Holiday (September 11-17, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

I am on a Billie Holiday tear. John Szwed’s revelatory book, Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth is the culprit. Szwed’s intent–to strip away calcified notions about the great singer, examine the concrete artifacts (musical, literary, historical), close-listen to her art and rebuild a fuller, more complex and authentic picture of her–is pretty largely realized (though Szwed admits to mysteries that are unlikely to be successfully parsed), and the book’s clearly and passionately written as well. Among the many surprises is Szwed’s “rehabilitation” of Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday’s memoir written with (some say by) William Dufty; of course, I’m about to crack it today after years of turning my nose up at it due to its professed disconnection from truth. Also, I loaded the CD changer with multiple Holiday disks, primarily my favorites from Columbia’s Essential series and the argument-starter Lady in Satin.

Listening to Holiday for hours on end Friday, I thought back to an experience I once had in the classroom. We were reading a text that featured a lynching, and I thought my students might be stimulated to interesting thoughts and feelings by Holiday’s studio version of “Strange Fruit.” These were 10th graders who had not previously succeeded in English, and they’d self-segregated themselves when choosing seats on the first day; the class was roughly 50% white kids and kids of color. For my part, I was utterly convinced the Holiday was not only the greatest jazz singer of all-time, but impossible to dislike; I was equally convinced the subject matter would be powerful to both “halves” of the population.

I played the track on a clunky portable CD player I’d checked out from the media center, but the sound was pretty good. “Strange Fruit,” in the unlikely case you haven’t heard it, does not exactly produce exuberant moods in the listener. It creeps out of the speakers and its horror unfolds funereally—Holiday doesn’t enter until relatively late, and this delay had the students looking quizzically at each other: “Did dude play the right track?” Also, pre-WWII jazz was not and is not high schoolers’ music of choice; I sensed a stiffening in the ranks. But then Billie took over, and the students’ turned their eyes to the song’s lyrics, which I’d copied for them. I was hypnotized by the precision of her delivery as it was applied to the subject matter–and of course, since I was still a green idiot, I assumed they were, too.

I paused a couple of beats after the song ended, then launched a very broad query: “So, what did you think of her singing?”

“SHE’S THE WORST SINGER I’VE EVER HEARD IN MY LIFE!!!!!”

The answer, yelled angrily by one of my quietest students, a young lady named Toni, froze me in my pedagogical tracks. I am sure my eyes bugged, and that my jaw slackened. I had been punched in the face, and I’d been leaning into the punch to begin with. Sadly, I was also expecting that, since she was a woman of color, she had to like Holiday’s singing. (I’ve evolved.)

I was so stunned that I have little recollection of my response. I ‘d become reasonably reliable in dignifying students’ responses (that now sounds to me like a condescending enterprise), so I’m sure I tried to figure out, or have her help me figure out, what she meant, but she was adamant, much snickering abounded, and the next thing I clearly remember is getting (desperately) to the actual lesson. But later, at home, I sniffed to Nicole, “The kid thought Billie Holiday was the worst singer she’d ever heard–can you believe that?”

So what’s the point? Well, Szwed’s sharp analysis of Holiday’s hard-to-pinpoint style makes clear that Holiday was not always easy on the ear: her delivery was frequently sharp, raspy, crying. Her timing was consistently eye- and ear-popping, but that’s a subtler thing to hear unless perhaps you’re a musician yourself. It occurred to me that, actually, young Toni was in fact listening intelligently and had no need of her response being dignified. From a reasonable perspective, her assessment had an anchor in fact–well, not that she was a horrible singer, but that, in the context of what Toni had listened to, the worst she’d heard. 28 years later is not a satisfactory response time for recognizing a teaching mistake–but better extremely late than never. Sorry, Toni! (We’re Facebook friends.)

Tony's

Friday nights, Nicole and I often head out to Tony’s Pizza Palace, a family-owned pizza joint we’ve been patronizing for most of our nearly 30 years together. We always sit in the booth that abuts the window with a bullet or pellet hole in it (look closely at the above photo and you can spot it). We always order a cold pitcher of Bud, two small Greek salads, and a Tony’s Special (green pepper and sausage). We always get a little caught up with the server, and check in with the head honcho, a charming young man named Daniel whom I taught the same year as Toni, featured above. Then we grab an additional libation, go back home, sprawl out on the couch, and meditate upon three of four specially selected tracks. It’s relaxing, stimulating, fun, and the perfect transition into the weekend. True to form, we followed our ritual last Friday, and selected the following three tracks, the first two of which we’ve worn out in the past, the third indicating I still couldn’t get Szwed and Lady Day off my mind.

