PN Unscripted - Talking About Cab Calloway with Alyn Shipton

An extended conversation with jazz historian Alyn Shipton about entertainer Cab Calloway -- his influences and influence, his standing as a musician and bandleader, and the arc of his career as a superstar swing entertainer, musical theater performer, and honorary Blues Brother.  Shipton's new biography of Calloway, Hi-Di-Ho, has just been published by Oxford University Press.

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Classroom Notes - 'Teach: Tony Danza' - Season 1: Episode 2, "Tested"

     When Hollywood Tony is talking about Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, the lesson seems to still be more about Tony than it is about Lenny and George and the students in Danza's 10th grade English class.  Not much seems to have changed from the first episode, when everyone just wanted Hollywood Tony to stop talking so much.  As the class tackles Of Mice and Men, familiar problems appear. Some students don't read, some claim they can't understand the material, while the ambitious and bright Monte dismisses the novel as being "a seventh grade book," and makes it clear that he doesn't want to be held back by a teacher.  He's got plans.
     To address the issue of students not reading -- always the primary impediment to any lesson in literature, Hollywood Tony decides to give a quiz over the first two chapters.  As he puts it, "my first quiz.  It's not even on the curriculum, I just threw it in." If you watched last week, you know that when Hollywood Tony  is on stage, it's not going to end well.  When half the students fail the quiz, they feel horrible (although many of them are to blame), and the emotional and professional repercussions just about drive Danza out of the job.  he feels the responsibility. Even Monte, who does well on the quiz, is concerned that, for him, it was too easy. Everybody's failing in one way or another.
     At this point, the professionals step in.  The problem of insufficient effort and incompatible learning styles is addressed immediately by Danza's instructional mentor, David Cohen: "This is the struggle that most of the teachers in the school are up against."  Cohen also adds that when students who have been tested and confirmed as having learning disabilities ask to go to the resource room, they must be allowed to go.  When Hollywood Tony brushes off the issue as a matter of effort, he is quickly passed up the chain of command, coming to rest in Principal Linda Carroll's office.  She reminds Hollywood Tony that he would be wise to follow the advice of professionals and to follow school policies.  Don't mess with the law, Mr. Danza.  And, she adds, "You don't get the title of teacher until your students are learning."
     As a teacher myself, it's comforting to see people sticking up for the difficulty of the profession and dealing honestly with the limits of how far pep and positive thinking will get you.  One really feels bad for Danza, who is obviously a guy with a huge heart -- and you can see him trying to connect with the students.  But sometimes, it isn't always a matter of effort, and often, it takes a very long time to reach young people.  One must have patience and persistence and humility and flexibility.  Hollywood Tony's need to be liked and win people over is his worst enemy, but his emotional accessibility is his greatest strength.
     When Danza is at the breaking point, a very compassionate administrator finds him at his desk, defeated, weeping.  You're allowed to be emotional, she says.  This is an emotional business that we're in.  We've all been there.  And you can see the professional teachers picking up Danza in his most teachable moment -- when the Hollywood Tony persona is gone -- and telling him he can do it.  Because everyone knows he has the heart.  Finally, we see Mr. Danza make an appearance in Act 5: "I guess I'll have to adjust my thinking."
     My favorite moments in the series so far have been when Danza encounters parents -- first in the last episode at a Friday football game, and in this episode in two parent conferences.  One parent of a stubbornly uninvolved student meets with Danza in conference and gives him permission to stay on her, and also makes the suggestion of providing students and parents with an assignment sheet so parents can help make sure kids are doing assignments.  I'll try it, says Mr. Danza.  But, this being a television drama, there must be a cliffhanger, and bright, articulate Monte (you knew it) has asked his grandmother to come in and talk to Hollywood Tony.  Last week, she tells Danza, Monte said you earned a 6 out of 10.  This week, you get a 4. Fade to black.
     After two episodes, the broader purpose of the show is becoming clear -- that is, to show the real, agonizing drama that is inherent in the public school system.  The profound moments of 'Teach' are built around the tensions between innovation and bureaucracy, between bright students and struggling students, between passionate teachers and apathetic teachers, and between the expectations of school and the demands of the world outside.  As a character study and reality drama, it's getting better each time the new guy down the hall starts crying at his desk.  Hollywood Tony has got to go if Mr. Danza's -- and his students -- going to have a chance.

