Monday, August 31, 2015

In Memory Of Oliver Sachs (1933-2015): Musings on Music of the Mind


Regular readers of this blog (the cats and that sweet woman from England who keeps seeing flying saucers when she sits in her loo) know that I adore music.

Music is pretty much a fulltime companion. It wakes me up in the morning and relaxes my mind in the evening. It helps me celebrate good times and weather bad times. It makes me move my body in fun and interesting ways when the DF&C and I are at a live concert or roll back the living room rug and boogie. And I can say without equivocation that it does strange and wonderous things to my mind.

Yet for all of the music that I have absorbed since I first heard "Pop Goes the Weasel" played on a jack in the box, I don't have a clue as to how and why it does those things to my mind.

Enter a really smart guy by the name of Oliver Sacks, a neurologist who has done some groundbreaking explorations on music and the mind, including how certain songs get stuck in one's mind (for me most recently Robert Hazzard's "Escalator of Life").

Sacks shares what he has learned in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, a terrific new book that includes a case study about an orthopedic surgeon who discovered he had a newfound passion for concert piano after literally having his mind blown when he was struck by lightning.

Here are excerpts from a chapter on the incredible story of Tony Cicoria, who was at a lakeside pavilion for a family gathering on a fall afternoon as storm clouds gathered in the distance:
He went to a pay phone outside the pavilion to make a quick call to his mother (this was in 1994, before the age of cell phones). He still remembers every single second of what happened next: "I was talking to my mother on the phone. There was a little bit of rain, thunder in the distance. My mother hung up. The phone was a foot away from where I was standing when I got struck. I remember a flash of light coming out of the phone. It hit me in the face. Next thing I remember, I was flying backwards."
Then — he seemed to hesitate before telling me this — "I was flying forwards. Bewildered. I looked around. I saw my own body on the ground. I said to myself, 'Oh shit, I'm dead.' I saw people converging on the body. I saw a woman — she had been standing waiting to use the phone right behind me — position herself over my body, give it CPR. . . . I floated up the stairs — my consciousness came with me. I saw my kids, had the realization that they would be okay.
* * * * *
Dr. Cicoria knew he was back in his own body because he had pain — pain from the burns on his face and his left foot, where the electrical charge had entered and exited his body — and, he realized, "only bodies have pain." He wanted to go back, he wanted to tell the woman to stop giving him CPR, to let him go; but it was too late — he was firmly back among the living. After a minute or two, when he could speak, he said, "It's okay — I'm a doctor!" The woman (she turned out to be an intensive-care-unit nurse) replied, "A few minutes ago, you weren't."

* * * * *
A couple of weeks later, when his energy returned, Dr. Cicoria went back to work. There were still some lingering memory problems — he occasionally forgot the names of rare diseases or surgical procedures — but all his surgical skills were unimpaired. In another two weeks, his memory problems disappeared, and that, he thought, was the end of the matter.
What then happened still fills Cicoria with amazement, even now, a dozen years later. Life had returned to normal, seemingly, when "suddenly, over two or three days, there was this insatiable desire to listen to piano music." This was completely out of keeping with anything in his past. He had had a few piano lessons as a boy, he said, "but no real interest." He did not have a piano in his house. What music he did listen to tended to be rock music.
With this sudden onset of craving for piano music, he began to buy recordings and became especially enamored of a Vladimir Ashkenazy recording of Chopin favorites — the Military Polonaise, the Winter Wind √Čtude, the Black Key √Čtude, the A-flat Polonaise, the B-flat Minor Scherzo. "I loved them all," Tony said. "I had the desire to play them. I ordered all the sheet music. At this point, one of our babysitters asked if she could store her piano in our house — so now, just when I craved one, a piano arrived, a nice little upright. It suited me fine. I could hardly read the music, could barely play, but I started to teach myself." It had been more than thirty years since the few piano lessons of his boyhood, and his fingers seemed stiff and awkward.
And then, on the heels of this sudden desire for piano music, Cicoria started to hear music in his head. "The first time," he said, "it was in a dream. I was in a tux, onstage; I was playing something I had written. I woke up, startled, and the music was still in my head. I jumped out of bed, started trying to write down as much of it as I could remember. But I hardly knew how to notate what I heard." This was not too successful — he had never tried to write or notate music before. But whenever he sat down at the piano to work on the Chopin, his own music "would come and take me over. It had a very powerful presence."
I was not quite sure what to make of this peremptory music, which would intrude almost irresistibly and overwhelm him. Was he having musical hallucinations? No, Dr. Cicoria said, they were not hallucinations — "inspiration" was a more apt word. The music was there, deep inside him — or somewhere — and all he had to do was let it come to him. "It's like a frequency, a radio band. If I open myself up, it comes. I want to say, 'It comes from heaven,' as Mozart said."
* * * * *
In the third month after being struck by lightning, then, Cicoria — once an easygoing, genial family man, almost indifferent to music — was inspired, even possessed, by music, and scarcely had time for anything else. It began to dawn on him that perhaps he had been "saved" for a special reason. "I came to think," he said, "that the only reason I had been allowed to survive was the music." I asked him whether he had been a religious man before the lightning. He had been raised Catholic, he said, but had never been particularly observant; he had some "unorthodox" beliefs, too, such as in reincarnation.
He himself, he grew to think, had had a sort of reincarnation, had been transformed and given a special gift, a mission, to "tune in" to the music that he called, half metaphorically, "the music from heaven." This came, often, in "an absolute torrent" of notes with no breaks, no rests, between them, and he would have to give it shape and form. (As he said this, I thought of Caedmon, the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon poet, an illiterate goatherd who, it was said, had received the "art of song" in a dream one night, and spent the rest of his life praising God and creation in hymns and poems.)
* * * * *
Some years passed, and Cicoria's new life, his inspiration, never deserted him for a moment. He continued to work full-time as a surgeon, but his heart and mind now centered on music. He got divorced in 2004, and the same year had a fearful motorcycle accident. He had no memory of this, but his Harley was struck by another vehicle, and he was found in a ditch, unconscious and badly injured, with broken bones, a ruptured spleen, a perforated lung, cardiac contusions, and, despite his helmet, head injuries. In spite of all this, he made a complete recovery and was back at work in two months.
Neither the accident nor his head injury nor his divorce seemed to have made any difference to his passion for playing and composing music.

