Monday, December 11, 2017

Chick Corea (1982)

With the incomparable Roy Haynes on drums and Miroslav Vitous on bass. The year after Trio Music, this group's first record, was released on ECM.


Sunday, December 3, 2017

UPDATED: Lonely Woman (or, The Jazz Best-Of List Is Problematic)


UPDATE: I reached out to several writers in the jazz community about this piece, and the one who got back to me was Howard Mandel, president of the Jazz Journalists Association. Howard has graciously allowed me to excerpt some of his reply here. The JJA wasn't included in the original post, and Howard provides excellent information about its representation of women in its awards, as well as on its exploration of some issues regarding female jazz writers and critics (I've edited his comments slightly for clarity):
Maria Schneider, Rene Marie, Anat Cohen (two Awards), Claire Daley, Jane Ira Bloom, Nicole Mitchell, Mary Halvorson and Regina Carter all won [JJA] Awards. This was the 8th Award for Nicole, the third I think for Mary, and the others also have won top place multiple times. So women won almost a third of the Awards for music and musicians. (We do make a distinction between male and female vocalists, giving awards to each, so call it 8 winners, not 9, in the race for gender parity). From my vantage overseeing those Awards, I've been impressed with women taking top honors in horn categories. Maria Schneider has also won as composer/arranger/big band leader etc. many times - not sure that's because her work is beloved or that she is (in a way that might not attach to male bandleaders).
Speaking of an upcoming JJA panel on Women in Jazz Journalism, Mandel notes that
we came up with a very small group of writers from which to draw... [b]ut most of them are not very active, not published in notable magazines, don't have books or even blogs. A big difficulty in recognizing the excellence of women artists, it seems to me, is that there are so few women writing about jazz (more writing about contemporary classical music) and there seem to be no magazines geared towards women that cover jazz. More women in jazz education, but I'm told that is a female-challenging field, too. 
Women in jazz media tend to be broadcasters or publicists, and there are a few photographers. No editors, that I know of... And even with the greater prominence of women instrumentalists, that will take some longer time to change. 
Howard, I think, agrees with me that the best-of lists are certainly a symptom of a larger "illness," if you will, in the jazz community. But he asks an excellent question about treating that illness: are the lists themselves "where we should begin, or instead with concerted efforts to cover women as well as men all year long, to get their stories out in jazz media, and to find women to write from their individual perspectives for broad audiences?" The answer to that question, it seems to me, is certainly the latter. But I would also say that it seems that often a) women are written about during the year only to disappear when lists come out in December, or b) women are not written about until some token female musicians have to be found for that year-end list.

It is a complex issue, and one I hope is taken up and explored more deeply across the jazz community. (Many thanks to Howard for offering his invaluable response to my original post!)

*END OF UPDATE*

It's nearing the end of the year, which means it's about time for the 12th annual Francis Davis Jazz Critics Poll (also known as the 5th annual NPR poll). I was invited to contribute, purely on the strength of my now moth-eaten reputation as a jazz writer (once jazz people put you on an email list, you stay on it). Ballots were due today, and the full results will be out in a week or so. Davis, one of my all-time favorite jazz writers (his essays on the Marsalis brothers in the '80s are still some of the very best commentary on the neo-traditional movement in jazz) is doing very good work with this poll, which aims to be as comprehensive, and thus as fair, as possible. Still, it's not perfect. 
Neither am I. The last time I contributed to the poll was in 2013. I hunted up my ballot from that year; of the top ten albums on my list, only one - Kurt Rosenwinkel's Star of Jupiter - is still even in my music library. Oops. Even worse, only one of my top ten was an album made by a woman (Linda Oh), and only one of the remaining albums had a female instrumentalist in the band (...Linda Oh again, on Dave Douglas's Be Still, which also has vocals by Aoife O'Donovan), while I gave two slots to Brad Mehldau (Mehldau's obviously a master, but what on Earth was I thinking?). Esperanza Spalding got the best vocal album on my ballot, which just seems like a mistake. There were less high-profile and more jazz-oriented singers recording great stuff in 2013, surely.* 

