On Jazz: A Personal Journey
Cambridge University Press (May 5, 2022), 312 pages
Kindle edition $15.49, Amazon hardcover $24.95
When I read about a book that captures my interest and the review or mention of the book appears before the publication date, I set a reminder in my Outlook calendar to download the Kindle sample on the actual date of publication. That was the case with On Jazz. Based on the review I was eager to read the book.
Certainly the author is well qualified to write about jazz. Alyn Shipton has played bass since his teens, he has written extensively about jazz, he was an editor at the publishing house Macmillan in the United Kingdom, responsible for accepting or rejecting books on jazz, and he has a long history at the BBC, hosting or producing jazz programs. As a longtime jazz aficionado and one who listens to jazz six evenings a week, I was looking forward to reading the book.
I was disappointed. I shouldn’t have been, I suppose. Shipton makes clear that the reader should take the subtitle, “A Personal Journey,” at face value and directs the reader to other books he has written for a more objective history of jazz.
Shipton writes about his experience with jazz in New Orleans and provides profiles of some of the greats in jazz history: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, and others. He takes a unique approach to these profiles. He interviews the musicians who worked with these artists and provides transcripts of those interviews. The conversation was often hard to follow, however, as the interviewees were speaking in a conversational, vernacular manner which Shipton leaves as-is. He moves from one individual to another, and it’s often hard to keep track of who is speaking. The problem is exacerbated because the book uses the British convention of single quotes for quoted material with double quotes inside quoted material: the exact opposite of the American convention that I am used to.
Then there’s the fact that Shipton doesn’t define his terms. He writes about the swing era and about big bands, but he doesn’t define what kind of music either is associated with. He talks about Old Testament and New Testament music without telling the reader what those terms mean in the context of jazz. Late in the book he discusses the advent of fusion and he writes about bebop, without any clarification of what the terms mean. Added to that is the musical terminology that Shipton assumes the reader knows the meaning of.
From an archival standpoint I like the fact that the recollections of the rank-and-file musicians who worked with the big stars of jazz are preserved in Shipton’s book. But for a readable history of jazz and its evolution there are no doubt better choices.
It’s been more than ten years since the Episcopal Church adopted the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for use in worship, replacing the lectionary found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The Episcopal Church does deviate from the RCL a couple of times during the year, however. One of those times is the two Sundays after Christmas. (We have two Sundays after Christmas this year; that’s not the case every year.) For the First Sunday after Christmas the Episcopal Church uses the prologue to the Gospel of John for the gospel reading. This does not make me happy. First, John really annoys me for a number of reasons, which I won’t go into here. Second, I like hearing the story of Simeon and his song on the First Sunday after Christmas. (You’ll find Simeon in Luke 2:22-35.)
But wait. The RCL does not specify the Simeon passage for every year. The only time the Song of Simeon is designated is for Christmas 1 for year B, the year of Mark. (For those of you who are not liturgically inclined, we began Year C, the year of Luke, on the First Sunday of Advent this year.)
The Song of Simeon is one of my two favorite passages in the New Testament (the other being the Emmaus story). Simeon has inspired many great works of music. Simeon’s song begins, “Now Lord, let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled.” The Latin “nunc dimittis” means “You now dismiss (your servant)” and many of the works use the Latin.
Since we don’t find Simeon in the lectionary today I’ll share one of those musical pieces with you.
I have written about our Amazon Echo devices and about how much we enjoyed having two of them, one in the kitchen and dining area, and one in the bedroom. I also wrote that I was content to continue enjoying the trusty internet radio in my office until I learned that the service that powered it was going away, making it for the most part useless.
I wrote that I thought about getting a new internet radio that would be powered by a newer service, but as I considered the matter I decided that an Amazon Echo could play all the stations and streaming services that an internet radio could, and that it could do a lot more. With the Echo I can ask Alexa to play the NPR hourly news or to give me the weather forecast. I can ask it to play my current audio book or give me the score of yesterday’s Dodger game.
Deciding to buy a new Echo, it only made sense to go for quality. I wanted an Echo Show so I could have the visual element as well. I bought a third generation Echo Show 10. It’s pretty amazing. It has excellent speakers and the screen is sharp and clear. I like seeing the artist and song title on KNX-FM 93 (clearer and more easily readable than on my internet radio) and that information plus a nice image of the album cover on my Pandora stations. I recently signed up for Amazon Music and am amazed at the breadth of choices available. I can ask Alexa to play just about any classical work, and when I play popular songs most of them display the lyrics.
Of course it’s not perfect. Sometimes it’s easier to punch a button than give a verbal command, and sometimes Alexa doesn’t understand what you want. Podcasts are a particular problem. If I ask Alexa to play either of the two astronomy podcasts, StarDate or Earth and Sky, I get something Star Trek related for StarDate and a mystical podcast of the same name for Earth and Sky. But then Alexa has no problem bringing up John McWhorter’s podcast on linguistics, Lexicon Valley. Too bad he’s going to stop doing it.
