.

They are playing at “el festival de jazz de sant Andreu, como cada año, el bar Colombia.” They are having serious fun, returning to a jazz that is improvisational with much joyful spontaneity, but also played within a less complex theoretical framework that is almost certainly more listenable for a broader audience, than much of what the modern jazz of 1940–1970 has left us.

Andrea Motis (r) and Elia Bastida (l) sing Ain’t She Sweet outside the Bar Colombia in the Sant Andreu neighbourhood of Barcelona, late September 2019. With Joan Chamorro playing bass behind them.

Even for those of us who think Charlie Parker is still the absolute top and bebop still the hardest and best jazz to play — and listen to.

With Europe and America at the 70th NATO summit clouding my mind, I find it o-so-warmly reassuring to see how some of the seriously great things the USA has given the universe are being cultivated in 2019 in Catalonia. (Especially reassuring after George Orwell’s grim Homage to Catalonia in 1938.)

Today Catalonia may or may not really want to be a part of Spain. Not altogether unlike Quebec in Canada, Canadians are bound to think. As the early snow rises around us in this year of climate change, crazy politics, and the 2-faced nice guy Justin Trudeau, still much admired on the street where I live …

Toronto, Canada. December 5, 2019.

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Democracy is what finally makes America great (& Canada too etc, etc)

11 Jun

What does talk about democracy have to do with music and the arts — to say nothing of “REDISCOVERING MODERN JAZZ 1940–1970″?

For a starter try Woody Herman’s version of Aaron Copland’s 1942 classic, “Fanfare For The Common Man … An Anthem For The American Century.”

For the main course, according to a recent report on the CBC News site, “Democracy is in retreat” everywhere. An “annual ranking of 209 nations and territories, prepared by the US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House, recorded an overall decline in global freedom for the 13th straight year.”

In the June 6, 2019 issue of The New York Review of Books, the British historian currently at Columbia University in New York, Adam Tooze, pondered a similar theme in “Democracy and Its Discontents” — a review of four recent books with such ominous titles as The People vs. Democracy, How Democracies Die, The Road to Unfreedom, and How Democracy Ends.

This spring has also revived the aggressively right-wing American concept urged by Donald Trump’s former Federal Reserve nominee Stephen Moore : “Capitalism is a lot more important than democracy.”

“Temporal Infrastructure,” 2019 — by Toronto artist Michael Seward.

(And yet when the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited and wrote about the early United States he admired — the side of the experiment that would soon fight a civil war to at least start to end African American slavery — he called his work Democracy in America [v1, 1835 ; v2, 1840]. “Capitalism” [or Das Kapital] was something the German intellectual Karl Marx would later criticize, researching and writing as a political refugee in London, England [v1, 1867, and then posthumously from Marx’s notes by Friedrich Engels, son of “an owner of large textile factories in Salford, England and … Barmen, Prussia,” v2, 1885 ; v3, 1894].)

No real-world democracy will ever be perfect

From the Norman Rockwell painting, 1958.

On one side of my own political consciousness, I suppose I naively wish for some vigorous pro-democracy push-back from at least one major side of American political culture.

I dislike Adam Tooze’s characterization of progressive debate in the USA today : “America’s revived left wing … does not doubt the disastrous consequences of the Trump presidency. Yet [for them]… he represents not a historic rupture but a continuity … Trump exposes starkly what the civility of Obama and his administration obscured—the subordination of American democracy to capitalism, patriarchy, and the iniquitous racial order descended from slavery.”

Of course, all this is true enough, on one level. It nonetheless ought to be possible to recognize the failings of Democracy in America, historical and contemporary, and at the same time still celebrate and revive the underlying democratic political energy that has recurrently made it possible for the USA to transcend these failings and move ahead.

“a sense of time passing,” 2019 — by Toronto artist Michael Seward.

No real-world democracy will ever be perfect. Humanity itself is too imperfect. But every serious democracy is always working to make itself more democratic. What has made the United States of America stand out since its Declaration of Independence in 1776 is not the cultivation of some unique version of “capitalism” (or “free market” economics). It is the opportunity at least some sides of American culture (and geography) have recurrently offered increasing shares of the broad mass of the sovereign people — to enjoy a degree of freedom, prosperity, and political participation heretofore largely unknown, for most human beings in most of world history.

Easier to think like this in Canada right now?

“Just the latest in a long string of practical Democracy in America incarnations that go back to 1776.”

The Obama administration from this perspective was not a practitioner of a “civility” that obscured the all too many ways in which democracy in America today is in fact subordinate to “capitalism, patriarchy, and the iniquitous racial order descended from slavery.”

President Obama’s government was just the latest in a long string of practical Democracy in America incarnations that go back to 1776. It was starting to define the latest, new and improved expression of the diverse democratic vision for an increasingly high technological 21st century.

The Trump administration is speaking for the side of the USA today that still fears this new and diverse democratic vision, and wants to return to some mythical past where, as Mr. Moore suggests, “Capitalism is a lot more important than democracy.” Yet in the end, to pursue this reactionary vision is ultimately to abandon the historic American destiny and purpose.

Two further observations from Adam Tooze in the June 6 New York Review of Books may help summarize the argument here.

