I have been fortunate to know, interview, and write about three extraordinary artists: jazz singer/songwriter Kurt Elling, jazz pianist Lynne Arriale, and poet Philip Levine—the voice of the latter, who died in 2015 at age 87, celebrated by saxophonist Benjamin Boone on two CDs: The Poetry Of Jazz, Volumes One and Two. For this Bill’s Blog post, I’d like to express—with “examples”–the admiration and respect I feel for their work.
First: Kurt Elling. I have been corresponding with his publicist, Trudy Johnson-Lenz. Back in September, 2018, she let me know about a livestreamed broadcast from Dizzy’s Club in Lincoln Center of “Kurt Elling and Friends Celebrate Jon Hendricks,” featuring special guests Aria and Michele Hendricks (Jon’s daughters), Kevin Fitzgerald Burke, and vocalist Sheila Jordan.
The program was special because of Kurt’s solid friendship with Hendricks. He wrote about that friendship in a JazzTimes piece: “The first thing—always—was the smile. Immediate-upon-recognition, and wholly spontaneous. Bona fide. Beatific. And big? I’m talking little-kid-on-Christmas joyful, light-up-the-world big. Generous, in a way that would always be entirely beyond your deserving … Then the gesture would come: the arms thrown wide open to welcome you home. It was an indication that revealed an invitation—to embrace, and to admire … Here, my friends, was a self-made man. Here was a man who started out just another kid among 15 in one family. Except he wasn’t ‘just’ anything. He was the seventh son. As such, he would choose his own fate, standing out for the rest of his life … As a boy he sang for nickels and dimes in the bars: ‘Hey, mister, don’t waste that nickel on the jukebox! Give me that nickel and I’ll sing you any song that’s there. I know ’em all!’ As an adult he sang, by invitation, for the crowned heads of Europe. What’s more, he would write his own songs and lyrics—lyrics like none that had ever been heard before. This was a man whose ingenuity and artistry propelled him to combine Shakespearean-level lyrics with mother wit and acrobatic, atomic, urbane 20th-century swing and bop.”
The September 8 live-streamed show was great—a handsome tribute to Jon Hendricks in every way. On February 28 of this year, I heard from Trudy Johnson-Lenz again, letting me know of the world premiere of “Kurt Elling’s The Big Blind,” his “noir radio-style drama with live Foley sound effects and a 23-piece orchestra, at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.” Again, two performance (March 1 and March 2) would be livestreamed. The theme of this show was “What happens to a person who’s been given an artistic gift and has the temperament, but the avenue of expression is obliterated?”
Trudy Johnson-Lenz gave me a complete run-down on the performance: “Kurt co-wrote the book, eight new songs, and the lyrics to four more with Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer Phil Galdston. The Big Blind’s stellar cast: Kurt Elling, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ben Vereen, Allison Semmes, and Ian Shaw. Guy Barker conducts the ‘Jack Lewis Orchestra,’ which is actually drummer Ulysses Owens’ New Century Big Band. Ulysses is the musical director. Terry Kinney is directing. The Foley artist is Jeff Ward.”
I had to miss the first offering because of a gig of my own (playing piano for an event in Cannery Row), but I saw the second complete performance, and it was grand—again, a special consideration adding to my appreciation. Back in 2009, I had written an article for Jazz West on “Kurt Elling and the Beat Generation,” and Kurt had told me then of his plans to write and produce the work I’d just seen. Here’s what he said, then: “I’ve had an idea that for a few years has been gestating. It will be somewhat autobiographical, but it will also be based on Joe E. Lewis and The Jokers Wild: just using that as a very basic skeleton, but doing it in a very contemporary context and in that way sort of embracing history, because I have all these deep parallel experiences to Joe E. Lewis. The Green Mill was the club he was working in when they [mobsters] cut his throat. I know the tunnels. I know the ghosts of that place, and that it’s still a functioning club and it still has all this energy and it’s living. I’m not that interested in the old-time gangster thing. That seems real corny to me, and I want to present contemporary music as a heavy part of this, so we’re talking about a contemporary setting of an artistic tragedy—one that features a live and semi-spontaneous score.”
Me: “Will it work that way: as a legit ‘Greek’ tragedy, hubris, denouement and all?”
