An Old Master

Kudos to Jules Feiffer for creating, writing and illustrating a graphic novel in a fantasy space that he clearly adores. Why the kudos? Who cares that the guy is in his 80s—he tells a helluva story.

FeifferobamaOkay, more about Jules before begin. Actually, you get a fair sense of him from his 2008 cartoon for NYC’s Village Voice. I found it on Wikipedia. He won a Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning, was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Writer’s Guild of America, and he’s got his place in the Comic Book Hall of Fame. And now, he’s got this new book.

It’s called “Kill My Mother,” and I like this description: it’s a “noir-action-romance.” It’s a story dominated by powerful, smart women—a story where men are rather foolish, easily misled, or weak. The plot winds through 1940s Los Angeles, and through a World War II battle zone—it looks and feels like a cross between a graphic novel and a rough storyboard for a post war-time black-and-white film, one that has its doubts about what happened and why. In fact, it’s the sort of noir tale that works best when it makes it way through dark and ambiguous questions. Annie is the protagonist (and the gal on the cover of the book). Her dad is dead. He was a cop. Somebody killed him. She wants to know who did the deed and why. Her mother, well, Annie despises her mother, in Annie’s eyes, a coward of a woman who deserves the worst.

Feiffer bookIn theory, it’s the book that drives the story, but in practice, here, it’s the pictures. Actually, it’s the whole page, the whole well-designed, elegantly organized duotone watercolors and pen-and-ink that feel so dark, so thick with intrigue. Most of the book is rendered in sepia—not the old tones of photographs, but lively, contrasty, vaguely seedy renditions of what otherwise might have been black. The accent is usually a very pale green, the color of a Hollywood swimming pool on page, a cadaver on the next.

It’s vengeful and bluesy, jivey and filled with songs sung way too late at night by a tall woman with a long past. It’s not jokey—this is serious work by a serious creative pro whose resume is dates back before most of the people who will read this article, or that book. There’s nudity and violence, crude language and tenderness, idiotic situations that feel quite real, and a wonderful sense of place and time.

What works best for me? Just scanning every page, considering the creative decisions that a long life are capable of producing. This isn’t just a good graphic novel. It’s a late stage work by one of our twentieth, and now, twenty-first century masters. I love the way he sets up a page, brings his print characters to life on the page, uses flowing line and dabs of color to fill my head, and feed my imagination. Gosh, he’s good.

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The Bathypelagic Zone, or Where the Sperm Whales Go

The most experienced freedivers manage to go no more than a few hundred feet below the surface—they play in the Epipelagic Zone. Dolphins are good to about 1,000 feet m the heart of the Mesopelagic. After that, the Bathypelagic Zone is home to electric rays, sperm whales, and a lot of unfamiliar creatures. Terms unfamiliar? Think about a bathysphere—the spherical submarine for deep exploration.

deep_cover-u2245Freediving is “the most direct and intimate way to connect with the ocean.” During a three-minute freedive, “the (human) body bears only a passing resemblance to its terrestrial form and function. The ocean changes us physically, and psychically.” Unfortunately, “sometimes you don’t make it back alive.” Those words were written by James Nestor in his new book, “Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves.” It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, an introduction to a part of our world that is unfamiliar to nearly everyone on the planet, and an adventure story, too.

Continuing. “At sixty feet down, we are not quite ourselves. The heart beats at half its normal rate. Blood starts racing from the extremities toward the more critical areas of the body’s core. The lungs shrink to a third of their usual size…” And, “at 250 feet, the pressure is so extreme that your lungs shrink to the size of fist…” Human freediving is a story in itself, a dangerous way to explore because, often, one emerges from the water with blood coming out of the nose and mouth, and sometimes, if the pace of re-emergence is too rapid, blackout is common and, drowning, implosion and death are distinct possibilities.

As grossly fascinating as the extreme sport may be, the magnetoreception used by sharks, who can dive below six hundred feet, is more compelling. Sharks are tuned to “the magnetic pulses of the Earth’s magnetic core.” Echolocation seems less magical—it’s the basis of sonar and sonograms—but the coded language used by sperm whales, or dolphins, as they echolocate, well, that’s something extraordinary. Going further, cetaceans (including, for example, dolphins) possess brains that differ from the human ones that we are just beginning to understand. “…dolphins…could hold two separate, simultaneous conversations with two separate modes of communication, clicks and whistles—the equivalent of a human talking on the phone while chatting online” (to which I would add: we pretend to do two things at once—texting while driving, for example, but do neither well when multitasking).

Way down in the bathypalegic zone, the author and some compadres are watching the burning sea—bioluminescence—“chemical production of light by living organisms” in a inky-black sea so far from the surface that it exists in darkness (“night never becomes day”). “The grotesque-looking anglerfish uses a little light on the top of its head to attract prey. Giant squids—which can grow more than sixty feet long…use bright flashes to communicate with other squid using something similar to Morse code.”

