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Live: Paul Simon And Wynton Marsalis Bridge The Gap At The Rose Theater

Paul Simon and Wynton Marsalis
Rose Theater
Friday, April 20

Better than: Fighting the jazz wars.

“My father was the family bassman,” sang Paul Simon on a song from Simon and Garfunkel’s last album, a line as true as confessional poetry. Like Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, Simon grew up as the son of a bandleader (who led a big band for years under the name “Lee Simms”), and he would watch backstage at the Roseland Ballroom while his father prepared charts by Ellington and sequoias of swing, explaining to his son how he would rotate the keys of each song so that the listener—whether musically literate or not—would feel refreshed. (Paul Simon explained this method to Dick Cavett when he was trying to come up with a bridge to “Still Crazy After All These Years.”)

Even though Simon has a couple of decades on trumpeter-bandleader-racounter-ambassador Wynton Marsalis, when Simon and his band joined Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for a J@LC benefit concert entirely devoted to selections from the Simon songbook, he surely must have also remembered the thrill of being backstage at dad’s shows when he was a kid. Just as he and Artie were falling in love with doo-wop, the Everlys, and Elvis, he was also in awe of his father’s big brass band: a harmonic mountain to be climbed much later. Straight out of Queens College, Simon proved to be immediately sophisticated as a pop songwriter, an underrated rhythm guitarist and, eventually, a genre-busting polymath of rhythm from each side of the equator and back again. After going deeper into rhythmic adventures from South Africa to Brazil to the local splendors of Steve Gadd (author of the “Fifty Ways” drum trope), Simon has written hip chords (“Still Crazy” with a Michael Brecker sax solo, “I Do It For Your Love,” hauntingly covered by Bill Evans and turned inside out years later with Simon and Herbie Hancock). But while he has played with multinational percussion virtuosi, he never quite navigated the harmonic waters of the big brass managed by his family bassman father.

In 2002 with Jazz at Lincoln Center, he sang two odes to New York in a concert commemorating the one-year anniversary of 9/11: his own “American Tune” and Rodgers and Hart’s “We’ll Take Manhattan.” Simon wore a Mets cap and a tux and put himself into Marsalis’s hands, homeward bound at last. On Friday night, their collaboration was bigger and bolder. Simon is now a sagacious 70, yet at the Rose Theatre his voice had never been so supple or emotive, sashaying with more ease then he ever had when he was the young and angsty bard of “The Sounds of Silence,” originally written in his parents’ Queens bathroom, now rechristened with Marsalis playing question and answer, with perhaps less room for silence, but more room for newer sounds, deeper inquiries.

Much of the show was like that. Rather than the two song gig of 10 years ago, Simon was not necessarily completely turning his material inside out (as he did with Hancock), but allowing room for more thought, then afterthoughts. If there was a familiar brass section in, say, “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” (with a quavery but righteous Aaron Neville, who appeared on the original record), “Late in the Evening,” or “You Can Call Me Al,” you could get the caress of the familiar with the shock of new flourishes: longer solos, stranger elaborations, far enough from pop and close enough for jazz, and even closer, it turned out, to Paul Simon.

I have never seen him so giddy. It’s not that he transformed his songs into jazz, but that his songs—with his band, all of whom traveled, practiced, and played, as a wise woman once sang, real good for free—held up to jazz. The complicated guitar part that opens “The Boxer” is not usually used in performance, but Marsalis on a trumpet transcription pulled it off elegantly. Such miracles occurred on every song: the gospel purgation of “Gone at Last,” the Carrie Fisher fallout of “Crazy Love Vol II” which was given many more volumes in this Criterion Collection edition; and the Neville lead vocal on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which came closest to the Aretha version that Simon—sorry, Art—regards as definitive.

In a speech, Marsalis praised Simon, not only for his philanthropy and his coolness, but also for sharing a musical vision so expansive, it reminded him of Miles Davis. Simon then thanked Wynton for reading the speech he wrote, even as he wasn’t sure if how the Miles line would come across. (Ha!) Man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest, goes the notable quotable from “The Boxer.” Simon sang it that night just as he has been singing it for 42 years, but he is not that man. He’s not disregarding anything, even if it’s hard—especially if it’s hard. Simon is still listening, still grooving, still crazy.

Two bands met for a couple of nights. There was no collision, no stepping on anyone’s toes. Genre binaries were demolished that night, and it sounded so sweet. “If you’ll be my bodyguard, I can be your long lost pal,” sang Simon in a wonderful song that inspires some of the worst older white-guy dancing you’ll ever see. But nothing could kill this buzz. “You Can Call Me Al” has an absurdist proposition for a chorus, but it’s also an exchange: I’ll do something for you, you’ll do something for me. It doesn’t always work that way. Once, when young upstart Wynton Marsalis crashed a Miles gig in the 80s, the Prince of Darkness rasped into the mic: “Get the fuck off the stage!” Miles left this world 20 years ago, and he was reincarnated that night as a man of peace. Whatever Miles-like quality Marsalis apparently saw in Simon, Simon was there to support jazz and to have a ball doing it. The jazz wars themselves seemed irrelevant. The fighters still remain.

Critical bias: I have seen Simon five times and did a phone interview with him last year.

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Paul McCartney Opens The Book Of Love Songs With Kisses On The Bottom

What do you do when you are the Cute Beatle approaching 70? Age—and those decades of inhaling herb—is finally catching up to those pipes, yet vanity or stubbornness prevents you from simply clipping on that capo to sing your classics in a lower key. Oh, and your name is Sir Paul and you’re the only survivor of pop’s most valuable (in every sense) conglomerate who is not Ringo.

