May 18, 2012 | by Sam Stephenson
In November of 2001, I picked up Joe Henry’s album Scar and was stunned by the opening track, a slow blues number called “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation.” Henry, a white man, sang from the point of view of the black icon, expressing the comedian’s love-hate relationship with himself and his audience. Henry had the audacity and sensitivity to pull it off, with help from a spiraling, dipping, dripping saxophone solo by Ornette Coleman.
Scar was released in May of that year. Henry couldn’t have known how tearful the nation would be that fall. He closed the album with these lines from the title track, sung in a careful, mournful tempo:
The blade of our outrageous fortune,
Like a parade, it cuts a path.
Light shows on our foolish way
And darkness on
If I love you, to save myself
And you love me because we are
So fool to think that our parade
Could leave a path
And not a scar.
And I love you with all I am
And you love me with what you are,
As pretty as a twisting vine
A mark so fine
But still a scar.
The album resonated with me throughout that first post–September 11 holiday season, more than Dylan’s “Love and Theft”, which was released on that particular Tuesday, a coincidence that generated new claims of clairvoyance from Dylanologists. Henry’s album cuts deeper. Read More »
March 20, 2012 | by Sam Stephenson
From 1993 to 1995 I stumbled in two graduate programs, first economics and then religious studies. I was undone by advanced calculus and cultural theory—couldn’t handle the rigor of either, the puzzle of value unsolved. The abstract challenges of school were leavened by my job at Quail Ridge Books, an independent store in Raleigh. There, I shelved hardbacks and backlist paperbacks by Baldwin, Banks, Berger, (Amy) Bloom, Boland, Gass, Grumbach, Gurganus, Le Guin, L’Engle, Malamud, McCarthy, Mitchell, Munro, Walker, Wideman, (C.D.) Wright, (Charles) Wright, (Richard) Wright; I managed the magazines and literary journals, worked the cash register, and made friends with the customers.
I met the late Don Adcock there. A jazz flute player and the longtime band director at North Carolina State University, he first heard bebop in 1945 when he stepped off a battleship in San Francisco and wandered into a joint where Howard McGhee was playing. Fifty years later he would walk into the store and instantly identify whichever jazz musicians were playing on the house stereo—Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Al Haig, Dexter Gordon, Zoot Sims, Lee Morgan, Bunny Berigan—and he knew all the songs, too. He often visited the store with his wife, the poet Betty Adcock, who taught at the local Meredith College as well as at Warren Wilson. Don and Betty became critical sources of encouragement for me as my writing developed, and I spent many afternoons at their Raleigh home—a modern, postwar structure with a flat roof surrounded by heavy woods.Read More »
December 8, 2011 | by Sam Stephenson
It’s sixty-two degrees and raining in downtown Durham, North Carolina, on a Tuesday in mid-October. At noon members of the Branford Marsalis Quartet gather at the former St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal church, built in 1891, now converted into the Hayti Heritage Center, an arts-and-community nonprofit. Their goal is to record a new album over the next few days.
When Marsalis moved his family to Durham from New York a decade ago, the local press assumed he was replacing the retiring director of Duke’s jazz department, saxophonist Paul Jeffrey. But Marsalis, who'd grown up in Louisiana, simply wanted to return to the South and picked Raleigh-Durham because the area had an airport large enough to get him anywhere he needed to go. Later, he began teaching part-time in the noted jazz program at the historically black North Carolina Central University, which is a mile down the road from Hayti.
The original St. Joseph’s sanctuary remains intact: a wood-plank stage, hardwood pews, a balcony, chandeliers, and lots of stained glass. Marsalis began recording albums here in 2006 when he noticed that the room had a unique quality: there is no reverb at low decibel levels; it grows gradually with the sound.