In the current climate of politics and pop culture, this failing on my part caught my eye. Despite a higher profile for the issue in recent years, jazz still has a gender equality problem, and year-end lists are one of the easiest places to see it in action. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

Night Life (1986)


Tons of great stuff on offer here, from Jaki Byard and his big band at the Blue Note, which opened in 1981, to David Murray with Richard Davis and Joe Chambers at Carlos I, to Roland Hanna, Johnny Coles, Ray Drummond and Terri Lyne Carrington (who was only 21 at the time) at Sweet Basil. Really an embarrassment of riches. 

*

From The New Yorker, December 1st, 1986:














Thursday, November 30, 2017

It's Still The Same Old Story (Malaya, 1949)

I wrote this post about Malaya, a 1949 film from MGM that featured Sydney Greenstreet in his final film role, for David Cairns' The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon, which can be found at his excellent blog on another network, Shadowplay. Make sure you head on over there to see all the entries. Thanks to David for letting me contribute!

*

Let me set the scene a little bit. In 1948, James Stewart made Rope; in 1950, he was in Harvey and Winchester '73. Spencer Tracy appeared in Adam's Rib in 1949 and Father of the Bride in 1950. In between all of that, of course, they both appeared in Malaya (MGM, 1949).



"Hold on," you say. "What do you mean, 'of course'? I've never heard of Malaya." Well, you caught me - Malaya is no Adam's Rib. It's more the kind of movie you might find as you flip through the channels on your hotel's T.V., but that said, I think it's one I'd stay and watch the rest of. This is why I haven't been as exhaustive as I perhaps should have been here - I want to leave something for your to discover on your own!

From Variety, 1949:
Malaya is a pulp-fiction, wartime adventure yarn, based on a factual incident early in the fighting, that takes the customer for a pretty fancy chimerical flight.
Kickoff for the story is tied to a letter from President Roosevelt to Manchester Boddy, LA newspaper publisher, concerning the government’s need to obtain rubber during the war.
James Stewart plays a roaming newspaper reporter who promises to steal rubber for his government, which supplies him with ships for transporting and gold for bribing. He effects the release from prison of Spencer Tracy to aid in the daring adventure.
Tracy and Stewart are at home in their toughie roles. Valentina Cortese appears very well as a jungle torch singer in the Malayan saloon. Sydney Greenstreet’s character of a sharp operator, wise in the ways of man, comes over excellently.
Now that that's over with...

Stewart is cast as almost a hard-boiled character here. I can see the part of newspaperman John Royer being played by Humphrey Bogart, and played much better, too - Stewart is too soft-spoken and too gangly to really pull off Royer's slightly aggressive insouciance. Royer doesn't really seem like a Jimmy Stewart kind of guy, especially when you remember the films that bookend Malaya in Stewart's filmography - the ultimately shocked and ashamed instigator of murder in Rope, the kind Elwood of Harvey, the moral cowboy of Winchester '73. "He's got a thing in here, a coil, instead of a heart," Spencer Tracy's morally flexible Carnaghan says of Royer before they leave for Malaya. "Keeps his blood cold all the time." But, really, it's so hard to imagine Stewart as coldblooded, and unpleasant, too; but Royer is, as Carnaghan says, "taking this all pretty seriously," and it boxes in Stewart the actor.


That seriousness leads to my next point: that though it was made in 1949, Malaya is very much a World War II-era film. It has a very propagandistic element to it, from the prominently displayed war effort posters to Royer's being constantly reminded to get a draft card and go enlist in the Marines. Royer is, we understand from the opening exposition (supplied by a stand-in for the story's inspiration, Manchester Boddy, played by Lionel Barrymore, and the generally extraneous federal lawman Kellar) a somewhat mercenary newspaperman with a bit of a checkered past, legally and romantically. But though he seems reluctant to go get that draft card, he has a terrifically patriotic idea: to get rubber out of Malaya right from under the noses of the occupying Japanese. Kellar, or someone, pulls some strings and gets Royer's old "buddy" (you'll hear this word a lot in the film) Carnaghan out of Alcatraz, and they go off to Malaya.

