Monday, October 26, 2009

A Needed Revision

Political debates often turn on an interpretation of history, especially in today's New York. One of the most potent lines of attack is to say, "Do you want to go back to the bad old days of David Dinkins?"

Rudy Giuliani wields this tactic with relish. But as Michael Powell points out in today's Times, this charge involves a misreading of the Dinkins administration.

Dinkins was far tougher on crime than he is credited, and he worked to create more housing for the city. He had managerial flaws, but in general he worked far harder to meet his opponents than they did to meet him.

Powell's piece is a healthy antidote to the belief that only Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg know anything about running New York City.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

If It Wasn't For the Irish and the Jews

Mick Moloney's musicianship, scholarship and showmanship have long enriched our understanding and enjoyment of Irish music in America. Most recently, he has turned his talents to the little-known story of Irish and Jewish collaboration in vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley from the 1880s to the 1920s. The result is a splendid CD, "If It Wasn't For the Irish and the Jews," which was launched in great style tonight at Symphony Space in Manhattan.

The CD itself is a fine recording, thanks to Moloney's own musicianship and the playing of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, a band with a special talent for recovering the beauty of early jazz and show tunes. Tonight's launch was heightened by additional contributions from Dana Lyn, Jerry O'Sullivan, Billy McComiskey, Kerith Spencer-Shapiro, John Roberts, Susan McKeown, The Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, and a splendid array of step dancers and more.

The result was an evening that honored Irish and Jewish musical traditions and their creative mixing in Tin Pan Alley. Thanks to Mick's research, the evening was filled with illuminating anecdotes about Jewish and Irish collaboration and competition in show business, Jewish songwriters penning sentimental Irish songs, and Irish performers passing as Jews.

I have admired Mick's work since I studied with him at New York University in 1980, where he forever enriched my understanding of Irish music in America. (He gracefully favored me tonight with an acknowledgment of my own work on vaudeville that helped him understand the setting of Irish-Jewish efforts.)

Mick's latest offering deepens our understanding of the greatest thing about American culture: its hybrid vigor. Nowhere is that clearer than in music, especially in the Irish-Jewish collaborations that he celebrated tonight. Buy the CD. And if he's on tour anytime soon, don't miss his show.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Art Tatum

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most phenomenal musicians America has ever produced, pianist Art Tatum, born in Toldeo, Ohio on Oct, 13, 1909. In his relatively short life—he died in 1956—the nearly-blind Tatum made hundreds of recordings, primarily of the American popular songbook, and all featuring his amazing technique with its blistering arpeggiations, harmonic creativity, and technical sureness. That he was the most virtuosic of jazz pianists has never seriously been doubted or challenged. But Tatum’s music is easy to admire, and perhaps difficult to love. I know. For a long time I was one.

The problem with Tatum is that he doesn’t fit into neat category, or school. Of the great swing era performers, he was the only one who was best heard by his lonesome. Playing with collaborators diminished, rather than enhanced his music making. He was unique. One- part 19th century piano virtuoso, the heir to Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninov, one part cocktail pianist like Eddy Duchin and Carmen Cavarallo, endlessly tinkling the ivories in versions of the popular songs of the day, and one part jazz musician, the friend of Fats Waller and Coleman Hawkins, and he sounds like all three. The standard complaint about Tatum is that he doesn’t swing, that his endless runs get in the way of the underlying music. Well, hard swinging wasn’t what he was about, and ornamentation was the essence of his music, and he needed the song forms to confine his talent. And if his challenge was to find an expressive mastery equal to his unrivaled technical mastery, all that one can say is that he got better at this as he grew older, and I think his 1949 Capitol recordings, and his mid-1950s solo work for Norman Granz are the pinnacles of his career, though all the peaks are lofty. The thing is about Tatum, as is the case for all music, if you listen to what he is, rather than for what he is not, his genius becomes apparent, and you get washed over by wave after wave of musical pleasures. Anyway, I have been listening to Tatum all day, and you out there, whoever you are, should too. See Art run. And run. And run some more.