Kurt: “I’m working on the form. I’m not sure how its going to end, whether he pulls himself out or what the thing is, but I’m sure you can well imagine what an intensely mental game … well, I don’t know if ‘mental game’ is the right way to put it, but it’s something for me to contemplate: his life and the lives of people who have an artistic gift in a very special frequency and for whatever reason have that gift taken away from them. And then, what do you do with the rest of your time? If you can’t have your work in the Smithsonian and play music … if you don’t have a diversity where you’ve got back up things—then what?”
Me: “When people ask me if I ever get ‘writer’s block,’ I say, ’No, I just go someplace else,’ [to play and compose music] which is a fortunate option I think.”
Kurt: “Yeah! I think this kind of idea goes to not only the questions that would specifically haunt us, but questions of regeneration, questions of self. The choice of one’s identity, and the creation of identity. I want to say that’s an American thing. It’s not just that of an individual artist. This is not just a genre-wide phenomenon. Here are all these musicians who are creating themselves by creating music. They’ve done discipline, they’ve learned history; they’ve learned about music and now they are declaring themselves. And that’s an American thing.”
The March 2 performance of Kurt Elling’s The Big Blind jumped off to a very “cool” start. We’re back in Chicago, 1957, with Kurt as band leader/vocalist Jack Lewis (who loves to shout out to his audience, in appreciation for their applause, “Without you, I’m nothin!”). He is in conference with Ian Shaw as Tony Mongoose,” a “wanna-be” manager. Jack already has one: D.D. Bridgewater as Veronica, who “owns” him in ways and means beyond their contract, but Mongoose (who says of Veronica: “She’s a colored woman, at that.”) asserts, “You been stuck in neutral, goin’ nowhere fast! You got to be ready to jump, to jazz, to jive the world, get yourself in the groove; what’s that sound? That sound, my son, is opportunity knocking!”–and he then claims, “I’ll dig you up as a real singer … Star billing, get you your own room, you open in one week … in Vegas! Everybody wins!”
The classic 50’s Show Biz jargon and fake (Mongoose) or self-conscious (Jack Lewis) “hep talk” (jive talk) is a kick, and reminded me of something else Kurt Elling talked about in our 2008 interview. I had mentioned young MFA in creative writing candidates I met at a writers conference who, when I talked about living in San Francisco in 1958, said, “You were a Beatnik! To us that was the Golden Age!”—and I told them I was not fully aware, at the time, that I was a “Beatnik,” and that my wife and I and one-year old child were dirt poor to boot and it was no “Golden Age.”
Kurt: “Yeah, it’s all the Golden Age, and none of it’s the Golden Age. You know, frankly, musicians on the jazz scene in Chicago, certainly the people I was hanging out with, well, I gravitated toward the older musicians because I wanted jazz father figures, and I wanted to have their blessing and their encouragement and their love and their acceptance. I wanted to touch the past through them, and that’s how they talk! [laughs] So I wanted to be like them. It’s a little bit like what Gary Grant said: he became Cary Grant by pretending to be him long enough so that he did! He became him! So, now it’s just part of the thing, and I think it’s cool. It’s become an organic part of me, and even here at the [Monterey Jazz] Festival, I’m not the only one, man. Talk to Joe Lovano for a couple of minutes. Some of us just want to be a part of that. We want to continue to manifest that energy, because it’s good to be a slick, you know? It’s chic! It’s not ordinary.”
I quoted another portion of Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues, previously mentioned, for which Mezzrow even provides a glossary, and a translation, at the back of his book: “All I got left is a roach no longer than a pretty chick’s memory. I’m gonna breeze to my personal snatchpad and switch my dry goods while they’re [his lady friend is plural!] out on the turf,” etc. I told Kurt that, as I kid, these words became embedded in my head (and are still there, indelible), even before I learned the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence.
Kurt: [laughing] “There you go!”
In the The Big Blind performance, Ben Vereen–as tenor saxophonist Eddie Freeman–functions as narrator (setting the frame for Jack’s life), and D.D. Bridgewater is spectacular as manager Veronica—coming on like “gangbusters,” calling Mongoose a “oil street pimp, tryin’ to impress all the boys … he learned whatever songs he knows in a prison shower,” whereas she, who loves to spend time (on an expense account) in Paris, is “building a continental identity” for Jack, hobnobbing with French stars like Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf—which leads her into a song about Paris, the “city of eternal love”—a song which includes some catchy lyrics (“What if forever is never … Never enough time is there—for forever.”) and a message: “Don’t matter who you love, or the color of your skin.”
