Reader's Notes - PN 2.16 - Upcoming Jazz Books

A fine fall book season is shaping up as far as jazz literature is concerned, highlighted by a big biography of Louis Armstrong and a jazz encyclopedia from Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddins. I'll be sure to review most of these titles here over the coming months. Here they are, sorted by month.

Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro (North Texas Lives of Musician Series) by Helene LaFaro-Hernandez – September 2009, University of North Texas Press

The Jazz Ear: Conversations over Music by Ben Ratliff – October 2009, Times Books

Jazz by Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddins – October 2009, Norton

A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music by George E. Lewis – October 2009, University of Chicago Press

Sun Ra: Interviews & Essays by John Sinclair – October 2009, Headpress

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin Kelley – October 2009, Free Press

Cuttin' Up: How Early Jazz Got America's Ear by Court Carney – November 2009, University Press of Kansas

But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz by Geoff Dyer – December 2008, Picador

Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout – December 2009, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

I Walked With Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath by Jimmy Heath with Joseph McLaren – January 2010, Temple University Press

Reader's Notes - PN 2.15 - Doom Patrol & Comic-Con Hate

The freaky comics team Doom Patrol returns to active publication this week with a (hopefully) fresh take from by Keith Giffen and Matthew Clark. In honor of the return of Robotman and company, Comics Alliance has put together The Most Insane Moments of Doom Patrol.

If you just hate comics, comic book culture, and those who love the same, from Cracked, I give you Four Reasons to Hate Comic-Con . But seriously, what's your problem? (And yes, I believe if you follow the Cracked link, there are Princess Leia Slave Girl pictures in there somewhere, for those who want them. Shame on you.)

Barcalounge Skipper - PN 2.14 - 'Roid Age

I try to avoid writing about the Red Sox too often, but I’m on vacation in New England this week, and the latest scandal related to performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) is centered around Boston. As the New York Times has reported, Boston sluggers David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez had their names on the 2003 list of players two tested positive for some form of PED. Add to this, the now-Dodger Ramirez’s 50-game suspension for PED use, and the revelation that the Red Sox fired two staffers last year for suspicious conduct related to PEDs, and you have the Nation Haters foaming at the mouth. As if it’s not bad enough, one of the fired Sox staffers is Jared Remy, son of the wicked popular NESN broadcaster Jerry Remy, who’s off the air this year as he battles cancer. Talk about a family affair.

The broader question arises: Does the current scandal tarnish the 2004 and 2007 championships ? In my informal survey of everyone down at the general store, the answer cuts both ways. The championships are tarnished, of course, because everyone – including many die hard fans – would like them to be pure. On the other hand, the championships happened at the end of the Juiced Era, when everyone is suspects and few people tell the truth. The most important thing now is for Ortiz and the Red Sox to be as forthcoming and transparent as possible and get this behind them. And the best thing to happen would be for the Red Sox to win another championship. I got your PED right here!

What Major League Baseball should do is work out a deal with the Players’ Association and finally release the names of the 100 plus players who tested positive for some sort of PED in 2003. Everyone can have a chance to confess, deny, apologize, whatever -- and then move on, for Pete's sake.

If you’re a fan and have worked up a sense of outrage over all this steroid stuff, you should read Jose Canseco’s Juiced and the excellent Game of Shadows. It does help a fan to understand the mindset of professional athletes who see their peers getting an unfair advantage in a system that looks the other way. With PEDs in baseball, starting in the late 80s, the problem was systemic. Although we like to blame individuals, everyone is to blame and everyone got cheated in some way: Fans, players, owners, and the game itself.

But think of baseball’s color line -- not fully broken, I would argue, until the 1960s. Of all the players in the major leagues between 1868 and 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke in with the Dodgers, they never had to complete with African American or Latin players. Are all those individual and team records and championships invalid because, in truth, those white players never competed day-in-day out against all the best players? After all, it was the more integrated National League that started winning All-Star Games and World Series as the 50s and 60s continued. How do you reach a conclusion as to who was better, Josh Gibson or Babe Ruth? As I said, in a systemic problem, we all lose.

Passing Notes - PN 2.13 - MJ and The Ram

Well I'm an axegrinder, piledriver
Mother says that I never never mind her
Got no brains, I'm insane
Teacher says that I'm one big pain
I'm like a laser, 6-streamin' razor
I got a mouth like an alligator
I want it louder, more power
I'm gonna rock ya till it strikes the hour

Michael Jackson died on June 24. I spent much of the weekend that followed trying to avoid the cable chatter about Jackson’s musical career, personal issues, and the circumstances of his death. Anyone who grew up in the past four decades would have had some MJ song or another as part of the soundtrack to his or her childhood. As a little kid, I can remember singing The Jackson Five’s “ABC” over and over again along with “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Old MacDonald.” And, like most people, I didn’t mind, couldn’t avoid, sort of liked, then grew weary of that long train of hits from Off the Wall and Thriller. Others have written about the huge cultural significance of MJ as a crossover artist, and I know it’s too soon for me to form any definitive opinions of my own about the music.