There are some obvious choices. A reality show? Been there, done that. A Rick Rubin-produced warts and all expose? You would find that Paulie’s gritty is everyone else’s pretty. As the son of a dance hall bandleader, James Paul McCartney always deferred to the Great American Songbook’s greatness. Moving from the stadiums (where, for a $500 ticket, he will do his damndest to hit a younger bloke’s high notes) to LA’s Capitol studios, where he crooned into Nat Cole’s old mic, he is not only aging with dignity but with a subtle beauty young Paul may have missed a few decades ago, when the temptation to show off his octaves (and Little Richard-inspired holler) would be too great.

Kisses On the Bottom may sound to the uninitiated like a an acquired taste among libidinal positions, but its actual provenance is more coy: a phrase from “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” a 1935 chestnut with music by Fred E. Ahlert and lyrics by Joe Young, popularized by Fats Waller, who never met a double entendre he didn’t like; the “bottom” is the end of a letter, but with a wink that would anticipate “Baby’s Got Back” and other ditties.

Kisses On the Bottom, Macca’s 16th studio solo album, harkens back to a time when it would have been unthinkable to sing a line like, say, “I’d love to turn you on.” But of course, troubadours for centuries have been seeking exactly that, and in this realm of Irving Berlin and Frank Loesser, McCartney harkens back to a professional tunesmith tradition he and John Lennon eviscerated, replacing it with a singer-songwriter tradition that still has legs.

If your benchmark of a “great jazz singer” is Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln—well, Kisses isn’t in that league. But who would have expected Paul to grow beyond silly love songs?

Diana Krall played piano and arranged with exceptional taste and skill—and the sheer delight of the songs themselves. She swung like hell uptempo and made schmoochy poetry out of the ballads. Paul sat in the booth and, not picking up a guitar or piano, just held back and sang songs that were obviously etched into his unconscious. It would have been nice if, in the spirit of the bottom, he’d sung a little deeper; “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” as immortalized into that hallowed mic by Cole himself, was sublimely sonorous, but Paulie’s rendition sounds wispy—pleasingly so, but still—in comparison.

“When I’m 64,” “Your Mother Should Know,” “Honey Pie,” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” may not be your favorite Beatles songs (Lennon despised them all), but they do demonstrate how, even in the Summer of Love, the music hall was still abuzz in his brain. Since his superb 2005 album Chaos and Creation in the Backyard and disappointing 2007 Memory Almost Full (most of which was written and recorded before Chaos and Creation) his songwriting well seemed to evaporate.

His tumultuous and unpleasantly public divorce from Heather Mills did not inspire a Blood on the Tracks. Bile is just not Paulie’s Muse. He had to fall in love and even become a Jew (like the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Harold Alren et al) before he could see if he could, on his third marriage and approaching his seventh decade, have a new ditty in him. That song, “My Valentine,” with some acoustic plucking by old mate Eric Clapton, has sort of hokey lyrics, but no more hokey than those of Lorenz Hart. It also sounds like it almost always existed. He plucked some love me do’s from out of nowhere, and suddenly you feel goose bumps and your heart aflutter. Our Paulie of Eternal Joys may or may not be half the man he used to be, but that other half still has some new lyricism in him, nestling somewhere new between the borrowed and the blue. It’s almost like being in love.

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Seventy On Seventy: The 70 Best Bob Dylan Songs, A To Z (Part Two Of Two)

(Part One is here.)

So here we are on the once-unthinkable occasion of Dylan turning 70.

When Dylan was starting out, old white men—I mean older than Pete and Woody—were mostly on the wrong side of the Civil Rights movement. Older black men, if they were survivors like Howlin’ Wolf or Son House, were people to aspire to. Dylan’s version of being young—at least in the beginning—was to emulate the older guys on the folk blues records. Odetta, an older black woman, inspired him to go acoustic. But don’t take it from me. Here he was in early ’62: “I don’t carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin’ Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they’re older people.” This is Dylan at 21, talking to the great Nat Hentoff for the liner notes of his breakthrough Freewheelin’ album, the one that started with “Blowin’ in the Wind” and included other chestnuts he still performs: “Hard Rain”; “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”; “Girl From the North Country.”

]

He was so much older then. Now, he’s grizzled and raspy enough where he doesn’t have to try when he invokes Charley Patton on “High Water” from “Love and Theft.” He opens his mouth and the croak of a sage comes out. People who are afraid of death are often afraid of age; some would rather switch the channel to the Jonas Brothers. They are missing the point. Bob became Bob because he worshiped at the shrine of his elders. He wanted to carry himself with the authority of Woody, Cisco, and Leadbelly, too, and none of those guys made it to 70. When he reinvented his persona and transfigured the Oakie and bluesman’s affect—when he became, from Another Side to Blonde on Blonde, less derivative, more startlingly original in his singing—he “got young” (his words). But he could only do that after he was soaked in the wisdom of old. In other words, even though he barely attended college, he got an education of another kind, all of it with a young man’s empathy for old guitar pickers, hobos, victims of racism. On this list, there are some songs that he was waiting to age into.

You may think Dylan’s current incarnation sounds like a cement mixer. Or you may realize that you are hearing something lovely, dark, and deep, a raspy wisdom that only comes when knockin’ on heaven’s door becomes less of a metaphor every year. But let’s leave Bob as the young man telling Hentoff how he hoped to carry the authority of older performers and let’s appreciate how, 50 years later, he kept his word. Freewheelin’ has become fate.

