Neuroplasticity as Opposed to Materialist Reductionism; Quantum Theory and Jazz Improvisation; and John Beasley’s MONK’estra at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival

In preparation for this blog post, I have been taking notes on books by three very different authors, but each book leads to a compatible hypothesis (or conclusion) on their part. The authors are Jeffrey M. Schwartz (The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force), Henry P. Stapp (Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer), and Dean Radin (The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena).

I concluded my last blog post by saying that, when I wrote again, I would like to address “the ongoing debate (or ‘civil war’) in the world of science between (1) materialist reductionism (‘The idea that all phenomena can be explained by the interaction and movement of material particles’) and (2) neuroplasticity (‘rewiring’ of the brain), volition, free will, bidirectional ‘causality relating brain and mind’: two opposite sides in that ‘war’ that young Isaac Newton set in motion when he got conked on the head beneath an apple tree (although even that ‘fixed’ or too perfect setting has been called into question) and Newton discovered the law of gravity, regarding our world as a windup clock–empiricism as the only means by which it can be understood, or ‘measured.’

Here are visionary artist William Blake’s painting of Sir Isaac Newton, “measuring” (In a letter, Blake wrote, “Pray God us keep/From Single vision & Newton’s Sleep”; and in a poem: “Newton’s Particles of light/Are Sands upon the Red sea’s shore”; also: “Can wisdom be put in a silver rod?”)—the second print is Blake’s “Ancient of Days,” also with compass or calipers in hand, instruments “sinister” to the poet, both literally and figuratively. (Photo credits: www.wikiart.org; wikipedia)

William Blake's Newton

William Blake's Ancient of Days

I concluded that post with: “‘Newton in some sense largely eliminated the divine from the ongoing workings of the universe,’ states Jeffrey M. Schwartz in his excellent book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (which, along with Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary’s The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul is of considerable interest, along with [Stapp’s book]. I will save an analogy, or congruence I find with jazz for the next post—so please ‘stay tuned,’ for I hope you will find the comparison, and an account of John Beasley’s amazing interpretation and arrangements of Thelonious Monk’s work engaging, and interesting.”

So here we are, now, with some thoughts on (and quotes from) three different views of the on-going Brain/Mind controversy (classical Newtonian physics versus neuroplasticity). Jeffrey Schwartz is a research professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine; Henry P. Stapp “has spent his entire career working in frontier areas of theoretical physics”—pursuing “extensive work pertaining to the influence of our conscious thoughts on physical processes occurring in our brains”; and Dean Radin is a parapsychology researcher, Senior Scientist at the  Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), in Petaluma, California, and former President of the Parapsychological Association.

All three authors have focused their attention on the issue of “mind-brain” interaction, on how contemporary basic physical theory differs from classic physics, on the role of consciousness in human agents when they encounter the structure of empirical phenomena—and all three would seem to favor philosopher David J. Chalmers, when he writes about “the hard problem” of consciousness (“There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain.”), and in his book The Character of Consciousness, Chalmers devotes 568 pages to an attempt to explain this all-too-human condition.

In cruel contrast, ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author (The Selfish Gene) Richard Dawkins attempts to resolve the issue in four succinct sentences: “We are machines built by DNA whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA. That is exactly what we are here for. We are machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.”

Schwartz, Stapp, and Radin–whatever their differences–spend considerable space (and words) in their books attempting to show (and support with examples) the obsolescence of mainstream (“only the physical is real”) materialism, classic Newtonian physics, Hard Science, reductionism (as quoted before: “the idea that all phenomena can be explained by the interaction and movements of material particles”)—and openly (and courageously) espouse the merits of neuroplasticity: the “ability of neurons to forge new connections, to blaze new paths through the cortex, even to assume new roles … rewiring the brain.”—or, God forbid, Free Will!

Schwartz came to his position, or vision, by way of innovative therapy sessions he worked out for patients suffering from (or locked into) obsessive/compulsive behavior—alongside an extra-curricular interest in Buddhist “mindfulness.” Schwartz quotes the following from “one Buddhist scholar”: “You’re walking in the woods and your attention is drawn to a beautiful tree or a flower. The usual human reaction is to set the mind working, ‘What a beautiful tree. I wonder how long it’s been here. I wonder how often people notice it. I should really write a poem’ [or worse: ‘I should probably cut it down for firewood!’] … The way of mindfulness would be just to see the tree … as you gaze at the tree there is nothing between you and it.” Schwartz adds, “There is full awareness without running commentary. You are just watching, observing all facts, both inner and outer, very closely.” You are just living the tree?

Here are David J. Chalmers’ The Character of Consciousness; Jeffrey M. Schwartz’s The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force; and a photo of Schwartz himself. (Photo credit: Goodreads)

David Chalmers The CHaracter of Consciousness   Jeffery Schwartz The Mind and the Brain

Jeffrey Schwartz

Here are some other observations by Jeffrey Schwartz I appreciated: “Individuals choose what they will attend to [two of his favorite words are “awareness” and “attention” (“intended action!”)]… Science ceded the soul and the conscious mind to religion and kept the material world to itself … By choosing whether and/or how to focus on the various possible states, the mind influences which one of them comes into being … The triumphant idea can then make the body move, and through associated neuroplastic changes, alter the brain circuitry … Radical attempts to view the world as a merely material domain, devoid of mind as an active force, neglect the very powers that define humankind … The science emerging with the new century tells us that we are not the children of matter alone, nor its slaves.”

He also praises (for its far ahead of its time insight), the words of William James: “Nature in her unfathomable designs has mixed us of clay and fire, of brain and mind, that the two things hang indubitably together and determine each other’s being.”

Jeffrey Schwartz is also fond of quoting his friend (and eventual collaborator) Henry Stapp: “the replacement of the ideas of classical physics by the ideas of quantum physics completely changes the complexion of the mind-brain dichotomy, of the connection between mind and brain … In quantum theory, experience is an essential reality, and matter is viewed as a response then of the primary reality, which is experience.”

Henry P. Stapp’s prose style is, overall, more technical, demanding, and, although of considerable interest, perhaps less accessible at times (to someone like me, a definite “layman”), but he is dealing with the subject about which the renowned physicist Richard Feynman confessed (in his series of The Character of Physical Law lectures), “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Stapp would hope to convince you otherwise, commencing the Preface to Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer with these words: “The new theory departs from the old one in many important ways, but none is more significant in the realm of human affairs than the role it assigns to your conscious choices.”

Stapp cites a “tremendous burgeoning of interest in the problem of consciousness” now in progress, and quotes from an article by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio: “At the start of the new millennium, it is apparent that one question towers above all others in the life sciences: How does the set of processes we call mind emerge from the activity of the organ we call brain?” Damasio answers his own question: “I contend that the biological processes […] now presumed to correspond to mind in fact are mind processes and will be seen to be so when understood in sufficient detail”—and he hints that biological processes “understood in sufficient detail” are really “quantum understanding.”

Enter Henry P. Stapp with his “deep interest in the quantum measurement problem.” His own book is loaded with vital information on (and understanding of) every phase of quantum theory from the fundamental role of the observer; the wave/particle phenomena; placebos; the locality/nonlocality issue;  Einstein’s “Spooky Action at a Distance”; the Quantum Zero effect—a host of aspects of the two co-existing parallel mental realities; and even an extensive analysis of Alfred North Whitehead’s thoughts, one of the first mathematician/philosophers to comprehend quantum mechanics and incorporate its theories into his organic philosophy and Process Ontology.

Here is a photo of Henry P. Stapp, and the cover of his book, The Mindful Universe. (Photo credit: Alchetron.com)

Henry Stapp (2)   Henry Stapp The Mindful Universe

I won’t try to do justice to all I found of interest and value in those sections (Much!), but a chapter and material that followed is devoted to “The Impact of Quantum Mechanics on Human Values,” and Stapp states, “The quantum concept of man, being based on objective science equally available to all … has the potential to undergird a universal system of basic values suitable to all people, without regard to the accidents of their origins”—and would thus provide “material benefits,” in every area from ethics to medicine.

Among the advantages, Stapp lists: “consciously experienced intentional choices,” “a foundation for understanding the co-evolution of mind and brain,” “free will of the kind needed to undergird ethical theory,” and improved “self-image … with consciousness an active component of a deeply interconnected world process that is responsive to value-based human judgments … Behavior, insofar as it concerns ethics, is guided by conscious reflection and evaluation … one’s weighing of the welfare of the whole.”

If “attention” (“intended action”) was a favorite, a key word for Schwartz, “interconnection” is the choice of Henry Stapp. He has a Utopian vision. EVERYTHING is interconnected! Without being fully aware of it, we are ALL (people and particles alike!) intimately interconnected—always! We are truly the molecular, and otherwise, music of the spheres, uniting medieval cosmology and NOW. His vision of and for the future is not “systematic,” and the structure of his book is loose; the book—although divided up into “chapters,” seems to float, from section to section, agreeably, as inclusive as quantum theory itself, with ease and unpredictability (Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” at play), enjoying its own playful quantum “jumps.” Another frequently employed word is “dynamics”—and nothing is preserved in stone, set forever, or lasting (as Newton’s classic physics did) for three centuries; all is in flux (I once wrote a poem that began: “I flux, you flux, everybody flux flux.”).

Stapp states: “According to the new conception, the physically described world is built not out of bits of matter, as matter was understood in the nineteenth century, but out of objective tendencies—potentialities—for certain discrete, whole actual events to occur … This coordination of the aspects of the theory that are described in physical/mathematical terms with aspects that are described in psychological [subjective] terms is what makes the theory  practically useful. Some empirical predictions have been verified to the incredible accuracy of one part in a hundred million.”  

Here are photos of: quantum mechanics equations and the wave/particle double slot experiment. Photo credits: www.thoughtco.com; http://www.liquidgravity.nz)

Quantum mechanics equations

Wave particle experiment

“Mindfulness” (attention, interconnectedness) would seem to be the order of the day.

Although Dean Radin shares conclusions and convictions with Schwartz and Stapp, he comes at the mind-brain dilemma from a slightly different angle or perspective: defending his field of specialty (parapsychology) from constant attack or criticism on the part of hard science, which regards the study of the mental phenomena he has devoted his life to as inexplicable—or an illusion.

His book–The Conscious Universe: the Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomenais systematic: a carefully sequenced argument, or act of persuasion, from the Preface (“When we set out to prove the boundaries of consciousness and reality … it is essential to cultivate tolerance for the unexpected”) to the book’s “wrap up” on page 339: “Future generations will undoubtedly look back upon the twentieth century with a certain poignancy. Our progeny will shake their heads with disbelief over the arrogance we displayed in our misunderstanding of nature. It took three hundred years of hard-won scientific advances merely to verify the existence of something that people had been experiencing for millennia.”

Radin is devoted to noetic (from the Greek word “noesis” or “noetikos”: intuition or inner wisdom, direct knowing, subjective understanding) science: a branch that employs rigorous scientific methods with multidisciplinary scholarship in the study of what philosopher William James (far-seeing in 1902) referred to as “states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.” Using this method Radin recognized (discussed under the heading “Belief Becomes Biology” in his book) that an external suggestion can become “an internal expectation” that can “manifest in the physical body”–the implication being that the body’s “hard physical reality can be significantly modified by the more evanescent reality of the mind.”

Radin offers sections of text that carefully, and clearly, define such phenomena as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, precognition, ESP, out-of-body experience, near-death experience, and reincarnation. He feels that, in spite of the fact that such states have been in existence (with much evidence of them) “for millennia,” science itself has evolved into the absurd position of “the mind denying its own existence” (“Science has effectively lost its mind.”), and he believes that underlying the world of ordinary objects and human experience “is another reality, an interconnected world of intermingling relationship and possibilities”—an underlying reality “more fundamental–in the sense of being the ground state from which everything originates—than the transient forms and dynamic relationships of familiar experience.”

Here is Dean Radin, and the cover of his book The Conscious Universe. (Photo credit: http://www.deanradin.com)

Dean_Radin_Photo    Dean Radin The Conscious Universe

I like a witticism Radin attributes to physicist Nick Herbert, who makes the claim (along with other writers we’ve encountered) that consciousness is our “biggest mystery,” but adds: “it is not that we possess bad or imperfect theories of human awareness, we simply have no sense of them at all. About all we know about consciousness is that it has something to do with the head, rather than the feet.”

Henry P. Stapp’s favored concept, “interconnection,” shows up again. In support for his case or stance, Radin quotes Teilhard de Chardin: “The farther and more deeply we penetrate into matter, by means of increasingly powerful methods, the more we are confounded by the interdependence of its parts … All around us, as far as the eye can see, the universe holds together, and only one way of considering it is really possible, that is, to take it as a whole, in one piece.” And Radin quotes Sogyal Rinpoche (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying): “Everything is inextricably interrelated. We come to realize that we are responsible for everything we do, say, or think, responsible in fact for ourselves, everyone and everything else, and the entire universe.”

Radin likes the word “uni-verse”: a connected world, “not a set of isolated fragments,” which suggests another responsibility (or creative challenge) entailed: “We all carry ideas about who we are, or who we have been taught to believe we are … not only is our perception of the world a construction, but also our sense of who we think we are.”

For all his idealism, Dean Radin’s book is not devoid of practical application. In a section dealing with such (with a heading, “Medicine”), he writes, “We envison that future experiments will continue to confirm that distant mental healing is not only real, but is clinically useful in treating certain physical and mental illnesses.” And he closes on a hopeful note: ‘A society that      consciously uses precognitive information to guide the future is one that is realizing true freedom … This would allow us to create the future as we wish, rather than blindly follow a predetermined course through our ignorance.”

Thus spake Jeffrey M. Schwartz, Henry P. Stapp, and Dean Radin. Before we move on to “jazz” (and applying some of these theories to the art of improvisation), I’d like to cite a final passage from another book I mentioned in passing: The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul—a book whose final vision for the future contains even larger aspiration than the others I’ve discussed: “Mystical experience from various spiritual traditions indicates that the nature of the mind, consciousness, and reality as well as the meaning of life can be apprehended through an intuitive, unitive, and experiential form of knowing … The proposed new scientific frame of reference may accelerate our understanding of this process of spiritualization and significantly contribute to the emergence of a planetary type of consciousness. The development of this type of consciousness is absolutely essential if humanity is to successfully solve the global crises that confront us … and wisely create a future that benefits all humans and all forms of life on planet earth.”

Here’s  my own “take” on the mind/brain drama: I tend to get frustrated, and feel quite helpless, when a “machine” I own (such as the laptop I am working on just now; or a blood pressure monitor, or even the kitchen toaster) doesn’t function as it should (James Thurber quipped, “Machines don’t like me!”), so if I am a machine myself (as classic Newtonian physics claims), and I don’t function well (which happens from time to time—maybe I should say often!), it’s no wonder I spend (precious, hopefully potentially productive) time being upset. On the other hand, Quantum theory allows us to live our lives in the moment as it is, whatever it is or may be (being and becoming), no matter what matter it’s made of (rim shot!), and we truly need to take this gift, this moment in time–and ourselves–just as we find it (and ourselves!), and make the best of it. The same holds true for the external world, not just our internal existence—for the two are One.

So what does any of this have to do with jazz improvisation? Well … everything! The best “ingredients” of quantum physics can be found in the best jazz—when both are moving, grooving as they should: interconnected, mindful, intuitive, unitive, and experiential. Which brings us to the wondrous world–or universe–of jazz itself (at last, you may quip, and I don’t blame  you!). I was ready, I was “up,” for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, because I was eager to see and hear a group I had heard (and read) “good things” about: John Beasley’s MONK’estra.

Journalist Willard Jenkins interviewed Beasley regarding his fresh, brilliant, innovative (all the things Thelonious Monk himself was!) arrangements of the music, and Willard quoted Beasley: “The germ of MONK’estra started with my desire to experiment with 21st century harmony for big band that swings and grooves … I started reimagining Monk’s “Epistrophy” and quickly realized that his music was the perfect match for this. The swing is already written in and since his music is very pliable, I found that I could stretch my imagination.”

Willard Jenkins adds, “John Beasley has done a marvelous job of contemporizing Thelonious Monk’s music”—and Beasley himself continues: “I compare Monk’s music to how the public must have felt upon its first view of Cubist art by Pablo Picasso, which revolutionized modern art.” I agree, because, whereas I was fascinated when I first heard Monk play, I couldn’t grasp what he was up to, and resisted it—the way that he was revolutionizing jazz. Beasley says, “On the eve of his centennial it is evident that we have finally caught up to where he was taking us.”