Still, though, for the most part all three of our Echo devices work very well.
The new Echo Show was an indulgence, to be sure, but given the income I’ve been getting from my contract writing work, I decided I could use some of that money for fun stuff. And this is really fun stuff.
Always a Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, and Saints: My Story of the Folk Music Revival
Narrated by Janina Edwards
Chronicle Prism, January 26, 2021
$24.91 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I follow my alma mater, Pitzer College, on social media. One recent post mentioned an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross that featured Ellen Harper and her son Ben Harper. Ellen married Leonard Harper, who was an administrator at Pitzer College in the seventies. He was in some respects a pioneer, as an African American in a college administration role early in that decade. Ellen is a graduate of Pitzer through the New Resources program, which offers a degree path to people who are past traditional college age. Her son Ben is a famous musician (of whom I had never heard until listening to the interview). Ben’s younger brother Joel is a Pitzer graduate as well. Ellen and Ben were on the show to promote Ellen’s new book, Always a Song. There were so many familiar names and places mentioned in the interview I knew I had to get the book.
Ellen’s childhood began in Massachusetts in the fifties when the House un-American Activities Committee was active and people were busy trying to root out Communists. Her father was a schoolteacher who had associations with the Communist Party. He eventually lost his job because of that. Both parents had lives focused on music. Her father repaired musical instruments and her mother gave banjo and guitar lessons. Family friend Pete Seeger (yes, that Pete Seeger) suggested that they move to California and set up a shop to repair musical instruments. They did just that. Thus the Folk Music Center in Claremont, a place with which I was quite familiar during my years there, was born.
It amazed me to read about the prejudice in Claremont in the late fifties and early sixties. Ellen’s mom went looking for a house to rent with the kids and found one place that looked ideal. The landlady looked at them and said that she had rented it. When her dad called the landlady on the phone she said, “Oh, you’re Jewish, that fine. I thought they were Mexican.” The family had an African American neighbor who was a doctor. He faced a great deal of prejudice. When he was renting a house in town he was barely tolerated, but when he bought a lot on which to build a house he received serious threats. Scripps College, the women’s liberal arts school of the Claremont Colleges, expelled a stellar student in the early sixties simply for having a same-sex relationship with a graduate student. Not the Claremont that I loved so much in the early and mid-seventies.
Ellen eventually married Leonard Harper. What I didn’t know, what very few if any of us knew at the time, was that Leonard was an alcoholic and abused Ellen. They had three sons together, but she eventually left him and raised the kids on her own. The Leonard Harper we knew at Pitzer was a popular administrator who was well-liked by the students. Sadly, he died an alcohol-related death at a young age.
Music pervades this book. Ellen herself played the guitar and gave lessons. Growing up she worked the front counter at the Folk Music Center. Well-known musicians regularly showed up there and were guests in the home of Ellen’s parents. Ellen never knew what well-known musician she might find in her in her living room when she came home from school. Perhaps a traditional folk musician in the lineage of Lead Belly, or perhaps the likes of Jackson Browne. Joan Baez’s father taught at the Claremont College’s science and engineering school, Harvey Mudd, for one year. One day a high school-aged Joan showed up at Ellen’s doorstep wanting to see her parents. She was upset because traditional Dad wouldn’t let her boyfriend spend the night with her at their house.
When her sons were grown, after getting her B.A. at Pitzer Ellen did the additional work to get her teaching credential. She was successful and popular as a schoolteacher. Ellen went on to get an advanced degree and moved into teacher training. She describes her frustration at dealing with the bureaucracy in the Bush II administration’s No Child Let Behind program. Ellen doesn’t use the term, but I can’t help but thinking that she would appreciate the label the late, incisive Molly Ivins gave to the program: “No Child Left Untested.”
Janina Edwards reads the book capably and effectively. After the first hour I felt I was listening to Ellen herself. I found Always a Song to be a delightful listen.
On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom
Counterpoint (October 14, 2014), 384 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $15.61
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $3.99
This book is Dennis McNally’s attempt to document the fight for racial equality and social justice in America through the nation’s popular music. The idea of Highway 61 is that it roughly parallels the Mississippi river, near which so much of the social justice movement had its roots. However, he begins with Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts and ends with Bob Dylan in (mostly) New York, though he makes a token attempt to return to the Highway 61 theme in the closing paragraphs of the book.
McNally writes about the early music of the slaves before the civil war, and the white musicians who adopted their style, put on blackface, and made a living doing minstrel shows. He discusses the earliest days of jazz and follows the art form into the twentieth century, with the likes of Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong. In fact, a disproportionate portion of the book is focused on jazz and blues.
