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Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

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January 3, 2013 | by

Ten years ago I was on the highway from Tennessee to Kentucky—can’t even remember the reason for the trip—but I kept the car radio on the AM band, set to “Scan,” because I’d noticed, over several years’ driving around this part of the world, how almost every small town you pass has at least one little church that’s broadcasting a low-wattage radio show, and you often hear fascinatingly crazy preaching on those transmissions and, less frequently, fine singing. That particular Sunday in January it was raining, and I was somewhere north of Memphis, passing depressing roadside storage buildings, when a remarkable live signal came across. The sound at first was like that of a giant wet towel rhythmically slapping on somebody’s back. After a minute I realized it came from hundreds of rain-soaked shoes stomping in unison on a concrete floor. I tried to imagine the inside of the church. It must have been cavernous. Or maybe—more likely—it was a warehouse, where this Pentecostal group had been forced to convene. Slap … slap … midtempo, it filled the car, as the people chanted a single line, “If He sends me, I’ll GO-oooo … If He sends me, I’ll GO-oooo,” a three-note melody, simple to the point of crudity, but with a strange elegance. Folks got up and started testifying. A woman thanked God because on Christmas Eve she’d gone to the welfare office to get food stamps, and there’d been something wrong with her forms—a paper she hadn’t known was expired—“but the man give it to me anyway,” she said. “God softened his heart.”

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Speaking the Language

August 15, 2012 | by

Occasionally, when my mind is feeling overrun, flickering and buzzing like a dying electric light, I go down to Fat Cat on Christopher Street, in the West Village. Of the standard venues one goes to see jazz in New York City, Fat Cat is not one of them. The club is a huge recreation center, a dark and boozy suburban fantasy basement packed with pool tables, Ping-Pong tables, foosball tables, plush couches, dusty rugs, shuffleboards, chess boards, and booths where skinny NYU students play Backgammon or Scrabble. If the alcohol were removed, it would be a perfect place for a children’s birthday party. Above the music swirl youthful, exuberant screams of delight, punctuating either a winning serve or an eight ball sunk in its intended pocket. And off to one side, like an afterthought, is a makeshift bandstand, and at a certain late hour on most evenings there is a jam session in progress. Most of the drinkers busy themselves with games, but a few hang around and listen to a group of nomadic musicians riff on, say, “Polkadots and Moonbeams.” Nearby, expectant bass players hug their encased, cumbersome instruments, impatiently tapping their feet, waiting to get in on the action—they’ve just come from a low-paying gig across town, seeking a real payoff.

It is a high-art frat party, a safe zone where all kinds of New Yorkers can, for a night, indulge in what they may loathe, but perhaps long for: a sense of cultural superiority on the one side, or a bit of dumb Greek fun. No one seems particularly interested in jazz, save for the sidelined musicians, who are restless because they have talent to burn, if only they were given the opportunity. Because I’m myself restless, a writer waiting his turn, I have, more than once, gone to the club alone to stand with them in an improvised support group. Together we watch those musicians onstage take up their instruments. We watch them get acquainted and blunder and stumble into the opening bars of the tune, trading insecure glances, wondering if they’ll find the groove. We watch the trumpet player step forward for the first solo, puff out his chest, and raise the bell of his horn. We hear his first notes, typically tentative, as if he’s dipping his foot in the melody, just testing it out. And we hear him finally dive in, headlong, committing to the sound.

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Two Poets

March 20, 2012 | by

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.

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Alberta Sings the Blues

March 1, 2012 | by

I never really got the Blues, though I have certainly gotten the blues. Maybe that’s why, until recently, I had never heard of Alberta Hunter and why her recordings and I are now inseparable. If Bessie Smith’s blues are a wail to the world, Alberta’s are a conversational tête à tête. She wrote and sang throughout her life but refused to be classified as a singer of any particular genre. “Just call me a singer of songs,” she insisted.

Last summer, a pianist friend handed me Amtrak Blues, an album Alberta recorded in 1978, at age eight-three. “You’ll get this,” he assured me. When I put it on, a frank, earthy voice radiated from the stereo speakers, and I started wondering who this lady could be. I found photos of a moon-eyed Chicago saloon singer with gold hoop earrings, a Parisian flapper in a filmy evening dress, a nurse in whites, a USO entertainer in khakis, and a sibylline old lady.

There was, as it turned out, a variegated life behind such variety. “I’ve been more places by accident than most people have been on purpose,” Alberta once quipped. A singer, actress, composer, and journalist, she was a kind of musical Marco Polo whose talents were as diverse as the many places her career carried her. Read More »

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Branford Marsalis

December 8, 2011 | by

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.

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Scene and Heard

August 4, 2011 | by

 

It wasn’t my plan to get thrown up against a wall by Macduff on a Monday night. Only hours earlier, I’d found myself innocuously waiting in a long line, on an otherwise deserted Chelsea corner, in a crowd wearing a sheen of sweat under cocktail dresses and collared shirts.

“I can’t believe they’re making us wait,” a man in very short shorts in front of me said. It was seven-twenty outside the McKittrick Hotel, a hundred-plus-room Chelsea warehouse currently playing host to one of New York’s most immersive theater experiences, but no one had seen any of the gore, sex, or fun our tickets promised. “I hate lines,” a girl in a halter top moaned to her friend.

“What’s the name of this?” a woman passing by asked me.

Sleep No More,” I said.

“That’s the name of the club?”

We were waiting, in fact, to see a free-form staging of Macbeth, in which the audience wanders through a maze of lush rooms decorated like Hitchcock’s version of a boutique hotel, including a gruesome taxidermist shop and a candy store. I’d heard that actors climbed up walls, had orgies, and went ballroom dancing, but I’d decided to ignore the freakish distractions in hopes of sifting out something less fleeting from the thousands of documents, photos, and files that decorate the convoluted set. If my wallet was going to be nearly a hundred dollars lighter by the end of the night, I wanted to leave with more than just the experience of a naked, wordless rendition of “Out damn spot!” I wanted to walk away with some small, new understanding of Shakespeare. Read More »

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