There's an essential tension established early on. Royer, despite his film noir-ish characterization, is by-the-book; he always wants to look at a map, or stop displaying public affection with Italian saloon singers (despite actually being Italian, Valentina Cortese's Italian accent sounds like a put-on). Carnaghan, on the other hand, wants to "take it easy." It's all in service of a moral lesson - Royer's brother died on Wake Island, and he took this rubber job not for money, but for human decency. Carnaghan is in it for the gold, but as his final shot shows (spoiler alert, he smiles as he watches a Japanese battleship get blown up by a PT boat), the events of the film have an effect on him.

This moral lesson makes sense. In 1949, the U.S. was fighting a war that was really the first of the messy wars, the conflict in Korea. Our involvement in Korea was confusing to Americans, the stakes seemed removed from daily life; and, of course, there were complex political reasons to involve ourselves that didn't really include Freedom and Democracy in the way they had back in 1941. But the war needed to be supported, and what you see is a lot of World War II movies being made. "Remember what that war was like?" these moves seem to ask. "Noble, self-sacrificing?" Cough cough, hint hint. It's an interesting example of subliminal messaging, really. As the Dutchman says in this film, "There have always been wars, this is another."

Together again: Maltese Falcon and Casablanca co-stars Bogart and Greenstreet appear in the New York Times in February 1950 in publicity shots for two World War II films.
I mentioned earlier that I think Bogart would have done a better job with Stewart's character. The specter of Bogart hangs over this film mainly because of Sydney Greenstreet. Malaya  was Greenstreet's final film role - he continued to act in radio as Nero Wolfe. Greenstreet's two most famous performances are in Bogart's films, and it is perhaps the curse of his career that this makes the viewer naturally seek out similarities to those earlier movies watching any of Greenstreet's other films.

Here, the similarities are to Casablanca. Greenstreet is "The Dutchman," and his saloon in Malaya is essentially Rick's Cafe, with gambling tables, a pianist (and standard from the Great American Songbook - "Blue Moon"), a bar, and tensions between the customers and owner and an occupying Army - here, the Japanese. Colonel Tomura, played by the Hawaiian-born Chinese-American actor Richard Loo, gambles at the Dutchman's saloon, which I suppose makes him Captain Renault in this equation, although he's also Major Strasser. Gilbert Roland, playing our heroes' connection to the anti-Japanese resistance, would probably be Laszlo (or at least Laszlo-ish).

Greenstreet's Dutchman is Signor Ferrari, complete with gleeful giggle, erudite grammar and precise, yet somewhat blubbery, diction. He has some good lines - "That might be even more expensive than dangerous," he says of the rubber smuggling plan - but the part is essentially a retread of a typecast, with more screen time. It's a shame that Greenstreet didn't have the opportunity to really break out of his one role, as a corpulent, well-spoken slimeball, in the public imagination. His acting is as good here as it was in earlier films - Greenstreet wouldn't die until 1954 - but we've seen it all before. In that way, Malaya is really an insult. Greenstreet played other characters (including William Makepeace Thackeray), but he had to go out on a one-note.

At one point in the film, Tracy's Carnaghan says, "I can't stand those shut-in places." Indeed, Tracy seems to be pushing on the walls of Malaya, trying to find something more interesting than the character and the lines he's been given. But he also doesn't seem to care - he knows, despite his love subplot with Luana the singer and his time in center frame, that this movie isn't about character. It's about selling an idea. Stewart approaches his lines with singleminded determination, and one gets the sense that it's because he feels it's the right thing to do.