Doing The Right Thing: Mount McKinley Will Become Denali Once Again


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Politix Update: The Virulent Cancer That's Eating Away At The Body Politic

Scientists discover a new form of cancer.  After further research, they conclude that it attacks a wide cross section of adult Americans.  The cancer is highly virulent and threatens the body politic as it metasticizes.  It is dubbed acute trumpoma carcinoma, or Trumposis for short.
Scientists are unsure as to why Trumposis seems to be so contagious, but they have reached some tentative conclusions as they struggle to understand it: 
* Suffers are overwhelmingly white.
* They vote Republican when they vote, which is not particularly frequently and sometimes not at all.
* People who hate complexity and want simple solutions to difficult problems seem especially vulnerable. 
* If they see something on television, they believe it must be true, and many sufferers worship celebrities. 
* Even though sufferers think they hate the super rich, they secretly worship their extravagant lifestyles. 
* They are racist and nativist in outsized numbers and believe America was made for whites and should remain white.
* They are prone to hysteria and Nobody Understands Us convulsions.
* Although women would be seemingly more resistent to the disease's misogynistic strain, a surprising number of them swoon Gidget-like in its presence.
* Snake oil and red meat are important parts of sufferers' diets. 
* Colonel Sanders and Sarah Palin are typical of their role models. 
* The Wizard of Oz is their favorite movie.
* They believe that the Fourth Estate is a billionaire's mansion in Palm Springs.  
* There is no known antidote, but sufferers often have short attention spans and eventually forget they are stricken.  
There is some evidence that the prevalence of Trumposis is overstated, while some scientists say it is the cancer version of a summer fling.  Others say that just because Trumpiosis doesn't fit the model of cancers in general, it shouldn't be underestimated. 
Still others report finding fewer cases of Trumposis than are reported in the news media, while some scientists take solace in their view that the methodology being used to track the disease is flawed and misleading.  They say descriptions of Trumposis as being a Frankenstein monster are so much hyperbole. 
Besides which, as with other cancers, most people won't get Trumposis, and of those who do, some will recover.
Politix Update has argued that Joe Biden should be planning for his retirement and not a presidential run.  We love the guy, and kind of know him as fellow Delawareans, but he would not be an improvement over Hillary Clinton and it's laurels-resting time for Joe after a long and distinguished public service career, not playing the underdog role anew. 
The news media and and folks not enamored of Clinton want the vice president to run, and his every hiccup -- whether meeting with Elizabeth Warren or inviting political aides to yet another closed-door session -- has been closely watched as Bidenistas in favor of a run manipulate a willing media.  But all indications are that Biden will not run, mostly likely because wife Jill is against it. 
"The more you look at the Biden bandwagon, it looks more like a ghost ship being pulled through the mist by a combination of hungry political reporters, Hillary haters (including most of the conservative media), and Delaware-based Friends of Joe who, of course, would love to see him run," writes Ed Kilgore at Political Animal. 
The late Richard Ben Cramer, a former colleague and Biden biographer, wrote that when all was said and done, Biden relied on his instincts when it came to decision making, and if he didn't feel the time was right to make a big move, he'd tell his aides, "I can't feel the tingle." 
Joe Biden doesn't feel the tingle.
China bashing is, of course, de rigueur for Republican candidates in the wake of its stock market crash.  But you have to hand it to Scott Walker, whose presidential campaign is looking ghost shipish itself these days, to come up with a brilliantly simple solution to the deeply complex problems wracking China and global financial markets. 
Cancel the forthcoming visit to America by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
It's pretty much impossible to nail down who the craziest Republican is these days with so much competition, but Maine Governor Paul LePage is making a strong case that it's him. 
The beyond angry Tea Partier and all-around crackpot has already lost a major legal fight over his incompetence after he failed to veto 70 new laws he opposed and then declared he wouldn't enforce them, but now he's reached a new low in high comedy by demanding that a charter school withdraw a job offer to a leading Democratic political opponent or else lose its $530,000 state subsidy.
And so the impeachment clock ticks a little louder.
Presidential wannabe Ted Cruz is making a big stink over the Supreme Court being "one justice away" from ordering that crosses on tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery be removed.
Problem is, no one is asking the court to do any such a thing, although it did recently rule 5-4 to support the removal of a cross from formerly federal land in the Mojave Desert.  Crosses at Arlington and federal cemeteries are allowed because of the First Amendmen's guarantee of the free exercise of religion supports them and any other religious symbol requested by the deceased.
When Rick Santorum is worried, then we're worried, too. 
"I'm just really worried about all this focus on Mexicans and Mexico," he said during a press conference held at a Chik-Fil-A takeout joint in New Hampshire.  "How much room for hating the gays will Republican voters have if they're exhausted from hating Mexicans and other immigrants?"