First, he is almost certainly onto something when he writes : “The scope for a truly internationalist or cosmopolitan politics in the United States is limited.” But this is not what the Obama administration promoted. President Obama was still talking about a Democracy in and of America — albeit one that includes Native Americans, women, and African Americans like he and his wife and children, that reaches out to a new Asian America like his Hawaiian birthplace, and that probably has somewhat more to do with the California which was once part of Mexico than with the legendary Anglo Protestant Middle West.

“the unreliability of an infallible memory,” 2019 — by Toronto artist Michael Seward.

Second, Mr. Tooze suggests in his conclusion that “the most pressing question of the present” is : “Assuming current trends continue, will America accept its relative decline with equanimity?

Yet America’s “relative decline” is only something bound to happen (as the gross domestic product of the much more populous China and perhaps ultimately India too grows and grows), if capitalism actually is “a lot more important than democracy.”

If democracy finally is the crucial American value, the sky for expansion is still vast and much unexplored. (Well … I am in fact a Canadian. And it may be easier to think like this in Canada right now than it is in the USA. I’m not sure at the moment. I’m waiting to see what happens in the Canadian federal election this coming October 21.)

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Ornithology today : looking for light in new dark times?

9 May

Charlie Parker had a vast appetite for all forms of human experience, including food.

TORONTO, CANADA. MAY 9, 12, 2019. “Birdhop” started quite a while ago, as the “culture” (and especially music) companion of a much more political website.

It had some time online as “BIRDHOP — Rediscovering Modern Jazz, 1940–1970.” But then in a more general technological update, it was cast adrift as the political preoccupations of the companion site seemed to grow more urgent.

Now, when the urge to escape from what increasingly seem like potential new political dark times ahead (maybe) finds itself combining with our increasing age, we (or should it just be I?) aspire to some fresh, new cut at Birdhop. (Possibly with half a political edge, but gently, lightly? Too much of politics today is just too mean-spirited.)

Charlie Parker, recording star!

This view of democracy in North America 2019 aspires to somehow fit at least part of the very broad view bequeathed by the late great Charlie Parker, whose nickname was “Bird” — and to whom Birdhop is meant as some kind of tribute, in the age of hip hop and all that … and far beyond.

The end of it all may be yet another imperfect set of notes on the Charles Parker Jr who was born in Kansas City in 1920 and died in New York in 1955.

And this raises the question : why is Charlie Parker so interesting in 2019, even if you are not deeply into either the alto saxophone or the story of modern jazz?

Charlie Parker Quintet at The Royal Roost, 1580 Broadway, New York City, 18 December 1948.”

The shortest answer, I think, is just that Charlie Parker (1920–1955) is at least one of the great antidotes modern American culture has, to the at once destructive and retrogressive fake political philosophy of Donald Trump — who apparently to his own as much as many others’ astonishment is now serving as President of the USA today.

Charlie Parker with Strings — 1949 recordings once thought not really hip, but more recently appreciated by fresh ears.

(In a Canadian province that elected a somewhat Trumpian government with just over 40% of the popular vote last June we also know first hand that the more general problem is not confined to US geography. And see : “Canada Is Going Conservative.” Justin Trudeau’s Liberals may just manage a minority government in this year’s October 21 Canadian federal election, or worse.)

Charlie Parker (l) and his shrewder, more professional colleague in the legendary invention of modern jazz, Dizzy Gillespie (r) at Birdland in New York City, 1950.

One sign of Charlie Parker’s unique cultural power (still largely unappreciated in most versions of mainstream media America?) is that the iconic hard-edged conservative Clint Eastwood (“I tried being reasonable, but I didn’t like it”) felt driven to make a Hollywood biography of Parker in the 1988 movie, “Bird.”

Eastwood himself has been a critic of Obama and a supporter of Trump. And the view of Charlie Parker offered in “Bird”, while respectful in some ways, is too negatively focused on the struggling side of a musical genius addicted to heroin since the age of 15. It underplays Parker’s great artistic and intellectual confidence and warm democratic humanity.

At Apollo Records studio in New York City, c. 1953. The horn line at the right-hand side of the photo includes (left to right) Dexter Gordon on tenor sax, Buck Clayton on trumpet, and Charlie Parker on alto.

Yet if Clint Eastwood was uncomfortable with Barack Obama as an American president, “Bird” at least shows how one iconic conservative supporter of the present-day US Republican party does understand that the unique and inevitably tormented but also buoyant African American experience has made an authentic and unmistakable contribution to American democratic culture in its broadest sense.

At home at 151 Avenue B in Manhattan in Charlie Parker’s later life. “It was really wonderful to walk with Bird,” his stepdaughter Kim (right) has reported. “He was really dignified.”

Clint Eastwood would no doubt not see the “Yardbird Suite” brilliant short life of Charlie Parker from 1920 to 1955 as one ultimate antidote to and even salvation from the hopefully even much, much shorter presidency of Donald Trump, and all its deeper complexities. That understanding may have been pioneered by Jack Kerouac (from a French Canadian family in Lowell, Massachusetts ) in his 1957 novel, On the Road. It is in any case a key article of faith for this aspiring fresh, new cut at a Birdhop website today — as what subsequently appears in this space will at least try to illuminate, over the more immediate future that hopefully lies not too darkly ahead.


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