He becomes fascinated with bioelectricity, and explains that “every cell in your body contains an electrical charge…the electricity travels by way of a series of circuits called ion channels, tiny proteins in the membranes of cells.” Nestor goes on to discuss electric rays, animals whose design concentrates this electrical power so that it can “emit a shock of more than 22o volts.” He considers the body’s energy that the Chinese call chi, and wonders what we can learn from the ocean in order to control and maximize the use of our power.

WhaleBack, for a moment, to sperm whales, “the loudest animals on earth.” He explains, “at their maximum level of 236 decibels, (their) clicks are louder than two thousand pounds of TNT exploding two hundred feet away from you, and much louder than the space shuttle taking off from two hundred and fifty feet away. They’re so loud that they cannot be heard in air, only in water, which is dense enough to propagate such powerful noises.” They could “vibrate a human body to death.”

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This is a spectacular journey, written so that the reader goes deeper and deeper into the depths of the ocean, then emerges with newfound knowledge and appreciation of earth’s wonder.

I could go on, but it’s late, and there’s not much more to say besides, “buy the book.”

 

 

 

 

A Concert Evening at Home

Unknown-1New CD + DVD set: “Jazz & The Philharmonic,” recorded in Miami, dozens of performers doing a lovely job with jazz, classical (with a modern twist), traditional music, beautifully produced and engineered. You may have seen it on PBS—last February—but if you are among the many millions who missed out, this is a gift that you might consider for this year’s holiday season. Notably, it is one of the last recorded works supervised by Phil Ramone, whose list of credits is among the most impressive in American music history.

Want a sample? Try “Simple Gifts,” a theme that you will recognize from Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” The performance (Mark O’Connor on violin, Dave Grusin at the piano) and the recording are spectacular.

 

SimpleGiftsAlso on the web page (click on above), a straight ahead performance of Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves” by Bobby McFerrin with some solid scat. (Later, on “Soloings,” McFerrin plays with his voice and the audience.) Backing McFerrin on “Autumn Leaves” is Grusin, Chick Corea, and The Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra (they are the “Philharmonic” in this concert). Corea returns for “Spanish Suite,” based upon the familiar classical work by Joaquin Rodrigo, “Concerto de Aranjuez.” It’s easy to forget how terrific Corea can be—this is a lovely setting for his piano work. The wonderful trumpet player Terence Blanchard (he is the Mancini Institute’s Artistic Director) contributes an interesting duet with vocalist Eric Owens on Bach’s “Fugue in C Major.,” then joins in on “Spanish Suite,” and later, on “Solfeggietto” by C.P.E. Bach. It’s great to hear this work performed with soloists and a full orchestra—reminds me of the good old days when the Boston Pops showed up with celebrity soloists on public TV.

For me, this concert was an introduction to a modern classical piano player named Elizabeth Joy Roe. She performers with Blanchard on “Solfeggietto,” and with Mancini director Shelly Berg on a piano duet version of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Curious, I looked her up. Roe records classic music for Deutsche Gramophone, but she’s unique because she often performs duets. Not  just any songs—an intriguing combination of Michael Jackson, ragtime and classical. Her version—on her website, not on the Jazz & The Philharmonic CD/DVD includes an all-out duet with Greg Anderson on Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” The video is as much fun as the piano work. Watch this (now)! She’s someone I want to know more about.

Okay—sorry—easily distracted by great music—back to the main story. What have I missed? Actually, one track, and it’s terrific. It’s called “Mountain Dance,” and it’s performed by Grusin and O’Connor with the Mancini Orchestra. Why terrific? It feels great, especially on a fine-tuned stereo system where the bass is as clear as the high notes. Again, a tribute to a recording that sounds much better than most.

There’s more on the DVD—a second McFerrin “Soloings”, another piece by Chick Corea entitled “Armadas Rhumba,” and, why not, a rousing version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (you know, the “2001: A Space Odyssey” theme).

What fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Digital World of Enchanted Objects

StockOrb-150x150To begin, think not about the objects, but about our desires. We want to know it all—but not all of the time. Sometimes, we just want to know whether it’s cold outside, or whether the dog has been fed. We don’t know the details, don’t really need to know the precise temperature or the moment in time when the dog’s bowl was filled with food. So instead of a thermometer, or, more intensely, a digital thermometer that reports temperature to the tenth of a degree, how about a glowing orb? Or, as author-scientist-innovator-professor David Rose describes his invention, an Ambient Orb. He writes, in his new-ish book, Enchanted Objects, “They aren’t disruptive. They have a calm presence. They don’t require you to do anything…They are there, in every room of the house with the exact information you expect from them.” So he reimagined a crystal ball that contains LEDs that change color, and report the information you need by glowing in your choice of hues. “As the colors change, you glance and know if the pollen count in the air is higher than usual.”