May he walk down many more roads, and may he—you knew I was going to say this—-stay forever young.

[

31. Maggie’s Farm Bringing it all Back Home

32. Mama, You Been On My Mind Bootleg Series, Vol. 1

33. Man in the Long Black Coat Oh, Mercy

34. Masters of War Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

35. Mississippi “Love and Theft” (all three versions on Tell Tale Signs)

36. Most of the Time Oh, Mercy

37. Mr. Tambourine Man Bringing it all Back Home

38. My Back Pages Another Side of Bob Dylan

39. Not Dark Yet Time Out of Mind

40. Obviously Five Believers Blonde on Blonde

[

41. Odds and Ends The Basement Tapes (The Genuine Basement Tapes)

42. One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below) Desire

43. One Too Many Mornings The Times They Are-A Changin’ (Live, 1966; Dylan-Cash Sessions)

44. Percy’s Song Biograph

45. Positively Fourth Street Greatest Hits

46. Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn) Self-Portrait (Biograph; Genuine Basement Tapes)

47. Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands Blonde on Blonde

48. Sara Desire (Live 1975)

49. She Belongs to Me Bringing It All Back Home (Self Portrait)

50. Shelter From the Storm Blood on the Tracks (Hard Rain)

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51. Simple Twist of Fate Blood on the Tracks (Live 1975)

52. Standing in the Doorway Time Out of Mind

53. Subterranean Homesick Blues Bringing it all Back Home (Bootleg Series)

54. Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again Blonde on Blonde

55. Sweetheart Like You Infidels (Outfidel Intakes; Rough Cuts)

56. Tangled Up in Blue Bootleg Series (Blood on the Tracks; Real Live)

57. Tears of Rage (with Richard Manuel) The Basement Tapes (Genuine Basement Tapes)

58. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll The Times They Are-A-Changin’ (Live 1975)

59. The Times They-Are A-Changin’ The Times They Are A-Changin’

60. Things Have Changed The Essential Bob Dylan

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61. This Wheel’s on Fire Basement Tapes (Genuine Basement Tapes)

62. Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You Nashville Skyline (Live 1975)

63. Tryin’ to Get to Heaven Time Out of Mind

64. Up to Me Biograph

65. Visions of Johanna Blonde on Blonde (Biograph)

66. When I Paint My Masterpiece Greatest Hits, Vol. 2

67.Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat) Street Legal

68. Where Teardrops Fall Oh, Mercy

69. You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (Basement Tapes; Genuine Basement Tapes)

70. You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go Blood on the Tracks

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Seventy On Seventy: The 70 Best Bob Dylan Songs, A To Z (Part One Of Two)

About a year ago, I was putting a book about Bob Dylan to bed. Since I was looking at year’s lead time, my plan was for Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown (Yale) to be released on Dylan’s 70th birthday, for obvious reasons. I learned early on at my grandfather’s funeral the biblical significance of threescore years and ten. Add two thousand years and the development of modern medicine, and you could say that yesterday’s threescore years and ten could be today’s fourscore years and ten, give or take—in other words, in twenty years, Bob Dylan might very well be Betty White. Still, 70 is a mighty powerful benchmark, and it officially puts the baby boomers, Dylan’s original and most fervent demo, on notice that they are either officially old or, with the aid of the Facebook equivalent of 2031, could help snag Dylan a Saturday Night Live hosting stint.

My editor, a man who was always right and made it seem fun, suggested something for what people in the book industry call the “back matter.” I presented myself with a challenge: Would it be possible to take Dylan’s 400-plus songs and whittle them down to an age-appropriate list of 70? It seemed absurd. Listmaking was for people with OCD, or for VH1, or for Rolling Stone, whose coffee-table books about The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time always seem to assume time started in 1955. (This even though before 1955, there were songs by Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Wagner, George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Kern, and Porter; that’s not even taking into account the great songs before notation that are stuck in the Norton Anthology, which is of course a different kind of listmaking.) An issue devoted to 500 songs before time began would be quite a list indeed.

So I liked the number 70, and could even go through the painstaking work of separating the wheat from the chaff. But what seemed unimaginable to me was to actually rank the songs. How could one make an empirical case about whether “Like a Rolling Stone” was better than “Just Like a Woman” or “Tangled Up In Blue”? All these songs are perfect for what they are, a bliss that defies hierarchy. (Albums are different, since they are collections of songs. I say this because—full disclosure—nerve.com asked me to rank Dylan’s albums, and it seemed just wrong to say no to them.) And so just a few weeks ago, on the Upper West Side I saw the Rolling Stone cover boasting that the 70 Greatest Dylan Songs (they should have added Of All Time!) were listed within. Did someone in Jann’s Kremlin of Rock Taste take a look at the galleys my publisher sent their way? Or do people who love Bob just love playing with his age?

Of course, the No. 1 song on the RS list has the magazine’s name in its title. The person who wrote on the top songs in the septalogue was Bono. Most of the entries came from a masked and anonymous committee (including extremely judicious and impressive people, one of whom generously blurbed my book), but the named bylines included Mick, Keith, Lucinda, and… I’m going to stop advertising it right now. I guess we’re all in this together. But see my A-L just for what it is: A collection of half of his indisputable songs, some of which matched those selected by Rolling Stone, and some of which did not. (The rest of the alphabetical listing will be published tomorrow, on Dylan’s actual birthday.) I only included Bob at his Best, but “Best” cannot be covered in 70 songs. This list will need a bootleg series, perhaps in future editions of the book, when the number 70 will be just an age that Dylan passed before he was really getting started.