Politix Update is an irregular compendium written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his (gasp!) 12th since 1968.  Click here  for an index of previous Politix Updates.


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Politix Update: Everybody Knows That Emperor Christie Has No Clothes

Occasionally in politics, ego-driven windbags who have created auras of inevitability around themselves fall to earth.  Their balloons burst, the wheels come off their wagon, the wind goes out of their sails.  But they are the last people in the room to get the joke, so evidentually fraudulent that they think they're wearing a custom-tailored twill suit with a snappy designer necktie when they step to the podium at a rally but people in the audience see an overbearing jerk wearing boxer shorts and a sweat-stained t-shirt several sizes too small with an all-day sucker and not a microphone in their hand.  And so it is with Chris Christie.
Politix Update has paid especial attention to Christie.  We love the Garden State, as wild, crazy and idiosyncratic as it can be, not to mention being kind of schizophrenic as it is sandwiched between Philadelphia and New York. 
And New Jersey is hands down the most corrupt state in the union, with politicians seldom out of the news for all the wrong reasons.  (Move over Louisiana, you're bush league by comparison.)  So when Christie vaulted from being a tough-on-crime-and-corruption U.S. attorney in Newark to the Statehouse in Trenton, we knew that it would be only a matter of time before the newly-minted Republican governor became mired in a Superfund site-sized cesspool of politics and the attendant intrigue, and his squeaky-clean image would become tarnished.
How wrong we were.  This is because Christie brought to the job a predilection for playing dirty that was awesome by even New Jersey standards, and in one and a half terms he has proven to be the most corrupt and ethically challenged denizen of the Garden State since Richard "Iceman" Kuklinski.  (You can look it up.)
Christie, however, was adept at that aura of inevitability thing, and early in his first term began talking up what a swell alternative he would be to the off-the-rack conservatives who were driving the Republican Party even deeper into the national electoral wilderness.  He graciously refused to run for president in 2012 and said he would bide his time.  (Actually, he knew he didn't have a woodchuck's chance in a Pine Barrens wildfire to be nominated, let alone elected.) 
But 2016 would be different, and so Christie waddled onto the national stage this past spring and set about burnishing his tough-guy image with statements like "If you’re ready to start offending people in order to achieve a greater goal, you’ve found the right guy.  I'm here to help offend people with you," and threatening to punch out school teachers because their union endorsed Hillary Clinton, perhaps because of his harsh and disdainful treatment of public employees back home, including cops and firefighters, and his repeatedly broken promises to fully fund their pension fund.
Prospective voters on the stump have been underwhelmed by Christie, his seamy past (and present) keeps catching up to him, and he got blindsided by Donald the Trump.  And so the biggest news about the Christie for President campaign these days is that it may be over by Labor Day.
While Christie fit right into the culture of corruption in New Jersey, he was a tough fit for the GOP as a presidential contender from the start.  New Jersey is perhaps the most liberal state of all, and while Christie has tried to squeeze into conservative mufti as he sells himself in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere, it isn't working and his past policy positions opposing the gun lobby and supporting gay rights don't pass the Republican litmus test, he believed in human-made climate change before he didn't, while he had the temerity to appoint a Muslim, for cryin' out loud, to a state court judgeship.
Better for Christie to be getting out when he is.  It's just that he doesn't know it yet. 