To evoke our beloved NOLA, and to electrify our ears, minds and bodies:

To revisit a romantic favorite from our days of penury:

To engage with pure desolation–but also with an alert artistic mind at the end of its rope:

 

During the weekend, I chose to explore the work of a young Chicago MC one of my current students had begged me to check out. Perhaps still feeling guilty from my earlier revelation, my conscience was the driver, but this young lady, from Oklahoma City by way of Salt Lake City, was, like Toni, right (only less problematically). I loved her recommendation so much I bought some of the artist’s work. She goes by the handle of Noname, and she’s something–smart, mischievous, funny, and skilled. I’ll go out an a limb and say she’s gonna be a star. Thanks for the tip, Juniper!

The new one (soon to appear way up on my annual list):

The previous one:

 

Coming attractions: I’ve assigned my comp class the following listening, reading and viewing for our next semi-Socratic (you’ll recall my reportage on our Mitski’s Be the Cowboy lesson last post). Feel free to engage if you need some homework!

How Dev Hynes Became a Miracle Worker for R.&B., Pop, and Everything Else You Can Imagine (Lizzy Goodman, New York Times Magazine)

Premature Evaluation: Blood Orange, ‘Negro Swan’  (Briana Younger, Stereogum)

Blood Orange builds a refuge for black stories on the exquisite Negro Swan (Judnick Mayard, The Onion AV Club)

 

 

 

In the Classroom, With The Dogg, and Between the Pages (September 3-10, 2018, Columbia, Mo)

I am constantly tweaking my teaching strategies for my freshman comp/pop music class at Stephens College. Thinking about data-based questions, I stumbled upon what I thought would be a stimulating lesson plan:

1) zero them in on an artist with fresh work out, and ask them to sample the entire album;

2) ask the kids to read some new and quality reviews and/or features on the artist;

3) funnel them to some good and recent performance and video clips of the artist;

4) ask them to annotate as they explore, listen, think, and reflect;

5) convene for a kind of Socratic seminar, with the above serving as the data.

Actually, the lesson was pretty successful. Since we’re a women’s college, I thought Mitski and her new album Be the Cowboy would be an ideal subject. The young woman’s an intense singer, a talented writer and musician, and loves to mine her (justifiably, I feel) turbulent emotional life for material. Myself, I like her and her new album very much, but, honestly, that had nothing to do with my choice: I simply thought it would be reliably stimulating for my class of 18.

It was. But. A few students responded very positively and strongly to her work; a few (not necessarily the same few) skillfully used evidence and analysis to back up their opinions; most, however, found her a little much. What did that mean? All over the place musically (I was thinking that range was more a tour de force, if not more simply the artist matching setting with material, as were a couple kids; most wanted a groove). Providing too much information (for example, there is a masturbation line) and relying too much on lyrics. Not being chill enough. And–this was probably the most interesting thread of the conversation–cannily packaging herself as having a foot in pop and a foot in avant garde in order to be easily commodified, for the convenience of consumers, with Urban Outfitters. As you might be suspecting, we have a passionate anti-capitalist in the house, which I am enjoying immensely, but, while she accused the writers of the three articles I’d assigned them of “fellating” Mitski with no real supporting arguments (unfair in some ways, though none of the writers did supply any caveats or constructive criticism about her work), the student herself had a little trouble supplying specific support for her own attack. Since one of my ulterior motives was getting them to effectively substantiate their contentions–or at least start practicing same–perhaps the ensuing provided an obvious model of what to avoid. I don’t know, but I’m always surprised to find in this course that, often, women hold female artists to a very (too?) high standard. I’ll have to continue letting that phenomenon marinate.

I was very encouraged by a very quiet student’s lone contribution, though, which followed the above barrage: “You know, she’s a very young artist. Shouldn’t the fact that she’s still developing earn her some room to be messy?” (Yes.)

