Foto by tgw, New York City, 2010
Books, Publishers, Readers
L Hat ( www.languagehat.com ) introduced me to a woman I'd never afore heard of, Helen DeWitt. Her book L Hat trumpeted as a great one: The Last Samurai. She's a weird one. I was immediately attracted to her. After reading her Wikipedia entry I imagined I may even know someone who knows someone who knows her. I mean she went to Smith. I just wrote a post a few weeks back about Smith girls.
I've been reading such magnificent American women writers lately like this Toni Morrison novel Jazz I'm reading over and over for several years because the writing is so original; Jazz is a truly magnificent piece of all-American writing. Can Miss DeWitt top Toni Morrison?
In The Last Samurai, Miss DeWitt imagines this wonder kid, which I assume, being so Freudian, is "her own child," a tyke she calls Ludo. Little Ludo is a natural-born genius--not an idiot savant, oh no. Little Ludo is a prodigy, and that's how he's described in the book. He shows sterling promise to his mommy dearest, who I again assume is a role being played by Miss DeWitt, by teaching himself Greek, Japanese, god knows, several languages--and I must assume Miss DeWitt speaks several languages--and he teaches himself to solve intricate math problems that nobody else can solve--and I notice Miss DeWitt is interested in puzzles. I haven't read the book just a synopsis. How slipshod a critical approach is this to this woman who just yesterday I knew nothing about?
Miss DeWitt's (I sound like a NYTimes obituary writer) Website is rather young and naively girlish, though we know Helen ain't naive and she ain't no spring chicken any longer either. www.helendewitt.com/ She may be overtalented. I'll have to read The Last Samurai to see if I'm right or simply suffering from clitoris envy. Smith girls do foster clitoris envy in men.
Right off the bat, I realize I'm not as worldly as Helen wants you to believe she is on her Website, though I must admit on first glance I don't have any idea which is Helen, who is Helen, (she lives in Berlin), what is Helen, or if she's fucking that tacky-looking Australian journalist she's co-written Your Name Goes Here with. She like Joyce Carol Oates seems to be into sports, especially boxing. I'm categorizing poor Helen. Still she went to Smith.
By God, I may soon find out I am only 4 people away from meeting Helen DeWitt (and that could be in Berlin, too).
I must stop right now writing about this woman.... I'll have to do some more investigating. Further parallel lines old Helen and I may be taking, she's into Diderot; plus she mentions lying with statistics! If you know me you know my Sociological way of reasoning, a reasoning depending on the manipulation of statistics for most of its opinions--to reach the supernatural aspects of its continuum where it poses as a pretend religion. Oh hell, I'm drifting off into the same snow drifts poor Smith girls find themselves snowbound by many a winter up in Northampton.
Helen Dewitt after her famous rescue--kidnapped on Staten Island and found later at Niagara Falls. Could she have found the Last Samurai on that trip?
I Am an Old Jazzman
I try and listen to "the latest" jazz. Ugh. It's tough. I just listened to a pianist named Bill O'Connell, something he recorded in the 80s. It's elevator music. Bill has discovered the synthesizer--and he takes full advantage of it as a "commercial" sound effect. Dammit, Bill, you're playing what they play on those phony "cool" jazz radio stations. Worse than Bob James's crap he put out in the 70s and 80s--or Deodato--oh god how Deodato used to pain me.
And another pianist I just listened to is Ted Rosenthal. And Ted uses some of the hip new jazzmen like the Tonight Show bandleader, Kevin Eubanks (I've never considered Kevin a jazz guitarist) and saxophonist Donald Harrison and some old cats, too, like Bobby Hutcherson, Eddie Gomez, and trumpeter Lew Soloff. But Ted, too, has discovered the synthesizer and what had potential turns out to be so programmatic it, too, becomes elevator music after only a few bars into the very first track--on which Donald Harrison sings lyrics that are so fucking juvenile I couldn't finish the track--it was awful. Minus 4 stars. The rest of the tracks were the same. Ted's a good pianist and he has a blue streak in his playing, but this example is dull, like I said overprogrammed in terms of the synth and how no matter how hard you try, you can't swing as heavy on a synth as you can on a Steinway grand.
The problem with the music of these two 1980s dudes is that it didn't swing and it wasn't blue. Jazz to me has to contain blue notes and it has to swing. It starts like a gospel tune and builds into a devilish volume and pace--and a lot of jazz guys learned their instruments in church--I must add here that those church-trained musicians were mostly black--white jazzmen learned their jazz off recordings; their instruments in high school bands, army bands, or in the woodshed. I learned jazz off the late-night radio--having to remember tunes by heart because I was too young to buy records yet--and besides, records were still 78 rpm when I started trying to understand jazz. I had already felt boogie and blues in my bones--I just took natural then to jazz--the first jazz I really listened to being be-bop.