It just so happened during that weekend that I watched Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Better late than never. In the title role, Mickey Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a pro wrestler whose best days are two decades behind him but who still grapples it up in regional action, hulking from ring to ring in his tanning-bed tan and long blond hair. In his more sedate moments, he wears a hearing aid and reading glasses. For a social life, he courts a stripper (But she’s a mom! But she’s a stripper!) played by a wriggly, irresistible Marisa Tomei. Awesome film. Go see it right now; I’ll wait.

So you heard all that music on the soundtrack -- Quiet Riot and Ratt and Slaughter and the Scorpions. Watching The Wrestler that weekend with MJ’s death buzzing around in the back of my head, I came to realize that all that pop metal was more the soundtrack to my teenage life than Jackson’s music was. I grew up in the boondocks of Maine, after all, and most of the guys I knew were obsessed with a certain type of masculinity best embodied by “metal” and pro wrestling. I wasn’t into pro wrestling so much, but most of my friends were. I suppose I was hung up on the notion that pro wrestling was “fake,” my standards for realism and authenticity were so na├»ve.

This notion of what is fake and what is real lies at the root of the questions I keep asking myself about Michael Jackson, and the radically unreal world that mega-fame creates, the world he lived in from the age of five. A man with Jackson’s talent, imagination, and passion having reached a degree of fame and material means that few of us can understand, well, MJ must have gone crazy; that is, his relationship with the world fundamentally shifted, and, over the years, made him less and less like the rest of us. Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, he went up the river and never came back. He became the God of Pop. The surgeries, the money problems, the questions of sexual misconduct, the increasingly extraneous new music – all of it at the end became grotesque and simply tragic. Jackson’s death made me sad and anxious. Still sadder was the fact that he appears to have been on the verge of a comeback, and we all know how America loves a comeback.

It was strange that weekend to watch Mickey Rourke, another – albeit far lesser -- pop icon from the eighties, an actor now scarred and wrinkled and grotesque. Part of The Ram’s appearance is craft, I realize, but Rourke himself is a distorted – not just aged -- version of the man he was some 30 years ago. In high school and college I remember Rourke as a cool, handsome-but-not-pretty, intense actor who had roles I admired in films I liked a great deal: Boogie Sheftell in Diner, Harry Angel in Angel Heart, and Henry Chinaski in Barfly. And as fame touched him, Rourke he may have gone a little crazy as well. But after his early 90’s boxing career and some sketchy plastic surgery, Rourke has found his way back to relevance in his craft. There’s still a lot of wildness in Rourke, even if it is tempered now by a sense of humility and even faith in God. One wonders how much of Rouke was talking about himself when, in The Wrestler, The Ram tells his estranged daughter that he’s little more than “a broken down piece of meat.”

In both the death of Michael Jackson, the comeback of Mickey Rourke, and the story of The Ram there is the appeal of the redemptive value of suffering, particularly when the person involved in touched by the tragedy that happens to some when talent and fame intersect. And MJ’s death is a comeback of sorts. In the myth develops, the success of his 2010/2011 tour is a now foregone conclusion, it seems, and the ongoing questions about his death now make him into a victim of handlers rather than a self-destructive eccentric. The King of Pop keeps his throne in the end, reborn even as he is taken from the world.

Early in The Wrestler, in a slightly forced thematic moment, Marisa Tomei’s stripper drops a few lines from The Passion into her post lapdance chit chat with The Ram. “He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we were healed.” Later, she adds, “Sacrificial ram.”

At the memorial service for Michael Jackson, the Reverend Al Sharpton, who appears to have become a personal spokesperson for the MJ’s parents, had this to offer: "I want to say to Michael's children, there wasn't nothing strange about your daddy, it was strange what your daddy had to deal with. He dealt with it anyway. He dealt with it for us."

These allusions to self-sacrifice are strange and wonderfully telling about how deeply so many of us believe in the comeback, the fresh start, in rebirth, and how we are willing to create martyrs where there may be none. Or maybe there’s the possibility that we’re all martyrs. Be it the Phoenix, Osiris, Dionysus, Jesus, Michael Jackson, or Randy the Ram, the stories of life, death, and rebirth have a power to return to us in the strangest of forms. Me, I'm going to keep banging my head and listening for the beat.