GlowCap-150x150Why not a jacket that hugs the wearer every time she receives a “like” on her Facebook page? (This, from one of David’s students.) Or a toothbrush that knows it is being used (and being used properly), and recognizes your good work, rewarding you with a discount at the dentist? (Oy. The gamification of dentistry! Nah, not in David’s hands. He’s smarter than that—check this out.) One of his entrepreneurial firms was hired by a big pharmaceutical firm to bring some life to the little plastic pill containers. Hoping to change the behavior of the the many patients who do not take our prescribed meds, David’s company, Vitality, changed the cap. The cap glows when you’re supposed to take a pill. Even better, the GlowCap texts you when you’ve forgotten to take a pill, and automatically sends refill messages your local pharmacy. The “adherence rate” is up to 94 percent, far better than the 71 percent achieved by a standard (boring, non-glowing, non-internet connected) vial. It’s information at a glance, again non-disruptive.

UnknownDavid’s vision of the future: whatever the device may do, it must be affordable, indestructible, easily used, and, when it makes sense, wearable. Lovable, too—his clever illustration of interactive medicine packaging are based upon faces that transform themselves. They’re happy when you’re doing the right thing, grumpy if you’re not.

I love the idea of a Conversation Portal, an expansion of the telepresence office conferencing systems that allow people in different physical places to sit at the same half-digital, half-physical conference table. It uses large screens to display flat versions of real people’s bodies so that they feel as though they’re in the room. The Conversation Portal places that concept, more or less, into an informal lunch table setting. Virtual workers—perhaps five percent of the workforce, with more to come—can enjoy human interaction during a morning coffee break.

I also like the idea of a smart bus stop. It’s a digital sign that tells you how long you will have to wait for a bus to arrive. By connecting to the bus system’s GPS system, it provides a convenient visual answer to the inevitable question, “when is the bus going to show up?” His research found that “by eliminating the uncertainty of when the bus will arrive, people become more patient—and they don’t give up on the system i if the wait is longer than fifteen minutes…This enchanted system changes the perception—and behavior—of an entire city of riders.” (In this case, San Francisco.)

DavidRose_headshot_200x200David dreams of on-demand objects, and objects that learn and respond to personal needs. Vending machines, for example, that customize their offerings based upon “a prediction of what the person will like.” He envisions “digital shadows” for objects—information associated with physical objects enhanced by digital projection.

For those who intrigued by technology, but don’t want to dig into the technical details, David has written a marvelous, positive book about a future that he is actively creating with his colleagues. Nice to get a first person account, nicer still to be in the presence of someone with such boundless enthusiasm (and smarts).

Catch David’s 2011 TED Talk, too.

 

Stuck in the Middle

100bannertransIt might not mean much to people who don’t buy paint to create artwork, or ink to make prints, but Dan Smith’s company went ahead with a big decision this month. They stopped selling art supplies. That is, they stopped selling art supplies made by others, and decided to bet the farm on the paints, inks and other supplies that they make and sell under their own name.

Leisel Lund PrimTek Paintouts by LiesalPutting this another way, Daniel Smith Art Supply decided to leave the business of being a middleman. The company didn’t have much to say about the change, apart from the warehouse clearance notices that now arrive in my email box every day. On their website, one statement clearly expresses the company’s purpose: “Daniel Smith is a leading manufacturer of superior-quality lines of watercolor paints, sticks & grounds, acrylic paints & gesso, oil & water-soluble oil paints. Our products are available worldwide.” This is not a new idea: when Brooks Brothers has been selling its own clothing, in its own stores, Zachary Taylor was our 12th President.Brooks-Brothers-History-600x270

And that made me start wondering about Ken Burns, and a guy who worked for me twenty years ago who just showed up with his own documentary. If the connections are not immediately clear, please bear with me.

UnknownThis week, millions of Americans are spending their evenings with the Roosevelts. That is, they are watching a series of documentaries made by Ken Burns and his Florentine Films staff, a series that tells the story of Theodore, Franklin, Eleanor, their families, and their political careers. Burns is closely aligned with WETA, a public television station in Washington, DC, but neither Burns nor WETA is the distributor. Instead, that job first falls to PBS, and then, to nearly 200 local television stations. That’s the way it has worked since The Civil War, or, at least, since around 1990. I didn’t think much about that until someone I know ranted about missing the first half hour of one of the episodes. I figured the episode was available online, did a bit of exploring, and found that all of the episodes were available online, even before they were released on television. And that made me wonder about the chain of distribution. Quite reasonably, there is a website devoted entirely to The Roosevelts. The site’s logo is the show’s logo. The top menu items seem to be focused on the project, not on the distribution. Scroll down to the bottom and the site is copyrighted by WETA and Florentine Films. In fact, there is a modest PBS presence, and in fact, there is no real need for a middleman here at all. Ken Burns has made a fine series of films, and now, with the miracle of web distribution, he can distribute those films directly to his (admiring) public. Something feels right about PBS’s relationship with Ken Burns and his work, but look closely, and it’s clear that PBS, Burns, Florentine, WETA, and PBS’s member stations are taking this new digital distribution idea one step at a time.

