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San Francisco State College: Leonard Wolf and Graduation in 1963

My most recent post on Bill’s Blog–“San Francisco State College in 1962–Wright Morris”–was the first in a series of two pieces on my experience as a graduate student in Language Arts (Creative Writing) at the College–“one of the most rewarding periods of my life.” I said the second post would focus on poet Leonard Wolf–another major influence at the time–and see us through the acquisition of my Master of Arts degree in May of 1963. I’d like to offer that second post now.

In the first post, I claimed that, in 1962, the Creative Writing faculty consisted of some of the finest writers of the era, one of whom, Wright Morris, I focused on exclusively.  Here’s a photo, taken in 1964,  of a portion of the staff in the office of Wright Morris, who is standing (far right) talking to Kay Boyle (Death of a Man, Three Short Novels: The Crazy Hunter, The Bridegroom’s BodyDecision, and several short story collections); Leo Litwak seated far right (whom I would come to know well years later, when we were guest writers at the Foothill Writers Conference; Leo was then at work on his memoir, The Medic: Life and Death in the Last Days of World War II), Bill Weigent in the center; Mark Harris far left in the back (Bang the Drum Slowly, The Self-Made Brain Surgeon and Other Stories, Mark the Glove Boy, or The Last Days of Richard Nixon, Diamond – The Baseball Writings of Mark Harris), and Judith Shatnoff down front: (Photo credit: Haunted: The Strange and Profound Art of Wright Morris)

SF State College Creative Writing Staff (2)While I’m dropping names (and the names of books), I might as well mention other faculty members of note when I arrived in 1962. Walter Van Tilburg Clark (author of The Ox-Bow Incident and The Track of The Cat) was Division Chairman, and would serve as my primary faculty adviser. Poets James Schevill, Bill Dickey, and Leonard Wolf (much more about him coming up) would make up my Masters of Arts thesis committee—and other writers on the staff were Ray B. West (Rocky Mountain StoriesThe Art of Modern FictionKingdom of the Saints); poet/critic Mark Linenthal (who liked to tell students “Everything I learned about poetry, I learned from jazz.”), James Leigh (The Rasmussen Disasters, No Man’s Land, and What Can You Do? Also a jazz trombonist who in 2000 published his memoirs, Heaven on the Side: A Jazz Life); and Herbert Wilner (All the Little Heroes, Dovisch In the Wilderness and Other Stories, Quarterback Speaks To His God).

Leonard Wolf, who became my thesis project adviser (my thesis a manuscript book I would call Poems: The Weekend—“A creative work submitted to the faculty of San Francisco State College in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Master of Arts”), was–at the time I worked with him–not one of the “well known” writers on the Creative Writing staff, although he had published his work in The New Yorker and other respected journals, along with a book of Poems, Hamadryad Hunted (1948, Bern Porter Press). In 1962, the year I met him, his daughter Naomi was born—and she would become, in the words of Wikipedia, “an American liberal progressive feminist author, journalist, and former political adviser to Al Gore and Bill Clinton,” Naomi Wolf  would come to prominence in 1991 as the author of The Beauty Myth. She also wrote The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See: a “lovely personal memoir about an unconventional, openhearted man … a wild old visionary poet … passionate eccentric and a radically romantic humanist” who believed the creative force resides “inside all of us.”

Here is the cover of The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See—with father and daughter together in Leonard’s later years; and here is a photo of father and daughter taken in 1966—three years after I graduated from San Francisco State College: (Photo credits: The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See)

Leonard Wolf Naomi Book about Leonard  Leonard Wolf and Naomi 1966

In 1962, I found Leonard Wolf to be a lean, handsome, dark-bearded (he reminded me of photos I’d seen of D.H. Lawrence) purposeful, intense at times, but modest, mild-mannered, accessible, empathic adviser I felt comfortable with the first time I sat down with him in his office. I did not yet know his “history” (which turned out to be nearly as colorful as that of Wright Morris). Leonard Wolf was born in Vulcan, Romania (Transylvania), his name originally ‘Ludovic’, which was changed upon his arrival in the United States in 1930 with his mother, Roseita, older brother, Maxim (Mel) and younger sister, Shirly. After I left San Francisco State College in 1963, Leonard Wolf would, in 1967, start “Happening House, one of many organizations that originated with the hippies of the Haight Ashbury district … conceived as an alternate university, an arts center and a place of learning.” In 1968, he would publish Voices from the Love Generation with Little, Brown—a book I purchased and read while teaching in Wisconsin.

Here’s the cover of that book, and the cover of Leonard Wolf’s book of collected poems, The Stone Cicada, published by Medusa Press in 2001.

Leonard Wolf Voices from the Love Generation    Leonard Wolf The Stone Cicada

I’ve already mentioned (last post) that I had to submit my own work to be accepted in his poetry writing course, and that once he had selected the students he felt qualified, he asked us to meet at his home, rather than in a classroom on campus. I don’t recall exactly, but I think just about ten students would gather there on a weeknight–and all of them talented, interesting people. I was twenty-six, and a definite dowager was in her seventies. She had an elegant home in the Marina section of San Francisco, and we met there on one occasion. I wish, now, I’d kept a list of the students’ names (for future reference—what may have “become of them”), but unfortunately, I didn’t. The sessions held at Leonard’s home were lively, informal, and informative in a multitude of ways (regarding the craft of poetry, and otherwise)—each student respectful of the others, and Leonard open to the needs of each of us.

Aside from the friendship I formed with my sculpture teacher, Cal Albert, at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in the mid-50s, I’d never been in the “home” of an artist or writer with whom I took a class before, to see what “domestic” life was like for them—so these journeys up the hill above Kezar Stadium to Leonard Wolf’s home were inspiring. His daughter Naomi was not born until 1962, so Leonard’s wife was “carrying” her at this time, and his wife, Deborah, was an interesting, attractive, personable woman. The house was, as Naomi would describe it in her book, The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See, as follows (I’ll quote at some length, to give the full effect):

“Our house in San Francisco had been built in 1890, in the style of a hunting lodge. Its foundation, we were always being reassured, was on bedrock. It had survived the 1906 earthquake. Nevertheless, maybe because of the quake, it leaned visibly out of level … I did not live in a room with level floors in it until I was old enough to vote. It was easy, in a house like this, to believe that the imagination was a world that was as normal to inhabit as any other …The house was built so that the entire back end was pitched straight over a cliff. That half perched on two big timbers, with a sheer drop fifty feet down. The cliff-side balconies sagged markedly. Every time you went out on one, you were taking your life in your hands. The front half of the house was buried in wild growth: tangles of nasturtium and ivy covering a steep forest floor, overshadowed by eucalyptus and Monterey pines. When you stood on the roof of the house—which my parents insanely allowed me to do—you could see all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge in one direction, and all the way to the Bay Bridge in the other: a silver necklace and a golden chain binding the city at both harbors … As I curled up with a book in a niche by the ash-laden fireplace, looking out at the evergreens that surrounded the house, continually painted and erased by the fog, like the trees in a Chinese wall hanging—I experienced the house day-to-day as a crucible of magic.”

Here’s a photo, a family setting, of Leonard, his wife Deborah, and daughter Naomi (Photo credit: Michael A. Smith)

Leonard Wolf Chatting with Naomi and Wife

I had far less acquaintance with the house than she would, obviously, but I too found it magical. Yet, just as I found with Wright Morris, it was the one-on-one sessions in Leonard Wolf’s office–where we concentrated, together, on making my thesis project the best, most interesting “entity” we could—I felt were most valuable. Leonard Wolf was studying Russian at the time, and he suggested I include my own translations in my project, which I did: three poems by Alexander Blok (“Catkins,” “The Stranger” and “The Artist”), although we’d gone over a number of poems I had translated while taking lessons from our babysitter, Mrs. Pein. She’d given me language lessons in exchange for guitar lessons for her granddaughter—my reward if I did хорошо (good) after each lesson was not just one but two shots of vodka. At the time I felt I was being a fool (дурачить; durachit’), because, although I was able to read the poetry of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Pasternak in the original language, we focused mainly on grammar (I even wrote compositions for her which she “corrected.”). I did not learn to speak the language all that well—but a very constructive, positive result of the three years I spent working at the Lawrence Radiation Lab was, on my multiple bus journeys to and from work each day, I studied Russian, and by the time I met Leonard Wolf, I knew the language fairly well.

Here are two translations of Alexander Blok I made (with Leonard’s support and assistance–he was a stickler for finding just the “right” word–one word and one only—to “fit” the Russian)—two poems we would include in my final thesis manuscript:

[I am sorry to say this WordPress format will not reproduce the poems that follow as they appeared on the page, their exact form (lines indented, etc), so I will simply indicate the line breaks where they occur. We lose the visual counterpart, but at least we have the words–in correct order!]

THE ARTIST

In summer heat and snow-driven winters, / On the day of your wedding, feast, or funeral / I wish to rouse my deadly boredom with / The soft forgotten sound of bells.

Here! It is rising. With cold regard / I want to know, and fix, and strangle it. / Before my keen review the peal of bells / Extends to a barely perceptible thread.

Is the whirlwind rising from the sea? The bird / Of paradise singing in the leaves? Time swung / To a halt? The apples of May strewn with snow / Of blossoms? An angel passing in flight?

The hours pass, prolonged, bearing the world’s weight. / Sound, motion, and light expand; / The past passionately gazes at itself in the future. / No present. Nothing pathetic any more.

Finally, on its threshold of birth, the soul / –The new soul, the unknown force– / Is stricken by a curse, struck like thunder, / Conquered by creative reason, only to be killed.

He is locked within the frozen cage— / The gentle, kind, unbroken bird, / The bird that wished only to bear away death, / The bird that flew only to save the soul.

Here! This is my cage, of tempered steel / That glistens in the evening fire. / Here is my bird, formerly bright in plume, / Swinging on a hoop, singing in the window.

Its wings are clipped. It knows the song by rote. / Do you like to stand beneath the window? / The songs please you. But I, jaded and forlorn, / Long for more—and again, am bored.

THE STRANGER

On evenings above the restaurants / Densely lies the troubled air; / It holds the rancid breath of spring, / Conveying drunken calls—

Over the dust of by-lanes falls, / Toward the bored suburban flats, / The baker’s golden crest / And the shrill cries of children.

At night, beyond the city pikes /The dandies by the ditches stroll / With their ladies, tipping their derbies, /And exercise their wits.

Out on the lake the oarlocks creak, / A woman screams, /While in the city, bored with it all, / Indifferent, curls the moon.

On nights like this my only friend /Is the curved reflection in the glass, /Like I, befuddled / By the bitter sacramental wine.

In rows by tables close to mine / The drowsy waiters stand, / While drunks with rabbits’ eyes cry out, / “In vino veritas!’

Each night, at one suggested hour / –Do I dream, or do I see?– / The figure of a girl in silk / Passes by the window pane.

Then slowly, slight, she makes her way / Among the drunken men–alone– / As frail as smoke within the room, / And sits beside the window frame.

A vestal dressed for solemn rites: / Her skirts, like wine, excite, / Her hat with plumes among the smoke / And rings on every finger.

Strange: to watch her weave that spell / I see beneath a darkened veil; / Stranger still the promise held / Of veiled and distant shores.

The secret spell is mine to keep / –Deliverance in the sun– / Into the center of my soul / The wine and she have found their way.

I am turned on a spire of feathers– / My brain, like plumes, begins to sway— /  Drawn by the blue, the glass of her eyes, / Its light on distant shores.

Now in my soul a treasure lies, / And I am keeper of the key! / In truth, O drunken prodigy, / I know in wine is truth!

Here is a photo of Alexander Blok; a scroll painting I did of “The Stranger” (with Russian text); and a painting of another poem by Blok which I also translated: “This lamp, street, evening, shop, / This dim and senseless light of night– / If you should live another twenty years, / It will remain so. No end to it … You will die and begin again, go / Through it all again, as of old: / Evening, the icy fragments in the canal, / This lamp, this street, this shop.” (Photo credit: https://beautifulrus.com)

Alexander-Blok (1)  Alexander Blok The Stranger My Painting

Alexander Blok This Lamp Street Evening my painting

When it came to my own poems, Leonard Wolf was the perfect adviser, or “partner,” to have, for we thought along totally compatible lines when it came to the relationship of form to content. My training at Pratt Institute (anatomy classes coupled with life-drawing labs; rendering sessions, trompe l’oeil; design projects such as creating a living room based on color juxtapositions found in a favorite painting) had left me with much respect for formal properties in the visual arts (and the same in music: learning to play over set chord progressions long before I attempted “free jazz”). I had carried this respect for formal properties over when I started to write poetry—respect for the fundamentals.

I was thrilled by the “freedom” of Dylan Thomas’ poem “Fern Hill” (Line 1, 14 syllables; Line 2, 14 syllables; Line 3, 9 syllables; Line 4, 6 syllables; Line 5, 9 syllables; Line 6, 14 syllables; Line 7, 14 syllables; Line 8, 7 syllables; Line 9, 9 syllables. The lines are not arbitrary, for Thomas sticks to the set pattern in each stanza of the poem. Each stanza has the exact same number of lines with the exact same number of syllables in each line. I was thrilled by this mastery of craft (in spite of the poet’s drunken social habits), thrilled to find a host of words in the margins of his drafts, awaiting the selection, or choice, of just that “right” word–the inevitable word–for the poem.

I carried my respect for formal properties over into my own poems, and I would pay a price for it with certain factions at SF State, for “free verse,” or totally open, or “uncooked,” poetry, such as that practiced by the Beats, was still in vogue (a sort of Civil War, in fact, going on between open and closed form poets. More about that Civil War in a moment)—but Leonard Wolf was on my side. Again, In Naomi Wolf’s book, I found a very thorough, accurate, account of his ideas on the subject:

“Be disciplined. Do you want to know how to become a writer? It is not romantic. There is no revising a blank page. Keep going … [Naomi’s words]: “I remembered how, when I was a child, after I had told him I wanted to learn about them, he taught the standard forms of traditional poetry. Like a carpenter showing a child how to build a birdhouse, he taught me the basic shapes one could work with.” [quatrain, sonnet, ballad … and “the beats of the words”: iamb, trochee, spondee, anapest, dactyl, blank verse.] … “I would show him my latest poems—often written in the dreaded free verse, which was of course fashionable at the time … ‘Naomi, don’t paint abstractly until you can draw the figure. You can beak the form successfully once you have mastered it. Structure has to be the foundation—then you can play with it or depart from it altogether. But you have to know your craft … Emotions can be more powerful when they are closely confined by a strict form …The postwar poets I admired said that emotion, too, was a legitimate mode of thought. But the Beats made it a law that emotion would be the only mode of thought. They put feeling first and thought second. That led to disaster. I thought that was a pity, and I still do … The liberation of feeling and the discipline of form need each other. They need to be in balance.’”

Here is a poem of mine called “The Barmaid” we included in my thesis manuscript (I followed the syllable count of “Fern Hill” exactly—and even had the audacity to include rhyme!).

THE BARMAID

How could I ignore you, thinking of Renoir? / Like him, I’d trace your breast abed this frozen night. / I’m stirred with ginned regard. I know / Your skin would take the light. / But do I dare? Comme ci, comme ce,  / I walk toward the phonograph – a crystal flue / Of winter sounds -and drop a dime. The trumpets snow / All floors with sleight; but you / Refuse my offer of a pas  

 De deux:  ” For Sir, our management does not allow!” / So, let me tell you of your shoulders, how the sun / That frank, that unremembered glow / — “But Sir, I’m on the run?”– / Of light, would, be remembered now: / I’d put you in a field of wine and shade, and look /  At you–just look at you–with the eyes of art, you know. / And what if eyes forsook / Their handwork for the nude below?

We’d sing hip, bone and breast while nestled in the grain / And drink the reddest wine and swim the dappled sun. / And stop to press our place of love / And sign it, just for fun. / But here? Blue-violet bodies strain / To cold and crowded sound, and no one sings. “Now Sir, / I’ve work to do, you’ll have to take a seat!” I shove / And shoulder from the girl, / Thinking Renoir would complain.

Here are three more poems we decided to include in the manuscript. The third,  “Weekend,” would provide the title for the collection itself. A year after I graduated from San Francisco State College, and was teaching at the University of Hawaii, Carolyn Kizer, Editor of Poetry Northwest would accept “Weekend” for publication in the Autumn-Winter 1964-1965 issue of that journal—saying it “could be a major work”; and then, when she took the final version: “Congratulations on a noble effort.”

ANNIVERSARY: NUMBER SIX

I

We stomped, six years ago, the grass / Of churchyards with our love. / We shared our favorite trees, and felt /  Our white within the greenfields move.

II

The flesh that broke you tore our youth / in two. Our white time fled / and left two howling naked lives, / twin secrets of a medieval bed.

III

You Jill, I learned to love; began / to love your kitchen: / the flowers you picked, the roses,  pale, / and splintered glass you placed them in.

IV

Jack Thumb, a boy in corner, I / became. Vodka and caviar / my life; and kids who licked their lips / while I stained the frets of a small guitar.

V

If I were a sculptor I’d hoist your skirt; / a husband hold your hand. / I become either, a lover of sorts, / but seldom make the gesture bland.

VI

Guests in the doorway! Greet them well— / and if we have a fight /–open, flared when the moon comes up— / tell them, by God, we’ve earned the right!

Here’s a photo of the (somewhat puzzled–“What have I done?”–maybe reluctant)  young father depicted with his kids “who lick their lips” in the poem—and a full family photo, with Betty, taken at the same time:

Bill as Dad with Tim and Baby Steve  Bill, Betty and Boy Feeding Time on Hayes St

PERSIAN MINIATURES

Pure form is like a nun who never works: / You will respect her chastity, but wish / That she would pray for you, or teach a child, / Or do some menial job among the sick. / By her work her grace is best exposed, / As in this world of rhythm and of shape / Where line is both itself and loving Persia.

Whose face and gilded horse peer over hills? / A man of valor and a thing of line. / This green umbrella tilts to make a shape / But also tilts to shade a Sultan’s head. / The light blue horse on which the monarch sits, / Surrounded by a galaxy of flowers, / Is music of the painter’s craft alone.

And more; for there the Sultan really sits, / Upon a horse whose midget feet reside / In fields of white and dark vermilion flowers. / This quiet work, in which each part is placed / To tell and yet transform the Sultan’s day, / Outshines the brightest flame, and makes one think / More secrets lie in fabric than in fire.

Pure form is like a nun without a church, /A Sultan who has lost his canopy.

WEEKEND

I

The faces of the street are your best friends: / The worried, blind, and weak; they come and go / And you are fond of them. You love the light / In laundromats, where many things are done: / You stop and see–who knows ?–what rough delight / In frayed machines, on working hands, in men. / –I’ve said a thousand times that we should move, / But nothing’s cheap, your mother knows– / Come home; your mother waits. We are involved / In time, and time derides your dalliance, /But cannot cast it out, as it did mine.

II

Perhaps the rank thorn is the separate will: / Today our eldest son plays Cain and strikes /
His two week brother at the breast. Good Cain, / My self, my child, why must we live like men? / We sulk and try to share a public park: / Its monody of color on the green, /
Its carrousel of lives. We eat above / And bide our time with talk and sandwiches. /
Yet when the boy returns from dirt to show / His wounded cheek, you send us off to join /
The children, fathers, lovers down below.

III

You call the ducks and give them crusts of bread; / I sit among the bland in hell. You stop / And listen, what to hear? My child, you know / But cannot say, and that is just as well. /
Deprived of lunch, I pass the row of blondes / Called mothers by their neighbors; hoist my son / Upon his small and honest seat, and watch / Him spin on iron gadgets in the sun. / One day we walked out early and he threw / Himself on dewy grass, who hadn’t been / Outside the house for days.

IV

It’s three o’clock. I’ve come for milk but sit / Beside the soft electric purr of our / New frigidaire, and drink the wine. It drums / –In vino veritas–a fever in my skin. / You stand beneath a single light and say,  / “What reason brings you here?” The night, my dear,  /
Is my best friend; and night and I shall have / A time, be ridiculed and ridicule– / Together purge our pity and our fear. / Sometimes I make you sick, you say. My dear,  /
Sometimes my sickness makes me envy you.

V

“Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,” I sing– / And who are they? My boy, I cannot say, / But don’t they have fine names? I turn; you smile / And hug the boys, who tug upon your apron string. / Together by the sink, our forms imply / Four names in one, yet live alone. If I / Could often join the three of you, and keep / The truth that wine and night and I must bear, / I know we’d have a pretty thing; but dear, / Saturday night and Sunday too, / One does the work that one was born to do.

Here is the cover of Transfer 20, an anthology “representative of the best of the first nineteen years … intended as a celebration” published in 1965—an anthology which contained two of my own poems, “Persian Miniatures” and “The Barmaid”; and the cover of the issue of Poetry Northwest, 1964-1965 in which editor Carolyn Kizer would publish “Weekend.”

SF State College Transfer      Cover Poetry Northwest

I took one more “literature” course in my last semester at San Francisco State College: a course in poet John Milton. Oddly, I do not recall who taught it. It may even have been Leonard Wolf—or Mark Linenthal? I will include, here, the last paragraph in a paper I wrote for the course, because it shows whatever progress I may (or may not) have made in my critical prose—and does illustrate what a “true believer” I’d become when it came to poetry. “An epic is the sum of the experience of all of its separate ‘books,’ or parts; of all of its metaphors, expostulations, and expulsions—correspondences, contrasts, and complexes. It may be a frieze or an ocean, but it has the unity of its adventure, and, in the case of Paradise Lost, the meaning is each grain of sand contained in the hourglass to which Milton committed it. And he would be the first person to remind us that those grains, like the parables of angels, are just a portion of the complete knowledge which we and poetry, as citizens of the City of God, are in a position to receive.”

I recently found another paper I wrote for that course: “Thought, Poetry and Theology,” in which I quote from Eric Heller’s The Disinherited Mind,” Meister Eckhart’s The Aristocrat, Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life, and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—and a draft of the final poem we would include in my thesis manuscript: a poem in ten parts called “A Letter to Friends in Alaska.” The “friends” were John and Margo Mitchell, whom I’d known in Hawaii when I first went there in 1956 (John was teaching English at the University, but quit to become a full time salmon fisherman in Alaska). The paper shows the extent of my reading at this time—even more extensive for I was also preparing, daily (and nightly) for my “orals” (which would accompany my thesis book of poems), orals to be administered by three professors: Leonard Wolf, James Schevill, and Bill Dickey. The orals would cover all of English literature from Beowulf to the present—so I had a fairly substantial list of books I was reading!

I was also taking a course called “Seminar in the Teaching of Writing”—in preparation for a job teaching I hoped to acquire upon graduation. And I was a teaching assistant for an undergrad composition course–one night a week–which meant I was “correcting” the first comp class papers I’d ever had to correct. I was very slow at it (“learning on the job,” so to speak). I called my “final” paper for the teaching seminar “Miss Lonelyhearts Among the Illiterates: a response to the remedial situation.” The last paragraph of this paper was not quite so positive as what I’d written John Milton’s poetry: “What is the mission of Miss Lonelyhearts, the ambivalent and diffident, the curious and affectionate teacher? First, perhaps, to tell his students not to be too easily sure of themselves, not to have too much poise.” [This strikes me now as an odd way to encourage the acquisition of ‘character;’ but also, it strikes me as vague. Was I encouraging “humility”?] “As for the English language, he would teach them to choose their words carefully, and remind them that the words they use—truth, death, desire—had not been easily won throughout history, and that, in an age of easy fulfillment such as our own, it was the teacher’s duty to keep them–in Philip Larkin’s phrase–from ‘fulfillment’s desolate attic.”

Before I turned in my poetry manuscript and suffered through my “orals,” something wonderful–a complete surprise–happened. I had three poems in the college literary journal, Transfer in 1963, and won the prize for BEST POEM, $25! The poem was “Persian Miniatures.” I was asked to accept the prize and give a “reading” at the Poetry Center. I’d never given a full-public reading of my work before. Here’s an account I would write years later of what took place.

“In 1962-63, I was a graduate student in Language Arts (Creative Writing) at what was then San Francisco State College. I was also a fairly recently ordained father (I had two kids under five years of age), a husband of sorts, and had been a full-time employee–a Scientific Data Analyst no less–at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley. I rode the bus to and from work every day, studying Russian (a portion of my M.A. thesis consisted of translations from Alexander Blok), and took classes at night. Needless to say, this was a hopping, hectic, nervous, but exciting time.

“I had some poems printed in Transfer 15, S.F. State’s literary magazine, and two of the editors were fellow students I never met: Ed Devlin and Paul Oehler. I won the twenty-five dollar annual poetry prize in ‘63, for a poem called “The Barmaid,” modeled on the intricate syllabic stanza patterns (and adding a rime scheme) of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Fern Hill.’ I was twenty-seven years of age, left work, attended classes, returned home, and was decidedly not a part of the campus literary scene. I was also so shy at the time that, accepting the prize and giving my very first poetry reading, I never even bothered to look up–thus missing my own boycott. ‘Beat’ students objected to a closed form or ‘cooked’ poem (as opposed to open and ‘raw’) having won the prize, and protested by raising a banner at the back of the hall–a gesture of dissent that, my then reticent and bashful consciousness buried in the task of reading my poem, I never witnessed.”

It’s all “true,” but something that surprises me now is that, according to this account, I was still working “full time” at the Rad Lab throughout the time I was at SF State, which strikes me as a nearly “impossible” thing to have brought off  (given the course load I carried), although it is true that I was not “a part of the campus literary scene”—a situation that may have prompted the boycott. Years later (1971), I would have Ed Devlin as my office mate while teaching at Monterey Peninsula College, and I would finally meet, and become friends (we would do a book of poems together: Natural Counterpoint) with Paul Oehler, a superb poet.

“Poems: The Weekend” was accepted as “A creative work submitted to the faculty of San Francisco State College in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Master of Arts.” My “orals” turned out to be another unanticipated “adventure.” I had assumed they would take place on campus, in a cheerless classroom or office, but on a sunny afternoon, I found myself walking alongside Leonard Wolf, Jim Schevill, and Bill Dickey down to Stonestown Shopping Mall.

Here are photos of the three poets who would “grill me mercilessly” on the art form at a bar in Stonestown—when I thought I would “breeze through” the oral exam required for my Masters Degree: Leonard Wolf, Bill Dickey, and James Schevill: (Photo credits: www.sciencesource.com; Poetry Foundation; Goodreads)

Leonard Wolf 3 Bill Dickey (2)

James Schevll and dog (2)

I had applied to several colleges and universities for a job as an instructor (I’d heard, tentatively from the University of Hawaii, and I had even applied at SF State!). And I do recall feeling so confident about my prospects alongside my soon to be interrogators (or grand inquisitors) that I said, about a school I’d not heard from, “Well, if they’re not interested in me, I’m not interested in them!”–which must have prompted a response on the part of my three professors such as, “Good luck, you stupid cocky kid!”

They led me to a bar in Stonestown, and I thought, “Wow! This is going to be a piece of cake! A few drinks, a few laughs …”; but once we sat down and they asked what I might like to drink, they ordering nothing themselves. I declined their offer, thinking, “I’ll have a Cutty Sark on the Rocks–in honor of Hart Crane–when the celebration starts.” However, no celebration occurred for some time—about an hour and a half if I remember correctly. For that period of time, all three grilled me, mercilessly, on what seemed every aspect of English poetry. I don’t feel I did all that well on the academic and historically specific questions (“What is the difference in the way Wyatt and Surry first employed rhyme in their poems?”), and the thing that saved me was the poems I’d been memorizing each day—poems by everyone from Chaucer to John Keats to Dylan Thomas (and some poems in Russian and Classical and Modern Greek!).

The three professors left me sweating and devoid of a drink at the table while they excused themselves to determine my fate. When they returned, Jim Schevill told me I’d “passed,” and congratulated me–whereas Leonard Wolf whispered in my ear that the impressive recitations had saved my ass—if not exactly in those word, to that effect. Then all thee excused themselves to go home after another “hard day at the office,” I was left at the table–to order and sip my Cutty Sark on the Rocks, alone, lost, lonely–but  greatly relieved.

Here’s a signed copy of my thesis project, “Poems: The Weekend,” and my M.A. degree:

SF State College Thesis Acceptance  SF State College degree 1963

Ar last! I now had my Masters Degree in Language Arts (Creative Writing) from San Francisco State College, and I did receive an offer to teach at the University of Hawaii, for $5,500 a year. I’d been so impressed with the company I’d kept at SF State (heroes, idols such as Wright Morris and Leonard Wolf–the entire staff!) that I couldn’t sleep the night before I was to go in and tell them my decision regarding the future. I had actually decided (in spite of  only “part-time” possibilities) to stay with San Francisco State College, if they let me—but when I told the hiring committee that I’d received an offer from the University of Hawaii, they all jumped up from their shares and grasped my hands in congratulations—and that was that.

Leonard Wolf would leave San Francisco State College and go to New York in 1980. He would go on to publish several more books: A Dream of Dracula, Blood Thirst, 100 Years of Vampire Fiction (editor), Bluebeard : The Life and Crimes of Gilles De Rais, Dracula : the Connoisseur’s Guide, Horror – A Connoisseur’s Guide To Literature And Film, Monsters: Twenty Terrible and Wonderful Beasts From The Classic Dragon And Colossal Minotaur To King Kong And The Great Godzilla, The False Messiah, The Glass Mountain: A Novel (Overlook Press, 1993), The Passion of Israel, Vini-Der-Pu: A Yiddish version of Winnie the Pooh (Dutton 2000)—and others.

Leonard Wolf was ninety-six years of age when he passed away on March 20, 2019. I am very grateful to have known and worked so closely with this extraordinary man. Here are some of the books he published: (Photo credit: amazon.com)

Leonard Wolf Dracula The Connoisseur's Guide JPG  Leonard Wolf The False Messiah  Leonard Wolf Bluebeard The Life and Crimes

It seemed that, next thing I knew, my wife Betty and I had packed up our MacAllister Street home and she, Tim, Steve and I were literally sailing (on the President Wilson line) back to where marriage and family life had first started: the island of Hawaii, now an actual state in the USA since 1959.

I will close this post with three more photos: filming a lei-adorned Betty on board the President Wilson (about to sail to Oahu); my Betty looking very much at home in our new setting (the small backyard of an even smaller house we found on University Avenue), and the boys, Steve and Tim, with me in my dress code “uniform” (suit coat and tie in 1963—even in humid Hawaii!). But that–The Teaching at the University of Hawaii Years–is another tale I have to tell in the book length manuscript memoir I am at work on: “Unfolding: Aspirations and Attainments.”

Hawaii 63-66 3

Hawaii 63-66 2    Hawaii 63-66

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San Francisco State College in 1962–Wright Morris

“Medical issues” have required a break from Bill’s Blog, sorry (and I will save an account of that “adventure” for another time), yet a treatment program I have undertaken has not prevented me from completing other work I was engaged in. I would like, now–making a sort of “come back,” if I am able–to post, a chapter from a book in progress, a memoir: “Unfolding: Aspirations and Attainments”—a chapter focused on the year and a half I spent in graduate school at San Francisco State College. That adventure started in the summer of 1962, when I was twenty-six years of age, and it would turn out to be one of the most rewarding periods of my life.

In this blog, I will not attempt to reproduce all of the chapter I have completed on my San Francisco State College days (and nights, for that’s when I attended most of my classes), but focus on my initial experience at the school and one of my favorite teachers: novelist Wright Morris. I will save, for a blog to follow, another favorite teacher—poet Leonard Wolf—and completing requirements for an M.A. degree.

Here, by way of introduction, are photos of Wright Morris and Leonard Wolf (Photo credits: Wikipedia; http://www.sciencesource.com):

Wright_Morris    Leonard Wolf 3

By the summer of 1962, I had spent three years working at the “Rad Lab” (Lawrence Radiation Laboratory) in Berkeley, the last year of which was not a fortunate experience (depicted in a previous chapter of the “Unfolding: Aspirations and Attainments” manuscript) and I felt as if I had been released from a prison sentence, a term of incarceration, confinement, and would enter what, by comparison, I felt as monastic bliss. I was “back in school” again—and the very best, most inspirational educational institution, San Francisco State College (now University) I could have found for that time of my life.

In 1962, the Language Arts (or Creative Writing, the section of it I was enrolled in) division and its program were ideal—and the Creative Writing faculty consisted of some of the finest writers of the era, one of whom, Wright Morris (although a reviewer for the Washington Post once wrote, “No writer in America is more honored and less read than Wright Morris.”) was regarded by many sources I found as closely equal to, or “right up there” with, authors such as Willa Cather, William Faulkner (“a voice as distinctive as William Faulkner’s”: Michael Upchurch, The Chicago Tribune), John Steinbeck, John O’Hara, and Norman Mailer. A blurb (by critic John Aldridge) on the back of the first book by Morris I would read (just before I took a directed writing course with him: “one on one,” in his office), his winner of the 1956 National Book Award, The Field of Vision, said: “Wright Morris seems to me the most important novelist of the American middle generation.”

Walter Van Tilburg Clark (author of The Ox-Bow Incident and The Track of The Cat) was Division Chairman, and would serve as my primary faculty advisor. Anne Rice (The Vampire Chronicles; her husband Stan was a faculty member) would receive her MA in Creative Writing in 1972. She has provided one of the best accounts I’ve found on what made the school’s program so unique: “What I loved about San Francisco State was the passion. It was a commuter college and most of the kids were working, and it was very hard to go to school. They weren’t being handed an education, they were working for it just as we were working and I respected that passion very much. I loved it … I thought I had some of the best teachers I’ve ever had at San Francisco State. People that were passionate … and showed me a whole new way of looking at literature … I guess what I loved about it was the freedom and the egalitarian quality and the proletarian quality of it all — that we were all working people together … we had all that passion; we had all that warmth. We had people just hungry, hungry to learn and to write, to create and to make something of their lives. I found that incredibly exhilarating.”

Here are photos of Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Anne Rice (Wikipedia; http://www.thewomenseye.com):

Walter Van Tillburg Clark    Anne Rice

I agree, completely with her assessment. I would still be classified as a “working” person (or Proletarian”), closing out my time at the Rad Lab when I first “tested the waters” at SF State in the summer of 1962. I took a single course, and whereas I don’t remember the instructor’s name (He was not one of the faculty members of some “fame”), he was enthusiastic about the art of writing, and re-introduced me to it on an academic level in a manner that felt good, not at all threatening.

A typical assignment was to come up with single sentences that would disclose or reveal an “Instant” of existence (I came up with: “Small rain sacks walk electric wires”; “Two beer caps fell to the floor of Patty’s Place”; “The searchlights crossed, wintergreen, diamond cold.”). We were also asked to provide a “Lyric” moment (“The night we stood on sand and waiting long, beneath the single moon and open sky”; “My father and his rake, his loving arms and leaves”; “Filled with passion by your perfect commonplace”); “Kinesthetic” (“Her body was smooth and white, like the enamel on a refrigerator.”; “Fish, seaweed, leather, a horse blanket”; “The thick wet leather slammed into the socket of his eye.” [I’d done some boxing as a kid]; and “Grandeur” (“Together, they lit the silence of the night.”; “The Assyrian rage of the sky”; “I am my father’s brother, not alone his son.”; “We began, tense with genesis.”).

These exercises taught me an important lesson: every word must count, had to count; should have meaning and purpose, be the work poetry or prose! Yet I also recognized that the short lyric (of the moment) impulse or inclination came most naturally to me, given my temperament and whatever talent I might have.