Reader's Notes - PN 2.12 - George Russell

With the recent death of jazz composer, teacher, and MacArthur fellow George Russell, there's been a great deal of lazy linking in the blogosphere, but here's the skinny: Russell's theoretical contribution is a concept of organization that paved the way for the modal style of music most prominently featured on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. You also hear modal playing in much of the work of John Coltrane as he moved away from bebop, for instance, in his number "Impressions" and his reworking of Rogers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things."

Over at NPR's A Blog Supreme, there's a decent tribute to Russell as well as a video from jazz guy Brett Primrack.

All About Jazz has a very detailed obituary on Russell, and you would do well to check out the man's own web page, as well as his Wikipedia entry.

Many years ago, I finally bought Ezz-thetics after my friends at WDNA kept telling me about Russell. Although here and there I'd heard the name and seen a writing credit ("Cubano Be/Cubano Bop"), I suppose that because he lacked the star power of Miles or Coltrane, I remained plainly ignorant of how important and interesting Russell's work was. I was truly blown away by the album's third track, "The Lydiot," and always made a point of playing something from George Russell every few weeks. I had joined that club, I suppose. I invite you to do the same.

Barcalounge Skipper - PN 2.11 - Jim Rice, Hall of Famer

In Little League, I proudly wore the number 14 -- the dorsal digits of Jim Rice, slugging Red Sox left fielder of my childhood. I was the left fielder for the Farmington Braves. I didn't know then (as I definitely do now) that the kids who played left field in Little League were, for the most part, the hopeless cases. I couldn't hit particularly well, and I couldn't throw very far but had good accuracy. Afer my first season, my coach, seeing that I was bright enough and big enough, made me a catcher.

After my baseball playing days ended when I turned 13, I became a fan of the game. Living in New England, this meant following the Red Sox during those transitional years between what I think of as the Yaz-Fisk period (1967-1980) to the Boggs-Clemens period (1986-1992). Jim Rice, my hero, spans both those periods, as he played from 1974-1989, pretty much alongside the great and underappreciated Dwight Evans (my brother's childhood favorite) who played for Boston from 1972 to 1990. The early eighties Red Sox were sort of fun to watch, kind of, in a Ralph Houk-ishy way. Most of the time, it seemed to me they got the crap kicked out of them by the Brewers or the Orioles.

As with great players of the 70s and 80s whose statistics are now overshadowed by the players of the Juiced Era, Rice's election this year to the Hall of Fame will remain an apparently undeserved honor to fans under the age of 30. I've been the the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and it's a wonderful tourist attraction, but the history of that institution is filled with flim-flam and fundamental unfairness. I don't have much to offer on the Hall of Fame that hasn't already been said.

Looking back now, when I condsider the years during which Jim Rice played, I understand much more clearly why he kept had a quiet, intense persona in the midst of the Boston sports world. In 1974, the year Rice, a young man from South Carolina, broke into the majors, the Supreme Court also handed down its decision on the appropriateness of busing as a means to desegregating schools. In 1976, the year after Rice helped the Red Sox reach the World Series, Boston was one of the many cities in the United States struggling with civil unrest as it tried to integrate its schools. What's a guy like Rice to think when he opens his Globe in the morning and sees this image on the front page?

The Red Sox, of course, were the very last major league team to integrate in 1959, when they added Pumpsie Green to the roster and used him mostly as a pinch runner and give-the-regulars-a-day-off fielder. A dozen years later, the Sox drafted Rice, who, with the retirement of his number at Fenway on Tuesday night, is the only African-American player so honored by the team. Rice was the only guy on the list. As of today, there is no other black (or Latin player) who could meet Boston's requirements for number-retirement. If David Ortiz plays for Boston for eight more years and reaches the Hall of Fame, he'd get his number on the Fenway facade.

One Saturday in 1982, though, I remember most clearly. The Red Sox, in the midst of not quite winning the AL East title that year, were playing Saturday home game versus the White Sox one hot August afternoon. The game was on national television. Rice, who wasn't having a great year, did hit a double in the bottom of the third to tie the score 2-2. In the bottom of the fourth, a hard line drive went foul into the first base stands. A 4-year-old boy named Jonathan Keene was struck in the head by the ball, which caused serious and severe trauma. Rice climbed into the stands, picked up the little boy, whose head was bleedling badly, and carried him into the dugout, through the clubhouse, and out to a waiting ambulance. As the legend persists now, it was Rice's action that saved the boy's life. That may or may not be so, but there's something in Rice's urgently human action on that afternoon that made so many of us love and respect him.

Later in the game, of course, the Red Sox lost, with Rice grounding into a double play as he so often did. He led the league in GIDP, and would again for three more years. And the Sox, finished not in first place that year, as they so often did. But both the man and the team in those days reminded us of what we were and what we hoped to be -- part human and part hero.