And that made me think about the guy who used to work for me who produced an independent documentary. It’s a lovely documentary about the nasty behavior of a big company, and, of all things, a public passion for a particular soda pop. The produce and I were exploring how this documentary gain some exposure. In essence, the producer was seeking a middleman, a Netflix, an exhibitor to bring the film to the public. Old habits die hard. New thinking would probably involve, somehow, contacting every person passionate about the soft drink, and encouraging them to (a) watch the film, and (b) tell their friends. This is a new kind of magic, and it only works sometimes.

And that made me think about a friend who is wondering about the future of the music business. In times past, record labels signed and marketed artists. Now, artists communicate directly with fans, and many record labels are struggling to find their way. At the same time, authors are publishing their own books while dreaming of the money and marketing clout that a large publisher could provide (no more crates of books in the garage, no more handling every detail).

neon051-580x326UnknownSo here we are, caught between two ideas, two eras. In the former, large fortunes were made by the middleman. In the latter, there is no middleman. Make what you sell—the old American way (and, in fact, the way that many people in undeveloped nations continue to operate, with no clear path to a digital future). And then I think about Macy’s, Wal-Mart, and going back a bit, the much-criticized market domination of A&P and Rexall Drug. All of them hawking their self-branded merchandise, all of them making a fortune by selling other companies’ stuff.

Usually, I finish an article with a sense of direction. This time, it’s more complicated. Kudos to Dan Smith for doing something that makes sense instead of doing too many things that don’t. Kudos to the musicians and the authors and the documentary producers who have figured it out, and to Ken Burns and WETA for working within and beside and around the system as they invent a future that sustains everyone in their food chain. Let’s not pretend that this is easy, and let’s accept our era as the mass of contradictions that our world has become. In fact, some of our greatest internet success stories have been stories of middlemen with eBay and Amazon leading the way, and plenty of successful companies including Pinterest, Etsy, and Netflix populating a very long list of middleman enterprises.

At first, I thought I’d be writing an article entitled “Death of the Middleman,” but as I wrote, I realized that my initial approach was naive. Now, I suspect there will always be a role for the middleman. That’s the reason why the altogether excellent Brattleboro Food Co-op exists, to create a marketplace for local farmers and small time operators who make, but cannot directly market, their local cheeses (imagine visiting every creamery for every block of cheese, every week). And thank goodness for the local artisinal ice cream makers who have opened small shops nearby, more than compensating for the closing of the century-old country dairy that closed before its time (and sold only its own ice cream).

Has the digital revolution washed over the middleman? Nope. Not yet. He’s still traveling from town to town, still making the same sales calls he did a century or so ago. Looks a bit different now, made and lost a few fortunes along the way, but he’s still a part of the landscape, not about to give it up any time soon, near as I can see.

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The Right Dog for the Job

This article was published in Education Week in January, 2009. I think it’s terrific. The author is Marion Brady, “a retired high school teacher, college professor, and textbook author who writes frequently on education. He lives in Cocoa, Fla.”

220px-Bordercollie-ankc-agilityDriving the rural roads of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, I’ve occasionally been fortunate enough to be blocked by sheep being moved from one pasture to another.

I say “fortunate” because I’ve gotten to watch an impressive performance by a dog—a border collie.

And what a performance! A single, midsize dog herding two or three hundred sheep, keeping them moving in the right direction, rounding up strays, knowing how to intimidate but not cause panic, funneling them all through a gate, and obviously enjoying the challenge.

Why a border collie? Why not an Airedale or Zuchon, or another of about 400 breeds listed on the Internet?

Because, among those for whom herding sheep is serious business, there’s general agreement that border collies are better than any other dog at doing what needs to be done. They have “the knack.” That knack is so important, those who care most about border collies even oppose their being entered in dog shows. They’re certain that would lead to border collies being bred to look good, and looking good isn’t the point. What counts is talent, interest, innate ability, performance.

Other breeds are no less impressive in other ways. If you’re lost in a snowstorm in the Alps, you don’t need a border collie. You need a big, strong dog with a good nose, lots of fur, wide feet, and a great sense of direction for returning with help. You need a Saint Bernard.

If varmints are sneaking into your henhouse, killing your chickens, and escaping down a little hole in a nearby field, you don’t need a border collie or a Saint Bernard. You need a fox terrier.

Want to sniff luggage for bombs? Chase felons? Stand guard duty? Retrieve downed game birds? Guide the blind? Detect certain diseases? Locate earthquake survivors? Entertain audiences? Play nice with little kids? Go for help if Little Nell falls down a well? With training, dogs can do those jobs well.

So, let’s set performance standards and train all dogs to meet them. All 400 breeds. Leave no dog behind. Two-hundred-pound mastiffs may have a little trouble with the chase-the-fox-into-the-little-hole standard, and Chihuahuas will probably have difficulty with the tackle-the-felon-and-pin-him-to-the-ground standard. But, hey, standards are standards! No excuses! No giving in to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Hold dogs accountable.