 

HOT TAKE: Swamp Dogg’s superbly titled Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune is one of the best–and the strangest–r&b records of the year. Only The Dogg could take Auto-Tune and make something deep out of it–except that it really appears to have been Justin Vernon’s idea (why, Lord, why?), so that hurts, but I have to admit it works, and Swamp’s the show. His songs, lyrically speaking, aren’t as eccentric as usual (“Sex with Your Ex” the exception)–in fact, the covers are among the brightest highlights–but the shot of loneliness and alienation with which the much-maligned effect injects them is…a word I never thought I’d use in connection with Bon Iver…POWERFUL. Great cover art and liner notes, as one would expect.

 

Otherwise this week, I indulged in some very, very good music-related reading. Sam Anderson’s wild and wonderful Boom Town focuses on Mr. Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips as one exemplar of the spirit of his subject, Oklahoma City. I’m not a huge fan of Coyne or his group (though seeing them when they were just kids was a trip), but Anderson makes a convincing case that to understand the city and its travails and aspirations, you have to consider them. Elsewhere, a star weatherman, the OKC Thunder, and several “city visionaries” flesh out his analysis. This is one of the very best books I’ve read this year, and it’s as much about us as it is about Oklahoma City, looked at a certain way.

Playing Changes

More exclusively about music is Nate Chinen’s Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century. A test any music book must pass with me is, “Does it hurt my wallet by sending me to stuff I never knew about or unfairly dismissed?” Well, technically, with Apple Music, I don’t have to fork over any green, though that’s a sad fact I’ve addressed elsewhere and don’t feel like going into here. Chinen’s book easily passes the test; as I read, I constructed a playlist from the chapters’ subjects and his extensive discography that will take me until the middle of the next decade to fully absorb. The main thing it did for me is pry me out of my stubbornly resistant attitude toward jazz that’s flavored by new-millennium r&b and hip hop. Examples: Robert Glasper, Snarky Puppy (shitty band names can hurt a group!), and Lalah Hathaway, all of whom Chinen induced me to like). He’s also great in chapters on jazz education and international influence, innovation and practice, but I pouted when I realized he would not be including Scandinavia or Portugal in the latter discussion. I am biased, but how he could skip over Joe McPhee in looking at the role of “the new mentors” in the transfer of methods and ideas to the new generation leaves me nonplussed.

 

An article about Jelly Roll Morton showed up in my feed, courtesy of (hmmm) The Wall Street Journal: “Plotting His Way Into Jazz History.” John Edward Hasse, a writer previously unknown to me, presents Morton as “jazz’s first theorist,” which I’d heard argued before, but he hooked me with this paragraph–I don’t play an instrument, so I can’t initially hear this stuff when I listen to jazz:

“…Morton took on several problems. In just over three minutes, how do you create interest and drama? In a musical style taking shape, how do you prove the full potential of jazz to integrate the planned with the spontaneous, the notated with the improvised?”

Even better is how Hasse succinctly explains Morton’s solutions (exemplified in the classic “Black Bottom Stomp”)…but read the article yourself for that. Suffice it to say that I went straight from reading the article to JSP’s great Morton box set and Wynton Marsalis’ Morton tribute, Mr. Jelly Lord, my favorite record by my favorite musical tight-ass. Why? Well, the band is effin’ cream: Don Vappie on banjo and guitar, Dr. Michael White on clarinet, Herlin Riley on drum kit, Wycliffe Gordon on ‘bone, tuba, and trumpet, and Marsalis himself as loose and playful (and masterful) as you’re gonna hear him. Did you ever wonder if Harry Connick, Jr., ever really applied on record anything he learned from James Booker? He does here, and does justice to his mentor. The selections are perfect and often surprising (“Big Lip Blues,” for example), and the arrangements, execution, and production do not embalm them. And you get lagniappe in the true NOLA fashion, with Wynton and pianist Eric Reed nailing “Tomcat Blues” via wax cylinder from the Edison Museum:

 

I swear, right now books are like heroin to me (yes, I listened to the Gun Club this week). I should count myself lucky. I also picked up John Szwed’s Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth, which sets out to vaunt the former and puncture the latter. It’s note-perfect in doing so thus far, and has convinced me that I do too need to to read Lady Sings the Blues. I didn’t know Billie made it to film at 19, singing an Ellington song with Duke backing her and already exhibiting the mastery that would make her legendary. She begins singing at about the 4:40 mark:

Szwed also wrote the best book yet on Sun Ra. Check him out.