Here’s a photo of John Beasley and the full MONK’estra aggregate—and a photo in performance. (Photo credits: www.laweekly.com; http://www.montereyjazzfestival.org)

John Beasley and Monkestra

John Beasley's MONK'estra_(c)Eric Wolfinger_SFJAZZ_2015_0182_crop

At the Monterey Jazz Festival, MONK’estra performed on Sunday afternoon. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but took notes from the start on what I heard: a not just swinging, grooving big band, but one that rocked (fully inclusive, with a surprising backbeat)—an ultra-tight ensemble, with powerful section work to support (surround and enhance) soloists who offered their share of funky licks: a little bit of everything (trying all the options on for size, simultaneously, something for everyone, like Henry Stapp’s “universal system of basic values suitable to all people, without regard to the accidents of their origins”: Quantum Physics!); a host of Monk tunes, a medly seemingly undifferentiated, a continuous suite of Thelonious. I didn’t bother to write down the titles. I just dug the tunes as a truly handsome bunch, and the full range of interpretation and improvised ingenuity based on the originals: explosive dynamics (deep growling baritone sax: Adam Schroeder; wailing trombone: Francisco Torres; altruistic alto sax: Bob Sheppard); fulsome ensemble support or “fill”; luscious unison work; luminous orchestration (as if John Beasley, like Hector Berlioz, who wrote the book on it, knows the exact timbre, texture of each and every instrument—and the best combinations or match ups); each separate melody or “head” the genesis of the next—and the truly recognizable (some of my favorite Monk tunes, “Pannonica,” “I Mean You,” “Ugly Beauty,” “Gallop’s Gallop”) emerging with all their grace and style.

Few of the tunes were announced (if I remember correctly) throughout (Beasley slipped over to the keyboards himself, unobtrusively, for “Pannonica”): just a perfectly put together wild wonderful onslaught of Thelonious, with glimpses of counterpoint, blues vamp, more than just a little “Latin touch,” a wire brush percussive break, smooth liquid sequences building to a full force orchestral flourish, and close out.

Something I realized, writing those last two paragraphs now, is that I could supplement many phrases of description with Quantum Theory “fill”—as if John Beasley’s continuous suite had been composed on Quantum principles, for it was rift with the distinct flow of particles acting as waves, nonlocal “instantaneous action at a distance,” music fully grounded in itself (its own nature, its affinity with natural life: free of the tendency of free jazz straining, trying too hard, at times, to be “free,” yet free, also, of the tendency of big bands to get locked into mandatory, or obligatory concord or unity; this group was just MONK’estra, itself, having a grand Quantum Monk time!): its music a fully present “fact,” in the Alfred North Whitehead sense of the “preeminence of congruence” established “over the indefinite herd of other such relations”—music intimately interconnected, at one with itself: music, in Henry Stapp’s words, “guided by conscious reflection and evaluation … one’s weighing of the welfare of the whole”—abundantly laced with joyous “mindfulness,” John Beasley has fulfilled his desire, his intent “to stretch [his] imagination” and, on the eve of Thelonious Monk’s centennial, “to finally [get] caught up to where he was taking us.”

Here are two geniuses side by side: Thelonious Monk and Alfred North Whitehead (Photo credit: www.burtglinn.com)

Thelonious Monk 8     Alfred North Whitehead Process and Reality

I had two enjoyable encounters following the exceptional MONK’estra set. I stopped at a long table set up on the grounds, and had a Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale (North Coast Brewing has donated over $1 million from proceeds of the sale of the beer and gear to support the Jazz education programs of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.). Standing next to me was a very short man dressed like Harlequin, an outrageous costume. I’d done some work for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival (copy for an exhibit of historical posters, “Monterey at 60: A Visual Feast,” and a series of humorous historical anecdotes included in a video shown at several venues that weekend), and I was wearing what prompted my just-made friend to say, “Your badge would suggest you are a person of some importance.” Ironically, at that moment, one of my anecdotal “slides” appeared on a large screen in a pavilion adjacent to us that had couches and chairs and served drinks—so I told my new friend and his companions about my work for the Festival, and said, “Look, that’s one of mine.” They seemed impressed and asked for my card, which I gave them, and they all promised, on the spot, to buy all three of my jazz books—claiming, “Why, you yourself are living history! And you look like a writer!”

Here’s an example of one of my anecdotal “slides” (on an appearance at the MJF by Miles Davis) and the poster for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival:

Leonard Nelson Miles Davis Quote   MJF-17-Poster_small4

The encounter was good fun, but the next one was even better. I set out for the North Coast Brewing pavilion, to meet a journalist friend, Dan Ouellette (who conducts the DownBeat Blindfold Test each year at the MJF), and who should he be talking to when I arrived but John Beasley himself, who’d retired there with nearly his entire orchestra after their set. Dan has written about John, so he introduced me, and we sat together for … a Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale, of course!   

Fifty-eight year old Shreveport, Louisiana born John Beasley has a (Southern?) gentlemanly presence, well abetted by urban studio work savvy (He was lead arranger for American Idol for eleven years), and a genuine genial jazz musician’s “cool” manner. You might say he’s very quantum inclusive! I enjoyed talking with him, much! I told him about my own experience as fully undeserving house pianist at a place called the 456 Club in Brooklyn in 1956 (when I attended Pratt Institute), and meeting classical and jazz composer, arranger, and pianist Hal Overton there. It was Overton whom Thelonious Monk selected to score his piano works for orchestra; a performance of these compositions recorded live in 1959 (and released as The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall).In 1963, Monk recorded a second live album with orchestral arrangements by Overton at the New York Philharmonic Hall, released as Big Band and Quartet in Concert.

Here are the two Monk CDs for which Hall Overton provided arrangements:

Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall   Thelonious Monk Big Band and Concert CD

John Beasley seemed interested, and even asked if I would give him my card (“Living history,” and Wow, I’d now handed out two of my “business” cards in one hour!). I even told John that I’d had a cabaret card in New York City when Monk couldn’t get one (he’d ben arrested on an extremely questionable charge of “possession,” and not only confined for sixty days in prison, but the New York State Liquor Authority removed his cabaret card, without which you could not get hired for local club dates.) He was reinstated in 1957. He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1964.

John Beasley’s own life, and career, is fascinating. He grew up in a musical family. His grandfather, Rule Oliver, played trombone in territory bands; his mother, Lida, taught music in public schools and colleges, as well as conducting operas (she earned a local Emmy for her work in Faust). John’s father, another Rule, is a pianist and bassoonist who played with the Fort Worth Symphony, and was a professor of music at two colleges. John Beasley learned to play trumpet, oboe, drums, saxophone, flute—and jazz piano, for which he is best known now, along with his arranging)—and he went on to record and perform with Miles Davis, Sergio Mendes, Steely Dan, Dianne Reeves, and James Brown. John became musical director for the Thelonious Monk Institute Tribute and International Jazz Day concerts, and has been nominated for an Emmy Award and three times for a Grammy for three different albums.

He claims he “always had a thing for Thelonious Monk,” and in 2012, he wrote a big-band chart for “Epistrophy,” then “Ask Me Now.” He formed a 15-piece band composed of top West Coast musicians, and has released two MONK’estra recordings. Here they are:

John Beasley's MONK'estra Vol. 1    John Beasley's MONK'estra Vol. 2

Thelonious Monk’s son T.S. has stated, “My father would have approved.” Writer Neil Tessler comments on Beasley’s “refreshing 21st century take on the ever new music” of Monk, and praises the arranger’s solid “link to the composer’s vision,” exceptional “orchestral writing,” and even Beasley’s willingness to “spark some controversy” (“using darkened harmonies and backbeat rhythms,” “a tonal pallet reminiscent of neo-soul,” on a familiar tune such as “’Round Midnight”). Tessler writes that the arranger “has deftly pulled [“Midnight”] into the orbit of modern listeners … has simply returned this song to its roots, with a conceptual twist that simultaneously makes it fresh.” Beasley has created “an entire collection of excitingly re-conceived and marvelously executed compositions.”

Elsewhere, Tessler has written that Beasley possesses “a willingness to engage  these compositions with an ingenuity as audacious as the one that created them.” John Beasley’s “lifelong love of arranging” has made it possible for him to take Monk’s music, so open “to interpretation,” and enhance it with (in his own words) his own “architecture,” going well beyond “the idea of theme-solos-theme,” because, “like all great songs, Monk’s songs lend themselves to a more personal interpretation, especially when it comes to arranging.” Tessler adds, “Maybe Beasley’s affinity for Monk was simply meant to be. Monk was born October 10 in 1917; 43 years later to the day, Beasley showed up.”

I’m grateful that he did: not only in this life and for the sake of jazz, but, selfishly for my own sake, for that Sunday afternoon MONK’estra set at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, and for the excellent conversation I had with him after, over Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale! Thank you, Dan Ouellette, for introducing us—and thank you, John Beasley, for all you have given us by way of music.

I love writing this blog—the quantum “freedom” of it (when I can find time and presence of mind to do so), and if you’d told me years ago that I would someday put together an “informal essay” that combined an examination of quantum theory with an account of a first-rate jazz performance, I would more than likely have thought you crazy. So thanks for being a bit crazy in a manner to inspire me now! I look forward to surprising you (again?) with my next blog post, whenever it happens and whatever it’s about (the “uncertainty principle” again).

 

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A Ten-Day Hospital Stay (as Disclaimer); Jazz Pianist Kei Akagi; and the Premiere of John Clayton’s “Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration” at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival

I should, perhaps, rename this blog “Bill’s Collective Apologies for Not Posting a New Blog When He Says He Will,” but that’s not an appellation likely to attract and hold readers–although given the nature of our topsy-turvy times, it just might work. Once again, I find myself in the position of apologizing for not providing what I said would be my next blog post, which was: “I’d like to continue the theme of ‘More About Music,’ and write about this recording [a CD, Contrast & Form, I’d received from jazz pianist Kei Akagi, whom I’d written about in my book, Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within; University of Michigan Press, 2004]… Until then: if I do not see you at the 60th anniversary Monterey Jazz Festival celebration, I’m sure I’ll want to tell you about what I heard and saw there, as best I can—and more than likely in a still-excited state of recent exposure. Long live the Monterey Jazz Festival!”

I do intend, in this blog, to make good on all that I suggested there: Kei Akagi’s new CD Contrast & Form, his impressive body of work in general and his thoughts on improvisation–and two outstanding sets I heard at the 60th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival: The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra premiere of a commissioned piece: Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration (with special guests: pianist Gerald Clayton, John’s son, and his trio); and John Beasley’s MONK’estra, featuring John’s imaginative, solid arrangements of the music of Thelonious Monk.

Here’s a photo of the poster for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, and a photo of yours truly standing beside some copy I wrote for a retrospective exhibit of posters called “Monterey at 60: A Visual Feast” (Photo credit: Stuart Brinin):

MJF-17-Poster_small4   MJF Poster Exhibit Stu Photo

But first … the inevitable disclaimer as to why it’s taken so long to get around to this blog. My last post was on September 8, just a few days before the Monterey Jazz Festival. At that time, knowing I would spend three nights and two days hiking the Fairgrounds in quest of all the fine music afforded at several venues, I was concerned about trouble I was having with my right knee (trouble that would occasion a trip to ER at Community Hospital–and X-rays that disclosed a sprain and torn meniscus), but there was no way I was going to miss attending the Festival, nor compromise an eight day trip to Kauai my wife Betty and I were looking forward to in October—nor two music gigs I had coming up in November (in connection with a book of mine that came out, Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958.)

I made it through all these events—occasions that proved so delightful, rewarding in themselves that I failed to acknowledge the pain I felt in my knee. In late November, I made an appointment with my orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Peter Gerbino, who recommended an MRI, which disclosed a right knee sprain, three torn meniscus, and “severe bone marrow lesions.” Dr. Gerbino recommended a new minimally-invasive fluoroscopically-assisted procedure called Subchondroplasty that “targets and fills subchondral bone defects through the delivery of AccuFill® Bone Substitute Material (BSM), a nanocrystalline, highly porous injectable calcium phosphate (CaP).” We set up a date for surgery: December 5.

What began and was anticipated as a half-day stay (at most) at the Surgical Center on Cass Street in Monterey turned out to be a 10 day stay at Community Hospital up on Holman Highway. The 7:30 AM surgery itself took less than an hour, and by 10:00 I was on the verge of being discharged to go home, but when I stood up to do so, I fell over (fortunately on the gurney that bought me from surgery). I discovered I had no feeling whatsoever in my LEFT Leg–as if my left leg had somehow been amputated by mistake!

Over the next few hours, I attempted to stand three more times, but–in spite of some feeling returning to my toes (I could wiggle them just a bit) and calf—it was impossible to stand (my left leg was dead for the most part: it no longer existed). Doctor and staff decided it was too great a risk to attempt to move me to our car and have my wife Betty drive me home and somehow get me (even in a wheelchair) to our front door—so I was placed in an ambulance, where two paramedics would deliver me (an IV–a “drip”–was set up in route) to Community Hospital for “observation” (in attempt to find out just what the hell was going on–or rather not going on–with my left leg).

I was taken to the Emergency unit, and then assigned the “last room” in an overspill outpost area. I remember thinking, “I will never walk again,” and I’d even begun to imagine my future life confined to a wheelchair. A breakthrough came when, my left foot flat on the floor, a physical therapist had me shuffle my toes as far forward as possible, then back, sideways, and then try to lift them atop the lower frame of a tray (just off the floor). The next day she placed a handkerchief-sized cloth on the floor, and asked me to stand on it (with the assistance of a “walker,” of course). She then again had me “walk,” moving my foot as far forward as possible, back, sideways, slowly in increasing distances.

I was not officially “registered” at the hospital until Friday, December 8, when I was moved to the Main Pavilion, and another physical therapist escorted me (again, on a walker) down the length of a corridor and back, where I was cheered by a group of well-wishers: my family (Betty, sons Tim and Steve, who had arrived) and a host of nurses—a VERY moving experience; a major Minor victory indeed!

A neurologist (someone I knew of: a highly respected man) had been called in (everyone–doctors, nurses, staff, my family, and me!–remained totally puzzled by the “loss” of my leg), and I underwent a CT and five (!) MRIs in two days—on my head (brain), lumbar spine, head again (for “acute bleeding”), cervical spine, thoracic spine–a carotid Doppler, and Echocardiogram. The neurologist “suspected” (this did not show up on an MRI, but apparently that can happen about 6% of the time) “a small right hemispheric stroke, probably ischemic, related to small vessel disease”—and that (after considerable debate on everyone’s part) would go down as the final diagnoses.

Here are some photos of yours truly: shortly after being admitted for “observation” at Community Hospital; dressed, and with Betty, after I found out I would be discharged; sitting in a real chair when I arrived home; and standing with my new constant companion, my “walker,” after I’d been home for a while.

Bill in Hospital (2)   Bill in Hospital with Betts

Bill in Hospital Fincally at Home 5   Crab Christmas Braveheart 3

I was “discharged on aspirin and statin” (and the pain killer Norco) from the Main Pavilion, and given a room overlooking the hospital putting green (and a feast of trees that came up in the light each morning) in the IRU section of the hospital—for rehabilitation. Each day I was given a set schedule of sessions (three hours of intense workouts) with an extraordinary (beautifully competent and empathic) team of physical and occupational therapists, and after three days of strolling the hospital grounds (always with a walker), sessions in the gym: climbing stairs, standing alone (without a walker), even practicing rhythmic “dance” moves (extension and flexion), toe taps, standing balance progression (eyes closed—scary!); learning to bathe myself while seated in a chair in a shower; isometric finger exercises and even “putty” curls—I graduated, after spending an evening declared “Independent” (no more assistance to the bathroom, obtaining objects in my room on my own, etc. I was, now, truly “going solo”–like the title of my book). When Betty arrived on the morning of December 13, we were provided instruction on getting me in and out of our car—so I could depart and arrive, the next day (December 14), safely at home. Home! Which we did (arrive safely, with the assistance of our son Steve.

And that’s how I spent ten totally unanticipated days in the loving care of Community Hospital. I did make some fine friends, one of whom was Maria, a nurse from the Philippines, one of the most incessantly cheerful, buoyant persons I’ve ever met. She would come bouncing into my room singing, without words, beautifully, but claimed she couldn’t carry a tune at all. When my good friend Bob Danziger came to visit, he told Maria he’d traveled throughout the Philippines, and asked if she knew a particular song for children he’d heard. Maria did, and proceeded to sing that song (with words) beautifully—a performance she repeated, delightfully, when Betty and sons Tim and Steve arrived that afternoon.

I am pleased to report that, after completing my 7th physical therapy session on January 26 (with Chris Tinker, an exceptional therapist—and an avid jazz fan!), I took my first “walk” across the room with just a cane, rather than the sometimes cumbersome “walker” that’s been my constant companion since that ten-day hospital stay.

Which (Maria’s song) brings us, tangentially, to the subject I originally intended for this blog, back in September (!) “More About Music.” I had heard from an excellent jazz pianist I wrote about in Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within: Kei Akagi. He contacted me, after thirteen years, to let me know about his new CD, Kei Akagi Trio: Contrast & Form, his 14th album release as a leader, recorded with a “permanent trio based in Tokyo.” What I heard on the CD intrigued, and pleased me—so I decided to write about the direction his music had taken.