Another exercise we were asked to complete was a list of “Themes” (from published work we liked) with one-sentence of examples or summaries. I chose” “The Ledge,” by Lawrence Sargent Hall: “A small light life … the Fisherman meant to hold it there, if need be, through a thousand tides.”; “The Maid’s Shoes,” by Bernard Malamud: “These people had endless troubles, and if you let yourself, you could become endlessly involved”; “The Fate of Man,” by Mikhail Sholokhov: “The fate of man, ‘a grain of sand, an orphan,; is to suffer, endure, and prevail” [the last two words lifted from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech!]; “The Circus Wrestlers,” by Alexander Kuprin: “The wrestler’s perfect body becomes a temple of illness; full circle, boo-me-rang, бумеранг!” (Here, I must have been trying to show off my recently acquired knowledge of Russian!—my instructor didn’t bother to comment on the inclusion).

I’m not sure just what, regarding my creative capabilities, I took away from all this at the time (aside from the “Show, don’t tell” mantra, which I’d heard before) and a sense that I was OK when it came to creating “a poetic effect,” but the course was, overall, an excellent way to ease back into an academic setting (and put the Rad Lab far behind me)–although looking back now, I am puzzled by samples of my writing I chose to submit, once I had completed this “Fundamentals of Creative Writing” course, and began the formal procedure of being admitted to the graduate school program.

The only sense I can make, now, of what I must have had in mind is that, when I learned that Walter Van Tilburg Clark, author of The Ox-Bow Incident and The Track of The Cat and  Division Chairman, would serve as my primary faculty adviser (the person who would determine the direction my thesis project would take), I must have decided to submit work that resembled his own: literary realism, or what might qualify as “American Literary Regionalism” or “Local Color”—not the “familiar materials of Western Saga” he employed “to explore the human psyche and to raise deep philosophical issues” (Wikipedia) but material grounded in the Midwest I’d grown up in. I was probably more impressed that Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novels—The Ox-Box Incident and The Track of the Cat—had been made into movies than with their content—for I was still too “immature” as a writer to have anything truly meaningful to say about “the human psyche,” and in spite of my fascination with philosophy while a student at the University of Hawaii (and my “A” in that subject), I had not yet formed a philosophy of my own which could be incorporated in my prose fiction.

Here are the covers of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novels The Ox-Box Incident, The Track of the Cat, and his story collection The Watchful Gods:

Walter Van Tillburg Clark Ox-Bow Incident  Walter Van Tilburg Clark Track of the Cat  Walter Van Tilburg Clak The Watchful Gods

The fiction I’d written while a student at the University of Hawaii from 1956 to 1958 (and I was surprised to discover just how much of it there was!) was sadly lacking in inspiration, was very “pedestrian,” or flat, somewhat boring. The best work I’d done up to 1962  was a Radiation Laboratory-inspired surreal science fiction novel I was still working on (“The Chuckleheads”), and some of the poetry I’d produced, and while I did include a portion of that work in the “portfolio” I submitted, the bulk of what was there was of the pedestrian, flat, “realistic,” boring variety—and Walter Van Tillburg Clark was quick to recognize that. He suggested that I set such prose aside for a while, and concentrate on my poetry, and, perhaps also, prose more stimulating to the imagination. He recommended taking a directed writing course with Wright Morris, as a means of finding a suitable direction for fiction, if I should continue to persist in my desire to write stories.

Which is what I did (take a directed writing course with Morris, simply because he was such a respected figure on campus), but my schedule was focused primarily on poetry: Mark Linenthal’s English 218 (critical papers); The Craft of Poetry with Leonard Wolf, who had us submit poems on the basis of which we would (or would not) be admitted to a class limited to a small very interesting selection of students—and I became one! Not only were we “hand-picked” or approved, but on the first day of class, he suggested we “ditch” the room we’d been assigned on campus and meet at his own home (where we might even drink wine while we discussed our work!), located on a hillside above Kezar Stadium, where the San Francisco 49ers played their home games at the time—just a short walk from the apartment Betty and I and the boys had on McAllister Street. But I will save an account of that experience, and the poetry I would write, for Part Two of my account of graduate study at San Francisco State College.

I would come to love the work I did with Leonard Wolf, who would supervise my thesis project: a manuscript of my own poems and translations of poems by the Russian poet Alexander Blok–but I would come to idolize Wright Morris, telling people now that once I had discovered and read his books, I just wanted to kneel down, kiss his ring, and say, “Teach me everything you know!” I was more than ready to learn from these masters, who were not just academics, scholars, but actual living respected writers!

Here are the covers of three of my favorite books by Wright Morris: The Field of Vision, Love Among the Cannibals, and Will’s Boy:

Wright Morris The Field of Vision (2)  Wright Morris Love Among the Cannibals  Wright Morris Will's Boy (2)

The “facts” of the life of Wright Morris, known as a “writer’s writer,” are intriguing. He came from a humble background, a self-taught man of inclusive talents–gifts he made full use of. According to Wikipedia: “Wright Marion Morris (January 6, 1910 – April 25, 19098) was an American novelist, photographer, and essayist. He is known for his portrayals of the people and artifacts of the Great Plains in words and pictures, as well as for experimenting with narrative forms …Morris was born in Central City, Nebraska … his mother, Grace Osborn Morris, died six days after he was born. His father, William Henry Morris, worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. After Grace’s death, Wright was cared for by a nanny, until his father made a trip to Omaha and returned with a young wife, Gertrude.”

In another favorite work of mine, Will’s Boy, Wright Morris states, “Gertrude was closer to my age than to my father’s.” Gertrude hated small-town life, but got along famously with Wright, as they shared many of the same childish tastes (both loved games, movies, and ice cream). In 1919, the family moved to Omaha, where they resided until 1924. when Morris moved to Chicago—but in 1933, Wright Morris would graduate from Pomona College in California. Following college, he traveled through Europe on a “wanderjahr,” an adventure he later fictionalized in a novel, Cause for Wonder. From 1944 to 1954, Morris lived in Philadelphia. From 1954-1962, he divided his time between California and Mexico. In 1963, he accepted a teaching position at San Francisco State College.

Which takes us to the time of my acquaintance with him—but before I get to my own experience of this exceptional man (whom I feel I was not just fortunate but blessed to know and study under in 1962-1963), I’ll provide an example of a perceptive critic’s response to and appraisal of a book by Wright Morris, for the review cites aspects of his writing that attracted me to his work, and to Wright Morris as a man–a sort of “father figure” to me at the time. In a 2015 Chicago Tribune article, “An appreciation of novelist Wright Morris,” novelist/critic Michael Upchurch wrote: “Nebraska-born novelist Wright Morris was on fire in the early 1950s … In the space of five years, he published four novels that were rich in their ambition and maverick in their sensibility. They were also, in their variety of setting, reflective of his sharp-eyed travels back and forth across the country. One of them, ‘The Field of Vision,’ won him the National Book Award in 1957. But the book that most Morris fans see as his touchstone work (Morris himself described it as “the linchpin in my novels concerned with the plains”) is ‘The Works of Love.’ … Here, in a voice as distinctive as William Faulkner’s or Henry Green’s, Morris describes the desultory eastward drift of a Nebraska railroad man never sharing a marital bed for long and has oddly unconsummated affairs on the side. His one true object of devotion is a boy who isn’t his, but whom he gives his name and raises as his son … Will is as generous in nature as he is befuddled in spirit. He is, as Morris puts it, ‘a father, one who didn’t know what being a father is like, and a lover, one who didn’t know much about love.’ … His travails are at the heart of the book — yet calling them ‘travails’ feels like exaggeration. Will is an unsettling mix of the nondescript and the eccentric, and he slips elusively through even the biggest events in his own life. He acquires houses, spouses and businesses, yet it’s only in hotel lobbies — furnished, inevitably, with potted palms and cigar counters — that he truly feels at home … One peculiar effect of the novel is that the reader winds up feeling far more deeply for Will than he could possibly feel for himself. That’s due largely to the rolling, forlorn cadences of the novel’s prose, starting with its opening: ‘In the dry places, men begin to dream. Where the rivers run sand, there is something in man that begins to flow.’ … Throughout the novel, Morris keeps that steady, chanting beat going, even as he spices it with wry picaresque elements … ‘The Works of Love’ — achingly, quizzically, obliquely — means something.”

Again, I hadn’t seen this high praise of Wright Morris’ work before I took my first directed writing course with him, but, as I mentioned, I made sure to read his National Book Award-winning novel The Field of Vision, and—thinking, “This man is going to be my teacher, my mentor!”—I was first impressed by the blurbs on the back cover alone: “Wright Morris is one of the most gifted and significant novelists at work in America today.” (Chicago Tribune); “Writing that is beautiful, sad, funny, quietly humorous—and as significant as anything you will find in contemporary literature.” (Cleveland Press); “The image of American life that emerges from his whole work is unequalled by any author of his generation.” (The Reporter). And the novel didn’t let me down.

In it, a group of Midwestern tourists witness the “spectacle” of a bullfight in Mexico, and each of them is flooded with memories (a middle-aged wife for whom a stolen kiss from long ago still imposes on her marriage; a flamboyant failure reliving a childhood act that kindled his desire to “touch bottom”: an eighty-seven year old pioneer who is blind to everything but the past and what he hears; a pseudo-psychiatrist accompanied by his only remaining patient, who refuses to speak). The thought, longing, isolation, hidden passions, dreams of each character is depicted by Morris’ mastery of rotated point of view—the prose original and precise at every turn. In the author’s own words: “This bizarre assembly of oddballs, dreamers, and failures might naturally come together in one place only—the bull ring of Mexico City. This least likely of all likelihoods was appropriate to this unlikely gathering.”

As for my actual sessions with him, Walter Van Tillburg Clark had been right. Contact with and being “critiqued” by a writer such as Wright Morris was exactly what I needed to grant new life to my prose fiction. I haven’t preserved the first piece I submitted to him, but I recall that it was one of the stories I’d started for my summer session class—more than likely “The Rope,” a piece overly dramatic, too predictable, “a pleasure ride becomes a nightmare” story about a “young man” on a San Francisco Bay sailing adventure with a married woman named Mrs. Alonzo B. Sturgess III. Wright Morris returned it to me with witty, pithy, no-nonsense, uncompromised commentary I wish I had on hand now (not having the manuscript itself), but he said something to the effect that I could take my place in a very long line of wannabe fiction writers hoping to have their work published in one of the then popular magazines for women, such as Cosmopolitan, McCall’s, Woman’s Home Companion, or Redbook.

He went after my clichés with a vengeance. He seemed to find them everywhere in my work (language that seemed to come quite naturally, too easily to me—but expressions so overused they’d grown boring, unoriginal without my awareness), yet we seemed to get along beautifully, as if not involved in a teacher/student situation, but more the sort of thing you were likely to find in his work: a genuine friendship, but one never acknowledged as such, a “just is” thing, an acquaintance that came about without self-conscious effort—as if, rather than meeting in his office (which we did), we were meeting in one of the many comfortable, companionable hotel lobbies found in his novels: “All the lobbies are more alike than they are different, in that the purpose of every lobby is the same. To be both in, that is, and out of this world … The lobby draws a chalk mark around this unreal world … It prepares you for a short flight from one world to a better one. From the real world, where nothing much ever happens, to the unreal world where anything might happen—and sometimes does.” (From The Works of Love).

His hotel lobby office turned out to be a splendid setting for discussing the art of fiction. This may be just another cliché, but, yes, Wright Morris did become something of a “father” figure to me (I was writing, and talking to him often, about the father with whom I did not get along so well). Whatever his faults on the domestic front, my own father was a first-rate raconteur, and Wright Morris encouraged me to “talk” or tell, to work my stories over well in my head before I set them down on paper, and that seemed to help their presence on the page. He also went after my “sentimentality”–on the page, and elsewhere (in my life). In his excellent book, Haunted: The Strange and Profound Art of Wright Morris, Jackson J. Benson writes: “Wright may have been caught up in nostalgia, but at the same time he hated the idea of it. He followed the lead of most modern writers in despising any expression of sentimentality. At heart he was attached to the past and to the process of documentary but was determined, intellectually, not to be captured by a soft view of it.” Wright Morris joked about my attachment to what he called “the good olde daze.”

Here is the cover of Haunted: The Strange and Profound Art of Wright Morris by Jackson J. Benson (an engaging biography)—and the cover for Morris’ own The Works of Love, which became another of my “favorites” (Photo credits: amazon.com; http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu):

Haunted The Strange and Profound Art of Wright Morris    Wright Morris The Works of Love

Wright Morris openly advocated writing that, as far as “material” went, maintained an “everyday quality”—concentrating on (again in the words of Jackson J. Benson): “not the action or external circumstances so much as the inner life, the struggles—the guilt, the dismay, and even the pain in the consciousness of his characters … there would be almost as much comedy as darkness. At times reading his work, one doesn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or relax with a smile and be depressed … Morris was a writer who specialized in bringing forth the reality behind and hovering beyond what we commonly take as real and making it tangible, not to our fingertips but to our minds.”

The more specific (‘technical”) lessons—on avoiding sentiment and clichés—were accompanied by the large picture, the “umbrella” view, such as what he would write in his essay on Katherine Anne Porter in Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments: “To be fully conscious, to be one of those on whom nothing is lost, is to be aware of the ceaseless overlapping of the past and the present …  However vibrant and intense, however lyrically persuasive, however appealing the sound, look and feel of the present, if the dead were not part of the quick [Porter] knew the larger part of conscious life was lacking.”

He liked Henry James’ statement: “Objects and places disposed for human use and addressed to it, must have a sense of their own, a mystic meaning proper to themselves to give out.” With me, he suggested finding that essential “figure in the carpet” (“The carpet wears out, but in the life of the carpet the Figure wears in.”), and then get out of its way writing about it (“You don’t count; only the material does.”)—transforming, transmuting, transcending experience. He liked to mention the ambivalent “Green light” at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby—the promise of excitement and beauty, but also the end of aspirations and dreams: the valley of ashes at the book’s end. Unavoidable ambivalence. Henry James, Wright Morris would write, “contributes the consciousness of image-making itself. The restless analyst will never have done with this impressions, the overlapping and ceaseless reappraisal, and the newly liberated should read him with caution lest they find themselves again in chains. Freedom was one illusion he always treated with the greatest respect.” At the time of our acquaintance, I was definitely “newly liberated” and in need of “caution” as a writer.

Wright Morris emphasized “finding the right voice.” The voice that would fit my intention as a writer, saying, “From the voice like a seed the rest of it would grow.” He didn’t introduce me to, but he showed me how to make best use of providing several points of view, each chapter in a novel given the person telling the story (as he’d done in The Field of Vision) alternating points of view throughout the novel. It was the technique I’d employed on my own in “The Chuckleheads.”

The best way I can illustrate the nature of our “exchange” is to quote some of the comments he posted on a paper I did save from another course I took from him (aside from directed writing sessions), a course called The Craft of Fiction, with a lecture format,  and for which we read work by D.H. Lawrence (Women in Love), Henry James (The Turn of the Screw), Thomas Mann (Death in Venice), E. M. Forster (Howards End), Louis-Ferdinand Celine (Journey to the End of the Night), Albert Camus (The Fall) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby). Our “final” was an extended paper on one of these authors, and I chose Fitzgerald. The title of my paper was “The Chinese Wall of F. Scott Fitzgerald”—based on something the character Nicole says about the main character Dick Diver in Tender is the Night: “Let him look at it—his beach, perverted now to the tastes of the tasteless; he could search it for a day and find no stone of the Chinese Wall he had once created around it, no footprint of an old friend.”

I began my paper with some personal reminiscence—something my father once told me about Zelda, Fitzgerald’s wife. “’Zelda?’ my father said. ‘Of course I knew Zelda. I danced with her up at Sewanee—although it was your Uncle Alcorn knew her best.’” Wright Morris had underlined the word “Alcorn,” and wrote in the margin: “A gem. Who else but Uncle Alcorn?” And he gave me an “A” on the paper as a whole (work that, when I read it now, often displays my efforts—successful to a degree, I think, to adopt my professor’s own style of writing!). Of the piece as a whole, he wrote: “Very good. AND readable. How about the Chinese Wall of W.C. Fields? Do the Irish always have 3 initials? JFK, FSF, WCF? Soberly speaking-(Where’s your Mother?)-What part of this wall do you scale next? Should be a good climb.” “Where’s your Mother?” referred to a passage in the opening section of my paper, where I tried to match his own playful nature yet set the overall tone, alluding to my paternal grandfather, who, as a seventeen year old cannoneer in the Confederate Army, had—at Cumberland Church, two days before Appomatax—been shot through the lungs with a Minnie Ball, and woke believing he was “associated with the Heavenly Host” (a “Miss Hobson” was spooning chicken broth into his mouth); and I followed that with: “Where’s your Mother?”, for my father, telling this tale I’d heard so often before, was reaching beneath the drapes for his glass of Early Times, and praising my mother as a “race horse,” saying “You can always tell the difference between a race horse and a mule,” insinuating that he, by comparison, was a mule.

I loved the fun Wright Morris seemed to have telling me that I had, within my paper, provided a “good climb” of Fitzgerald’s Chinese Wall—and I was thrilled by the large “OLE!” he inscribed, in the margin of my paper, beside my words “We don’t really care how Gatsby made his money, but we do wonder just what Dick Diver is doing in medicine.”; and the three even larger “GOOD[s]” he’d written in the margin beside the following: “In Fitzgerald, the Organization Man had no hardened sense of life; he simply swapped the terms of poetry for the terms of commerce.“; “The most striking fault of Tender Is the Night is that it shares in its hero’s dissolution.”; “The novel does have a strong steady tone that tempts one to overlook the fragments of incident and character—in an attempt to lace together many fates, to resolve them with a single theme: beauty that must die.”

Here are the three books by F. Scott Fitzgerald I’d used for my extended paper:

Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby  Scott Fitzgerald Tender Is the Night  Scott Fitzgerald The Crack Up

Wright Morris only granted me a B+ (no “A” this time) on a second follow-up paper I wrote on F. Scott Fitzgerald, this one called “Helen and Priam on Fitzgerald’s Wall.” Morris himself wrote: “The tone of this is good and well sustained, but able Carraway Minor might have scratched a bit harder.” Reading the work now, I agree—although I did find seven large “Good[s]” inscribed in the margins, attached to the following observations: (the first referring to Fitzgerald’s “exploitation of himself and Zelda as material”): “What is amazing is that Fitzgerald was so fully on display for the writer who stood constantly at his side.” I also received a “Good” in the margin for (on Fitagerald’s letters to his daughter): “To his daughter he was Polonious and Pope and … Priam, the tired king, who had earned the right to his opinions, and was proud to reveal them to his last and most prized possession.” And on The Crack Up: “There is something in it of grandstand play, and for an unworthy audience, an audience that loves sudden failure as well as it loves success … For him, the redemption of a basically senseless battle lay in a well-conceived and well-constructed book.”

I compared Fitzgerald’s statement that he had been “only a mediocre caretaker of most of the things left in [his] hands, even of [his] talent”—to W.C. Fields: “Much of the humor of [Fields] depends on the ‘dissolute’ pride to which this statement comes dangerously close: ‘rivers of highballs, lakes of cocktails, oceans of distilled damnation … I think I’ll put on my bathing suit’ … Like Fields, Fitzgerald hadn’t lost his touch, but he’d drunk up his material, and, as The Last Tycoon shows, needed to shop around for more.”

I ended the paper with a bit of fantasy: the hope that Fitzgerald’s “heaven” might turn out to be an Elysium washed with gin-filled waters, a place where he and Zelda, and W.C. Fields perhaps, having performed due service to Helen and reclaimed by Priam (“Fitzgerald, I said, having written The Great Gatsby, was the truest son of Troy.”), are permitted to do more of both [not just write such a book, but also go “into Show Biz, having gone along with Rogers and Hart and ‘that gang,’ to cap the sublime off with a bad commercial.”] In response to this last bit, Wright Morris wrote, “That’s some heaven, man!” But he wasn’t buying this paper as a whole, and in his initial commentary, he employed a favorite phrase of his: “Ahhhhh, the good olde daze!”—adding: “Having browsed in these pastures of heaven, it’s not for me to deprecate the real estate. Nevertheless, it is true (and sad) that the Chinese Wall of Fitzgerald still marks the Continental Divide—on the one flank those who make it, on the other, in the potshards, those who count.”

I enjoyed hearing him “lecture” in the Craft of Fiction course as much as I did spending time with him in our one-on-one directed writing sessions, although some of my fellow graduate students felt he was just a so-so teacher in the former, for he spent nearly as much time relating anecdotes from personal experiences (which I loved!) as he did on the authors we were to have read. Again, in Jackson J. Benson’s words: “He was a great storyteller, and often the stories he told, while entertaining, had little to do directly with the purpose of the class.” True, but I found Wright Morris fascinating in any capacity. What Benson adds to his appraisal is also true: “But one-on-one he was as encouraging as he could be, depending on the quality of the work that was submitted to him.”

At the time, I treasured every word he wrote to me on the papers I submitted, or granted me in person—and still do. We made, I think, an interesting match-up or “pair” in our own hotel lobby, sharing mutual opinions and feelings. He did not treat me as if I were just another “student,” but a fellow writer, and that, at the time, was immensely satisfying. I’m just sorry that, unlike what I wrote for the Craft of Fiction course, I haven’t retained specific pieces he commented on from the directed writing sessions, but I do remember his being intrigued by the character, Honey Foots Cadwell, I came up with for the Chuckleheads novel. What I wrote about Honey Foots has the stamp, the rhythm and tone of Wright Morris all over it, so I know we worked on that piece together: “For as long as he could remember, Foots had waited. Waited, for his father to come home, his mother to go away. For John James Alcorn, his black sheep uncle, to sober up, get drunk, just about anything. He had waited in bars, in pharmacies, in filling stations. On playgrounds, in parking lots. Outside of church, on waterfronts. All night truck stops. In beds … Now, standing on the roof of his friend’s San Francisco apartment building, he waited for Perry, his friend, and the girl … Once, in a bar in Tiburon, he had waited six days for Perry to finish a game of chess. Well, not just a game of chess. The game lasted for a day, morning, and afternoon. But Perry, finished, went to the men’s room, and from the men’s room to Hawaii. Foots, uninformed, waited.”

I would not read Wright Morris’s other National Book Award winner, Love Among the Cannibals, until after I had my graduate degree from San Francisco State, but when I did I wished I was back in his hotel lobby office again, for the book begins “This chick, with her sun-tan oil, her beach towel, her rubber volleyball, and her radio, came along the beach at the edge of the water where the sand was firm”; and that reminded me of the way I began my summer session story, “Hand of Chance,” I wrote just before I met Wright Morris: “Two girls came up the beach to sit in the sun. An entire baseball game stopped to watch them. The ball dribbling into the sea. The girls set up an orange umbrella that looked almost white beneath the open sky. They stripped and sat on the hot sand in their too-small bathing suits. The better looking of the two lit a cigarette and the blue smoke went up her nose and came out again.” The ”chick” character “The Greek” in Love Among the Cannibals lives with “two other chicks” and “they all worked as waitresses at the same Wilshire drive-in.” I don’t know how many drive-ins resided on Wilshire Blvd. in 1956, when I hitch-hiked from New York City to Santa Monica that year, and I ended up washing dishes with an interesting assortment of wineos, I would have loved to have had an opportunity to tell Wright Morris about that coincidence, and hear his reaction, which would have been priceless, I’m sure.

Here’s a sample of the photography of Wright Morris, and the cover of his collection of the same, Distinctly American: The Photography of Wright Morris (Photo credits: Sheldonartmuseum.org; www.leegallery.com; amazon.com):

Wright Morris Photo Through the Lace Curtain (The Home Place)    Wright Morris Photo Train Depot The Home Place

Wright Morris Photo Uncle Harry    Wright Morris Photo book Distinctly American

He would not retire from teaching at San Francisco State until 1975—but even though we returned to The City in 1966 after I taught at the University of Hawaii for two years, I never saw him again—which was a mistake on my part, for he had been, and remained, a major influence on my life, and one of the most interesting, intriguing, engaging human beings I would ever meet.

Because of the long-lasting influence of Wright Morris, I would like (before I turn to a second most important person during my time at the College, Leonard Wolf) to honor him by citing an article I would discover in Poets & Writers magazine in 1997 (Morris would die of esophageal cancer in Mill Valley, California in 1998). The article, or homage, was called “Wright Morris and the American Century,” and it was written by James Hamilton, who happened to be living in a “small town across the bay from San Francisco,” and one day saw “a distinguished-looking elderly man in a floppy white hat walking along the sidewalk in [his] direction.” Hamilton “recognized him as the novelist Wright Morris, whose face [he] had seen on numerous book jackets over the years, but whom [he] had never met.” From that point on, Morris “steadily worked his way into [Hamilton’s] daily thought, because “It saddened me that a man who had graced his profession as he had was living in what I assumed to be fairly total obscurity.”

James Hamilton had actually read very little of [Morris’s] work, but he began to devour it, and “spent long hours in Morris’s small, darkened apartment” within a rest home “just down the street.” Hamilton learned that, at age 87, Morris had stopped writing—explaining: “I have been a workaholic all my life … but what words will not do is what now impresses me. Music is what sustains my life now, Mahler in particular … I had reached the point where, as a work-oriented man, the work was simply not good enough. My imagination seemed to be out of reach of the problem. It was a great injury to discover that my critical judgement had begun to fail. It was very painful.”

Hamilton’s article is rich with reflection, forward and back in time, on the part of Wright Morris, and the younger writer pays loving tribute to the latter’s portrayal of mid-20th century American values (literary historian John Aldrich wrote that Morris “took America as his province. He wrote with a sense of the whole of America in his blood and bones.”). Hamilton included the author’s feelings regarding “our own uncivil age”: “It is the incoherence that bothers me, the wastage. I cannot imagine how this nation is ever going to correct itself, it is so profoundly screwed up … What we’re going through is the real McCoy, not something we can sweep away on down the line. We can’t just ask Mother to come over and clean the table off, just get rid of the spots.”

I will conclude my own tribute to (my fortunate acquaintance with, unique friendship with) this great man, with a “parade” of his still available (Thank God!) work. Wright Morris’s final novel, Plains Song, would win the American Book Award in 1981. Just a partial list of his works is impressive: My Uncle Dudley (1942), The Man Who Was There (1945), The Inhabitants (photo-text) (1946), The Home Place (photo-text) (1948), The World in the Attic (1949), Man and Boy (1951), The Works of Love (1952), The Deep Sleep (1953), The Huge Season (1954: finalist for the National Book Award), The Field of Vision (1956: National Book Award for Fiction), Love Among the Cannibals (1957: finalist for the National Book Award), Ceremony in Lone Tree (1960: finalist for National Book Award), Cause for Wonder (1963), One Day (1965), In Orbit (1967), A Bill of Rites, a Bill of Wrongs, a Bill of Goods (essays) (1968), God’s Country and My People (photo-text) (1968), Fire Sermon (1971), The Fork River Space Project (1977), Plains Song: For Female Voices (1980: National Book Award for Fiction), Will’s Boy (1981, Solo (1983), A Cloak of Light (1985), Time Pieces: Photographs, Writing, and Memory (1989).

A lifetime of work by Wright Morris remains accessible, available, obtainable—throughout an era (ours) in which nearly everything is expendable. Considering his good fortune, I thought of all the worthy authors for whom “survival” (the ongoing recognition and respect they deserve) has not proved true—and then, three of my favorite 19th century authors for whom it has: Charles Lamb ( English essayist, poet, and antiquarian, best known for his Essays of Elia and the children’s book Tales from Shakespeare), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (English poet, literary critic, philosopher and theologian who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England), and  William Hazlitt (English essayist, drama and literary critic, painter, social commentator, and philosopher–now considered one of the greatest critics and essayists in the history of the English language). Here are some of their thoughts on literary perpetuity (the quality or state of being perpetual) and the significance of books.

Charles Lamb: “There is more reason to say grace before beginning a book than there is to say it before beginning to dine … What is reading, but silent conversation … I love to lose myself in other men’s minds … Books think for me … A presentation copy is a copy of a book which does not sell, sent you by the author, with his foolish autograph at the beginning of it; for which, if a stranger, he only demands your friendship; if a brother author, he expects from you a book of yours, which does not sell, in return … When my sonnet was rejected, I exclaimed, ‘Damn the age; I will write for Antiquity!’”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Poetry has been to me its own exceeding great reward; it has given me the habit of wishing to discover the good and beautiful in all that meets and surrounds me … Language is the armory of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests.”

William Hazlitt: “The world loves to be amused by hollow professions, to be deceived by flattering appearances, to live in a state of hallucination; and can forgive everything but the plain, downright, simple, honest truth … Books let us into their souls and lay open to us the secrets of our own … No man is truly great who is great only in his lifetime. The test of greatness is the page of history … Those only deserve a monument who do not need one; that is, who have raised themselves a monument in the minds and memories of men … Fame is the inheritance not of the dead, but of the living. It is we who look back with lofty pride to the great names of antiquity, who drink of that flood of glory as of a river.”

I’ll close out the photo gallery with Wright Morris in the company of Charles Lamb (a portrait by William Hazlitt) and Hazlitt himself (a self-portrait)—excellent company Wright Morris has every right to keep (Photo credits: www.fantasticfiction.com; www.poemhunter.com; http://www.datadeluge.com):

Wright Morris hands folded photo  Charles Lamb color portrait  William Hazlett portrait

I look back on my acquaintance, my friendship with him with “lofty pride” (or immense gratitude) and to re-reading his work throughout what remains of my life—work that will remain a monument in the mind and memory forever.

Next blog: Leonard Wolf and more reflection on the time I spent at San Francisco State College.

 

 

My Year for Writing in San Francisco, Part Two

I devoted Part One of this Blog piece to the thrill of arriving in the city on an ocean-going (or ocean having-gone) ship, passing beneath the early morning (8:30 AM this time) glory of the Golden Gate Bridge, that massive structure overhead as you stand on deck, fully awake with arrival at this most resplendent of destinations in 1965. I also wrote about the immediate impression of the city to which we (my wife Betty, our boys Tim and Steve, and myself) had returned because Betty was willing to work for a year, so I could be “free” to become an actual, real, publishable writer: no longer, after two years of educational servitude (My first teaching experience–at the University of Hawaii– had not been all that gratifying an experience, for reasons I explained), no longer just a “wannabe,” but–at least for a year–a full time “author.”

In “My Year for Writing in San Francisco, Part One,” I offered an account of having my first short story accepted for a new magazine, Per Se, a quarterly, edited by the Peninsula novelist Robin White and produced at Stanford University Press by an impressive staff of 30  (including three managing editors, according to the prospectus). Robin White explained the enterprise: “Per Se is designed for the person whose time is limited but whose intellectual curiosity spans many areas. So it’s not any ‘type’ of magazine, but just a magazine, per se, the staff being drawn from a variety of fields, professional and geographic, as is the Advisory Board.”

My story, “The Drive-in” appeared in the Spring 1996 issue—and I’d like to reproduce, here, two responses that would appear in the “Letters to the Editors” section of the second issue: “I read  and reread Minor’s story, and think it’s really fine—much the most enjoyable thing in No.1 for me” (Sanford Dorbin, U.C. Santa Barbara Library) and “’The Drive-in’ seemed to me a very fine story. I wish it had been put first instead of ‘The Venetian Blind.’” (Evelyn Harter, Darien, Conn.). Acclaimed from coast to coast (ho ho)! but these positive responses did make me feel quite good—as did the appearance of my short story. Here are: the cover of the first issue of Per Se; my story as it appeared, and the second issue, which had a woodcut print of mine on the cover (“Pomona and Vertumnus,” from Greek mythology) and another woodcut print (of Russian poet Alexander Blok’s “Catkins”) as an illustration for a story by writer Ed McClanahan inside.

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Getting back to my “free to write” year living on 4th Avenue and Clement Street (We were lucky to find a comfortable flat for $115 a month in one of our favorite San Francisco areas) in general: in November, I ran into Mrs. Pein, my former tutor (from my pre-teaching days in Hawaii) and she was appalled at the state of my Russian (what was left of it), so I took lessons from her again, at her urging. I went to her house (which was not far from Clement Street) on Thursday mornings. If the lesson went well (and they generally did), she insisted that I stay for lunch, which consisted of an omelette large enough to feed substantial portions of the Russian Army: eggs, potatoes, сыр (cheese), with черный хлеб (black bread) on the side—this accompanied by a shot of lemon vodka (“For your health, Mr. Minor–За здоровье! She told me  her grandmother had a shot like that with lunch each day.). Mrs. Pein was sixty-three now and turning “girlish.” For the first time in her life, she said, she was free of “babysit,” and could truly enjoy herself. She had another student, a man her age who worked for the Examiner newspaper. He wanted to marry her, but she turned him down. “I live alone, Mr. Minor, and now I can begin to live!” (Слава Богу–Praise God–for American Social Security!).

I started to give her sixteen-year-old granddaughter guitar lessons on Friday nights (in exchange for my Russian lessons). The girl would come to Mrs. Pein’s home, with her mother Valya, who’d been a ballerina back in the Soviet Union. Those music lessons would degenerate (or improve–ascend) into a party that resembled Thanksgivings my family would spend in  Michigan, when I was a child, at the home of my Uncle Max and Aunt Betty and their seven kids (three sets of twins and one “stray”), musicians all, everyone playing an instrument, the living room growing thick with song. Such evenings at Mrs. Pein’s were unique in that they were “conducted” in Russian, with dancing added to the merriment (I was always embarrassed to dance with Valya, because she was a pro, and I had to concentrate like crazy (on top of more vodka) to avoid stepping on her toes.

Here is a photo of our “back yard,” taken from the stairway entrance to the flat on 4tth Avenue and Clement Street—and a photo of me sitting on a small porch at the top of those stairs.

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San Francisco has long been an attractive city and we soon began drawing visitors. First to arrive were my sister Emily and her husband Doug Roberts. Emily had married Doug in June of 1964. We’d met him, as a “boyfriend,” just before we left for our two years in Hawaii, but not seen them “married,” so I was curious to witness the union first-hand. They’d been on a camping trip throughout the West, and I had the following impressions of Doug at this time: They had placed a sleeping bag in the “literary alcove” across from our bedroom, but the air kept seeping out of their bedroll, so I would hear Doug. throughout the night, huffing and puffing to refill it–and swearing like a sailor between breaths. He also spent an inordinate amount of time washing their car (which had accumulated more than its share of dirt on their cross-country camping trip, and was parked just in front of our flat), and I, in jest, told Betty that I couldn’t figure out which he loved most: my sister or that car. The third impression was of his prodigious appetite. Doug was a professional athlete: one of the first Americans to play in the National Hockey League (in his case, for the Memphis Wings and the Detroit Red Wings).

Here are photos of Emily as a very young bride; of Doug Roberts lounging at Stinson Beach (one of our favorite spots, north of San Francisco, to take visitors) with me reading a book, my head using Betty for a pillow; and a photo of Tim taking time out from the traditional touch football game we engaged in on the beach, with our friend Tom Reyes, me, and Doug in the background.

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Em and Doug were our first visitors. Doug was a genuine “good guy” with a wry sense of humor, and I got along well with my brother-in-law, repairing to a bar, “The Keg,” just around the corner from the flat we’d just moved into. Later, when I’d started cooking meals (so Betty wouldn’t need to returning from work), I joked with my parents that, after that visit, I began to eat a “typical” Doug Roberts breakfast: “five eggs, over hard; half a chicken, a full loaf of bread, two pounds of butter, a side of bacon, and enough milk to slack the thirst of a multitude”). I began to put on some extra weight.