(A guide for the perplexed: I have listed what I believe to be the definitive version, and then added alternate versions still worthy of mention in parentheses. Disagree? May a thousand flowers bloom.)

1. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (Live 1975)

2. Abandoned Love Golden Unplugged Album (Biograph)

3. Ain’t Talkin’ Modern Times (Tell Tale Signs)

4. All Along the Watchtower John Wesley Harding (Before the Flood)

5. Ballad of a Thin Man Highway 61 Revisited (Live 1966)

6. Blind Willie McTell Bootleg Series, Vol 1 (Outfidel Intakes)

7. Blowin’ in the Wind Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

8. Crash On the Levee (Down in the Flood) Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (Genuine Basement Tapes)

9. Desolation Row Highway 61 Revisited (No Direction Home soundtrack)

10. Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

11. Every Grain of Sand Shot of Love (Bootleg Series)

12. Forever Young Planet Waves (Biograph; The Last Waltz)

13. Gates of Eden Bringing it All Back Home

14. Girl from the North Country Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (Nashville Skyline)

15. Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar Shot of Love

16. High Water (For Charley Patton) “Love and Theft”

17. I Shall Be Released Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (Bootleg Series)

18. I Want You Blonde on Blonde

19. Idiot Wind Bootleg Series (Blood on the Tracks; Hard Rain)

20. Isis (with Jacques Levy) Desire (Biograph)

21. It Ain’t Me, Babe Another Side of Bob Dylan

22. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry Highway 61 Revisited

23. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue Bringing it all Back Home

24. It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) Bringing it all Back Home

25. Jokerman Infidels (Late Night With David Letterman rehearsal and performance)

26. Just Like a Woman Blonde on Blonde (Live 1966)

27. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues Highway 61 Revisited (Live 1966)

28. Lay, Lady, Lay Nashville Skyline

29. Like a Rolling Stone Highway 61 Revisited (Bootleg Series; Live 1966; Self Portrait)

30. Love Minus Zero/No Limit Bringing it all Back Home

(Part two is here.)

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Bob Dylan’s New York City: Why It Never Got Better Than 1961

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s arrival in New York City, we’re rolling out a host of essays, videos, old Voice clips, and assorted fanfare. Here, professor, author, and critic David Yaffe explains why 1961 was the year Dylan could never forget, and never duplicate.

On January 24, 1961, Bob Dylan shook the Midwestern dust off his boots and arrived in New York town. If Woody Guthrie was bound for glory, Dylan was bound for something borrowed, something weird, something genius. When he dropped out of the University of Minnesota, he was just like any other kid with a guitar who ditched classes to try to sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell. He wanted to be Joan Baez’ singing partner. He wanted to have fun and get high and get laid, but also be taken seriously. When he had all that and more, he still wanted other things, and he got those, too. (He still wasn’t happy, but then Pete Seeger recalled him saying, “Happy? What’s that? Anyone can be happy.”)

By the end of his first year here, he would be discovered by John Hammond and Columbia Records, and record his first, self-titled album at the age of 20; a few months after that, he would write “Blowin’ in the Wind” and make a second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, with its cover image of Bobby and his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, walking down Jones Street looking like boho icons living for the moment. Yet that record’s most powerful songs were, like the jumble of nerves that created them, like New York City itself, seductive and terrifying, making you feel like the world was about to end, but first you had to see this young scruff at the Gaslight. Apocalypse went down pretty sweet, and it wouldn’t be long until he was predicting hard rain all the way up to Carnegie Hall. “It’s hard times in the city/Livin’ down in New York town,” Dylan sang in a tongue-in-cheek talking blues, but he soaked up all those hard times, and turned them into beauty and truth, not to mention more cash and clout than any Bleecker Street busker could have possibly imagined.

Dylan was on his way to New York the same week that JFK gave his “Ask Not” speech, and whether he knew it or not, he was one of the young people the new president was directing to national service, of a kind. Dylan’s first year in New York would be the last time he would be working cheap and living from couch to couch. He encountered many weirdos and geniuses in 1961, from Tiny Tim to Richard Pryor to Gorgeous George, an NYC hazing recounted with eloquence and humor in the memoir Chronicles: Volume 1, where he even describes sitting in on a rehearsal with Cecil Taylor (they found mutual ground on a spiritual). After Dylan became Dylan, he could never stumble upon spontaneous music unnoticed again.

He still tried, though, and his annus mirabilus of 1961 would be a Proustian Madeleine he would conjure again and again. It didn’t work when he moved his young and vulnerable family to the Village in 1969, thinking it was safer from freaks digging through his trash than Woodstock. But at MacDougal Street, AJ Weberman led a pack of so-called Dylanologists who tormented our Bob and bullied him for leaving the New Left behind. Soon, he tried to relive his folkie past when he caught the second, non-idiotic wind of Blood on the Tracks, Desire, and the drugged-out carnival of the Rolling Thunder Revue, in which he populated his cast (overlapping with the bound-for-DVD Renaldo and Clara) with Ramblin Jack Eliot (who palled with Bob in the ’61 folk scene), Joni Mitchell (who sang but refused to be filmed), Joan Baez (who never met a camera she didn’t seem to love), and Sam Shepard, who co-wrote Renaldo and Clara, a film that caused a debate among critics in these very pages, all arguing whether it was incoherent, brilliant, or a little of both.