Jack has reservations regarding his role as “lover,” and when Eddie enters, saying “What’s that all about?”, Jack says, “Play along will you Eddie”—the latter saying, as an aside, “Lady V found him when he was a singing waiter.”
Here are photos of the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago (outside and in); Joe E. Brown; and two photos of Kurt Elling singing at the Green Mill (Photo credits: www.choosechicago.com; http://uplup.com/music/green-mill-chicago; www.doctormacro.com/; Wikepedia; www.facebook.com/kurtelling/)
All of the acting in Kurt Elling’s The Big Blind was solid, the story line unfolding as somewhat familiar (solid 1950s “stuff”), enticing, accurate—and good fun. And the unity of it all (the big band backing very effective—in terms of mood and forward motion) reminded me of one more set of statements Kurt Elling made back in 2008:
Kurt: “Well, again, if as an individual artist you could do anything from ranting to soliloquy to vocalese to straight up extemporaneous communication, I think that one already probably has a natural consciousness that is syncretic, one that wants to pull things together and see how they combine. The most interesting thing is not to try to combine everything with everything; it’s to combine this interesting thing with this very disparate interesting thing, and to have a new viewpoint on everything else because you never would have thought of those two things together. So when the commissions started, who am I to say no? I gave it my best shot. They were always on a shoestring budget and they were only meant to run one or two nights at a time, but I’d give it my best shot because it was just a great creative challenge to try to figure out how these things would work together. I’m really proud of the results. I feel like I have a good organic sense of the way that dance and music and spoken word would go together, especially if I’m familiar enough with the choreographer’s work. Because a lot of times, if I’m seeing someone who has a great choreographic gift, and insight, that often inspires stories in me, so I’m adapting my thing to something that goes with this. It’s that kind of call and response, if you will.”
He held to these principles in the work I was watching. The scenes that followed were somewhat predictable, but handled with originally within each context. Jack meets a “young chick,” Jill (Allison Semmes, who took over as Diana Ross in Motown and led the 1st and 2nd Broadway national tours of that musical—and she’s adorable!)—taking photos for “a negro paper.” At the club he’s working, she asks Jack, “You a waiter?” “No, I’m a musician.” She’s impressed by, and takes photos of his performance, while he’s thinking (in Show Biz terms): “Hmmm, Jack and Jill … we may have to work on that.” She sings: “The faces I find … if I can stop the wheels of time and freeze the frame … the picture that never lies … In old age, every wrinkle’s a page …I can see so deep in you.”
The lyrics, the dialogue—everything was so cool in the overall performance, I’m tempted to try to quote each line (I took copious notes I hope are accurate!), but I haven’t space in this Blog, unfortunately, to do that, so … I’ll lightly touch on some lines that carried the performance to a very dramatic first-act conclusion: the scene having shifted to Chicago’s legendary cocktail lounge, The Green Mill, “The Pearl of Uptown … islands of love awaiting.” Jill is there, and saxophonist Eddie is “diggin’ on the light-skinned sister in the room,” saying, ironically, to the Shutter Bug (when she asks to take his picture), “They say it’ a free country,” telling her when she claims his saxophone “preaches” that he “plays the sounds that’s me,” and, when she asks, “Is it always like that for Jack—the autographs and attention?”: “Jack’s the front man, and front men are stars … stars get the honies,” adding, in a song, that other players on the stand are “professional unsung heroes … you’re married to the music, for the music understands.”
After the show, Jack, promising “no complications,” cries, “Let’s go dancing!” Jill claims she’ll stick with “doing what she knows is right,” he claims “I’ll show you that I’m worth the risk”; and they do dance, both feel “sudden sensation,” and, in the midst of what Eddie labels “Jack’s Golden Hour” … the phone rings. It’s Veronica, of course, an “overseas call” in which she, again, promises him a gig in Paris, in “that little club over by Sacré-Cœur, Piaf’s favorite café”—then breaks off: “Jack, who’s that?” She screams accusations (D. D. Bridgewater is perfect, powerful in this role), “And in our bed!” Shouts, “I know what’s best for us,” and when Jack asks, “What’s that?”, responds, “ME!” Her jealousy drives her to song: “Be mine. Be careful! You are mine. Hear me, and you should fear me!”
