Punk in 1970s New York

city-on-fireI’ve recently read or watched two items that involve the punk scene (or should I say punk-rock scene?  I’m not sure.) in New York City in the mid-1970s:  The book City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg and Spike Lee’s movie Summer Of Sam.

City On Fire is a long book, almost 1000 dense pages.  The nexus of the plot is the murder of a young woman in a New York park on New Year’s Eve 1977.  The book describes in great detail the lives and relationships of the people who were involved in one way or another with the murdered woman.  It jumps back and forth in time from the early sixties to the start of the 21st Century while also jumping back and forth between characters.  Many of the characters are punks participating in the New York City scene that apparently started in the mid-1970s.  I cannot speak from experience about any aspect of punk.  During that time period I was moving in the opposite direction; exploring bluegrass, country, and mountain music.  So while the punks in this novel were moving away from the musical (pop) mainstream and finding punk, I was moving away from the mainstream and finding bluegrass.  Given what I learned from the book and movie, I’m glad I moved in that direction.

City On Fire also covers the massive and  complete blackout in New York City in the summer of 1977.  Some of the book’s climactic events happen during the night of the blackout.

summer-of-samThe movie Summer of Sam uses the background of the Son Of Sam serial killings to depict life in New York when David Berkowitz was on his killing spree.  It focuses on the punk scene and on life in the city’s Italian neighborhoods.  City On Fire presents more of a political and artistic picture of punk as a search for a sort of anarchistic freedom.  Summer Of Sam, in contrast, focuses a lot on the sexual goings-on within the punk and club scenes.

I’m not sure I would recommend watching the movie or reading the book.  I was often irritated at the book’s author for jumping around so much.  I kept wanting him to stick to the plot line in which I was engrossed.   Eventually, I just wanted him to wrap things up and tell me what happened to all the characters whom except, I think, for one, were strung out on drugs or alcohol.  They were all drinking excessively, strung out, shooting heroin, dropping pills, sometimes doing it all in one day.  I did not think it was possible for a person to use as many drugs and as much alcohol as some of the characters.

Watching the movie left me feeling like I had besmirched my soul.

eye-and-tear

 

 

I Still Can’t Sing!

I’d like the share more from Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music.  Yesterday I shared some of Levitin’s thoughts on the chasm between performers and listeners.  What I quote today shares that theme.

. . . in every society of which we’re aware, music and dance are inseparable.

But it is only in the last five hundred years that music has become a spectator activity – the thought of a musical concert in which a class of “experts” performed for an appreciative audience was virtually unknown throughout our history as a species.  And it has only been in the last hundred years or so that the ties between musical sound and human movement have been minimized. . . . The polite listening response, in which music has become an entirely cerebral experience . . . is counter to our evolutionary history.  Children often show the reaction that is true to our nature:  Even at classical music concerts they sway and shout and generally participate when they feel like it.  We have to train them to behave “civilized.”

In jazz, “Bebop developed as the younger generation of jazz musicians aimed to counter the popular, dance-oriented swing style with a new, non-danceable music that was more of a “musician’s music” that demanded close listening.” ∗

And as Levitin describes,

Classical music as most of us think of it . . . has diverged into two streams.  Some of the best music in that tradition is being written for films . . . and is only infrequently the object of directed listening, as in a concert hall.  The second stream is twentieth-century art music, much of it challenging and difficult for the average listener . . . .  Contemporary “classical” music is practiced mostly in universities; it is regrettable listened to by almost no one compared to popular music; much of it deconstructs harmony, melody, and rhythm, rendering them all but unrecognizable; in its least accessible form it is a purely intellectual exercise, and save the rare avant-garde ballet company, no one dances to it either.

dance_and_sing_poster-r4298727ac34f4914894ac5b0ffc3ee93_0uf_8byvr_324So , what to do?  I suggest we dance and sing!

 

∗ Wikipedia entry on “Bebop”.

I Can’t Sing!

Brain On MusicDaniel Levitin, in This Is Your Brain On Music, asks “why is it that of the millions of people who take music lessons as children, relatively few continue to play music as adults?”  He answers the question by describing the many people who say to him that

their music lessons “didn’t take.”  I think they’re being too hard on themselves.  The chasm between musical experts and everyday musicians that has grown so wide in our culture makes people feel discouraged, and for some reason this is uniquely so with music.  Even though most of us can’t play basketball like Shaquille O’Neal, or cook like Julia Child, we can still enjoy a friendly backyard game of hoops, or cooking a holiday meal for our friends and family.  This performance chasm does seem to be cultural, specific to contemporary Western society.  And although many people say that music lessons didn’t take, cognitive neuroscientists have found otherwise in their laboratories.  Even just a small exposure to music lessons as a child creates neural circuits for music processing that are enhanced and more efficient than for those who lack training.  Music lessons teach us to listen better, and they accelerate our ability to discern structure and form in music, making it easier to us to tell what music we like and what we don’t like.