            In “My Year for Writing in San Francisco, Part One,” I also wrote about arriving on a ship, the S.S. Cleveland, from Hawaii—and “passing beneath the early morning (8:30 AM this time) glory of the Golden Gate Bridge, that massive structure overhead as you stand on deck, fully awake with arrival at this most resplendent of destinations in 1965.” I didn’t have still photos of that experience (although we did “catch” it on 8 mm film), but I’d like to post here some photos of: Betty and the boys on board ship; me sitting (in the ”dress code” suit and tie I was required to wear throughout my two years of teaching at the University of Hawaii), sitting with two foreign students from Japan who would be studying in The City; another photo with a full group of those students; and a photo of a young man from Taiwan, “reported” to be VERY wealthy, allowed to have several wives, and journeying to America in search of another wife to add to his collection (or harem). 

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Once we were settled on 4thAvenue and Clement Street, in late November, Glenn Wilson, showed up: a friend I’d made as a classmate at the University of Hawaii (Glenn an ex-Marine with whom I shared more than a few beers at a bar close to campus, as far back as 1957–when I was recently married and a student, not an instructor). He was living and working in Korea now, on a month’s vacation in the States, and in spite of the splendid meals I was preparing, he wished to dine out—so we partook Indonesian, Scottish (at the Edinburgh Castle, a popular pub and one of our favorite haunts in San Francisco), and Russian food—and Glenn treated us to a splendid meal on Fisherman’s Wharf, in honor of my “first story publication.”

On New Year’s Eve, we did, as Betty wrote my folks, “something we’ve not done here before. We were out on the town when Chinatown and North Beach were blocked off from all traffic. Tons of people, tons of confetti, like Times Square at midnight. Much good cheer felt by all.” In January, I wrote: “Betty and I have been stepping out a bit lately (not just New Year’s Eve, which was more of a strut than a step). We went up the street one night to the Jolly Friers, and danced. We swept everybody off the floor. The band got mad because I second guessed all of their songs and insisted on singing them, full pitch, alongside the band’s versions–even Beatles tunes (a group that, ,in spite of the nail polish, are fine songwriters, musicians). I wrote my folks: “We poets seem to live in a state of perpetual adolescence, and it’s great when you’re joined in that state by your wife—‘sweet joy befall thee!’ The biggest deficit of the Great Society is its failure of imagination. We seem to have, or own everything else, but, fortunately, not music …”

Toward the end of January, we saw Dick and Sarah Maxwell again, friends we’d made in Hawaii when Dick and I were recently University hired instructors. They were living in Woodside, California—and Dick was now teaching at Foothill College in Los Altos. Their friends were fellow instructors there: “all young, talented guys with pretty wives”—adding “Needless to say, we made a lot of music. I had a tenor banjo I’d acquired, as a gift from Betty and the boys, on my birthday; so I played that alongside my tenor guitar, which I also took with me to the party.”

Dick played baritone ukulele; one of the Foothill instructors had a 12-string guitar. I made first acquaintance with a long-term friend of Dick’s, Joe Gallo, who played excellent clarinet. We played until three in the morning—and ended the evening with “When the Saints Go Marching In”—prancing around the living room: baritone ukulele, guitar, banjo, clarinet pretty wives and all. An interesting group of people: lively and smart and good fun. Piano-less in our flat, I’d been playing lots of folk music lately, expanding my repertoire, and skill (I think, looking back now) on both guitar and banjo. It was good to see the Maxwells again—and we were well on our way to what would prove to be a lifelong friendship.

Here are two photos of me in our flat, playing my new tenor banjo–attempting to look as much like Pete Seeger as I could, in the second photo.

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We made several trips to see Bob and Molly Sessions at Mayacamas Vineyards (“perched high above Napa Valley on Mt. Veeder – one of the most rugged and beautiful corners of wine country”)—the establishment which, now, they were running pretty much by themselves. We had stored most of our goods with them when we left for Hawaii, and we made several trips to retrieve them. In mid-March, the weather perfect, we all spent the day outside while Molly (guitar) and I (on the banjo I’d come to love) played; and on Sunday, while Molly and Betty stayed behind and chatted, Bob, the boys, and I took a long hike. According to Betty, she and Molly had enjoyed “staying lazy till [we] all came back puffing up the hill.” She added, “The boys have such a good time at the winery. There’s much to be said for country living—and it was hard to go home (to San Francisco) on Sunday night.”

Here’s a photo of the house at Mayacamas at which we stayed; and a photo of Bob Sessions; and Me, Molly, Bob, Betty, and son Tim enjoying lunch.

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From the time we arrived in San Francisco to the time we departed, Betty maintained the thoughtful running commentary she had passed on to my parents throughout our family life, regarding Tim and Steve’s activities. Here’ s a collage I assembled of what she wrote: August: “We went to a lovely park with the Reyes’ children. We ran into one of the children from old Tiny Tots days. She is much taller now than Timothy. You can imagine how pleased he was about that!”  (Sept): “Dr. Tabenkin gave me two tickets to ‘Loengrin’ for my birthday. We drove up to see Bob and Molly” (Mayakamas). They have a lovely spot and are working hard—doing most of the work themselves. Beautiful country, but there are lots of deer—and snakes! Stephen said he saw one and he was sure it was a boa constrictor.’ Sept: “Tim has homework most every night (practice writing his numbers). He takes ‘current events’ to school once a week. Stephen seems to like his teacher. He likes not having naps—and he’s only had to sit in the ‘thinking chair’ once. According to Stephen that was all a mistake on the teacher’s part.” “When we visited the Maxwell in September, Steve tried his hand(s) at their piano. I think of the two boys, Stephen will probably be the musician—if he could ever sit still and concentrate on something long enough.” Dec: “We have been freezing this last week. We are all huddled round the heater to keep warm. Stephen had a throat infection, last week, and had to have antibiotics. We found out about the throat when we took him to have his stitches taken out, and his yearly checkup. The day after Thanksgiving he fell in Safeway and we rushed him to Emergency. It wasn’t a bad gash, but enough to require stitches. He’s fine again and had a nice 6th birthday. I bought him a record of Pete Seeger singing ‘Abiyoyo’ and other folk songs with your check. Thank you. He loves the record. We had a ‘family party’ this year. Strung crepe paper in the kitchen and made a Butterfly cake. The boys are coming to the office to have their teeth checked today. Dr. Tobenkin has been so great with them. He sent Stephen a hand puppet for his birthday because he knows the boys are putting on puppet shows for Bill and me at night. Tim is making a paper mache puppet right now. The plays they put on are great—one was about 13 acts long.” March: “Tim had a very good birthday. We got him a small printing press for his birthday. He’s discovered ‘money.’ The first thing he printed was a real estate sign. Every time we borrow money from him (about once a week), he collects interest. Stephen is too smart for us. He hides his money. I pay them two cents a day for keeping their room picked up … Some friends had extra tickets for the circus, so Bill took the boys. They had a ball. Tim got up giggling this morning, thinking of the clowns.”

Here’s a photo of Tim blowing out the seven candles on the birthday cake (a penquin) Betty made for him, and a photo of Steve and Tim with their lunch pails, going off to Madison Elementary School.

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What Tim and Steve didn’t provide by way of entertainment, the drunken couple that occupied the flat below us did. I mentioned, previously, that for such a grotesque creature in appearance (and she was), she had a surprisingly “sweet” voice. I found this out because she phoned me one day, having heard my typewriter clacking continuously, and asked if I was “some kinda writer.” She then went on, in that sweet voice, to say that if I was looking for “a really good story,” she would be happy to tell me the story of her own life. Later, in our blessedly non-acquaintance, she would phone after I started playing Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert as loud as a could when she and her husband came home drunk at 2:00 and fought—she would call to say that if I didn’t turn the music down, she was “gonna call the police.”

All in all, the “Year for Writing” had turned out exceptionally well: from finding  a flat in one of our favorite areas in San Francisco to Betty’s job (and her finding a favorable “boss”) to the writing I put in every day “paying off” right away (my first ever short story publication in Per Se); Tim and Steve’s placement in an excellent elementary school (and their “success” there); the fortunate “baby sitting” arrangement with Linda Reyes, and the joy I discovered as a “house husband” taking my six charges to Julius Kahn Park; and—given all that took place on a daily basis: the addition of a rich social life: reunion with old friends. I could find good reason to regard the entire year a “peak experience.”

If the music of the Lovin’ Spoonful and Mamas and Papas filled the mid-60s air in San Francisco, so did the thinking of psychologist/author Abraham Maslow, and his notion of “self-actualization,” or the need for personal growth and discovery present throughout a person’s life—always “becoming,” or in Maslow’s own words: recognizing our “higher and transcendent nature,” that part of our essence, of our biological nature “as a member of a species which has evolved.” Maslow introduced such concepts in his book Toward a Psychology of Being (1962), and expanded on them in 1964 in Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences—disenchanted, as he was, as many people were, with what he described as thinking “atomistically, in terms of either-or, black-white, all in or all out, of mutual exclusiveness and separativeness”—being a “legalist,” rather than “holistic, integrative, and inclusive.”

As a corrective to our materialistic, static, devoid of “meaning” Age or era, Maslow looked back to the seers and prophets who possessed “healthy openness to the mysterious, the realistically humble recognition that we don’t know much, the modest and grateful acceptance of gratuitous grace”—whose frequent “peak experiences” as “true mystics” disclosed that “the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s back yard.” In the Here and Now—allowing us “to grow to fullest humanness, to the greatest fulfillment and actualization of [our] highest potentials, to [our] greatest possible stature … become the best of what [we are] capable of becoming, to become actually what we deeply are potentially.”

Here’s the psychologist/author A.H. Maslow—and the book of his that would have considerable influence on me, searching for “self-actualization” or “peak experience.” (Photo Credit: biography.com)

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There was, however, one area, or activity, on which I had let everyone–Betty, the boys, myself—down. Abraham Maslow’s espousal of “self-actualization” or “peak experience” was not offered without some qualification, or attendant caution and advice. Mystical experience contains “traps” he admits he has not “stressed sufficiently.” “As the more Apollonian Type can veer toward the extreme of being reduced to the merely behavioral, so does the mystical type run the risk of being reduced to the merely experimental. Out of the joy and wonder of his ecstasies and peak-experiences, he may be tempted to seek them, ad hoc, and to value them exclusively [at another person’s expense or discomfort?], as the only or at least highest goods of life, giving up other criteria of right and wrong. In a word, instead of being temporarily self-absorbed and inwardly searching, he may become simply a selfish person, seeking his own personal salvation … and finally even perhaps using other people as triggers, as means to his sole end of higher states of consciousness.”

The key phrases here are “he may become simply a selfish person … using other people” (“Out of the joy and wonder of his ecstasies and peak-experiences, he may be tempted to seek them, ad hoc, and to value them exclusively … giving up other criteria of right and wrong.”). Like many “wannabe writers” of my generation, I had a number of excellent “role models” when it came to the act of writing itself, and throughout my “free year as a writer.” I was willing to put in the time and I did produce a solid body of work (with the immediate reward of publication in Per Se), but unfortunately–after my negative experience as a dutiful teacher at the University of Hawaii, within the year no longer beholden to anyone other than myself as a writer—I felt, if I was to be a real writer, I should also adopt the stereotypical “life style” of role models whom regarded alcohol as a “muse” (“It’s a powerful and pervasive cultural image. Writers drink. And the alcohol plays a vital role in the drama of creativity. The idea’s reinforced by the testimony of many writers who’ve admitted to their dependency, and even glorified it.”).

Here’s a list of those who felt this way—many of whom were among my favorite writers: Hunter Thompson, Carson McCullers, James Joyce, Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker, John Cheever, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, F. Scott Fitzgerald—and most popular (imitated) at the time I started to write seriously, for both his work and his way of life, Dylan Thomas. The White Horse Tavern was his favorite bar in Greenwich Village.

For good or ill, I found my own favorite bar on Clement Street–The Keg–just around the corner from our flat. I had another “companion in arms” from my preteaching-in-Hawaii days: Dick Harvey, who worked as a claims adjuster for Kempler Insurance Company—a Harvard Business School grad for whom Kempler called in a psychiatrist to find out why Dick was “perfectly content” to remain in the modest position of a claims adjuster each time he was offered a promotion (He was smart as a whip, but resisted all “advancement,” and increased responsibility in his chosen career). He liked to have a good time and was grand fun as a bar mate. He’d played amateur hockey back East, and introduced us to a City skating rink, where Betty and I were amazed to discover that we could still stand up on skates after all these years.

Here is a photo of Dick Harvey in our flat—and a photo of Jefferson Airplane, as they appeared on the cover of their Surrealistic Pillow album.

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Dick Harvey introduced me to another piece of significant San Francisco history. He took me to The Matrix, described by Wikipedia as: “a nightclub in San Francisco from 1965 to 1972 … one of the keys to what eventually became known as the ‘San Francisco Sound.’ The Matrix opened August 13, 1965 showcasing Jefferson Airplane, which singer Marty Balin had put together as the club’s ‘house band’ … In 1968, after finally getting all the necessary releases, The Matrix’s owners sold to Columbia Records some tapes of live sets from 1966 by The Great Society (the band Grace Slick belonged to before replacing Signe Anderson in Jefferson Airplane): edits of those tapes (including the first commercial recordings of “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”). Jefferson Airplane rose rapidly to local prominence during late 1965 and early 1966 with their performances at The Matrix, and it was there that they were first seen by noted music critic Ralph J. Gleason, who became an early champion of the group.[3]

I was a jazz snob converted to acoustic folk music when Dick Harvey took me to The Matrix “In the early years of The Matrix, there was a huge mural of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on the left wall near the rear; rumor was that the members of Jefferson Airplane had painted it before the club first opened. The club’s lighting was very subdued everywhere but on its small stage …. Inside, near the entrance, there was a bar (beer and wine license only) on the front left. The interior was about 50 by 80 feet … The stage was a step above the floor on the right side, center to rear. A small sound booth occupied the center of the left wall, and a few cocktail tables were at the left rear in front of the mural.”

The sound at The Matrix drove me crazy—sound emerging from speakers nearly as tall as the ceiling, the place the epicenter of an earthquake taking place: not the sort of environment to enchant a “Folkie” like myself—and, to Dick’s displeasure, it drove me from the place: my first encounter with The Great Society (whose music, as that of Jefferson Airplane, I would grow fond of later). Dick had a striking resemblance to Woody Allen, in appearance and manner—and one night he pretended he was Woody Allen, and people believed him for a few minutes, until we decided to duck out safely, while the going was good.

The Keg proved far more compatible than The Matrix, to me—and Dick Harvey seemed quite “at home” there too. I began to feel too much like a “real writer” there, just “talking shop,” going over my day’s work as a writer and house husband—unfortunately enjoying my new role after Betty put in her 9 to 6 day of work only to have me go “out,” far too often (to The Keg), at night. As time went on, I also discovered I was guilty of the sin of omission. My time of “freedom” as a full-time working writer was running out, and as the calendar got turned from March to April to May, I was having no luck whatsoever finding a job for Fall, when it would be my turn to support the family again.

When I began this temporary stint as a “real writer,” I’d hoped to have more financial success than evolved, and I’d sworn, after my University of Hawaii experience, that I would not “succumb” again to the trade of teaching, but … as time went on, in spite of my story  publication at Per Se, and in spite of the amount of writing I had done (both stories and poems), no further work I’d sent out had been accepted, and I realized that, as far as careers went, there was only one I’d ever proved at all good at—and that was teaching.

I’d even written my parents, at the turn of the year, that I’d stayed in touch with Dr. Dennis (a former San Francisco State professor of mine, now a Fulbright adviser in Greece, and he was assisting in my ”search”)—and I told my folks that “a few more publications might help waver the sour sweat of having to earn a Ph.D, and see me reestablished in some fine school, teaching, working my way up the ould “ladder” of success”—but ”a few more publications” were not forthcoming.  None were! When Spring rolled around, I was desperate.

Between March and June, I sent letters to a total of forty-five colleges and universities—seeking employment. Geographically, they ranged from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington to Miami-Dade Junior College in Florida to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond to San Diego State in California—including the University of Costa Rica, the College of the Virgin Islands and the University of Hawaii, Hilo Campus; with the University of Albuquerque (New Mexico), Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, the University of Wyoming, Tennessee State University in Nashville, Murray State University (Kentucky) moving inland. I wrote to eight schools in California—from Sonoma State College to San Fernando Valley State and the University of California in Riverside. The only faintly positive responses I received were from Southern Oregon College in Ashland, Oregon State University in Corvallis, and Western Washington State College in Bellingham—and I actually corresponded with all three, until they hired someone else.

I wrote to colleges and universities in the Midwest (Betty and I had discussed the possibility of being closer to our families, for Tim and Steve’s sake—so they could actually “know” their grandparents, etc.)—and Lo and behold: I finally received an offer from a school I knew nothing about—not even where it was! Wisconsin State University-Whitewater! It proved to reside in the apex of a triangle formed with Milwaukee (where my old friend  Jim Cattey worked for the Milwaukee Journal) and Madison, the state capitol.

Here are photos of the town of Whitewater—entering by day, and a view at night. Then, its exciting entertainment center: the beach at Whitewater Lake.

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A contract arrived, was signed and sent back to Wisconsin, and the next thing I knew we were emptying out those delightful drawers in the boys’ attic room. I don’t recall what van line we employed, but a spiffy very officiating gentleman arrived one day, wearing a blue uniform, and with a burly linebacker in tow, who, while his “boss” filled out forms for Betty to approve, effortlessly (it seemed) hoisted a giant trunk we had filled with most of our worldly goods on his back (after the other gentlemen, with just a nod of his head, directed him to do so)—and took it down our back stairs to a van waiting to deliver it, and other artifacts, to the state of Wisconsin, where I found myself returned to the profession of teaching—a profession I would pursue for a total of thirty-two years of my life.

My Year for Writing in San Francisco, Part One

I began a new book-length memoir manuscript (“Unfolding: Aspirations and Attainments”) with a Preface in which I described the thrill of flying into San Francisco at 7:30 AM on a June morning in 1958 (“The plane banked, cruising low over the waters … and made its final pass before it touched down at San Francisco Airport.”)–and a thrill it was. But that splendid adventure cannot surpass the thrill of arriving in the city on an ocean-going (or ocean having-gone) ship, passing beneath the early morning (8:30 AM this time) glory of the Golden Gate Bridge, that massive structure overhead as you stand on deck, fully awake with arrival at this most resplendent of destinations in 1965.

We had returned to San Francisco (where we had lived from 1958 to 1963) after I had spent two years–my first teaching job after earning my M.A.–as an Instructor in English at the University of Hawaii.

Our arrival fell two years short of the city’s infamous “Summer of Love,” when nearly 100,000 young souls  would invade Haight-Ashbury (which we had known previously as a somewhat sedate area made up of second-hand bookstores and Italian delicatessens), and San Francisco would find itself the epicenter of a cultural revolution—but the music was in the air already in 1965, and it was infectious.

“Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city …

But at night it’s a different world
Go out and find a girl
Come-on come-on and dance all night
Despite the heat it’ll be alright …

Cool town, evening in the city
Dressing so fine and looking so pretty
Cool cat, looking for a kitty
Gonna look in every corner of the city

Till I’m wheezing like a bus stop
Running up the stairs, gonna meet you on the rooftop …

The Lovin’ Spoonful set the tone, and the pace, in this song and others, such as “Daydream” (“What a day for a daydream / What a day for a daydreamin’ boy / And I’m lost in a daydream / Dreamin’ ’bout my bundle of joy”); “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind” (“Did you ever have to make up your mind? / And pick up on one and leave the other behind? / It … Did you ever have to finally decide? / And say yes to one and let the other one ride? / There’s so many changes and tears you must hide. / Did you ever have to finally decide?’); and “Do You Believe in Magic?”

“Do you believe in magic in a young girl’s heart
How the music can free her, whenever it starts
And it’s magic, if the music is groovy
It makes you feel happy like an old-time movie
I’ll tell you about the magic, and it’ll free your soul …

If you believe in magic don’t bother to choose
If it’s jug band music or rhythm and blues …

Here are album covers for The Lovin’s Spoonful’s Do You Believe in Magic and The Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin.’

John Phillips and The Mamas and Papas had initiated the craving with “California Dreamin’” in December of 1965 (“All the leaves are brown / And the sky is grey (and the sky is grey) / I’ve been for a walk (I’ve been for a walk) / On a winter’s day (on a winter’s day) / California dreamin’ (California dreamin’) / On such a winter’s day.”) and they would follow through in 1967 with “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”:

“If you are going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you are going to San Francisco
You are gonna meet some gentle people there …

All across the nation such a strange vibration
People in motion
There is a whole generation with a new explanation …”

What an era! A flower power counterculture, a sexual revolution, Free Love, a New Left movement, New Wave science fiction, and long hair: the potential pervaded the air, everywhere—but I hadn’t returned to San Francisco for any of that (although temptations enough would present themselves, everywhere). I had come to San Francisco, because my wife Betty was willing to work for a year, so I could be “free” to become an actual, real, publishable writer: no longer, after two years of educational servitude (My first teaching experience had not been a gratifying experience.)– just another “wannabe.”

We located an apartment to rent adjacent to Clement Street (one of our favorite areas in The City). On July 19, Betty wrote my folks: “We found a flat on Fourth Avenue [and Clement]. I was charmed by the place first thing, and when Bill walked down (he’d been out on 20th Avenue looking at a place there) to see it later, he felt the same way. We’re on the second floor, with our own private entrance, a stairway, in the back. It’s so quiet here, and yet we’re right around the corner from Clement Street, one of my favorite shopping areas. To clinch the whole thing, we’re also near one of the best grammar schools in the city.”

Betty even included a drawing, to scale, of the flat—and my own account confirmed her overall assessment of the place, which–at $115 a month–I found fit our needs, and resources, perfectly. “Tonight the wife and I are sitting in the kitchen, listening to the wind (“whirrl”) and the refrigerator (“purrr’) and the gas heater (‘boom”) and the clock (“tick tock”) do their thing. The night, outside the window, is shrouded in fog. O, delicious crisp chill—resuscitator of sleepy Hawaiian souls … and a great place, San Francisco, to get some serious writing done!” I offered details on each room: the boys’ large and white, great for play, their toys overflowing drawers set in the lower portion of a wall (there was only one wall, for this was an attic room with handsome angles, gracefully shaped by the roof above it)—and colorful, for Betty had provided twin beds with boyishly crimson and beige and champagne pink covers. She also found a small table with chairs at nearby Busvan, a bargain furniture outlet we’d sought out and made full use of when we first lived in the City, on Hayes Street, in 1958.

Up the hall, one alcove housed a miniscule blue bedroom (morning light falling through a stained glass window), which was ours—and the alcove across the hall became my “studio,” another small room, a literary menagerie, space I had no trouble filling with a desk I’d made myself, homegrown bookcase too (all the books I owned fit nicely), and slowly accreting manuscripts piles. The kitchen, also small, was the largest we’d ever had in our nine-year marital history, with red curtains and a generous bath of warm light. The living room was spaciously cozy, and empty, awaiting a couch (from, of course, Busvan).

            Here are photos of the discount furniture house that furnished so many of our domestic needs, and the Richmond area in general—so different from our environment in Manoa Valley on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. (Photo credits: https://mistersf.com/; The New York Times).

    The only assessment in Betty’s August report that would prove to be inaccurate was: “We have new neighbors downstairs; they seem very nice and have two children—a girl seven and a boy five.” The kids proved nice enough, but the parents turned out to be a charming couple who got intoxicated (no, “smashed,” in just any one of the many local bars), each night, and came home at 2:00 AM closing time to engage in the prolonged ritual of a knock-down-drag-out fight. One “morning after,” I heard the boy child say to our son Tim, proudly, “My daddy tried to throw my mommy out the window last night.” The father failed in this attempt only because of the size of his wife—a VERY large (fat) woman with a sweet telephone voice. But more about this couple latter, who could be seen on the street next day (walking hand and hand until “cocktail hour” arrived again at five o’clock) with deep fingernail scratches on both of their faces.

Not only did we find a flat right off the bat (and signed a year’s lease, so we had some security, along with distasteful neighbors), but Betty landed a job—soon, in mid-August. She went to work as a dental assistant (as she was working when we got “reunited” in our home town in Michigan in the summer of 1956, and later in San Francisco), and she liked to describe her boss, Dr. Tobenkin, as “quite a character” (when I met him I learned that, prior to being a dentist, he aspired to be a concert violinist, and had, at one time, studied with Issac Stern). In her own words, Betty wrote my folks that Dr, Tobenkin was “very nice to me and is always sending candy and toys home to the boys.” By the end of September, he had given her two raises (She added in another letter, “I guess that makes up for the long hours.”). By November, she was writing: “I must be getting used to working again for I find I’m not nearly as tired as I was at first. Just knowing my job [previous experience as a dental assistant) makes it easier also.” In mid-August, I had written: “Betty starts work tomorrow. The doctor said she could have two weeks at Christmas  (starting around December 17) so if we can hook up to an appropriate wagon going East, we should be able to throw a few snowballs at you.” This trip “home,” however, would not work out.

When I first mentioned finding a flat in one of our favorite neighborhoods (Clement Street and 4th Avenue), I quoted Betty’s appraisal of where the boys would go to school: “one of the best grammar schools in the city”—which was Madison Elementary School on Sacramento Street. In late September, Betty wrote my folks, saying, “The boys seem very happy in their classes. Bill worked out a satisfactory arrangement with Linda Reyes” [whose address, and the arrangement we worked out, made it possible for the boys to attend Madison Elementary]. When we lived in San Francisco previously (1958-1963), the Reyes family—Tom and Linda and their four kids: Ted, Ian, Haidée, and Gillian—had been close friends. The arrangement now, was: Linda would pick Stephen up at Madison Elementary at noon (so I could have a full five hours to work in the flat alone) and then Tim, when school got out for him later, would walk to the Reyes’ house (also located on Sacramento Street, not far from the school) with the two Reyes boys, Ted and Ian. I would pick them up there and then take all six kids (which included Haidee and Gillian) to the playground in Julius Kahn Park—close to Sacramento Street—and that would give Linda a break.

            Here are three members of the Reyes family: Linda (who was an avid reader and with whom I had fine “literary” conversations), Tom, and the youngest girl, Gillian, whom Linda had taught to recite–beautifully, adorably—Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (“Whose woods these are I think I know. / His house is in the village though; / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow.”).  

I was a classic mid-1960s “house husband” (I fit the definition in most ways: “an unemployed man who stays at home, taking care of children, etc. while his wife goes out to work”—and I enjoyed the role thoroughly, sitting on a bench in the park with a bevy of attractive young wives, cheerfully chatting with them while we watched our respective charges as they played. Locally known as “JK,” Julius Kahn was adjacent to the Presidio, “the nation’s largest urban National Park”—the playground officially cited as being “in excellent condition,” providing kids and parents (or “house husbands” like me) and two areas to choose from—”one designed for babies and toddlers, and another for school-aged kids. Both playgrounds are situated in a sand pit! This park is very green and is surrounded by a grove of beautiful trees that make this spot a great place to hike and explore.”

Here’s a photo of Julius Kahn Park. (Photo credit: http://www.bcx.news/)

I not only enjoyed the park, but the journey to and from it with “my” kids —for some interesting California history could be found along the route, such as Congregation Emanu-El on Lake Street, which housed the two oldest Jewish congregations in California (“During the Gold Rush in 1849, a small group of Jews held the first High Holy Days services on the west coast of the United States” there). The area in which we lived was rich with the City’s history—from Balboa to the Presidio. The Cinderella Bakery, on Balboa Street, had been Established in 1959. It was the oldest authentic, homestyle Russian bakery in the Bay Area, featuring (as it advertised itself) “time-honored recipes handed down through generations for our tender pastries, savory meat pies and a broad selection of delicious Russian entreés, soups and specialties. Come into our sunny bakery and inhale the wonderful fragrance of our freshly baked dark and light rye breads. Treat yourself to some of our flaky pastries or traditional Russian favorites, including Poppy Seed Rolls, Piroshki, Vatrushka, Napoleon Cake, and fresh fruit turnovers.” In the other direction due West, we discovered–at 5241 Geary Blvd. and 17th Avenue, the Russian Renaissance Restaurant—which featured not only borscht, blinis, and smoked fish, but music. I recall a proficient accordianist playing and singing Pushkin’s poem “Я вас любил: любовь еще, быть может / В душе моей угасла не совсем” (“I loved you once and love you still, perhaps / Within my soul that flame remains.”) one night we had dinner there.

Even further out, at 6290 Geary avenue (this area known as “Russian Town”) stood The Holy Virgin Cathedral, also known as Joy of All Who Sorrow, a Russian Orthodox cathedral.. It opened in 1965, and was the largest of the six cathedrals of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which had, at the time, over 400 parishes worldwide. This neighborhood also housed what would become my favorite bookstore (aside from City Lights in North Beach), the знание (Znanie: Russian word for “knowledge”—loaded with desirable classic and contemporary books in Russian, which I had taken up studying seriously again, having run into my former tutor, Mrs. Pein (more about her later).

Here is a photo of Congregation Emanu-El on Lake Street—and the Bridge Theatre on Geary. (Photo credit: https://www.emanuelsf.org/; https://www.outsidelands.org/)

Another favorite haunt on Geary Street was the Bridge Theatre, which dated back to 1939 and the film Love Affair, which featured Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. Its official publicity offered: “The name Bridge was chosen in honor of the then newly built Golden Gate Bridge which opened in 1937. From the beginning up until the mid-1950’s, The Bridge Theatre was strictly a low price, late run, neighborhood theatre, playing films which had first been shown on Market Street, then later found their way out to the neighborhoods. By the time they got to the Bridge they already had quite a bit of mileage on them. Love Affair, for example, would have been about three or four months old by the time it opened at the Bridge. In the mid-1950’s the Bridge was up-graded to an ‘exclusive’ (meaning the films were not shown at any other theatres as long as they remained at the Bridge) first run ‘art’ (meaning prestige USA and foreign films) house, and has prospered as such ever since. …The vertical sign and marquee are original, but the theatre went through a number of renovations over the years.” In 1966, it often featured classic Russian films such as The Cranes Are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier, and Andrei Rublev—all of which we enjoyed.

I had written my parents in mid-August: “I write (type!) about eight to ten hours a day, and have read eleven books (mostly in Russian) since the end of June. The shopkeepers on Clement Street shower us with Kasseri cheese, steam beer, and kabasa. The sidewalks are filled with old men, pretty women, and advertisements for a host of foreign foods. The sun, in San Francisco, hasn’t got a regular daily plan in its head—aside from a host of winds and fully anticipated fog. Our sons are strong and obnoxious on occasion, and my wife loves me because I can find so many sweet things for her locally: a shopping cart, a bottle of ‘Mr. Clean,’ a pastrami sandwich, two pickles, and a 1926 carpet sweeper.”

Betty was working full time, so I didn’t really strap her with items employed in domestic chores—one of which I had taken on myself. She wrote: “Bill has begun cooking. It has been a big help and the dishes he prepares have been marvelous. We’ve decided to expand our library of cookbooks.” The only complaint she offered was I “used too many pots and pans,” and a reliable cook, I was slow (if absent) when it came to washing dishes—but I was still cooking in mid-November when I wrote: “I have discovered that I am a fantastic chef. No hasty stew for this kid. When it comes to the culinary arts, I am a master: meticulous, demanding, strictly aristocratic in my taste. I have gone from preparing Norwegian Chicken with Carraway seeds (only a partial success, but not bad for my first effort—too much flour in the gravy) to Brewer’s Shrimp with Almond Sauce (five stars for this one, but most of the credit might go to the beer); Bifteks Miremonda (with Danish Cheese); Burgundy Smothered  Liver and Onions (Great! And I don’t even like onions!); a Chef’s Salad (garbanzo beans, eighty different types of lettuce, shrimp, ham, port salute cheese); Greek fish served with Retsina wine; Fillet of Sole Duglere; Polish Hamburger (with egg butterfly noodles); Meatballs with Beer and Green Olives; Turkey and Sausage Pudding (the very best dish I’ve done so far!); Coronado Casserole Choizos (Portuguese sausage), and last but by no means least: Paella  Valencia (with Spanish Saffron). This last item may have been least after all, for it didn’t turn out all that well, although I did add some Shoyu to the dish the next night, and turned it into a satisfactory Fried Rice.”

Best of all, I was now, of a sudden, “cooking” in the area of the writing I had come back to San Francisco to accomplish. I mentioned, in a letter of mid-August, writing eight to ten hours a day (and this alongside undertaking fresh woodblock prints, based on Russian poems, with the Cyrillic text included)—and that began to pay off. I’m not sure just how or where I first heard of the advent of a journal called Per Se, which had an editorial and business office at Stanford University in nearby Palo Alto. An article printed in the San Francisco Chronicle much later (just before the first issue made its appearance in Spring of 1966,) bore the title “The Launching of Per Se –Other Literary Notes,” and it began: “The mortality rate of little magazines, literary and otherwise, is historic—especially here on the West Coast. Only last month, the Sausalito-based Contact officially gave up the struggle after some four years of enterprise and financial woes. And yet there are voices that will be heard.”

The next paragraph of the piece began: “Another brave magazine venture is about to be launched—this one called Per Se, based at Box 2377, Stanford 94305. It will be a quarterly, edited by the Peninsula novelist Robin White and produced at Stanford University Press by an impressive staff of 30  (including three managing editors, according to the prospectus). The first, or Spring 1966, issue is due almost immediately. Robin White explains the enterprise in these paragraphs: “Per Se is designed for the person whose time is limited but whose intellectual curiosity spans many areas. So it’s not any ‘type’ of magazine, but just a magazine, per se, the staff being drawn from variety of fields, professional and geographic, as is the Advisory Board.”

Robin White’s introduction to Per Se listed several staff and Board members, among whom were Bishop Pike of San Francisco and Francis Brown (of the New York Review of Books). A brief description of the contents of the inauguration issue followed—and the prospective read: “A dragon-slayer in a world of noisy sciolists.” I did not “discover” the opportunity of submitting to the magazine by way of this article, because by the time the article appeared, a short story I submitted had been accepted–my first to be published story!–and that work, called ‘The Drive-in” would appear in the first Spring 1966 issue of Per Se.

Typically, I have filed away the letter of acceptance from Robin White in a place so safe I can’t find that historically-significant (for me) document, but on November 15, 1965, I wrote my parents, saying (by then deep in correspondence with Robin White): “My editor likes my high standards, was impressed by my work in general [by then he had asked to see my woodblock prints and had accepted two for the second issue of Per Se–more about this in a moment]—and thinks I have a future in fiction. This is a good break. If I can place another story somewhere, write about ten more and score with some poems, I will have had a better year than I expected.” In January I wrote [the first issue of Per Se not yet out]: “I heard from Mr. White again. He said he’d like to see more of my stuff and that he will ‘beat the drum for [me] at the bigger paying mags. Both of the prints he took will appear in the second issue, which will come out in June—one of the prints as the cover. You might enjoy his own work. Betty has read and enjoyed a novel, Elephant Hill [a Harper Prize Novel] and a book of stories, Foreign Soil. He has two other novels, Men and Angels and House of Many Rooms. All of these are centered in India, where he was born and raised, the son of missionaries

I have a copy of Men and Angels Robin White inscribed for me: “To Bill Minor, with best regards and many thanks for ‘Lilies of the Field’” (a woodcut I sent him a copy of, after he accepted “The Drive-in”—one that included the words of the Biblical text from Matthew 6:2:“And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:”). On January 24, I wrote my parents, sent them the article on the ”launching” of Per Se that appeared in The Chronicle—and I added: “My story will be in the first issue, so I will be able to send it along to you in March. The story has nothing to do with LSD or therapeutic abortion [Two other pieces that appeared in the first issue did]; the magazine will contain articles on everything from electronics  to Nashville (‘The country music capitol of the world’). Mr. white sent me another letter saying, “While I was in New York I discussed your work with the Editors of The New Yorker, and I hope they request you to do some fiction for them.’ I seem to have found a friend.”