But Jack has been anything but careful. At the close of his show, having asked (to her dismay) Jillie (not Mongoose) to be his new manager in Vegas, he cries out, “Special night here, Green Mill. Love!”—singing (a la Frank Sinatra), “All the Way,” and adding, “Without you, Baby, I’m nothing!” And that’s when we learn that Veronica did not call from Paris, “overseas,” but she’s there, in the Green Mill, and she’s heard everything. The radio announcer proclaims, “Take five, ladies and gentlemen.” Intermission.
Part Two of the noir radio-style drama resumes with a brazen Big Band burst, totally fit for the reentry, which is restless. Kurt (as Jack) appears in a while shirt and loose tie, phone in hand. Eddie also appears, with Mongoose. Eddie reminds Jack that Veronica “has an eight-inch blade in her boot,” and Mongoose tells Jack (who feels he’s “gotta find Jillie”), he’s “better off” (“ridding ourselves of all complications”). The next scene discloses Jack alone at the Green Mill, after hours, and Veronica shows up—on the warpath. “And now Las Vegas,” she says with a hiss; and when Jack protests, saying “Vegas is good business for me,” she snarls, “Mama’s talking! You don’t tell me, I tell you!” She slaps him, hard—saying, “You singing waiter!” She calls Jillie “a little whore.” A traumatic experience from their past slips out (“Our baby was born dead”) and when she attacks, slaps him again, it’s with a swipe of the blade she carries in her boot. Jack falls, choking. We hear a door slam, and the next scene takes place …
In hospital. Jillie is there. Jack’s throat has been cut and he can’t breathe. Jillie sings: “Let me sit beside you for a minute … Why can’t we just break free?” Nearly voiceless, Jack mutters, “Get Tony [Mongoose]!”—who appears as if on command, but turns cynical, saying, “Nothing left to manage … a lame horse … when the going gets tough … I’ve seen ‘em come and go …if he wants to stay in Show Biz, he can get a job as a drummer’s ventriloquist”—arrogantly adding “I’m the real star of the show!”
Eddie assumes a more prominent role as narrator from this point on. “Tony split town, leaving Jillie and me. And what’s left of Jack’s … voice.” Eddie tells us that the doctors say they don’t know if Jack will ever sing again. Jack “won’t rat on Veronica.” The two women, the rivalsfor what’s left of Jack, literally bump into each other on a visit to the hospital. Veronica asks Jillie if she’s there to see her “father”—then, “What is he … your sugar daddy?”
Jack’s voice gone, he takes to drink—and turns on Jillie: “You and your bloody street pictures.” He claims that Tony (Mongoose) was his “ticket to everything.” Jillie says, “I believed in you, not just your singing.” Jack strikes her, breaking a bottle of booze. Mournful music follows. Eddie shows up at Jillie’s place, saying he hasn’t heard a word from Jack, but has heard that he’s become “a running bum at the end of the bar”—and we shift to that scene, Jack singing (surprisingly well!) a song about “memories like old movies … moaning, slurring over words unspoken.” And then attempts the classic “Angel Eyes” (“I Try to think that loves not around / But it’s uncomfortably near / My old heart ain’t gaining no ground /Because my angel eyes ain’t here … So drink up all you people / Order anything you see / Have fun you happy people /The laughs and the jokes on me.”).
Eddie’s narration continues as Jack’s deterioration does: “Jack went on a real bender … library stairs, staring at strangers.” The wicked witch Veronica appears “somewhere in the fog, in the shadows,” in a “blur,” and sings: “I know your desperate wish, I know your darkest fear. Why am I still here? Survival!” And thinking of rival Jillie: “I’ll show her how a woman fights back when she’s black and blue … This is not the end … he’ll come back to me again, and we’ll laugh … I’ll laugh … Love: it’s never fair!” But it’s her “survival.”
Here are two photos of Kurt Elling in his role as Jack in The Big Blind (Photo credits www.pastemagazine.com/; /www.southbankcentre.co.uk ):
Eddie finally gets caught up with Jack, “passed out in a park.” Eddie attempts to lure him “back,” saying, “I believe the boys are gonna raise the roof tonight.” And not just “three chords” stuff (“ain’t gonna find me playing that shit”). He reminds Jack of Jillie, “The one gal who would have loved you”—and when Jack responds “It’s all gone … How am I supposed to live, Eddie?”, the latter sings a plaintive refrain on “love”: “You just have to feel it … when the world seems suddenly still … that soft-spoken melody will find its way to you … when hope is lost, give your words up to the great unknown … the sounds of the street and the voice of your soul.” And Eddie offers Jack a gentle sermon on rehabilitation: “Practice till you find something worth playing … Show up! Show up! When love is lost, or only exists in a dream … the melody remains in your heart, when pain fills you up again.”