Notes on Season 1: Episode 1, "Back to School"

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PNodcast - Alyn Shipton's 'Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway'

A conversation with jazz historian Alyn Shipton about Hi-De-Ho, his new biography of bandleader and entertainer Cab Calloway.  If you enjoy this download of the WDNA broadcast, you might want to check out the Unscripted version of the PNodcast, which will be available via Feedburner and iTunes by midnight on Friday (today). Stretching things out a bit, Alyn and I talked about Cab's full career, his influence and influences, and even had a little stormy weather in the mix.


Reader's Notes - Vargas Llosa Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Allow me to point out that I (sort of) predicted that Mario Vargas Llosa would win this year's Nobel Prize in Literature.  As much as I am half-right, I am also half-wrong, as Margaret Atwood did not win.  Wait until next year!  Award news is all over the place this morning, but here are links to stories from the New York Times and National Public Radio.  Here in Miami, as one might expect, there is always a particular community-wide pride when a Spanish-language author receives such notable recognition.  You might peruse a historical list of winners and draw your own conclusions.

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Reader's Notes - That's A Stabbin'!

Flaming hat: Perfectly acceptable.
From the wilds of redneck New England -- hey, I grew up there -- we have the slightly funny but mostly awful story of an actual stabbing of a Yankee fan by a Red Sox fan at a restaurant named -- wait for it -- the Chowder Pot in Branford, Connecticut.  Now, those of us in Red Sox Nation (the real fans, not the Pink Hats) know that most Yankee fans are obnoxious, unimaginative, front-running wankers, but do we really need to go and get all stabby on a guy?  (The answer, for those of you in the Nation who can't quite work it out for yourselves, is, "No.  No it is not acceptable to stab a Yankee fan.  Not with a knife.")  Check out the Chowder Pot website for the awesome tunes and jumping fish -- wait, isn't that Nemo?  And Dorrie?

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Review of David Bixler & Arturo O'Farrill - 'The Auction Project"

David Bixler & Arturo O'Farrill - The Auction Project (2010 Zoho)