When the story was published, an incident occurred that was truly remarkable—and enjoyable. A former friend, Carl Mangold (whose extremely wealthy Canadian parents had “given” him an art gallery for Carl to manage in Palo Alto, before I took the teaching job at the University of Hawaii). Carl was now living, unemployed, in a swanky apartment on Telegraph Hill. One weekend, he took me and son Tim (seven years of age) to see his “pad”—and he began to talk about a beautiful woman he’d met who lived just opposite him. Carl decided on the spot to invite her to meet us—which he did.

The woman was home, and he brought her over to his apartment. She turned out to be “beautiful” indeed, stunningly so. The woman was Mimi Farina, sister of Joan Baez, and wife, now widow, of writer Richard Farina, known as “the lost genius who bridged the gap between beats and hippies,” who’d been Thomas Pynchon’s roommate, hung out with Bob Dylan, and wrote an American cult classic novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me; According to one account, on 30 April 1966, at around lunchtime, Richard Fariña sat down at a table at the Thunderbird bookstore and cafe in Carmel, California, to sign copies of his freshly minted first novel, published just two days before. “The sky was blue and California-cloudless, and Fariña, 29, had organized a surprise 21st birthday party for his wife Mimi. Fariña signed copy after copy of his novel, the dedication page of which read: ‘This one is for Mimi.’ A little after seven that evening, Richard Fariña was dead, a motorcycle accident on the winding Carmel Valley Road had claimed the life of an artist bursting with potential, at the very beginning of his career.”

Richard Fariña had married Mimi in 1963 when she was just 17. Competent musicians, the couple released two albums together in 1965, a year before his death—and one of their songs, “Pack Up Your Sorrows,” was a favorite of mine (“No use cryin’ / Talking to a stranger / Namin’ the sorrows you’ve seen / Oh, cause there are / Too many bad times / Too many sad times / Nobody knows what you mean / If somehow / You could pack up your sorrows / And give them all to me / You would lose them / I know how to use them / Give them all to me.”). In Carl Mangold’s apartment, Mimi Farina sat in an armless cushioned chair affectionately holding my seven year old son Tim on her lap (a situation, he thoroughly enjoyed, as well as me), and, when I mentioned that I’d just had my first short story published, she told me, softly, that her husband Richard had been a writer too—to which I replied, as softly and respectfully as I could, that I was familiar with his work, as well as the music they had created together. I will never forget that afternoon at Carl’s apartment (Mimi Farina was a stunningly beautiful woman in ways far more meaningful than appearance).

Here are photos of Mimi and Richard Farina. As an aside, here, I will provide access to an extraordinary video of her and Joan Baez singing together before a large audience at Sing Sing Prison in 1973: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKQ-WzzQvyY:  (Photo credits:   https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/25/richard-farina-lost-genius-bridged-gap-beats-hippies; https://www.discogs.com/artist/1260593-Richard-Mimi-Farina)

I will leave the outcome of my own “potentials” that followed the publication of “The Drive-in” for the close of this chapter–but from where I was standing (or sitting, writing) in January of the new year 1966, things looked pretty damn good– the decision to spend a year just writing (and doing prints) justified by actual Good News, and forthcoming publication. On January 13, I turned thirty, and had reason to celebrate that accumulation of years, along with what seemed to await me.

The next Bill’s Blog will be Part Two of this chapter from the memoir on the year I spent “free” to be the writer I hoped to be in San Francisco. Stay tuned, please.

Stillness, Part Two

At the close of my last post, Part One of “Stillness,” I stated my intent to explore, in Part Two to follow, two more books related to the subject: David Brazier’s Zen Therapy: A Buddhist Approach to Psychotherapy and Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer–along with three talks from jazz bassist David Friesen’s lecture series Beyond the Note…Jazz Music Essentials. I have had the pleasure (honor) of providing liner notes for several of David Friesen’s CDs, and have great respect (as I have, obviously, for the three writers discussed in the first “Stillness” piece) for his artistic skill and his ability to articulate all he has learned “over the past 60 years, performing in concerts and recording with jazz legends, [with his] own groups and presenting jazz workshops worldwide in over 31 countries including the USA.”

In Part One, I let the three writers represented speak for themselves (through extensive quotation from their books), as if they were welcome guests, “experts” taking precedence (rightfully) over whatever I might have to say about the art of stillness–and I hope to continue that approach in this post. I am, at present, reading another book—Brother Paul Quenon’s In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir—which I feel would enrich our discussion of “Stillness,” and because its author was a novice under Thomas Merton at their Trappist monastery (Abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky), I will take a look at these two exceptional individuals together.

But first: David Brazier, British author and psychotherapist known for his writings on Zen Buddhism. Leader of the Amida Order, David Brazier describes himself as a “Buddhist priest, psychotherapist, social worker, and poet.” The book of his we will discuss is Zen Therapy: A Buddhist Approach to Psychotherapy. (Photo credit: thebuddhistcentre.com)

David Brazier Author    David Brazier Zen Therapy

Zen Therapy is a serious book, scholarly, systematic, carefully structured—seldom flirting with the frisky, spirited, teasing, testing “koan” side of Zen practice, but offering ways in which that practice and its principles function (principles introduced in Sanskrit, then defined in English; for example: Obstructions in the ordinary mind “are called kleshas. A klesha is any mental factor which produces turmoil in the psyche. Kleshas are whatever seems to prevent us thinking clearly or acting sensibly.”)–principles that might enhance or improve Western psychiatry. You will encounter just about “everything you ever wanted to know” about Zen practice here, and I found the book immensely valuable in that regard.

A chapter on “Buddha Nature” begins with a question” “What is our deepest nature?” And the answer arrives embodied in another question: “We may have a sense that there is something fundamentally sound at the core of human nature, but can we express it in our actual lives here and now?”—which in turn takes us to Zen, which, as therapy, “requires a strenuous attempt on our part to become open-minded and open-hearted—to get out of the dead box [the image of our lives as a “stone box, a coffin”] of preconditioned feelings.” Therapists need “confidence that the perfect mirror is there”—allowing clients to trust their own “buddha-nature” (buddhata in Sanskrit): what in the West is known as “a reliable constructive growth process called the ‘actualizing tendency,’ thus making room for human potential.” David Brazier’s “call and response,” or back and forth exchange of cultures (this dialogue), is handled effectively throughout the book.

Our buddha nature is “our participation in the cosmos and is the cosmos participating in us.” It is the “spiritual nature of existence: the ‘other power’ … The Zen vision, therefore, is one of primordial unity, not one of separate existence … The buddha nature is simply the fact that the universe lives in us and we in it. This identity of self and cosmos is the ultimate foundation of Zen ethics.”

Getting closer to “stillness,” David Brazier offers a chapter called “Tranquility.” He presents a very pleasant picture of a state in which our entire being is “suffused with ease.” Self-conscious-ness has faded. as if you are “sitting on the edge of a dead calm lake which extends as far as the eye can see and beyond … we are simply aware, mindful.” This is samadhi: Sanskrit for “total self-collectedness”: the highest state of mental concentration that a person can achieve–“a state of profound and utterly absorptive contemplation of the Absolute … a state of joyful calm, or even of rapture and beatitude, in which one maintains one’s full mental alertness and acuity.”  The section which directly follows this paragraph is entitled “Stillness”! David Brazier mentions the practice of zazen (‘za’=sitting), sitting in meditation. “Zen practitioners discovered the best way to control the mind is to control the body. When the body is perfectly still, the mind quietens down.” First time out, practitioners find that the compulsive states of mind will “do their best to disturb us” (even through pride: “I am doing this very well. I’m better at this than the other people here.”). But the body remains calm when the mind fights it, or disrupts it, and eventually “the mind becomes calm too.”

I’ll mention, briefly, two more chapters from Zen Therapy: A Buddhist Approach to Psychotherapy: “Mindfulness” and “Karma” (As I found in Part One of this “Stillness” blog, each book discussed contains a wealth of wisdom I could quote from endlessly, if I had requisite space and time, which I do not). “Mindfulness is both radical introspection and direct connection with the phenomenal world.” It’s not just a matter of looking inward. It’s more a matter of “being fully present in each step of life”—or as we learn in the earliest teachings of the Buddha, in the Sutra which tells us: “Do not pursue the past. / Do not lose yourself in the future. / The past no longer is. / The future has not yet come. / Looking deeply at life as it is / in the very here and now, / the practitioner dwells /in stability and freedom.” Living fully in the moment!

According to David Brazier, Karma (another Sanskrit word) is the “law of moral consequence …   all deliberate actions of body, speech and mind produce immediate effect in the life continuum, which are seeds stored for future germination. They will bear pleasant or unpleasant fruit according to their nature.”  The “message” seems clear: in Buddhism “there is no judgment: just, the world is so constructed that we bring joy or trouble upon ourselves.” The last sentence in David Brazier’s book is: “A real therapy is one with a vision, not only of the individual person, but also of how the whole planet is to be healed.” Happy Karma Everyone!

I fell under the spell of Thomas Merton’s writing in 1953, when I was seventeen—and discovered this author who, having graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in English, was accepted as a novice at the Abbey of Gethsemani (in Kentucky) during the first Sunday of Lent in 1942. In 1946, his manuscript for The Seven Storey Mountain was accepted by Harcourt Brace & Company for publication. This book, Merton’s autobiography, was written during two-hour intervals in the monastery scriptorium as a personal project, and appearing in 1948, received critical acclaim. I was attracted to it not only because it was written by a monk, but because that monk, at Columbia, had been a passionate jazz fan, Thomas Merton’s cultural proclivities having taken hold when jazz was thriving in NYC.

Here are photos of: Thomas Merton with jazz vibraphonist Dick Sisto; Merton with the Dalai Lama–and two of Thomas Merton’s books. (Photo credits: guides.library.duq.edu; Louisville Magazine; merton.org/dalailama/)

Thomas Merton Duqueane University  Thomas Merton The Jazz Monk with Vibraphonist Dick Sisto

Thomas Merton with the Dalai Lama National Catholic Reporter    Thomas Merton Contemplative Prayer      Thomas Merton Seven Story Mountain

I relished The Seven Story Mountain, and went on to read his early monastic books: Seeds of Contemplation, The Ascent to Truth, The Sign of Jonas, Bread in the Wilderness. At seventeen, I was “attracted” to the potentiality of becoming a Trappist monk myself—until I went to “The Big Apple” (as an art student at Pratt Institute) at age nineteen, and a beautiful, talented, brilliant Irish lass (a fellow student), introduced me to the poetry of Hart Crane and Baudelaire, along with earthly delights–and saved me from the life of contemplative silence I had considered undertaking–but left me with an interest in “stillness.”

My favorite of Thomas Merton’s many books is Contemplative Prayer, in which he “brings together a wealth of meditative and mystical influences–from John of the Cross to Eastern desert monasticism–to create a spiritual path for today.” The book has a brilliant introduction by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who offers personal recollections of Merton and compares the contemplative traditions of East and West. In the first paragraph of his Introduction, Thomas Merton states: “In positive terms, we must understand the monastic life above all as a life of prayer. The negative elements, solitude, fasting, obedience, penance, renunciation of property and ambition, are all intended to clear the way so that prayer, meditation and contemplation may fill the space created by the abandonment of other concerns.”

He defines prayer, contemplative prayer, beautifully, as “simply the preference for the desert, for emptiness, for poverty … The contemplative is one who would rather not know than know … Only when we are able to ‘let go’ of everything within us, all desire to see, to know, to taste and to experience the presence of God, do we truly become able to experience that presence with the overwhelming conviction and reality that revolutionize our entire inner life.” (He also states that the genuine contemplative accepts the love of God on faith, “in defiance of all apparent evidence.”). This is followed by another paradox: “Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy. And yet on a certain sense, we must truly begin to hear God when we have ceased to listen.”

Such spiritual ambivalence “proved of true value” when seventeen year old Paul Quenon (author of another totally engaging book I am reading now: In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir)–when he served as a novice under Thomas Merton at Gethsemani. Fr. Louis (Merton’s name as Novice Master; the two had a twenty-five-year gap in age, which seemed “more like forty years from [Quenon’s] point of view as a seventeen-year old”) opened the novice’s eyes on a horizon that stretched from the medieval Cistercian fathers to Muslim Sufi mystics and modern Hasidic writers, from sacred scripture to contemporary poets like Rainer Maria Rilke. Paul Quenon felt Fr. Louis (Merton) inspired an attitude of “openness, inclusiveness, and integration.” When the novice asked him about a word he’d heard that was new to him, existentialism, seeking clarification, Fr. Louis replied that it had to do with “knowledge through personal experience.” When Paul Quenon requested an example, Merton grabbed a Bible and read from Psalm 107: “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep … [The waves] mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; [the sailors’] courage melted away in their calamity … they cried to the Lord in their trouble … he made the storm be still … Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love.” Quenon comments: “I had no idea we were hearing from existentialists every day in the psalms—a philosophy as old as that!”

The novice concluded that, as a spiritual director, Fr. Louis seemed to be mostly nondirective. “I expected something more from him,” he writes, “but what I got was space to breathe, to be myself, and to develop at my own space.” Whatever correction Merton offered was indirect. He would describe how a third party, unnamed, was in the habit of thinking or acting. “I might guess who it was,” Quenon writes, “but the real point was not about somebody else but about me.”Thomas Merton applies this subtle approach often in his book Contemplative Prayer: “True contemplation is not a psychological trick but a theological grace. It can come to us only as a gift, and not as a result of our own clever use of spiritual techniques.” And again: stating that all the paradoxes are reduced to one: “Being without desire means being led by a desire so great that it is incomprehensible. It is too huge to be completely felt … True emptiness is that which transcends all things, and yet is immanent in all.” For a true contemplative, emptiness is “pure love, pure freedom … It is love for love’s sake. It is a sharing, through the Holy Spirit, in the infinite clarity of God.” (Photo credit: abbeyofthearts.com)

Paul Quenon In Praise of the Useless Life    Paul Quenon Abbey of the Arts

Because we are going to turn our attention now to the words of a masterful musician, I will end this section on our two monks with some of Paul Quenon’s thoughts  on the importance of music. He writes: “Some people remark on  how youthful some older monks look, and I reply that the secret of their vitality  is simple: they sing.” He tells us that monks, standing in choir, sing seven times day—and he feels that “frequent repetition of psalms after years of familiarity has its own value … Psalmody draws me along, farther and wider, stretches me almost painfully at times, and deepens my empathy for the human race … The boundary of my soul is dissolved; the person I usually am becomes broader; the center of expression is shifted from me to what is beyond, beneath and around me.”

I first heard David Friesen perform at a small club in Monterey, California, and wrote about him in our local newspaper in 1988. I was so impressed with him then, and with all that has followed in his brilliant career, I have been writing about him ever since: in jazz magazines (DownBeat and Cadence: I conducted a five hour interview with David at IAJE in New York City and it was published in the latter, in two parts, in 2005); liner notes for seven) of his CDs; and I wrote about him in two books: on his scene-stealing 1977 appearance–in Monterey Jazz Festival: 40 Legendary Years; and his USSR tour with Paul Horn—in Unzipped Souls: Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union. I thought I knew just about all there is to know about David, until I recently sat down and transcribed three of the ten “talks” he gave included in his recent Beyond the Note…Jazz Music Essentials lecture series. I’ve long admired David Friesen as an educator (by way of individual YouTube pieces on Jazz), but this latest series proves him a masterful speaker on the art form he has made his life’s work: an superb “teacher” who can make an infinite range of material (and experience) immediately accessible—and with a great deal of “charm” (yes, that’s the right word!), a genuinely affable, personable, fully winning presence to boot!

(Here are two photos of David Friesen: playing solo at the 1977 Monterey Jazz Festival, and now (Photo credits: billminorblog.wordpress.com; Anthony Pidgeon: teutonwines.com)

David Friesen MJF 1977    David-Friesen The 13th Floor

David Friesen’s talk on “Listening and Communication” begins with a direct declaration of its main theme: “Music is a listening art form. What the artist receives depends on what he hears. What he hears depends on how well he listens.” He states that this doesn’t happen automatically on the bandstand—and that musical artists need to get “in the habit of listening. It’s a daily thing.” Why? “Inside this flesh there’s a spirit—that part that knows everything about me, knows what nobody else knows: the privacy of my soul. That makes me unique. There’s only one of me, and when I go on the bandstand to play music, I do not suddenly put on a music mask that makes me a musician.”

An individual is the same person on the bandstand as he is off it, and what is heard depends on how well he or she listens, so you have to get in the habit of listening. How we respond on a daily basis is “something that can be practiced without a musical instrument.” David Friesen here introduced the analogy of a “classroom” situation in which students are distracted from what the teacher is saying, from listening to it and absorbing it, by the door opening and a late student walking in. “We’ve got to learn to put the focus on, to concentrate on what’s the most important thing in the moment—which is what the teacher is saying.” David applied this situation to all human relationships, and the unfortunate irony that we are too often not listening to what a speaker in front of us is saying, but thinking of what we are going to say ourselves: how, in a sense, we are not listening to what it is we will respond to! The speaker might be expressing “pain, sorrow, or joy, but we are not responding to the depth of that person’s need.” Consequently, we have got to practice listening to all the situations we encounter in life. Musicians must do this so that, while playing on the bandstand, they will truly be paying attention–listening!—to what’s going on.

At this point, David paused, then said, “It works for me,” adding “It isn’t rocket science.” Such casual “asides” are part of the charm of the way he approaches each subject: his “delivery” always on a truly human level. He handles the shift to “Communication” in the same way. In commonplace human situations, we can either respond or not respond to what’s being said to us; and it’s best to wait until the end of a phrase before we respond. “It’s the same thing when we’re playing music. When another individual is playing a solo, allow the ideas to move along, and when the idea has come to completion, then add to the story yourself. Or not—but you heard it, so you can leave it alone, or add something to it. The gymnastics of playing takes intense listening—100%  concentration! Everything we learn in the practice room should give us the confidence, the technique, the flexibility to take our eyes off ourselves and respond creatively—and it’s going to be a different situation every time we play with someone. No two people are alike, and we can’t use the same licks … [and here, again, the humorous aside], well, some people do, all the time … but we have to learn to add to what is going on in the moment; you have to have respect for yourself in these situations.  Improvised jazz is daredevil stuff. You’re making split second decisions, and if your ears aren’t tuned in to every little thing, forget it! Learning to stay in the moment: that’s the one thing you’ve got to learn. Theory and technique are fairly simple, in comparison. You’re serving other people’s needs, so you take your yes off yourself, and you’ve got to be prepared to go where the soloist is going to go.”

Here are some more pertinent quotes from “Listening and Communication”: “On the bandstand, what do I listen for? The time feel. How is the drummer communicating with me (If not, it could be a difficult situation playing with that person). The efficiency of the person you’re playing with will determine what sort of chances you take—the rhythmic elements you interject. You can hear the level of the individuals you are playing with. Some have certain gifts others may not have … I listen for emotional things: the texture, the ego, the joy, fear, aggression, humility. Hearing this will cause me to respond in a certain way … In my own group–the Circle 3 Trio—I have no arrangements. I like to leave the music open. I trust these two individuals. I trust their musicality—the dedication they have to the music. It’s OK if mistakes are made. The craft of playing this music is in how fast you can re-group: to make the music as seamless as possible. Accepting each other. Jazz is full of good manners.”

Other “listening” procedures recommended are: listen, thoroughly, to the great groups: those that Miles Davis, who knew how, put together (“sidemen” John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner. Bill Evans), Oscar Peterson, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Art Blakey. David Friesen himself has played and recorded with Chick Corea, Mal Waldron, Denny Zeitlin, Glen Moore, Bud Shank, Clark Terry—so he knows firsthand how great musicians  respond to one another.

Here are photos of three Greats well worth listening closely to: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans (Photo credits: gq-magazine.co.uk; npr.org: Jan Persson; newjerseystage.com)

Miles Davis British GQ mag photo    John Coltrane NPR Photo

Bill Evans crossyed pianist photo

But on the act of transcribing solos, David Friesen advises: “Don’t get trapped in ’emulating.'” He recalls when he first started playing the music, and felt shy, “condemned” by better musicians, frightened to “take chances.” The cure for that was practicing 10 to 12 hours a day (and I remember being amazed at such devotion from our interview), until he felt confident, acquired enough technique to “take my eyes off myself,” and felt free of “preconceived concepts,” free to be himself in the music. “Great listening opens up communication (helps others play better); we are all stripped of fear. Life is not perfect, and jazz reflects life in its entirety. It has to do with love, with mercy; that’s the substance that goes into each note—that’s the substance that touches people’s hearts.”  David Friesen ends this lecture with the perfect maxim: “Listening is our life preserver in the ocean of sound. Without it … we drown.”

David Friesen’s lecture on “Patience” begins with the observation that the term may not sound that important musically, but it has much to do “with the substance we put into the music”; it denotes the musician’s “character, that calm endurance that allows a musical line to come to completion,” to not be so quick to “come out of an idea or phrase.” Here he employed another analogy: while driving a car, the inclination is to take the first exit on the freeway, rather than wait for the second. Playing with other musicians, we should allow each phrase to complete itself “as a story, instead of rushing through.”

He cited the example of “random thoughts,” the distractions we are all too familiar with in ordinary life, and says, “This is the way a lot of individuals play ideas in music”—moving too quickly from one idea to another, but there’s a story that has to be told.” He cites the dictionary definition: “Patience is enduring difficult situations.” We practice with metronomes to get “good time”; we practice intonation, scales, and arpeggios—“but how do you practice patience? By persevering through difficult times.” Patience will allow you to not criticize yourself. “You will have the patience to truly hear what you are playing. You can practice certain licks in your sleep, but they may have nothing to do with what’s going on around them when playing with other musicians. You have to take the time [and patience] to separate yourself from those licks and truly listen to the others, so that what you’ve practiced will come through in other ways. Patience is a very important commodity in music.”

David Friesen here told an extended, but totally relevant tale, of meeting John Coltrane, who was going through his “sheets of sound” phase (“Lots of notes!”), but even then, Coltrane possessed “great great patience. His calmness shown forth, his greatest asset that allowed him to do the things he did”—as a soloist and in a group. David mentioned that he plays frequent solo concerts himself, but with no one else playing with him, he requires patience to hear the music, “to follow the notes and the pulse, to feel the energy and where its taking me … rather than forcing things to happen. Patience allows the music to have its own power, its own grace.”

“We need patience to forgive ourselves, to forgive others—to allows the music to grow without forcing it or through manipulation. And there are some ways that we can acquire patience in our lives—by setting up tasks we have to persevere through. David Friesen mentioned that “a lot of books and been written about jazz, many,” but he referred to a time when he wished to dispense with them, and would just go to the piano and play a chord and then find out which notes worked best with it. “It’s not that I didn’t trust the books, but I wanted to find out what pleased me by myself, because sometimes what pleased me, playing music with others, didn’t please them—and sometimes what pleased them, didn’t please me. I had to find out how to create and mold my own personality in the music. I had to bring out in the music who I was as an individual.”

David began to come up with different tasks for himself. He would take his bass and find out where the notes he liked were on it. “Sometimes those notes in the lower register wouldn’t work well with the harmony, so I had to explore to find out which notes worked best.” He acquired “a panoramic view, melodically, of what did work best. Another thing I did was take the diminished and whole tone scales and write out my own exercises. I didn’t just pick up a book and just play the same exercises that a thousand other musicians were doing … while those books can be helpful, it’s not carved in stone that this is the right way to play. The right way is to find out what works for you—and how you can get your personality out there.”

Creating his own exercises “took a lot of time, but this is part of the persevering through difficult tasks … ‘paying our dues, we used to say’—Stop, wait, watch what happens; don’t move too quickly; in a band, take the time to express yourself and ascertain what’s going on with the other musicians.” David here offered an excellent example (a bassist working with a drummer) and the “tact” required, through patience “to keep a band together, and not create bad feelings by talking too quickly (criticism) or moving too fast—and he offered a beautiful extended example of one of the exercises he created for himself, which involved intricate “painstaking” settings for metronome time and the bass—exercises which, I’m sorry to say, I cannot represent here in detail (for lack of space), but I invite you to explore yourselves through the “Patience” video itself.

[To buy a lecture topic or the entire lecture series, contact David Friesen at:  cpm@davidfriesen.com ]

In the next section of this lecture, he did say he felt that, although digital gadgets have made certain processes “quicker,” they have eliminated “the very important patience we need,” and “lowered the quality of artists overall”—through the “condemnation and criticism  musicians go through from other musicians”: the “burden this puts on young artists, especially those with extreme originality … You have to have real strength in your life and a calling to know who you are and why you are doing what you are doing.” You have to listen and “move on,” not let criticism “get us to the point that we quit playing … Paying your dues is the only way that patience can be cultivated in our lives as a human being and as a creative artist.”

True Patience has nothing to do with limiting the notes, but the quality of the notes, the quality of the attack on the instrument, so patience plays an almost invisible role in our music. The attack, yes: the way you hit the string, the power you put into it. How long you hold the string down.” David mentioned young players in New York City emulating older players, but added that, at the time these artists were playing, “the strings were higher, so it took time to press the string down and let it up, and keep the tempo up—to get that singing sensation out of the notes, out of the instrument. To do this takes patience. You’ve got to allow yourself the ability and the confidence to hold the strings down longer.”

“We go through doorways when we utilize characteristics that make us better musicians—to play better under all kinds of situations … but when we go through those doors, there’s a whole room full of ideas and means we can use: a vast room to explore other parts of our character and the character of the music … There are great musicians out there with unbelievable technique, but what I am looking for is the substance of the music, and it takes time for that to develop, like great wine, a great vintage. It takes time in the cellar for this to mature … Homes are built on bedrock, not quicksand. So when the storms break, the foundation is solid; it’s not going to crumble.”

Here are photos of: David Friesen, (his 2016 performance of “Lament for the Lost/Procession” in Ukraine); tenor saxophonist Joe Manis and drummer Charlie Doggett of the Circle 3 Trio. (Photo credits: YouTube.com; davidfriese.net/projects.html; originarts.com)

David Friesen Lament for the Lost 2016 Ukraine

David Friesen Joe Manis       David Friesen Carlie Doggett drun=mmer

David Friesen took us to the last segment on Patience: having a calling: knowing why you are doing what you are doing, and stabilizing the use of patience in your life. What is a calling? Here, David asked his audience to hold their collective breath “for as long as you can.”  He exhaled himself after ten seconds, laughing, saying, “I’m teaching; I don’t want there to be total silence, but you keep holding your breath”—adding, “In a minute or two you are going to be gasping for breath; you’ll have to breathe.” Which proved true—the point of the experience being: “We need air. You have to do it! And that’s what it’s like to be called to play music. You have to do it! You have to breathe; you have to play music. That gives you an understanding of what a calling is like. And having a calling sets a foundation in your life for personal growth. Why are you playing music? What’s the purpose? Who created music? Who created you? Who created your desire to play music? These are deep questions.”

David Friesen asked another: “Music is fun to play, right? We go out and we have a good time—but I know for my own life, I had to find a calling. I had to know why I was playing. As I made these discoveries, it made it much easier for me—once I knew the direction of my life. Once I knew why I was playing music, it made it easier for me to persevere through difficult situations, and to acquire patience … I’m seventy-eight now, and I’m still growing in patience. It’s a continuing thing to do. It’s something I have to work at, a lot. It’s an ongoing thing, but vital.”

At this point he laughed, and said, “I can hear you gasping for breath now. The point has been made!” Then: “Having a calling stabilizes your life. It gives you a foundation.” He mentioned Charlie Parker: “a giant among us. He was like a Bach or Mozart living in our time. A true Genius. But that wasn’t enough.” He mentioned Parker’s having succumbed to drugs and alcohol—and repeated the point on the need for a foundation to sustain us “through the difficult times we will go through as musicians. We have a chance to overcome all the time. We can not only acquire patience, but sustain it. It gives us the perseverance we need in our lives to keep going forward—to not get distracted or discouraged in our own playing, to have proper growth, and even have time to encourage others. This is the type of spiritual thing that’s important. The substance that goes into the note, not necessarily the [technical] development of the note, creates the feeling, the sense of grace in the music.”

Using analogy again, David Friesen began the third lecture we shall take a look at–on “Our Individual Personality”—referring to the interviews Joan Rivers used to conduct on the Red Carpet at the Academy Awards, and the fact that she focused on the gowns the actresses were wearing: “Beautiful gowns that were five figures into six figures for just a single gown—gowns so expensive because they were originals, one of a kind.” And once again, the topic was music, because, “If you think of it, that’s what we are—one of a kind. This is our greatest asset in our creativity as an artist, a jazz musician” (and he widened the range: “painter, poet, whatever you’re associated with in the arts”). “There’s only one of a kind of each individual in the world.”

David said that when he was first introduced to jazz in the late 50s, the word “unique” was synonymous with the music. “If you were going to be a jazz musician, you had to be unique. That was just a given.” Just as, in the “Patience” lecture,  David Friesen asserted the importance of writing out one’s own exercises (rather than relying on those in a book), in this lecture he emphasizes improvising compositionally, as “a big part of personal identity, who we are as an individual,” truly unique and one of a kind. “We have to treat ourselves with respect. We can’t love others until we first love ourselves—and understand the creative process, so we can share it with others. There are different ways of bringing this out. Learning to be thankful is a musical term: being grateful for what we’ve done: the hours of work we’ve put in investing in the art form of jazz.” Here, again, David included a video within the video, the intricate details of which I won’t attempt to express—just to say it illustrates, in an ingenious way, how a student who’s played bass for thirteen years discovers just how “far he has come” within that time frame—and is “thankful, not complacent.”

Here are three final photos of David Friesen: our smiling lecturer–with his genuinely, affable, personable, fully winning presence; and at work (“practicing what he preaches”) on bass (Photo credits: soundcloud.com/davidfriesen 8; jazztimes.com; originarts.com)

David Friesen Smiling  David Friesen Playing Bass 2 WVXU David Friesen Playing Bass Origin Records

Realizing we have an individual personality offers motivation. David has all his students compose music: so they can identify who they are as individuals, what they like and what they don’t like, and so, when they approach improvisation, they are telling a story [of their lives]. Not just playing chords in relationships. Are they setting reasonable goals for themselves, goals they can obtain in their lives–“taking special care of who they are … as one of a kind?” This gives us the confidence to be able to express ourselves. “If you are going to be a jazz musician, you are going to bring something unique to share with the world. Tools and technique “are important too,  but there’s got to be a balance between what we are sharing and what tools we use. This is vital.”

OK, so I’m a unique individual. How do I get this out? How do I let other people see my originality? Once again: “inside this flesh there’s a spirit, the person I am who knows all the secret things about me—and I am that same individual as long as I am alive. I am what I am, so what I express (unless I’m quoting someone or trying to emulate someone or clone someone, or just copy) is who I am. One way to bring this out is to serve, and when you serve you are giving … coming up with musical ideas that can help another person play better. It wouldn’t make a difference what group I am in; if I’m listening and responding creatively to what I hear and staying in the moment, then people have got to hear the originality … Music is both spiritual and physical. The spiritual would be the love, the emotion, the caring, the serving, the spirit in which we respond, the energy and the relaxing element in the music—all those things you don’t practice with a metronome.”

For David, these are the things which “go into the note,” and the note is like a cup you “can’t drink from if it’s empty, if there’s nothing there. It’s the substance inside that edifies and brings comfort to a broken world. It’s worthwhile to show forth the glory, the God who created music and who created us and created our desire to play music to heal a broken world, the pain and suffering that’s going on unfortunately.  A door will open and give us appreciation of who you are as an individual, and this is something we have to be committed to … There are a couple of ways to bring your uniqueness out: learning to serve and retain our individuality in whatever band we play with this way, staying in the moment 100% of the time—and thinking compositionally: learning to compose music you enjoy, music that pleases you.

David Friesen closed out this lecture with a reference to Thelonious Monk: the “quality of his notes, the substance. “There are people who copy Monk. Musicians get caught emulating  person and find security that they can play that way—but David feels such comparisons “steal a lot of our individuality away” (“Why can’t I play that way?” “Because you are not that person.”) and he claims he’s still “coming from the unique school.” He also mentions the “pop industry” (in which you first “find out what people want”—but in jazz, if you are a serious person, a serious artist, it is important to bring out “your own uniqueness, because you can’t be all things to all people. I like to approach improvisation compositionally and tell a story with music,” He himself has recorded “something like 700 [of his own] compositions”—and he started composing when he was “five or six years old.” He likes to have students write ballads  in 7/4 time, five bars long—odd times  and odd phrases, not just the standard 32 bar song.” He mentions the originality of Wayne Shorter’s approach to composition, his harmonic variations. He ends this third lecture we’ve taken a look at with these words: “Who we are as individual artists: the possibilities are endless!”

David Friesen thinks of his lecture series as consisting of jazz-related topics that transcend customary “theory and tools” and talk about “chops,” and he hopes his audience finds the lectures “entertaining and thought provoking,” a valuable learning experience for jazz musicians—for their character and the music they’re playing. That’s the way I feel about this two part blog on “Stillness,” which I’m sorry to see come to a close, for I have learned much myself through the wisdom of those represented:  Pico Iyer (The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere: Robert J. Wicks (The Tao of Ordinariness: Humility and Simplicity in a Narcissistic Age); Brother David Steindl-Rast (Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness and his autobiography I am through you so I ); David Brazier (Zen Therapy: A Buddhist Approach to Psychotherapy), Thomas Merton (Contemplative Prayer), Paul Quenon (In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir) and the three talks from David Friesen’s lecture series Beyond the Note…Jazz Music Essentials.

I’m not sure just what I will take up next for another Bill’s Blog piece. I’m sure, having benefited substantially from “Stillness,” I will NOT offer a blog on “agitation,” “anxiety,” “turbulence,” or “noise”—and whatever topic I take up, I will attempt to keep the treatment “entertaining and thought provoking.” Until then: stay safe, sane, and healthy throughout this present era, EVERYONE!

 

 

 

Stillness

At the end of the last Bill’s Blog piece offered (way back in January: “Long Ago (and Far Away),” as the Jerome Kern song says—but a veritable universe of change has taken place since then!), I proposed to write about “four more sets at the 62nd Monterey Jazz Festival” I had not covered in my piece on that event–and offer more thoughts on the “unique perspective” I had acquired. Logistics were of major concern for me at the MJF: “just getting from one venue to another”–relative immobility: the result of two “medical” conditions: “vestibular neuritis” (daily vertigo) and numb unsupportive legs the result of “Lumbar spinal stenosis.”