In 2010, Christie singlehandedly killed a planned $8.7 billion commuter train tunnel under the Hudson River that virtually everyone else believed would ensure the future health of the New York region's economy.  Christie argued that it was just too damned expensive for the frugal times in which he governed, an argument that held little water then and sprang a ginormous leak when it turned out that he planned all along to use New Jersey's share of tunnel construction dough to bail out the state's highway and bridge system, which under his "leadership" had been driven deeply into debt.
That desperately needed third tunnel would be a couple of years away from opening had Christie not taken the money and run.  In 2012, the existing rail tunnels were badly damaged by salt water during Superstorm Sandy.  The region's frail commuter infrastructure would collapse -- and the economies of New Jersey and New York  would suffer grievous body blows -- if either or (heaven forbid) both tunnels had to be closed.
This catastrophe in the making is the fault of one man and one man only, and makes Christie's infamous George Washington Bridge lane closing shenanigans so much child's play.

Christie, a bully without peer, knows only one way to get things done.  No, make that two: By lying and being underhanded.   While he may not have directly engineered the closing of several lanes of traffic on the George Washington Bridge approach at Fort Lee, New Jersey -- one of the nation's busiest bridges and the key car-and-truck link between New Jersey and New York City -- into four days of gridlock as a payback for the Democratic mayor of the burg refusing to endorse him when he ran for a second term of governor in 2013, key staffers did with his full knowledge and approval, and two are now under federal indictment.
In New Jersey street parlance, Christie got a slide on what is dubbed Bridgegate despite his unconvincing efforts to portray himself as the victim (his variation on Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook" defense was a real howler), but the incident did lead to a flurry of revelations about his other forays into retributive justice, including dolling out Superstorm Sandy relief money to political allies while screwing his enemies.
Finally, Christie's attempts to paint himself as an able custodian of New Jersey economy are laughable.  He has, in a word, trashed the economy of the nation's once most affluent state by cooking the books and a co-mingling of official businesses and GOP favoritism extraordinary even in a state where the official motto might as well be "Pay to Play."
Not only can Christie not point to economic success back home as did then-Texas Governor George W. Bush when he ran for president in 2000, but New Jersey's credit rating has been downgraded eight times on Christie's watch -- more than under any governor in the state's history. In the eighth downgrading, Standard & Poors belabored the obvious in stating that "New Jersey continues to struggle with structural imbalance . . . New Jersey will face increased long-term pressures in managing its long-term liabilities, and that the revenue and expenditure misalignment will grow based on reduced funding of the state's unfunded actuarial accrued liability."
Christie has become such an also-ran that The Associated Press and New York Times have reassigned the reporters who were covering him fulltime to other beats.  And it's not that plain-talking governors are struggling to stay afloat in the 17-candidate field because John Kasich of Ohio, who is probably closest to Christie policy wise, continues to surge.
Christie sat with the grown-ups at the first Republican debate, but he's probably headed for the kiddie table at the second debate on September 16 if he's still in the race.  And if he is, he's just delaying the inevitable.
With Donald the Trump tossing Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos from a press conference in Iowa this week -- and then relenting in a piece of theater on the part of both men that almost seemed scripted -- immigration remained firmly atop the I Wish We Were Talking About Something Else list for most of the candidates in the overstuffed Republican presidential field, but no more so than for Scott Walker.  Jeb Bush is a close second.
The Wisconsin governor seems incapable of checking his slide in the polls, or coming up with coherent, let alone consistent answers.  On the issue of birthright citizenship, which Trump wants to abolish, Walker has come up with three distinctly different answers in recent days: He's for it, he's against it, and he has no opinion on it. 
Meanwhile, immigration should be a winner for Jeb! among the half dozen or so Republicans not supporting Trump.  He has long advocated a path to citizenship for hard-working illegals, supported birthright citizenship, is fluent in Spanish and is married to a Mexican.  But there he was at an event at a border town in Texas trying to distance himself from himself while ingratiating himself, and in the end insulted Asian-Americans over the comparatively minor issue of Asians who enter the U.S. on tourist visas through organized rackets and give birth babies who are by birthright Americans.
Bush quickly backpedaled, which has become an oft-used gear, as quick-on-his feet Trump tweeted, "In a clumsy move to get out of his 'anchor babies' dilemma, where he signed that he would not use the term and now uses it, he blamed ASIANS."
Following the 2012 Romney-Ryan debacle, the Republican National Committee spent a bunch of dough to do some research into why the GOP was fading as a national political entity.  The result was the Growth and Opportunity Project, a soul-searching examination of what the party could do to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.
The most far-reaching conclusion was that:
"The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself. We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.
"Instead of driving around in circles on an ideological cul-de-sac, we need a Party whose brand of conservatism invites and inspires new people to visit us. We need to remain America’s conservative alternative to big-government, redistribution-to-extremes liberalism, while building a route into our Party that a non-traditional Republican will want to travel. Our standard should not be universal purity; it should be a more welcoming conservatism."
While it is widely acknowledged that virtually everyone associated with the GOP nodded thoughtfully when the paper was published and then promptly ignored it, one convert to the cause did not: The GOP-created monster called Donald the Trump, who has fulfilled the objectives of the Growth and Opportunity Project and then some.  
Republican pollster Frank Luntz is saying as much after he conducted a recent focus group that found Trump's support to be . . . well, monstrous. 
"You guys understand how significant this is?" Luntz asked breathlessly. "This is real. I'm having trouble processing it. Like, my legs are shaking." 
Politix Update is an irregular compendium written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his (gasp!) 12th since 1968.  Click here  for an index of previous Politix Updates.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Charlie 'Bird' Parker: The Jazz Man On The Flying Trapeze

