Hope Wanted

Three Staten Island photos from Hope Wanted, an outdoor exhibition at the New York State Historical Society through November … photographer Kay Hickman … co-curated with Kevin Powell … above the gallery wall, the row of townhouses on the south side of West 76th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue

I made a timed-ticket reservation for Sunday noon to see the free outdoor exhibition Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine at the New York Historical Society. The space is not large; it has the footprint of a few townhouses. It’s grassy in the middle, bright green on this sunny day. Around the perimeter, photographs of different sizes are “hung” like paintings on a gallery wall, in order from The Bronx to Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island. All photos (there are 50, chosen from more than 1,500) were taken over two days, a month into the lockdown and just before April 11 when Governor Cuomo announced that the State of New York had reached the apex and was beginning to plateau.

Photographer Kay Hickman and journalist Kevin Powell also gathered the subjects’ stories, edited to 90 seconds or so and accessible inside the exhibition space by cell phone. Hany Nashed did the driving; he’s photographed as well.

There are visual signs of spring — a sweet pink-flowering bush near a stoop says April — but the human body language communicates a stronger message. Stay inside. People are photographed through windows, in doorways, some walking in the streets with masks or scarves over their faces. Their voices — except for one or two — sounded flat to me. A young Brooklyn woman huddled in her doorway says she works alone at home all day, then paints and walks five miles at night. A music teacher from Fordham University says “I have gone through a variety of negative emotions ranging from rage, to fear, to despair.” (Transcripts come with the audio.)

The Apollo Theater in Harlem and Kings Theatre in Brooklyn are closed. They speak through their marquees. “Keep ya head up” (Tupac). “Keep calm and wash your hands.” A few riders are waiting in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal; Times Square is empty save for a bicyclist. We’ve made a lot of progress. It’s good to look back. 

Oran Etkin’s Open Arms

Today is May 20, 2020, more than two months since we New Yorkers began to stay at home. It’s been a long pause.

Now clarinetist Oran Etkin is helping ease the travel ban with his Open Arms Project, two years and a half dozen trips in the making. Oran is a jazz player who loves traditional music, and his creative strategy is to tour first, then release something new. So he chooses a musical setting, embeds himself in a community, listens and observes, collaborates and documents, and finally comes home to produce a record of what he’s done and plan his next adventure.

It helps that Oran is a gifted listener (when not traveling, he teaches music to children between two and four years of age, using his original storytelling methods in which instruments do the talking). He’s active on multiple social media platforms, and he’s committed to capturing his unique partnerships on video.

The first Open Arms video came out in April. It is “Retirantes,” recorded in Rio de Janeiro in the winter of 2019. The composer is Dorival Caymmi (1914-2008), a founder of Brazilian popular music and the father of Danilo Caymmi. Setting up the Open Arms “Retirantes,” guitarist Davi Mello plays rhythm and Danilo enters on two simultaneous wooden flutes. Oran joins with a high cry on clarinet. Danilo sings the lyric about a hard life (the title means migrants) as “Retirantes” chugs like a distant train and leaves a long instrumental trail for Oran to vamp and swoop over. I think of Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela” about conscripted workers on a coal train. 

Brazilian music expert Judith King listened and commented that Danilo is “the youngest of that famous musical family, and the Caymmi fingerprint is indelibly etched into his voice,” a lovely low voice. 

The next song in the Open Arms Project, coming May 22, is Dorival Caymmi’s gentle “É Doce Morrer No Mar”/“It’s Sweet to Die in the Sea,” featuring the same trio. Watch it here and stream it here. And next on the itinerary, Oran will take us to Zimbabwe, the Czech Republic, Paris and beyond. One song at a time.

Click on COMMENT at the top of this post to read Oran’s answers to three questions — What have you heard from Brazil about life in the season of the virus? Can you characterize your Open Arms locations with a word or phrase for each? As you can’t tour, what is your new model for making music? Thanks to Oran for the vision, the energy and the music.

Joan Wildman 1938-2020

Joan Wildman was my last piano teacher in Madison, Wisconsin, almost forty years ago. When I heard the news of her death last night, without missing a beat, I suddenly felt that I was in her living room, the room where she taught. Her grand piano in the front window. Her energy everywhere. I felt for a moment that I was breathing her air.