This Bill’s Blog post will have to pass on what I planned to write, because “the longest continuously-running jazz festival in the world” will not take place in September of this year, has been cancelled (along with just about every other significant major local event), and I feel I have a more essential theme just now I want to address as fully as possible. I will, however, briefly here, mention two CDs (spin-offs from the Festival) available: Parlour Game (featuring Jenny Scheinman on violin; Carmen Staff, piano; Tony Scherr, bass; and Allison Miller, drums); and Tammy L. Hall’s Blue Soul (with Ruth Davies, Tammy–in photo (credit: Irene Young) alongside CDs–gave an inspiring performance on Sunday night: “Re-imagining music from Charlie Haden and Hank Jones’ classic recordings Steal Away and Going Home—Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Songs.”

Parlour Game CD  Tammy Hall Blue Soul CD

Tammy L. Hall pianist

The reason for my shift of attention is, of course: The world–the universe–has changed drastically since the time (January 18, 2020) I last posted a blog. The Coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis arrived, and then came more unfortunate events to accompany the multitude of deaths (more than 100,00 people) and economic depression: the brutal murder of George Floyd, and the protests (both peaceful and violent) that engulfed the country. It’s been impossible for me not to think lately of William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

With lots of time on my hands now, spent for the most part “sheltered in place” at home, I’ve turned my attention to the fine art of “Stillness”—attempting to cultivate a “cool” (in control of thought and action), even passive approach that might allow me (at a time when so many people have failed to “keep their heads,” out of fear, panic, urgency, contention, anger); stay “cool” so I can plan a path or “Way” to whatever meaningful “activity” or “action” might be necessary to undertake in the future.

I wrote and published (in Monterey Poetry Review, the Spring 2019 issue (long before the Coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis, or LockDown set in) a poem called “Stillness,” a poem in which I worked (or played) at describing the state I felt I should strive to move within. “Stillness? The moment I say, / or even think, the word, the state for which / it stands (or better yet, sits) sets in / and I do feel more at home with myself / in the manner we all desire, although / desire is no longer a part of the equation. / Buddhism calls it “mindfulness” (“As you / walk and eat and travel, be where / you are.”): being aware of “what is / happening right now without wishing it were different … I’ve recently taken to saying, / “Stillness, stillness, stillness,” slowly, / softly, over and over again—my eyes / inactive, my heart on hold, my legs worthless, / extended, blanketed, my hands deployed / in prayer, my lips still, with nothing / to translate, assert, or explain; my soul / a species undeclared, allegiant only / to stillness … / So much Life–the fullness / of Joy–confined now to this chair / in which I sit as still as I can, making friends with whatever surrounds me, whispering this unfamiliar mantra: “Stillness, stillness, stillness” again and again—lost in this / moment of measure: this mean which, / in my case, if not exactly golden, fits / well for the time being, and should suffice.”

The German theologian, philosopher and mystic Meister Eckhart (1250-1328) wrote about “true inner detachment,” in which “the spirit stands immovable in the face of everything that befalls it, whether it is good or bad, honor or disgrace or calumny, just as a broad mountain stands immovable in the face of a little breeze.”

I found another excellent description (or “definition”) of states suggesting “stillness” in a book I read recently, travel writer Pico Iyer’s very aptly titled The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere: “At some point, all the horizontal trips in the world stop compensating for the need to go deep, into somewhere challenging and unexpected: movement makes most sense when grounded in stillness … In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing could feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.” (Photo Credit: Orange County Register)

Pico Iyer with book cover The Art of Stillness

A current study I’ve undertaken of stillness, or my gentle obsession with it, includes reading Iyer’s excellent book, alongside Robert J. Wicks’ The Tao of Ordinariness: Humility and Simplicity in a Narcissistic Age; David Brazier’s Zen Therapy : A Buddhist Approach to Psychotherapy; Brother David Steindl-Rast’s Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness and his amazing autobiography I am through you so I; and re-reading a long-time favorite, Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer. I recommend each of these books—if you want to take a stab just now, throughout this very demanding Age or Era, at “stillness,” or a measure of peace of mind. I’ll let you know how my own attempts progress or turn out.

Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness is so filled with hard-won wisdom, insight, sentence for sentence fine writing, and wit, I could be tempted to quote endlessly from it, but (for lack of space, and time) will settle for a few examples. In the opening chapter, “Going Nowhere,” Iyer writes about visiting songwriter/novelist Leonard Cohen, when the latter had retired to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles, California and, in 1996,  was ordained as a monk. Cohen was “working on simplifying himself as fiercely as he might on the verses of one of his songs, which he spends more than ten years polishing to perfection.” Cohen described “going nowhere” as a grand adventure which “makes sense of everywhere else.” He was attempting to find a life in which “stage sets and performances” disappear, and we are reminded, “at a level deeper than all words, how making a living and making a life sometimes point in opposite directions.”

The visit with Leonard Cohen had a lasting effect on Pico Iyer, for this “small taste of silence” proved so engaging that the latter decided to change his own life. He moved to Japan, where he and his wife had a “doll’s house apartment,” but no longer a car, bicycle, bedroom or “TV I can understand.” A deeper blessing, as Leonard Cohen had shown him (sitting still), is that you will find yourself “as wide-awake, exhilarated, and pumping-hearted as when you are in love.” And you are in love—with having slipped out of your life and “ascended a small hill from which [you] could make out a wider landscape”—of stillness.

Pico Iyer began his third chapter, “Alone in the Dark” by saying, “None of us, of course, would want to be in a nowhere we hadn’t chosen, as prisoners or invalids are”—and he goes on to recount a “retreat” adventure voluntarily undertaken of his own, in the woods of Alberta, Canada, where he sat, alone, in a cabin day after day reading the letters of Emily Dickinson, “the poet famous for seldom leaving her home.” A fortunate “stillness” experience, but the poet dwelt often on “Death” (with a capital “D”), and haunted by it, herself concluded: “Ourself behind ourself concealed– / Should startle most.” Iyer himself concluded: “As in any love affair, the early days of a romance with stillness give little sign of the hard work to come”—a truth he would verify first hand in a chapter called “A Secular Sabbath,” in which he writes: “Keeping [that] sabbath—doing nothing for a while—is one of the hardest things in life for me; I’d much rather give up meat or wine or sex than the ability to check my e-mails or get on with my work [as esteemed essayist and novelist, known for his travel writing] when I want to.” But a “Secular Sabbath” [stillness!] makes certain we will have something bright and purposeful to carry back into the other six days.” Or nearly always, if we can bring that off!

The last chapter in Pico Iyer’s book is called “Coming Back Home,” and it quotes Trappist monk Thomas Merton (Iyer earlier writes about a visit with him at the Abbey of Gethsemani, the monastery at which Merton resided in Kentucky.) saying, “One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves. Or until life solves them for you.” How very “Zen”! And Pico Iyer ends his fully engaging book on such a note, with a deliciously taunting challenging Koan: “You can go on vacation to Paris or Hawaii or New Orleans three months from now, and you’ll have a tremendous time. But if you want to come back feeling new—alive and full of fresh hope and in love with the world—I think the place to visit may be Nowhere.”

Robert J. Wicks, the author of The Tao of Ordinariness, may not be as entertaining a verbal stylist as Pico Iyer, but he offers a solid premise and scholarly acumen (Wicks, Professor Emeritus at Loyola University, has published more than 50 books “for professionals and the general public”), and this book makes good on showing the Way (the “Tao”) to its subtitle: “Humility and Simplicity in a Narcissistic Age.” (Photo credit: http://www.robertjwicks.com/)

Robert J Wicks The Tao of Ordinariness     Robert J Wicks author

Each of the book’s six chapters takes up a different approach to accualizing this end, and again, as much as I’d like to take a look at them all, I will need to settle for just a few examples—the first being Wicks’ main theme: “As an adult, simply being yourself can be surprisingly difficult. That is why people often pretend to be someone else. Yet when we experience the lost virtue of ‘ordinariness’ lived out by us or sense this freedom expressed in others, it can be truly amazing … the aim of this book is to bring these virtues [ordinariness, humility, simplicity] more clearly into focus so they have a chance to take greater prominence in our lives.” Wicks defines ordinariness as “an attitude or stance that allows persons to explore and be intrigued by current realities and possibilities within themselves. It is marked by a comfort with oneself that leads to appropriate transparency.”

Robert Wicks’ book has a “How to” flavor or tone (that grand old staple in American life), but the book’s content is genial, refreshing, and applicable in a meaningful way. Each chapter is preceded by epigraphs, quotes from “experts” in living well (from Krishnamurti, William James, The Buddha, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Albert Schweitzer, Victor Frankl, to Thomas Merton) and offers background on qualities such as “Humility” (which has a “long history that needs to be revisited and valued anew for what it truly can mean in the way you live your life”)—history dating back to the Persian Desert Fathers (Abbas) and Mothers (Ammas), those early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who valued humility as a tool for maintaining hope. “Whereas today the word humility may connote a placid servility in the face of mistreatment, its Latin origin suggests strength and fertility. The word comes from hummus, as in ‘earth’” A humble person is one who “accepts the paradox of being both ‘great and small’ and does not discount that hope which [philosopher] Kierkegaard terms ‘possibility.’” Humility entails a healthy “rejection of self-centeredness … a powerful means of getting right with the world.”

A chapter called “Travel Lightly: Simplicity and Letting Go” states “If ordinariness is a forgotten virtue and humility an elusive one, simplicity is certainly one that is wistfully viewed as surprisingly unattainable or impractical in modern life.” Robert Wicks mentions persons with very full, demanding and complex lives who “see simplicity as an underlying attitude to behold and embrace,” and he cites the Dali Lama as an example—and quotes Pico Iyer writing of the Dali Lama as “full-time, lifelong student of the Buddha, who taught him that nearly everything is illusory and passing, not least that being who declares everything is illusory and passing”: a person who aspires, “as every monk does, to a simplicity that lies not before complexity but on the far side of it”—someone who “does not dodge experience but subsumed it.” Wicks adds: “As is especially the case with humility, being ordinary without embracing simplicity is almost impossible.”

In a chapter “Mentors in Ordinariness: Experiencing Authenticity in Practice,” Robert Wicks turns to Zen Master Shunryu Sukuki, who advised those seeking a spiritual guide to “seek to meet someone as sincere as themselves.” The author himself recalls once visiting someone  “so real, so nondefensive, accepting, and self-aware” that, in that person’s presence, he felt not a trace of stress or anxiety, but that “I could be myself, “ and that was “enough.” He felt the strange sensation, after leaving, that he “had not aged” while in that person’s presence. Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of Psalm 100: “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands. Serve the LORD with gladness, and come before his presence with a song.” Yes, would that we all could feel this way, this free, this uninhibited in our human encounters, each such occasion ending in song. In another chapter, Wicks refers to the teachings of Shunryu Sukuki again: how he encourages “a constant sense of awareness of the one constant in life: change”—how to Suzuki, “honoring the truth of ordinariness ‘means to be yourself, always yourself, without sticking to an old self.”

I found it ironical (and all-too-loyal to American “How to” conditioning) that in his Epilogue, Robert Wicks, emphasizing “flowing with our life” as a reality; humor as a helpmate toward this goal; finding “the crackle of yet a new adventure in life” (“in the freshness of childhood with the wisdom of maturity”); and fully fathoming “the amazing paradox of letting go [italics my own]—Wicks felt a need to accompany such freewheeling phrases with thirty “points to consider,” which came across, to me, as near commandments or strictures–such as “Value pacing and timelessness over haste” and “Become more aware of what we are experiencing in the present moment rather than jumping to conclusions and unnecessary judgements.”  But I appreciated his second to last sentence, the summing up: “The time for rediscovery of the virtue of ordinariness by all of us is now.”

Brother David Steindl-Rast is a living embodiment of all that Pico Iyer and Robert Wicks hope for us by way of a full and meaningful life. Benedictine monk, author, and lecturer, he is committed to interfaith dialogue and has dealt with the interaction between spirituality  and science. I was so won over by his writing ( his totally individual style and content) and his person (which shines within the writing and in his fully engaging YouTube talks: see “Brother David Steindl-Rast Interview, Rome 2004,” Part One: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6BVvGQS-wc ), that as soon as I finished reading his book, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to life in Fullness, I acquired and read his extraordinary memoir, I am through you so I (the title taken from a poem by e.e. cummings) and his profound, respectful and important reexamination of the Apostles’ Creed, Deeper than Words—and I now want to read even more from the large body (and soul!) of his written work. (Photo credit: Diego Ortiz Mugica)

Brother David Steeeeeeindl Rast Gratefulness book      Brother David Steindl-Rast

Brother David Steindl Rast i am through you so i       Brother David Steindl Rast Deep Than Words book

In his memoir, he writes about time he spent at Esalen Institute in California (close to the New Camaldoli Hermitage, which had been his monastic home for fourteen years), and a return to  New York state (where, originally having arrived from Vienna, Austria, where he was born, and having joined the Benedictine monastery of Mount Savior in Elmira), he felt he had “reached the end of my life.” He settled in a Quaker retirement home: “I did not travel anymore, reduced all contact to a minimum, and prepared to die”—then adds: “Well, life was to unfold differently.” Friends encouraged him to put texts on the internet, “suggesting gratefulness as a theme,” and–Lo and behold—from humble beginnings, the website grew to be “a source of strength for a worldwide network of tens of thousands  of visitors daily”—the outcome an organization called the Network for Grateful Living, which connected people, “all over the world,” who have “discovered the joy of living gratefully.”

Brother David Steindl-Rast’s book, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, shows us just how to do that: “Gratefulness” described at the start as “always wholehearted. Our whole person is engaged in it. And this is precisely what the symbol of the heart stands for—the whole person.” Our hearts are a “pulsating core of aliveness” in far more than just a physical sense. Gratefulness is “full aliveness” summed up in the symbol of the heart. “All of my past history, all of my future possibilities, this heartbeat in the present moment holds all of it together.” Elsewhere in the book he writes: “Only at heart are we whole. The heart stands for that center of our being where we are one with ourselves, one with all others, and one with God.” Living from the heart includes the fulness of longing and belonging. And this means “to live fully.”

Separate chapters are devoted to meaningful distinctions between terms too often misrepresented or confused, such as “Heart and Mind,” “Prayers and Prayerfulness,” “Contemplation and Leisure,” “Faith and Beliefs.” Linking “Heart” to “Prayer,” Brother David writes: “Moments that quench the thirst of the heart are moments of prayer. They are moments when we communicate with God, and that is, after all, the essence of prayer.” He writes: “It is absolutely necessary to distinguish between prayer and prayers. At least if we want to do what Scripture tells us to do and ‘pray continuously’ (Luke 18.1) … There is no reason why we should not be able to communicate with God in and through everything we do or suffer and so ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess 5:17). What is it that makes prayers [genuine] prayer?” He suggests words like “mindfulness, full alertness, and wholehearted attention.” And “concentration” (“an essential ingredient”). “As I get more and more distracted, my prayers run dry. Finally, my prayers may be an empty formality … the empty husk of prayer.” He also emphasizes “wonderment.” “You might even find yourself opening your arms wide as if your wide open eyes were not enough for your body to express your limitless openness … The more we come alive and awake, the more everything we do becomes prayer.”

The object of “contemplation” is to bless “whatever there is, and for no other reason but simply because it is—that is our raison d’etre; that is what we are made for as human beings. This singular commandment is engraved in our heart … Even under the hammer blows of fate the heart rings true. The human heart is made for universal praise …Thanksgiving, blessing, praise, all three belong to gratefulness … Can the spiritual life be that simple? Yes, what we secretly hoped is true: it is all that simple … What brings fulfillment is gratefulness, the simple response of our heart to this given life in all its fullness.”

In another chapter, Brother David Steindl-Ras offers a meaningful distinction between Faith and Beliefs. He claims we are all mystics (“If mysticism is, by definition, the experience of communion with the Ultimately Real (God, if you feel comfortable with the term), then who can disclaim being a mystic?) … If I fail to experience God in my own unique way, that experience will forever remain in the shadow land of possibility. But if I do, I will know life by the divine life within me.” Faith, Hope, and Love; Brother David regards them as “different aspects of one and the same living reality.” He feels faith is “the art of making fools of ourselves wisely like dancers.” Unless we take the risk of falling, we never take a single step (God asks “not riding, not swimming, not flying, but walking—a constant losing and finding of our balance.”). “At our peak moments of gratefulness, we find the threefold courage of faith easy, because at these moments we respond to the challenge of life from our heart.”

Faith takes trust and courage: “Faith is courage to let go. Fear clings … When we lose heart, faith weakens and fear mounts. But a fearful mind will compulsively cling to some support. Religious beliefs are readily at hand … And so, as faith grows weaker, we clutch our belief more and more tightly, more and more rigidly … Sometimes you meet people who seem so compulsive in their effort to convince everyone else of their beliefs that it makes you wonder about their faith … A person of genuine faith can afford to be far more at ease. Genuine faith holds its beliefs firmly, yes, but ever so lightly.”

Here are photos of Brother David Steindl-Rast with the Dali Lama, Pope Francis, and all by his beautiful solitary self. (Photo credits: https://integraleuropeanconference.com/2018/10/25 ; https://gratefulness.org/blog/br-david-meets-pope-francis/ ; https://www.resources.soundstrue.com/ )

Brother-David-Steindl-Rast-and Dali Lama

Brother David Steindl Rast with Pope FRancis    Brother david-steindl-rast

Brother David’s Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to life in Fullness is much more than just an “approach.” It’s a source of immense spiritual insight, wisdom. For now, I shall have to pass over much of the great gift he has given us (in all his books, and talks)—and “jump” (a leap of faith) to his last sentence. He mentions the Triune God: Giver, Gift, and Thanksgiving–what St. Gregory of Nyssa called “the Round Dance of the Blessed Trinity”–and ends: “This is how God prays: by dancing. It is one great celebration of belonging by giving and thanksgiving. We can begin to join that dance in our heart right now through gratefulness. What else could be called life in fullness?” Ever practicing humility and simplicity (and “stillness”), gratitude, gladness, wholeheartedness, and just being himself, Brother David Steindl-Rast concludes with a question.

And I will bring this blog is a close now, short of the mark I originally (ambitiously, and joyfully) intended—and save, for my next post, the two other books I mentioned at the start (David Brazier’s Zen Therapy: A Buddhist Approach to Psychotherapy and Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer), along with a portion of jazz bassist David Friesen’s new lecture series Beyond the Note…Jazz Music Essentials: excerpts from three of the ten topics included (because they relate significantly to our topic, stillness): Listening and Communication,” “Patience,” and “Our Individual Personality.” I have had the pleasure (honor) of providing liner notes for several of David Friesen’s CDs, and have great respect (as I have, obviously, for the three writers discussed in this blog piece) for his artistic skill and his ability to articulate all he has learned “over the past 60 years, performing in concerts and recording with jazz legends, [with his] own groups and presenting jazz workshops worldwide in over 31 countries including the USA.”

I have let the three writers represented in this current blog speak for themselves (through extensive quotation from their books), as if they were welcome guests, “experts” taking precedence (rightfully) over whatever I might have to say about the art of stillness–and I hope to continue that approach in the next post, with the words of David Brazier, Thomas Merton, and David Friesen. I hope you have enjoyed this first “seminar session” on the Art of Stillness, and will enjoy the next as well. Thanks (good to be “back” with Bill’s Blog, believe me, after such long absence) and please do stay tuned.

The 62nd Monterey Jazz Festival: Much Pleasure under Some Distress

I began the first of my last two Bill’s Blog posts saying that “medical issues” had required a break from writing the Blog, adding that I was sorry about that (and would  save a more detailed account of the medical adventures for another time)—which, by rights (and that promise) I should be presenting now. In my last blog post, I said that a (medical) treatment program I was undergoing had not prevented me from work on another writing project I was engaged in—a memoir: “Unfolding: Aspirations and Attainments”—and I posted an account from that manuscript of the year and a half (1962-1963) I spent in graduate school at San Francisco State College.

I was going to continue with my graduate school “adventures” on Bill’s Blog, but another (unanticipated) medical issue intervened—and also the 62nd Monterey Jazz Festival (which I was determined not to miss attending, no matter what). In December 2018, I underwent a biopsy. In February 2019, I posted the following on my Facebook page: “I’ve got a fight on my hands—so I believe I will post one of my favorite songs by Paul Simon: ‘The Boxer’—for I had received the results of my biopsy and I learned that I had prostate cancer. They took tissue samples from fourteen spots (“suspicious” on the MRI, matched with what they found on Ultrasound—a fascinating procedure!) and whereas nine of those spots were benign, five of them were not. Between Christmas and the New Year, I had a full-body bone scan, because of “prominent internal iliac chain nodes” also found on the MRI (“Possible bony metastatic disease”). Radiation Therapy treatments would be necessary—and I was scheduled for 45 of them: nine weeks, five mornings a week.

As for “The Boxer,” growing up just outside of Detroit as I did, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson had a heavy influence on my young life. A skinny kid, when I finally made 155 pounds (“Super Lightweight”), I was not only an avid fan of boxing, but a participant. I “mastered” the smooth moves I found in the Barnes Dollar Sports book on boxing, but learned the hard way that the “sport” required more than finesse—because every time I took on someone bigger and stronger than myself, he managed to land a sudden solid roundhouse punch that had me on the ground, and “out” (TKO). I did learn how to “take a punch,” and having quit the sport years ago (in favor of sparing with books rather than opponents), I felt ready, metaphorically, to step back in the ring for this medical adventure. Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” was a source of inspiration.

“In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down or cut him
‘Til he cried out in his anger and his shame
‘I am leaving, I am leaving’, but the fighter still remains.”

To cut this side of the story short … In September, 2019, I “graduated” from 43 (not the full 45) radiation therapy sessions at Community Hospital Cancer Center—in time to attend the 62nd Annual  Monterey Jazz Festival, which proved to be a bit of a “test” for me—the mobility (making my way through the crowds) portion of which was not at all easy (the return of a 27 year old vestibular neuritis–vertigo–condition accompanied the cancer treatments; and after the 4th radiation treatment, I was also hospitalized for three days with diverticulitis.). The music I witnessed at the Jazz Festival did serve as a saving grace, and that’s what I’d like to write about now—although attendance would also include duress occasioned by my medical “adventures,” which did affect the manner in which I “received” the music—so I would like to include that aspect of the experience also, for it provided a unique perspective.

Here’s a poster for the 62nd MJF—and a photo of the Jimmy Lyons Main Stage, once the action was underway (Photo credits: montereyjazzfestival.org)

monterey_jazz_poster_2019

Monterey Jazz Fest, Friday night 9/29

Logistics had been a major concern for me the previous year, at the 61st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, and I realized that logistics would be even more of a concern for the 62nd—just getting from one venue to another, and nine different venues offered music this year. I had to choose those close to each other, which meant the Pacific Jazz Café (which has a raised platform that serves as a handicapped seating section), the Jazz Theater (next door to The Pacific Jazz Café last year, but moved to behind the Vendors strip this year)—with shuttle trips to Dizzy’s Den and the distant Jimmy Lyons Stage for sets I did not want to miss located at each.

I set up a tentative schedule of sets that might work well together—beginning with a program entitled “MJF 101: A Festival Primer,” an innovative feature intended to acquaint Festival newcomers (or anyone eager to learn the best way to “maneuver” the many musical offerings over the weekend). Two journalist friends—Andy Gilbert (from the San Francisco Bay area) and Pamela Espeland (from Minneapolis) had been asked to conduct this session, and I was curious to see how they handled the task—which they did well, in a casual, informative, and comprehensive manner. The session was set for 5:30, Friday afternoon—and I planned to pick up my Press credentials at 4:30, enjoy an early “dinner,” and listen to the Allison Au Quartet, which was slated to appear on the Garden Stage, just next door to where I would be eating unagi (a  sushi dish of white rice with fillets of freshly grilled eel, seasoned with homemade unagi sauce), served at the Maido Japanese Catering Service stand.

The meal was enjoyable—accompanied by music provided next door by the Allison Au Quartet: the saxophonist/composer noted for her “mosaic of influences,” “seamless and soulful sound,” and a “gift for layering voices and rhythms … melodies cascade and collide” (from program notes). I was impressed by her, and her pianist, Todd Pentney, who lent his talents to the combo handsomely.

Here are photos of Allison Au, Andy Gilbert, and Pamela Espeland (Photo credits: https://theurbanflux.wordpress.com/; KQED; linkedin.com)

Allison Au Andy Gilbert Pamela Espeland

When I arrived at the Pacific Jazz Café, I joined my friend Bob Danziger (with whom I have collaborated on three YouTube videos), and we enjoyed and appreciated the approach taken by the two MJF 101 hosts, who began their session by discussing “trends” Festival attendees could anticipate this year, combined with some previous history of the event, which included a brief account of their own attendance. Andy Gilbert had published an article (in San Francisco Classical Voice) in which he said: “The big story at the Monterey Jazz Festival last year was the precipitous inclusion of female instrumentalists. Like a dam bursting, an unprecedented wave of women players flowed through the fairgrounds, touching every corner of the festival”—a revolutionary “sea change.” This year, he said, would provide an “exciting carry over” from that event—“Lots of women doing amazing work.”

Both hosts cited the MJF as a “leader” in this trend, Andy stating that the event still packs its “institutional punch”; Pamela saying the Festival continued to offer “something everybody is going to like,” mixing up “established jazz masters with less well known performers.” Both hosts asked for a show of hands of “first time” attendees, and many hands went up—so advice on how to handle waiting in line at 5-6 venues where “overlapping” sets are offered ranged from “Get there early” to “If you hear something good, follow your ears.” Both hosts acknowledged having made fortunate “discoveries” that way—so “Just let yourself get sucked in.” And if the set proves exceptional, and others will follow at that site, “Stay there … plant yourself.”

Another “trend” of this year’s Festival cited was “contemporary” or “smooth” jazz  (“Double Vision Revisited”: Bob James, David Sanborn, Marcus Miller; The Yellowjackets, Chris Botti) and special projects such as a tribute, “Soul on Soul,” to Mary Lou Williams (the “den mother” of jazz), and the Christian McBride Big Band  commissioned piece: in memory of Roy Hargrove.  Andy and Pamela mentioned, individually, specific sets they looked forward to this year: Pianist Gerald Clayton on the Garden Stage; tenor saxophonist Chris Potter at Dizzy’s Den–and sets featuring Artists-in-Residence Alison Miller and Derrick Hodge.

“Monterey mixes it up” became a key phrase—a former appearance by Pete Seeger mentioned, and this year: guitarist Donna Grantis, a protégé of Prince. And Andy emphasized that the MJF still “draws on its history”—citing this year’s appearance of old pros, absolute masters of their respective instruments, Kenny Barron (piano) and Dave Holland (bass) performing together.

After, Bob Danziger and I agreed that “MJF 100: A Festival Primer” was a worthy addition to the annual event—hopefully a permanent one. Bob himself had offered a “Monterey Jazz Festival Prep and Pizza” course through OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at California State University Monterey Bay)—“Course Description: If it’s your first time to the Monterey Jazz Festival or even if you’re a festival veteran, planning your listening is half the fun. Hosted by Bob Danziger, join journalists Andrew Gilbert and Pamela Espeland [who not only offered a session similar to that which we’d just witnessed at the Festival itself, but provided “sound bites”: recordings of the artists they were talking about] for an illuminating and educational primer on the music and styles of Monterey Jazz Festival artists playing so you can know what to expect this year. Pizza and a Q&A will be included.”

The Monterey Jazz Festival was touting a new “vision” for itself—releasing and promoting a mission statement “to reflect a three-year planning effort to attract new and younger audience members to the event … to produce a successful annual event it is necessary to dip into the current contemporary marketplace of jazz.” When I first read this statement, or declaration, I had reservations regarding dipping into “the current contemporary marketplace”—but I had a full weekend ahead for myself to witness the results of that “dipping into,” so I will reserve my opinions or conclusions until after I describe what I actually heard each day and night.

Just after the “MJF 101: A Festival Primer” session, I was eager to hear the Chris Potter Circuits Trio, with James Francies on piano, Eric Harland on drums, and Potter on tenor sax. They were set to perform at Dizzy’s Den, which was not too far from the Pacific Jazz Café, but as I approached the venue I encountered my first major problem of the evening: there was a line of “customers” who also wanted to hear Potter that seemed as lengthy as the Great Wall of China, and just as forbidding in its many twists and turns. In my new nearly immobile state, I cannot stand (without support that goes beyond my cane) for more than a few minutes, and I knew I didn’t stand a prayer in this line, which also seemed as stationary as the Great Wall.

By way of compensation (having decided to pass on Potter, who’s one of my favorite saxophonists, and whom I truly wished to hear and see), I decided to find the Jazz Theater, which would be running whatever was happening on the Jimmy Lyons Stage, the main arena. Indeed, it had been moved from the spot it had occupied the previous year, next door to the Pacific Jazz Café, and it took a while, and some effort on my part, to find the new location—but when I did, I caught a healthy portion of the “Soul on Soul: Tribute to Mary Lou Williams” set by drummer Allison Miller and bassist Derrick Hodge, 2019 Artists-in-Residence, who provided ample backing for two pianists: Shamie Royston and Carmen Staaf (Staaf was superb later, on Sunday afternoon in Dizzy’s Den, with Miller’s Parlour Game). A vocal trio was harmonizing quite handsomely on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” when I arrived and found a seat: one song featured in the original (recorded in 1963) Black Christ of the Andes album of Mary Lou Williams—along with the title piece itself, which was offered next in this opening set at MJF.

“St. Martin de Porres, his shepherd’s staff a dusty broom
St. Martin de Porres, the poor made a shrine of his tomb
St. Martin de Porres, he gentled creatures tame and wild
St. Martin de Porres, he sheltered each unsheltered child
This man of love, born of the flesh, yet of God
This humble man healed the sick, raised the dead, his hand is quick
To feed beggars and sinners, the starving homeless and the stray
Oh Black Christ of the Andes, come feed and cure us now we pray

Spare, oh lord
Spare my people
Lest you be angered with me, forever
(Lest you be angered with me…”

Here are photos of Mary Lou Williams at the piano—and the album Black Christ of the Andes (Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons; newarkwww.rutgers.edu)

Mary Lou Williams 6 Mary Lou Williams 5

Mary Lou Williams Black Christ of the Andes

I did some research and found the following on this exceptional piece in a NPR Music article by Jenny Gathright: “In 1962, the Catholic Church canonized a new saint: A Peruvian brother of the Dominican Order named Martin de Porres, the son of a freed slave named Ana Velazquez and a Spanish gentleman who refused to recognize him because he was born with his mother’s dark features. St. Martin de Porres was a gifted healer who was dedicated to the poor — today, he is the patron saint of those who seek racial harmony. His canonization was inspiring to [Mary Lou] Williams, and so Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes, a devotional work composed in his honor, was born. The composition is rooted in both Catholicism and the black American music tradition — and it undoubtedly found critics among those who adhered exclusively to one of those schools or the other. Williams performed the full piece for the first time at Saint Francis Xavier Church in New York in November of 1962, and she recorded it in October 1963.

“The opening hymn, ‘St. Martin de Porres,’ begins with a choir singing a cappella. The chords — dense and full of satisfying tensions — showcase Williams’ previously underutilized aptitude for vocal arrangement. As they sing the saint’s name, the choir slows down, masterfully swelling on the vowels as if to prove their devotion. When Williams finally enters on the keys, she does so with an Afro-Latin groove, perhaps a nod to the heritage of the hymn’s subject.

“It is the perfect, haunting invitation to the world of this recording, which feels unexpected and refreshing at every turn. ‘Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary,’ Duke Ellington once said. ‘She is like soul on soul.’ Black Christ of the Andes feels like soul on soul, perhaps in ways beyond what Ellington intended by the phrase. The entire composition is concerned with salvation, the wellbeing of our souls. And the sound, which draws upon blues, gospel and jazz, can certainly be described with the word ‘soulful,’ that adjective we so often use to talk about the music that comes from enslaved black people and their descendants … After the recording of Black Christ of the Andes was released in 1964, Williams started distributing a one-page handout titled ‘Jazz for the Soul’ at her performances. The last paragraph tellingly says, in all caps: ‘YOUR ATTENTIVE PARTICIPATION, THRU LISTENING WITH YOUR EARS AND YOUR HEART, WILL ALLOW YOU TO ENJOY FULLY THIS EXCHANGE OF IDEAS, TO SENSE THESE VARIOUS MOODS, AND TO REAP THE FULL THERAPEUTIC REWARDS THAT GOOD MUSIC ALWAYS BRINGS TO A TIRED, DISTURBED SOUL AND ALL “WHO DIG THE SOUNDS.”’ Not unlike St. Martin de Porres, Mary Lou Williams was a healer. Her musical ministry belongs at the center of our canon.”

The 2019 MJF opening set did justice to the extraordinary range of Mary Lou Williams’ work: the two subtle beautiful pieces I’ve mentioned, and then rich, wild two piano call and response offerings, very “free” (reminding me of a double LP album I have, Embraced, a 1977 dual-piano concert at Carnegie Hall concert Williams gave with Cecil Taylor). “Everyone erupting,” I wrote in my notes, also quoting Psalm 100: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with a song.” I also acknowledged Allison Miller’s hot “cool” backing (the steady accretion of her solo) and the hard-driving yet subtle contribution of Derrick Hodge—a range of effects worthy of Mary Lou Williams—“First Lady of Jazz,” a pianist, bandleader, arranger, and composer who wrote hundreds of songs.

Here are album covers from the time she was with Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy, the band she truly swung—and her Zodiac Suite recording: arrangements, mastered every jazz genre (gospelswingthird streambebop—and beyond),and recorded more than one hundred records. She was literally “The Lady Who Swings the Band”—any aggregate she performed with.

Mary Lou Williams Marys Idea 3 Mary Lou Williams Collection 1927-59

Mary Lou Williams Zodiac Suite

Directly following the Mary Lou Williams tribute, two old pros—Kenny Barron on piano and Dave Holldand on bass—offered the sort of perect set only two old pros such as Kenny Barron and Dave Holland can provide—and I was garetful that I’d kept my seat in the theater. Neither Barron nor Holland is a stranger to the Monterey Jazz Festival. Kenny Barron, described in the program notes as “Jazz royalty,” made the first of his eight appearances in the early 1960s with Dizzy Gillespie. In 1990, he appeared with Stan Getz, and blessed as I have been at the Festival, I saw that performance and wrote about it, in Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years: “1990 was the year Dizzy Gillespie came out to perform with Stan Getz. Spying a pack of cigarettes in the ailing saxophonist’s back pocket, Gillespie extracted it and threw it into the audience. The well-meaning act proved futile, however. While Getz provided a memorable set with pianist Kenny Barron in 1990, he would die of cancer in June the following year.”

Barron would perform at the Festival again, in 1999, as part of an “Eastwood at Monterey” program that featured artists Diana Krall, Chris Potter, Joshua Redman, Russell Malone, Clark Terry, and Regina Carter. Barron appeared with his own quartet in 2007; with the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars featuring Regina Carter and Kurt Elling in 2009; again with an All-Star group in 2010–and in 2017, with his own trio in a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald.

Dave Holland first appeared at the MJF in 1969, as a very young member of Miles Davis’ quartet (which also included a very young Chick Corea). In 1973, Holland released Conference of the Birds, an all-time avant-garde jazz classic, a “one-time-only team-up of two avant-garde legends: the fiery, passionate Sam Rivers and the cerebral Anthony Braxton.” Holland returned to the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1996, performing with Herbie Hancock. In 2001, he was asked to provide a commissioned piece, ”Monterey Suite” (with his Big Band); returned again in 2007 (in a quartet with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Chris Potter, and Eric Harland); and performed at MJF again in 2013 with PRISM (Kevin Eubanks, Craig Taborn, Eric Harland), offering an original composition, “The Empty Chair”—a homage to his late wife.