A fortunate “extra,” or favor an artist can offer an audience (and herself or himself, and the music itself) is being an articulate human being willing to take time to provide an interesting (and enhancing) description of intentions, or aims, and the means by which they were fulfilled. Kei Akagi is such an artist (and human being): an educator as well as a consummate musician, for alongside his musical contributions (14 CDs as a solo artist and leader; over 60 CDs as a sideman and accompanist—including Miles Davis’ last recorded works) and 70 published compositions), he is a Professor of Music at the University of California, Irvine.

He offered engaging, philosophically-inclined liner notes for Contrast & Form, writing: “We can’t have one without the other. Faced with the rich tapestry of greys that comprise life, we rely on contrast and form to make sense of it all. In the absence of perceptive contrast and form, we must somehow provide it. That is one of the things art can do. It is my hope that the music you hear on this recording will contribute in that way.”

He elaborates: “The world now is filled with wonderful jazz musicians, maybe more than at any other time. We dialogue with tradition, we negotiate with modernism, etc., but we ultimately confront music as a totality of past and present, all of which pushes us into the future as we speak. Within the kaleidoscope of musical possibilities we see ever-changing contrasts and forms, all within a continuum of perpetual sonic transformation, some lasting a moment of time and others lasting decades. We are free to embrace it all; I do so with gratitude.”

That “embrace” is what Kei Akagi’s Tokyo-based trio, (drummer Tamaya Honda and bassist Shunya Wakai) now in its fifteenth year of collaboration, attempts to do, and succeeds at doing, in this recording. The pianist states that the pieces themselves were composed over a three-year period, but “the performance methods of the Trio evolved over a much longer time.” Formed in 2000 as “an experimental performance collective,” Akagi finds their “point of departure in the rich history of jazz,” but feels the group also engages in “constant spontaneous deconstructions of the rhythmic and harmonic elements that define the music.” Eschewing the traditional roles “of the instruments associate with a piano trio format,” the Trio has chosen to emphasize “the equal role of each member within the ensemble.”

Here are photos of Kei Akagi; Kei at the piano; the cover of the CD Contrast & Form; and the Trio: bassist Shunya Wakai, Kei Akagi, and drummer Tamaya Honda (Photo credits: UCI Music Department; youtube.com; Masashi Kageyama):

Kei Agaki 3  Kei Agaki

Kei Agaki Trio Contrast & Form  Kei Agaki Trio Contrast & Form 2

That emphasis is apparent on the CD’s first track: “In the Fold,” on which the members of the trio “fold” into one another as tightly, and spontaneously, as origami; a minimalist framework–which Akagi often adopts–focused on internal process, stasis with gradual transformation, the reiteration of musical phrases, and persistent motif embodied in a simple six-note melodic line characteristic of Japanese songs for children (Gene Krupa’s very popular in Japan trio, with Charlie Ventura on tenor sax, recorded a children’s song, “Sho, Sho, Shojoji,” “Badger’s Party,” in 1952—and the piece can be heard and seen, performed live by them to this day, on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ro6CWhcYbs).

“In the Fold” displays the Bach-like precision, and clarity, of Kei Akagi’s trio, variety and surprise within the deceptive minimalism (you truly have to listen, with great care, for the nuance), and a range of mood from lyricism to sudden dramatic excursion, bright accents within the smooth flow—creative juxtaposition which is carried over into the second track, “Playground: The Dog and the Snake,” the minimalist repetition carried here to an extreme: the same theme persisting, over and over again, on piano, albeit abetted by subtle left hand riffs and drummer Tamaya Honda’s (in Akagi’s words) “incredible cross rhythms that occur in the middle of the track, purposely clashing with a regrouping of 21 beats into seven equal divisions of three.”

This is how the “equal role” of each member comes in, and pays off—with the variety and surprise I mentioned. A playful tension is set up between a nearly exasperatingly consistent (repetitious) again “simple” seven note theme (no let up relief on that, although that theme is—do I dare say it?—“charming” in and of itself); and the overall motion is one of ascent, the piece climbing, climbing, ending in a fade, the piano dropping out, with bass and drums carrying the melody, fully in sync, at the close.

Many of the tracks, such as this one, have engaging titles: “Ame to Kaeru (The Rain and the Frog)” and “Where You May Be”—the former, again in Akagi’s words, “a mini-suite of three sections,” although, in keeping with avant-garde minimalist “principles,” the piece remains non-narrative, non-representational—which just makes it all the more intriguing (You seem to be invited to invent a “story” of your own ). The piece provides a quick note (piano in sync with snare drum), stop, quick note, stop rhythm, repetition as prevalent as in “Playgouund.” Shunya Wakai’s bass steps in and takes over—then bass and drums interlaced, the exotic rhythm ongoing as Akagi’s piano work prevails with deft extended runs, three distinct personalities, worlds, functioning as “one,” and comfortable with one another just as they are—melodic or dissonant, the tempo never letting up, solid piano comping, STOP, piano in sync with bass and drums, STOP: a wild, good fun romp until the end, and then another sudden STOP, signifying The End.

The last track on the Contrast & Form CD, “Where You May Be” (another engaging title) is one of my favorites: melodic (a floating supple “undertoe” present with a dreamy liquid top)–reiterated, but with subtle modulations of intent. This gives way to staggered rhythm that ascends, and hesitation that suggests a quest of sorts, a seeking; then a stable reflective mood, lyrical, lovely (with handsome offsetting bass work by Shunya Wakai), an extended piano run, florid finger work matched with stabilizing solid block chords (and fine offsetting cymbal work by Tamaya Honda), this followed by an admirable bass solo (with fine sharp accents): the trio a tight group with active respect for one another—and back to liquid ascending piano, staggered rhythm again, and perfect piano/bass counterpoint that slows to a fade, with two unique harmonic configurations at the close. Beautiful!

The pianist/leader offers some more reflection on making music his way in a short video, “Kei Akagi: Master of Improvisation—UC Irvine,” talking (and providing examples on the piano) about “creation within the moment”; how he feels he must bring everything he feels to the creation of the music, because there is “no distinction between composition and improvisation; I am spontaneously composing … What are the elements, since I’m composing on the spot?  I can choose to play it [he offers a melody] very playfully … or, no, maybe it’s supposed to be interpreted [and here, he provides a somewhat solemn, no nonsense version of what he has just created on the spot] … a different mood … I’m constantly, as an improviser, providing information to myself, and the trick is to interpret that correctly; it’ s a really fun process.”

You can find this video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tES2SGU54N0.

When it comes to teaching at UC Irvine, he was going to set up a standard “program,” but settled for “allowing each student to express their own personality,” because jazz is “very personal … If you have five different musicians, even if they’re playing the same composition, they are all supposed to express five different world views,” adding at the video’s close, “For everything you learn, there’s a different way to do it!”

Here are the covers of three more CDs featuring Kei Akagi: The Asian American Trio (the album I wrote about fourteen years ago, in Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within); Mirror Puzzle; Playroom; and another photo of him “in action” at the piano (Photo credit: WMKY).

Kei Agaki Asian American Jazz TrioKei Agaki Mirror Puzzle

Kei Agaki PlayroomKei Agaki 2

Kei Akagi is not the only contemporary musical artist with such an open, risk-taking approach to improvisation. Legendary jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter returned to Blue Note Records (after 43 years, and at age 79) with an album appropriately, accurately called Without a Net: music the New York Times described asspellbinding intuition, with an absolute commitment to the spirit of discovery”; the BBC, referring back to a statement Shorter made when he played with Miles Davis for six years, “We never had a rehearsal. How do you rehearse the unknown?”, praised Without a Net as “full of spontaneity … unhinged abandon”; and Mark F. Turner wrote in All About Jazz: “Wayne Shorter is still one of jazz’s most ardent provocateurs,” citing “the seemingly telepathic and subliminal messages that Shorter, drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci, and pianist Danilo Perez communicate in these recordings largely captured from the quartet’s European tour in late 2011.”

Alec Wilkinson, in an article on pianist Vijay Iyer (who majored in mathematics and physics at Yale) said, “He doesn’t care to have his music labeled at all, but he sometimes calls it ‘creative music,’ adding that improvisation involves “the ability to perceive, think, decide, and act in real time.” Iyer’s bassist, Stephen Crump claims, “Vijay is interested in the collective dynamic,” and drummer Marcus Gilmore approaches his instrument from “a harmonic and melodic base.” In a blog, Ted Pankin writes, “Three years an independent entity, the trio aggregates information from multiple streams, sculpting Iyer’s arrangements and compositions along equilateral triangle principles that make it unclear where melodic responsibilities lie at any given moment … at a moment’s notice, the flow morphs into [in bassist Crump’s words] “zones of building from pure vibration and resonance, with everyone constantly micro-adjusting the pitch, dealing with textures and colors … the trio instantly became a more organic beast.” Iver himself claims, “If music is the sound of bodies in action, then we’re hearing not just sound, but bodies making those sounds … It’s a source-based perception rather than a pure sound-based perception. It’s not just about making pretty sounds. It’s about those sounds somehow emerging from human activity. The beauty has a story behind it—how did it get there?”

Here are photos of Wayne Shorter’s quartet, and Vijay Iyer’s trio (Photo credits: college.unc.edu and NPR.org):

Wayne Shorter Quartet Barbicon

vijayiyer

As for another topic I suggested I’d include in this blog post, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra 60th Monterey Jazz Festival premiere of the commissioned piece, Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebrationjust about everyone I talked to, after its performance, said it was the best MJF commissioned piece ever. Writer Andy Gilbert felt the work was “the Festival’s centerpiece … [It] surpassed all expectations. The bassist [John Clayton, who composed and conducted the piece] offered a brief emotional roadmap to the eight-movement piece”—and I found this “road map,” the verbal “introduction,” equal to the music itself: eloquent, honest, inclusive. I just wish I could get my hands on a copy of it!

A review in Classical Voice North America announced, “A major work was born on the Lyons stage that evening, a 40-minute MJF-commissioned world premiere by John Clayton You didn’t have to read any specific political details into the piece in order to sense the passion in its marching party grooves or marvel how its complex, diverse structure held together.” Andy Gilbert, also, commented on the “timely” tone (directly addressing our own era) of the piece, citing specific sections: “Responding to the divisive political climate. A sense of anger and dismay came through clearly on ‘Tidal Wave’ and ‘Slow Burn Baby Burn,’ but what was most striking about the piece was the way he effectively melded the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and the Gerald Clayton Trio … With the orchestra’s Tamir Hendelman, on keyboards, playing unison lines with Gerald’s piano, and several drum duets between Jeff Hamilton and Obed Calvaire, the two ensembles worked as one, roaring and whispering into a spiritually charged duet for Gerald and his uncle, alto saxophonist Jeff Clayton.”

Looking back over my own notes, I realize these two writers were alert to much that I found meaningful and unique in the piece: how handsomely it all held together (and the work was epic in its diverse elements); the powerful presence of a Big Band committed to several themes, evolving (seamlessly) from conception to overt celebration, with gifts of well-earned righteous anger, discord, outrage matched with solemn concern along the way–from tidal wave to cleansing prayer, a critique of current conditions, yet a homage to the longevity of jazz itself as an art form, with a wondrous juxtaposition of appropriate riffs and motifs.

The “exchange” between Gerald’s trio and the orchestra–the ingenious call and response–was first-rate; as was the conversation, the dialogue that took place between the two drummers: Jeff Hamilton’s thoughtful, stoic grin ever-present throughout Obed Calvaire’s wild one-upmanship explosions (Hamilton’s simple subtle cymbal “sizzle” winning out after one such display), but no real “cutting contest,” here: just acts of respect and individual (and generational) identity, an encyclopedic array of percussive approaches, all in “good fun” to boot.

Here are photos of the full orchestra at work on Saturday night, a close up of John conducting, and Jeff Hamilton on drums (Photo credits: Jim Stone and hamiltonjazz.com):

John Clayton conducting entire Big Band

John Clayton conducting 2 Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Clayton’s solo was beautiful, within the “spiritually charged” duet with his nephew Gerald (and John Clayton’s bowed bass solo was a work of art in and of itself, as were Gerald’s nuance-filled indwelling solo excursions). These “family” moments were “gifts” I had anticipated, because my very talented good friend Bob Danziger was commissioned to prepare a series of videos on artists featured in the 60th anniversary celebration, and one of the videos was on John Clayton, filmed while he was composing : Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration. In that video, MJF Creative Director Tim Jackson says that John and Gerald are “part of a long tradition of great families that have performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival,” calls Gerald a “musical revelation of a son,” and comments on the stress they place on “musical honesty and vocabulary” with Next Generation artists, adding that father and son “live that advice … jazz is renewed in their hands, infusing influences from all over the globe … family, history … artistry and hard work make John Clayton’s commissioned piece … so special.” Gerald claims that piece is about “celebrating that feeling of freedom after overcoming something really hard to do”; and at the close of the video, John tells us his composition is going to be about “bringing our light to the darkness versus getting sucked into the darkness … We’re going to make it shine!”

And indeed they did! An All About Jazz review states, “One of the most inspiring programming features of the 2017 was a family affair and focus of the sweetest and deserving kind. Pianist Gerald Clayton, one of the festival’s artists-in-residence, appeared multiple times, and with just the right approach in each setting”; and Paul de Barros, in a Downbeat review, called the commissioned work “a majestic big-band epic … which spurred the swing-loving crowd to a standing ovation. As Clayton conducted the piece with brio and his son soloed, it was pleasant to recall how Gerald had blown the crowd away with his trio on the grounds several years before and to remember past performances by the CHJO. It was a treat to see the crowd so delighted by the warmth and relatability of this swinging, bluesy, welcoming piece.”

In another review by him in San Francisco Classical Voice, Andy Gilbert wrote, “Spiritual succor was the theme of bassist John Clayton’s festival commission … His third time getting the MJF assignment, he rose to the occasion and delivered one of the more memorable commissions since Tim Jackson reinstated the program in 1994. Pairing the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, which he co-leads with his brother, saxophonist Jeff Clayton, and his best friend, drummer Jeff Hamilton, and his son, pianist Gerald Clayton, provided a vast array of tonal colors. And the fact that he was working with intimately familiar ensembles allowed him to write for specific voices. He introduced the eight-movement work by referencing our roiling political divide, and the cathartic piece moved through dismay, despair, and anger to healing and beatific joy with the trio and orchestra melding and separating throughout the set.”

The last words in my own notes were: “John Clayton was his absolutely commanding, charming self throughout the performance, exhibiting intentionality, dignity, grace under pressure, and the absolute joy of knowing (it seemed) what a magnificent work he had composed and his “family” (the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and Gerald’s Trio) had presented—his own presence dancing with delight at the close.

Here is the video I mentioned:

Here are photos of Gerald Clayton, Jeff Clayton, and again: the entire orchestra (Photo credits: Jazz at Lincoln Center; centrum.org; writeopinions.com):

Gerald Clayton  Jeff Clayton

John Clayton band 2

I had intended to include an account of the Sunday afternoon performance of John Beasley’s MONK’estra orchestra (“Celebrating the Thelonious Monk Centennial”) at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, and a conversation I was fortunate to have with John Beasley just after that, but this blog has managed to accumulate 13 pages (my “Baroque” tendencies at work again!)—so I feel I should save MONK’estra for another–the next—post; along with some thoughts I have (and which I feel relate, in a somewhat ingenious manner, if I do say so myself) to the current “state” of the art of jazz.

Those thoughts center (and this may seem a BIG JUMP–giant steps–but I hope to show, to prove it’s not) on the ongoing debate (or “civil war”) in the world of science between (1) materialist reductionism (“The idea that all phenomena can be explained by the interaction and movement of material particles”) and (2) neuroplasticity (“rewiring” of the brain), volition, free will, bidirectional “causality relating brain and mind”—opposite sides in that “war” that young Isaac Newton set in motion when he got conked on the head beneath an apple tree (although even that “fixed” or too perfect setting has been called into question) and Newton discovered the law of gravity, regarding our world as a windup clock, and empiricism as the only means by which it can be understood, or “measured.”

“Newton in some sense largely eliminated the divine from the ongoing workings of the universe,” states Jeffrey M. Schwartz in his excellent book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (which, along with Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary’s also of interest The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, and Henry P. Stapp’s Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer I am reading just now). I will save the analogy, or congruence I find with jazz for the next post—so please “stay tuned,” for I hope you will find the comparison, and an account of John Beasley’s amazing interpretation and arrangements of Thelonious Monk’s work engaging, and interesting.

As a final photo, here’s one of John Beasley and MONK’estra (Photo credit: Music Works International):

John Beasley and Monkestra

 

More About Music

At the close of my last blog post (“Apology for Sabbatical Leave—and Resumption of Bill’s Blog”), I wrote that “Next time: More jazz, and maybe a look (a listen) to some other ways of making music—music-making one of the better activities, I feel, a human being can pursue.” A better phrase might have been “engage in.”

