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Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

Two Remembrances of Ornette Coleman

June 15, 2015 | by

Coleman died last week at eighty-five.

Coleman in 1971. Photo: JPRoche

For nearly fifty years, Ornette Coleman was the philosopher king, the trickster, the barbarian at the gate, the prodigal son. Despite advancing years, his ideas remained so young and so wild that they were always carded at the door. A powerful, emotional, seemingly tireless sax player, he took inordinate pleasure in performing and recording on violin, an instrument he played with the cheerful exuberance of a cocker spaniel.

Like most philosophers, Coleman was more interested in questions than in answers, and his gnomic sayings and musings are almost better known than his music, which could be impenetrable unless you gave in and let it wash over you with its pure mineral sound, allowing it to take you where it wanted to go—which was often not a destination but a way of getting there.

It sounds like a melody, but it’s not a melody, he said. Read More »

An Absolute Truth: On Writing a Life of Coltrane

December 22, 2014 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

John_Coltrane_1963

A few years ago I found a used, first-edition hardcover of Dr. Cuthbert Ormond Simpkins’s 1975 book, Coltrane: A Biography, online for $150. I had long admired its feverish, street-pulpy story about the saxophonist John Coltrane, whose powerful music increasingly seemed capable of altering one’s consciousness before he died in 1967, at age forty. Posthumously, the mythology and exaltation of Coltrane, as well as his musical influence, only grew. But by that point, Simpkins had already researched and written Coltrane’s story, expressing an uncompromising, unapologetic black voice rarely found in the annals of jazz before or since.

I forked up the money for the hardback. The dust jacket bears an impressionistic black-and-white painting of Coltrane playing soprano saxophone. The rounded, sans serif font resembles that of Soul Train, the popular TV show that premiered in 1971. On the back cover is a photograph of a young, Simpkins sporting a West African dashiki shirt, a high Afro, thick sideburns, and a beard.

Simpkins’s idea for the book was conceived during his senior year at Amherst, in 1969; he worked on it during breaks from Harvard Medical School in the early seventies. Simpkins possessed no credentials in jazz or literature. The publisher of the original hardcover is Herndon House; quick Google and Library of Congress searches yield no other books from that publisher. There are identical typographical errors in all three editions—first and second hardback, and paperback. (Sarah Vaughan’s name, for instance, is spelled once as “Vaughn,” and Nesuhi Ertegun appears as “Nehusi.”) All indications point to the book having been self-published, the original piece preserved in two later editions. Read More >>

Amiri’s Green Chim Chim-knees Growth Tribe

December 18, 2014 | by

Baraka Maya Toni

Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison at James Baldwin’s funeral, 1987. Photo: Thomas Sayers Ellis

Thomas Sayers Ellis’s poem “Polo Goes to the Moon”—an elegy for the bounce-beat go-go music pioneer Reggie Burwell—appeared in The Paris Review No. 209 earlier this year. Now he’s recorded a spoken-word version in “Amiri’s Green Chim Chim-knees Growth Tribe,” part of a tribute to Amiri Baraka to be released next year by Heroes Are Gang Leaders. Give it a listen above.

After Baraka died in January, Ellis and his frequent collaborator James Brandon Lewis formed Heroes Are Gang Leaders, a group of poets and musicians. They recorded the album over three six-hour sessions. Ellis calls it “a signifying groove head-nod to Mr. Baraka,” influenced by Thelonious Monk and A Tribe Called Quest.

The text of “Polo Goes to the Moon” is below. Read More »

4 COMMENTS

Throw the Book at Him, Ernie, and Other News

August 12, 2014 | by

Ernest_Hemingway_1923_passport_photo

Manhood not pictured.