Joan was midwestern through and through — she’s quoted in an interview as saying “I grew up on a ranch in Nebraska . . . . I rode my horse to school” — and although I don’t know the details of how she became a musician, she made herself into a FIERCE jazz pianist. She was so original and driven. She played no cliches. She had no patience with a student repeating herself. When I left town in 1982, she was on her way to maven (or legend) status. A professor going for tenure at UW and a single-minded creative force, she shifted the paradigm.

In the late 1970s the VSOP Quintet of Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter (although my memory says Joe Henderson), Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams played a concert at the Memorial Union. This was a sort of blend of the Messengers and Miles’ bands, in the decade following their peaks. Joan was not buying VSOP. I believe she attended the concert but was not moved. She wanted her jazz musicians on the leading edge.

Other things I remember. She wished she could study with Monk. She went to Tulane University one summer and researched Jelly Roll Morton. She took up the DX7 and even her synthesizer sounds were original. She made music with Roscoe Mitchell, also a Dane County resident. Joan told a very funny story about driving out to Mitchell’s house, trying to follow the directions he’d given her (no cell phones then) — turn at the farmhouse, turn at the next farmhouse, look for a barn …

Joan and I stayed in touch, but it has been ten years since we had contact. I thank her for including me, for her relentless restlessness, for being her own person, so real.

Message from Veneto .. March 12, 2020

Riccardo Scivales photo by Mauro Parenzan

Hi Becca, I hope you are well, and sorry for my delay in replying in detail. I too am worried – last night on TV they said that unfortunately there are a thousand infected in New York. We are fine, even if the situation is not easy here. Yesterday in our region (Veneto) they counted 1027 infected and 29 dead. We must remain as closed as possible at home, and from today the government has decided to close all shops, factories and offices that are not indispensable (such as grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, etc.). Schools are closed, and the music schools where I teach piano have been temporarily closed since last week. We pray that all this will end soon. And since we have to stay at home, let’s try to play and listen to as much good music as possible! A hug and a warm greeting to you and your loved ones!

James P. Johnson . Willie “The Lion” Smith . Thomas “Fats” Waller . Joe Turner . Eubie Blake . Dick Wellstood & more! Transcribed by Riccardo Scivales

Back in 1990 Ekay Music published pianist Riccardo Scivales’s loving and accurate transcriptions of 26 classic Harlem Stride solos from the 1920s and 30s, originally documented on piano rolls and early recordings. Scivales was the first to transcribe many of these challenging, exuberant pieces. Think “Carolina Shout” by James P. Johnson and “Smashing Thirds” by Fats Waller.

Harlem Stride could be a life’s work, but from his keyboards in the Venice area, Riccardo also passionately leads the Prog Rock Band Quanah Parker (named for the Comanche chief) and just finished a piano arrangement of “La Scala” from The Symphonic Ellington album, to be played “as soon as normal life starts again.”

Dear Lord, may that day come quickly!

ADDENDUM: From Italy Riccardo has added to this blog post, with a comment about his love for Progressive Rock for its “Beauty, Poetry and Imagination,” and why he named his band for a Comanche chief about whom most Americans know little. Riccardo is a tireless musical explorer. To read his words and link to some music, click on the “comment” link at the top of this post. You will be rewarded.

Branford Marsalis Quartet at Rose Hall

Eric Revis, Justin Faulkner, Joey Calderazzo, Branford Marsalis

Coming to the stage, Branford said he loves Rose Hall and opened with “a love song” by bassist Eric Revis. “Dance of the Evil Toys” quickly became demonic – soldiers in combat while the children sleep – and near me an audience member called out “If that’s a love song, you better play a war song.”

“Dance of the Evil Toys” also opens The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul, released today, March 1, on Okeh Records.

For “Conversation Among the Ruins,” composed by pianist Joey Calderazzo, Branford shifted from tenor saxophone to soprano. His powerful breath delivers streams of ideas balanced by Calderazzo’s musical speech and theater. Once to my absolute delight Joey’s two fists chased each other up the piano keys. But only once. This music does not indulge in reprises. 

So it was surprising that tune #3 was “When I Take My Sugar to Tea” (played by Chico in the Marx Brothers’s Monkey Business in 1931, a fact I learned after the show). Marsalis on tenor. The strategy emerged: a song for the audience, a song for the band.