Later, a hipster Dylan made a 1975 Voice cover with another girl on his arm: Patti Smith, who refused to join the revue, a wise move at the time. He did manage to pick up a violinist named Scarlet Rivera, who he collected in the East Village when he saw a beguiling chick with a violin case and she suddenly had to practice. He took this group with him and played unannounced gigs in small clubs. He was trying to get 1961 back. What he got instead was more wheezy, more weary, deeper, but also desperate, great rock ‘n’ roll, but too drugged out to sustain. He couldn’t get Sara back, so he went to California and found Jesus instead.

The bible-thumping was only a phase, but Gotham kept pulling him back in. Over the past several decades, he has played thrilling gigs at the Beacon, Irving Plaza, the Supper Club, and more. Since the Neverending Tour began in 1988, he has spent around 100 days a year traipsing the globe; even in 2010, the 69-year-old played 102 gigs. The road is Dylan’s home now, but just as he will get a cheer when he refers to Texas medicine at a Dallas gig, fans in all boroughs get a certain comfort when he sings, from “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “I’m goin’ back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough.” In 1965, he sang it with a guttural vengeance. Now, even among the triumphant cheers, it sounds battered. He takes his nostalgia for Bleecker Street everywhere he goes. It’s a New York City of the mind he conjures when he’s had enough, even if the only true urban paradise he will know is the one he has lost. The big city broke his heart. It is the wound that never heals.

David Yaffe is a professor of English at Syracuse. His latest book, Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, will be published by Yale University Press in May.

See also:

The Sex Shop Near Where Bob Dylan Lived

Interview: Famed Bob Dylan Violinist Scarlet Rivera On The Chance NYC-Street Meeting That Changed Her Life

Rock-Critic Pop Quiz #4: How Many ’60s Bob Dylan Albums Can You Name?

Let’s Play “Name Your Favorite Bob Dylan Song,” Starring No Age, Robyn Hitchcock, DJ Rekha, Greg Dulli, And More

Dylan’s Voice Archive: Nobody Likes Him In His Hometown

Dylan In NYC, Day 4: Haunting The Washington Square Hotel And The 8th Street Bookshop

Bob Dylan In NYC, Day 3: Revisiting The Gaslight, The Village Gate, And More

A Word From Todd Snider: What Would You Say If You Met Bob Dylan?

Dylan’s Voice Archives: In Praise Of The Kinder, Gentler Blonde on Blonde

Bob Dylan In NYC, Day 2: Revisiting Jones Street And 161 West 4th

Dylan’s Voice Archives: Mods And Rockers Face Off In An Epic Orgy Of Stage-Crashing And Fruit-Throwing

Bob Dylan In NYC: Revisiting Cafe Wha? And 94 MacDougal

Bob Dylan Arrived In New York City 50 Years Ago Today

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

A Development in Depth

When Ken Burns’s “Jazz” was aired a few months ago, there were complaints that the documentary spent too much time on Louis Armstrong’s later years. The gripes revealed a bias toward one kind of musical development at the expense of another. The thrill of hearing brand-new ideas shining forth from Armstrong’s horn in his first decade as a recording artist—from the labyrinthine fanfare of “West End Blues” to the ornate obbligati of “Tight Like This”—should not obscure the fact that Armstrong moved on, developing the vocabulary with which he had virtually invented jazz. In the most satisfying of his later performances, his new innovations have less to do with rhythmic or harmonic inventions than with the kind of emotional depth only an older artist can convey. This is especially evident in the last segment of Burns’s documentary: In a clip from George Wein’s film of the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival, the frail 69-year-old Armstrong explains his 40-year relationship with his theme song, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” by giving an exuberant a cappella performance that transforms the nostalgia of the 1931 record into a heartbreaking elegy.

For another example of his development, the recent reissue of “Satch Plays Fats” juxtaposes two Armstrongs: the brash, fiery innovator of 1929-1932, heard in six bonus tracks tacked on the original album, and the seasoned statesman of 1955. The two versions of Fats Waller’s “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” words by Andy Razaf, provide a particularly stunning contrast. The tune, written for the revue “Hot Chocolates,” was sung by a dark-skinned woman who laments, “Browns and yallers all have fellers/Gentlemen prefer them light.” Armstrong, perceiving a broader message, eliminated the verse and created an early protest anthem. To be black, in his version, is to be black and blue, a remarkable statement for a 1929 pop record. The true meaning of the song is no longer found in Razaf’s lyric, but in Armstrong’s interpretation of it—a phrase like “even a mouse ran from my house” might sound self-pitying or simplistic when sung by a less nuanced artist—and in the way he bends, to borrow Ralph Ellison’s memorable image, a “military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound.”

The 1929 recording shows how lyricism emerges from repression in more than the obvious way; it’s there in the conflict between the artist’s freedom and the song’s rhythmic and thematic straitjacket. The track opens with a sentimental, rhythmically literal riff on celesta, played by Gene Anderson, which is batted away by Armstrong’s brassy, bluesy attack. Then he recapitulates Anderson’s simple 5-1-2-3/6-1-2-3 minor phrase, a simple progression from an A minor to D minor, whose sentimental theme is subsequently dismantled with a blaring, dissenting high E atop a D-major chord.