It is unlikely that anyone in the pantheon of jazz greats has been idolized more and heard and appreciated less than Charlie "Bird" Parker, the mercurial alto saxophone genius and bebop trailblazer.

There are several reasons for this strange dichotomy: Although Parker already was attracting attention in his mid teens, his career lasted barely 20 years. His relatively small number of studio recordings sound primitive by today's standards, there is little live footage of him playing compared to say John Coltrane or Miles Davis, and the expectations Parker raised among fans attracted to him well after his death were sometimes dashed by a sound that can seem old-fashioned to modern ears.

I myself was afflicted by that feeling until my own ear matured to the point where I finally understood what an extraordinary if troubled force Parker was, as well as the enormous extent to which he influenced succeeding generations of sax and other jazz players.
* * * * *
Black jazzmen were not extensively interviewed in the Forties and Fifties, which helps explain why there is so much confusion concerning the childhood of Charlie Parker, who often was referred to as Charles Christopher Parker Jr., although neither his birth certificate or gravestone bear a middle name.

Born in Kansas City, Kansas in 1920 to a homemaker and an evangelist preacher with a wandering eye and fondness for drink, this only child was playing sax by the age of 11 or 12. Some people claim that baritone sax was Parker's first instrument, but that seems unlikely because a child that age would barely be able to hold yet alone play such a behemoth. Some people also claim that he inherited his talent from a piano-playing father, but Parker insisted that Charlie Sr., whom he deeply resented for abandoning he and his mother, didn't play an instrument.
At age 14, Parker joined his school's band using a rented instrument. Again the historic record is vague with some people saying that he was terrible and others asserting that his genius showed through from the outset. What is known is that he was growing up too fast for his own good.

He dropped out of school a year later, got married and threw himself into the vibrant jazz community across the river in Kansas City, Missouri, a scene fueled by alcohol, benzedrine and marijuana. His first jam session was a disaster because, as he later explained, he only knew how to play "Honeysuckle Rose" and the first eight bars of "Lazy River," became hopelessly lost when the other musicians launched into "Body and Soul," and was hooted off the stage at the Hi-Hat Club.

Parker did what any dedicated jazzman would do. He wood-shedded, practicing for long hours every day. He began to develop a personal style that had elements of what became bebop, which is characterized by a blazingly fast tempo and improvisation based on a combination of harmonic structure and melody.  His first big break came in 1938 when he joined a territory band led by pianist Jay McShann.

But Parker was dogged by a morphine addiction developed while he was hospitalized after a car crash in 1936 that would lead to a lifetime of on-again, off-again heroin use. He also developed another habit -- borrowing money or pawning his sax or borrowing a horn from a friend and pawning it.  An acquaintance recalled that at age 18 Parker already looked like a man twice that age.  It would be only a matter of time before Parker moved to New York City, probably the only place where he would be able to attain his goals, and in 1939 he abandoned his wife and their young son, as had his father before him, pawned his sax and headed east.  The year is significant because that was when tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins dramatically reappeared after five years in Europe and recorded a cover of  his own version of "Body and Soul" that heralded the bebop era.
Parker landed a $9 a week job as a dishwasher at a Harlem restaurant where Art Tatum, a pianist who was to have an enormous influence on him, played. He intermittently rejoined McShann's band and then beginning in 1942 played with Earl Hines for a year. It was here that he met trumpet great and fellow bebopper Dizzy Gillespie.

Gillespie introduced Parker to a group of young musicians and he jammed at after-hours clubs in Harlem with Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, drummer Kenny Clarke and guitarist Charlie Christian, among other avant-garde iconoclasts who were shaking the jazz world to its core.

Parker says that his breakthrough as a soloist came one night in 1939 when he was jamming on "Cherokee" with guitarist William "Biddy" Fleet and hit upon a method that, as he later explained, enabled him to play "what I had been hearing in my head for some time" by pushing the harmonic envelope through extended chords on the higher intervals of a song's harmonies.