The immediate result is good. Eddie tells us that “Jack came to stay with me for a while,” and Eddie “kept tabs on Miss Jillie,” who, returning to art school, has found success in NYC, a show of her photographs “opening Sunday afternoon at the Two Deuces.” Jack returns, momentarily, to “the joy box,” asking to sit in (“Could you loan me the piano for a minute?”) and tells his audience, “I haven’t been doing much singing, folks … This is new.” He sings, “They say dreams never die; I think that’s a lie … How can a dream live on, after the night is gone? … What becomes of the soul when the story is said and done … the music we hear will all disappear … on swallow wings.”
When he finishes the song, he sees Jillie—but walks out, just giving her a “little wave.” He tells Eddie: “See ya back at the crib,” but Eddie knows he’s just witnessed Jack’s “swan song … He just walked out into the night and disappeared.” Years go by. Eddie receives postcards depicting mountains and pine trees and the only words are: “It’s a good life up here.” Word comes he’s worked as a deck hand … he still listens to the radio—broadcasts from New York and Chicago. He signs off all contact: “Take care of yourself, Jack.”
At the close of the radio-drama, Eddie reflects: “We were two swinging cats at the opposite ends of our prime … Jack Lewis was my friend … he was the voice of Chicago: the sound!”
The voice of the announcer introduces the full cast, to rousing Big Band music and raucous applause from the audience. Kurt Elling is alive and well! He has added another “chapter” to his own story, his exceptional multi-faceted career. Congratulations, Kurt and friends on an excellent production: brilliant music, meaningful lyrics, a perfect balance between music and words, accessible story line, fully engaging drama, exceptional acting—the works! And thanks, again, Trudy Johnson-Lenz, for letting me know in advance about this important event.
Pianist Lynne Arriale recently sent me her latest CD, Give Us These Days, featuring her trio with Jasper Somsen on bass, and Jasper Van Hulten on drums. Going through previous recordings I have of hers, I realized we “go back” a long long way. I have: The Eyes Have It (1994), When You Listen (1995), With Words Unspoken (1996), A Long Road Home (1997), The Pleasure Of Your Company (with Richard “Cookie” Thomas: 1998), Melody (1999), Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival (1999), Inspiration (2000), Arise (2002), Come Together (2004). Other recordings by this prolific artist I do not have are: Lynne Arriale Trio: Live In Burghausen (2006), Lynne Arriale Trio Live (2011), Convergence (2011), Live at B’ Jazz (2014), Nuance:The Bennett Studio Sessions (2017), Solo (2017).
If I remember correctly, I first met Lynne Arriale, and heard her play, at the Jazz Bakery in Santa Monica—perhaps as far back as the mid-1990s. Fellow jazz writer Scott Yanow took me there, and introduced me to Lynne (whom he’d written about). In 2002, an article I wrote about her (based on an interview I had with her after she performed at the Jazz & Blues Company in Carmel) appeared in the March/ April issue of Coda. When Marian McPartland played at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2004, she did so, in piano duets, with Jason Moran, Bill Charlop, and Lynne Arriale—and I contributed an article, “Piano Abundance: Marian McPartland, the matriarch of jazz piano, highlights a constellation of keyboard stars,” to that year’s Festival program. Lynne was one of the “keyboard stars” I wrote about. I also recall a concert she gave at a walkdown venue I don’t remember the name of in Pacific Grove, CA, where I live—Lynne performing solo on a white grand piano.
I wrote the following in the Coda piece: “[Lynne Arriale] opened her second set at the Jazz & Blues Company in Carmel, California with “Bemsha Swing”–Monk with a vengeance, amply demonstrating that she’s at home with all forms of jazz and can richly interpret anybody’s tunes. No easy task in the case of Monk, given the individuation that giant himself possessed, and the host of genres (from stride to blues to bop) he too had absorbed and transformed … Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge prized the sort of individual artistry that could ‘dissolve, diffuse, dissipate in order to re-create.’ Coleridge, and Monk, would have been pleased with what Arriale did with “Bemsha Swing.” With unabated force and skill, she broke up the rhythms in a manner that might have surprised Monk, adding some cutting-edge cragginess of her own–wild clusters, sudden glisses, insinuating phrases and pauses that might have made Cecil Taylor smile, had he been in the house! The audience was kept alert, alive, and appreciative by it all until, the tune–the avalanche–resolved, Lynne Arriale sat back and smiled herself, saying, “It’s great to feel the presence of listening.” … She then exchanged the appropriate power (and joy) of Monkish “attitude” for the deceptive ease and serenity of William Walton’s “Touch Her Soft Lips and Part,” a tune that contained classical elegance.”