     In an unexpected musical crossover, Arturo O’Farrill and David Bixler make a fully successful blend of the Irish and the Afro-Cuban.  Call it Irish-Afro.  Call it world jazz.  Call me sentimental, but I’ve been to my homeland of Ireland and I’ve been known in a pugnacious moment to cite my Celtic roots; call me provincial, but I like living in Miami and I’ve been known, on a good day, to distinguish a triple-pulse son clave from a rhumba clave. When the press kit arrived for The Auction Project, as much respect as I have for Arturo O’Farrill and the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Orchestra, I have to admit that I was skeptical about this release.  But it works.  Whatever you call the music on The Auction Project, it’s good, and it swings more than a sheleighly keeping time on a timbale.
     Bixler, in the liner notes, describes his interest in how his Julliard trained wife was studying Irish fiddling.  “Irish music,” he writes, “was like jazz in a lot of ways, except people liked it.” In truth, Irish folk music, like jazz, is part of an aural tradition. In O’Farrill’s section of the liner notes, he is very gracious when he talks about Bixler, whose “swarthy Hispanic side” is evident almost exclusively in his playing.  The sense of fun between the members of the group is clear in these words, and it’s even more clear from the music they produce.  But make no mistake – The Auction Project is clearly Bixler’s handiwork, as the 8 of the 10 compositions or arrangements on the album come from the saxophonist, supported, of course, by O’Farrill on piano, by Heather Martin Bixler on violin, along with Carlo Derosa on bass, Vince Cherico on drums, and Roland Guerrero on percussion.  The musical heavy lifting is done by these last four, who supply the more overtly “Irish” and “Cuban” sides of the matter.
     The opening tune, “June 26th, 07” (the date when the Bixlers’ son graduated from high school) begins as a twisting, major/minor exercise, featuring Bixler’s alto winding through the progressions and polyrhythms, but when Martin Bixler’s violin joins the group after the first third of the tune, the texture changes radically, as husband and wife have a manner of playing together that, at times, sounds like a entirely new and different instrument.  Bixler backs off the attack of his horn, and Martin Bixler has such a fine control of vibrato, she manages to stay perfectly in phase with the sax.  O’Farrill and Derosa have fine solos on this number, as well.  But we’re not really in Irish territory yet.
     We reach the Isles with the next song, “The Chicken Went To Scotland” a traditional jig arranged by Bixler, who takes advantage of the fact that these melodies originally lacked harmonic structures, casting the tune in the setting of a dramatic, deep and chromatic progression of chords.  The chicken is moving at a pretty steady pace at the top of the chart, but before we know it O’Farrill and Cherico are swinging the poultry all over the place without losing the essential jig of the song.
Green Target, Jasper Johns
     “Green Target,” a composition to which we are treated two different versions of, was inspired by a Jasper Johns painting, and its fine melody is evocative of a tango – by way of abstract expressionism – and both takes feature fine but very different sets of solos from members of the group.  “She Moves Through The Night,” another Bixler arrangement, offers some of my favorite playing on the album, although I suspect that this version is more through composed than some of the other tracks.
     Standing out easily of all the excellent music is “Banish Misfortune” where Martin Bixler and the percussionists really make the most of the playfulness melody, then give way to a droll solo from O’Farrill, followed by a slowly building and melodic statement from Bixler.  Dynamic, layered, and exhilarating, I found myself listening to this track over and over and wanting to simply get up and dance.
     “Heather’s Waltz, Parts I and II” takes the listener on a voyage from a very traditional-sounding fiddle tune – in 9/8 time, no less – with the lightest possible accompaniment from O’Farrill, into a swinging jazz waltz that showcases again the Bixlers uncanny sense of unified sound, all in the midst of a truly swinging waltz.  It’s a very complex performance that sounds easy in the hands of this group.
     The final two tracks on the release fit well enough given the personnel, but seem adapted for the concept.  “Heptagonesque,” a Bixler composition originally performed by the Anica Saxophone Quartet, is a solid tune that would find a home on almost any jazz album.  “Worth Dying For” is notable for displaying Bixler carrying the weight of a song forward with only drums and percussion to back him, and the alto’s strong sense of melody serves him well, even when he seems to be playing a bit “outside” the original structure of the song.
     The Auction Project is a strong release from first note to last, with no weak spots and offering music that is not only interesting and innovative, but absolutely entertaining.  David Bixler's musicality runs through this work, but he’s also very fortunate to have such a remarkably adept collaborators – not the least of which is his own wife, Heather Martin Bixler

David Bixler – alto sax
Arturo O’Farrill – piano
Heather Martin Bixler – violin
Carlo Derosa – bass
Vince Cherico – drums
Roland Guerrero - percussion

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Review of 'Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original' by Robin D.G. Kelley