Short-shrift Division:

David Virelles: Mboko (WOW!!!!!!)

The Gun Club: The Fire of Love

Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (expanded edition)

George Coleman: Live at Yoshi’s

Robert Glasper: Black Radio

Lalah Hathaway (feat. Snarky Puppy), “Something” (ZOINKS!!!)

 

 

Martha Redbone, Whatchoo Up To? (May 21st, 2018, Columbia, MO)

In 2012, Martha Redbone, a versatile singer of African and Native American heritage, released The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake. She is far from the first musician to have tried to bring Blake’s songs (many of his poems were intended to be sung) to life on record–it’s a tempting task, you have to admit, though a daunting one. My past favorites had been by The Fugs, who, under the guidance of poet Ed Sanders and polymath Tuli Kuperfberg, waxed yearning, fragile versions of “How Sweet I Roam’d from Field to Field” and “Ah, Sunflower! Weary of Time,” and (really, very unsurprisingly) The Fall’s wicked “Jerusalem.” However, Redbone’s album (fascinating from beginning to end) broke the hold of those songs. How to describe it? Well, it’s like the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack–with teeth. It’s not only the often-hidden darkness and destruction in Blake’s poems that provide that bite; it’s also Redbone’s carefully controlled blues inflections, terse line deliveries (amidst much joyousness), and musical settings, which nicely fit (and sometimes provide ironic commentary on) the great Dissenter poet’s complexity. Three wonderful cases in point are at the heart of the record: her black gospelcum-bluegrass “I Rose Up At the Dawn of the Day” (“…for riches I should not pray…if I pray / It must be for other people…” and “I have mental joy and mental health /  I have Mental friends / and mental wealth…I have all the riches bodily.”), her devastating bluecum-bluegrass “A Poison Tree”–a starker warning about repression does not exist–and the clarion a capella “The Ecchoing Green.”

Here she is in 2016, knocking the title song out of the park:

Thing is, the record was released under the name “Martha Redbone Roots Project.” I noticed that immediately upon laying hands upon the CD, then came back to it after a mesmerizing first listen, and murmured to myself, “What next? If it’s a project, and that’s the first result, what further glories await?” (That’s rather formal murmuring, but it’s how I roll.) But we’re six years down the line–almost to the day–and no follow-up. I am encouraged that the above video performance is so recent, but even it is over two years old.

I’m gettin’ on one knee, Martha, and I’m somewhat of a Dissenter myself, but I’ll do my version of praying that you have another powerful Roots Project rekkid in the chute. I will play The Garden of Love as long as I am sentient, and I am sure as I age, its power will grow–that’s Blake, that’s poetry, that’s your commitment and vision–but I pray for you that you’ve experienced new inspiration visions.

Short-shrift Division:

Only the strong stuff this day.

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vols. 8-9: late Columbia-period Lady Day, my favorite, with her startling “Tell Me More and More and Then Some” and her perfectly blue and resigned “The Man I Love.”

Billie Holiday: Lady in Autumn. That title is correct–she’s a different but cannier singer (and she was canny to begin with), and if you need a boost, read Zadie Smith’s classic Holiday short story, which I never tire of pushing and which never fails to send me rushing to the “H” section of my stacks. Better yet, play the audio track of Smith’s supernatural reading of the piece and dig Jerry Dantzig’s pics of Lady in Harlem in ’57, which inspired the story.

 

Songwriters’ Special (May 8th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

Nothing special on this day–other than the songs. I experienced a sudden craving for pithy, 2-to-3-minute country songs, which sometimes get crowded out by my striving to hear everything, stay on top of new releases, and the ascension of jazz as my musical respite of choice. Used to be, around here, that every weekend, especially Saturdays and Sundays, country was always on the box; the friends we saw regularly were also dedicated to the stuff, as well as drinking beer and yelling along with songs. We’re older, busier, and many of our boon companions are raising kids. As well, though there’s plenty of good country songwriting, the singers seem safer–better for them, not so much for the music, and us.