What follows is a series of mixed allusions, including additional blues variations, a trumpet onomatopoeia of a marching band snare-drum’s “rat-a-tat-tat,” and a parody of a bugle call, as if he were waking us up from a dirge. Yet as supple and flexible as Armstrong’s phrasing—trumpet and voice—is, part of what continues to astound is the contrast between his rhythmic variation and his rhythm section’s relative stiffness. (The Armstrong of this period frequently engaged in jaw-dropping contrasts with his fellow musicians. Check out his recording of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” recorded three days before “Black and Blue,” and hear Homer Hobson’s merely adequate trumpet reduced to tonal rubble by the force of Armstrong’s brassy detonations.) With Earl Hines out of the rhythm section, Armstrong lacked a peer. The metronymic quarter notes plonked out on Mancy Carr’s banjo stand in dramatic contrast to Armstrong’s graceful swing.

By 1955, when Armstrong rerecorded “Black and Blue,” he was paying tribute to Waller, an old friend who had done much for his career and had died in 1943. In the year of Charlie Parker’s death, when the innovations of bebop already appeared complete, the jazz world was not often in the habit of looking back. The Satch Plays Fats project and, for that matter, Armstrong’s band, the All Stars, then in its eighth year, was perceived by some as sentimental. Yet that album is one of Armstrong’s most satisfying, and reveals how his sense of swing had deepened, as well as how it had been absorbed by his musicians. Although the 1955 version was made shortly after Armstrong had parted with Hines for a second time, the empathetic Billy Kyle reflected Armstrong’s style better than anyone sitting in the 1929 rhythm section. The difference between Kyle’s swinging piano and Anderson’s melodramatic celesta is especially evident because Kyle plays variations on phrases from the earlier record. The bassline has also changed, from Pete Briggs belting out half-note oompahs on tuba to Arvell Shaw thumping out quarter notes on bass, with reliable yet unpredictable cadences that leave room for rhythmic breathing. Armstrong’s suppleness was now complemented by the instrumentalists around him. He was playing in a musical world that had caught up with him.

Armstrong plays the 1955 head with subtle variations and a startling brightness akin to that heard on the earlier version, but now uses his vibrato more cannily, the slower tempo giving him more time to dig into those bent thirds and to express the piece’s sorrow. His treatment of the theme mixes a greater degree of melancholy with his brassy bravado; the blues phrases are enunciated with slow breaths that begin powerfully and trail off for just the right dissipating effect. In a closing solo (absent from the 1929 version), he plays with mature economy, making each note tell exactly the right story. Those stories respond to the pathos of Razaf’s lyrics, while the parodies of military drills, sprinkled throughout his solo, demonstrate a mocking resilience: rolling with the punches was no less painful in the Eisenhower era than in the Hoover years.

Armstrong often used the stage, to which he remained faithful until the end of his astonishing career, for clowning, mugging, and delivering the “good old good ones,” but he left evidence of other emotions as well. In a 1961 photograph, William Claxton captured a tuxedoed Armstrong staring into the abyss. Many of his later recordings—among them “Beale Street Blues” on Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy (1957) and “Mood Indigo” on The Great Summit (1961), with Duke Ellington—suggest a mixture of triumph and catharsis, as well as continuing development even beyond the 1955 “Black and Blue,” reminding us how Armstrong’s art could convey life in all its bruising complexity.


More articles in this week’s Voice Jazz Supplement.

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NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Kinsley Report

You don’t usually expect self-deprecation from a media mogul, but Michael Kinsley is not just any kind of media mogul, and his Slate is not just any kind of publication. Backed by the institutional largesse of Bill Gates, slate.com may have the best chance of any online magazine to prosper in a dotcom world that has seen the recent foundering of APBNews and the layoff of 13 critics and editors at Salon.

And Kinsley, as past editor of The New Republic and a revered lion of highbrow journalism, may have the best chance to keep meaningful writing about literature, art, music, and film alive on the Web. But even he’s not kidding himself.

“Should we be devoting our energies and money to publishing, on balance, very good book reviews?” he asks. “Is that adding to human happiness in any way? It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. I could hold my head up high and feel I was performing a useful service. But instead, I’ve decided that because criticism is the place where the Web has the most potential to develop new forms, and because, frankly, I don’t think another good review of the latest Updike is the most vital goal, we’re just not going to do it.”

Kinsley hasn’t always thought that way. When he launched Slate in 1995, it became the first online magazine to draw on the kind of intelligentsia that usually holds court in the pages of The New York Review of Books or The New Republic. Initially, Slate seemed to replicate The New Republic‘s venerated strategy for reviewing culture, albeit in shorter form. Considering the paucity of learned, stylish, nuanced 1500-word pieces on books and the arts, it was not necessarily a bad thing to log on and read Louis Menand’s quick take on Samuel Beckett or Gerald Early on Ralph Ellison.

But after a failed bid to sell subscriptions at $19.95 a year and a lack of hits for the arts reviews, Kinsley jettisoned traditional book reviews for e-mail exchanges and so-called “Summary Judgments.” If a magazine backed by mighty Microsoft can’t make a go of top-notch criticism online, who can?

The answer may be no one. While other Web magazines have either contented themselves with getting attention through sensationalism (witness Salon‘s boost after breaking the Henry Hyde story), gossip (Kurt Andersen’s pay-for-dish Inside.com), or webby insularity (Feed, Suck, Ain’t-It-Cool News, et al.), Slate strove for a place at the grown-ups’ table— and ended up starving for readers.

Former Slate culture editor and current Culturebox columnist Judith Shulevitz found that online attention spans weren’t equal to the patience of readers at Lingua Franca, where she’d been an editor before arriving at Slate. “You cannot ask people to read long essays on the Web,” Shulevitz explains. “My husband, Nicholas Lemann, had a piece responding to The Bell Curve. It was 3000 words—a really important piece. It just didn’t get read. People couldn’t stomach that much copy on the Web.”