The one book that had been sitting in the "must-read" pile on my nightstand far too long was Robin D. G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.  Truth is, I was saving it for the laziest, most pleasant days of my summer break, as Monk's records and I go way back to when I was 10 or 11 years old and I discovered 1968's Underground in a relative's old record collection.  The cover alone was some far out shit, still more the music inside.  When I got older and got good enough on the guitar to buy my own fake book, I took a look at the lead sheets for Monk's tunes -- something like "Well, You Needn't," just up and down the neck, right -- and figured I could learn the song.  Well, I could play the melody and the chords all right, but the whole thing sounded like a dog's lunch.  In other words, a mess.
     As Kelly's outstanding biography makes clear, Monk as a man and as a composer was his own man -- bold, original, uncompromising, and rooted so deeply in place that when you encountered his oeuvre, you had to go him, because he wasn't going to come to you.  Weighing in -- appendixes, notes, and index -- at almost 600 pages, The Life and Times is an appropriately weighty treatment of a musical figure whose center of gravity continues to be affecting the musical orbits of all planetary bodies in motion.
     As a public service of the first order, Kelley dispels the persistent myths of Monk as a savant, as a mystic, as hopelessly eccentric, as anything less than a full man who took his art and his independence seriously.  Along the way, readers will also get to the bottom of the crooked and discriminatory cabaret card system in New York City and the bizarro world of musicians' unions and music copyrights.  Tied up in this, as well, is a brutal picture of how race factored into the criminal justice/mental health system in the US, and how musicians who were underpaid and overworked often kept themselves going with chemicals -- in Monk's case, alcohol, nicotine, "vitamin shots" from Dr. Robert, and the occasional recreational drug.  All these impediments -- bad press, insufficient health care, crooked businessmen, and run-of-the-mill substance abuse -- didn't keep Monk from being himself and writing his songs.
     Monk was a family man and a neighborhood guy, brought from North Carolina to New York City in 1922 by a mother who preferred the opportunities of the urban north to those of the rural south.  In the Monks apartment in San Juan Hill, there was a piano, and Thelonious started playing when he was six, taking lessons across all kinds of musical genres, to the point where, in his late teens, he was skilled enough to tour the nation playing keyboard for a traveling preacher.  The picture Kelley paints of Monk is of a young man who is deeply interested in music, provincial in the way that New Yorkers can be, and guided by some inner compass of confidence and strength, no doubt instilled in his by mother, with whom he was close until the day she died.
     As the 30s give way to the 40s and swing bands give way to bebop, we find Monk at the forefront of the music, in conversation via the aural tradition of jazz -- Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Monk all had a hand in creating the high modern sound.  But we see that the extrovert, Diz, and the axtrovert, Bird, are the ones who got much of the credit, while Monk, who built the chair for everyone to sit on, had to wait a decade or so for people to understand what he actually did.  Until then, Monk, who was clearly introverted and let his piano do the talking -- however clunky and dissonant it might sound to the unschooled ear.  When bad luck and rumors prevent him from working in New York, Monk could be found hanging out at his apartment in the city, jamming with Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, teaching the new harmonics to anyone willing to listen and who could keep up.  By the mid-50s, as the mainstream catches up with Monk, we find him able to make a living some years, but the grind of poverty, of keeping his family together, of the ever-creeping swings of his untreated bipolar disorder -- all those factors make even the broad success and popularity of the 1960s a bittersweet affair.
     When Monk made his last public performance in 1975, even as the importance of his music was steadily growing, he had been retired from life as a working musician for a few years already.  By the time of his death in 1982 -- folks might forget how long the silence was at he end of his life -- he had retreated to the second floor of his friend and patron Nica de Koenigswarter's home in Weehauken, New Jersey, where his wife Nellie would visit most days and Monk would reside, immaculately dressed, watching TV for the most part, or simply doing nothing. All that music, and then that long echoing coda.
     Kelley doesn't miss a note of it -- not the personal microcosm of Monk's day-to-day life, and not the middle ground of music and gigs and records.  In fact, few biographies present such a thorough and thoughtful chronicle of any musician's career in making music, particularly in the world of jazz, where a change in personnel means a change in the music. Most impressive is the manner in which Kelley frames Monk's life in the context of the struggle of African-Americans to create a space to make art (and a life) with dignity and integrity.  The historical facts of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and the triumph over those factors is sometimes foregrounded in Kelley's narrative, but never in a manner that is forced or preachy.  The author is spot-on from beginning to end.
     Along with Terry Teachout's Pops: A Life, Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original is one of the two best jazz books of last year, and I'm sorry on both counts that it took me until this year to get around to reading them.  The good news is that Kelley's book will be out in paper next month (as will Teachout's, this week) so you can get the jazz lover in your life an early Christmas present.  Actually, do them a favor, and get them two.

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PN Video Jukebox - Cab Calloway

This week we assemble a dozen videos featuring entertainer Cab Calloway, a true original.  Included in this playlist are a number of early performances, as well as two animated shorts that feature Calloway songs and a dancing character in tribute to the man's extraordinary dancing skills.  On Friday, Passing Notes will speak with writer Alyn Shipton, whose biography of Calloway, Hi-De-Ho comes out next week.

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Barcalounge Skipper - 2010 MLB Playoffs

You might not have been wondering where my weekend sports commentary has been, but I've been waiting for the baseball playoffs picture to clear up -- and it was a great ending to the regular season without those pesky one-game playoffs. ("You mean we played 162 games and we're still not clear about who's better?")  So, even though I'll probably be wrong on most counts, here are my best guesses as to who will advance and who won't in the 2010 MLB postseason.