220px-Mastif_angielski_pregowany_768Here’s a question: Why are one-size-fits-all performance standards inappropriate to the point of silliness when applied to dogs, but accepted without question when applied to kids? If someone tried to set up a national program to teach every dog to do everything that various breeds are able to do, the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would have them in court in a New York minute. But when authorities mandate one-size-fits-all performance standards for kids, and the standards aren’t met, it’s the kids and teachers, not the standards, that get blamed.

Consider, for example, what’s happening in math “reform.” School systems across the country are upping both the number of required courses and their level of difficulty. Why? Is it because math teaches transferable thinking skills? There’s no research supporting that contention. Is it because advanced math is required for college work? Where’s the evidence that colleges have a clear grasp of America’s educational challenge and therefore should be leading the education parade? Is it because most adults make routine use of higher math? No. Is it because American industry is begging for more mathematicians? Not according to statistics on available job opportunities. Is it because math has played an important role in America’s technological achievements, and if we’re to continue to be pre-eminent, a full range of math courses needs to be taught?

Bingo! And true. But how much sense does it make to run every kid in America through the same math regimen, when only a small percentage has enough mathematical ability to make productive use of it? How much sense does it make to put a math whiz in an Algebra 2 classroom with 25 or 30 aspiring lawyers, dancers, automatic-transmission specialists, social workers, surgeons, artists, hairdressers, language teachers? How much sense does it make to put hundreds of thousands of kids on the street because they can’t jump through a particular math hoop?

Some suggestions:

One: Stop fixating on the American economy. Trying to shape kids to fit the needs of business and industry rather than the other way around is immoral.

Two: Stop massive, standardized testing. For a fraction of the cost of high-stakes subject-matter tests, every kid’s strengths and weaknesses can be identified using inexpensive inventories of interests, abilities, and learning styles.

Three: Eliminate grade levels. Start with where kids are, help them go as far as they can go as fast as they can go, then give them a paper describing what they can do, or a Web site where they can do it for themselves.

Four: When kids are ready for work, push responsibility for teaching specialized skills and knowledge onto users of those skills and knowledge—employers. Occupation-related instruction such as that now being offered in magnet schools will never keep up with the variety of skills needed or their rates of change. Apprenticeships and intern arrangements will go a long way toward smoothing the transition into responsible adulthood.

Five: Abandon the assumption that spending the day “covering the material” in a random mix of five or six subjects educates well. Only one course of study is absolutely essential. Societal cohesion and effective functioning require participation in a broad conversation about values, beliefs, and patterns of action, their origins, and their probable and possible future consequences. The young need to engage in that conversation, and a single, comprehensive, systemically integrated course of study could prepare them for it. It should be the only required course.

Six: Limiting required study to a single course would result in an explosion of educational options (and save a lot of money). We say we respect individual differences, say we value initiative, spontaneity, and creativity, say we admire the independent thinker, say every person should be helped to realize her or his full potential, say the young need to be introduced to the real world—then we spend a half-trillion dollars a year on a system of education at odds with our rhetoric. Aligning the institution with our core values would give it the legitimacy and generate the excitement it now lacks.

Alternatively, we can continue on our present course. For almost 20 years, “reform” has been driven by the assumption that “the system”—the math, science, language arts, and social studies curriculum in near-universal use in America’s schools and colleges since 1892—is sound, from which it follows that poor performance must be the fault of the teachers and kids. This, of course, calls for tough love—standards, accountability, raised bars, rigor, competitive challenges, public shaming, pay for performance, penalties for nonperformance.

Wrong diagnosis, so wrong cure. The problem isn’t the kids and the teachers; it’s the system. More than a century of failed attempts to drive square pegs into round holes suggests it’s past time to stop treating human variability as a problem rather than as an evolutionary triumph, and begin making the most of it.

Marion Brady is a retired high school teacher, college professor, and textbook author who writes frequently on education. He lives in Cocoa, Fla.

Education Week, 28 January 2009

Geri Allen: Smart and Wonderful

Geri-Allen-2-by-Dean-C.-Jones-copyGeri Allen is one of those extraordinary jazz musicians whose influence runs wide and deep, but somehow, has not become as well-known as it ought to be. She’s a pianist with a resume that begins with a serious educational foundation: a master’s degree in ethnomusicology that has served her well (easy for me to see this because I’m approaching her life’s work some 35 years into a very good story). Her professional work begins with Mary Wilson and the Supremes in the early 1980s, and Brooklyn’s M-Base movement not long after (here, she established a reputation beside Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby and other talented players). M-Base was a kind of updating of a jazz form, a structured modernist approach to improvisation. In 1988, she recorded a wonderful album entitled “Etudes” with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, followed by several more trio records with her two extraordinary (now, sadly, gone) creative partners, including Segments and Live at the Village Vanguard. (The best discography I could find appears on Wikipedia, part of a more complete story worth reading.)