At the time, and that was in early May (too much time between posts, I know, but once again I will attempt to explain why), I had resumed work on another writing project: what began (over-ambitiously) as a book, but turned into a series of individual articles on Poetry and Song. I contemplated posting a portion of a piece called “Renaissance Song,” which focused on Elizabethan era composers such as Thomas Campion (a first-rate poet who could also provide first-rate musical settings for the words: a rare, and fortunate, combination)—and also included some thoughts on W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman’s excellent, insightful introductions to their An Elizabethan Song Book.

However—as happened throughout the long delay that occasioned “An Apology for Sabbatical Leave,” I somehow found myself buried in alternate projects (and even actually work, getting hired to do some writing no less!), and that activity would occupy me for three months, building up to a performance I gave (on July 15) with two exceptional musicians at Old Capitol Books in Monterey, California: a “launch” for a book of mine just published, Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958.

The participants were Richard Rosen (harmonicas), Manuel Macucho Bonilla (cajon: a box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru—as is Macucho himself), and I: piano, vocals, and reading short passages from the book we “fleshed out” with songs from the era the book is about–songs such as “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “The Nearness of You,” and “Nature Boy.”

I’ll present here: the front and back covers of Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958 (and access to the book on amazon.com, if you’d like to have a copy, at: https://www.amazon.com/Going-Solo-1953-1958-William-Minor/dp/1943887500/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503603573&sr=1-1&keywords=going+solo+by+william+minor ; and some photos my wife Betty and a good friend (and former student) David “Catfish” Hall took on the afternoon of July 15—plus access to a video David filmed of the trio doing a song my idol Nat “King” Cole recorded with his trio: “What Can I Say After I Say I’m Sorry?”: https://www.facebook.com/william.minor.56/videos/pcb.1945171992414191/1945166269081430/?type=3&theater

The photos are: one Betty took amidst the standing room only audience; the band: Macucho, Richard Rosen, and I set for the “show,” focused, ready to go; three shots of the miraculous hands of Macucho at work and play; a close up of Richard going solo; the “author” signing a book for Michael Fields (himself a fine musician) after the reading/musical program; and signing a book and chatting with Cynthia Beach Guthrie (who was there with her husband Dick, both fine writers, and Dick known to sing a song or two himself on occasion).

Going Solo Cover  Going Solo Back Cover

July 15 Book Launch 2   Old Capitol Books Music 9 (2)

Old Capitol Books Music 6  Old Capitol Books Music 2  Old Capitol Books Music 7

Old Capitol Books Music 4 (2)  July 15 Book Launch 3 (2)

July 15 Book Launch 4 (2)

I feel a good time was had by all; entertaining (I hope) stories got told (from Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958); and engaging music was made (songs with which people could connect; our friend Jane Haines wrote on Facebook: “The presentation was wonderful. I was floating after the opening lines. I stayed aloft, lifted by the words, the melodies, the beat. Thank you for a marvelous afternoon.”). And I even sold some books!

The Monterey Jazz Festival will celebrate its 60th anniversary soon (September 15-17) and, since the turn of the year, I have been involved in three projects leading up to that occasion. I was rehired to provide copy for 26 more JAZZBUS shelters–with only a month to complete my portion of the project: 100-word “histories” for each year, 1991-2017; but we got the job done and the new material is now up “around town.” I am pleased to have been a part of this great project (thanks again, Phil Wellman!)—each JAZZBUS and each stop, or shelter (with histories, classic photos, and a provision to listen to the music of a particular year), providing daily reminders to folks throughout the community that such a thing as “jazz” exists as a vital part of our lives.

Next: a good friend of mine (with whom I’ve been playing music and making videos; you can find one at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyGYDv67ToI), Bob Danziger, was asked to create videos that will introduce individual sets on the main stage throughout the weekend of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival (The 60th anniversary celebration), and Bob asked me to assist as an “historical” consultant–which I did. Bob’s considerable talent—and his respect for the artists represented–will be displayed by way of six excellent, fully engaging videos. And THEN: Artistic Director Tim Jackson phoned and asked if I would write copy for two exhibits of 60 years of MJF posters and program covers (“Monterey at 60! A Visual Feast”), which I also did. One exhibit, at the Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel, is on display now (Betty and I went to a reception Friday night, and that “show” looks good); the other will be up in what used to be the Coffee House Gallery, but is now the California Jazz Café.

Here are some photos from the JAZZBUS project I’ve posted before: yours truly beside one of the shelters, a shelter (1978) by itself, and one of Pablo Lobato’s brightly colored and handsomely designed buses. After those photos, a sampling of posters: from the Monterey Jazz Festival’s first year, 1958; Earl Newman’s scandalous 1964 poster (a bit of Festival folklore: in the book Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years, I wrote: “Newman’s official poster featuring a stylized drawing of a saxophone player drew an X-rating from the mayor of Monterey, who asked shopkeepers to withdraw it from their windows. The three hundred posters that were printed immediately became collector’s items and the mayor was deemed by many to be a prude.”); Earl’s first trumpet on a chair (which would become a Festival icon) poster, 1967 (Earl’s hand-printed posters, of which he would provide a total of ten in the 1958-1979 era, would become synonymous with the Festival itself, defining these placards as works of art); Jerry Takagawa’s poster for the 50th anniversary in 1967; Pablo Lobato’s 2009 poster; a very striking 2013 poster (Phil Wellman/Maria Corte); and this year’s poster, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Jazz Bus Line  Jazz Bus Line 3

Jazz Bus Line 2

MJF Poster 1958  MJF Poster 1964  MJF Posters Newman First Chair

MJF Poster 50thMJF Posters 2009  MJF Poster

MJF-17-Poster_small4

The lineup of artists who will perform at the 60th anniversary event is extraordinary. To cite all of them would take pages, so I’m just going to put together a gallery of portraits (photos) of those I hope to see and hear. On Friday night, September 17: Herbie Hancock—who will open the Festival, and close out the weekend on Sunday night in a “Two Master/Two Pianos” performance with Chick Corea—which should be sensational (I have a copy of their 1978 Columbia acoustic piano double LP, recorded in San Francisco and San Diego, An Evening with Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea in Concert) and to see and hear them–live!–together, now, should be a rare treat!

On Friday night, the great Kenny Barron (with Roy Hargrove, Sean Jones, and Perdito Martinez) will offer a “Tribute to Dizzy Gillespie at 100″ (I’ve had the blessing of hearing Kenny Barron play piano at MJF with artists such as Stan Getz and Regina Carter)—and, Regina Carter will perform in a “Simply Ella” homage (a tribute to you-know-who). (Photo Credits: NNDB, Radio Serenidad, The Mercury News, NPR)

Herbie Hancock  Chick-Corea

Kenny Barron  Regina Carter

Unfortunately, the weekend’s overall fare is so abundant, I am going to have to make some quick moves (not so easy at this age!) to take it all in—to also “catch,” on Friday evening: vocalist Roberta Gambarini and drummer Matt Wilson with his group Honey & Salt, out on the grounds. Saturday afternoon offers Monsieur Perine (“Global Fusion—South American style”) with Catalino Garcia’s “Sugar-sweet, sunshiny vocals at the center of their signature ‘swing a la Columbia’ style”; and Mr. Sipp (“The Mississippi Blues Child”). Pianist Joanne Brackeen performs out on the grounds—and my journalist buddy Dan Ouellette conducts a DownBeat Blindfold Test with saxophonist Tia Fuller. (Photo Credits: AllMusic, The Seattle Times, NBC News, Nashville Public Library, DR Jazz Festival, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola).

Roberta Gambarini

The "7-Piece Sextet" performs on the Mainstage to wrap up the 2011 Centrum Jazz Port Townsend Festival.

Monsieur Perine

Mr. Sipp  Joanne Brackeen

Dan    Tia Fuller

Because of the amount of writing I’ve been doing for the 60th anniversary celebration coming up (just a week away now!), I did not attempt a full account (as I usually post on this blog each year) for the 2016 MJF—although I did post an account of sets by Joshua Redman and Wayne Shorter. I had hoped to write about two exceptional vocalists I heard that year: Claudia Villela and Somi, but before I could get around to that, I received another “call” (this in the form of an email letter) asking me to contact Leonard Nelson (a Video Production Manager), who was at work on a “Festival Fun Facts” project that would acknowledge people (such as Bob Danziger) who’d created the previously mentioned videos to be shown (introducing individual artists)—and include, at the suggestion of Managing Director Colleen Bailey: slides related to festival trivia or amusing incidents.

I did call Leonard and we discussed what might be included, and I agreed to provide two sentence anecdotes, or verbal vignettes (incidents that have become part of MJF folklore)—and I had no trouble coming up with twenty-two such items. Leonard Nelson has already responded with three handsome samples of what will be shown at this year’s event. I will not “unveil” his fine work here, but I can post a few of my favorite “fun facts,” as I rendered them in words. They do represent another side of this great event—“behind the scene” stories folks may not be as familiar with as they are the music itself. Here are a few:

1. The MJF had acquired a fleet of Oldsmobiles as transportation for performers. When popular Sarah Vaughan, known as “Sassy,” came out of her hotel and saw one of these cars awaiting her, she said, “We do not ride in Oldsmobiles,” and officials had to search all over town for a stretch limo to take her to the fairgrounds.

2. 1967: The Festival audience was dancing in the aisles to Big Brother and the Holding Company and Janis Joplin, who finishing her set, blew her nose on the Main Stage curtain, climbed into her blue Hillman Minx stuffed with junk food wrappers, and drove off to ultimate fame. [Thanks again, Rick Carroll, for that story.]

3. 1971: Herbie Hancock made his first solo appearance, but after 45 minutes of what he considered “noodling avant-garde,” Jimmy Lyons told stage manager Paul Vieregge to close the curtain—and when Hancock, well into his solo, opened his eyes, his audience was gone.

4. 1979: “The Night The Lights Went Out”: a major power failure on opening night left Dizzy Gillespie stranded on stage in the dark, until the audience lit matches and lighters, and Stan Getz strolled out to lend his mellow sound to “’Round Midnight.”

5. 1995: Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval was scheduled to play at the MJF, but took the wrong plane, to Monterey, Mexico—not California. He would make it safely in 1997, as part of Dave Grusin’s orchestra for West Side Story.

6. 2008: Jamie Cullum joined Kurt Elling on stage in Dizzy’s Den, and after singing “Say It (Over and Over Again)” together, they engaged in some playful banter, Cullum, who is quite short, alluding to a woman offering the phrase “Tall, dark, and handsome,” Elling responding, “I don’t believe she was talking of you.” Cullum: “I have a very high opinion of myself”: Elling: “That’s not something visible to the naked eye”; Cullum: “Small things come with big packages.”

I love continuity, continuance, unbroken and consistent existence, endurance, longevity—and the Monterey Jazz Festival has certainly provided that over the years. As I wrote in the Introduction to the two exhibits of posters: “Alongside sixty years of some of the greatest jazz the world has ever known, the Monterey Jazz Festival, on its 60th anniversary, intends to honor the posters which embody the spirit of the Festival as a whole: posters which represent all the great music and the complementary ‘scene’ that exists just outside the venues hosting the music.”

Continuity can be found by surprise on occasion. I recently heard from an excellent jazz pianist I wrote about in Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within (University of Michigan Press, 2004): Kei Akagi. He contacted me, after thirteen years, to let me know about his new CD, Kei Akagi Trio: Contrast & Form, his 14th album release as a leader, recorded with a “permanent trio based in Tokyo.” Akagi himself is a Professor of Music at the University of California, Irvine.

Here are: Kei Akagi at the piano, and the cover of the book Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within (Photo Credit: UCI Music Department):

Kei Agaki           JJJ Cover

In my next blog post, I’d like to continue the theme of “More About Music,” and write about this recording, and three other CDs I have by Kei Akagi: Sound Circle: The Asian American Trio (with drummer Akira Tana and bassist Rufus Reid), Mirror Puzzle, and Playroom.

Until then: if I do not see you at the 60th anniversary Monterey Jazz Festival celebration, I’m sure I’ll want to tell you about what I heard and saw there, as best I can—and more than likely in a still-excited state of recent exposure. Long live the Monterey Jazz Festival!

Apology for Sabbatical Leave–and Resumption of Bill’s Blog

“But nothing promised that is not performed” is the last line of Robert Graves’ fine poem, “To Juan at the Winter Solstice.” It’s a line I have more than likely quoted too often, by way of apology (for promises I’d made myself, but failed to make good on, failed to “perform”) in this blog—but, here I am in that position again.

I find it hard to believe I have not offered a blog post since February (!!), yet I also find it not so difficult to believe that’s true, when I look at what was marked on the calendar for the past three months—can’t believe just how perpetually busy I’ve been (and at age eighty-one, when I should be sitting in a full lotus–which I can no longer manage–on some mountain top, just saying ”Om” or humming favored melodies from the movie La La Land). I have managed to stay busy, both as an actual working stiff (more about that in a moment) or doing lots of what I love, but in areas other than this blog.

Back in February, when I did last post a piece (“The Worlds of Poetry Part Two”), I wrote that I would soon get back to writing about jazz (with an emphasis on the Monterey Jazz Festival, which I’d witnessed as far back as September 2016); and then I believe I did the same with regard to some fine music I heard on an October trip to Connecticut. However, between September and February, I got sidetracked on other subjects (“Imagination and Hard Science”; “Mikhail Bakhtin: Another Powerful Influence”; “The Worlds of Poetry: Part One”: and “The Worlds of Poetry: Part Two.”)—and I am grateful to those of you who follow this blog–the many Faithful–for sustaining ongoing “traffic” over the past three months: Bill’s Blog visits from folks in the USA (253), UK (29), Greece (24), France (19), Germany (15), Brazil (9), Canada (8), and MANY more countries. Thanks!

Most persistent throughout that time, as both a distraction and as a task that took on major proportions, has been completing a four year book project: just now done, finished (the last stage reading proof), a four year project soon to appear as a book in print: Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958. Here (just to exhibit the fact that I’m not merely “making up” excuses for such a long delay for this blog post) are: the front and back cover of Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958. The work should be available as a book at amazon.com fairly soon. I’ll let you know when!

Going Solo Cover      Going Solo Back Cover

Alongside all that work came a very pleasant surprise: another project, but one unanticipated. If there’s been a long delay on a blog report on last year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, another contributing factor–ironically–was getting re-hired to contribute copy (100-word histories) for twenty-six new MST/MJF JAZZBUS shelters. We (MJF graphic designer Phil Wellman and I) had just a month to complete our share of work on these. Four years ago, I contributed copy for the initial stage of this project, and wrote the following about that activity on Bill’s Blog: “The Monterey Jazz Festival/Monterey-Salinas Transit JAZZ BUS lines … feature bright orange vehicles decorated with lively designs, each shelter providing historical photos, my copy (on Festival highlights), and music (when you make a smart phone connection with a bar code) from the year represented —all while you wait for your bus!” To see how all this works, check out Phil Wellman’s national award winning TV ad for the JAZZBUS lines at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mk9IhA9g7Ek.

Here are some photos of the project. I’m standing beside one of the shelters for which I provided copy (1963: the year Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk made their first appearances at the Monterey Jazz Festival):

Jazz Bus Line  Jazz Bus Line 2

MST MJF JAZZBUS pavilion 2Jazz Bus Line 3   

I posted photos from and an account of our trip to Connecticut on Facebook, not long after it occurred, but for our purposes here (all that jazz I’ve been promising), here’s an abbreviated account that focuses on what my wife Betty and I heard by way of music, while there. In Old Saybrook, we commenced nearly every morning at Carol Adams’ Ashlawn Farms Coffee House (with her exceptional double espresso for me, accompanied by tasteful—mostly jazz standards by top artists—background music selected by Carol), and we ended nearly every evening with live music: listening to the Tuxedo Junction Big Band at Bill’s Seafood in Westbrook; enjoying the genial ambiance at the Griswold Inn in Essex (where they offer a wide range of music every night; we heard the Shiny Lapels band there, and returned for a “Psychedelic 60s” night); attended an exceptional production of “Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz,” at The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam: a musical that featured Ruby Rakos as a young Judy Garland; and thoroughly enjoyed one last evening of music, at the Copper Barn in Somers, where we practically sat on top of the Java Groove quartet (Check out their presence on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/javagroovemusic/). I had a good talk with guitarist James Alio: this group my favorite of all those we heard: tight, swinging, fine ensemble and solo work—and lots of the best Sinatra tunes.

Here’s the quartet at work (and play), and a poster for one of their gigs (Photo Credits: facebook.com/javagroovemusic and beeandthistleinn.com)

Java Groove Quartet

  Java Groove Quartet Poster    Java-Groove 2

When we returned from Connecticut, I not only resumed work on the book project (Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958) and undertook the resuscitation of the JAZZBUS shelters, but commenced a series of musical projects: recording songs I had written myself (four of them) with Bob Danziger (on synthesize-sampled “cello”), Heath Proskin (bass) and yours truly on piano. There was a sense of urgency, necessity on these sessions, for—having worked (played music) with Heath for fourteen years, he was leaving the Monterey Bay area to live in Sacramento, where his wife Celina, having graduated with a medical degree, has undertaken a new job.