On Friday night at the 62nd Monterey Jazz Festival, joined by Nasheet Waits on drums, Kenny Barron and Dave Holland offered Thelonious Monk’s lively tune “San Francisco Holiday (Worry Later)”—Holland smooth up and down the frets, offset by Barron’s funky, spunky, good fun interpretation which invited and was quick to draw the others into its spirit. This tune was followed by “Secret Places,” a composition by Sumi Tonooka, another of my favorite pianists who I had the good fortune (blessed again!) to interview when she first appeared at the 36th Monterey Jazz Festival in 1993. Suitable coincidence: she studied in New York with Mary Lou Williams (“I like to talk about Mary Lou,” Sumi told me in our interview. “I was about eighteen, before I went to college … I just called her up one day and asked her if she taught and she said, ‘Sure.’ My mother went with me to my first lesson … Mary Lou was living in Harlem in a flat she’d occupied for some time. Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell had hung out at her place, and used to play her piano … I played the same piano they’d played. It was very inspiring. Mary Lou said to me, ‘You don’t need to study. All you need to do is get out there and play.’ And all she did was play for me. I watched and learned a lot, just by that. She didn’t work on technical aspects at all. It was all feeling. A lot about the blues, ‘cause that’s really what her playing stems from, even though she’d always had this incredibly modern, fresh, approach to everything she did. She was very warm, beautiful, very spiritual.”). Later, Sumi Tonooka herself taught piano, at Bard College, and she worked as an assistant at Rutgers University to… Kenny Barron! The original album Secret Places was recorded in 1989 and released in 1998 on Kenny Barron’s Joken Records.

Here are individual photos of Kenny Barron and Dave Holland, of Sumi Tonooka, and of Willard Jenkins in a Saturday afternoon “Conversation” at the Pacific Jazz Café with Kenny and Dave (Photo credits: The Mercury News; WUWM.com; sumitonooka.com; Sdvoice.info).

Kenny Barron

dave_holland_  Sumi Tonooka 4

Kenny Barron and Dave Holland with Willard Conversation Voice and Viewpoint

Once the theme of Sumi Tonooka’s title tune had been established at MJF, Dave Holland took hold of the “top” (Barron comping handsomely underneath), fast melodic runs mixed with full chords of his own devising, rich triplets—all the “tricks” of his trade (each move as it should be: predictable beauty, rhythmic shifts (Nasheet Waits there just as he should be); Kenny Barron back in: lyrical, lush extended runs similar to those of Sumi Tonooka—a playful engagement of all three (four?) performers, zestful up tempo: strong steady hard bop piano, Kenny offering every lick capable on his instrument—a sweet, fully melodic again ending.The next tune was a Barron original, “Seascape,” up tempo, joyous, suitably liquid—a vivid portrait of what one would hope to find on a good day at the beach—a playful piece built on solid sand, a mix of sharp accents and flux, flow—maximum rapport again, risk-taking acrobatics, and back to full unison on the theme. The trio next offered the beautiful ballad “Warm Valley”—an “harmonic masterpiece,” with its exquisite sequence of chords: Bbmaj7, E7, Eb7, E-7b5/A7, D7, D-7b5, G7, C-7b5, Bbmaj7, C-7, F7sus4, Bbmaj7 (C-7, F7#9) (Bbmaj7, B7) —the bridge of equal invention and (difficult) charm: Emaj7,  G#-7, Go7, F$-7, B7, B-7, E7, Amaj7, E-7b5, A7, Dmaj7, c#-7, C-7b5, F7.

There’s no other way to truly play this piece than beautifully–and that’s exactly the way the trio let it unfold: each note (melodic/harmonic) clearly, cleanly articulated—and Barron’s improvisation a respectful reinvention—majestic, “delicious” in its lines, with Holland contributing an equally tender, tasteful solo. After, Kenny Barron said, “There are time constraints, so this will be the last one,” and the group offered another Baron original. “Speed Trap,” which was just that: a rapid-fire ride: up up up and away tempo, agility in every nerve cell, non-stop—Holland alongside him all the way, flying! A Waits drum solo did not sacrifice the pace in any way: a tasteful Papa Jo Jones fade built to a sudden masterful quick STOP on everyone’s part!

On account of my own “time constraints” (and spatial), I am going to jump to Saturday afternoon and another superb (perhaps my favorite of the weekend) performance: Luciana Souza and her “The Book of Longing” (based on her recent CD) set featuring Luciana on vocals (and readings) and percussion (a snare drum and hi hat), with Chico Pinheiro on guitar and Scott Colley on bass.

On Saturday afternoon, once Stu Brinin (a photographer friend who lives in Oakland, and stays with my wife and me in Pacific Grove at Festival time) and I arrived at the fairgrounds, I took a shuttle to the main arena and heard two groups, Larkin Poe and Cha Wa (groups I will write about in a subsequent, my next, Bill’s Blog post), and I wanted to stay in the Jimmy Lyons Arena for Tank and the Bangas (advertised with “No group better captures the head-spinning, time-warping maelstrom of Crescent City.”), but realized that the set at the distant Night Club featuring Luciana Souza (who IS a favorite performer of mine I was determined to see and hear) would begin at 5:00, and I’d better get back there early if I hoped to get a seat (Logistics again, and again!)—so I passed on Tank and the Bangas and took a shuttle again, to the Night Club.

I was pleased that I’d come early, for a sizeable crowd turned up for Luciana Souza–after a Commanders Jazz Ensemble (United States Air Force Band of the Golden West) set. I was able to find a seat a comfortable distance from the stage, a straight shot to where Luciana Souza would stand behind a microphone for a sound check, stand beside a snare drum and hi hat cymbals she would put to effective use throughout her set. I’d met her before, when she was at MJF accompanied by an excellent pianist, Edward Simon, and she looked as I remembered her: a pleasingly petite, poised, highly focused woman—adorable. I’d heard Scott Colley in various settings at MJF, often. Guitarist Chico Pinheiro (who would prove to be an absolute “monster” on his instrument, a miracle-worker) struck me as quite young.“Tonight we are celebrating poetry,” Luciana said, when the group’s set commenced, and I jotted down the words “deepens the humanity in us” (when she mentioned the effect of reading poetry)—a statement I could flesh out later, when I had seen a video she made on the making of The Book of Longing CD, and was able to write down accurately: “Poetry has always been a window—a window offering possibilities for viewing the world, or enlarging our understanding of ourselves. Sometimes poetry is a mirror that reflects our own revelations; sometimes it is a healer, a teacher.” You can find the video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVQXuqgSzoA

The trio then offered a poem by Bertolt Brecht which Lucinda had set to music: “In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing. / About the dark times.” Her own singing was reinforced well by Colley and Pinheiro. The next poem offered was one she had written herself, “These Things”: “These are the duties of the heart / These are the words we’ve come to call our Gods / These are the books we read … These are the roads less traveled by / These are the roads that took us nowhere / Or somewhere / I don’t know how to get back / to you … These are the songs we sing at times of loss / These are the tears we shed.” Again: beautifully, movingly rendered.

The absolutely fitting accompaniment of Pinheiro and Colley (bright attractive “fill” and perfect rhythmic counterpart: soulful, stark, sweet—Pinheiro amazing, as if he were playing two, maybe even three, guitars—not just one!) continued throughout two songs she sang in Portuguese, laced with scatting—the whole a plea, a cry, a supplication, a prayer ending with a poignant fade. With Scott Colley providing steady bass work, she offered a poem by Charles Simic: “Dismantling the Silence”: “Go inside a stone. That would be my way. Let someone else become a dove or gnash with a tiger’s tooth. I am happy to be a stone … From the outside the stone is a riddle: no one knows how to answer it. Yet within, it must be cool and quiet … I have seen sparks fly out when two stones are rubbed, so perhaps it is not dark inside at all; perhaps there is a moon shining from somewhere, as though behind a hill – just enough light to make out the strange writings, the star charts on the inner walls.” Once again, the musical backing–and Luciana Souza’s vocalizing—served the poem perfectly.

Of her CD The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs,” Luciana Souza has said: “In Bishop’s poetry I hear a deep voice, honest and dignified. She sees clearly, and tells so simply. I borrowed her words for my music, and wrote melodies and harmonies around them. Her travels continue. I know I have places to go.” The trio offered “One Art,” a sestina by Elizabeth Bishop, set in up tempo Brazilian rhythm, Luciana scat singing, fine quick passages with occasional keen “bleating” outcries or vocal ejaculations, after she offered a portion of the poem: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master; / so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster … Lose something every day. Accept the fluster / of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. / The art of losing isn’t hard to master … I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, / some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. / I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster … —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident / the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” And Chico Pinheiro provided another brilliant guitar solo.

This was followed by Leonard Cohen’s (whom she had mentioned she would like to celebrate also when she first announced her intent to celebrate poetry) “The Book of Longing: Prologue”: “I can’t make the hills / The system is shot / I’m living on pills / For which I thank God … I followed the course / From chaos to art / Desire the horse / Depression the cart … I sailed like a swan / I sank like a rock / But time is long gone … But I’m not allowed / A trace of regret … For someone will use / What I couldn’t be / My heart will be hers / Impersonally … For less than a second / Our lives will collide / The endless suspended / The door open wide … I know she is coming / I know she will look / And that is the longing / And this is the book.”

The vocalist ended the set with a song about Brazil–a song she accompanied on tambourine (rounding out her percussive chores), scatting in unison with Chico Pinheiro’s spectacular guitar work, and a handsome solo by Scott Colley—and anthem ending, a magnificent denouement: all three musicians magicians with fingers, thirty fingers, and Luciana’s soaring scat to a sudden STOP! And this wondrous set had come to a close.

In the liner notes to The Book of Longing CD, Luciana writes: “Making music with Chico and Scott is a thing of wonder. They have bountiful hearts, incredibly able hands, and abundant musical intelligence”—all of which was readily on display at the 62nd Monterey Jazz Festival.

There’s no way I could not appreciate–no, love–everything Luciana Souza and her trio offered throughout their set. Not so long ago, I offered a blog post that focused on the “marriage” of poetry and music—with an emphasis on the thoughts of my favorite 20th century poet, Osip Mandelstam, on the topic. In the best book I’ve read on Mandelstam, An Essay on the Poetry of Osip Mandelstam: God’s Grateful Guest, author Ryszard Przybylski writes, “Opinions of professional musicians about a poet’s attitude towards music should be considered authoritative,” and he goes on to cite composer Artur Sergeyevich Luriye saying that Mandelstam “loved music passionately, but he never talked about this love. He kept it deeply concealed.” Przybylski concludes that Mandelstam “listened to music and said nothing about it. He said nothing and he wrote. And thanks to that writing he entered the history of Russian music.”  Mandelstam wrote about it (brilliant writing on poetry and music); Luciana Souza SINGS it!

 Here are photos of Lucians Souza—in performance at MJF (photo taken by good friend Stu Brinin, and given to me as a gift); another MJF photo—and one of her reading poetry “at home.” (Photo credits: Stuart Brinin; culturalattache.co—Craig Byrd)

Luciana Souza MJF Stu luciana-souza-reading poetry KQED (2)

Luciana Souza The Book of Longing

Przybylski writes, “[Mandelsgtam] treated everything he did as flight and song … a poet who heard existence … who felt he was filled with rhythm, the fundamental form-creating element. He was incapable of separating poetry from music because he was incapable of separating form from content. For him art was music, which, as Boethius explained, sometimes makes use of instruments and sometimes creates poetry.”

Pryzybylski quotes musicologist Paolo Carapezza: “In ancient times music and the living logos [phonic organization of words as language] were an inseparable unit, and what is more, the former was considered to be the conscious and deliberate perfecting and refining of the latter, the revelation of its internal essence; the living logos was music in raw form, like gold in the form of ore.” Carapezza also cites a time of “esthetic transformation” when music stopped being “an extract of logos” and became “that in which the logos swims and by which it is surrounded.” Music was no longer structured on a plane equal with the word, “not according to the word,” but “appropriately according to its own patterns.” Music began to be constituted “independently of the word.”

Mandelstam, according to Pryzybylski, understood the meaning of this process well. In his essay “Pushkin and Scriabin,” the poet wrote: “The Hellenes did not allow music any independence: the word served them as the requisite antidote, the faithful sentinel, and the constant companion of music. Pure music was unknown to the Hellenes; it belongs completely to Christianity. The mountain lake of Christian music grew calm only after the profound transformation which turned Hellas into Europe.” And Pryzybylski adds, “The symbol of this unity of music and logos was, for Mandelstam, Aphrodite, but … before she swam out of the ocean foam, when she was still living in the foam or, better yet, when she was foam. For among the Greeks love was an initial movement and very quickly it became a unifying force. Thus, it fused meaning with song, intellect with rhythm, communication with expression. Thanks to love music was born of the natural prosodic melody of the word. Each thought arose out of music, all music gave birth to thought.”

Here is a drawing I did of Osip Mandelstam, based on a photograph of him as a young poet, age 26; and the cover of the book, An Essay on the Poetry of Osip Mandelstam: God’s Grateful Guest, by Ryszard Przybylski.

Mandelstam 1    Mandelstam 5

I also discovered that the first love poems set to music come from Egypt, 1300 BC (1000 years before the Biblical “Song of Songs”): the first poems to celebrate “the union of lovers for the delight it brings’—the ordinary joys of human intimacy … “Up until the thirteenth century … there was no separation between musical language and poetic language; there was no poetry without melody … It is important to remember that at that time, if not everyone learned to read, everyone did learn to sing.”

And now, Luciana Souza, in several of her recordings (Neruda, The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs, The Book of Longing) has made her own very significant contribution to that “lost” tradition or art—poetry as song.

There are four more sets at the 62nd Monterey Jazz Festival I’d like to write about: a Saturday evening performance by the Christian McBride Big Band—a commission piece: Roy Anthony The Fearless One: In Memory of Roy Hargrove; Sunday afternoon’s Parlour Game (featuring Jenny Scheinman on violin; Carmen Staff, piano; Tony Scherr, bass; and Allison Miller, drums); Roberta Gambarini and pianist Jeb Patton at the Pacific Jazz Café on Saturday night; and pianists Tammy L. Hall and bassist Ruth Davies at the same venue on Sunday evening: “Re-imagining music from Charlie Haden and Hank Jones’ classic recordings Steal Away and Going Home”—Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Songs—but I will save that material for a subsequent Bill’s Blog—in which I will also attempt to make good on my intention to evaluate the results of the Monterey Jazz Festival’s new “vision” for itself—its mission statement “to reflect a three-year planning effort to attract new and younger audience members to the event.”

I began this Blog with some thoughts on the realization that logistics would be even more of a concern for me at the 62nd  than at the 61st Festival: “just getting from one venue to another,” in light of my “medical” situation–and I shall offer more thoughts on my new “unique” perspective also.

I will be with you again on Bill’s Blog–then!

As Time Goes By: Kurt Elling, Lynne Arriale, and Philip Levine and The Poetry of Jazz, Vol. 2

I have been fortunate to know, interview, and write about three extraordinary artists: jazz singer/songwriter Kurt Elling, jazz pianist Lynne Arriale, and poet Philip Levine—the voice of the latter, who died in 2015 at age 87, celebrated by saxophonist Benjamin Boone on two CDs: The Poetry Of Jazz, Volumes One and Two. For this Bill’s Blog post, I’d like to express—with “examples”–the admiration and respect I feel for their work.

First: Kurt Elling. I have been corresponding with his publicist, Trudy Johnson-Lenz. Back in September, 2018, she let me know about a livestreamed broadcast from Dizzy’s Club in Lincoln Center of “Kurt Elling and Friends Celebrate Jon Hendricks,” featuring special guests Aria and Michele Hendricks (Jon’s daughters), Kevin Fitzgerald Burke, and vocalist Sheila Jordan.

The program was special because of Kurt’s solid friendship with Hendricks. He wrote about that friendship in a JazzTimes piece: “The first thing—always—was the smile. Immediate-upon-recognition, and wholly spontaneous. Bona fide. Beatific. And big? I’m talking little-kid-on-Christmas joyful, light-up-the-world big. Generous, in a way that would always be entirely beyond your deserving … Then the gesture would come: the arms thrown wide open to welcome you home. It was an indication that revealed an invitation—to embrace, and to admire … Here, my friends, was a self-made man. Here was a man who started out just another kid among 15 in one family. Except he wasn’t ‘just’ anything. He was the seventh son. As such, he would choose his own fate, standing out for the rest of his life … As a boy he sang for nickels and dimes in the bars: ‘Hey, mister, don’t waste that nickel on the jukebox! Give me that nickel and I’ll sing you any song that’s there. I know ’em all!’ As an adult he sang, by invitation, for the crowned heads of Europe. What’s more, he would write his own songs and lyrics—lyrics like none that had ever been heard before. This was a man whose ingenuity and artistry propelled him to combine Shakespearean-level lyrics with mother wit and acrobatic, atomic, urbane 20th-century swing and bop.”

The September 8 live-streamed show was great—a handsome tribute to Jon Hendricks in every way. On February 28 of this year, I heard from Trudy Johnson-Lenz again, letting me know of the world premiere of “Kurt Elling’s The Big Blind,” his “noir radio-style drama with live Foley sound effects and a 23-piece orchestra, at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.” Again, two performance (March 1 and March 2) would be livestreamed. The theme of this show was “What happens to a person who’s been given an artistic gift and has the temperament, but the avenue of expression is obliterated?”

Trudy Johnson-Lenz gave me a complete run-down on the performance: “Kurt co-wrote the book, eight new songs, and the lyrics to four more with Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer Phil Galdston. The Big Blind’s stellar cast: Kurt Elling, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ben Vereen, Allison Semmes, and Ian Shaw. Guy Barker conducts the ‘Jack Lewis Orchestra,’ which is actually drummer Ulysses Owens’ New Century Big Band. Ulysses is the musical director.  Terry Kinney is directing. The Foley artist is Jeff Ward.”

Here are photos of D.D. Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, and Allison Semmes (Photo credits: http://english.cri.cn; http://www.tdf.org; http://www.broadway.com/buzz):

D.D. Brigewater 5    Kurt Elling for Blog

Allison Semmes 4

I had to miss the first offering because of a gig of my own (playing piano for an event in Cannery Row), but I saw the second complete performance, and it was grand—again, a special consideration adding to my appreciation. Back in 2009, I had written an article for Jazz West on “Kurt Elling and the Beat Generation,” and Kurt had told me then of his plans to write and produce the work I’d just seen. Here’s what he said, then: “I’ve had an idea that for a few years has been gestating. It will be somewhat autobiographical, but it will also be based on Joe E. Lewis and The Jokers Wild: just using that as a very basic skeleton, but doing it in a very contemporary context and in that way sort of embracing history, because I have all these deep parallel experiences to Joe E. Lewis. The Green Mill was the club he was working in when they [mobsters] cut his throat. I know the tunnels. I know the ghosts of that place, and that it’s still a functioning club and it still has all this energy and it’s living. I’m not that interested in the old-time gangster thing. That seems real corny to me, and I want to present contemporary music as a heavy part of this, so we’re talking about a contemporary setting of an artistic tragedy—one that features a live and semi-spontaneous score.”

Me: “Will it work that way: as a legit ‘Greek’ tragedy, hubris, denouement and all?”

Kurt: “I’m working on the form. I’m not sure how its going to end, whether he pulls himself out or what the thing is, but I’m sure you can well imagine what an intensely mental game … well, I don’t know if ‘mental game’ is the right way to put it, but it’s something for me to contemplate: his life and the lives of people who have an artistic gift in a very special frequency and for whatever reason have that gift taken away from them. And then, what do you do with the rest of your time? If you can’t have your work in the Smithsonian and play music … if you don’t have a diversity where you’ve got back up things—then what?”

Me: “When people ask me if I ever get ‘writer’s block,’ I say, ’No, I just go someplace else,’ [to play and compose music] which is a fortunate option I think.”

Kurt: “Yeah! I think this kind of idea goes to not only the questions that would specifically haunt us, but questions of regeneration, questions of self. The choice of one’s identity, and the creation of identity. I want to say that’s an American thing. It’s not just that of an individual artist. This is not just a genre-wide phenomenon. Here are all these musicians who are creating themselves by creating music. They’ve done discipline, they’ve learned history; they’ve learned about music and now they are declaring themselves. And that’s an American thing.”

The March 2 performance of Kurt Elling’s The Big Blind jumped off to a very “cool” start. We’re back in Chicago, 1957, with Kurt as band leader/vocalist Jack Lewis (who loves to shout out to his audience, in appreciation for their applause, “Without you, I’m nothin!”). He is in conference with Ian Shaw as Tony Mongoose,” a “wanna-be” manager. Jack already has one: D.D. Bridgewater as Veronica, who “owns” him in ways and means beyond their contract, but Mongoose (who says of Veronica: “She’s a colored woman, at that.”) asserts, “You been stuck in neutral, goin’ nowhere fast! You got to be ready to jump, to jazz, to jive the world, get yourself in the groove; what’s that sound? That sound, my son, is opportunity knocking!”–and he then claims, “I’ll dig you up as a real singer … Star billing, get you your own room, you open in one week … in Vegas! Everybody wins!”

The classic 50’s Show Biz jargon and fake (Mongoose) or self-conscious (Jack Lewis) “hep talk” (jive talk) is a kick, and reminded me of something else Kurt Elling talked about in our 2008 interview. I had mentioned young MFA in creative writing candidates I met at a writers conference who, when I talked about living in San Francisco in 1958, said, “You were a Beatnik! To us that was the Golden Age!”—and I told them I was not fully aware, at the time, that I was a “Beatnik,” and that my wife and I and one-year old child were dirt poor to boot and it was no “Golden Age.”

Kurt: “Yeah, it’s all the Golden Age, and none of it’s the Golden Age. You know, frankly, musicians on the jazz scene in Chicago, certainly the people I was hanging out with, well, I gravitated toward the older musicians because I wanted jazz father figures, and I wanted to have their blessing and their encouragement and their love and their acceptance. I wanted to touch the past through them, and that’s how they talk! [laughs] So I wanted to be like them. It’s a little bit like what Gary Grant said: he became Cary Grant by pretending to be him long enough so that he did! He became him! So, now it’s just part of the thing, and I think it’s cool. It’s become an organic part of me, and even here at the [Monterey Jazz] Festival, I’m not the only one, man. Talk to Joe Lovano for a couple of minutes. Some of us just want to be a part of that. We want to continue to manifest that energy, because it’s good to be a slick, you know? It’s chic! It’s not ordinary.”

I quoted another portion of Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues, previously mentioned, for which Mezzrow even provides a glossary, and a translation, at the back of his book: “All I got left is a roach no longer than a pretty chick’s memory. I’m gonna breeze to my personal snatchpad and switch my dry goods while they’re [his lady friend is plural!] out on the turf,” etc. I told Kurt that, as I kid, these words became embedded in my head (and are still there, indelible), even before I learned the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence.

 Kurt: [laughing] “There you go!”

In the The Big Blind performance, Ben Vereen–as tenor saxophonist Eddie Freeman–functions as narrator (setting the frame for Jack’s life), and D.D. Bridgewater is spectacular as manager Veronica—coming on like “gangbusters,” calling Mongoose a “oil street pimp, tryin’ to impress all the boys … he learned whatever songs he knows in a prison shower,” whereas she, who loves to spend time (on an expense account) in Paris, is “building a continental  identity” for Jack, hobnobbing with French stars like Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf—which leads her into a song about Paris, the “city of eternal love”—a song which includes some catchy lyrics (“What if forever is never … Never enough time is there—for forever.”) and a message: “Don’t matter who you love, or the color of your skin.”

Jack has reservations regarding his role as “lover,” and when Eddie enters, saying “What’s that all about?”, Jack says, “Play along will you Eddie”—the latter saying, as an aside, “Lady V found him when he was a singing waiter.”

Here are photos of the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago (outside and in); Joe E. Brown; and two photos of Kurt Elling singing at the Green Mill (Photo credits: www.choosechicago.com;  http://uplup.com/music/green-mill-chicago; www.doctormacro.com/; Wikepedia;  www.facebook.com/kurtelling/)

Green Mill Cocktail Lounge 3

Green Mill Cocktail Lounge 2  Joe E. Brown 2 Kurt Elling at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge  Kurt Elling at the Green Mill 2

All of the acting in Kurt Elling’s The Big Blind was solid, the story line unfolding as somewhat familiar (solid 1950s “stuff”), enticing, accurate—and good fun. And the unity of it all (the big band backing very effective—in terms of mood and forward motion) reminded me of one more set of statements Kurt Elling made back in 2008:

Kurt: “Well, again, if as an individual artist you could do anything from ranting to soliloquy to vocalese to straight up extemporaneous communication, I think that one already probably has a natural consciousness that is syncretic, one that wants to pull things together and see how they  combine. The most interesting thing is not to try to combine everything with everything; it’s to combine this interesting thing with this very disparate interesting thing, and to have a new viewpoint on everything else because you never would have thought of those two things together. So when the commissions started, who am I to say no? I gave it my best shot. They were always on a shoestring budget and they were only meant to run one or two nights at a time, but I’d give it my best shot because it was just a great creative challenge to try to figure out how these things would work together. I’m really proud of the results. I feel like I have a good organic sense of the way that dance and music and spoken word would go together, especially if I’m familiar enough with the choreographer’s work. Because a lot of times, if I’m seeing someone who has a great choreographic gift, and insight, that often inspires stories in me, so I’m adapting my thing to something that goes with this. It’s that kind of call and response, if you will.”

He held to these principles in the work I was watching. The scenes that followed were somewhat predictable, but handled with originally within each context. Jack meets a “young chick,” Jill (Allison Semmes, who took over as Diana Ross in Motown and led the 1st and 2nd Broadway national tours of that musical—and she’s adorable!)—taking photos for “a negro paper.” At the club he’s working, she asks Jack, “You a waiter?” “No, I’m a musician.” She’s impressed by, and takes photos of his performance, while he’s thinking (in Show Biz terms): “Hmmm, Jack and Jill … we may have to work on that.” She sings: “The faces I find … if I can stop the wheels of time and freeze the frame … the picture that never lies … In old age, every wrinkle’s a page …I can see so deep in you.”

The lyrics, the dialogue—everything was so cool in the overall performance, I’m tempted to try to quote each line (I took copious notes I hope are accurate!), but I haven’t space in this Blog, unfortunately, to do that, so … I’ll lightly touch on some lines that carried the performance to a very dramatic first-act conclusion: the scene having shifted to Chicago’s legendary cocktail lounge, The Green Mill, “The Pearl of Uptown … islands of love awaiting.” Jill is there, and saxophonist Eddie is “diggin’ on the light-skinned sister in the room,” saying, ironically, to the Shutter Bug (when she asks to take his picture), “They say it’ a free country,” telling her when she claims his saxophone “preaches” that he “plays the sounds that’s me,” and, when she asks, “Is it always like that for Jack—the autographs and attention?”: “Jack’s the front man, and front men are stars … stars get the honies,” adding, in a song, that other players on the stand are  “professional unsung heroes … you’re married to the music, for the music understands.”

After the show, Jack, promising “no complications,” cries, “Let’s go dancing!” Jill claims she’ll stick with “doing what she knows is right,” he claims “I’ll show you that I’m worth the risk”; and they do dance, both feel “sudden sensation,” and, in the midst of what Eddie labels “Jack’s Golden Hour” … the phone rings. It’s Veronica, of course, an “overseas call” in which she, again, promises him a gig in Paris, in “that little club over by Sacré-Cœur, Piaf’s favorite café”—then breaks off: “Jack, who’s that?” She screams accusations (D. D. Bridgewater is perfect, powerful in this role), “And in our bed!” Shouts, “I know what’s best for us,” and when Jack asks, “What’s that?”, responds, “ME!” Her jealousy drives her to song: “Be mine. Be careful! You are mine. Hear me, and you should fear me!”

But Jack has been anything but careful. At the close of his show, having asked (to her dismay) Jillie (not Mongoose) to be his new manager in Vegas, he cries out, “Special night here, Green Mill. Love!”—singing (a la Frank Sinatra), “All the Way,” and adding, “Without you, Baby, I’m nothing!” And that’s when we learn that Veronica did not call from Paris, “overseas,” but she’s there, in the Green Mill, and she’s heard everything. The radio announcer proclaims, “Take five, ladies and gentlemen.” Intermission.

Part Two of the noir radio-style drama resumes with a brazen Big Band burst, totally fit for the reentry, which is restless. Kurt (as Jack) appears in a while shirt and loose tie, phone in hand. Eddie also appears, with Mongoose. Eddie reminds Jack that Veronica “has an eight-inch blade in her boot,” and Mongoose tells Jack (who feels he’s “gotta find Jillie”), he’s “better off” (“ridding ourselves of all complications”). The next scene discloses Jack alone at the Green Mill, after hours, and Veronica shows up—on the warpath. “And now Las Vegas,” she says with a hiss; and when Jack protests, saying “Vegas is good business for me,” she snarls, “Mama’s talking! You don’t tell me, I tell you!” She slaps him, hard—saying, “You singing waiter!” She calls Jillie “a little whore.” A traumatic experience from their past slips out (“Our baby was born dead”) and when she attacks, slaps him again, it’s with a swipe of the blade she carries in her boot. Jack falls, choking. We hear a door slam, and the next scene takes place …

In hospital. Jillie is there. Jack’s throat has been cut and he can’t breathe. Jillie sings: “Let me sit beside you for a minute … Why can’t we just break free?” Nearly voiceless, Jack mutters, “Get Tony [Mongoose]!”—who appears as if on command, but turns cynical, saying, “Nothing left to manage … a lame horse … when the going gets tough … I’ve seen ‘em come and go …if he wants to stay in Show Biz, he can get a job as a drummer’s ventriloquist”—arrogantly adding “I’m the real star of the show!”

Eddie assumes a more prominent role as narrator from this point on. “Tony split town, leaving Jillie and me. And what’s left of Jack’s … voice.” Eddie tells us that the doctors say they don’t know if Jack will ever sing again. Jack “won’t rat on Veronica.” The two women, the rivalsfor what’s left of Jack, literally bump into each other on a visit to the hospital. Veronica asks Jillie if she’s there to see her “father”—then, “What is he … your sugar daddy?”

Jack’s voice gone, he takes to drink—and turns on Jillie: “You and your bloody street pictures.” He claims that Tony (Mongoose) was his “ticket to everything.” Jillie says, “I believed in you, not just your singing.” Jack strikes her, breaking a bottle of booze. Mournful music follows. Eddie shows up at Jillie’s place, saying he hasn’t heard a word from Jack, but has heard that he’s become “a running bum at the end of the bar”—and we shift to that scene, Jack singing (surprisingly well!) a song about “memories like old movies … moaning, slurring over words unspoken.” And then attempts the classic “Angel Eyes” (“I Try to think that loves not around / But it’s uncomfortably near / My old heart ain’t gaining no ground /Because my angel eyes ain’t here … So drink up all you people / Order anything you see / Have fun you happy people /The laughs and the jokes on me.”).

Eddie’s narration continues as Jack’s deterioration does: “Jack went on a real bender … library stairs, staring at strangers.” The wicked witch Veronica appears “somewhere in the fog, in the shadows,” in a “blur,” and sings: “I know your desperate wish, I know your darkest fear. Why am I still here? Survival!” And thinking of rival Jillie: “I’ll show her how a woman fights back when she’s black and blue … This is not the end … he’ll come back to me again, and we’ll laugh … I’ll laugh … Love: it’s never fair!” But it’s her “survival.”

Here are two photos of Kurt Elling in his role as Jack in The Big Blind (Photo credits www.pastemagazine.com/;  /www.southbankcentre.co.uk ):

Kurt Elling in Radio Drama The Big Blind  Kurt Elling in The Big Blind (2)

Eddie finally gets caught up with Jack, “passed out in a park.” Eddie attempts to lure him “back,” saying, “I believe the boys are gonna raise the roof tonight.” And not just “three chords” stuff (“ain’t gonna find me playing that shit”). He reminds Jack of Jillie, “The one gal who would have loved you”—and when Jack responds “It’s all gone … How am I supposed to live, Eddie?”, the latter sings a plaintive refrain on “love”: “You just have to feel it … when the world seems suddenly still … that soft-spoken melody will find its way to you … when hope is lost, give your words up to the great unknown … the sounds of the street and the voice of your soul.” And Eddie offers Jack a gentle sermon on rehabilitation: “Practice till you find something worth playing … Show up! Show up! When love is lost, or only exists in a dream … the melody remains in your heart, when pain fills you up again.”

The immediate result is good. Eddie tells us that “Jack came to stay with me for a while,” and Eddie “kept tabs on Miss Jillie,” who, returning to art school, has found success in NYC, a show of her photographs “opening Sunday afternoon at the Two Deuces.” Jack returns, momentarily, to “the joy box,” asking to sit in (“Could you loan me the piano for a minute?”) and tells his audience, “I haven’t been doing much singing, folks … This is new.” He sings, “They say dreams never die; I think that’s a lie … How can a dream live on, after the night is gone? … What becomes of the soul when the story is said and done … the music we hear will all disappear … on swallow wings.”

When he finishes the song, he sees Jillie—but walks out, just giving her a “little wave.” He tells Eddie: “See ya back at the crib,” but Eddie knows he’s just witnessed Jack’s “swan song … He just walked out into the night and disappeared.” Years go by. Eddie receives postcards depicting mountains and pine trees and the only words are: “It’s a good life up here.” Word comes he’s worked as a deck hand … he still listens to the radio—broadcasts from New York and Chicago. He signs off all contact: “Take care of yourself, Jack.”

At the close of the radio-drama, Eddie reflects: “We were two swinging cats at the opposite ends of our prime … Jack Lewis was my friend … he was the voice of Chicago: the sound!”

The voice of the announcer introduces the full cast, to rousing Big Band music and raucous applause from the audience. Kurt Elling is alive and well! He has added another “chapter” to his own story, his exceptional multi-faceted career. Congratulations, Kurt and friends on an excellent production: brilliant music, meaningful lyrics, a perfect balance between music and words, accessible story line, fully engaging drama, exceptional acting—the works! And thanks, again, Trudy Johnson-Lenz, for letting me know in advance about this important event.

 

Pianist Lynne Arriale recently sent me her latest CD, Give Us These Days, featuring her trio with Jasper Somsen on bass, and Jasper Van Hulten on drums. Going through previous recordings I have of hers, I realized we “go back” a long long way. I have: The Eyes Have It (1994), When You Listen (1995), With Words Unspoken (1996), A Long Road Home (1997), The Pleasure Of Your Company (with Richard “Cookie” Thomas: 1998), Melody (1999), Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival (1999), Inspiration (2000), Arise (2002), Come Together (2004). Other recordings by this prolific artist I do not have are: Lynne Arriale Trio: Live In Burghausen (2006), Lynne Arriale Trio Live (2011), Convergence (2011), Live at B’ Jazz (2014), Nuance:The Bennett Studio Sessions (2017), Solo (2017).

If I remember correctly, I first met Lynne Arriale, and heard her play, at the Jazz Bakery in Santa Monica—perhaps as far back as the mid-1990s. Fellow jazz writer Scott Yanow took me there, and introduced me to Lynne (whom he’d written about). In 2002, an article I wrote about her (based on an interview I had with her after she performed at the Jazz & Blues Company in Carmel) appeared in the March/ April issue of Coda. When Marian McPartland played at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2004, she did so, in piano duets, with Jason Moran, Bill Charlop, and Lynne Arriale—and I contributed an article, “Piano Abundance: Marian McPartland, the matriarch of jazz piano, highlights a constellation of keyboard stars,” to that year’s Festival program. Lynne was one of the “keyboard stars” I wrote about. I also recall a concert she gave at a walkdown venue I don’t remember the name of in Pacific Grove, CA, where I live—Lynne performing solo on a white grand piano.