The first tune on the Give Us These Days CD is Joni Mitchell’s classic “Woodstock.” A somewhat solemn vamp leads into the theme, and the solely instrumental respectful rendering more than suggests the words (getting the soul “free,” and “back to the garden”); deft, direct, clean, carefully selected notes capturing the mood (along with Jasper Van Hulten’s accents and cymbal washes); a keyboard sweep followed by a percussive mode reassessing the event (bombers turned into butterflies—or “camping out” turned muddy?); a measure of frenzy in the celebration—chordal variation on the theme, and then back to it, mixed with an anthem (a touch of Jimi Hendrix?) “feel” and out, sweeping the keys again.
The next tune, “Appassionata,” features Van Hulten with a host of drum effects (all over the kit percussion), side by side with Lynne Arriale’s passionate but spare (subtle!) Flamingo melodic touch, handsome interplay, a lively yet over all lightsome conversation, dialogue, exchange … piano and drums back off for an subtle, agile bass solo by Jasper Somsen. Lynne’s ingenious rhythmic comping transforms itself into alert, alive melodicism for the close—followed by the lyric refrain of “welcome” in her composition (all but three tunes on the CD are her own), “Finding Home”; handsome lower register chords beneath a lovely “no place like home” melody, offered as if cherished, caressed (her masterful touch!).
In his liner notes to Give Us These Days, Lawrence Abrams writes: “Above all, Lynne remains unfailingly a melodist. Her improvised musical sentences, or lines, are strong, lean, and lyrical. But whether they are rhythmic or motivic, as in Over and Out, or as in Finding Home, luxuriously long and complex, they fairly glow with her passion for melody.”
Here’s a photo of Lynne Arriale and the cover of the “Give Us These Days” CD (Photo credit: https://twitter.com):
When, in the 2002 interview, I talked with her about her penchant for unadorned melody, Lynne Arriale offered a fitting analogy to speech. “‘Just because you know more words [substitute “notes”?], does that mean your speech is going to be more profound, or your writing? And the answer is ‘No,’ of course not. We all know that, yet it’s funny that, in music sometimes, doing more to something is considered hip, or whatever. But if we dress it up, we won’t be able to see the forest from the trees’ … Elsewhere, in the liner notes to Lynne Arriale Trio Live at Montreux, she’d said she wants an audience ‘to experience the widest range of human emotions,’ absorbing ‘many different colors, many different moods, many different directions.’ It works. Such generosity of spirit endeared her to the audience in Switzerland, and they loved her for it in Carmel too.”
Lynne Arriale generally works in a trio format. On that night in Carmel, I interviewed her with miracle-working drummer Steve Davis, who had provided percussive support for the past eight years and seemed to anticipate the pianist’s every musical move (for example, in their rapport on “Seven Steps to Heaven” with its stuttered Satie-like close). On the night I saw, heard, and interviewed her, Lynne Arriale’s plane had been delayed in Chicago, and she arrived at The Jazz & Blues Company just ten minutes before the trio’s gig began. Nevertheless, a slender, beautiful woman with auburn hair (which, tossing it in time to “Steven Steps to Heaven,” flared red) and stunning blue eyes, she carried a black “pillow” or cushion to the white piano bench (a cushion that looked as if it might be used for displaying jewels at Tiffany’s), and she performed without a trace of haste–or hunger (after her sets, when she, Steve Davis, and I retired to the Rio Grill, I would learn that she hadn’t had time to eat–an activity she undertook with zeal). I wrote, “Lynne Arriale’s appearance matches the range of her music, for it also suggests a completely winning, slightly waif-like quality that quickly converts to a tough, no-nonsense and fully articulate manner. All of these aspects turn up in her music.”