Here are the results of two of those musical projects: the first an audio version (Bandcamp) of an original poem called “Genesis” set to music I composed (the poem itself, which, at poetry readings, I recite over the musical accompaniment–included on the Bandcamp site), and  a YouTube video of a poem called “Kindness: A Song for Betty” (Betty is my wife of sixty years), the words of which are shown alongside photos of Betty–the film a result of the musical, visual story telling and production skills of the amazing Bob Danziger. 

“Genesis”: https://billminor.bandcamp.com/track/genesis

“Kindness: A Song for Betty” (You Tube) can be located at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyGYDv67ToI

As if all this didn’t keep me preoccupied enough (Be patient: the disclaimers are almost over, although I hope you’re enjoying them as much as I am recalling the immense amount of positive, productive activity they occasioned–and the results), I gave a reading at Old Capitol Books in Monterey, CA, with an excellent poet named Cathleen Calbert. Here she is, the cover of her book The Afflicted Girls, a flyer for the event itself (at which I did read “Genesis” and another poem, a translation of a poem by Osip Mandelstam, “This Constant Wish,” available in audio on Bandcamp also: https://billminor.bandcamp.com/track/osip-mandelstams-constant-wish), and two shots of me: playing the CD I would read over, and … well, just lost in thought perhaps.

CalbertHeadshot-200x300   Afflicted_Girls_Front-210   Flyer for February 12 Old Capitol Books Reading

Old Cap Books Reading Feb 12 1  Old Cap Books Reading Feb 12 2

In March, soprano Norma Mayer and her husband, Richard Mayer (flute and arrangements) and I presented an in-house concert (at their home): “An Afternoon with William Blake,” which featured Norma and Richard performing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ song settings of Blake’s poems—and I read other poems by Blake and talked about the genius of this poet/artist and his life in general. We had given two previous performances of this “show” at the Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel, CA—and this past March we drew a “full house,” and the musical performance by Norma and Richard was … well, sublime. Here’s a photo of the three of us:Richard, Norma, and Me

I’ll toss in one more activity or project undertaken recently—another YouTube video. Patricia Hamilton, of Park Place Publications (which is responsible for the book I have coming out soon: Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958), is also publishing a book about the town my wife and I (and formerly our sons) have lived in for forty-six years: Pacific Grove. The book will be called Life in Pacific Grove, and Patricia is collecting stories from “all the people who are enjoying life in our special corner of the world”—hoping “to create a snapshot in time … a tapestry woven of the many threads that make up our community.” She suggested I might write a song about the town, in connection with the book project—so having lots of free time on my hands (ho ho), I did so. Here are the results, on You Tube (the lyrics to the song included in the video). I did offer a disclaimer with regard to the vocal when I posted the song on Facebook (I’m no Nat “King” Cole—whose sense of pitch, and poise, made him my idol among singers), but I refrain from any extensive apologies for what you hear. I’ll only say the video was made in good fun, and hope it’s received that way. You can find it at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-8Nvjn_sUo&feature=youtu.be.

In the midst of all this artistic activity, we somehow managed to squeeze in a trip to San Francisco Giants Spring Training Camp (and saw two games) in Phoenix, Arizona—where Betty’s two sisters, Wendy and Nora live. Back home, at night, I watched a lot of Golden State Warriors basketball (nearly every game). I’d made another promise not to discuss medical matters on either Facebook or this blog, but I’ll slip in a quick confession that, alongside visual and vestibular “issues” I’ve been dealing with for some time, my blood pressure took a sudden unhealthy climb or rise–but that situation is under control now, …so this, Folks, is how I have spent my sabbatical leave from blog production from February until now; and it’s time now, I feel, to write something about my favorite  “acts” at the 2016 Monterey Jazz Festival–but maybe not as much as I’d hoped to, because of ALL I’ve offered  here (of one nature or another) already (I’ll save the leftovers for the next Blog, so I can make sure I give you the relatively complete story I promised back in February).

At the 59th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival (2016), I was eager to see and hear tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, Showcase Artist of the year and scheduled to play three sets: with his group Still Dreaming (in the Night Club), with The Bad Plus (in the Arena), and with another quartet of his own (in Dizzy’s Den), to close out Sunday night. In effect, he was slated to both open and wrap up last year’s Festival

I was especially keen to see him with the two different groups of his own, for I have been following his career since 1997, when I wrote about him in Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years, in a chapter called “Sunday’s All-Stars,” devoted to the Festival’s Jazz Education Program, of which Josh had been a part, emerging–as I wrote—“as one of the most illustrious graduates of the Festival’s High School All-Star Big Band program” (Redman graduated from Berkeley High School, class of 1986, after having been a part of the award-winning Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble for all four of his high school years.). I had also served as script writer for a film documentary produced by Clint Eastwood (same title as the book: Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years), a film in which Josh served as a host, alongside another All-Star Big Band graduate, Patrice Rushen.

The saxophonist’s opening set in the Night club featured himself, Ron Miles on pocket trumpet, Scott Colley on bass, and my favorite drummer, Brian Blade (I had once written–without too much exaggeration–that I could spend an entire Festival weekend just listening to Brian Blade play drums, solo—he’s that good!). The Still Dreaming group would pay homage to a predecessor, Old and New Dreams, which had featured Josh’s father, Dewey Redman, on tenor sax; Don Cherry on pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden on bass; and Ed Blackwell on drums—all Ornette Coleman alumni who shared his revolutionary musical vision “in their own uniquely personal ways throughout their careers” (to quote the Festival program notes), so that “when the four of them came together at various points from 1976-1987, the results were never short of magical.”

And the same would prove true of the set I witnessed featuring Still Dreaming. Here are photos of that group, alongside Old and New Dreams (Photo Credits: mercurynews.com and sfjazz.org/onthecorner):

Josh Redman Still Dreaming 2
Still Dreamin’ musicians are Brian Blade, left, Ron Miles, Scott Colley and Joshua Redman. (Jon Brown)

Old and New Dreams 2

A popular Los Angeles DJ named Leroy introduced the members of Still Dreaming as “some of the more beautiful personalities in the business … Give ‘em a hand”—and the group commenced with a cool, fairly straight ahead “groove” that stressed Ron Miles’ pocket trumpet subtlety, Scott Colley’s steady accents, and Brian Blade’s truly exquisite brush work—this inception flavored with an engaging dissonance occasioned by overlapping sound, echoes of one another, call and response; then mutual free play, its wild turn followed by a lyrical lull, a gentle drone, and then back to the solid main theme—the close further enhanced by the Billy Higgins smile Brian had maintained throughout. The tune–announced a bit later–was “Blues for Charlie.” About the opening tunes (and the set in general), Andy Gilbert wrote: “Still Dreaming helped to open the 59th Monterey Jazz Festival with loose-limbed grit and capering grace, as Blade made every tune feel like it was designed for dancing. Joshua joked at one point that the project “is a tribute to a tribute band, which is kind of postmodern,” but there wasn’t a jot of air-quote irony in the performance, whether the quartet was playing Cherry’s seductively sinuous ‘Guinea’ and Dewey’s scorching ‘Rush Hour,’ or originals like Joshua’s spaciously lowdown ‘Blues for Charlie’ and Colley’s buoyantly bouncing ‘New Year’ (which sounded like kissing kin to Ornette’s ‘Una Muy Bonita).”

When Joshua, who contributed his own handsome solo offerings on these tunes, took the microphone and named them, he began, “It’s been a few … I’d love to say we’ve been coming here for 59 years, but … not quite!” He added, with regard to Old and New Dreams: “I’m not sure they played here” (I checked and they didn’t), but he mentioned “my father Dewey Redman” and the rest of the group, “All gone, as for their physical presence here”—implying what I felt: that the two groups were somehow playing alongside each other; that a larger presence was somehow on hand within the music. This Still Dreaming set turned out to be one of the most perfect (in terms of meaningful content and mutual musical accord) I have ever attended—honestly!

I felt as if I’d discovered–in the very first set I witnessed–a standard of excellence I would be impelled to hold up to whatever other sets I attended throughout the weekend—which seems grossly unfair to the others, I know, for I felt what I’d heard “right off the bat” (as they say) was perfection: total rapport among four musicians, and miraculous invention. I would not hear Joshua Redman play with The Bad Plus, but I made attending his last set, featuring a group of his own with entirely different “personnel,” a priority. That group, which played in Dizzy’s Den, was made up of Josh on tenor, Aaron Goldberg on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and another of my favorite drummers, Gregory Hutchinson. Of this aggregate, its leader would say, “We first formed, I guess, in ’98, so we’re going on 20 years. They’re three of my closest collaborators and they’re three of my best friends … they’re just that level of empathy and trust.” I suspected I might be finding myself in for another round of perfection!

I was familiar with pianist Aaron Goldberg, whose CD, The Now (which also featured Reuben Rogers on bass), I’d admired—and he did not disappoint on Sunday night in Dizzy’s Den: providing tasteful comping (both repetition and excursive configuration) behind (and within) Joshua Redman’s gorgeous tenor sax tone, which included everything from lush lyricism to crusty growls—offset by apt precision by Greg Hutchison on three ride cymbals. The group offered a different context than that of Still Dreaming: less precise, “tight,” simultaneous perhaps; more capricious, variable, unpredictable—passionate. The tunes were not announced, and the group moved so swiftly from one to another (at a variety of tempos) the set took on the shape of a suite, rather than just a sequence of individual tunes. They included pieces with sharp edges and harsh accents: the texture of Joshua’s signature sound constant and engaging, no matter what tempo he played at, or how wild a solo became (and some got delightfully wild), the rest of the group fully supportive, offering counter rhythms or melodic lines that revealed the respect they have for him, and also themselves—trusting their own individual instincts and inclinations.

The group played originals, exclusively (aside from a unique treatment of Hoagy Carmichael’s familiar “Stardust”)—tunes with titles such as “Emerald Eyes” (a beautiful ballad, rising to an anthem close), “Wish,” and “DGEAF” (employing those five notes in that sequence), an up tempo romp that evolved into good old-fashioned ( a la Jazz at the Philharmonic) tenor sax honk and stomp, assisted by teasing rhythms on piano (vamp/stop/six single notes/vamp/stop)—all the tricks of the trade displayed. On other tunes, Aaron Goldberg offered handsome bop chops, rounded off with a precise single note Basie-like “plink”; and Greg Hutchinson disclosed deft left hand accents throughout a wire brush solo. And Josh revealed just about all that can be done on a saxophone, by way of clicks and glocks and squeals and squawks, falsetto leaps, the full range of joyous musical flatulence, teasing pyrotechnics matched with straight ahead eloquent serious statement. And the audience loved it! Rueben Rogers contributed a first-rate solo of his own while Joshua replaced a worn reed with a fresh one, and came back in, right on time, for a smooth totally in sync fitting close to a fully enjoyable set for which the group was rewarded with a standing ovation. I felt as if I had witnessed perfection (each of its own kind, different, distinct) twice within the weekend: on opening night and at the very end.

Here are photos of Gregory Hutchinson in action, Aaron Goldberg in friendly repose at the piano, and Joshua Redman working his considerable magic, on soprano saxophone, not tenor (Photo Credits: dummerworld.com; news.allaboutjazz.com; experiencenomad.com):

Greg Hutchinson

© hansspeekenbrink.nl
All rights reserved

Johnua Redman 1

I’m exhausted—just thinking about (and feeling, experiencing again) what I heard at those two Joshua Redman sets, and because I’ve attempted to describe both in some detail, I’ll only cover another splendid quartet I heard at the 59th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, and then call it quits for this (renewed) blog and save the rest of what I witnessed for the next post.

The other quartet I’d like to tell you about is that of quintessential Wayne Shorter (tenor and soprano saxophone), with Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and–once again, and what a blessing!–the ever brilliant Brain Blade on drums. This group offered a “Festival Commission & Premiere Performance” of Wayne’s “The Unfolding,” which also featured the Monterey Jazz Festival Wind Ensemble, conducted by Nicole Paiement. I’ve heard Danilo Perez at the Festival before, with Wayne and with his own group, The Motherland Project. He is another wonder, an exciting pianist who, like Brian Blade, could well be isolated and listened to just for his own  exceptional skill alone. As a member of this group he was valuable not just as a sort of “glue” that held it together, but as a rare sort of “Velcro” that bound it tight and free at the same time. This Main Arena set, which started at 7:00 on Saturday evening, was enhanced by a sunset that prompted, in my journal, a “Wow! My God, what a beautiful, comfortable evening–a rosy glow in the distance” (which, unfortunately, may have been partially occasioned by the severe fire surrounding Big Sur at this time—as I realized later).

Wayne’s quartet is characterized by exceptional dynamics—every element (such as Brian’s smallest loving, skillful hi-hat stroke) essential. Perez provides delicious chordal comping, a nest for Wayne Shorter’s melodic lines, the synchronicity extended by way of Patitucci’s large strong resonate bass presence. The group is so comfortable, so compatible together, and that fellow feeling, empathy was not at all compromised when the string ensemble entered the game—the composition “fleshed out”; the piece acquiring a sumptuous, symphonic sound I liked, made even more opulent through Perez’ well-placed subtle notes. Brian maintained the level of genius one has come to count on from him, and Wayne was … well, Wayne: very moving, although he remained seated throughout much of the set.

I love music this well constructed and executed (and “conducted” by Nicole Paiement): music that combines lush melodicism with orchestral force: not just another attempt to find a “Third Stream” (a marriage of classical music and jazz), but a collaboration in which the customarily separate genres “drop out” in the name of genuine union, become “one” as best they can, enjoying more than just an “acquaintance,” truly embracing one another, with assurance the “marriage” will work out.

Here are photos of: Wayne Shorter and the group I heard at the 2016 Monterey Jazz Festival, both performing and “still”; and the miracle-working ever-smiling drummer, Brian Blade (wayneshorter.com; kalamu.com; jambase.com; sfjazz.og):

Wayne Shorter by Robert Ascroft  Wayne Shorter Quartet Barbicon

Wayne Shorter Quartet 2  Brian Blade

Toward the end of the set, the piece grew predictably “loose” (a fairly recent CD by the 83-year old saxophonist is called Without a Net), Perez providing his stabilizing influence—as did the soothing presence of an oboe and bassoon, the combined voicings, and the dynamics I mentioned. The ending, too, was suitably “epic.” I felt pleased and impressed: “The Unfolding” having unfurled, uncoiled, extended to a large measure, as I hoped it would.

I hope the same has proved true, for you, with regard to this blog post—which grew predictably long (given my “Baroque” nature), but I hope enjoyable. Next time: More jazz, and maybe a look (a listen) to some other ways of making music—music-making one of the better activities, I feel, a human being can pursue.

 

The Worlds of Poetry–Part Two

When I “signed on” for both Facebook and Bill’s Blog, I quickly became aware that other people were posting (on their sites) material I felt belonged elsewhere (in “private life,” not “public”), and I made a pledge never to post photos of food (and recipes), endless Selfies, videos of various animals performing cute tricks, hackneyed slogans, political proselytizing, and news of “medical issues” I might be dealing with myself. I gave in on the latter, when, because I have written about music (mostly jazz) for years, I received invitations to attend local performances I was not able to show up for (because of my own “visual” and “vestibular” medical issues) and I felt an obligation to tell the artists why I had to let them down.

I’m going, now, to break my “pledge” one more time—for another occasion. The day of the election (November 8), I wrote on my Facebook page: “A good feeling in the air. Life may soon (tomorrow) get back to real life”—and I offered a joyous video of Willie Nelson singing “On the Road Again.” That evening, as the election results came in, that road ahead failed to assume the shape (or “turn”) I’d hoped for, and the next day, November 9, I found myself quoting Stephen Spender’s “You must live through the time when everything hurts”—and listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” (the song coupled, in an inspiring video, with migratory birds: “The birds they sang / at the break of day / Start again / I heard them say / Don’t dwell on what / has passed away / or what is yet to be. / Ah the wars they will / be fought again / The holy dove / She will be caught / again / bought and sold / and bought again / the dove is never free … Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

I remembered a pilgrimage to the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis (when my wife Betty and I lived in Greece for a year.). The inscription reads: “I hope for nothing / I fear nothing / I am free.” I vowed to maintain that stoic stance in mind, but also a sense of hope (“That’s how the light gets in.”) for us all. And I vowed to keep on, in the words of Willie’s song, “makin’ music with my friends.” And that’s all I have to say (publicly) just now regarding “politics.”