Some jazz historians consider this session to be the birth of bebop, but it is no such thing. As with most new forms in the history of jazz, several pioneers were breaking through simultaneously, and in this case that included Hawkins and Gillespie, although Parker was unquestionably the major catalyst.

As one Parker biographer put it, "Dizzy was training for the marathon and Charlie was the man on the flying trapeze."
There are virtually no recordings of the early years of bebop because of a Musician's Union ban on all commercial recordings from 1942 to 1944 that was part of an ultimately successful struggle to get royalties from record sales for out-of-work musicians.

It wasn't until 1945 that Parker's collaborations with Gillespie and others gained widespread attention and a growing appeal to jazzmen.  The most famous of these collaborations was a November 1945 recording date for the Savoy label that has been called the greatest jazz session ever. Among the tracks recorded were Parker's masterpiece "Ko-Ko," which was based on the chords of "Cherokee," became his signature song and should not be confused with Duke Ellington's "Ko-Ko."

"Everything had a musical significance for him," said double bassist Gene Ramey of Parker's increasingly sophisticated soloing. "He'd hear dogs barking, for instance, and he would say it was a conversation -- and if he was blowing his horn he would have something to play that would portray that to us. When we were riding in a car between jobs we might pass down a country lane and see the trees and some leaves, and he'd have a sound for that. And maybe some girl would walk past on the dance floor while he was playing, and something she might have would give him an idea for something to play on his solo."  But some older musicians, whom beboppers derisively referred to as"moldy figs," weren't buying the new sound. Or perhaps realized that they would never be able to keep up with Parker. A critic for the then decidedly retrograde Down Beat magazine panned "Ko-Ko," writing that " . . . he's far off form -- a bad reed and inexcusable fluffs do not add up to good jazz."

Five years later, Down Beat would name Parker as best alto sax player for the first and not the last time.

* * * * *
The Parker-Gillespie ensemble embarked on a trip to Los Angeles at the end of 1945. The gig was a flop, primarily because West coast audiences were not ready for bebop even if West Coast musicians were. Most of the group returned to New York, but Parker cashed in his return ticket to buy heroin.

Miles Davis, as usual, was more blunt: "In Los Angeles, [Parker] was just another broke, weird, drunken nigger playing some strange music. Los Angeles is a city built on celebrating stars and Bird didn't look like no star."

When Parker couldn't score heroin he drank heavily and one night wandered into the lobby of his hotel naked, prompting the manager to lock him in his room where he passed out with a lit cigarette in his hand, setting his mattress afire. Parker was not just out of orbit, he was out of circulation after being arrested and committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital for six months.
Initially clean and healthy (and his syphilis cured) after being released from Camarillo, Parker did some of his best playing and recording. Much of it was with his so-called "classic" quartet, which included trumpeter Davis, double bassist Tommy Potter and drummer Max Roach, and occasionally a fifth member, pianist John Lewis. Savoy and Dial recording sessions included a series of slower tempo performances of songs from the so-called American Songbook, including "Bird of Paradise" (based on "All the Things You Are") and "Embraceable You."

Parker's career turned another corner in 1949 when he made good on a longstanding desire to perform with a string section, as well as exercise his classical muse (and love of the innovative classical composer Igor Stravinsky), playing what came to be known as Third Stream music, which incorporated jazz and classical elements with backing strings.

His improvisations during these sessions -- a rare period when he was more or less drug free and sober -- were more distilled and his tone softer and more economical than on his small-group recordings. His lines are gorgeous, and the Bird With Strings album (remastered and reissued as Charlie Parker With Strings) is a personal favorite.

Inevitably, some fans thought Parker had sold out by pandering to popular tastes just as the jazz world was falling under his spell. Many sax players blatantly intimidated Parker, prompting hard bop bass player Charles Mingus to write "Gunslinging Bird" (meaning "If Charlie Parker were a gunslinger, there would be a whole lot of dead copycats").  Parker didn't mind the criticism, or perhaps he just didn't care.
* * * * *
By 1953, Parker was again fully under the thumb of heroin, but often was playing brilliantly.

"After Bird got high, he just played his ass off," is how Davis put it, and Parker can be credited -- which is to say blamed -- for prompting too many young players, most prominently Davis himself, to follow in his footsteps after they concluded that his brilliance was because of his drug use. Unfortunately or otherwise, there is truth to that.