Shulevitz says Kinsley asked her to reinvent the magazine’s arts coverage, emphasizing interactive exchanges over extended explications. “I must admit, I was resistant at first, but I think you have to work appropriately to your own medium,” she says. “Here was my argument at the time: I said, Mike, you’re against running 5000-word pieces on American Pastoral. Why, then, are we going to run 5000-word dialogues on American Pastoral?

“What changed my mind was when I brought my husband in as the only outsider to this meeting,” Shulevitz adds, “and they asked him how he read Slate, and he said he read it at work, and I think that’s how most readers read Slate. They might look at it as a form of distraction during the day. So it occurred to me that we could give it to readers with a reason to come back. If you could make it work, I thought it would be a good model for the Web. Have we made it work? I’d say yes and no.”

Slate‘s Book Club does indeed feel clubby, sometimes seeming more like a wine-and-cheese salon than a considered forum. It’s a place where a thinker like Jacob Weisberg posts this to Esther Fuchs: “In your terrific book Mayors and Money, which I commend to anyone who wants to understand the fiscal problems of cities . . . ” Yet there are benefits to eavesdropping on that kind of discussion. Our culture is less book-driven than it was 30 years ago, when people were much more likely to have dinner-table discussions of Portnoy’s Complaint. Shulevitz’s exchange with Brent Staples on Roth’s new novel, The Human Stain, demonstrated the kind of vibrant debates a book of such monumental importance should produce.

A.O. Scott, who was hired as a New York Times film critic partly on the strength of his Slate essay on Martin Scorsese, pragmatically weighs the advantages and disadvantages of the new medium. Scott is an advocate for reinvigorating literary conversations, but he’s also an essay preservationist. “You have polish and consideredness in a book review, and the format of the Book Club may undermine that,” says Scott. “Then again, there are plenty of serious and sober-minded book reviews of important books that are boring as hell, or take a predictable party line. If you have two people over the course of three days really going at it, and really discussing a book, that may actually be a better service to the reading public than a thousand-word book review. The Internet is part of the speeding-up of a culture and the shortening of attention spans. There are new features to this landscape, but in every generation, culture is this kind of struggle between intelligence and stupidity, and if you’re lucky, it ends in a draw.”

Has this struggle ended in a draw? With technology, must you always lose a little in order to gain a lot? Many of the barriers to longer reviews on the Web will surely be eviscerated in time: When rocket books become as widespread as desktops, it will be easier to download essays, poems, perhaps even novels, and read them on the train. No one wants the essay to go the way of Windows 3.1, and hopefully the forms taught from the Emerson and Wilde canon will never be outmoded.

Still, lamenting the death of criticism is as old as criticism itself, and someone is always ready to identify the culprit. Übercritic Harold Bloom, who casts himself as a Paleolithic, endangered reader in his new book, How to Read and Why, scans the horizon for any sign of that old, familiar apocalypse. “To me, the Internet is like the conga line,” he says. “I know what it is, but I do not know how to do it. But it cannot be good, my dear. Surely, it will reduce everything to this vast grayness.”

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ART ARCHIVES BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

The Jazz Singer

Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome will infuriate many readers, but that should not come as a shock to its author. Stanley Crouch has made a career as a provocateur par excellence, taking to heart Ralph Ellison’s dictum: When in Rome, do as the Greeks do. Ellison, of course, knew that to be Greek in Rome meant to attune yourself to your culture’s origins, rather than adopt its trends. Crouch, who has followed Ellison’s stubborn preference for the term Negro, has also anointed himself a shorer of ruins, and a shape-shifting one at that, if his recent Daily News and Salon columns are any indication. One minute, he’ll be excoriating GOP racists and calling for the preservation of affirmative action. The next, he’ll be defending Rudy Giuliani’s widely attacked response to the Dorismond police shooting.

Do years of postideological punditry prepare you for serious novel writing? Tom Wolfe, at least according to some, has made such a transition, and Crouch, like Wolfe, has cast himself in Balzac’s role of reporter-novelist with Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome, furiously collecting the minutiae of urban tales of sex and money. The heroine of this bildungsroman is Carla Hamsun, a Norwegian American jazz singer from South Dakota with overt biographical similarities to Peggy Lee, and this novel follows her troubled romance with the black tenor player Maxwell Davis. Paradoxically, to understand herself, Carla must first understand black culture: the music, the eros, and (this is a huge chunk of the book) the nasty banter. There is nothing superficial about her initiation; we never once witness her co-opting black slang. Rather, she obsessively studies the phrasing of Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald so that she, too, can sing America. The novel is subtitled A Novel in Blues and Swing, and even though we can never quite hear what Maxwell and Carla sound like, we are presented with a uniquely demystified account of a music that usually inspires vague deification and meta-phorical cliché. These characters not only reach the musical epiphanies typical of jazz fiction, but also practice scales, mimic records, and shrug off clueless critics.

But if her musical quest requires the discipline of a wunderkind, her social immersion entails sitting through many lengthy invectives about everything from the history of the tenor saxophone to the evils of black studies departments. Maxwell riffs on the racial tropology of the Rocky movies. Bobby Lee Robinson, a painter we meet in the final chapter, posits a Homeric theory on gender that includes a swipe at Winnie Mandela. The bass player Jed—a white musician successfully assimilated into this black jazz elite—imagines a postmortem confrontation between Bach and Miles Davis. Anyone familiar with Crouch’s polemics will recognize these voices as variations on the same voice.