  • Hemingway once slapped a critic in the face with a book. Here’s what that critic wrote: “Hemingway lacks the serene confidence that he is a full-sized man … ”
  • One of many bizarre real Victorian novel titles: The Egg, Or The Memoirs Of Gregory Giddy, Esq: With The Lucubrations Of Messrs. Francis Flimsy, Frederick Florid, And Ben Bombast. To Which Are Added, The Private Opinions Of Patty Pout, Lucy Luscious, And Priscilla Positive. Also The Memoirs Of A Right Honourable Puppy. Conceived By A Celebrated Hen, And Laid Before The Public By A Famous Cock-Feeder.
  • “What no one wants to accept—and no doubt there is an element of class prejudice at work here, too—is that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction. And that consequently those of us who do pursue this habit, who feel that it enriches and illuminates us, are not in possession of an essential tool for self-realization or the key to protecting civilization from decadence and collapse. We are just a bunch of folks who for reasons of history and social conditioning have been blessed with a wonderful pursuit.”
  • As Hollywood continues to reboot every franchise in sight instead of developing new concepts, one cultural critic has some strong advice: Keep up the good work! “Our cultural mythologies exist not to be venerated and preserved in amber, but to be played with, reconstituted, reconsidered, dismantled, dissected, and stripped for parts.”
  • Remembering Idris Muhammad, one of the greatest drummers in jazz, who died last week.

1 COMMENT

Rita Dove’s “Canary”

July 17, 2014 | by

Billie_Holiday_and_Mister,_New_York,_N.Y.,_ca._June_1946_(William_P._Gottlieb_04271)

Billie Holiday and her dog Mister, New York, ca. June 1946. Photo: William P. Gottlieb

Billie Holiday died fifty-five years ago today. Many eminent American poets have elegized Holiday, attempting to capture something of her exquisite voice, whose unique tough-tender grain suggested a life of extremes. Langston Hughes’s “Song for Billie Holiday,” Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and Rita Dove’s “Canary” are just a few of the diverse poetic responses to the loss of Lady Day; Kevin Young’s anthology Jazz Poems devotes an entire thoughtfully curated section, “Muting (for Billie Holiday),” to her memory.

These works belong to the larger tradition of the jazz elegy, a genre that attempts something next to impossible: to commemorate and preserve music that’s defined by its immediacy and transience. The grain of the voice. The physicality of the performer. The improvisations and flourishes and intangibles that exist for one night only. If the essence of jazz exists in the moment of performance, then much of the work of the jazz elegy is to make such music legible while also acknowledging the futility of such a project.

Rita Dove’s “Canary,” from 1989, begins:

Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.

Read More »

1 COMMENT

An Absolute Truth: On Writing a Life of Coltrane

June 3, 2014 | by

John_Coltrane_1963

A few years ago I found a used, first-edition hardcover of Dr. Cuthbert Ormond Simpkins’s 1975 book, Coltrane: A Biography, online for $150. I had long admired its feverish, street-pulpy story about the saxophonist John Coltrane, whose powerful music increasingly seemed capable of altering one’s consciousness before he died in 1967, at age forty. Posthumously, the mythology and exaltation of Coltrane, as well as his musical influence, only grew. But by that point, Simpkins had already researched and written Coltrane’s story, expressing an uncompromising, unapologetic black voice rarely found in the annals of jazz before or since.

I forked up the money for the hardback. The dust jacket bears an impressionistic black-and-white painting of Coltrane playing soprano saxophone. The rounded, sans serif font resembles that of Soul Train, the popular TV show that premiered in 1971. On the back cover is a photograph of a young, Simpkins sporting a West African dashiki shirt, a high Afro, thick sideburns, and a beard.

Simpkins’s idea for the book was conceived during his senior year at Amherst, in 1969; he worked on it during breaks from Harvard Medical School in the early seventies. Simpkins possessed no credentials in jazz or literature. The publisher of the original hardcover is Herndon House; quick Google and Library of Congress searches yield no other books from that publisher. There are identical typographical errors in all three editions—first and second hardback, and paperback. (Sarah Vaughan’s name, for instance, is spelled once as “Vaughn,” and Nesuhi Ertegun appears as “Nehusi.”) All indications point to the book having been self-published, the original piece preserved in two later editions. Read More »

14 COMMENTS