One of the best performances of his career occurred that year at Massey Hall in Toronto where he played with Gillespie, Mingus, Bud Powell and Roach. Parker had yet again pawned his sax and played a Grafton plastic sax that Gillespie had found for him. Jazz at Massey Hall, the resulting album recorded live by Mingus, lists Parker as "Charlie Chan" for contractual reasons.
Like much about Parker, the derivation of his nickname "Yardbird," which usually was shortened to "Bird," is not entirely clear.
Most people agree that it was a reference to his "Yardbird Suite," while Parker himself suggested that it was a reference to a chicken intended for the pot. The lone holdout was Gillespie, who always referred to Parker as "Yard."
Parker married twice and had a 13-year relationship with common-law wife Chan Richardson Parker, but when he developed pneumonia in March 1955 he turned to friend and jazz patron Nica de Koenigswater, confiding that "I've been dead for four years . . . I'm just a husk." Parker and Chan loved each other deeply, but he had become so volatile and so dependent on alcohol and drugs that she went into hiding with her children.
Parker died on March 12, 1955 in De Koenigswater's Stanhope Hotel suite in New York City. The immediate cause of death was pneumonia, but he also had severe ulcers, advanced cirrhosis and had attempted suicide at least once. Although Parker was only 34, the coroner who performed his autopsy mistakenly estimated him to be 53.

The two unquestionable giants of jazz are trumpeter Louis Armstrong, whose rapid-fire playing caught Parker's attention at an early age and he tried to emulate before finding his own groove, and Duke Ellington, who must be considered the greatest American composer in any genre."  What he did was enormous," said Ellington of Parker. "You hear his music everywhere now . . . But people talk too much about the man -- the people who don't know him -- when the important thing was his music."

In the end, Charlie Parker's remarkable gifts escape easy analysis. They seem to have little to do with the influences of other artists and even less to do with his upbringing. For me, they remain immense but inexplicable. And will forever remain that way.
PHOTOGRAPHS (From top to bottom): Jay McShane; Biddy Fleet; C0leman Hawkins (1939); Parker and Gene Ramey in Kansas City (1940); Parker (1945), Parker (ca. 1945), Parker and Miles Davis (ca. 1947); Igor Stravinsky; Parker (1949); Parker at Birdland, New York City (1951); Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (1951); Parker (1952); Parker with Chan Robertson Parker and daughter Kim (ca. 1953).

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Politix Update: Scott Walker Is Against Big Government. Unless He's For It.