There is a welling power to a film like Casablanca, a film made in 1942 that really had something to say about the effects of war on complicated people who try to pretend that they're in simple situations; Malaya gives us simple people in an all too complicated scenario. The Dutchman is a complex character, one trying to survive between a rock and a hard place. The same could be said of Ferrari, or Kasper Gutman; but unlike those earlier characters, Greenstreet's Dutchman has no accompanying complexity to play off of, no Sam Spade or Rick to dance with. Ultimately, the Dutchman, like the film, falls flat. When he speaks cynically of "cementing his friendship" with Tomura by giving him bribes, one feels it's just because that's what a Sydney Greenstreet character does, not because that's what the Dutchman must do in this story. Greenstreet made the original mold for a character like the Dutchman; here, he's trapped in it.

By the end, Carnaghan has escaped this film. He refuses the medal he earned with his actions, sending it back with the message, "Pin it on the Dutchman." Royer is out of the picture (I'll leave it at that), and Carnaghan is finally free with his improbable soulmate. The Dutchman is left alone. He proudly shows the medal to his cockatoo, who laughs at him; Greenstreet mugs as the screen fades to black. His final words on film are, "Good night." His co-stars have escaped - Stewart to Hitchock and Westerns, his acclaimed second act; Tracy to Hepburn and white-haired elder statesmanship. Greenstreet is stuck in his white suit, with his gurgling chuckle and his wide stomach; still in Casablanca.


Plus:

- Greenstreet plays Thackeray in Devotion, which is also a "last film," as Montagu Love died three years before this film, featuring his final role, was released. Perhaps next year...

- Twelve O'Clock High was another World War II film made at the height of the Korean conflict. I'm sure there are more (besides Chain Lightning, the minor Bogart film publicized in the New York Times clipping).

- James Stewart is well-known as a highly decorated Army, and then Air Force, pilot who rose to the rank of Brigadier General before his retirement, but his co-star Gilbert Roland also served in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

- Valentina Cortese, who played the inexplicably smitten Luana, later won an Academy Award for Truffaut's Day For Night. She was also in The Barefoot Contessa and some other notable films.

- DeForest Kelley, best known for Star Trek, had an early role here as "Lieutenant Glenson," though his scenes were cut from the final film.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

R.I.P. Jon Hendricks

Jon Hendricks died on the 22nd. He was 96, born in 1921 - the year after Charlie Parker. While Bird and so many others of the bebop generation were taken from the world too early, Hendricks was able to make great music for decades after bebop had become codified and conventional, and he always managed to surprise.


Monday, November 20, 2017

Night Life (1993)


A pretty good selection of jazz on offer in the city almost a quarter of a century ago this week - not very extensive, but varied. Given my choice, I'd have headed over to the Knickerbocker to catch the Roland Hanna and Steve Kuhn engagements.

Stephen Scott's 1992 record Aminah's Dream gets a (misspelled) plug in the Bradley's listing. Scott isn't too visible these days, like many of the hyped young musicians of the early 1990s. He got his start with Betty Carter (he appears on her excellent 1988 record Look What I Got!), but when your debut album is called Something To Consider but features Roy Hargrove, Justin Robinson, Joe Henderson, Craig Handy, Peter Washington, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash and Jeff "Tain" Watts, well, you better have a lot for people to consider. According to Wikipedia, Scott hasn't recorded as a leader since 1999. Still, he was on Joe Henderson's Lush Life...


There's a nice dig at the Blue Note here, too - "jazz, mirrors, and a gift shop." What would they have made of Dizzy's Club Coca Cola?

*

From The New Yorker, November 22, 1993:






Wednesday, November 15, 2017

"It is the duty of writers to pay no attention to duty" (1939)

I have been reading E.B. White's One Man's Meat, the collection of White's dispatches from his Maine farm. I have been reading the book because I need something to read, and I can't read the news anymore; I can't read the humor section of The New Yorker anymore, or look at its covers; I can't look at the A.V. Club anymore; I can't do much of anything anymore without seeing one name over and over again: Trump. 