The title tune on the Give Us These Days CD (introduced by mallets on cymbal, establishing at the start a very comfortable “setting’) is again a piece that delivers sublime melody, again featuring Lynne’s brilliant bright touch, this time the mood arising from gratitude. The piece was inspired by Jim Schley’s poem, “Devotional,” which pays homage to every human cycle from marriage and inception (“confiding as never before /with body-sundering confidence;/ the sealed secrecy of youth”) to aging and treasured simple senses: “Hear one plea / when I say, let each of us three / live to be old … the sense of smell is ravenous / as you know, for these / blessed scents of kin: / the cotton jersey you work in, / or stockings for nights of singing / translucent as fragrance, / jade dress and cream-colored blouse, / mine to hold as I fold them … If I might be /so bold … if I may —Give us these days.”
Lynne Arriale “translates,” embodies such feelings into an instrumental prayer, reference for “the things of this world,” faith: the dialogue this time taking place between her left (chordal) and right (melody line) hands, totally at peace, at ease with one another, delicate at times to the point of appropriate silence (“stillness”), heartfelt devotion enhanced, again, by her melodic poise.
Here’s another photo of Lynne Arriale, surrounded by a few of her other recordings (Photo credit: http://www.wuwm.com):
The tune “Slightly Off Center” is just that! It’s “Free up!” time, and the trio does, with ease—prancing, proud, uncompromised expression, extension—and another fetching melody: sprightly, playful, leaning to the left, leaning to the right, but keeping, always, its difficult balance—truly swinging! Dexterous, mellow hard bop—with a sudden stop! “Another Sky” offers a beautiful panorama established by the first few notes: soft spacious reflection, restraint, taste, and a grand “view” of the world. As is the “acceptance” (in the Zen sense of “mindfulness”) of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” (“There will be an answer … Let it be.”): not a trace of competition or cynicism (with or about the original) in Lynne’s improvisation, but her own “space” taken possession of; her lyricism, laced with her gracious “touch” always, present without strain … Let it be.
“Over and Out” is a perfect instrumental close out piece, which displays each artist in the trio at “the best” (just as the bass and drum solos have been throughout the recording), “Gospel funky” here (as the liner notes say); a joyful noise served with gladness; Jasper Somsen soloing handsomely, subtly; Jasper Van Hulten quick and clean (Lynne churning it up in the background, frisky, free play) and all three back into a unison funky close out.
“Take It With Me” is my favorite Tom Waits song—and it was a delight to hear Kate McGarry sing it so beautifully here, with Lynne providing perfect (exquisite, tasteful, imaginative) backing. “It’s got to be more than flesh and bone / All that you’ve loved is all you own … I’m gonna take it with me when I go.” Human promise, hope, experience—transmuted, transcended … Congratulations, and thanks, Lynne Arriale and friends!
The third artist I would like to celebrate is Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award (twice!) winner and Poet Laureate of the United States (2011-1012) Philip Levine—and by “extension,” saxophonist Benjamin Boone. I was fortunate to become friends with Phil, under unusual circumstance. We discovered we had attended the same Art Tatum/Erroll Garner concert in Detroit the mid-1950s, and we discovered we shared the same disease (vestibular: vertigo)—but the collaboration between Philip Levine and Benjamin Boone came about in a more “natural” manner. Both teaching at Fresno State University (Phil Creative Writing, Benjamin Music), they paired off for a recording, The Poetry of Jazz, which featured Levine reading his own poems (many related to music), Boone providing musical backing (as composer, arranger, performer). The first CD includes further musical assistance on the part of “super star” instrumentalists Chris Potter, Tom Harrell, Branford Marsalis, and Greg Osby—whereas for a second CD, The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two (recorded between August 2012 and October 2018), Boone assembled a first-rate ensemble of local talent. Philip Levine reads poems that are favorites of mine, because they focus on the lives (the sort of existence Levine shared) of working-class Detroiters–and the readings resonate with my own experience of that city.
The first piece, “Let Me Begin Again,” opens (musically) with a cymbal wash, piano flourish, subtle alto saxophone, and Philip Levine steps in: “ … begin again as a speck / of dust caught in the night winds … Let /me go back to land after a lifetime of going nowhere.”; and it ends “Tonight I shall enter my life / after being at sea for ages, quietly, / in a hospital named for an automobile [Henry Ford Hospital, where Levine was born, and at which my own grandmother was once Head of Nurses!] … A tiny wise child who this time will love / his life because it is like no other.” Benjamin Boone matches or complements each shift in mood, tone, and time passing handsomely.