Here’s the inscription, in Modern Greek, on Kazantzakis grave (Photo credit: theculturetrip.com). You can find the YouTube video of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wRYjtvIYK0&feature=youtu.be

kazantzakis-grave-inscription-2

Returning, now, to where I left off at the close of “The Worlds of Poetry, Part One”: Another curiosity aligned to Po Biz today (and the world of writing in general) is the plethora of MFA degree programs available—a situation similar to that facing aspiring young jazz musicians who complete such programs in music, but whom are not likely to find venues (given the conversion of so many jazz clubs into sports bars) in which they can actually practice their trade, or “play.” Michael Nye, managing editor of The Missouri Review, has posted a perceptive article, “The MFA Degree: A Bad Decision?”, on what poets (and writers in general) are likely to face once they have completed heavily advertised programs in “creative writing.” His first paragraph concludes: “Everyone, it seems, has MFA programs on the brain” (and in the works!), and he goes on to cite a special issue of Poets & Writers titled “MFA Nation” (the cover displays thirty-one people of a wide range of ages and ethnicities). This special issue makes information available to aspiring writers on everything from the “social value of these programs” to ranking systems, and includes “fifty pages of ads from writing programs throughout the country.” Nye, a graduate of an MFA program in creative writing himself (as I am), confesses that he has “begun to wonder if the MFA is, in fact, a bad decision.”

It’s interesting that, as editor of an esteemed journal, Nye avoids or evades what seems to me the most crucial issue or serious consideration for genuine writers: just where the Hell, once they graduate, is this mob of MFAs going to publish (the equivalent of where are all the jazz hopefuls going to play?!)—but he does focus on the more “practical” issue: “Let’s not fool ourselves about where program graduates end up.” They compose “an army of people that are asked to teach low-levels of composition [not creative writing] … for adjunct pay” (which was pretty much the position I found myself in back in 1963, although since then, the odds of finding such jobs seems to have decreased while the number of poets seeking the same has accelerated).

I showed this, my own essay, to a young poet whose work I much admire, and his response was, “Who is your audience?” He more or less chastised me for saying what contemporary creative writing MFA graduates or candidates all already know. And painfully so (he himself in the position I’ve described). Whereas I do not object to offering an occasional “shock of recognition” (to others, and myself!) regarding the state of poetry today, my intent here is not to offend (anyone), but an attempt to understand, at my age (80) just what is going on or taking place in those “worlds” that surround or have grown out of (or “upon,” like barnacles?) an art form I love—an art form I have studied and “practiced” (that’s all I would claim for my efforts now) for fifty-eight years (fifty-three since I graduated from San Francisco State). When I try to imagine myself attempting to “get a start” in the world (any of those worlds) of poetry today, I feel considerable empathy for those poets doing just that.

Here are some literary journals I was fortunate to have poems in back in the “good ole daze.” Notice the then cost of december (a journal which has been resuscitated and is going strong; check out: http://decembermag.org/) and Hanging Loose ($2.50!)—considerably less than the entry fee for poetry contests today (chalk it up to “inflation,” ho ho). Poetry West was the journal edited by Carolyn Kizer:

cover-december      cover-poetry-northwest

cover-hanging-loose     cover-quilt

Quality print journals seem to be going under at a fearful rate, and even incessant online publication is not likely to allow practicing poets to find themselves on a tenure track.  In 1967, sans Ph.D., I was allowed to become an Assistant Professor at Wisconsin State University-Whitewater, on the basis of selection for inclusion (alongside Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates) in an anthology (published by NYU Press) of Best Little Magazine Fiction—but the days of such blessings may, I fear, be long gone. “What if programs honestly told students that if they want to teach at universities,” Nye writes, “that MFA graduates are a dime-a dozen? … what does this degree actually prepare our graduates to do?”

These imperative questions suggest “ethical” issues regarding anticipation on the part of anyone who starts out to engage in the art with serious intentions—“not for glory and least of all for profit” (To quote William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech). Right up to the age of thirty, I failed to ask why the world of poetry should be any different from the “worlds” one encounters in any other human activity. I just assumed it would be because I wanted it to be! I wanted poetry, within the world at large, to be a Special Preserve, a Great Good Place, a Pure Land where none of the ugly demeaning laws of “life” (such as “business”) prevailed or could be imposed—a world exempt from all human fads and follies.

I can recommend an interesting and valuable book on writers who’ve graduated from one of the most highly regarded universities offering courses in creative writing: We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (by Eric Olsen and GlennSchaeffer, Skyhorse Publishing, 2011). The book includes valuable testimony from those who went on to become “superstars” (whatever that means), John Irving, T.C. Boyle, Jane Smiley; those who simply went on to continue writing as much and as best they could (given their “day jobs”), and even those who eventually just gave up writing. And I would also recommend a brilliant (and very funny, very readable) comic version of the same experience: John Skoyles’ A Moveable Famine (The Permanent Press, 2014).

The only “world” of poetry worth pursuing, I’ve come to feel, is that world of our own we experience when we attempt to set what we regard as a “poem” down on paper (or computer or perhaps just simply as the “music” of a poem we hear in our head). Everything else (whatever small “world” the poem might be accepted as part of, or excluded from) is irrelevant. Poetry is not and never will be a “team sport.” The genuine poet is engaged in an act that has ancient roots: in its lyric form extending as far back as 1100 B.C. Egypt—and in its most primitive form, perhaps as far back as “The Singing Neanderthals” (I also highly recommend Stephen Mithen’s extraordinary book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, in which he argues that we actually sang before we possessed syntactical speech and set vocabulary). Other archeological experts claim the Sumerian hymn, the “Seikilos Epitaph,” as “The Oldest Complete Song in the World” (a complete composed inscription rediscovered in Aiden, Turkey, in 1885)—“an inspiring tune from 100 BC.” Yet how many poets really know their own history? I have a suspicion that what is being taught now is not so much the rich and abiding history of the art form itself, but the best way (if there is one) to commence (or acquire) a “career” as a poet.

Here are We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stephen Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body:

we-wanted-to-be-writers-book       the-singing-neanderthals

Philosopher/poet/critic George Santayana claimed that the world (and this single word could apply to the many separate “worlds” of poetry) “is a perpetual caricature of itself; at every moment it is the mockery and the contradiction of what it is pretending to be.” In his essay “The Poetry of Barbarism” (from his book Interpretations of Poetry and Religion), Santayana makes a distinction between the “earliest poets” (who are the most “ideal”) of primitive ages (such as that of Homer) which furnish “the most heroic characters and have the clearest vision of a perfect life,” and our own time, in which poets seem “incapable of any high wisdom,” incapable of any imaginative rendering of “human life and its meaning” as a whole. If what he says holds any truth, it’s because the poetry of the era he admires—the “original poetry”—was wrung from necessity, and not as a partial or casual preoccupation. It was an integral and absolutely vital part of the “world” that surrounded it: the whole of existence.

In his view, paradoxically, when existence itself was “barbaric,” full of “insecurity and superstition … singularly poor in all that concerns the convenience of life,” poets possessed “a sense for civilizations,” and the poetry of that “simple and ignorant age was, accordingly, the sweetest and sanest that the world has known: the most faultless in taste, and the most even and lofty in inspiration … it bathed all things human in the golden light of the morning; it clothed sorrow in a kind of majesty, instinct with both self-control and heroic frankness.” According to Santayana, “[Poets today] are things of shreds and patches; they give us episodes and studies, a sketch of this curiosity, a glimpse of that romance; they have no total vision, no grasp of the whole reality, and consequently no capacity for a sane and steady idealization.”

I’ll confess I like Santayana’s outrageous contentions, and I can find considerable “truth” or insight in them. In an age of “material elaboration,” our separate and divided (and exclusive) “worlds” of poetry do seem to encourage a “fancy” that is, in his words, “whimsical and flickering; its ideals, when it has any … negative and partial.” Our work may seem to be just a “verbal echo” of the “imaginative disintegration” that characterizes the larger world that surrounds and contains us.

Many contemporary poets do lack a sense of their own history, and the uses of the past in general. Santayana writes, “We study the past as a dead object, as a ruin, not as an authority and as an experiment … To us the picturesque element in history is more striking because we feel ourselves the children of our own age only, an age which being itself singular and revolutionary, tends to read its own character into the past, and to regard all other periods as no less fragmentary and effervescent than itself … the habit of regarding the past as effete and as merely a stepping-stone to something present or future, is unfavorable to any true apprehension of that element in the past which was vital and which remains eternal … [we lack] a common point of reference and a single standard of value … Religion and art have become short-winded. They have forgotten the old maxim that we should copy in order to be copied and remember in order to be remembered.”

W. B. Yeats wrote a poem, “Three Movements,” in which he traced the “progression” of poetry from the time of Shakespeare down to Yeats’ own day, and, had he witnessed it, I feel he would have included our own era:

“Shakespearean fish swam the sea, far away from the land /  Romantic fish swam in nets coming to the hand; / What are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand?

Here are two major figures from the world of poetry: George Santayana and W. B. Yeats (Photo credits: http://www.thefamouspeople.com; http://www.biography.com):

george-santaya         w-b-yeats

I am fortunate to live in a place (the Monterey Bay Area) that can take pride in a history of encouraging artistic activity on a high level (John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, Ansel Adams, et cetera) and the local scene, while not really worthy of the name “community,” does inspire work of quality and interest—even poetry! I have read, and admired, the work of local poets, and attended praiseworthy readings by them: folks that are not just fine poets but with whom it is possible to be friends (and that’s a rare thing among our tribe!).

Aside from this fortunate context, I will confess that too much of the work I read and hear now that passes itself off as poetry strikes me as something other than or not quite poetry—as work afflicted with piscatorial “gasping” on some strand rather than what I regard as the true music of the art. So much of what I am exposed to sounds like cute or clever verse; outright therapy; jottings from a diary or journal, maudlin memoriam (so many indulgent death bed scenes!), unfortunate habits acquired in (and encouraged by) group “workshops”; inept imitation (bad ears!); political propaganda, a pathetic attempt to establish a “persona” (but not a genuine alter ego so much as just wishful thinking on the poet’s part). I find too much plain out carelessness when it comes to language (bad ears again!);  I hear raw “matter” as distinct from form (in the Aristotelean sense)—potential that lacks the patience to reach a state of entelechy (actual achievement). Robert Frost said, “A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written,” but so much of what I read and hear today sounds as if the poet had never encountered any other poem aside from the most recent poem she or he has written or is in the process of writing. And the reason I can rattle off these faults or shortcomings in such a glib arrogant critical manner is (should I find them in the work of others), I also frequently find them in the poetry I write myself.

In his excellent book, Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry, exceptional poet Anthony Hecht writes, “To begin with, one is able to write a poem because one knows what a poem is—not from dictionary definitions, but from experience.”

On the matter of “form,” Hecht writes, “Conventionally, when we speak of ‘form’ in poetry, we fall too easily into discussion of received forms, traditional stanzas, like sonnets, villanelles … and quatrains of various kinds. Those who condemn form in poetry are often given to venting their wrath upon these received forms,” finding imagination limited thereby, language forced into “set molds.” Yet Hecht ably points out that what “our greatest formal poets—Donne, Herbert, Champion, Herrick, and Hardy”—really did was to “conspicuously and brilliantly … invent forms of their own. This means that with such a poem the poet is free to create whatever pattern and music he cares for,” even if, in the past, the original music and pattern of subsequent stanzas was acknowledged and held to (creating its own imaginative potential). Another “formalist,” Michael Drayton, thought of his poetry, “excellent yet conventional although it be, as ‘wild, madding, jocund, and irregular’”—and that might be an admirable quality to aim for.

Hecht states that “modes of feeling themselves go in and out of fashion … but not the eternal verity of mesura [italics mine]: Maurice Valency’s definition: “measure, that inner restraint which governs the appetites and keeps the subject to the intellect”; Greek moderation or prudence, or in the 12th century, employing a word I like: “courtesy”–to oneself and to the “reader” or audience. Hecht reminds us that “measure” is a musical term, and a metrical one, saying, “the music of forms requires some kind of regularity, some pattern that allows us as readers to judge proficiency, that engenders expectations which it can then fulfill in some novel way, withhold for strategic reasons, satisfy with dissonances or harmonies that surprise and delight.” I have my own mantra: Variety and surprise! Active imagination—the mental and verbal risk of life itself!

Some last words from Anthony Hecht: “Poetry as an art seems regularly to oscillate between song (with all the devices we associate with musical form and formulations) and speech, as it is commonly spoken by ordinary people … A serious and durable work of art, whatever its medium, will make the sort of demands upon us that invite repeated experiences that will fail to exhaust the work … Great works of poetry continue to yield a new sense of themselves, and prove, to our delight and astonishment, utterly inexhaustible.” In another context, Hecht states, “I believe we may gauge the success of a poem by the fact that it reads as effectively the second time as the first, and the third time as the second; and with any real merit it will outlast a lifetime.” And he quotes W.H. Auden: “A poem is a rite … the form of a rite must be beautiful, exhibiting, for example, balance, closure, and aptness to that which it is the form of.”

So how does a genuine poet create such poetry? I have devised (he says modestly, and with much more than just a trace of humor, I hope, with regard to a subject, poetry, to which in many ways I have devoted my life) a playful exercise: my own MFA program–one that would not require any “school” or facility other than individual initiative: a program that can be carried out “at home,” alone—tuition free, although there will be some self-determined (as to the extent of it) expenditure for books. Don’t take this too seriously (and certainly not personally, should you fall short; I had fun imagining and setting this up, and, believe me, I fall way short on enacting the full curriculum myself.).

(1)   Teach yourself (or with able assistance, if necessary) to read poetry in at least four languages other than you own (at best: one such being Ancient Greek, or Latin, or both).

(2)   Acquire a working knowledge of the complete history of poetry (from 1100 B.C . Egyptian “lyrical” down to the present day): assimilating learning that can be carried over comfortably into your own poems.

(3)   Undertake a full study of Quantum Physics (I highly recommend a book, Quantum Physics for Poets, written by Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill–and another: Roger S. Jones’ exceptional Physics as Metaphor) for an understanding of the “cosmic code” that rules all forms—this supplemented by reading Aristotle on both hyle (matter) and morphe (form), enhanced by a solid understanding of Thomist theory of the same (“material prima” and “forma”).

Here are the covers of : Quantum Physics for Poets and Physics as Metaphor:

 quantom-physics-for-poets        physics-as-metaphor

(4)   If you don’t already know how, learn to play at least one musical instrument (and please do not offend its individual nature the way a particular poet does by mistuning a bouzouki); acquire elementary knowledge of music theory and extensive knowledge of all poetry set to music (where poetry began) down to the present age.

(5)   Memorize a poem a day—and not just favorites but any poem that possesses qualities you admire. Take poems into your mind and body and keep them there.

(6)   Study and “copy” set forms of poetry (sonnets, villanelles, terza rima, etc.) before you attempt to free yourself from them, not after (or “practice” all forms simultaneously, if you can do so without getting too confused)—and slowly but surely acquire what jazz musicians call a “vocabulary” of effects (in poetry: slant rime, enjambment, assonance, etc.).

(7)   Undertake four or five months of gigs “on the road” as a stand-up comic. This will acquaint you with a full range of tones, moods, and inflections you can apply to your work as a poet (having learned to truly listen to what you sound like out loud)—and also prepare you to withstand and assimilate hostile audiences you more than likely will, in the future, encounter as a poet; or evenings when no one shows up to hear you read (Thanks to good friend and excellent poet Elliot Ruchowitz Roberts for bringing those gigs to my attention).

I’ll confess that (although I’ve had more than a little help from my friends, and teachers I treasured along the way), I do fall way short with regard to such a self-imposed “program,” but I was fortunate in being a somewhat messed up kid who couldn’t fix on just one “career.” I was an English Literature major alongside majoring in painting, drawing, and printmaking, and I did receive assistance from truly splendid teachers (already cited) when I got a Masters Degree in Language Arts (Creative Writing) at San Francisco State in 1963—this quite some time before the present MFA degree “explosion” took place.

But trust me: you shall truly know you’ve earned your diploma if you carry out this modest “program” on your own!

Here are two of my favorite poets: Anthony Hecht and Mary Ruefle (Photo credits: en.wikipedia.org; poets.org):

anthony-hecht      maryrufle

I’ll close with (what I feel may be) some excellent advice on how poems best get made: hard won insight from a book that is filled with it, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, by Mary Ruefle, a most remarkable poet herself. She quotes another remarkable poet, Paul Valery, who said, “The opening line of a poem is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall”; and Mary Ruefle then goes on to suggest just how this act may be made possible (“potential” converted to entelechy or fulfillment): “Between the first and last lines there exists—a poem—and if it were not for the poem that intervenes, the first and last lines of a poem would not speak to each other … the lines of a poem are speaking to each other, not you to them or they to you …   The poem is the consequence of its origins.”

Enough! It’s time to go in search of that individual seed (unrelated to any “worlds” of poetry!) we plant in order to turn our opening lines (and by an act of Greek poiesis: the kind of making poets do) into our very own tree.

Next post on Bill’s Blog: back to jazz!