UnknownThe awards began to roll in. Allen was in and out of the remaining avant-garde, which sounds much less radical now than in 1996 when she recorded “Hidden Man” with Ornette Coleman’s Sound Museum. In fact, by 1999, she was sounding very comfortable in a commercial setting, recording her popular CD, The Gathering, with Wallace Roney on flugelhorn and trumpet, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Buster Williams on bass, and Lenny White on drums, and others whose names are well-known from mainstream jazz records. A 2010 record, “Flying Toward the Sound,” made it to the top of many critic’s best-of-the-year lists.

So that’s the beginning of the story. A very solid player, well-connected and well-regarded, a talented composer, comfortable in the mainstream and in the more experimental forms of jazz. Somewhat unusual to find a female musician in that role, but things are changing, and, well, it’s about time.

For much of this past summer, Ms. Allen has served as the Artistic Director of a special project at the NJPAC, New Jersey’s Performing Arts Center (and center of cultural life and city rebuilding) in Newark, New Jersey. The project is an All-Female Jazz Residency with a wonderful array of inspiring special guests including Marcus Belgrave on trumpet, Carmen Lundy on voice, and more. Ms. Allen has been Professor Allen for some time now; she is the Director of Jazz Studies for her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. She recently received an honorary doctorate from the Berklee School of Music. She’s got the performance chops, the compositional excellence and nowadays, it would be fair to say that Geri Allen is one of our nation’s most distinguished jazz educators.

Photo by Dean C. Jones

Photo by Dean C. Jones

As impressive as her professional accomplishments may be, there’s nothing quite like listening. Her latest work, recorded in 2012 and released last year, takes the pianist back to her home town, Detroit, Michigan (actually, she was born in nearby Pontiac but grew up in Detroit). Grand River Avenue was the big street that she crossed when she was old enough to do so. She describes “three years of intensive training by master teachers and Detroit artists in residence” at Cass Tech, on Grand River Avenue, then one of “the nation’s premiere high schools.” The CD entitled “Grand River Crossings: Motown and Motor City Inspirations” is the third in a trilogy that began with “Flying Toward the Sound,” and continued with “A Child is Born.” In this case, the liner notes call her work “the new classical music” and state, quite reasonably and truthfully, that the music on the CD is “an exquisitely beautiful collection” based, largely, upon the Motown spirit. There are songs by Steve Wonder (“That Girl”), Smokey Robinson (“Tears of a Clown”), and Marvin Gaye (“Save the Children,” and “Inner City Blues”) and Holland-Dozier-Holland (“Baby I Need Your Lovin’”) but this is not an album of jazz versions of Motown standards. Instead, it is an intricate meditation on the musical themes and ideas that those composers expressed long ago.

Unknown-2Geri Allen has been one of those artists that I’ve wanted to know more about. Now that I’ve written this article, now that I’ve done some concentrated listening, I’m realizing that I am just beginning to understand what she’s all about. The latest album is elegant and wonderful, soulful and reflective, sophisticated and consistently interesting, but my collection is now woefully incomplete. I have listened to the two predecessors in the trilogy, but I want them for my very own. The same is true for the work she did with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden, and for the work she did in 2010 with her group, Timeline.

Another discovery. I keep falling in love. There is no better way to listen to music.

BTW: Don’t miss this NPR conversation between two beloved jazz pianists: Geri Allen and Marian McPartland.

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The Warmth of Isabel Wilkerson

cover_bookBeginning around 1915, six million people left their native land hoping for a better life. Nearly all of them were Americans, but they were poor, without prospects. For the next half century, they left the South, many for northern cities where they knew a relative or felt they could find work, some for the west, where they hoped Jim Crow would not be a factor in their lives. They left in faith, and without much information. Three of them were fortunate because their stories were told, in considerable detail, by a compassionate, literate, well-informed journalist named Isabel Wilkerson. Her work, which she completed in 2010, involved thirteen years of her life and over a thousand interviews. the book is a solid ten-hour read (it’s over 500 pages), and you won’t want to miss a single story about her chosen few, the Americans whose stories she tells so well. They are: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster and George Swanson Starling. Ida Mae starts out in Van Vleet, Mississippi in 1928, and survives the completion of the book. Leaving Monroe, Louisiana far behind, Robert survives a punishing trip to the California of his dreams, and becomes a wealthy doctor in Los Angeles with a soft spot for people in need. George is a bit of troublemaker in his native Florida, and ends up working on a New York-Florida train while living a new life in Harlem. (I use their first names because of the kinship that the author kindled in me; I feel as though I knew them from the neighborhood.)