Sweet, pretty, carnal Carla provides a counterpoint to these walking, talking editorial pages, wincing, like the rest of us, at sexism, cruelty, and the use of the word nigger from offenders black and white. Carla’s whiteness is not like the overpowering whiteness of Ahab’s whale, but more like Hans Castorp’s blandness, at least until she shakes the South Dakota dust from her boots. And yet we empathize as the hopelessly earnest heroine persistently tries to break into hierarchies both black and male. Commenting on her prominent posterior, Maxwell tells Carla that despite her “seriously negroid body,” she’s “as white as white can be.” When her classics professor father and Maxwell exclude her from a dialectic on Joyce, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, and Sophocles, she’s sharp enough to follow it, but only the reader has access to her frustration. “You’re also, guys, saying what I’m saying,” she thinks to herself. In a particularly gruesome scene—which is saying a lot about a novel that includes a description of mass fist-fucking in an s/m club—Carla is raped by a black boxer, making us wonder how much this white girl must be tortured before she has the right to sing the blues. Even if that scene goes over the top, there are other moments where Crouch boldly crosses the color line in the spirit of Ellison’s mixed paint. The main conflict of this book is the incompatibility of the racial personae of Carla and Maxwell, and Crouch’s book is about how messy, yet necessary, such clashes can be.

One of Crouch’s favorite refrains is “You’ve got to watch that Negro. He’ll upset you.” At one point, Maxwell says it about Louis Armstrong singing W.C. Handy. At another, he says it about himself. When the refrain is repeated yet again about Carla’s rapist, you have to wonder whether it’s one of Crouch’s ironic motifs or, as Handy might put it, his “careless love” of a phrase. Regardless, the point is well taken. Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome is, like the author himself, oversized, unruly, maybe even a little bullying. Yet with its vivid evocations of life on the bandstand, in the bedroom, and in the trenches of racial warfare, the book also strikes a resonant chord that tells us much about the way we live now. You’ve got to watch that Stanley Crouch. He’ll upset you.

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ART ARCHIVES BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES

Kind of Blue

Good poets aren’t always good polemicists—or even good explicators of their verse. Mystification is often central to a poet’s mission. What Stevens called “the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind” is precisely what is dismantled by analysis, which might explain why major poet-critics like Coleridge or Eliot have been few. When most poets talk about their own work, we listen for the hum of evasion.

David Lehman’s Poets on Poetry series wants to change this perception. Blue Notes, a collection of poems, essays, and interviews by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, balances the polemical with the poetic, pairing verse with more prosaic self-interpretations. Like an Olympic skater whose leap is scrutinized with slo-mo, play-by-play commentary and an out-of-breath sound bite, Komunyakaa’s art is presented with the full exegetical treatment. “Nude Study,” for example, opens with the erotic eccentricity of “Someone lightly brushed the penis/alive. Belief is almost/flesh. . . . ” But in the commentary that follows, Komunyakaa shines a glaring light on the poem’s dark indeterminacy; he wants to make sure we don’t miss that the poem also “addresses the fear associated with the myth of black male sexual prowess.” So intoxicating is Komunyakaa’s sensuous abstraction, the tacked-on commentary feels like a postcoital checklist.

More useful are Komunyakaa’s short essays on jazz and poetry, in which his powers of synesthesia are in full force. In “Shape and Tonal Equilibrium,” after weighing the collective impact of figures like Charlie Parker and Langston Hughes, he abruptly abandons the essay form to sing the blues. Komunyakaa decides he can say it best in a playful, mellifluous riff on cultural incongruity, where the speaker—singer, really—tries “to hide in Proust,/ Mallarmé & Camus/but the no-good blues/come looking for me.” In “Twilight Seduction,” Komunyakaa puts himself into a sexualized cutting contest with Ellington’s bassist, and feels inadequate in comparison: “Simply/because Jimmy Blanton/died at twenty-one/& his hands on the bass/still make me ashamed/to hold you like an upright/& a cross worked into one/embrace.” In fact, Komunyakaa hears the music of poetry with swinging lyricism. These lines are self-reflective enough without the trappings of curatorial explanations. Komunyakaa’s blue notes resound most eloquently when you simply hear them.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Theater

Trisha Brown’s Chaos Theory

If, as Thelonious Monk famously posited, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, what is dancing about jazz? Many musicians think there would be no jazz without dance. Duke Ellington, for one, said, “I think that people who don’t dance, or never did dance, don’t really understand the music.” By that measure, choreographer Trisha Brown is an agile interpreter of Dave Douglas’s music, matching his stylistic hybrids with every twist and turn, although Brown first had to make a leap. From May 2 through 14 at the Joyce, two of her new dances, Five Part Weather Invention and Rapture to Leon James, will feature the artists side by side.

“When I first heard Dave Douglas’s scherzo, I didn’t want to get involved with all that chaos,” admits Brown. It’s a long way from working with Bach and Verdi—and even longer from the silence-based work of Brown’s earlier oeuvre—to choreographing that chaos. Brown wouldn’t find freedom without creating a sense of order. Even though jazz is a music based in spontaneity and improvisation, according to Brown “there needs to be a structure there to determine space for the dancers.” Without that net, dancers face not only a physical danger, but an aesthetic one. “Music goes into the air and everyone can hear it, whereas in dance, you can’t see what someone’s doing upstage unless you turn your back on the audience, and that’s not a propitious side to show.” Ultimately, though, attuning herself to improvisation provided an epiphany. “I literally became a part of the music in terms of the body as an instrument. It was the best dancing I’ve ever done.”