 

 

The Worlds of Poetry–Part One

I was going to take a break from “heavy” blogs. Most recently I’ve posted on science (“Imagination and Hard Science”) and literary criticism and philosophy (“Mikail Bakhtin: Another Powerful Influence”), but I was going to switch back to having some plain ole “fun” and write about what may be my favorite subject: music—a single post on some fine music I heard on a recent trip to Connecticut, and this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, which took place in September.

However, I am going to hold off on “music” for one more post: this one on poetry, because I took a look at a draft for a personal essay I wrote some time ago, and I felt a strong urge (in light of much that I see and feel going on around me just now) to bring the piece up to date. When I originally wrote “The Worlds of Poetry,” I was quite self-conscious about the possibility of offending whomever might read it, but those days seem bygone, for at my current age (80), I find myself increasingly willing to state what’s really on my mind (and heart and soul). This inclination may only be a sign of the times in general (not my own actual age), for lots of folks (of whatever age) seem to feel that way just now—there seems to be a lot of my new stance “goin’ around.”

Whatever the current trend, here are my own thoughts and feelings—so many I amassed twenty-three pages of text, so I will have mercy on you, Good Readers, and present this material in two parts, two posts rather than one—thoughts and feelings on “The Worlds of Poetry.” I also just discovered I’ve had a very good day for Bill’s Blog (November 2): 32 views, 25 visitors in the United States, Mexico, France, Argentina, Italy, Czech Republic, New Zealand, Kuwait, Germany, and Singapore. Wow! Thanks all! You have truly “made my day.” I have waited until now to post “The Worlds of Poetry,” but as Charlie Parker “played” in one of his own tunes: “Now’s the Time.”

When I first started to write poetry seriously, I was extremely naïve and idealistic. I didn’t have a clue there were distinct or different worlds of poetry—many, each as separate, tidy, exclusive and sometimes cruel as all other social phenomenon (cliques, clubs, fraternities, institutions) I had been exposed to up until that time.

I don’t know how I escaped with my aesthetic or artistic idealism intact for so long, but I did. I was twenty-seven years of age, married, the father of two small children, and a graduate student in Language Arts (Creative Writing) at what was then called San Francisco State College. The year I received my M.A., 1963, I was also awarded S.F. State’s Poetry Prize (with its attendant $25) and poems of mine were published in the college journal, Transfer. The following is one of them:

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 titlts 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.

Here are two examples of Persian miniatures: not, unfortunately, the one I based the poem on—but fair examples (depicting horses) of what attracted me to this visual art form (Photo credits: melcominternational.org; iranreview.com):

persian-miniature      persian-miniatures-3

My own poem strikes me now as a bit stiff and stilted (O hindsight!), but it was written, deliberately, in iambic pentameter (At the time, I was a fan of Shakespeare, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens). I had also been trained originally as a visual artist, and by way of Pratt Institute’s very comprehensive Bauhaus-based program, which encompassed everything from anatomy lessons and day long life drawing labs to revolutionary concepts in color and design (Philip Guston, one of our instructors, taught us how to render pump handles in charcoal by day, and directed us to his Abstract Expressionist exhibits at night). No revolutionary, I was most enamored of conscious craft and form, and I carried those preferences with me into literature at San Francisco State—preferences not exactly the rage in college poetry circles at the time.

The legacy of the Beat Generation was still strong, its heirs apparent everywhere. They preferred their poetry dished up “uncooked,” open, naked, organic, “raw.” Their approach was still regarded as pioneering, “revolutionary,” experimental, somewhat “fugitive,” “underground,” improvisational, spontaneous, forward-looking, “free.” It favored large-canvassed “instantism,” and distained anything “academic” or formalistic. With its combined tribal or communal spirit and fierce “American” individualism, this approach also came complete with theories that would grow increasingly dogmatic, and a host of idealogues with definite programs they espoused or imposed: Charles Olson with Projective Verse, Robert Creeley with “form is never more than the extension of content,” Robert Duncan’s belief that a poem (like the physical universe) “has only this immediate event in which to be realized,” and Jack Kerouac with his (mistakenly: there is very little un-mindful activity when it comes to a fine improvised solo) jazz-based automatic writing.

I had excellent, exciting advisors and teachers at San Francisco State—Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Wright Morris, Mark Linenthal, Leonard Wolf, Bill Dickey, James Schevill—and they exposed me to a range of writing styles, but I was pretty much a loner at the time, and I went my own small way, following my own bent or beat, whatever it was. Kenneth Rexroth, the paterfamilias of the Beats, had lived just up the street from our first apartment in San Francisco, on Scott and Hayes, and I was encouraged to drop in on his Sunday salons; but I was also quite shy and never attended. Jack Spicer was a poet whose work I much admired: especially Billy the Kid, which my wife Betty actually typed out for me in its entirety (from a library copy) and presented as a gift on my birthday because, finding the original (just 750 copies published in the Stinson Beach Enkidu Surrogate version) in City Lights Books, I could not at the time (it probably sold for about two dollars) afford to buy it. Spicer, awaiting the arrival of the next pretty boy poet from New York, held court at The Place when we first came to the city in 1958, but I was married, heterosexual, and totally naïve about terms of acceptance, so even though I noodled on the piano there occasionally, I didn’t profit from his tutelage, or even get to know him.

Here’s a photo of Jack Spicer at work (thinking!)—and City Lights Books, home of the Beats and my new “home” away from home in 1958–a place where I was discovering a brave new world in North Beach—along with Vesuvio Café, The Place, and The Cellar (where Rexroth read, accompanied by jazz musicians—neither party really paying all that much attention to the other at this early stage of the game; unlike Bob Dorough’s fine fully “in sync” rendering of Ferlinghetti’s “The Dog Trots Freely in the Street”). (Photo credits: jacketmagazine.com; founds.org):

jack-spicer   city-lights-bookstore-1950s

I could sense the intoxication and vitality of “Beat” poetry, but that wasn’t my way (even though I seemed to be able to hold my own in the collateral cause of alcohol consumption), so I continued to write poems that contained, I felt, their own formal music (another “craft” I was enamored of, having played jazz piano since the age of fifteen, and later, professionally, as both a drummer and pianist with several combos or groups). When I received the $25 Transfer prize for “Persian Miniatures” and another poem, I was pleased, but terrified when informed that I would have to read the work that had occasioned the prize at the S.F. State Poetry Center. I did so before a sizeable crowd, and took shelter in my natural shyness by (probably) mumbling my way through the poems. I did not even bother to look up from the podium—thereby missing my own boycott! A group of “Neo-Beat” poets had assembled in the rear of the room, with banners protesting the fact that a poet (me) who still employed iambic pentameter and rhyme and other insidious “formalistic” devices (one of my poems, called “The Barmaid,” was modeled on the intricate syllabic stanza patterns of Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill,” to which I’d even had the audacity to add rhyme) had received the prize, rather than one of their own kind.

This boycott was my first run-in with the Politics of Art, with The World of Poetry, and, because of my—at the time—self-effacing, or timid nature, I missed witnessing it.

In 1966, after the disastrous experience of my first teaching job, at the University of Hawaii ($5,500 a year for basically remedial work that made me feel whatever “poetry” I may have once possessed was being snuffed out of me), I took a year off and just wrote, then took another job teaching English at Wisconsin State University-Whitewater. I’d had my first poem published in a national journal: “The Weekend,” work Carolyn Kizer accepted at Poetry Northwest, saying first, “It could be a major poem”; then, “Congratulations on a noble effort” when it was published. At age thirty, and still naïve and idealistic as hell when it came to the “world” of poetry, I was asked to serve as director/coordinator of the university’s segment of a Minnesota-Wisconsin poetry circuit, a tour made up of nationally renowned poets who gave readings.

The first poet to arrive was W.D. Snodgrass, who’d caused quite a stir with his 1966 book Heart’s Needle. I had practically memorized every line in a book that had an immense emotional impact on me. Snodgrass employed meter, rhyme and set stanza patterns to disclose the pain of divorce and “visitations” with his daughter (“The world moves like a diseased heart /packed with ice and snow. /Three months now we have been apart /less than a mile. I cannot fight /or let you go.”). At the time I—having never met a real poet (aside from professors who fit the art into their busy schedules as best they could)—I honestly believed that poets must be like their work, resemble it in every way; that is, in their private lives. If their poems were sensitive, sincere, responsive, strong, or sweet—well then, so were they. The Minnesota-Wisconsin poetry circuit would quickly and cruelly cure me of that illusion.

With all due respect for W.D. Snodgrass, my impression of him in the late 60s was of a somewhat neurotic, highly insular man unwilling to make eye contact, a man who spent most of his time talking to distant friends (his real “support” group?) on the telephone, a man who—after we’d arranged a reception for him well-stocked with food and booze—was not at all interested in either, or his hosts. I do recall his reading vividly, but not because of his own work. I recall him reading Randall Jarrell’s powerful short poem, “Protocols” (about Jewish children on their way to showers that “drank” them: “And that is how you die”). I’ve never forgotten that poem, nor the brutal realization (how had my idealism and naivete managed to hang in there until I was thirty?) that poets were not necessarily at all like their poetry. Later, I would realize, and accept (somewhat), the fact that they were just themselves–fully vulnerable, fully human, beings–and that their poetry was … well, just their poetry. Something they’d happened to write. However, at the time, the impact of the initial discovery was substantial.

Snodgrass was an absolute delight compared to our next visitor, John Berryman, who would commit suicide by jumping from a bridge in winter a few years later. In Wisconsin, Berryman had consumed a fifth of whiskey by noon and thrown up in Bink Noll’s car when the latter brought him over from Beloit, where he’d read the night before. That afternoon, in Whitewater, he continued to drink, could barely read that night (slurring his words, then sitting down with his back to the audience, saying he was contemplating a Zen koan)–and he preceded to stay up all night, talking, drinking, talking, drinking, talking, while devoted disciples, students, sat at his feet. Devastated by reality once more, I later wrote a poem about that evening:

CHOICES

I

After the famous poet read– /the party. I squat between /Berryman, slumped /and Jan (my friend), his new girl, Cathy

so finely rumped within /the carpet, all /our fingers laced too firmly (unopposed) /on many whiskies and words …

II

That’s over now, an evening, /remorseless braille remembered, like Cathy /–that poet’s poem–her body /bedded like rhyme, dead now

in someone’s world (unknown) /who’s not my friend, and Berryman /(I hardly knew: a poem, pick any one) /and Jan? We stay, alive. Yes, pal.

Here’s my first editor, Carolyn Kizer, of Poetry Northwest; and John Berryman, who was on the Minnesota/Wisconsin poetry circuit. (Photo credits: poetrynw.org; poets.org):

carolyn-kizer   john-berryman

Next to arrive was a poet who has since acquired a substantial reputation (and fully devoted following; so out of consideration for his disciples, I shall not name him. A friend once stopped speaking to me because I labeled this gentleman “The P. T. Barnum of Poetry”). In those days, before he wrote about and took on archetypal or mythical significance, he wore a serape, and sashayed about like Louis XIV. A gentle white-haired couple called the Millers owned a bar in Whitewater called The Brass Rail. Their gift of culture to what was, despite the university’s presence, still a farm town, was a large reproduction of Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy,” which stood proudly behind the bar. At the Brass Rail, our visiting poet climbed atop that bar and, pretending to unzip his fly, threatened to piss on the Miller’s prize painting, before he was sufficiently restrained.

Gary Snyder, who came next, was something of a relief after this episode, but the then revered guru reprimanded me with a severe lecture when I couldn’t remember the name of the Native American tribe that once inhabited our region (Was it the Win-ne-ba-go tribe, or the Pota-wa-to-mis?) and he then proceeded to order the most expensive fish dinner on the menu at the restaurant my wife Betty and I took him to before his reading, and wash it down with “fire water” (soda and rye).

Diane Wakoski’s book The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems came out the year I left Whitewater (1971), prefaced by the statement “This book is dedicated to all those men who betrayed me at one time or another, in hopes that they will fall off their motorcycles and break their necks.” I’d seen her photo in another book. She posed with a gun pointed directly at the reader, a sullen grimace beneath her glasses. At Whitewater, she wore a mini skirt (no gun) and I was invited to give a reading with her (in a gymnasium embellished with aluminum foil on which strobe lights fluttered and danced), which was enjoyable, but after, at a reception, she slunk into a heavily cushioned chair and glared–as perhaps she had a right to–at all us local yokels, Midwestern hicks, and hardly said a word to anyone.

What was going on? I would continue to read contemporary poets, but felt I did not want to meet a single one of them in person ever again, even though I was obliged to remain in charge of the cycle of university-sponsored public readings.

Salvation came in the form of X.J. Kennedy and William Stafford, two genuine gentlemen: the first of whom brought a beautiful bouquet of flowers for my wife; the second of whom was an absolutely delightful person in every way. I still cherish a photo I have of William Stafford and me standing side by side the night of his wonderful reading (only about forty people showed up, but he read as if reading for four hundred), and I recall his scarcely concealed trepidation when we took him to the airport and he first saw—it looked like one of the balsa wood models I’d assembled as a kid—the small flimsy airplane he must board to be flown to his next “stop” on the Minnesota-Wisconsin poetry circuit. Years later, I would get to know “Bill” Stafford fairly well, and he remained the jewel of a man he was when my wife Betty and I first met him. These two poets were like their poetry; but I emerged from those years—1966 to 1971—totally disillusioned by much of what was going on around me: the “Revolution,” which included having the most sacred building on campus, prized Old Main, burnt to the ground (five simultaneously fires set); the National Guard on campus; daily bomb scares and the school’s President confined to his home under armed guard; but mostly I was dismayed by the discrepancy I’d discovered between the work of poets—what they wrote—and the poets themselves, how they conducted their lives. I’m not sure I’ve ever recovered, because I would eventually also realize—slow to learn, as always!—that the same thing was more than likely true of myself.

Here are X. J. Kennedy—and William Stafford and myself in 1968. (Photo credit: poemsoutloud.net):

x-j-kennedy  stafford-and-me

I have watched, over the past forty-nine years, lots of poetry “worlds” come and go. The Beats. Black Mountain poets. New York poets. The Confessionals. Folk-Rock Troubadours. Academic or Scholar poets. Black poets. Feminist poets. Poets who “take nourishment from a variety of camps.” Poets who’ve served time at the University of Iowa at one time or another. Roethke-oriented poets of the Northwest. Neo-New York poets. A host of “Young” or “New Voices in American Poetry” poets. Sophisticated or Virtuoso poets or what I call the Neo-Edwardians (whom I won’t name—I’ve come close enough to being libelous already). Neo-surrealists. Science Fiction poets. Prison poets. Gay poets. Children poets (a la Kenneth Koch’s Wishes, Lies and Dreams). Geriatric poets. Language poets. Spoken Word and Slam poets. Asian-American and Latino poets. Poets who practiced Found Poetry.

If we continue on through the many “worlds of poetry” in vogue today, we find: Trash Poetry, Nerdy Poetry, Environmental Poetry, Health Care and Medical Relevance Poetry, Underrepresented Poetry, Tanka and Haiku (in English), Inspirational Poetry, Gay Christian Poetry, Atheist Poetry, Occult Poetry, Gothic Poetry, Politically Engaging Poetry, Adirondack Poetry, Limericks (or a Revival of), Evasive Poetry, Collaborative Poetry, Grief/Loss Poetry, Coming of Age Poetry, Transgender Poetry, LGBTQ Poetry, Queer Paganism Poetry, Minimalist Poetry, Old People Poetry, Poetry of 140 Characters or Fewer, Paranormal Poetry, Animal Rights Poetry, Fibonacci Poetry, Eating Disorders Poetry, Disability Poetry, Ekphrastic Poetry, and Erasure Poetry.

I will not attempt, now, to establish my own “relationship” to or within any of these “worlds” or groups (for the most part, there’s been little or none aside from what I’ve already described), but I should add to this astonishing list of “options” for aspiring poets, a phenomenon that’s not a “genre” exactly (if that’s what these various approaches to the art are), but a current practice that, when it first became prevalent, struck me as something just short of criminal activity or extortion: and that is requiring any poet who desires to enter contests (almost as numerous now as the various ”worlds of poetry” just listed) to pay anywhere from a $20 to $30 fee for submission of a manuscript (even a chapbook manuscript—at one buck per page?): contests which themselves cater to a wide range of specialized interest groups based on age restrictions (“midcareer U.S. poets, etc.”), statehood or geographical location; race, class, sexual orientation or a mandatory obsession with physical disability or social injustice.

The original justification for this practice was the (once legitimate) desire to preserve and sustain publication of high quality literary journals, but that noble end appears to have succumbed to the same avarice that characterizes our current era or age in general, and at the expense–literally–of those least fortunate or favorably (financially) endowed (writers!). The inundation of such contests may have one redeeming value: it keeps the “world” of poets who judge them occupied or “employed” with the privilege of rejecting thousands of other (fellow) poets.