He shows up in the unlikeliest places these days - every thought seems to have its destination in the White House. The A.V. Club has been going downhill for a while now, but it seems to have doubled-down on its culture coverage lately - meaning Trump coverage. He shows up unbidden in reviews and thinkpieces that have nothing to do with him. It seems to me that people feel that if they aren't talking about Trump, he's getting away with something, or that by not professing their hatred for him at every turn, they are endorsing him through silence. I recently watched Patton Oswalt's new comedy special, and it was interesting to me how several times he says that he won't deal with Trump, that the special isn't about Trump, that he's moving on from the Trump material - and yet at least half of the special is about Trump.

I don't agree with our President, and I hope that he is either removed, Nixon-like, or his fairy godmother waves her wand over his sleeping form and he wakes up with good ideas. But to fill every waking hour with disdain for him, hatred of his policies, despair at the direction our country is taking... It seems like he wins that way, because he controls me.

A passage from One Man's Meat struck me as being particularly applicable to this quandary. Of course, White had the rise of fascism on his mind in January 1939, when this entry was written - throughout the book, the situation in Europe provides an ominous undertone to White's small-town life in Maine, and his attempts to wrestle with his idyllic rural isolation and his responsibility to be interested and involved with global affairs make the book a much more powerful one than a simple "personal record of life on a Maine coast salt water farm" (as the book's cover describes it) would be. But I feel that his message here is perfectly suited to the state of letters and media today:

I was sorry to hear the other day that a certain writer, appalled by the cruel events of the world, had pledged himself never to write anything that wasn't constructive and significant and liberty-loving. I have an idea that this, in its own way, is bad news.
All word-mongers, at one time or another, have felt the divine necessity of using their talents, if any, on the side of right - but I didn't realize that they were making any resolutions to that effect, and I don't think they should. When liberty's position is challenged, artists and writers are the ones who first take up the sword. They do so without persuasion, for the battle is particularly their own. In the nature of things, a person engaged in the flimsy business of expressing himself on paper is dependent on the large general privilege of being heard. Any intimation that this privilege may be revoked throws a writer into a panic. His is a double allegiance to freedom - an intellectual one springing from the conviction that pure thought has a right to function unimpeded, and a selfish one springing from his need, as a breadwinner, to be allowed to speak his piece. America is now liberty-conscious. In a single generation it has progressed from being toothbrush-conscious, to being air-minded, to being liberty-conscious. The transition has been disturbing, but it has been effected, and the last part has been accomplished largely by the good work of writers and artists, to whom liberty is a blessed condition which must be preserved on earth at all costs.
But to return to my man who has foresworn everything but what is good and significant. He worries me. I hope he isn't serious, but I'm afraid he is. Having resolved to be nothing but significant, he is in a fair way to lose his effectiveness. A writer must believe in something, obviously, but he shouldn't join a club. Letters flourish not when writers amalgamate, but when they are contemptuous of one another. (Poets are the most contemptuous of all the writing breeds, and in the long run the most exalted and influential.) Even in evil times, a writer should cultivate only what naturally absorbs his fancy, whether it be freedom or cinch bugs, and should write in the way that comes easy. 
The movement is spreading. I know of one gifted crackpot who used to be employed gainfully in the fields of humor and satire, who has taken a solemn pledge not to write anything again till things get straightened around in the world. This seems to me distinctly deleterious and a little silly. A literature composed of nothing but liberty-loving thoughts is little better than the propaganda which it seeks to defeat. 
In a free country it is the duty of writers to pay no attention to duty. Only under a dictatorship is literature expected to exhibit an harmonious design or an inspirational tone. A despot doesn't fear eloquence writers preaching freedom - he fears a drunken poet who may crack a joke that will take hold. His gravest concern is lest gaiety, or truth in sheep's clothing, somewhere gain a foothold, lest joy in some unguarded moment be unconfined. I honestly don't believe that a humorist should take the veil today; he should wear his bells night and day, and squeeze the uttermost jape, even though he may feel more like writing a strong letter to the Herald Tribune.