I’m glad to know that the many years of piano and cello lessons I had, and the excruciating (for me) experiences of annual piano recitals were not wasted.  And I have come to realize that I can sing, just not very well, but good enough to benefit from the emotional value of music.  Levitin writes that “music increases the production of dopamine . . .  [and] is clearly a means for improving people’s moods.”

Sing On!

Keep_On_Singing

Learning To Sing

The other day I told a friend that I was going to start singing. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to sing on pitch unless I was sitting right next to a good singer.

A few days later, I decided I was going to try the guitar again. Unfortunately, all the many years I tried to play the guitar, I was always practicing.  I never reached the point where I was just playing.   Also unfortunately, tendonitis in my hands and thumbs forced me to quit guitar.

I’ve decided I’m going to ignore all the “unfortunately”s and proceed with singing and guitar picking.  I’ve gone so far as to buy a new guitar.  I’ve also found a protocol for dealing with guitarist’s’ tendonitis (it involves lots of ice baths).  Wish me luck.

I should perhaps get over the notion that I have to always be on pitch or play like Doc Watson.  I can sing for my own enjoyment.   So what if I hit a few bad notes.  I’ve already learned Zip a Dee Doo Dah. (I find a lot of Disney songs from my misspent youth popping into memory)  Granted, it’s a very simple song but a fun one that can make for a better day.  When your down and out, sing Zip a Dee Doo Dah – better than a pill.

the music lessonI think I’ve  been sent some kind of mystical message.  I found a book at the Guitar Center.  It seemed out of place – misfiled – among the instructional books.  The clerk who checked me out had never seen it before and didn’t know that they sold books of that nature (trade paperback format; all text).  It was as if the book was waiting for me.  The book has reminded me that I need to learn to play.  I use “play” to mean both making music and having fun.  Over all the years I played guitar, I never played.  All I ever did was practice.  Maybe the book will help me learn to play and have fun.

Any advice will be appreciated.

Carlos Vives and Cachao

Clasicos de la ProvinciaI’ve been listening to Carlos Vives’s Clasicos De La Provincia, a new discovery for me.  I ran across a music critic – Carlos Quintana – who had contributed a video on Yabla Espanol.  I followed his trail to the web site where he writes about Latin music.  I read his article on the best-ever latin albums and ended up buying two.  One by Carlos Vives who specializes in Vallenato.

Colombia’s vallenato started as a type of romantic cowboy music that provided a commentary on the lives of ranchers and campesinos cut off from the urban centers. It was played primarily in the countryside until it received radio commercialization in the 1940’s.  Since both vallenato and cumbia [another type of Columbian music] use similar instruments, the easiest way to distinguish vallenato is by the use of the accordion. . . .  Vallenato has recently seen an explosion in its popularity with the music of one-time soap opera star, Carlos Vives. Vives assembled a group of older folkloric players with some of the best coastal musicians around his home town of Bogota, creating a rock/vallenato style that has made the form popular with younger Colombians as well as bringing this music into Latin music’s mainstream.

Quintana also recommended Cachao’s Master Sessions, Volume 1.  This is Cuban jazz with touches of many types of Cuban music such as Son, Danzon, Mamba, Rumba.  I couldn’t help but like this album considering that Cuban Son in one of my favorite types of Music.  [I’ve turned up the volume twice since I started writing.]

A few years ago I started to learn more about Latin music and to listen more.  Since then I’ve been rewarded with some wonderful listening.  The variety and depth of Latin music I find endlessly rewarding.  At the start of my exploration of Latin music I read Caribbean Currents.  As the book describes, the roots of Latin music differ from island to island or country to country.  They differ according to what country colonized the area (England, Spain, France) and to what extent the area had a plantation economy or more of a European-settler economy.  Areas with plantation economies used African slaves extensively, and the plantations were often owned by absentee landlords with hired managers, thus there was relatively little European musical influence.  Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to ReggaeHaiti is an example of an area where African influences are strong, European influences weak.  Cuba was more of a settler economy so European influences are stronger.  Haitian music is French.  There are other French-speaking areas in the Caribbean that with Haiti produce the music called zouk.   Cuban is Spanish and has many different types of music some with stong European influences; others with stronger African influences.  Jamaica was last controlled by the British Empire and thus the language is an English patois and the music is ska, reggae, rock steady, etc.