Friday, October 9, 2009

On Nobel Prizes

You don’t expect to know the names of the people who win the Nobel prizes in chemistry, medicine, or physics. You count yourself well-informed if you knew anything the particular discovery that prompted the award. You expect to know the name of the person who wins the Nobel Prize for literature, and once again, I have been disappointed, and suspect I will continue to be as long the prize continues to be awarded to European authors who haven’t been much translated into English. (Hang in there, Philip Roth and Amos Oz. )

You never know about Peace Prize, what the criteria are, and why it doesn’t go to the Quakers or some other pacifist organization every year. And when it is awarded to the commander in chief of the world’s largest and most powerful military, currently conducting at least two major wars, the message can become unclear. But the message in awarding Obama the peace prize is simple. It is a thank you note to the American people for ridding the world of the hyper-militaristic and chauvinistic Bush administration, and not electing John McCain. It is an award to America for rejoining the concert of nations. It is an award for not making things any worse, which America is uniquely positioned to do. It is an award of encouragement, calling on America to do the right thing.
The most obvious criticism of the award will be that it is premature. (And the most obvious pleasure will be to see the right fulminate about the prize.) But when it comes to America’s responsibility for keeping the world peaceful, it can’t be awarded soon enough. Obama’s presidency at home has become mired in health care and other debates, and many progressives have begun to wonder about his priorities, and the bloom is off the rose. This is a healthy debate, but the award is a reminder of the way the rest of the world views America, and as Obama ponders what to do in Afghanistan, in Iran, in Israel and Palestine, I hope he remembers that what the world expects him to do is to keep the peace, end wars, and leave office with a safer, less vicious, less nasty world. This won’t be accomplished by easy political compromises or taking paths of least resistance. The American people, and now the world, are holding Obama to higher standards than those usually imposed on politicians. Whether this is fair or not can be debated. What cannot be is that if Obama fails to deliver on his promise, he will be the most disappointing president since the last sitting president to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, one Woodrow Wilson.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Springsteen at Giants Stadium

I caught Bruce Springsteen at Giants Stadium last night. At 60 he is still fiery and exuberant and the E Street Band rocks along just fine. Together, they do something extraordinary: make beautiful music out of the bitterness and the sweetness of living in New Jersey.

A writer once knocked Springsteen for appealing mostly to white fans, but I think that misses the importance of African American culture to his music. Springsteen is deeply influenced by the Black idioms of rhythm and blues and gospel.

Most important, he embodies what Al Murray once called the greatest gift of the blues: affirming life in the face of adversity,

Last night, I was up on my feet dancing and pumping my fist to lines like:
Badlands, you gotta live it everyday
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you've gotta pay
We'll keep pushin' till it's understood
and these badlands start treating us good.

I grew up in the working-class world of North Jersey. I've always cherished Springsteen's ability to turn its blend of big dreams, shitty jobs, and bruised spirits into moments of pure exultation.

In Springsteen's world, where I was raised, people are bred to what Yeats called "a harder thing than triumph." The greatest gift of Bruce Springsteen is that he finds beauty, resilience, and ecstasy there all the same.

Remembering William Safire

I am uncomfortable speaking ill of the dead, so I will begin my comment on William Safire by noting that my late friend Frank Carvill once said that the Times columnist was the only right-winger he ever wanted to drink beer with. I know what he means: there was a humor to Safire that made him stand out among conservatives. Unfortunately, there was more to the man.

For my money, Safire rarely strayed very far from the mentality of a flack: bending the truth, attacking the enemies of his client, and gleefully poisoning a debate before he would see his side lose.

Of course, Safire was famous for his libertarian streak. To some, this makes him look like a man who knew how to balance extremes, a shrewd thinker who intelligently took no fixed positions. This line of thought could be particularly popular among journalists: admiring Safire made them feel like independent spirits who could admire liberals and conservatives alike--thereby inoculating themselves against the charge that they were knee-jerk liberals.

I'll give credit to Safire for opposing the Patriot Act. But the plain fact is that he spent the bulk of his career promoting the worst tendencies in the USA and Israel.

On Israel, he famously followed Ariel Sharon at his worst. Safire, who was never near a battlefield in his life, called himself a shtarker--a tough guy. In fact, he did as much as any American journalist to encourage the Israeli occupation of the West Bank that so undermines Israel's present and future.

In the US he was a wordsmith to Spiro Agnew, who helped launch Nixon's war on the press that continues to this day. And when Richard Nixon resigned rather than face the music on Watergate, Safire started the habit of calling every political scandal a "gate." In this way, he diminished the gravity of Watergate and contributed to the demonization of politics. Both the war on the press and the denigration of politics continue to coarsen our public life today.

But it was in the latter years of his career, in the runup to Iraq, that Safire committed what was to me his greatest crime. In the Times, he used his column to promote the idea of a link between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Al Qaeda--thereby making and invasion of Iraq look like an appropriate response to 9/11.

There turns out to be nothing to Safire's claim of an Iraq-Al Qaeda link. Nevertheless, this claim helped justify a disastrous war in which thousands, American and Iraqi, died unnecessarily. One of them was Frank Carvill.