I guess I experienced a flash of reminiscence and had to go back to the well. And in the well was some golden elixir: tales told by a gravedigger suddenly $40 poorer, a daughter realizing that time’s snatched her mourning, a Stetson-less Texan who’s just as big as you are, a heartbroken lover demanding the taverns close so his baby can’t get in, a rounder whose eighth-grade education doesn’t mean he was born yesterday, a leather-clad redhead whom Death gifts a motorcycle, a murderous cuckold lost in the cave of his crime, a scared greenhorn who can’t find the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge…that’s just scratching the surface, but how can one resist their stories.

I’ve prepared a playlist with some highlights. The singers aren’t always the songwriters, but in those cases the songwriters show up as singers later in the playlist. I recommend this to readers who think they don’t like country, or who are startin’ to hate country (but still love cowboy songs).

Short-shrift Division:

Free jazz I find hard to shake. I listened to the whole of David S. Ware’s Live in The World: three discs of sweeping, dramatic music within which Ware and his pianist Matthew Shipp vie to snatch your heart out of your chest. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard this band take “The Way We Were” into the cosmos; they also push Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite” off the edge of the planet, and Ware’s own “Aquarian Sound” and “Mikuro’s Blues” hold their own with both. A terrific intro to a tenor saxophonist who was gone too soon (the artistic offspring of Ben Webster and Pharoah Sanders!) and a classic quartet that was fairly inarguably the turn of the century version of Trane’s. No shit.

Literary/Photographic Note:

Billie Holiday fans are directed to check out Jerry Dantzic: Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill, a collection of Dantzic’s 1957 photographs of Holiday assembled by Dantzic’s son Grayson. The book opens with a blazing Zadie Smith story in which she inhabits Holiday’s gone soul and looks back on its final days; I advise listening to Smith read it–the inhabitation reaches beyond the written word. Half of Dantzic’s photos capture the singer so incandescently that it’s unfathomable that she’d be dead within the next year; the other half suggest that a termite loneliness is eating her from within. A haunting collection.

Expository Listening, Expository Thinking: A Lesson that Really Worked!

Today at Stephens College, where I teach freshman comp with a pop music focus, I executed one of those rare lessons that works on every level you hope it will. Feel free to steal and/or adapt it!

My students’ next essay assignment is to focus in on a music-related topic they’re interested in, then choose the appropriate expository mode for exploring it. On Tuesday, we reviewed some of the expository modes I’m encouraging them to try (comparison/contrast, problem-solution, description, definition, cause-effect, classification), but I sensed some anxiety and disconnect. As of last night, partially due to being hella busy this week, I still didn’t have a solution for that condition, so I just slept on it, then woke up with this (funny how that happens to teachers):

In class, we are going to listen to (and watch) four excellent singers–Billie Holiday, Anita O’ Day, Jamilia Woods, and Dolly Parton–in action.

As you listen and watch, you are going to think about the following expository modes of analysis and writing, and jot down corresponding observations you make in your notebook or on your device:

Description (external) – What does the singer sound like and how does she present herself?

Definition (internal) – Who or what does the singer seem to be?

Classification – How would you classify the singer, according to official and unofficial terms of classification?

Cause –> Effect – In listening closely to the singer, what effects do you feel as a result of her performance? What specific aspects of the performance cause those effects?

Comparison/Contrast – How are these singers similar? How do they differ?

By Sunday night, transfer your findings in coherent, expanded, and more specific form to the associated discussion board, and be prepared to respond meaningfully to one fellow students’ post.

We began with the above clip from “The Sound of Jazz”–the famous last hot flame from the doomed Billie Holiday. I prompted them by reviewing the above modes, then played the track for them. Afterwards, just for modelling’s sake, I asked students to share some of their observations:

Description: “soulful,” “relaxed,” “rhythmic.”

Definition: “A woman who knows pain.” “She has experienced a lot.” “She is a singer who connects with her band and the audience.”

Classification: “Blues singer.” “No! Jazz singer!”

Cause–>Effect: “She was glowing!” –> It mesmerized me.” “She was getting in tune, effortlessly…”–> “It left me in awe.”

I could not have responded more accurately myself. From the evidence, my idea seemed to be working. I’ll know for sure when I see the discussion board posts and the essay rough drafts.

The other tracks I played them (I need little reason to show the first to every class I teach, regardless of subject).

Jamila Woods’ scintillating and brand-new Tiny Desk concert, which I can’t figure out how to embed.