Sunday, October 21, 2007


A group of Ariocarpus retusus with maybe a little bit of trigonus thrown in, flowering at a nursery in Chandler AZ yesterday. On sale for $60-$70 each, sadly out of my price range. Probably at least 50 years old, perhaps more like 75 or 80. Obviously, at a dollar a year, a bargain. Growing cacti makes me reflect on time scale and perspective.

We think of the music Jelly Roll Morton created as having happened a "long time ago." As in, perhaps, the year the seeds of the above plants germinated....

In fact, I tend to think of the 1980s as a "long time ago."

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa at the Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix. What happens in Central Arizona in the summer: it's too hot for cacti. Most species go to sleep, usually completely full of water, unable to respirate at night because the temps stay around 80-90F. Cacti (except for a few oddballs) photosynthesize via Crassulacean Acid Metabolism, a system where the stomata open only at night. If it's too hot, the stomata don't open at all. When temps finally cool off in October, you can almost hear all the cacti breathing. So fall is like a miniature spring, lots of growth, lots of flowers, lots of catching up to do.

This fall has also been like spring for me, as my itch to get out and see the environs had to be stifled when it was 115F outside. In Santa Fe, I used to dream about getting out into the wilds all winter. When spring would finally arrive, I'd pretty much bail on everything and just hang out in the mountains. I hear it's freezing in Santa Fe now, with snow in the Sangres already.

Anyway, survival involves picking one's spots. Tempe Arizona is definitely a challenge in this regard. Endless strip malls, cavernous big box retail outlets absolutely everywhere, fast "food" on every corner and in every direction, all the traffic of a city and very few of the arts and culture highlights. A brief walk past the brand new multimillion dollar Tempe Center for the Arts emphasized the bizarre vacuity of this quick-buck town. "Let's invest a gazillion dollars in a state of the art theater and arts center and then...let's program the blandest, most vapid crap we can imagine for the inaugural season!" (The underlying assumption in the programming seems to be that locals are morons, unused to anything with cultural dimensions beyond your average Boston Pops or regurgitated television sitcom). It's a beautiful facility, pretty much a headstone on the freshly dug grave of vitality and risk. Adding to the forlorn contrast: it's on the waterfront of the ridiculous Tempe Town Lake, a manmade puddle full of the Salt River, created by floating inflatable rubber dams that are already at risk of collapsing, after a scant 9 years. Surely, someone has a devilish sense of humor, some billionaire somewhere with greedy fingers in a pie of "waterfront condos" and "lakeside resorts." If these contrasts don't somehow point to the End of the World, I'll eat my laptop.

The general attitude toward water here, where there's about 8 inches of rain in a good year, is simple. Obviously, there's an infinite amount of it. Every now and then a brave hydrologist (who obviously hasn't been hired by the above-mentioned billionaire) comes along, ruining the water party with absurd predictions of eventual catastrophe. No one pays any attention, perhaps waving away this party pooper, maybe muttering "Liberals! Democrats! Always trying to ruin our fun."

A quick thought spurred after the fact: Why is it that art these days in America usually only gets public funding if it is already perfectly suited to the commercial marketplace?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Perpetually Yours

Dan Melnick at Soundslope linked to an article that is a shining example of some honesty and clear perception of this music people insist on continuing to call "Jazz." The author, Salim Washington, tenor saxophonist and professor at the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music, gets so many things right, in my opinion. Reading the essay is like inhaling gulps of fresh air.

Washington's detailed analysis of Mingus' All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother and overviews of other performances from what was originally Candid's Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus shed light on the formalist strategies of Mingus the composer and arranger, in balance with his daring and innovative risk-taking. The Candid recordings in general, reissued or released for the first time in a miraculous box set by Mosaic about 17 years ago, are landmark performances in the history of the music. Washington frames the astonishing range and expressiveness of these sessions as "oneupmanship" with Ornette Coleman, which I'm not entirely sure I buy. But it doesn't matter. Washington insightfully chooses these dates as examples to support his central thesis:

"The entire history of jazz, with its rapid advancements of styles and genres, could be understood as an avant-garde movement. As historians attempt to frame jazz as the quintessential American music, it has become a symbol of United States culture, and is beginning to gain some of the intellectual prestige and institutional support previously reserved for the European art music tradition. As the more celebrated cultural and educational institutions of the country help jazz gain the reputation of a respectable, bourgeois art, its official face accepts an increasingly restrictive view of what is ‘real jazz’ and what is not. This is not only a matter of personnel and repertoire, but also of aesthetic criteria, and social/political orientation. The emerging canon of jazz history frames jazz as an American music rather than as an African-American music. No widely accepted jazz history text denies that the music is an African-American creation, or that most of its innovators have been black. In many dominant narratives, however, certain black social and aesthetic practices are routinely marginalized, if not rendered invisible. One way that these important emphases tend to be lost or misrepresented is by severing the avant-garde character from the mainstream of the music. Rather than explain avant-garde aesthetics as a primary principle of the music, jazz writers and critics have often chosen to isolate the avant-garde as a style practiced by a fringe element of the jazz community."

Important to note that on the same date for Candid that produced Bugs, Lock 'Em Up and a searingly stark and lovely version of Reincarnation of a Love Bird featuring Lonnie Hillyer, Booker Ervin, Dannie Richmond and Paul Bley, November 11 1960, 5 other tracks were laid down with the amazing line up of Roy Eldridge, Tommy Flanagan and Jo Jones, with Eric Dolphy and Jimmy Knepper added on three of them.

Canonical approaches to either so-called mainstream jazz or so-called free jazz often simply ignore these cross-fertilizing events. Outliers or anomalies. Curiosities. It's so much easier to construe a manageable history of the music by emphasizing aberration, by pathologizing the avant garde, or by formalizing the mainstream. Washington's thoughts center on certain socio-economic reasons for this willful ignorance.

Washington accurately speaks to the "litmus test" of be-bop as a reified, formalized style, and takes dead aim at the subtext of mainstream snobs everywhere (including on occasion the formidable Mr. Mingus himself) when they use the coded phrase "playing changes." Washington's reference to David Murray as an inscrutable figure in this regard is another shining insight. There are small quibbles (referring to Murray and Threadgill as "free boppers" misses something essential, namely the loving transcendence of be bop's hegemony altogether that this innovative period represents, especially standing on the cusp of the emergence of the regrettable "jazz repertory" movement of the '80s).

If I didn't have to get to my day job I'd write more, but it will have to wait. For now, another quote from Professor Washington's essay, which I'm rendering in 24 point type, printing, and nailing to the wall in my studio:

"Jazz at its best has always been a perpetual avant-garde movement."