The final section is focused on Bob Dylan, though others in the folk movement, including Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary are mentioned. McNally describes how the group Peter, Paul and Mary was put together by promoter Albert Grossman, which I knew. That Grossman was also Dylan’s personal manager I didn’t know. But that explains why the group sang so many Dylan songs. McNally says of Grossman, “In a left-wing folkie world that valued spirit over finance, Grossman was a barracuda surrounded by dinner.” ‘nuff said.
McNally writes briefly about the relationship between Joan Baez and Dylan, but not enough to really make clear its importance to the music of each. But there are other books to discuss that. Positively 4th Street comes to mind.
I bought this book in the Kindle edition when it showed up in an Early Bird Books email for $3.99. It was well worth the price. But $13.99 full price for the Kindle edition? Maybe. Maybe not.
The Movie Musical!
Knopf (November 5, 2019), 730 pages
Kindle edition $17.99, Amazon hardcover $27.11
As you can see from the page count, this is a big book. Basinger presents a comprehensive history of the movie musical. She starts in the silent era, discusses a sort of hybrid in which the studios added sound to some sections of silent films (“part-talkies”), and then continues on to films with sound. Although she focuses a lot on films of the twenties, thirties, and forties, Basinger mentions movies released as late as 2018.
The author’s knowledge of the subject is encyclopedic, and she discusses scenes from some movies in what is at times excruciating detail. The book was nonetheless an enjoyable diversion from the struggles and travails of this most unhappy year, and Basinger offers many insights and behind-the-scenes glimpses. When discussing Broadway shows that were made into movies she distinguishes between filmed stage performances and shows genuinely adapted for film. She prefers the latter.
Basinger has some odd perspectives. She refers to certain Broadway adaptations from the seventies, including Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar, as being not “truly successful.” Say what? In discussing Straight Outta Compton, she dutifully acknowledges the complaints of plagiarism, violence, and abuse of women, and then tells us what an excellent film it is. The author goes to great pains to explain how the opening of Meet Me in St. Louis is such an excellent example of how to start a musical because it lets the viewers know what to expect. She then later praises the opening of The Sound of Music, with its helicopter view of Julie Andrews singing the opening number on a mountain meadow. That scene, while spectacular and uplifting, gives the viewer no idea of what to expect in the movie, with its love interests and its Nazis.
But enough complaining. The book was both informative and fun to read, and if you enjoy movie musicals I think you will find it well worth your time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all areas of our lives, even our radio listening.
When Terry and I lived in Gilroy our evening listening Monday through Saturday consisted of the internet stream from KCSM, the public radio jazz service in San Mateo. When we moved to Hemet in 2015 we began listening to the jazz stations in Los Angeles and San Diego. I wanted to avoid any nostalgia for the Bay Area.
After a couple of years, however, I switched back to KCSM. I decided that I could listen without undue melancholy or remorse, and I very much enjoy the evening hosts on the Jazz Oasis. When COVID-19 hit KCSM switched to a syndicated public radio jazz service, and we began listening to the Los Angeles jazz station, KKJZ, again. Evening host Steve Tyrell provided an upbeat mood in the midst of a time of pandemic, even if his music selections were a bit repetitious.
Recently, however, the engineering staff at KCSM figured out how to let the Jazz Oasis hosts prerecord their shows from home. It doesn’t matter that they are not live; hearing their familiar voices in the six-to-nine time slot is delightful and comforting in this stressful time.
The KCSM web site states, “Thanks to the College and our staff, especially engineers Rene Renard, Hanns Ullrich, and Chris Cortez, for helping the music to play on!” Terry and I thank them as well. Thank you, KCSM, for returning some peace and pleasure to our evenings.
I have always been serious about spices in my cooking, but when we did our kitchen remodel in Gilroy we added a built-in spice rack and I went ape-you know what. We bought empty spice bottles at Bed Bath and Beyond and filled them with spices from the good folks at Penzeys. At our house here in Hemet we have a spice drawer rather than a custom-built spice rack, but we still have just as many spices. We even have an overflow plastic spice organizer in the pantry.
The thyme is in our main spice drawer. The parsley and sage are in the overflow organizer. And rosemary? I haven’t given rosemary proper respect. In fact, when I went to do a recipe that called for rosemary a couple of weeks ago I realized that I didn’t have any. I bought some fresh rosemary from the produce department in the grocery store. A couple weeks later I had another recipe that included rosemary and I used what was left.
I realized I needed to to give rosemary a better spot in my spice pantheon. So I added it to my last Penzeys order, and it now has a spot in the main spice drawer, booting out a rarely used spice. Why it took so long, I don’t know, but the disrespect has been addressed.
P.S. Remember when we listened to music on vinyl in stereo? Remember that you could separately control the left and right speaker volume? You could listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s rendition of the English folk tune independently on one side and their anti-war chant separately on the other. That’s something that we can’t do any longer.
The University of Nebraska at Lincoln Singers, Pete Eklund, conductor at the First Plymouth Church in Lincoln Nebraska. Some great, soaring music!
It’s been a while since I’ve shared a John Rutter arrangement.