On a similar note, not long ago I was contacted by a writer whose work I respect very much. I was invited to participate in an online venture that would allow me to call attention to my own work and books, in alliance with other poets whom I also admired and respected. The “house” providing this opportunity was one with a solid reputation—or so I thought until I had posted information on some of my own “stuff” and then learned that the company sponsoring this worthy enterprise had suddenly “gone under,” was bankrupt. I was “out” the $250 I’d just paid to insure a brighter future (wider recognition) for my poetry. The operation wasn’t a “scam”: just another sign of the times (financial failure seems to have taken on the status of a fad, a popular, prevalent endeavor) and I would have been better off had I kept my distance (as I’d been keeping it for some time) from anything that smacked of Po Biz. There is a relatively extensive “small business” side to the world of poetry just now—a “world” that vacillates between attempting to provide legitimate opportunities or benefits for poets alongside “going out of business” or bankruptcy.

Here are two covers from a “once upon a time” practice: anthologists would “comb” literary journals (no matter how obscure) for new writers. I got lucky. Chicago editor Curt Johnson found not a poem, but a story (“The Anniversary”) I’d written and had published in the Colorado Quarterly. Curt selected it to be included in his Best Little Magazine Fiction 1970, published by New Yok University Press:

cover-colorado-quarterly       best-little-magazine-fiction-1970

This seems a good spot to end Part One of “The Worlds of Poetry.” In Part Two, which I will post soon, I’ll take a look at the plethora of MFA programs in creative writing that abound today, literary journals, and thoughts on poetry in general provided by George Santayana, W. B. Yeats, Anthony Hecht, and Mary Ruefle—ending with what I feel might make an ideal creative writing program in poetry: one that would not require any “school” or facility other than individual initiative.

And after that final post on poetry: it’s back to jazz—the other art form I love.

 

 

Mikhail Bakhtin: Another Powerful Influence

I received positive response to my last blog post, “Imagination and Hard Science”—a piece in which I referred to a number of “hard science” books I’d read in the hope of acquiring information on how our minds and bodies work, or function (or fail to function). I tried to keep the tone of the post as light (as in a “lite” beer: fewer calories?) as I could manage, yet substantial in content. One of the nicest responses I received said the post was “a great read,” focused on “all that stuff” that person thinks about “all the time,” and he felt I’d provided “some wonderful new sources to explore”—which is exactly what I hoped the piece might be and do.

In this post, I am going to stick with fortunate discoveries by way of authors and books, but turn from “hard science” to a philosopher, literary critic, semiotician, and scholar (literary theory and history, ethics, and the philosophy of language) whose writing has truly “changed my life,” my own thinking: Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian writer who spent his life under continually harsh conditions during the Soviet era, but produced prose (a brilliant theory) on the “dialogical nature of artistic creation,” as opposed to the “monological.”

In the Introduction to Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Wayne C. Booth summarized Bakhtin’s elaborate belief that a genuine artist achieves “a kind of objectivity quite different from that hailed by most Western critics,” focused on “the essential, irreducible, multi-centeredness, or ‘polyphony’ of human life.” In freeing us from “narrowly subjective views”, the best works of art achieve “a universally desirable quality” … a “sublimity of freed perspectives,” in Bakhtin’s own words.

Here are photos of Mikhail Bakhtin and his subject, Fyodor Dostoevsky (Photo credits: Memim.com; nndb.com):

bakhtin  dostoevsky

“From the beginning,” Booth writes, paraphrasing Bakhtin’s intricate insights, “we are ‘polyglot,’ already in process of mastering a variety of social dialects derived from parents, clan, class, religion, country. We grow in consciousness by taking in more voices as ‘authoritatively persuasive’ and then by learning which to accept as ‘internally persuasive.’” Finally we acquire, “if we are lucky, a kind of individuality,” but it is a “we,” not an “I.” Polyphony, “the miracle of our ‘dialogical’ lives together, is thus both a fact of life and, in its highest reaches, a value to be pursued endlessly.”

Booth states that commentators on Bakhtin argue over just how large, how extensive his views of dialogic life are—that is, they dispute about the degree to which his “unsystematic system is religious or metaphysical,” but Booth himself feels Bakhtin’s overall view “rests on a vision of the world that is essentially a collectivity of subjects who are themselves social [italics mine] in essence,” and that–because he does not rely on religious language–anything resembling a “God-term” in Bakhtin tends to be an abstract phrase like “sympathetic understanding” or “comprehensive vision”–always seen in terms of the “multi-voicedness” or “multi-centeredness of the world as we experience it”; our language “permeated with many voices—a social, not a private language.”

Thinking of what might be religious or metaphysical in Bakhtin’s overview: whereas Wayne C. Booth hedges on the issue, is skeptical or ambivalent about it, I’d like (and here comes another Bill’s Blog baroque diversion, folks!) to say I feel a genuine polymorphic view of life (with all the altruism that entails, our individual selves as empaths, and given its “view of the world superior to all other views”) must be religious or metaphysical. Such a totally inclusive and transcendent view renders the life and work of any genuine artist (whether literary, dramatic, visual, or musical) religious, by nature (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.”)—an act of praise and artful prayer.

At the heart of our dialogic lives an inevitable paradox, or duality, resides. Another author (Roger S. Jones, in his book Physics as Metaphor, commenting on Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death—so we’ve got four writers on our hands now, and I intend to get as dialogic as I can!), describes the condition this way: “Fated to exist as a paradoxical dual, a symbolic spirit imprisoned in a material body, a human strives, through countless heroic activities, to deny the raw facts of his or her existence and to create personal meaning and value.” One such heroic activity is “art,’ and, for me, personal meaning and value are the goals of art—and should be the goals of existence itself.

Ernest Becker himself writes: “Out of the ruins of the broken cultural self there remains the mystery of the private, invisible, inner self which yearned for ultimate significance, for cosmic heroism. This invisible mystery at the heart of every creature now attains cosmic significance by affirming its connection with the invisible mystery at the heart of creation. This is the meaning of faith.” Cosmic heroism is, admittedly, a massive undertaking. In the words of another of my favorite philosophers, Miquel de Unamuno: “For the present let us remain keenly suspecting that the longing not to die, the hunger for personal immortality, the effort whereby we tend to persist indefinitely in our own being, which is, according to the tragic Jew (Spinoza), our very essence, that this is the affective basis of all knowledge and the personal inward starting-point of all human philosophy.”

“To persist indefinitely in our own being.” Wow! Jones is a physicist who refuses to adopt “a dualistic framework,” although, when it comes to cosmic heroism, he acknowledges that by facing the human condition “without pretenses and illusions, the very terror it strikes in our hearts can become the source of new and ultimately sustaining metaphors and faith”—and I agree. He finds encouragement in what he considers Becker’s “stoic and ironic approach to life … defiantly optimistic in the face of inevitable tragedy. There is no escaping the human condition, but there is the possibility of the creative and heroic use of it.”

Here are: Jones’ enlightening Physics as Metaphor, and a photo of Becker, whose book, The Denial of Death, has been cited as “one of those rare masterpieces that will stimulate your thoughts, your intellectual curiosity, and last but not least, your soul.” (Photo credit: Encyclopedia of Death and Dying):

physics-as-metaphor    ernest-becker-2

Both men, sharing an uneasy ambivalence (which I, at times, in conversations or dialogues with myself, share with them too) when it comes to pure “faith,” concede that the goal of cosmic heroism may well be “a mad self-deceptive activity,” but they regard human creativity as “the homage we pay to creation beyond our capabilities, a creator more extensive than ourselves.” I am grateful for the “leap of faith” I first encountered in Meister Eckhart, Miquel de Unamuno, Kierkegaard, Carl Jung, Thomas Merton, and even William James’ “salvation through self-despair”; and Jones does acknowledge that, by way of such despair, “we destroy the vital lie of projects and transferences” in order to “make room for a new life, for death and rebirth.” He cites Paul Tilloch’s “courage to be,” and the Hindu Creation Hymn on primal cosmologies “prior to any manifestation … pure unalloyed being—timeless, spaceless, featureless, prior somehow even to existence”—such as that primordial state celebrated in Osip Mandelstam’s poem “Silentium.” The poet sees Aphrodite as foam: both the soul and original foundation of life, simultaneously. Here’s my own translation of “Silentium”:

It is the unborn, still— / She and the music and the word / Sustaining, unbroken /The living coherence. / Let my lips discover / What they cannot say: / Some crystal note / In pure birth!

For Mandelstam, ocean foam symbolized primal chaos, but not as a “negative value, an evil, or a threat.” Chaos, like silence, was “a collection of all possibilities, a prenatal anxiety, a formless proto-unity.” It was precisely this proto-unity that made it possible for the word to be “united with music.”

O Aphrodite, remain foam! / Let words return to music, / Heart, stay heart, ashamed /If not coupled, always / With where and how you began.

Here are: the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (around the time he wrote “Silentium”), and Botticelli’s painting of Aphrodite rising on her half shell from primal foam:

mandelstam  aphrodite-1

If a bit grudgingly, Jones acknowledges “transferences to the greatest of all beyonds” [and to my mind and soul: withins] to the most transcendent [and to me fully “present”] thing imaginable.” In line with a classic existentialist position, Jones asserts: “Humans are the creators, or at least the participant-creators, of their own world and … they must take full and honest responsibility for it”—what Becker calls “the living drama of [their] acceptance as a creature,” becoming “part of such a larger and higher wholeness as religion has always represented” [or attempted to–in light of our own current era, or history).

Both men reflect on “grace”; Becker stating, “The jump doesn’t depend on us after all—that’s the rub: faith is a matter of grace”—which Jones qualifies with: “An ideal is never attainable; it is faith that gives us the will to keep striving. Seeming contradiction is the nature of the beast.”  (Miguel de Unamuno: “Love is a contradiction if there is no God”; Meister Eckhart: “The Generosity of Infinite love in an act of love, creates us in the image and likeness of love for love’s sake alone, moment by moment, moment by moment.”). Jones turns his speculation back to our responsibilities (on earth) as human beings: “What matters is to be more conscious of our myths and metaphors, to recognize that they are the only reality we have, and to learn how we participate in creating them”—which brings me back (after an admittedly lengthy digression or diversion) to my man, Mikhail Bakhtin.

Bakhtin earned his insights, his philosophy, his verbal acuity the hard way–living through a sequence of “voices” (each characteristic of an era) and surviving long enough to sort them out, make sense of each, and put them “all back together again” in his concept of the dialogical self. Bakhtin was born in Oryol, Russia, to (source: Wikipedia) “an old family of the nobility. His father was the manager of a bank and worked in several cities.” For this reason Bakhtin spent his early childhood years in Oryol, in Vilnius, and then in Odessa, where in 1913 he joined the historical and philological faculty at the local university (Odessa University).

His major study of the work of Dostoevsky, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art (at which he’d been at work since 1921), was published, and caused (in the words of translator/editor Caryl Emerson) “considerable stir in literary circles”—and political, for he was arrested (perhaps in connection with an “underground church”). Ironically, Bakhtin escaped being sent to a death camp (“on the plea of poor health,” although his leg was amputated), and was sentenced to exile in Kazakhstan, where (according to Emerson) he “lived and worked in relative obscurity” for thirty years. His book on Dostoevsky was discovered in the 1950s by a group of young literary scholars in Moscow, and he himself found alive, teaching at the University of Saransk. In 1963, “after some ominous delays in publishing houses,” a second edition of his book appeared, and Bakhtin was “back in print in the Soviet Union. The publication of other long-delayed manuscripts followed.”

Here are two of Bakhtin’s important works: The Dialogic Imagination and Rabelais and His World:

bakhtin-the-dialogic-imagination    bakhtin-rabelais

I have read Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (the book’s current title in English), The Dialogic Imagination, Rabelais and His World, and Speech Genres and Other Late Essays—but would like to focus, here, on the work on Dostoevsky (from which I have quoted from Wayne C. Booth’s Introduction). I’ll include one last important observation Booth makes: “It is in Dostoevsky and Dostoevsky alone that Bakhtin finds the polyphonic ideal realized. The greatest of all contrapuntalists genuinely surrenders to his characters and allows them to speak in ways other than his own … Characters are, in short, respected as full subjects, shown as ‘consciousness’ that can never be fully defined or exhausted, rather than as objects fully known [by their authors], once and for all, in their roles—and then discarded as expendable.”

Bakhtin wrote that Dostoevsky treated a character as “ideologically authoritative and independent … perceived as the author of a fully weighted ideological conception of his own, and not the object of Dostoevsky’s finalizing artistic vision … Dostoevsky, like Goethe’s Prometheus, creates not voiceless slaves (as does Zeus), but free people, capable of standing alongside their creator. Capable of not agreeing with him and even of rebelling against him … a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels … Dostoevsky is the creator of the polyphonic novel. He created a fundamentally new novelistic genre.”

Bakhtin found Dostoevsky’s world “profoundly personalized … He perceives and represents every thought as the position of a personality … Through this concrete consciousness, embodied in the living voice of an integral person, the logical relation becomes part of the unity of a represented event.” For Bakhtin, the epoch Dostoevsky lived in (and through) made the polyphonic novel possible. “Subjectively, Dostoevsky participated in the contradictory multi-leveledness of his own time: he changed camps, moved from one to another, and in this respect the planes existing in objective social life were for him stages along the path of his own life, stages of his own spiritual evolution. This personal experience was profound, but Dostoevsky did not give it a direct monologic expression in his work. This experience only helped him to understand more deeply the extensive and well-developed contradictions which coexisted among people—among people, not ideas in a single consciousness.”

I’m quoting a lot, but it’s Mikhail Bakhtin: and I would love to make the insights of this man of genius fully accessible, available to every writer I know, including myself! In Dostoevsky’s novels, Bakhtin states, “Every act a character commits is in the present, and in this sense is not predetermined; it is conceived of and represented by the author as free … What is important to Dostoevsky is not how his hero appears in the world but first and foremost how the world appears to his hero, and how the hero appears to himself.” And Bakhtin offers the following in a section called “Conclusion”: “We consider the creation of the polyphonic novel a huge step forward not only in the development of novelistic prose, that is, but of all genres developing within the orbit of the novel, but also the development of the artistic thinking of humankind … A newly born genre never supplants or replaces any already existing genres. Each new genre merely supplements the old ones, merely widens the circle of already existing genres.”

Reading this (and thinking of much that I am surrounded by at the moment in the year 2016), I thought of something Schopenhauer said: “There are two ways of not keeping on a level with the times. A man may be below it; or he may be above it.” Mikhail Bakhtin rose well above his time—and ours.

Here are two novels by Dostoevsky in which Bakhtin’s theory of the polyphonic novel appears very well put into practice–thoroughly:

brothers-karamazov-2               dostoevsky-crime-and-punishment

Some final thoughts on this philosopher, literary critic, semiotician, and scholar who genuinely has had a profound influence on my life (and writing): I will not attempt to resolve the issue of whether or not Bakhtin was “religious” or “metaphysical,” but he certainly–somehow–has given me a sound sense of what those qualities (when they are genuine) might entail, or be. When it came to translating Bakhtin, Caryl Emerson, who edited and translated Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, states: “One of Bakhtin’s major premises, in fact, might be called the vitality of nonequivalence. Multilingual environments, he argued, liberate man by opening up a gap between things and their labels … Nonequivalence is not a matter for despair but is rather the impulse to life. In fact, the interaction of two different, discrete systems is the only way a true event ever comes to pass … In place of the comfortable patterns of synthesis and Aufhebung (to “lift up” or remove abnormal growth), Bakhtin posits a dualistic universe of permanent dialogue.”

Mikhail Bakhtin coined the Russian word raznomirnost: “the condition of containing many separate and different worlds.” According to Caryl Emerson: “A voice, Bakhtin everywhere tells us, is not just words or ideas strung together; it is a ‘semantic position,’ a point of view on the world, it is one personality orienting itself among other personalities within a limited field … How a voice sounds is a function of where it is and what it can ‘see’; its orientation is measured by the field of responses it evokes. This understanding of voice lies at the base of Bakhtin’s nonreferential—that is, responsive—theory of language. An utterance responds both to others without, and others embedded within itself.”

And, O Lord, how I wish I could hear a few more voices such as that in our world just now (rather than slogans, political proselytizing, confrontation, outright antagonism and invective)! I’ll let Caryl Emerson have the last word: “For Bakhtin ‘the whole’ is not a finished entity; it is always a relationship. An aesthetic object–or for that matter any aspect of life–acquires wholeness only when an individual assumes a concrete attitude toward it. Thus, the whole can never be finalized and set aside … That one aspect of Bakhtin’s style most inseparable from his personality is the developing idea. Its subtle shifts, redundancies, self-quotations—ultimately, its open-endedness—is the genre in which, and with which, he worked.”

Here are: Caryl Emerson, and another of Bakhtin’s works she translated (Photo credit: Princeton.edu):

caryl-emerson  bakhtin-other-books

I changed my mind. Mikhail Bakhtin himself should have the last word: “Nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future.”

Such as my next blog!