Ida Mae, with flowers in her hair, sharecroppers’ daughter, living in Chicago in the 1930s

Ida Mae, with flowers in her hair, sharecroppers’ daughter, living in Chicago in the 1930s

Wilkerson takes care to paint a full picture of these people, their lives back down South, their struggles in making the decision to leave, the tough times they endured during their period of relocation, family and friends who weave in and out of their lives. The sense of never quite being at home is a constant companion; so is the the sense that they don’t completely belong where they ended up. They resolve these conflicts in their own minds, sometimes rationalizing, sometimes considering just how fortunate their lives became, sometimes trying to untangle the equally tangled thoughts and behaviors of others.

Young Doctor Robert Foster in the years before he made enough money to do anything he pleased.

Young Doctor Robert Foster in the years before he made enough money to do anything he pleased.

George was known as “schoolboy” because he was among the few citrus workers in his area who had attended any college at all. His father talked him out of the idea, and George spent the rest of his life wondering what might have been.

George was known as “schoolboy” because he was among the few citrus workers in his area who had attended any college at all. His father talked him out of the idea, and George spent the rest of his life wondering what might have been.

Wilkerson also scores scholarly points by resolving not to accept common knowledge. Her responsibility to Ida Mae, Robert and George is powerful, and she insists on providing commentary and context to keep the reader on track and clear about what actually happened, and why it matters.

Intrigued? Watch an excellent hour-plus interview with Ms. Wilkerson on the award-winning public affairs series that survived the old New Jersey Network and now resides at Rutgers University. Find it here.

Lincoln Wins! – The Story According to Fergus

220px-George_B_McClellan_-_retouched

Presidential wannabe George McClellan

Buried on the bottom of a back page in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, a fairly amazing story worth retelling. The author is historical Fergus Bordewich. The place is the United States, right around this time of year, 150 years ago. You may remember the name George McClellan. “Handsome and self-confident,” he had utterly failed in his role as the General in charge of President Lincoln’s Union Army. At the time, the charismatic McClellan was running against Lincoln in the 1864 election, and everyone (including Lincoln) was certain that McClellan would become the next president (Lincoln’s Republicans considered re-election “an impossibility”). According to Bordewich, “In practical terms McClellan’s victory would likely have led to European recognition of the Confederacy, Southern Independence and the forcible return to slavery of hundreds of thousands of former slaves who had fled to the Union armies for safety.” To make matters worse, the current Union General, Ulysses Grant, was making a habit of losing battle after battle.

Vice President Hannibal Hamlin

Vice President Hannibal Hamlin

So here’s the staunch abolitionist Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, then-current Vice President of the United States, a man who would have been President (after Lincoln’s passing) if history had played out differently. The party decides that what Lincoln really needs is a “deep-dyed racist” as his replacement running mate, and they choose a Democrat, the Governor of Tennessee (which was controlled by the Union), Andrew Johnson. Lincoln hoped that Johnson would swing some Democrats over to his side. Then, Lincoln got lucky. The North started winning his battles, and Union Admiral Farragut took over Mobile, Alabama (and said, “damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead!). Sherman captured Atlanta. (Grant was still struggling, but generally heading in a positive direction).

Lincoln wins. He carries every state except Kentucky (makes sense, right?), Delaware (kind of southern), and New Jersey (huh?).

President Andrew Johnson, whose extensive political career included time as a Senator and Congressman from Tennessee, and its  governor. He also reached the rank of Brigadier General in the Union Army.

President Andrew Johnson, whose extensive political career included time as a Senator and Congressman from Tennessee, and its governor. He also reached the rank of Brigadier General in the Union Army.

The aftermath: Lincoln in April, 1865. If Hamlin had remained on the ticket, he would have become President and, according to Bordewich, he would have gotten reconstruction underway in a thorough and meaningful way, and probably would have ignited the Civil Rights movement some eighty years before it finally came together. Instead, we had the unexpected President Johnson, in place for purely political reasons—without him, McClellan would have won. Johnson did his job for his Southern friends—he did everything he could to restore the pre-war status quo, and “tolerated horrific reprisals against blacks to attempted to exercise their newly run freedoms.” Congress was so unhappy with Johnson’s defiant ways, they did something they had never done before: they impeached the President of the United States.

Here’s the original WSJ article written by Fergus Bordewich.

 

Studying Funny

There is a dead frog with its guts all over the place. More about this unfunny amphibian later.

HumorCode52GfQLFor now, the challenge is to figure out what’s funny, why it’s funny, how funny is constructed, what happens inside our brains when funny is happening, how funny works in different countries and why funny often misfires. Although I want to believe that this is a fascinating intellectual and scholarly pursuit, the whole idea of studying funny seems, to me, to be an odd pursuit that’s not likely to yield meaningful results. And yet, there are these two books, each with an embarrassingly unfunny cover, that have been staring at me all summer long. One puts Groucho glasses on a globe and calls itself The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny and the other has a big goofy grin with the word “Ha!” writ large with “The Science of When We Laugh and Why” down below. The former was written by a University of Colorado professor named Peter McGraw; he runs the Humor Research Lab (or, “HuRL”) and promises to be “a leading expert in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and behavioral economics.” His co-author us a free-lance writer named Joel Warner. HA! was written by Scott Weems, whose Ph.D. is in cognitive neuroscience.