National League Playoffs

Reds (91-71) versus Phillies (97-65)
     The Phillies have three aces at the top of the staff -- Halliday, Oswalt, and Hamels -- and have managed to earn the best record in baseball despite injuries and below-average years from most of their players.  Given the strong pitching and the always likely regression toward the mean, the Phils are the smart pick here.  Then again, with sure-thing NL MVP Joey Votto steady and productive, it could be that a brilliant postseason from just one pitcher (Edinson Volquez) and one hitter (Jay Bruce) knocks out the favorite.  But I don't think so. Phillies in four.

Braves (91-71) versus Giants (92-70)
     The Braves would be the sentimental favorite to go deep into the playoffs, given that Bobby Cox (2503 wins, 5 pennants, 1 championship) is in his final season.  But after Tim Hudson, I don't see any other pitcher who matches up with the Giants' big three of Lincecum, Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez.  Neither team has particularly strong offenses, so if you like pitching a defense, this is the series to watch.  Giants in five.

     The Phillies have the pitching to meet the Giants' arms, and there's no comparison between the hitting of these teams.  Unless Lincecum and Cain suddenly turn into the second coming of Koufax and Drysdale, I have to pick the Phillies in six.

American League Playoffs

Rangers (90-71) versus Rays (95-66)
     This matchup is the hardest to figure out, as the Rays appear to have much more consistent pitching, and the Rangers have a fearsome offensive lineup, led by my choice (not that anybody's asking) for AL MVP, Josh Hamilton.  Aces David Price for the Rays and Cliff Lee for the Rangers cancel each other out, so I think the Rays slim edge in the rotation picks up that third win they need somewhere along the way.  Also, BJ Ryan has finally started to come out of his season-long snooze, and there's no way Carlos Pena doesn't do a little bit more damage in the playoffs than he has been doing all year.  Rays in four.

Yankees (95-67) versus Twins (94-68)
     Although the Yankees have been a little wobbly in the last few weeks, I am mindful that they play in the ruthless American League East, and they are, as ever, stocked with veterans who have done it before, and so forth.  I like CC Sabathia for two wins in a short series, and I don't see the Twins starters handling the Yankees hitters as well as the Yankees entire staff handling the Twins' bats.  I say it goes to the Yankees in five, with a memorably cold and rainy clincher played deep into in the Minnesota night.

     If the Rays can make it past the Rangers, then I'm going to take them over the Yankees.  Joe Maddon will figure out a way to beat the Yankees, and Carl Crawford will, of course, be auditioning for a job with the very team he'll be playing against. Rays in six.

World Series
     So we'll have a rematch of the 2008 World Series, and this time around it will be a much better contest than the last time the Rays and Phillies met to settle the championship, when the Phillies won Game 5 over two nights, due to a suspension of the game due to inclement weather.  This time around, the Rays players will be ready to go, with better pitching -- including David Price, who will outpitch everyone -- but it won't be enough.  Winning their second World Series in three years, it'll be the Phillies in seven.

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Eater's Notes - Tony's Mom's Banana Bread

     Yesterday, on the campus of the school where I teach, there was a charity 5K race to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.  A student at our school -- we'll call him Tony -- is undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and his classmates wanted to have an event to encourage him in his fight against his cancer, and to help others suffering from the disease.  I'm particularly grateful, as well, because my father is a survivor of multiple myeloma, which falls into the blood cancers family.
     We raised money and had a wonderful event for the community, but most importantly we had the humbling example of Tony himself, who before the race, asked people not to think so much of him, but of the cancer patients who aren't as lucky as him and who don't have such a supportive community helping them in their own fights.  And, in the midst of his own treatment schedule, Tony didn't just show up for the 5K, he ran in the race.  And he didn't just run, he finished.  And he didn't just finish, he finished 14th in a field of hundreds of  runners.
    Runners like their carbs, and they like bananas, so in honor of Tony, I include his mother's recipe for banana bread.  I make to claim for the healing powers of this recipe, but you never know. I have the feeling Tony will be eating this bread for many many years to come.

Tony's Mom's Banana Bread
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups mashed ripe bananas (2 to 3 bananas)
1/4 cup oil
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup chocolate chips

Preheat over to 350.  Mix flour, baking power, baking soda, and salt.  Beat eggs in small bowl, stir in bananas, oil, and water.  Add to flour mixture until moistened.  Batter will be lumpy.  Stir in walnuts and chocolate chips.  Pour into 9 by 5 inch loaf pan and bake for 55 to 65 minutes until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

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