I wrote the following in the Coda piece: “[Lynne Arriale] opened her second set at the Jazz & Blues Company in Carmel, California with “Bemsha Swing”–Monk with a vengeance, amply demonstrating that she’s at home with all forms of jazz and can richly interpret anybody’s tunes. No easy task in the case of Monk, given the individuation that giant himself possessed, and the host of genres (from stride to blues to bop) he too had absorbed and transformed … Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge prized the sort of individual artistry that could ‘dissolve, diffuse, dissipate in order to re-create.’ Coleridge, and Monk, would have been pleased with what Arriale did with “Bemsha Swing.” With unabated force and skill, she broke up the rhythms in a manner that might have surprised Monk, adding some cutting-edge cragginess of her own–wild clusters, sudden glisses, insinuating phrases and pauses that might have made Cecil Taylor smile, had he been in the house! The audience was kept alert, alive, and appreciative by it all until, the tune–the avalanche–resolved, Lynne Arriale sat back and smiled herself, saying, “It’s great to feel the presence of listening.” … She then exchanged the appropriate power (and joy) of Monkish “attitude” for the deceptive ease and serenity of William Walton’s “Touch Her Soft Lips and Part,” a tune that contained classical elegance.”

The first tune on the Give Us These Days CD is Joni Mitchell’s classic “Woodstock.” A somewhat solemn vamp leads into the theme, and the solely instrumental respectful rendering more than suggests the words (getting the soul “free,” and “back to the garden”); deft, direct, clean, carefully selected notes capturing the mood (along with Jasper Van Hulten’s accents and cymbal washes); a keyboard sweep followed by a percussive mode reassessing the event (bombers turned into butterflies—or “camping out” turned muddy?); a measure of frenzy in the celebration—chordal variation on the theme, and then back to it, mixed with an anthem (a touch of Jimi Hendrix?) “feel” and out, sweeping the keys again.

The next tune, “Appassionata,” features Van Hulten with a host of drum effects (all over the kit percussion), side by side with Lynne Arriale’s passionate but spare (subtle!) Flamingo melodic touch, handsome interplay, a lively yet over all lightsome conversation, dialogue, exchange … piano and drums back off for an subtle, agile bass solo by Jasper Somsen. Lynne’s ingenious rhythmic comping transforms itself into alert, alive melodicism for the close—followed by the lyric refrain of “welcome” in her composition (all but three tunes on the CD are her own), “Finding Home”; handsome lower register  chords beneath a lovely “no place like home” melody, offered as if cherished, caressed (her masterful touch!).

In his liner notes to Give Us These Days, Lawrence Abrams writes: “Above all, Lynne remains unfailingly a melodist. Her improvised musical sentences, or lines, are strong, lean, and lyrical. But whether they are rhythmic or motivic, as in Over and Out, or as in Finding Home, luxuriously long and complex, they fairly glow with her passion for melody.”

Here’s a photo of Lynne Arriale and the cover of the “Give Us These Days” CD (Photo credit: https://twitter.com):

Lynne Arriale 3  Lynne Arriale Give Us These Days

When, in the 2002 interview, I talked with her about her penchant for unadorned melody, Lynne Arriale offered a fitting analogy to speech. “‘Just because you know more words [substitute “notes”?], does that mean your speech is going to be more profound, or your writing? And the answer is ‘No,’ of course not. We all know that, yet it’s funny that, in music sometimes, doing more to something is considered hip, or whatever. But if we dress it up, we won’t be able to see the forest from the trees’ … Elsewhere, in the liner notes to Lynne Arriale Trio Live at Montreux, she’d said she wants an audience ‘to experience the widest range of human emotions,’ absorbing ‘many different colors, many different moods, many different directions.’ It works. Such generosity of spirit endeared her to the audience in Switzerland, and they loved her for it in Carmel too.”

Lynne Arriale generally works in a trio format. On that night in Carmel, I interviewed her with miracle-working drummer Steve Davis, who had provided percussive support for the past eight years and seemed to anticipate the pianist’s every musical move (for example, in their rapport on “Seven Steps to Heaven” with its stuttered Satie-like close). On the night I saw, heard, and interviewed her, Lynne Arriale’s plane had been delayed in Chicago, and she arrived at The Jazz & Blues Company just ten minutes before the trio’s gig began. Nevertheless, a slender, beautiful woman with auburn hair (which, tossing it in time to “Steven Steps to Heaven,” flared red) and stunning blue eyes, she carried a black “pillow” or cushion to the white piano bench (a cushion that looked as if it might be used for displaying jewels at Tiffany’s), and she performed without a trace of haste–or hunger (after her sets, when she, Steve Davis, and I retired to the Rio Grill, I would learn that she hadn’t had time to eat–an activity she undertook with zeal). I wrote, “Lynne Arriale’s appearance matches the range of her music, for it also suggests a completely winning, slightly waif-like quality that quickly converts to a tough, no-nonsense and fully articulate manner. All of these aspects turn up in her music.”

The title tune on the Give Us These Days CD (introduced by mallets on cymbal, establishing at the start a very comfortable “setting’) is again a piece that delivers sublime melody, again featuring Lynne’s brilliant bright touch, this time the mood arising from gratitude. The piece was inspired by Jim Schley’s poem, “Devotional,” which pays homage to every human cycle from marriage and inception (“confiding as never before /with body-sundering confidence;/ the sealed secrecy of youth”) to aging and treasured simple senses: “Hear one plea / when I say, let each of us three / live to be old … the sense of smell is ravenous / as you know, for these / blessed scents of kin: / the cotton jersey you work in, / or stockings for nights of singing / translucent as fragrance, / jade dress and cream-colored blouse, / mine to hold as I fold them … If I might be /so bold … if I may —Give us these days.”

Lynne Arriale “translates,” embodies such feelings into an instrumental prayer, reference for “the things of this world,” faith: the dialogue this time taking place between her left (chordal) and right (melody line) hands, totally at peace, at ease with one another, delicate at times to the point of appropriate silence (“stillness”), heartfelt devotion enhanced, again, by her melodic poise.

Here’s another photo of Lynne Arriale, surrounded by a few of her other recordings (Photo credit: http://www.wuwm.com):

Lynne Arriale Inspiration Lynne Arriale Milwaukee

Lynne Arriale Convergence 2

The tune “Slightly Off Center” is just that! It’s “Free up!” time, and the trio does, with ease—prancing, proud, uncompromised expression, extension—and another fetching melody: sprightly, playful, leaning to the left, leaning to the right, but keeping, always, its difficult balance—truly swinging! Dexterous, mellow hard bop—with a sudden stop! “Another Sky” offers a beautiful panorama established by the first few notes: soft spacious reflection, restraint, taste, and a grand “view” of the world. As is the “acceptance” (in the Zen sense of “mindfulness”) of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” (“There will be an answer … Let it be.”): not a trace of competition or cynicism (with or about the original) in Lynne’s improvisation, but her own “space” taken possession of; her lyricism, laced with her gracious “touch” always, present without strain … Let it be.

“Over and Out” is a perfect instrumental close out piece, which displays each artist in the trio at “the best” (just as the bass and drum solos have been throughout the recording), “Gospel funky” here (as the liner notes say); a joyful noise served with gladness; Jasper Somsen soloing handsomely, subtly; Jasper Van Hulten quick and clean (Lynne churning it up in the background, frisky, free play) and all three back into a unison funky close out.

“Take It With Me” is my favorite Tom Waits song—and it was a delight to hear Kate McGarry sing it so beautifully here, with Lynne providing perfect (exquisite, tasteful, imaginative) backing. “It’s got to be more than flesh and bone / All that you’ve loved is all you own … I’m gonna take it with me when I go.” Human promise, hope, experience—transmuted, transcended … Congratulations, and thanks, Lynne Arriale and friends!

 

The third artist I would like to celebrate is Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award (twice!) winner and Poet Laureate of the United States  (2011-1012) Philip Levine—and by “extension,” saxophonist Benjamin Boone. I was fortunate to become friends with Phil, under unusual  circumstance. We discovered we had attended the same Art Tatum/Erroll Garner concert in Detroit the mid-1950s, and we discovered we shared the same disease (vestibular: vertigo)—but the collaboration between Philip Levine and Benjamin Boone came about in a more “natural” manner. Both teaching at Fresno State University (Phil Creative Writing, Benjamin Music), they paired off for a recording, The Poetry of Jazz, which featured Levine reading his own poems (many related to music), Boone providing musical backing (as composer, arranger, performer). The first CD includes further musical assistance on the part of “super star” instrumentalists Chris Potter, Tom Harrell, Branford Marsalis, and Greg Osby—whereas for a second CD, The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two (recorded between August 2012 and October 2018), Boone assembled a first-rate ensemble of local talent. Philip Levine reads poems that are favorites of mine, because they focus on the lives (the sort of existence Levine shared) of working-class Detroiters–and the readings resonate with my own experience of that city.

The first piece, “Let Me Begin Again,” opens (musically) with a cymbal wash, piano flourish, subtle alto saxophone, and Philip Levine steps in: “ … begin again as a speck / of dust caught in the night winds … Let /me go back to land after a lifetime of going nowhere.”; and it ends “Tonight I shall enter my life / after being at sea for ages, quietly, / in a hospital named for an automobile [Henry Ford Hospital, where Levine was born, and at which my own grandmother was once Head of Nurses!] … A tiny wise child who this time will love / his life because it is like no other.” Benjamin Boone matches or complements each shift in mood, tone, and time passing handsomely.

The second piece, “An Ordinary Morning,” is introduced by a soft acoustic bass pattern, then Philip Levine: “A man is singing on the bus / coming in from Toledo,” his “hoarse, quiet voice” … “tells / of love that is true, of love /that endures a whole weekend.” [Music: melodic sax in background]: The entire bus joins in song, even the driver: “One by one my new neighbors … accept / this bright sung conversation … We are / the living newly arrived / in Detroit, city of dreams … each on his own black throne.” Once again, Benjamin Boone “comps” each shift in mood or to another character adroitly (an apt sax fade at the end)—and assists in establishing the irony as well (“Detroit, city of dreams”).

Here are photos of the covers of the two The Poetry of Jazz CDs:

Phil Levine The Poetry of Jazz Vol 2  Phil Levine The Poetry of Jazz

I met Philip Levine when a teaching colleague of mine at Monterey Peninsula College, George Lober (who had Levine as a teacher at Fresno State University), invited him to give a reading at MPC. George told me that Phil was having vertigo “issues,” and would like to talk with me about the condition, which we did—at some length at a party after the reading, and thereafter in letters. We would correspond from April 2003 through August 2005, and not only discussed our mutual vestibular “affliction,” but jazz, the poetry scene in general, and living in New York City (where Phil was also teaching at the time).

I’ve had a vertigo condition for twenty-seven years now (brought on by a viral infection that did permanent damage to my inner ear), and when I met Phil in 2003, I had collected a stack of articles on the condition as thick as the Bible (both Testaments), much of which I passed on to him. Here’s a portion of a letter I would receive not long after his reading in Monterey: “Thanks for all the advice re the vertigo. I went off to Nashville last week prepared for trouble & got almost none … I’ll try most anything. I have had several episodes of loss of balance but no vertigo since I saw you. During my last reading I caught myself about to make a rather large gesture which would have evolved looking up–which is what I did in Monterey–, & I did not make said gesture. I’ll see how things go, & and if NYC is OK I’ll stick with what I have. If not I’ll try to locate someone as good as your Dr. Schindler [a San Francisco otolaryngologist who realized I had an inner ear problem, not Meniere’s Disease, with which I had been mistakenly diagnosed elsewhere for three years!]. I’ve been going to a gym most days; I use an exercise bike.”

I’m pleased to report that by the time of our final correspondence in 2005, Phil had done something I’ve never been able to do: he beat the vertigo “rap,” telling me, “We made a trip to Pragu, & I managed to get a low-salt menu anywhere I went … It’s now more than a year since I’ve had any loss of balance & almost two years since I had vertigo. I stick to the diet & try to avoid stress, which isn’t always possible.”

Phil Levine was the same candid, upfront, open, forthright presence in person (or in his letters) that he is in his poems (and that, unfortunately, has not always been the case with poets I’ve known). I treasure each of the letters he wrote to me, and what he had to say about poetry has proven invaluable. “I can’t stand people who think they are owed an audience of thousands & untold wealth because they write poetry. I went into this shit with my eyes open; I knew the chances of any success, commercial or otherwise, were about zero; I did it because I loved writing, I simply wanted to do this & nothing else. Well, life has given me the opportunity to write. And on top of that I lucked in & got a good publisher, a great editor, & some prizes, all more than I expected. If I’d never won a prize would I still be writing? Yes, If I’d never published would I still be writing? I don’t know. Thank God my character never had to face that test … The poetry thing is so intense here [NYC] you have to get away. Too many people on the make … It reminds me of Nathanial West on Hollywood. He’s got a character who can only think of everything in terms of: Will it film? Here it’s, would this make an anthology & who would publish it? Horseshit.”

I was thrilled when I sent him a book of my own poems, he responded favorably: “Thanks also for Some Grand Dust [We had talked about this book the night I met him]. Several of the Moker poems are special. He’s not Kees’ Robinson or Berryman’s Henry. He’s really your own Moker with a fuller inner life from either of those two. He’s also much more accepting of life as it is than they are. It’s a collection that deserves much more attention than it’s probably had, but the poetry world is like the rest of the American worlds: a mess … Good luck, & thanks again for your help & your gifts … ps. I’m still astonished that we were both at that Tatum night. I saw him two days later talking baseball & got a poem out of it about 30 years later.”

His Tatum poem is a gem (I was surprised it was not on either of the The Poetry of Jazz CDs. It’s called “On the Corner,” and the great blind pianist is presented as passing by “blind as the sea, /heavy, tottering /on the arm of the young / bass player, and they /both talking / Jackie Robinson.” The bass player say, “Wait’ll / you see Mays,” how fast he is too first, like Jackie Robinson—and the last line has Tatum speaking, “I can’t hardly wait.” In another letter, I mentioned Tatum and blind vocalist Al Hibbler having “driving” [an automobile!] contests, and Phil replied, “Art Tatum & Hibbler driving! My mother was almost as bad. When she was in her eighties her sight began to go–macular degeneration–but she didn’t let that stop her from driving, though she did stay off the freeways–by this time she lived in LA. Finally she couldn’t get a renewal on her license, couldn’t pass the vision test, couldn’t get insurance, & sold her car. She never seemed to take into account the fact she might kill a dozen kids–she lived only two blocks from a big high school.”

Here are photos of Philip Levine, with Benjamin Boone, and solo (Photo credits: www.nytimes.com; jazzdagama.com; The Fresno Bee; artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com):

Phillip Levine 3

ben-and-phil

Phillip Levine with Benjamin Boone 2  Phil Levine NY Times

We talked lots of jazz in our correspondence, and I’ll give one more sample here—and then provide a couple more examples of tracks from the The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two CD. I’d mentioned serving on a panel at the Monterey Jazz Festival with Charles Mingus’s wife, Sue—and Phil wrote: “Have you read the book by Sue Mingus about Charles the maniac? It has a name like ‘Today at Midnight’? [Tonight at Noon: A Love Story].The parts that are good are so good that everyone who cares about jazz or human behavior ought to read it. How she stuck with Mingus is beyond me, except he was fascinating as well as monstrous … You mentioned combining music & poetry. I did several concerts with a great percussionist named Steve Schick; I once rehearsed with two of the cats from the Paul Winter consort, the cellist & the pianist, but their playing was far too soft for what I was reading–Garcia Lorca’s toughest stuff from POET IN NEW YORK, “Offices & Denunciations.” And the cellist said flat out, You need a percussionist, & within a day we had this guy Schick, & he was superb. This was for a Christmas thing in a cathedral, & working with these guys was fun. They were real pros.”

And now we have recordings of Phillip Levine reading his poems within a totally compatible musical setting created by Benjamin Boone. Two more of my favorite tracks on The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two are “Belle Isle, 1949” and “The Conductor of Nothing.” The first, after a synthesized “spring” atmosphere is established musically, describes a adolescent “swim” in the Detroit River (the “voice” of the poem and “a Polish highschool girl / I’d never seen before” run down, “in this first warm spring night” to “baptize ourselves in the brine / of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles, / melted snow.” The ending is classic: “ Back panting / to the gray coarse beach we didn’t dare / fall on, the damp piles of clothes, / and dressing side by side in silence / to go back where we came from.”  Alternating piano notes and soft melodic alto sax refrain close out the piece, and I couldn’t help but think (or feel), O Yes, memories of those Michigan “first warm spring nights”!

The second poem, “The Conductor of Nothing,” opens with delicate wire brush drum work and soft saxophone trills, a wavering mood; then Phil with a complaint in the voice of the narrator himself: “If you were to stop and ask me / how long I have been as I am, / a man who hates nothing / and rides old trains for the sake / of riding. I could only answer / with that soft moan I’ve come / to love. It seems a lifetime I’ve / been silently crossing and recrossing / this huge land of broken rivers / and fouled lakes, and no one has cared enough even to ask for a ticket / or question this dingy parody of a uniform.” We get a considerable portion of the conductor’s existence, and the poem ends: “Thus / I come back to life each day /miraculously among the dead, / a sort of moving monument / to what a man can never be– / someone who can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ / kindly and with a real meaning, and bending to hear you out, place / a hand upon your shoulder, open / my eyes fully to your eyes, lift / your burden down, and point the way.” The musical close out consists of gentle piano accents, and a wavering saxophone, to point that way.

If you feel the need (and in our present era, that’s a very legitimate need, I feel) for poetry with real meaning–poetry filled with genuine care, insight, and compassion–accompanied by a musical setting that contains the same, The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two (and the first volume!) awaits you.

And what a joy for me: to have known this truly great poet and human being, Philip Levine—just as it’s been genuine joy to have known and written about Kurt Elling and Lynne Arriale. I hope you have taken pleasure in this blog devoted to their latest accomplishments.

 

 

Poetry and Disinterestedness, John Keats, William Hazlitt, Bianca Stone, and Gothic Grief

I’m back (from blogs on jazz) to thinking lots about poetry lately (and writing some): thinking focused on what makes poetry worth writing (and reading): what makes the act of writing poetry truly meaningful, truly necessary (required to be achieved, needed; essential, imperative, indispensable, incumbent). In 1955, sixty-four years ago, I began to read contemporary poetry with the serious attention it deserves. I attended “live” readings in New York City, and I spent a considerable amount of time listening to the then available Caedmon recordings: Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Archibald MacLeish, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Robert Graves, Stephen Spender, et cetera.

I spent considerable time attempting to determine just what made poetry “truly meaningful,” essential, true–rather than a gratuitous (“not called for by the circumstances not necessary, appropriate, or justified UNWARRANTED”) act—and over the past sixty-four  years, I have read, heard and more than likely written work that might be regarded as spurious “creativity”: just showing off, displaying well-schooled (too often workshop well-schooled?) verbal finesse (or what one has been taught as finesse—playing “the game,” clever, “cute”); mistaking therapy (getting “stuff” off one’s mind, or chest–unloading) for The Real Thing; a martyrdom that sacrifices original thought and feeling for overt political purpose or persuasion (adopting a stance or “position”—a specific party platform the language of which is not one’s own); self-aggrandizement (overestimating one’s own importance or power—an attitude that might be present, and detrimental, no matter what activity one is engaged in); or the worst offense against genuine poetry perhaps: outright fakery—deceit, dissimulation, dissembling, enjoying being thought of as a “Poet” (capital “P”), pretending one is a Poet, but not necessarily producing much that resembles the art form itself.

I’ve never had the courage of conviction of the totally committed, uncompromising Osip Mandelstam, who, when an aspiring young poet read his poems to him (“everything that I could”), listened attentively (“his face showing neither approval nor disapproval”), and finally said, “It doesn’t matter how gutta-percha [rigid natural latex produced from the sap of a Malaysian tree] a voice you read those poems in—they are still bad.”—and on another occasion, when the wannabe poet V. Kaverin read his work to Mandelstam, the poet spoke to him “sternly, with passion and conviction”: “There was no room for irony. It was important to him that I stop writing verses, and what he was saying was a defense of poetry against me and against those tens and hundreds of young men and women who were amusing themselves with the game of words.” (from Mandelstam, by Clarence Brown). Kaverin gained his first “intimation of the fact that poetry does not exist for itself alone, and that if it does not strive to express life, to give it lasting form, no one has any use for even the cleverest gathering of rhymed lines.”

I’ve read and heard some open to doubt, debatable “poetry” over the years, but I’ve never had the nerve to respond as Mandelstam did, although … on occasion, I’ve wished I had.

So … What IS The Real Thing? Whenever, now, I feel a bit uncertain, I go back to what I recognized, experienced as “The Real Thing” when I first read it—this a few years before I got serious about the art form in NYC: when I discovered the work of John Keats. As Andrew Motion writes in his excellent Keats: A Biography: “Keats confirms his ambition (his appeal to posterity became increasingly emphatic as he failed to find short-term success), and asserts his necessary independence. If he is to make his name as a poet, he says, it will be because he develops his individual gifts, rather than adapting them to suit the expectations of a ‘fierce miscreed.’ He pledges his loyalty to an aesthetic which is highly personal, rather than one which is determined by conventional readers or specific social forces … It is only by resisting the temptation to tease ‘the world for grace’ that poets can achieve their ambitions. Identity depends on calm self-possession.”

Here are four portraits of John Keats—the first a painting by William Hilton; second a sketch by Benjamin Haydon; a life mask by Haydon, and a piece by Joseph Severn (the artist who accompanied Keats to Rome, where the poet died at age twenty-five). (Photo credits: Wikipedia; The Thanatos Archive; keatslettersproject.com; amazon.com)

john_keats_by_william_hilton  john-keats-sketch

john keats life mask by benjamin haydon  john keats sketch sleeping by joseph severen

And here are words from the man himself, from The Selected Letters of John Keats: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 Feb. 1818: “Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself … We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing that enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself, but with its subject—How beautiful are the retired flowers! How would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, “Admire me I am a violet!—dote upon me I am a primrose! … I don’t mean to deny Wordsworth’s grandeur and Hunt’s merit, but I mean to say we need not be teased with grandeur and merit when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive.”

Here are a few more insights from Keats: A Biography, by Andrew Motion: “Inevitably, some aspects of the age influenced him more than others, and some hardly affected him at all. This means that distinctions have to be made, as well as associations emphasized, in placing his story within its context. But even when his poems struggled to overrule time, they reflected his particular circumstances. He was born with the City at his back, among clamorous commercial interests, Volunteers training, radicals protesting, hospitals expanding, and suburbs spilling into open country. He spent his adult life paying very deliberate attention to these things, and to other national and international issues as well. In some respects they persuaded him that he was an outsider. In others they gave him confidence. He could insist on independence because he knew that he belonged nowhere precisely. He looked beyond everyday events because he understood how they might confine and disappoint him. And he realized that in striving to achieve various sorts of cohesion in his work, he could never ignore the stubborn facts of paradox and contradiction.”

Reading Shakespeare “religiously” provided John Keats a sense that “the most powerful poetry does not make its effects by hectoring, or even candidly expressing the author’s personal opinion, but by creating a self-sufficient imaginative universe—a universe in which readers are invited to make independent critical decisions and moral judgements.” Poet/critic Matthew Arnold understood that Keats’ work was ‘not imitative, indeed, of Shakespeare, but Shakespearean because its expression has that rounded perfection and felicity of loveliness of which Shakespeare is the great master’ … Keats’ affinity with Shakespeare depends on thoughts about poetic identity; about the overriding need for it to remain fluid, to have no trace of the egotistical sublime, to have in its extreme suppleness and empathy ‘no character at all.’”

This paragraph anticipates Keats’ theory of impersonality or Negative Capability. Contemplating his own craft and the art of others, especially William Shakespeare, writing to his brothers in 1817, Keats proposed that a great thinker is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” A poet, then, has the power to bury self-consciousness, dwell in a state of openness to all experience, and identify with the object contemplated. The inspirational power of beauty, according to Keats, is more important than the quest for objective fact; as he writes in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:”‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Writing to his friend Benjamin Bailey in the same year, Keats said: “Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect – but they have not any individuality, any determined Character … I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not – for I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential beauty … The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, – he awoke and found it truth.”

The approach, or philosophy, is one John Keats shared with (and was perhaps inspired by) another friend: the older, more “well-established” (highly respected lecturer, critic) William Hazlitt, whose core or major principle was disinterestedness in all its modes: detachment, equity, evenhandedness, fairness, impartiality, justice, neutrality, nonpartianship, objectivity (the autonyms for which are: bias, favoritism, nonobjectivity, onesidedness, partisanship, and prejudice).

Here’s a self-portrait by William Hazlitt, and the cover of his Selected Writings: (Photo credit: en.wikipedia.org)

william hazlitt self-portrait wikipedia    william hazlett selected works

[The] ability to respond to imaginative and rhetorical power, “even in those cases where one might disagree with the ideas so movingly expressed,” was evidence of the disinterestedness which Hazlitt prized.—or as David Bromwich [in Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic] emphasizes: “Hazlitt’s concept of disinterestedness did not mean lack of interest or strict judicial impartiality, but rather, the capacity to enter sympathetically into interests or positions other than one’s own. Disinterestedness did not preclude partisanship, or Hazlitt would not have been able to achieve it!” … In his early foray into philosophy, ‘’An Essay on the Principles of Human Action’”(1805), Hazlitt argued that “the imagination was essentially disinterested – as capable of responding to the predicament of a friend, neighbor, or stranger as to one’s own predicament. Habit, of course, would in time render us more self-centered, but innately, our imaginative capacities were boundless … The imagination required to appreciate the plight of this yet-nonexistent self, he argued, was akin to the imagination that appreciated the plight of all other selves – mine, thine, his, and hers. Hazlitt’s theory directly challenged the prevailing Hobbesian idea of man’s innate selfishness, a belief which was often used to justify social repression (society must limit individual selfishness), or, in more Malthusian fashion, to justify a laissez faire attitude in which the selfishness of each person was presumed to be balanced by the selfishness of everyone else.”

Here’s William Hazlitt in his own early-19th century words (from “An Essay on the Principles of Human Action”): “Would it not be strange if this constant fellowship [of a child, in school] of joys and sorrows did not produce in him some sensibility to the good or ill fortune of his companions, and some real good-will towards them? The greatest part of our pleasures depend upon habit: and those which arise from acts of kindness and disinterested [italics mine] attachment to others are the most common, the most lasting, the least mixed with evil of all others, as a man devoid of all attachment to others, whose heart was thoroughly hard and insensible to every thing but his own interest would scarcely be able to support his existence, (for in him the spring and active principle of life would be gone), it follows that we ought to cultivate sentiments of generosity and kindness for others … The advantages of virtue are however to be derived, like those of any liberal art, from the immediate gratification attending it, from it’s necessary effect on the mind, and not from a gross calculation of self-interest. This effect must be the greatest, where there is the most love of virtue for its own sake, as we become truly disinterested, and generous.”

On Keats’ “authenticity,” David Bromwich writes: “The sumptuous details, Classical references and painterly gestures would all become trademarks. And there is something else too—something that again anticipates his mature work. The ‘beauties’ of the ‘Imitation’ are not merely a lovely escape from the world; they enact a form of engagement with it. By setting his ‘emerald’ island ‘in the silver sheen / Of the bright waters’, Keats describes a miniature England that belongs in a specific historical context. Its seclusion is an emblem of peacefulness in general, and the result of a particular Peace—the Peace between England and France, which was signed in Paris at the time it was written.”

I’ve carried The Real Thing, the poetry of John Keats with me throughout eighty-three years of existence now, and a single poem of his, “Bright Star,” came in quite handy, stood me in good stead, with a few old girl friends and even with my wife of sixty-two years, Betty (whom I’ve known for seventy-two years!). I still love this (to my ears, eyes, heart, and soul) perfect poem, and here it is:

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—

No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,

Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

I return, frequently, to the work of poets I have relished in my lifetime, and regard as The Real Thing: the Russian poets Osip Mandelstam, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Anna Ahkmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak; the Greek poets Georgos Seferis, Yannis Ritsos, and Odysseus Elytis; Americans Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Jack Spicer, Elizabeth Bishop, James Scheville, Richard Wilbur, Carolyn Kizer, John Logan, Philip Levine, Paul Zimmer, Li-Young Lee, Amy Gerstler, Mary Ruefle, Robert Sward, Sandra McPherson—and a recent “discovery,” the multi-talented Bianca Stone.

Since “finding” her, I have acquired four books by Bianca Stone (an accomplished visual artist as well as poet): Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, The Mobius Strip Club of Grief, Antigonick (a collaboration with translator Anne Carson), and Poetry Comics from The Book of Hours. She is also the chair of the Ruth Stone Foundation, an organization that honors the work of her grandmother, poet Ruth Stone–whose 1999 book Ordinary Words won the National Book Critics Circle Award, soon followed by other award-winning collections, including In the Next Galaxy (2002), winner of the National Book Award; In the Dark (2004); and What Love Comes To: New & Selected Poems (2008), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

The first book by Bianca Stone I read was Someone Else’s Wedding Vows—and a single poem there, “Reading a Science Article on the Airplane to JFK,” nearly stopped my heart (and brought empathic tears) because my sister Emily, six years younger than I (active, joyous, loving, a soul-mate at whose bedside I would sit, when she was a teenager, to play “quiet chords from my guitar,” and sing her favorite folk-songs), had just died of pancreatic cancer. Here’s a portion of Bianca Stone’s poem:

“… You have experienced profound grief—

how do you react to this?

Down on the ground your family

writhes. Down on the ground

you are surrounded at Starbucks

with a terrible glow.

And you have seen someone you love,

with a colossal

complex vehemence, die.

And it is pinned under glass

in perfect condition.

It is wrapped around you

like old fur. You’ve looked at the sky

until your eyes touched

zodiacal fantasies—right there in the void.

You know this. That the body lays down

while the mind bloats

on intellectual chaos …”

Here’s a portion of a review of The Mobius Strip Club of Grief  (the second book by Bianca Stone I read, and admired, extravagantly) by Jaime Zuckerman (It appeared in The Kenyon Review): “The Möbius Strip Club of Grief builds on the intellectual work of its feminist forebears and offers a vision of womanhood that is raw, raging, sad, and beautiful. The women in Stone’s poems don’t fit any of the definitions of woman that society has neatly provided; her poems blur, challenge, and outright erase those definitions completely. In their place, Stone offers a womanhood in which we can find some sort of personal freedom from all the grief of simply living. A womanhood that will last long after the current trends have lost their shine and we still need to be heard … Stone’s first collection of poems, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows—as well as her collection of poetry, comics, and several chapbooks—are full of falling in love, being lost and found, sometimes desperate, sometimes joyful abandon … The Möbius Strip Club of Grief begins as an elegy for Bianca Stone’s grandmother, the poet Ruth Stone, and becomes an elegy for America … [Bianca Stone] asks herself about the collection, ‘Why am I writing this psychosexual opus to the mind of my women?’ Because, Bianca, we need to hear it. We need all the inspiration we can get right now … It is through the ‘genius’ or the creativity of women—grandmas, mothers, daughters—that we can find some salvation or solace. It’s poetry itself that gives us our agency and helps us overcome our multitude of grief.”

Here’s a photo of Bianca Stone, of Ruth Stone, a sample of Bianca Stone’s art work, and the cover of her book Poetry Comics from the Book of Hours: (Photo credits: Facebook; poetryfoundation.org/poets/ruth-stonewww.essaydaily.org: Visual Essayists: Bianca Stone)

bianca stone 11  ruth-stone poetry foundation

bianca stone art work bed and upside down lovers      bianca stone poetry comics cover

I let John Keats and William Hazlett speak for themselves, and their work; here’s Bianca Stone on being a poet/artist (interview by Ariel Kahn in The Ilanot Review): “There’s so much that can be expressed with visual images that just can’t be in words. And what’s powerful about words alone is that the reader can create the visual in their mind. This of course is a well-known fact about the power of poetry. And why so many people get it wrong trying to ‘understand’ it. But in any case, I try in my poetry comics to not take away that negative capability [John Keats!]that mystery in the words, and instead think of the images as I would a line of a poem … I’m more apt to allow for irony in the juxtaposition between playful and dramatic. I like to counteract the tones; they come from the same place, but translate differently once out in the open. Writing poetry requires a certain amount of something–not necessarily work, but something– in the head; even two words coming together, that power when they are beside one another–it’s a very specific mode of the brain that’s turning on. Whereas with images I feel I can let my mind wander while I do it. There’s a totally different area sparking when I’m doing this. Different demands of mindfulness …  like the forms of poetry that make it poetry, it’s a necessary confine … that white space (gutter) between panels. The blank space creates meaning. That space where we don’t see what’s happening is where the magic is. It’s just like Keats’ negative capability. It’s just like a line break. Like the poetic form, or just the form the poem makes on the page: stanzas, etc. So I know that space, and the confined space, is important … Letting imagination cross the border of what you want to convey to the reader—what is perhaps appropriate or literal—and the unknown, the enigmatic. That is what I am most interested in.. I encourage readers to smile in curiosity! But also to surrender themselves to The Not Knowing. There’s a power in not asking what something means, the irony being that the question becomes relevant only once you stop asking it. And also perhaps, in some ways, answered … Giving something a term, however undefined, can be life-altering … And there’s so much imperfection in labels, but that too is what’s so fun about it … So after I heard this term [“poetry comics”] I began to combine poetry and art with great intention. And calling it something gave me permission to bring my art into my (let’s call it) ‘professional’ life as a writer. I mean, here were these two arts I’d loved doing ever since I could hold a pen, and now I could experiment with what it really meant to combine them; how to do both justice; how to complicate and further the power of each medium.”

When I think of Bianca Stone’s work, I find the rightful “grief” that Jaime Zuckerman recognized and commented on, but I also find an appropriate, unique, original, witty, a bit ghoulish, disturbing “stance” that I think of as “Gothic”—thus the phrase “Gothic Grief” in my title for this Bill’s Blog post. I’ll take a little time, here, to establish a definition of what I see as a tradition I feel she “carries on,” and represents well. The phrase “Gothic art” arrived on the cultural scene in the 12th century AD, a style of medieval art developed in Northern France, inspired by the development of Gothic architecture. The Gothic period included sculpture, panel painting, stained glass, fresco and illuminated manuscripts. Here are some examples:

gothic sculpture 1    gothic sculpture 2

From Wikipedia: “The earliest Gothic art was monumental sculpture, on the walls of Cathedrals and abbeys–illustrating stories of the New Testament and the Old Testament side by side. Saints’ lives were often depicted. Images of the Virgin Mary changed from the Byzantine iconic form to a more human and affectionate mother, cuddling her infant, swaying from her hip, and showing the refined manners of a well-born aristocratic courtly lady.”

From Wikipedia again: “In literature, Gothic fiction (largely known by the subgenre Gothic horror) would come about in 1764 (at the hands of English author Horace Walpole, with his novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled in its second edition ‘A Gothic Story’)–a genre that combines fiction, horror, death, and at times romance. The genre had much success in the 19th century, as witnessed in prose by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allen Poe, and in the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron.” Another novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

From architecture to literature—quite a journey! As is: from the 12th century to Bianca Stone. Here are some more lines from one of her poems, “Emily Dickinson”—lines I feel express “Gothic Grief”:

“She applied her passion like a hot iron sword.