Weems taught me that it’s possible to make a rat laugh. How? Tickling works pretty well—scratch its belly and a rat will emit a high pitched screech at around 50kHz (which other rats can hear, but humans cannot). If you stroke a rat, it doesn’t laugh. Young rats are more likely to laugh, and laugh bigger, and more often, than older rats. Apparently, humans are the same way. If you leave a rat alone for an extended period, then tickle him, the rat is more likely to laugh a lot.

And then, things get weird. A rat scientist named Burgdorf (I’m sure there’s a better title) inserted electrodes into each rat’s dopamine-producing center and “achieved the same result.” Then, Burgdorf taught his rats to tap a metal bar to administer the dopamine provocation on their own. Similar result. All of which leads Weems to this conclusion, “Apparently, rats aren’t so different from humans, which suggests that laughter might have been around for a very long time.”

Yeah, you’re seeing the same problem I am. It’s cool that we can make rats emit a sound by tickling them, but there’s a pretty large gap between explaining that screech—which may or may not be laughter—and, say, what Richard Pryor or Robin Williams could do on their least productive days. Or why, when I’m bored, I will try (and often succeed) in making others laugh and lose focus (I’ve been doing this since fourth grade). Or why elephant jokes are still funny.

Q: Why did the Elephant stand on the marshmallow? 
A: So she wouldn’t fall in the hot chocolate.

Men and women seem to laugh at different things, at different times, in different ways. We don’t yet understand how computers might make us laugh. Research related to laughter, short-term health and longevity is inconclusive (but it couldn’t hurt). Ethic humor remains popular (throughout the world), but the 21st century’s political correctness limits its use in polite company. We’re still okay making fun of animals, and even in our enlightened world, nothing succeeds like a good poop joke:

never-think-outside-the-box1

 

All in all, I didn’t learn much, but I did find out that scientists are taking an interest. That’s nice, but frankly, I’d rather watch a funny movie.

The comedy team of McGraw and Warner trekked a lot further (“two guys…19 experiments…five continents… 91,000 miles…”) but didn’t manage to cover any more ground. Studying humor is exceedingly difficult, probably because we’re not smart enough to understand what’s happening, which is why scientists come up with theory and do their thing, but the process is not much fun to watch. McGraw’s intrepid performance at a comedy club—these guys really are trying—is a flop. Their Venn diagrams are promising (one circle: “vomit in church” and the other “causing mass vomit in church” with the intersection marked, simply, “funny”). Both books tell the story of the girls in Tanzania who couldn’t stop laughing and comedian Gilbert Gottfried’s “too soon?” excuse to roll into the Aristocrats schtick shortly after NYC’s towers came down; and, sure enough, on page 81, the authors are talking about tickling rate here, too.

Their world tour is interesting, mostly for people who don’t usually follow the comedy business. This book attempts to be a global comedy road trip, and it’s interesting to visit Yoshimoto Kogyo in Japan: a comedy school that also manages 800 Japanese comedians (not sure why, but the image of 800 Japanese comedians makes me laugh). The company owns many of Japan’s comedy clubs and used to own a comedy theme park, too. There are Yoshimoto Kogyo golf balls, and instant ramen meals, too. The authors make good use of their travel budget, visiting Scandinavia where their obsession with the Danish cartoons that rattled Islam sensibility tends to overshadow the warmth and classy outrage that has been part of Danish humor since the days of Victor Borge (don’t miss this!). Humor on the Gaza Strip (conflict and humor are often linked), and in a chapter about the Amazon (where the inevitable Norman Cousins story about laughter as medicine is told, along with some notes on Patch Adams).

In the Montreal chapter—which is about the world’s largest comedy festival, the authors summarize what seems to be a list of items that didn’t require a full volume:

- Make fun of yourself before others get the chance to do so.

- Laughter is disarming. Make light of the stuff everyone’s worried about and you’ll negate its power.

- Create a safe, playful space where folks are free to laugh.

And so on.

I read these two books because I was hoping that the state of the science had greatly advanced (two books from two major publishers in the same year), but I was mostly wrong. We don’t know much more than we did before. And after thinking about that on a rainy weekend afternoon, I came to the conclusion that there is no problem in not understanding comedy. Maybe there is a point in studying it—or, at least, continuing to study laughter—but in some ways, I hope we never figure it out. I don’t think I want a science of humor. And I certainly don’t want a funny robot to be programmed into my brain to provoke dopamine provocation. Really, I’m good not knowing, I’m great knowing that Robin Williams and Victor Borge were funny, and not knowing or caring how or why that happened or how to replicate his magic.

So what about the frog? For that answer, everyone seems to refer to what E.B. White wrote in 1941:

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but

the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging

to any but the our scientific mind.”

Frog

 

 

 

 

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