“Light Filtering from the Water Flowers” (soprano) felt cinematic … French? … a thunderstorm? … braiding improv and narrative … Marsalis back-announced the piece and the name confirmed the experience. “Sunny Side of the Street” (tenor) came as a graceful lament. Then the finale jettisoned storylines and lyricism for intensity,  speed and accuracy, hard work. Drummer Justin Faulkner leaned in big time.

Citizens of the Blues – trumpet, piano, bass and drums students from Juilliard and Manhattan Schools – opened the concert, and they played their opportunity just right. After two original pieces, they surprised this older audience with the unadorned, distinctive melody of “A House Is Not a Home” (1964 hit for Dionne Warwick), back announced by trumpeter Anthony Hervey who said, “If you recognized it, we did our job,” with Isaiah J. Thompson, piano; Philip Norris, bass; Domo Branch, drums.

Wish I had a picture.

The Night Tripper’s Life

So many books, so little time.

Dr. John’s autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon came out in 1994 (co-author Jack Rummel). Today it’s on Amazon for $45. And as my first read of the year 2020, I must return my New York Public Library copy TONIGHT because somebody else is waiting for it.

Malcolm John (Mac) Rebennack was born in 1941 and died last summer, a link in a chain of 20th century New Orleans pianists, shading his tunes with dance beats and lacy decoration. He led a life of magic and treachery, spiritualists, gris-gris, managers who cheat.

Toward the end of the book he shines a light on the pianists around him. James Booker seems almost a savant who “could play it all – stride piano, butterfly, boogie, all the other New Orleans styles, the Chicago styles, the Memphis styles, the Texas styles, the California styles, bebop, avant-garde jazz, classical, even pop!” I love this list.

Booker’s bandmates edited their own solos because if they played too long, “Booker would come out with a solo that would just blow them off the stage and disgrace them.” One night in Chicago at the Aragon Ballroom, Booker didn’t even come to the bandstand. Instead “this big mountain of sound began to swell beneath us . . . . It was just roaring; the whole stage was moving.” Booker had discovered the pipe organ in the orchestra pit. The instrument was massive but Booker “sat down and cranked it up like it was nothing.”

The self-taught and providential Professor Longhair (“Before him was the void; after him, we’re just whistling in the dark”) became Dr. John’s second father. Fess gets his own chapter with vignettes about him at home in his easy chair, wired to control scents, lights and music (pre Alexa and Siri) and even deliver a keyboard to his lap. There’s Fess in the recording studio dictating his individual part to each player, and Fess mentally orchestrating his music for banjos, tubas and trombone (never recorded but should have been). And Fess in the parlors and clubs, negotiating New Orleans’s rigid hidden castes, his playing both graceful and seriously rocking, in shirtsleeves or a tux, a cap or a turban. I can almost see and hear it.

For others who long for more time with the late Dr. John, read Under a Hoodoo Moon: The Life of the Night Tripper from St. Martin’s Press.

Remembering James Williams

From The Piano Stylist, April-May 1989

James Williams (1951-2004) came from Memphis. He went to Central High School and was a student, rehearsing with his jazz band, when he and his friends heard of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in their city. Williams played organ in the Eastern Star Baptist Church and graduated from Memphis State University, then moved to Boston and taught at Berklee, served as a Jazz Messenger from 1977-81 (these dates from the Wikipedia page in his name), and in 1984 moved to Brooklyn. I met him at his apartment at 393 Tenth Street (“F [train] to Fourth, near Fifth” say my notes). Wearing a lovely light blue chenille robe, he welcomed me and from that moment I have been gratefully attached to James Williams.

The Piano Stylist notes say the arrangement comes from a concert at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, “to be aired in full on The American Jazz Radio Festival on National Public Radio in early May. Check your local NPR station for the broadcast date and time.”

David Karp typeset the music (no Sibelius). Suki Koczeniak designed the page (no Pagemaker). Ed Shanaphy had the idea for and published The Piano Stylist, consultant Stuart Isacoff. Editing it was a wonderful assignment that required me to find and meet dozens of pianists, among them James, still greatly missed but available via this majestic (see tempo marking) presentation which I hope some of you can also play!

Artemis presented by Carnegie Hall, Dec 7, 2019

Artemis is named for the Greek goddess of the hunt, and the septet named for Artemis includes Cécile McLorin Salvant, Vocals … Renee Rosnes, Music Director and Piano … Anat Cohen, Clarinet and Soprano Saxophone … Melissa Aldana, Tenor Saxophone … Ingrid Jensen, Trumpet … Noriko Ueda, Bass … Allison Miller, Drums.