Bird

Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie ParkerLast night I finished Charlie Parker’s biography by Stanley Crouch.  A great book.  The problem was that it ended – I thought – prematurely, just when Parker was about to become a major artist.  I’m not sure I recognized any sort of turning point or significant event that marked where Crouch chose to end the book.  It just seemed to stop.  I wonder if Crouch is intending to some day continue the story.

Crouch has written a book that describes not only Parker’s early life but also the early life of jazz.  He describes jazz and its development in easily understandable, gritty, and interesting ways.  He describes the dichotomies that are at the heart of jazz (e.g. the visceral v the intellectual).  He describes the feed back between dancers and musicians when jazz was popular dance music, good time music.  The book ends before the birth of Be-pop and the divorce of jazz from popular dance.  I would have been very interested in what Crouch would say about bebop and the direction that jazz took starting in the 1940’s.

I’m going to finish by quoting extensively from Crouch.

The point was to work at it and think about it and think about it until you’d produced a tone as recognizable as the texture of your voice.  Just as an outstanding individual has a walk, a way of carrying the body through space, or a way of adding unique particulars to a dance, an outstanding player had to work till he developed his own phrasing, his own rhythm.  Like a cook who can reinvent a familiar meal, he had to know how to mix his own musical batter, how to balance his own spices, how to fry an idea on one side before turning it over.  All those things formed your style, and style was what led to recognition.  It was the difference between being an artisan and an artist.

. . . Either you got yourself some discipline, Charlie had learned, or humiliation would follow.

. . . You just stood there with your mouth open and listened to him [Parker] discuss books with somebody or philosophy or religion or science, things like that.  Thorough.  A little while later, you might see him over in a corner somewhere drinking wine out of a paper sack with some juicehead.  Now that’s what you hear when you listed to him play:  he can reach the most intellectual and difficult levels of music, then he can turn around – now watch this – and play the most lowdown, funky blues you ever want to hear.  [Earl Coleman as quoted by Crouch]

. . . In jazz, the myth in action was the discovery of how to use improvisation to make music in which the individual and the collective took on a balanced, symbiotic relationship, one that enriched the experience without distracting from it or descending into anarchy.

. . . In Kansas City, in the 1930s, the blues got shouted, purred, whispered, and cried in such inventive style that the city became the third great spawning ground for jazz, after New Orleans and Chicago.

. . . the combination of the sophisticated and the primal that would be central both to jazz and ragtime, its immediate predecessor.

. . . the unexpected amalgamation of these two attitudes – the discipline of instruction and the salty posture of the streets – led to the creation of ragtime.

. . . Initially a sophisticated piano music, ragtime was first performed in honky-tonk situations where Negroes as low as snakes in wagon tracks were the rule – pimps, hustlers, whores, gamblers, thugs, and murderers, either primped up bright and gaudy or as soiled on the outside as they were in their lowdown, froggy-bottom souls – and the music that emerged in their midst was a remarkable combination of high and low.

. . . The ragtime masters brought folk elements to celebratory, high-minded refinement by taking tunes they heard in the street and mixing them with the formal elements they had learned from private teachers and in schools.  Another element in the mix was the era’s marching band tradition – a part of street culture that was as respectable as it was popular – and the pioneers of ragtime borrowed both the exuberance of march music and the form’s traditional three- to four-part structure.  Since many of the original ragtime pieces were premiered in the red-light districts, and since the music lent itself naturally to the steps of the cakewalk, it’s no surprise that much of the music was marked by a bittersweet joy.

. . . There’s another reason the music was so joyous:  it was created in recognition of freedom.

. . .  His [Scott Joplin, ragtime composer and performer] work exhibits a pensive but active melancholy that counterpoints the joy of the beat, a precursor of the double consciousness so fundamental to jazz:  the burdens of the soul met by the optimism of the groove – the orchestrated heartbeat, tinkling or percussive.

. . . The Creoles [of New Orleans], meanwhile, discovered that their formal training, their “legitimate techniques”, meant nothing to an audience that had grown fond of the guttural lamentations and sensual celebrations of King Bolden [first jazz player?].  And slowly but surely a remarkable synthesis took place:  as the Creole bands migrated back into the black community, and encountered the competition of the Bolden-style black bands, the two Negro classes – long separated by skin-color prejudices promoted in the Haitian community – underwent a gradual musical integration.