After listening to Bill and Ted, I put an old Best of Oscar Peterson on my player. HOLY JESUS! Right off the bat on a tune called "Love You Madly," a tribute to Duke Ellington (that was Duke's sign-off phrase: "...and always remember, We Love You Madly"), Oscar, Ray Brown, and Herbie Ellis kick Bill and Ted's ass all over the studio floor or the live stage in the case of OP, Ray, and Ed Thigpen playing "Sometimes I'm Happy" at Chicago's London House in 1961--on this one Ray Brown plays Lester Young's solo on his 1945 recording of the tune note for note--then Oscar tags it with Lester's tag.
I'm just an old jazzman. You'll never see my kind again when I'm gone. We are a dying breed. Our music died back in 1964 when the Beatles were brought to the US by the White recording industry that was pissed because small labels, like Atlantic, Epic, Impulse, etc., were getting rich off our greatest Black artists--like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ike Turner, Tina Turner--plus the Whiteys lost Elvis to the US Army--and, son of a bitch, Little Richard reported back that he'd discovered a white boy band in Germany. Did you know the Beatles first US recording, not a success, was released on the Vee Jay label, the Chicago label that Jimmy Reed had put on the map in the 1950s? Vee Jay also put out some really great old jazz records, too--they introduced me to Wynton (Winetone) Kelly and Gene Ammons and Eddie Harris (Eddie's Vee Jay version of "Exodus" put him in the starlight spotlight). Another Chicago blues label, Chess (Muddy Waters had put Chess on the map--even the great blues man and Chess recording star Elmore James put out "Elmore's Contribution to Jazz" in the 1950s), also got into jazz about the same time. The result was Ahmed Jamal's (Andrew Johnson) first two albums, At the Pershing-But Not for Me, and Poinciana (a couple of tunes off these albums made it into the Top 20). The Pershing Lounge one was recorded in 1958 and was issued on Chess's Argo label. Chess was already known for putting out the Eddie Jefferson and James Moody version of "Moody's Mood for Love"--later made more popular by King Pleasure. Ahmed's trio on those Argo albums comprised Israel Crosby, one of the great jazz bass players of all time, and the New Orleans-born drummer Vernell Fournier.
I still listen to this music that is now considered moldy and oldy to this new breed of American musician who was born in the 1980s and 1990s and who were born into a digital age, a computer programmable age, with all kinds of electronic devices--like ProTools--and all kinds of instrumental ensembles--mostly White boys--mostly guitar-based bands--though yes all the big show White boy singers can accompany themselves on piano, a la Elton John and Billy Joel--like this little prick I can't stand Josh Groban--holy jesus--this little prick plays the piano like the girls--like Alicia Keyes--and suddenly I'm thinking, Aretha Franklin could really play the hell out of a piano--gospel wild style--her very first album made for Columbia under John Hammond's direction--it was a jazz album--Aretha on piano with a bass and drums--a la Carmine McRae, also a fine pianist and organist. Ella Fitzgerald could play the organ, too. And Sarah Vaughan played the piano in the Billy Eckstein Band--and Sarah, too, could play the organ. James Brown made an organ album; James also made what he called a jazz album. And Ray Charles played the organ on one of his great Tangerine (his own label) recordings featuring the greatest r and b singer and songwriter ever, Percy Mayfield.
God how I loved Percy Mayfield--especially his "Dirty Work at the Cross Roads" and the haunting "River's Invitation," a tune that is on that first Tangerine album. Ray owed a hell of a lot to Percy for his own style. In fact, Ray had featured Percy's "Two Years of Torture" on his first successful recording: Ray Charles: The Genius, on Atlantic (the first stereo LP I ever bought).
In 1952, after he'd had a big success with "Two Years of Torture" recorded on Art Rupe's Swing Time label, Percy was involved in a horrible automobile accident that left his face grotesquely frightening it was so mangled and badly rebuilt.
Ray Charles helped Percy out so much; signed him to his Tangerine label like I said but also signed him as a songwriter--Percy wrote "Hit the Road, Jack" for Ray.
"River's Invitation" became a big hit off Percy's first Tangerine album on which Ray Charles plays the organ.
Percy's Vietnam song, by the way, "Please Send Me Someone to Love," became a classic in the blues and r and b and jazz world.
One of My Music Mentors: the great Percy Mayfield
Percy died of a heart attack in 1984. He was 64 years old. Sadly, Percy died in obscurity.
Here's a YouTube vid of Percy doing his famous "Life Is Suicide"--a companion piece to "The River's Invitation."
for The Daily Growler