“It is a time when one is filled with vague longings. When one dreams of flight to peaceful islands in the remote solitudes of the sea, or folds his hands and says, ‘What is the use of struggling, and toiling and worrying anymore? Let us give it all up.' " ~ MARK TWAIN
One of the abiding ironies of the conservative Republican politicians who regularly rail against Big Government is that when Big Government furthers their own agendas, they're all for it no matter how much taxpayers will be soaked. 
Scott Walker is merely the latest in a long line of such hypocrites, in his case because of the big-league issue of the state of Wisconsin subsidizing construction of a new basketball arena to the tune of $250 million to keep the Milwaukee Bucks from leaving town.  Walker, of course, merrily bought into what is in every respect an awful deal for everyone but the team's billionaire owners, but in no respect more than the fact $250 million is exactly the amount of money Walker stripped from the budget of the prestigious University of Wisconsin system in the service of . . . you guessed it, scaling back Big Government.
Let's be clear from the jump that the presidential wannabe and Tea Party darling was not a reluctant signatory to the deal.  No one held a loaded round of cheese to his head.  He was the deal's architect despite his frequent and pious declarations of fiscal conservatism.  Let's also be clear that government-funded sports stadium deals, while making local chambers of commerce and sports fans warm and fuzzy, always are bad for the people who matter most -- taxpayers, especially those who are poor and struggling and can ill afford paying for rich peoples' playthings. 
The shakedown began after two New York City hedge fund owners purchased the Bucks, a National Basketball League team that has pretty much sucked since the early 1990s.  Following a now well-worn script in which local governments are rolled and taxpayers fleeced, the new owners threatened to move the Bucks to Las Vegas or Seattle or Kathmandu.  Someplace.  Anyplace. Because the place didn't really matter.  Scaring the bejesus out of city fathers did matter, and the threat worked like a charm.
It also didn't particularly matter that Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry, the hedge fund bigs, have been Democratic donors and Lasry's hedge fund once employed Bill and Hillary Clinton's daughter, Chelsea.  In an era of deeply divided partisan sympathies, party affiliation isn't of concern when it comes to professional sports teams and the cities that support them, witness the willingness of prominent Wisconsin Republicans to pony up for minority shares of the Bucks, including developer Jon Hammes, who is national finance co-chairman for Walker's presidential campaign.
The price of the blackmail, after much bobbing and weaving between owners and government types, was set at $250 million, or half of the estimated cost of a new arena.  
"Nowhere has the scam worked so brilliantly as it has in Milwaukee," wrote Charles P. Pierce at Grantland"Having largely succeeded in rolling back more than a century of progressive government in a state where progressive government was long an institution, and having been elected three times in five years, Walker was gearing up for his presidential run."
It's not that the 19,000-seat Bradley Center, where the Bucks now play, is a shambles.  It was considered a premier venue when it opened in 1988, but just isn't up-to-the-minute state-of-the-art, you know, with all the bells and whistles and amenities for the private box with concierge service crowd.  Besides which, the NBA says that a new arena is necessary if the Bucks, as a small market team, are to remain competitive. Or else.
And so plans are underway for a new 17,000-seat arena (although the Bucks are currently 27th in the 30-team NBA in attendance) that will be built in Milwaukee's downtown entertainment district.  Backers say they expect the arena will spur another $500 million in development by creating a bigger and better entertainment district that draws people to "live, work and play," transforming "what once was a 'dark concrete barrier' [into] a destination."
Adds the head of the Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce, "It gives the city an identity and gives us something different than Des Moines."
All this hyperventilating does not stand up to scrutiny.
The Milwaukee market is ranked 35th by Nielsen in the already over-saturated U.S. sports market, yet it's getting a larger arena than Nielsen No. 2 Los Angeles.  The Bucks also have to compete with the NFL's Green Bay Packers, MLB's Milwaukee Brewers, the University of Wisconsin’s hugely successful football and basketball teams, and Marquette basketball, which plays in its own arena.  All tend to win more frequently and bring home more championships than the Bucks.
Beyond the size disconnect, in city after city where public funds have underwritten substantial portions of new arenas and stadiums, the predicted economic bonanza that will supposedly accrue to neighboring businesses -- existing and new -- has proven to be illusory, something that Milwaukee's own Legislative Reference Bureau concluded in a widely ignored report.  Visitors just don't spend enough money because tickets, concession purchases and such come out of family budgets and not thin air.  Besides which, economic impact is not the same as tax revenue, and the public portion of the arena is to be paid for by . . . get this, taxes on pro athletes, which Walker said "will fill local coffers" when he signed the bill to subsidize the arena. 
(There are rare exceptions to when politicians don't roll over for billionaires like Walker so readily has.  In Boston, public pressure saved venerable Fenway Park from the wrecking ball, forced the owner of the New England Patriots to build a new stadium with pretty much his own money, and recently prompted the city to tell the U.S. Olympic Committee and influential local backers to stick their bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics where the sun don't shine.)
To add insult to injury, Milwaukee city officials, who took a back seat to Walker from the outset, asked the billionaire owners to sign an ironclad agreement not to move the team for the 30-year life of the lease on the new arena.  The owners said no.  And a proposal that the bond issue for the new arena include money to fix Milwaukee's decrepit public playing fields was turned down as impractical.
"In this new Gilded Age, nothing should surprise us anymore," concludes Pierce.  "In Wisconsin, where Walker is moving heaven and earth to get a couple of Democratic sugar daddies a new playpen, his campaign named one Michael Grebe to be its chairman. Grebe's day job is as chairman and CEO of the Bradley Foundation, founded with the same money that once built the Bradley Center, which is obsolete because other money says so. Mark Twain was right. Those peaceful islands look very good right now." 
While it has nothing directly to do with the Milwaukee arena deal, Scott Walker's standing in the presidential race is falling faster than a Kobe Bryant jump shot.  There is an indirect connection: As the deal showed, Walker is a phony of the first water, and he's getting drowned by the wake from the boat skippered by the biggest phony of all -- Donald the Trump.
Walker once had a comfortable lead in Iowa, and he must win the first-in-the-nation Republican caucus there if he is going to stay afloat, because if he can't win in the Midwest then he can't win, period.  So he is dealing with his crisis not by doubling down on emphasizing his strengths, because he doesn't have any, but by trying to out trump Trump, which makes one wonder whether Walker may be even dumber than Sarah Palin. 
The Wisconsin governator also has promised his supporters to be more unscripted.  In other words, to try to stop acting like the Tea Party robot he is.  That will take some doing, because as empty suits go, Walker is as hollow as a rotted out tree trunk.
Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat are freshman members of the Michigan House of Representatives and Tea Partiers.  Both are married, but not to each other, so when it was discovered they were engaging in hanky-panky, they did what any self-respecting Republican would do.  They first denied it and then used their political offices to try to cover it up.
When that didn't work, Courser took to Facebook, where he called upon the Scripture to claim that he's the victim and we should all feel sorry for him. 
When that didn't work either, he directed his staff to "send a fake and salacious email about himself to Republican operatives, alleging that the lawmaker had been caught having sex with a male prostitute behind a Lansing nightclub," as a leaked memo revealed, because then no one would believe he and Gamrat were having an affair.
And how did the Michigan Tea Party react?
"We normally open our meetings with a prayer anyways," explained Tea Party organizer Gene Clem, "So we’ll make sure that we remember them and their families in our prayers."

Politix Update is an irregular compendium written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his (gasp!) 12th since 1968.  Click here  for an index of previous Politix Updates.