The uptown arrival of the Creoles marked the beginning of the transition from ragtime and marching band music to the art later known as jazz.  As the sophistication of the Creoles fused with the earthy innovations of form and technique pushed into the air by men like Bolden, the uptown musicians learned in turn from the Creoles – commencing a musical integration of profound cultural import.  Aesthetic integration is what it was; it came through the mutual respect that can happen when people are forced to deal with one another – to like or dislike one another as individuals, not as good or monstrous myths told at a distance.

. . . The golden link that bound the jazzmen to the blues tradition was the concept of vocalization.  When the jazz musician  understudied the blues man, observing the great variety of devices at the disposal of his model – vibrato, variable pitch, microtones, fast turns, and the many sliding, slurring, leaping effects – he found it only natural to try to reproduce these efforts on the instrument of his choice.

. . . It was in New York that the complexities and subtleties of show music were combined with the instrumental and compositional innovations of [King] Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Jelly Roll Morton.

. . . The development of the improvising rhythm section separates jazz from both African and European music, because the form demands that the players individually interpret the harmony, the beat, and the timbre while responding to one another and the featured improviser.  To play such music demands superfast hearing – a component of genius that is one of the greatest stands against the mechanization of pop music, in which the players send in their parts to be mixed by producers and engineers.

. . . In time, Charlie Parker would combine both orientations – melding the visceral with the intellectual, the freedom and force of swinging the blues with an extraordinary conceptual appetite and capacity for intricacy.

The trumpeter [Roy Eldridge] embodied the audacity of jazz music, the combination of moxie and technical command that gave him freedom in every direction – in his range, his conception, his coloring of notes, and his rhythm.  All of those elements Charlie Parker would eventually work into his own style, steadily achieving greater and greater comprehension of the details every jazz intellectual has to master, then feel, in order to attain greatness.

e.s.t.

I  write this post sitting at my dining room table using my netbook and drinking a few (a few too many) Harp Lagers.  So this post is a free flow of alcohol-fueled impressions of the music of the group e.s.t..

I don’t know what e.s.t. stands for.  It’s a German, jazz trio (piano, bass, percussion) that I discovered on Amazon.  I just got the CD in the mail today.  The music is relaxing – so far – and enjoyable, but it’s nowhere near “easy listening”.  So far I find their music great.  The group has mixed musicality, inventiveness, and good sounds to deliver music that is fine to listen to, but not to far out and jazzy as to be only for hard-core jazz aficionados.  I guess I’m saying that It’s not too deep for me to enjoy.  Great late night listening.  Definitely a CD that will not gather dust on my shelf.

———————————————————————————————————————–

e.s.t. is now starting to verge on too far out for my tastes.  Far out but still funky.

———————————————————————————————————————–

e.s.t. getting a bit frenetic and improvisational for my tastes.  Still great music; as soon as I started writing the previous sentence the music eased off on the frenzy and faded away into the end of the song.  A good song.

Next song starts out slow and bluesy.  The drummer is using brushes, the tempo is slow and relaxed.  The piano easy and melodic.  Wonderful.  Exactly fits my late night, all alone mood.  Not a lonely mood, but a mellow mood where I’m enjoying the music, the Harp Lager, writing this journal entry.  The music is good, life is good.  The music is making me lazy.  I want to just sip on my beer, sway to the music, and let the mood of the music take over my soul.  The song is Believe Beleft Below and the CD is Seven Days Of Falling.

Melody Gardot

I’ve been listening to the CD Worrisome Heart by Melody Gardot.  She writes her songs, sings, and plays the guitar.  She’s a jazz vocalist with pop and blues mixed in.  Worrisome Heart was her first full-length album.  It was done after a horrible accident when she was hit on her bike by a motorist who ran a red light.  She spent a year in a hospital bed, most of it on her back, so she learned to play the guitar on her back.  She also only started writing music after the accident. The Wikipedia entry about Melody gives a good account of how her injuries affected her music.

I strongly recommend Worrisome Heart.

A new CD in the same genre is Way Down Low by Kat Edmonson.  Again, I recommend the CD, especially the first cut, Lucky.  Like Gardot, Edmonson writes many of the songs she sings.

Both CDs are quiet, introspective, with wonderful instrumentation.  They are easy to listen to but are not “easy listening”.

Why does it seem like there are so many good, female jazz vocalists, but relatively few male jazz vocalists?  Has it always been that way?  Is vocal jazz more suited to the female voice?  I have no answers because I’ve just started to think about these questions.  Does anyone has any insights?  Maybe I’m completely wrong.