The concert felt historic, with an arc from — encore to opener — Billie Holiday to original music of this moment. The selections came in pairs, and I wish I could see and hear every one, again and again.

Artemis at Carnegie Hall, December 7, 2019
Six of the seven in Artemis at Carnegie Hall, photo by enid@enidfarmer.com … see below for news from Enid


Goddess of the Hunt (Miller) … Fool on the Hill (Lennon and McCartney, arr Jensen)

McLorin Salvant onstage to sing Easy to Love (Cole Porter) … If It’s Magic (Stevie Wonder) with the beautiful last line “ … there’s enough for everyone” + a stellar coda

Big Top (Rosnes) … Nocturno (Cohen)

McLorin Salvant onstage to sing Pirate Jenny from Threepenny Opera (Kurt Weill) after which she noted that “Nina Simone sang [Pirate Jenny] here” … Cry, Buttercup, Cry (Maxine Sullivan recorded this song by Rocco Accetta)

Step Forward (Ueda, inspired by Piano Etudes for Children by her teacher in Japan) … Frida Kahlo (Aldana)

Horace Silver piece played in slow funk … Cécile’s last song … ENCORE: Fine and Mellow (Billie Holiday) … Dear Reader, Please help with these titles and any other comments.

A note about photographer Enid Farber: last month at the Freespace Jazz Festival in West Kowloon, Hong Kong, she spoke about Women in Jazz and  presented many of her photos of women jazz musicians, as well as a slide show on a 19 foot LED screen featuring her work from 1978 to today. In Hong Kong! Then she came home and documented Artemis at Carnegie Hall. For information or to present her historic photos, contact enid@enidfarber.com.

Mingus Big Band and George Lewis’ Soundlines

Mingus Big Band getting ready to play, October 14, 2019

Monday nights at The Jazz Standard on East 27th Street in New York City are for the Grammy Award-winning Mingus Big Band! In 2010 they won the award for Best Large Ensemble Album. It’s time for their next Grammy, and the set I saw on Monday, October 14, could have been a contender, had it only been recorded.

Early on, leader Alex Foster introduced young bassist Marcos Varela, new to the band. He was ready and showed no fear. Theo Hill on piano (new to me) was percussive and exciting. And veteran Earl McIntyre on bass trombone rocked the room. The trombones are the solar plexus chakra of the MBB. This may be an ill-advised metaphor. The heart of the set was “Fables of Faubus” (Orval Faubus was Arkansas Governor in 1957 and obstructed the integration of Little Rock Central High School) leading to “Haitian Fight Song.” Several young people from the audience stepped up and talked about the current life-and-death crisis in Haiti. Afterwards they were raising money at the door.

On Friday at NYU, composer George Lewis’ Soundlines concert opened with percussionist Steven Schick narrating and accompanying his story of his 700+ mile walk from San Diego to San Francisco. Twenty miles a day, six days a week, seven weeks, more than a million steps. While he walked he tried not to overthink, but sometimes he couldn’t stop himself. “My calves are screaming!” was one outburst. A small ensemble played on a platform above him, and electronic sounds like gulls and traffic washed in from the sides. Big orange signal lights pulsed on and off. 

Soundlines is a work in two parts. More small string/winds/voice ensembles materialized for the second composition, P. Multitudinis. The Latin text comes from philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-77). “The right of the commonwealth is determined by the power of the people . . . . for the good of all men.” In the program notes, Lewis writes that “the performance is achieved through negotiation and consensus, and its success will be less a question of individual freedom than of the assumption of personal responsibility for the sonic environment.” 

A conductor zigzagged from group to group, cueing the ensembles to follow invisible (to the audience) written instructions like “Create a short solo,” “Play as fast as possible,” “Wait for another ensemble to stop, then imitate their action.” The order was random so every performance will be different. Experiencing it is like watching eggs hatch in nests around and above the stage. When the house lights came up, we knew it was over. 

These two musical evenings bracketed my “work week” in mid-October, here in New York.

After Soundlines, composer George Lewis (left) of Columbia University and
the International Contemporary Ensemble strides onto the stage, October 18, at NYU Skirball