And no one can take off her clothes, ever—she comes

and her language takes them off of us,

not piece by piece, not fumbling buttons,

but all at once in a single shot,

her tiny poems like grenades that fit in the hand.

And we here bask in the debris,

stripped down to our private parts,

the snow white of the bone, the authentic corpse in heat.

The absolute original.”

To my mind (and heart, and soul), Bianca Stone is an “absolute original,” The Real Thing. I rarely, if ever, attempt to contact poets I admire or have just “discovered,” but I was so impressed with Bianca’s brilliant mix of poetry and visual art that I sent her the following (and received a gracious “Thank you, William!” on Facebook): “I am relatively ancient and relished an exciting era (mid-50s: abstract expressionism) at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (and playing jazz piano there). Because I loved both art forms, I attempted to combine (and do justice to both) poetry and graphic art: woodcut prints of Classical and Modern Greek and Russian poems—but I did not possess the imagination, originality, and “great intention” you offer in your poetry comics, Book of Hours, Antigonick—and all you do with visual art and words. Thanks for advancing, so handsomely, a tradition that began for me with appreciation of the work of William Blake, Kenneth Patchen, and Shiko Munakata.”

Gratitude for disinterestedness, John Keats, William Hazlitt, Bianca Stone, Gothic grief, and poets who enrich and sustain our lives with The Real Thing seems a reasonable way to close out this blog post. Yes, Thanks!

 

 

 

The 61st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival–Continued

At the close of my last blog post (which I devoted largely to the appearance of Norah Jones at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival–and the state of jazz as an art form just now), I said I did plan, in my next post, to do justice to much of the excellent music I witnessed at this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival—and  I mentioned two  performances I much admired on the first (Friday, September 21) night: the Hristo Vitchev Quartet (Hristo Vitchev, guitar; Jasnam Daya Singh, piano; Dan Robbins, bass; Mike Shannon, drums) and the Jan Ira Bloom Quartet (the leader on soprano sax; Dawn Clement, piano; Mark Hellas, bass; Bobby Previte, drums).

The Hristo Vitchev Quarter opened the Festival that first night, performing on The Garden Stage at 6:30. I was not all that familiar with 37-year-old Bulgaria-born (but now based in San Francisco) Hristo Vitchev (“one of the newest and most innovative voices in modern jazz guitar,” an artist who “combines elements of classical, modern jazz, folk, and avant-garde sonic hues in his music”), but I have known Brazilian-born Jasnam Daya Singh for some time, for he performed for years in Monterey as Weber Iago—and we had a chance at this year’s Festival to renew our friendship (by way of a good “catching up” chat just before the group performed—during which I was reminded of the time he told me that, given the host of his Bossa Nova “hits” I am acquainted with, only a portion of the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim ever made it out of Brazil). I have written about Dan Robbins and Mike Shannon (both highly respected Monterey Bay Area musicians) in the past, and I’d previewed the group’s excellent recent CD Of Light and Shadows—so I was eager to hear them together, “live.”

Their set met all of my expectations. They played the title tune from the CD, “Of Light and Shadows,” which begins with a three note vamp, Jasnam Daya Singh’s unique fluid piano configurations in the backgound, then foreground in unison with Hristo Vitchev’ s equally circumfluent guitar. A characteristic of the group’s music is the seeming ease with which the individual voices blend (emerge and submerge), united, the whole unfolding  handsomely, each voice taking a turn “on top,” then gracefully bowing out. Mike Shannon offers accelerated but subtle drum-breaks, followed by deft guitar lines, and these in turn by Jasnam Daya Singh’s consistently original, inventive improvisations (a mix of fresh bop configuration and classical restraint). A four note guitar/bass in unison theme takes us “out.”

“The Shortest Wave Length,” also found on the CD, opens with lush, beautiful piano, off which Vitchev builds the theme (Mike Shannon urging the piece on with his customary taste and skill). Dan Robbins provides a handsome bass solo, followed by a piano interlude (similar to the opening), gracious right hand runs and glorious two-handed piano, Hristo Vitchev easing his way into this frame, melodic, maintaining his warm tone, yet offering playful, prancing notes—all four musicians expanding, enhancing the theme, an ascent, and anthem march forward—then back to the original piano opening: (graceful, “classical” design and disposition), with Mike Shannon’s subtle “tympani” effects at the close.

A third tune from Of Light and Shadow offered was a beautiful ballad, “A Portrait of a Love Forgotten”—a simple repetitious two chord opening giving way to subtle guitar modulations, tender, melodic: guitar and piano “married,” as one, a warm gentle texture sustained; stillness yet a gracious “glide” forward, extended guitar runs, chromatic journeys; then piano with the same touch, caress (not an anxious trace anywhere: just persistent affection)—and back to the alternating two chord pattern, with subtle enhancement by all four musicians: Dan Robbins in unison on the theme with Mike Shannon’s wash of cymbals at the end. This is a superb fully together combo to watch for—again and again!

Here are photos of Hristo Vitchev, Jasnan Daya Singh, and the Quartet in a row: Dan Robbins, Vitchev, Singh, and Mike Shannon (Photo credits: The Mercury News; zw.linkedin.com; jazzguitarsociety.com)

hristo vitchev 1 the mercury news jasnan daya singh 2hristo vitchev quartet

I was familiar with the work of soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, but had only recently been introduced to her pianist, Dawn Clement, through their CD Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson. Wild Lines is a superb, reverent homage to one of my “top ten” favorite poets, Emily D., and at Monterey, whereas Jane Ira Bloom improvised beautifully on the pieces her group offered, much of credit has to go to Dawn Clement, who not only offered first-rate piano, but recited portions of the poems with elegance and maximum respect.

“Excuse Emily and Her Atoms” began with those words, followed by a soft piano vamp, the words “The North Star is of small fabric but it implies much  yet presides,” and exquisite give and take between Bloom and Clement, building to deft sprightly piano runs, the echo of Jane Ira Bloom’s themes and configurations, “wild lines,” a fade to Mark Helias’ first-rate bass solo, soprano sax minimalism (melodic repetition), and ending with a soaring, “uplifting” (“Leave me ecstasy”) ending.

Next came “Alone and In A circumstance,” piano intro, vamp, and recitation: “Alone and in a circumstance / Reluctant to be told / A spider on my reticence / Assiduously crawled.” (“And so much more at home than I / Immediately grew / I felt myself a visitor / And hurriedly withdrew.”). Jane Ira Bloom (“All compositions” but one are attributed to her in the CD liner notes) provided a handsome melody here (reminiscent of “I Can’t Get Started”), floating, flowing, enhanced by Bobby Previte’s tom tom and brittle cymbal work—the theme offset by Clement’s piano vamp and exchanged melodically, supported by the expert rhythm section of Helias and Previte, the latter’s full kit accompaniment, with emphasis on ride cymbal: the playfulness melting to a smooth melodic “withdrawal.”

“One Note” began with a portion of Emily D’s poem: “One note from / One Bird / is better than / a million words,” excerpted from The Gorgeous Nothings: skipping, ornithological gestures on piano, replicated on soprano sax, then both together above smooth wire brush drumming, a bop riff, and impressive improvisation by Dawn Clement. The set ended with mournful melody, shuffling drum work (and hi hat clarity), bowed bass, soaring sax, unison accents, and everybody comin’ home on “I Lived on Dread”—an extraordinary performance by all:

I lived on Dread—
To Those who know
The Stimulus there is
In Danger—Other impetus
Is numb—and Vitalless—

As ’twere a Spur—upon the Soul—
A Fear will urge it where
To go without the Sceptre’s aid
Were Challenging Despair.

Jane Ira Bloom emerged as one of the Festival weekend’s “super stars,” I feel: this Friday night set with her quartet—and her superb set on Saturday night with pianist Fred Hersch (their duo on “Time After Time” sent writer Andy Gilbert into an ecstatic trance, and me too! Followed by a memorable “There’s a Place for Us.”). I am going to pause for a moment and insert an account of a personal “condition” I carried with me throughout the weekend—one which proved “beneficial” for all of Jan Ira Bloom’s sets, but not necessarily for access to other venues than the Pacific Jazz Café (which has a unique policy) and witnessing the work of artists I would love to have heard and seen but found inaccessible.

First: Here are photos of Jan Ira Bloom, Dawn Clement, Dawn with Jan Ira Bloom leading her quartet, and drummer Bobby Previte (Photo credits: nply.org; All About Jazz; Stuart Brinin; Eye Shot Jazz: Daniel Sheehan)

jane ira bloom  dawn clement all about jazz (2)

dawn clement and jane ira bloom san francisco classical voice  bobby previte eyeshotjazz

Briefly: I have a vestibular system (vertigo) condition I’ve experienced (off and on) for twenty-seven years, along with a visual condition (macular degeneration), and, back in December of 1017, I spent ten days in Community Hospital (and seventeen physical therapy sessions just after) attempting to regain the use of a left leg that, mysteriously, had ceased to function (no sensation whatsoever)—and while I had little trouble manipulating (traversing) the Fairgrounds during the day (in sunlight), I discovered, once the sun went down, that darkness presented numerous obstacles, and considerable risk, when it came to mobility (maintaining my balance), going from one venue to the next. Events in the main arena (Jimmy Lyons Stage) take place at one end of the Fairgrounds—and the other far end nests a North Coast Brewing Company open pavilion where I hoped to meet my friend Stu Brinin on occasion for liquid refreshment and good conversation (Stu is a photographer who lives in Oakland, and he “rooms” at the home of my wife Betty and me throughout the Festival weekend. He’s a very gregarious, genial fellow, a Master of extraversion, and we have decided, in our minds, to change the name of the North Coast Brewing Company sanctuary to Stu’s Place).

The “policy” the Pacific Jazz Café provided was a raised section or “nook” (seating area) for members of the audience with “physical or mental impairments that substantially limit ‘major life’ activities.” (“Major life activities include walking, sitting, reading, seeing, and communicating”– as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals so defined)—and when I walked in for Jane Ira Bloom’s first set on Friday night, an usher spotted my cane (and tentative mobility) and directed me to the elevated isolated (off to the left) section (best view in the house!) and provided a seat I returned to on Saturday night—for Fred Hersch’s “Solo Piano” set, and his set with Jane Ira Bloom which followed (I would also hear the trio of guitarist Julian Lage and Bill Frisell’s Trio there on Sunday night).

The Hersch solo piano set at 7:30 on Sunday night was splendid—exceptional in the way his performances always are: original, elegant, winsome, masterful. He dug into his past, playing “a little gem” he first discovered in high school, “something by Antonio Carlo Jobim,” Hersch a master of dynamics, applying his exquisite touch to the tune, which (I’m sorry to say) I can’t recall the name of (although it was a piece I’ve played myself—and I was reminded of my talk with Jasnam Daya Singh, with which I began this Blog, and his commentary on the host of songs by the prolific Jobim that never made it out of Brazil). Fred Hersch played it tender, each note a caress; and he played it prancing, even “cute,” a demonstration of richly considered, and fully coordinated, two-hand piano.

George Gerswin’s “Embraceable You” followed: an ingenious transformation of the original melody taking place, once that melody had been established in mind—left and right hands offering what seemed different tunes (inventive lower register, deep bass, and dancing tasteful treble (high-pitched) lines—both together a beautiful blend as “one.” He played “My Old Man” (from Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue), referring to his own “misspent youth” beforehand—and he added a range of tunes to his graceful, cheerful, classically precise rendering of that tune with “Doxy,” (and he can play the blues!), Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes” (strictly instrumental, but the rich words—”In every heart there is a room / A sanctuary safe and strong / To heal the wounds from lovers past / Until a new one comes along”—implied in every note; and he offered a beautiful, subtle (left hand only at the start) treatment of a song I associate with Chet Baker: “This Is Always.”

Just when you felt no other set could equate or surpass what you’d just heard—Fred Hersch’s set with Jane Ira Bloom did! As I’ve already said, I feel Jane Ira Bloom emerged as one of the Festival weekend’s “super stars,” and this superb set on Saturday night with Fred Hersch secured the opinion (as well as his super star status). They offered two of my favorite songs from their Jane Ira Bloom & Fred Hersch/As One CD (both composed by the pianist): “A Child’s Song [for Charlie Haden]” and “Janeology.” The former begins with a soft loving solo improv opening by Hersch, then a rich engaging soprano sax theme, accompanied by faultless, tasteful piano comping (the two are perfectly paired! Respectful of, empathic with, each other). Jane Ira Bloom is one of the most animated instrumentalists I’ve ever seen “in action,” arching, swaying, undulating, executing gestures absolutely in time, in keeping with the music—and when she “fades,” Hersch enters as if only the perspective, the point of view of an improvisation had shifted, not the personnel.

Here is a photo of Fred Hersch at the piano—and with Jane Ira Bloom (Photo credits: https://williamscenter.lafayette.edu; Stuart Brinin)

fred hersch jazz pianist 2

fred hersch and jane ira bloom by stuart brinin

Their “Time After Time,” as I remarked earlier, was superb—this duet sending writer Andy Gilbert, who was standing just outside of my “nook,” into an ecstatic trance–and me too! I’d heard this song on her The Red Quartets CD (which not only includes Fred Hersch, but Mark Dresser and Bobby Previte as well), as she and Hersch together played it as gently, tenderly, movingly (again: a wordless phrasing of “the one you run to see” and “you’ve kept my love so young, so new” embodied the sentiments perfectly) as they performed on the recording—and Fred Hersch’s solo was “relaxed” love incarnate—as comfortable, natural, yet grand as a creative act can be. And their joint close out with (and again wordless, but implied) “so lucky to be … loving … you” was perfection.

“Janeology” was a delightful mix of lithesome spats and splashes, good fun—Jane Ira Bloom bobbing and weaving like Sugar Ray Robinson throughout—piano and sax playing games with one another (good games), almost a “chase scene,” the mobility enhanced by Hersch’s “plink plinks,” and booming bass chords that she danced atop of—counterpoint at its crazy best, and then they just quit, suddenly, delightfully. After, she said, “We’ll leave you with something by Leonard Bernstein … I think you will recognize this.” With mutual delicacy and a powerful ending, they close out the set with “There’s a Place for Us.” Beautiful!

Leaving the Pacific Jazz Café, somewhat reluctantly (for I’d had the best seat in the house for the remarkable performances I’d witnessed), I had hoped to catch the tale end portion of “Celebrating a MJF Legend: Remembering Ray Brown” (featuring Christian McBride, Benny Green, and Gregory Hutchinson—with John Clayton, John Patitucci, and Diane Reeves as “Special Guests”)—but this set was held in the main arena, a considerable distance away, and the difficulty I was having walking successfully (with regard to my vestibular system—and I wouldn’t make use of available, and convenient, shuttle transportation until the next day) discouraged me from taking the “hike.” Also convenient, was a building close by the Pacific Jazz Café which offered a large screen version of whatever took place on the Jimmy Lyons Stage main arena), so I went “next door”—to check out the result of a project I’d worked on for this year’s Festival.

On the basis of some short video pieces for which I had provided copy for the 60th anniversary MJF (humorous quips from Festival history, such as Miles Davis response to being asked to “go first” in 1964: “Sure, I like them fresh ears.”–short videos shown throughout the weekend), I had been asked to provide copy for an extended video on Ray Brown—words to be used as voice overs in the film. I’d come up with what I felt was “good stuff” (my acquaintance with bassist Ray Brown extending back to the early 50s, when I saw him with Jazz at the Philharmonic in Detroit). The person who asked for this material said he “loved” what I sent him, and I was curious to see how it had been used—although I was somewhat concerned, because I’d not heard from him again, and I was to be paid on the basis of how much of what I’d written was actually used in the finished project.

Sitting in the Jazz Theater, I learned that none of what I’d written had been used in the final film—which consisted solely of interviews (“testimonial”) by artists such as Christian McBride and Diane Reeves. Disappointed (disgusted? Betrayed?), I decided to “skip” whatever might be left of the Ray Brown tribute set, and go sip a quiet glass of wine outside, waiting for Jon Batiste’s set at 10:10.

Here are two pictures of Ray Brown at the Monterey Jazz Festival (with Christen McBride, and with Christen and with Benny Green). (Photos credits: montereyjazzfestival.org)

ray brown and christian mcbride at mjf  ray brown, christian mcbride, benny green, milt jackson at mjf (elde stewart) (2)

And here, for posterity (Definition: “If you save something ‘for posterity,’ you’re hoping that years later people will appreciate it, like a time capsule you bury in the yard.”) is what I had written in tribute to Ray Brown:

Raymond Matthews Brown was a highly respected, constantly sought-after masterful double-bassist—an innovator, a mentor, educator, exceptional talent scout, and iconic ambassador for the art form of jazz.

He shaped his own set of aesthetic principles and stood by them all of his life: “The most important thing about the bass as an instrument is not playing it fast, not playing solos, but getting a good sound”—which Ray Brown had from the start: a large, solid, original sound that made him much sought after as an accompanist.

Yet the end result of considerable discipline was, as those he performed with acknowledged, “how much he loved to play … he kept on playing when everyone else took a break.” Asked toward the end of his life, “Do you still love it?”, he replied, “Why play if you don’t?” Pittsburg, PA-born Ray Brown started out on piano at age 8, hoped to switch to trombone (but couldn’t afford one) and filled, in high school, an empty orchestra space on bass. He served an apprenticeship (listening to Duke Ellington’s orchestra by way of the city’s beer garden jukeboxes) learning the licks of jazz legend Jimmy Blanton, and answered the call of 52nd Street just after he graduated from high school–purchasing a one-way-ticket to NYC. A friend, pianist Hank Jones, introduced him to Dizzy Gillespie, who hired Ray on the spot. From this time on, Ray Brown helped define the role of the modern jazz rhythm section with his “unique dynamic and innate sense of swing.”

Ray met, and married, Ella Fitzgerald (and introduced “the first lady of song” to bebop) and they performed together (with Oscar Peterson) om tours with JATP (Jazz at the Philharmonic, with whom Ray would remain for 18 years, but only 4 with Ella). A lean, tall, handsome Ray, a genuine gentleman, responded, when someone in the audience at a Detroit concert shouted out suggestive comments regarding the vocalist, by setting down his bass, coming to the front of the stage, and telling the heckler that, if he didn’t stop the offense, Ray would take him outside and teach him some manners.

Ray Brown made his first appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1959, with the Oscar Peterson Trio (with which he would play for 15 years, Peterson saying the group formed a “breathe together bond.”). Brown would return to the MJF seven more times, serving in a number of capacities (rehearsing the Gil Evans big band in 1966; in a Salute to JATP in 1971; in a 1973 Charlie Parker Tribute, and with Dizzy Gillespie and Friends in 1978.)

He acted as MJF Musical Director in 1966: “A wild time [Janis Joplin performed],” in Ray’s words: “Fans were carrying on so bad the neighbors complained to the police.” Ray was chatting with General Manager Jimmy Lyons when, in Ray’s words again: “This guy walks up with all these medals on his chest.” He was Monterey’s Chief of Police, and he asked, “Who’s running this thing?” Lyons pointed to Ray, and the Chief told Ray, “I want this show shut down by midnight, and if it isn’t, I’m going to put you in jail.” Ray contacted Count Basie, who agreed to shorten his set, as did Carmen McRae (Ray: “You know how evil she could be!”), but saxophonist Gerry Mulligan accused Ray Brown of “Crow Jim tactics,” his show cut because he was white. “Man,” Ray Brown summarized his term as Musical Director, “Gerry had a complete conniption, and Jimmy just stood by and smiled.”

Ray Brown would settle in LA—in high demand to accompany singers such as Frank Sinatra, Billy Eckstine, Tony Bennett, and Sarah Vaughan; and, as a talent scout of young pianists, such as Benny Green (who first performed at MJF with the California High School All-Star Band at age 15), Geoff Kiezer, and Larry Fuller. Ray performed at MJF with a young Christian McBride (alongside old pros Milt Jackson and J.J. Johnson—and Benny Green) in 1994. Ray was 68 at the time, McBride 22. It was Ray’s last MJF appearance. He recalls: “Tim Jackson just asked me, ‘Why don’t you do something alone with Christian?’ And I said, ‘Okay but you know this crowd.” The crowd loved it; the bass duet was stunning.

A golf fanatic (a friend joked that Ray might have “made more money playing golf than playing bass.”), having performed and recorded with everyone from Andre Previn, opera stars Kiri Te Kanawa and Leontyne Price, having received an Honorary Degree (1995, Doctor of Music) from Berklee College of Music, and inducted, in 2003, in the Down Beat Hall of Fame, Ray Brown played golf all morning before a gig in Indianapolis in 2002, went back to his hotel room to take a nap, and passed away.

Here are more photos of Ray–from back in the era in which I first saw him “live”—photos I also sent with what I had written (Photo credits: rjt4.tumbir.com; Pittsburgh Music History)

ray brown and hank jones with ella 1948 (2)  ray_brown_and_ella_fitzgerald_at_birdland_with ray brown marcel_fleiss (2)

At 10:10 on Saturday night at the 61st MJF, I heard and saw Jon Batiste (with the Dap-Kings in a “New Orleans to Brooklyn” set which took place in the main arena, but I witnessed it in the Jazz Theater). I’ll say of Jon Batiste what I claimed for Jane Ira Bloom: I felt he was one of the Festival weekend’s “super stars.” He played three of my favorite tunes: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” (“The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting / This land was made for you and me.”); “St. James Infirmary”; and Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight” (perhaps even more roguish, ludic, spry than the composer offered it.).

Talking with NPR’s Terry Gross, Batiste said, “One of the first songs I had ever learned was ‘Straight, No Chaser,’ so I had known of [Monk’s] music, but I had never checked his playing out, and wow! It was like, and this is the power of music and why I think everything is everything, we’re all connected: This artist had cultivated a sound that I intuitively was reaching for 50 years before I existed. And I didn’t even know that what I was reaching for had already been developed … So at that point, you say ‘absorbed,’ I kid you not, it must’ve been at least for nine months to a year exclusively listening to Thelonious Monk.”

Whatever Jon Batiste “absorbs,” he also makes his own. One of the first jazz pieces I loved, and learned to sing (even recorded, on a very primitive device at age 13) was “St. James Infirmary” (Jack Teagarden’s version)—but Batiste’s “take” made me rethink (and feel) the song completely. About it, he has said (in a PopMatters interview with Christian John Wikane): “The song means a lot to me because it’s a song I learned early in my development. It’s something that you learn if you’re 11 years old and playing music in New Orleans … What I was doing was trying to create an outlet for the band to express the climax of angst and despair that you would feel if you were in the situation of the song, just completely crestfallen … The scene that I was creating on ‘Saint James Infirmary Blues’ was a funeral procession. The person who’s in the song can sense that something bad is on the horizon, but doesn’t know it happened yet. It takes this elegant melody, this graceful melody, and puts the blues through it. It’s like the love has gone to this place of despair. The song continues on to where you have the procession when you hear the horns and the drums come in, which is what happens in New Orleans. You have a dirge that brings people to home.”

Jon Batiste has not only mastered the music of New Orlean, past and present, but the city’s food supply as well, and where to find it–such as his favorite local meal, the humble poboy sandwich. “You can find the best poboys in unexpected locations, like grocery stores and gas stations,” he says in a video, and even provides unique directions: “You take Chartres to Natchez, down to Tchoupitoulas,” he says, instructing viewers to “hang a right on Smith Street,” with a doctored street sign reading “Bjonlignounolas” appearing on the screen as he lets his audience know how to correctly answer a wizard named Dennis’ riddle to earn the best poboy in town.

As for New Orleans jazz, Batiste says, “Music has always been a way for people to endure hardship and figure out how to really connect to their humanity or affirm their humanity when everything around them is trying to squash their humanity … Its importance goes beyond entertainment … In any situation, music can be used as a reprieve or a balm.” Which is exactly what he offered in Monterey on Saturday night—with a range of tunes from the three I’ve cited to “Kenner Boogie” (“It’s the way I interpret the feeling and the scene of being back home. The left hand is like a whole band, and the right hand is like a party. In the way it comes together, it’s the whole community.”) and “Don’t Stop”: “When it comes to loving me, don’t stop / I know there ain’t no guarantee, but don’t stop / Let’s keep it shaking while we can … Don’t stop dreaming, don’t stop believing / ’Cause you know our time is coming up / So with all you’ve got, don’t stop.”

Here are two photos of Jon Batiste (Photo credits: www.facebook.com/JonBatisteMusic/; http://www.thedailybeast.com)

jon batiste 3 jambands  jon baiste the daily beast

In his article “Women Run the Show at Monterey Jazz Fest” (in San Francisco Classical Voice), my friend Andy Gilbert wrote: “When a music festival’s mojo is working, every set seems to bump up against each other as if part of an expansive conversation about form, expression, collaboration, and the state of the art form itself … In an eagerly awaited and overdue breakthrough, the world’s longest continuously running jazz festival made a concerted effort this year to present women-led ensembles, and the results were both jaw-droppingly revelatory and utterly quotidian … What’s the Monterey Jazz Fest like when all five major stages feature a significant female presence? … Monterey delivered something truly new, and it was glorious to behold. It wasn’t so much the profusion of stellar women players as the fecund diversity in visions of bandleaders, composers, and arrangers.”

My Oakland photographer buddy Stu Brinin told me not to miss saxophonist Kristen Strom, who performed at 2:00 on Saturday afternoon in Dizzy’s Den. She led a group made up of herself on alto and soprano saxes, two trumpets, guitar, bass, and drums—the results providing a tight, unified, but also free and easy swing, not fancy or indulgent, but accessible melody, solid harmony, her own tone or “attack” strong—especially on a tune called “The Vikings” (The word a historical revival, from Old Norse vikingr “freebooter, sea-rover, pirate, viking ” which usually is explained as “one who came from the fjords”). Andy Gilbert would write of her, “San Jose saxophonist Kristen Strom’s Moving Day [set] summoned the sly but open-hearted spirit of the late, beloved bassist John Shifflett, bringing to life his little-heard compositions as a window into the generous soul of a musician’s musician.”

Another friend, drummer Akira Tana (who was of much help when I wrote Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within), told me he would be playing in trumpeter Aya Takazawa’s quintet at 12:30 on Sunday afternoon. Another fine “tight” group: her playing spirited, mid-range, a bit self-conscious on her solos at the start, but strong. Engaging—and excellent unison work with saxophonist Lyle Link. Pianist Matt Clark offered a tasteful solo (variety: solid chords, nimble right-hand runs)—the format mostly the Hard Bop so popular, still, in Japan (and my man Akira providing steady, hard-driving rhythm). Good blues, and Aya throughout an attractive stage presence, very much “in the moment”—a definite crowd-pleaser, accomplished artist.

I’ll briefly mention three more artists I enjoyed: Anastassiya Petrova’s organ quartet (rich Russian two-handed, and two-footed! Hammond B3 conservatory-trained technique, and then Berklee College of Music, and she swings)! The entire group “radiates nuance, power, and a down-home, soul kitchen vibe”–granting refreshing youthful energy, and gratitude (“Thanks a lot for coming; it means a lot to all of us: from Kazakhstan, to you!”). On Saturday afternoon, having discovered a shuttle that would take ne from venue to venue, in the main arena, I enjoyed “Detroit’s Queen of the Blues,” Thornetta Davis (“You been gone so long, I thought you were dead … Here you come knockin’ on my door / But I don’t need you anymore … I’d rather be alone, than lonely with you … All you gave me was the Blues.”), and Blue Notes’ Jose James, called a “fearless musical omnivore,” thrilling his audience with  Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” and “Just the Two of Us.”

Here are photos of Kristen Strom, Aya Takazawa, Anastassiya Petrova, Thornetta Davis, and Jose James (Photo credits: Stuart Brinin; www.nautiljon.com; https://insta-stalker.com/profile/anastassiya_petrova_music/; Detroit Metro Times; http://www.soulbounce.com)

kristen strom by stuart brinin  aya takazawa nautilijon  anastassiya petrova insta stalker

thornetta davis detroit metro times  jose-james-soul bounce

While the 61st MJF offered  abundant, prolific representation of “The Year of the Woman in Monterey,” it also hosted a generous sampling of World Music. Two of my favorite groups were Bakante (“From the Delta to the Desert, a World Music Supergroup”) and Ladama. The former featured members from four continents (“Multicultural, multigenerational, multilingual”). They presented their first piece, simply called “Song,” “for all the women of the world, sung by Malika Tirolien, accompanied by lap steel guitar, three guitars, bass, and three percussionists—infectious universal rhythms! Malika also offered “The Day Will Rise,” a song or stirring chant she wrote for her grandfather—and the set was rounded off with “Ego Chamber” (“Social media connects us, but also divides us.”) and “Air,” a song Malika Tirolien wrote for her daughter: about “mistakes I made and my parents made, in the hope she will do better.”).

Ladama–according to the program notes I acquired before I heard the group—consists of “four women, virtuosic musicians, and educators — Lara Klaus, Daniela Serna, Mafer Bandola and Sara Lucas — each from a different country and culture of the Americas, who are sisters in song, rhythm and spirit. Harnessing music from their respective countries of origin — Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and the United States, the group utilizes traditional and non-traditional instruments from across the Americas, but with a modern twist, to produce Latin Alternative music.” And that’s exactly what they provided: delightful, rousing yet subtle, florid music—played on instruments that ranged from a large hand drum to the Bandola Ilanera: one of many varieties of small pear-shape chordophones found in Venezuela and Columbia (“traditionally built with only seven frets and four gut strings and played with a pick; many [being made] nowadays with up to 21 frets“)–this played, masterfully, by Mafer Bandola, who also offered spirited vocals, with a beautiful upper register “float.” All four women shared vocal chores, and instrumental finesse. Ladama gave us a delightful set, fully expressing, divulging, in their own words, “how we feel making this music.”

I had large hopes for, but was disappointment by a set that was supposed to feature Charles Lloyd and Lucinda Williams: a fascinating match-up. I had been playing their excellent Blue Note CD Vanished Gardens over and over again, and looked forward to hearing and seeing it “reproduced” in Monterey. Charles Lloyd didn’t disappoint, at all: in fact his brilliant improvisations (which range from far “out” to sweetly restrained—his, in Herbie Hancock’s word, “huge heart that’s brimming with love”) provided persistent delight that kept raising the question: Where’s Lucinda? Jazz writer friend Scott Yanow passed by and said, “Let me know if she ever comes out”—which she eventually did, acting (I’ll have to confess) a little the worse for wear—offering some songs from the CD, but one of them, “Ventura,” contained the lyrics “But I can’t pretend, I wish I was somewhere else”–and that nearly seemed to be the truth of it.

In pre-preparation for “Tia Fuller & Ingrid Jensen Present Tribute to Geri Allen The Fierce Nurturer: Life of a Song Through Spirit,” at home, I had listened to the many inspiring CDs I have  by Geri Allen: one of my favorite pianists, composers, educators, human beings. The tribute set featured tap dancer Maurice Chestnut (“The fourth member of our band”), who resuscitated his original 2011 performance with Geri Allen of her festival-commissioned piece, “The Dazzler,” dedicated to showman Sammy Davis Jr. Now, as then, Chestnut (in the words of Paul de Barros) “contributed not just the usual clickety virtuoso turns on a tap platform, but graceful, interpretive moves integrated smartly into the trio’s flow.” And Terri Lyne Carrington provided her customary vital drumming. Portions of a video on Geri Allen (The Nurturer), the presence of spoken “Facebook”-style slogans that contained words and phrases such as “energy” and “our wisdom,” and even a moving “Amazing Grace” couldn’t for me (I’m sorry to say) offset what seemed to be a somewhat uninspired routine performance on actual tunes—so to make amends for my own not so positive response to this well-intended Festival opening night set, I’ll quote what Andy Gilbert wrote: “The festival’s artists-in-residence Tia Fuller (alto sax) and Ingrid Jensen (trumpet) presented a thoughtful and deeply felt tribute to the late pianist Geri Allen on Friday in the Arena that keyed on her enigmatic harmonic vocabulary and cagey sense of time.”

I had a fortunate surprise experience while listening to the Anat Cohen Tenet in the Jazz Theater. Vocalist Barbara Paris, whom I came to know at IAJE conferences I attended over the years, did not perform at the Festival, but was there, and she came up to me and said it was good to see me again, “out and about.” We went outside and sat at a table for a grand reunion conversation. She gave me her latest CD, Nine Decades of Jazz, which features her pianist Billy Wallace (who passed away in 2017 and had begun recording in 1955 with Clifford Brown and Max Roach). Barbara Paris and I got “caught up” on our lives and how we felt about the state of jazz in 2019—and it was great to see her again.

Here are photos of Ladama, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Barbara Paris (Photo credits:  http://www.ladamaproject.org; http://www.londonjazznews.com)

ladama ladama site  terri lyne carington london jazz news

barbara paris cd (2)

I’ll close this second portion blog on the 51st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival with something I was, again, asked to write (for voice overs) about 2018 Showcase Artist Dianne Reeves—but which, alas, again (like what I provided the MJF on Ray Brown) was neglected, did not appear in the video devoted to her. I did hear her sing a soulful “The Nearness of You” (one of my all-time favorite tunes)—and I have admired her performances at the Festival, for years. Here, for “posterity,” again, is what I wrote about her.

The voice of Dianne Reeves has been described using a host of adjectives: “warm,” “lush,” “very personal,” and phrases such as “breathtaking virtuosity,” “improvisational prowess,” “unique jazz and R&B stylings,” “astonishing skill”, “always capable of greatness.” In a 1996 performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival–a recreation of Jon Hendrick’s “Evolution of the Blues Song”–she symbolized (wearing the plain dress of a slave and holding a baby in her arms) The Mother of the Blues; and later, wearing colorful choir garb, she joined a chorus of singers and dancers in a joyously harmonized and choreographed “Everything started in the house of the Lord.”

Jon Hendrick’s original 1960 production took place in a setting with children seated on the floor, learning how the blues came about from a man who was still creating the score as he had ascended the stairs to the stage. This spontaneous performance left the audience in tears (Hendricks himself said an aftermath of reverent silence was “the most spiritual thing that has ever happened to me in my life.”). The 1996 recreation was a powerful carefully worked out production, and Dianne Reeves, as an established vocal master, was the ideal person to play a major role in it.

Dianne has been called “the pre-eminent jazz vocalist in the world,” and has been recognized and honored in just about every way possible, from honorary doctorates from Berklee College of Music and the Julliard School, to appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic, to an NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship Award.

This year, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, she is the Showcase Artist. She will perform multiple times at the Festival–to display the various aspects of her artistry (such as her most recent release, Beautiful Life, which won the 2015 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance)–and she will participate in a one-on-one Conversation, discussing her career.

Dianne Reeves first appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1990, with pianist Billy Childs’ group Night Flight, which had launched her career. She was Artist in Residence in 2010 (presenting “Strings Attached” with Russell Malone and Romero Lubambo).

Dianne Reeves has established herself as an all-time MJF favorite.

Here are photos of her at the 30th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, and her appearance in the 1996 recreation of Jon Hendrick’s “Evolution of the Blues Song” (Photo credit: http://www2.montereyjazzfestival.org/blog/jon-hendricks-1921-2017))

dianne reeves at mjf 30  jon hendricks_dianne reeves_joe williams_mjf_1996_(c)bill wishner (1)