June 22, 2011 | by Sam Stephenson
Last year I visited Wichita, Kansas, for the first time, a guest of the Ulrich Museum of Art, where I gave a talk on W. Eugene Smith, a native son. At dinner afterward, the photographer Larry Schwarm asked, “Do you have pictures of Smith all over your house?” I’ve come to expect the question of whether I identify with Smith’s obsessions, but it had never been framed like this. I paused, pondered, then answered that I didn’t have any pictures of Smith in my house. I do have pictures of Joseph Mitchell, Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Emmylou Harris, and the hand of Wilco’s drummer, Glenn Kotche. But none of Smith.
I visited Wichita again last April to give another talk at the Ulrich. Like the first trip, I spent several extra days soaking up the town and researching its history, trying to learn as much as I could about Smith’s roots from the vantage of nearly a century later. Nabokov once wrote that examining his childhood was “the next best thing to probing one’s eternity.” But what about probing someone else’s childhood, someone long dead? Rather than my memory or other people’s memories (there aren’t many alive who can attest to Smith’s childhood), I’m investigating faint footprints—artifacts, news clippings, whatever I can find. It seems flimsy, never quite enough.
Between 1900 and 1930, Wichita’s population grew almost five-fold, from 24,000 to 110,000. It was a pioneer town. With few binding traditions and conventions, anything could happen. People could move to town from the farm and figure out ways to make money. It became known as “Magic City.” It also became known as the “Air Capitol of the World,” home to Cessna, Beech, and other aircraft manufacturers during the ascent of that industry.
May 26, 2011 | by Sam Stephenson
The photographs in Mary Frank’s current solo show at DC Moore Gallery were made over the last three years, yet they evoke decades of history. The items in the photographs form a kind of collage: she composed new paintings directly onto the planks of her studio floor, then arranged sculptures, other works of art (some dating back fifty years), rocks, glass, torn paper, fragments of paintings, and fire around the new painting. It’s like she created abstract, autobiographical stage sets. Then she photographed the results.
I first met Mary through her cousin Paul Weinstein. Their grandfather, Gregory Weinstein, had emigrated from Russia in the 1870s and started a multilingual printing company on Varick Street, a business Paul still runs today. I met him in the early days of the Jazz Loft Project through David Levy, the former director of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. David told me that Paul was “a finisher,” someone who could help me organize a complicated New York project from my home base in North Carolina. That proved to be true: among other things, the seed of a four-year collaboration with Sara Fishko and WNYC on the Jazz Loft Radio Project came from a public event Paul threw for me at the Center for Jewish History on Sixteenth Street in 2005.
One night around that time, Paul and I were having dinner downtown. I told him I’d spent the afternoon with photographer Robert Frank in his Bleecker Street studio. “My cousin Mary used to be married to him,” Paul said nonchalantly. I startled to attention, the small town of New York City revealing itself to me once again. Until then I only knew Mary Frank as a figure in a photograph. She was the beautiful, exhausted young mother in the car with her two children at the end of Robert Frank’s The Americans—the woman keeping their kids fed, clean, and happy on the road, while her husband completed the work that would make him immortal in the history of photography.
April 20, 2011 | by Sam Stephenson
In the fall of 1958, things weren’t going well for eighteen-year-old Tommy Johns. He had graduated from Croton-Harmon High School that year and was working as a janitor, while living with his mother, stepfather, and four younger siblings in an unheated, drafty wood house about two hundred yards from the river and railroad tracks. His parents had money for beer, cheap liquor, and little else. One morning, Tommy got up, put on his secondhand Swedish army coat, told his family he was going to the corner store for cigarettes, and hitchhiked the fifty miles to Manhattan.
Let out of the car in Greenwich Village, he started wandering up Sixth Avenue, choosing that route for no particular reason—maybe just because the cars were going that way. When he crossed the intersection at Twenty-eighth Street, he was surprised to see the familiar figure of W. Eugene Smith standing on the curb next to a tractor-trailer.
Tommy had gone to school with Smith’s son, Pat, and daughter, Marissa, in Croton. He had been over to their spacious, stone home in a quiet, leafy neighborhood on the other side of town. Tommy knew that Mr. Smith had been a famous photographer for Life magazine, covering World War II and other important subjects, yet here he was, standing on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette and looking forlorn.