The second piece, “An Ordinary Morning,” is introduced by a soft acoustic bass pattern, then Philip Levine: “A man is singing on the bus / coming in from Toledo,” his “hoarse, quiet voice” … “tells / of love that is true, of love /that endures a whole weekend.” [Music: melodic sax in background]: The entire bus joins in song, even the driver: “One by one my new neighbors … accept / this bright sung conversation … We are / the living newly arrived / in Detroit, city of dreams … each on his own black throne.” Once again, Benjamin Boone “comps” each shift in mood or to another character adroitly (an apt sax fade at the end)—and assists in establishing the irony as well (“Detroit, city of dreams”).
Here are photos of the covers of the two The Poetry of Jazz CDs:
I met Philip Levine when a teaching colleague of mine at Monterey Peninsula College, George Lober (who had Levine as a teacher at Fresno State University), invited him to give a reading at MPC. George told me that Phil was having vertigo “issues,” and would like to talk with me about the condition, which we did—at some length at a party after the reading, and thereafter in letters. We would correspond from April 2003 through August 2005, and not only discussed our mutual vestibular “affliction,” but jazz, the poetry scene in general, and living in New York City (where Phil was also teaching at the time).
I’ve had a vertigo condition for twenty-seven years now (brought on by a viral infection that did permanent damage to my inner ear), and when I met Phil in 2003, I had collected a stack of articles on the condition as thick as the Bible (both Testaments), much of which I passed on to him. Here’s a portion of a letter I would receive not long after his reading in Monterey: “Thanks for all the advice re the vertigo. I went off to Nashville last week prepared for trouble & got almost none … I’ll try most anything. I have had several episodes of loss of balance but no vertigo since I saw you. During my last reading I caught myself about to make a rather large gesture which would have evolved looking up–which is what I did in Monterey–, & I did not make said gesture. I’ll see how things go, & and if NYC is OK I’ll stick with what I have. If not I’ll try to locate someone as good as your Dr. Schindler [a San Francisco otolaryngologist who realized I had an inner ear problem, not Meniere’s Disease, with which I had been mistakenly diagnosed elsewhere for three years!]. I’ve been going to a gym most days; I use an exercise bike.”
I’m pleased to report that by the time of our final correspondence in 2005, Phil had done something I’ve never been able to do: he beat the vertigo “rap,” telling me, “We made a trip to Pragu, & I managed to get a low-salt menu anywhere I went … It’s now more than a year since I’ve had any loss of balance & almost two years since I had vertigo. I stick to the diet & try to avoid stress, which isn’t always possible.”
Phil Levine was the same candid, upfront, open, forthright presence in person (or in his letters) that he is in his poems (and that, unfortunately, has not always been the case with poets I’ve known). I treasure each of the letters he wrote to me, and what he had to say about poetry has proven invaluable. “I can’t stand people who think they are owed an audience of thousands & untold wealth because they write poetry. I went into this shit with my eyes open; I knew the chances of any success, commercial or otherwise, were about zero; I did it because I loved writing, I simply wanted to do this & nothing else. Well, life has given me the opportunity to write. And on top of that I lucked in & got a good publisher, a great editor, & some prizes, all more than I expected. If I’d never won a prize would I still be writing? Yes, If I’d never published would I still be writing? I don’t know. Thank God my character never had to face that test … The poetry thing is so intense here [NYC] you have to get away. Too many people on the make … It reminds me of Nathanial West on Hollywood. He’s got a character who can only think of everything in terms of: Will it film? Here it’s, would this make an anthology & who would publish it? Horseshit.”
I was thrilled when I sent him a book of my own poems, he responded favorably: “Thanks also for Some Grand Dust [We had talked about this book the night I met him]. Several of the Moker poems are special. He’s not Kees’ Robinson or Berryman’s Henry. He’s really your own Moker with a fuller inner life from either of those two. He’s also much more accepting of life as it is than they are. It’s a collection that deserves much more attention than it’s probably had, but the poetry world is like the rest of the American worlds: a mess … Good luck, & thanks again for your help & your gifts … ps. I’m still astonished that we were both at that Tatum night. I saw him two days later talking baseball & got a poem out of it about 30 years later.”
His Tatum poem is a gem (I was surprised it was not on either of the The Poetry of Jazz CDs. It’s called “On the Corner,” and the great blind pianist is presented as passing by “blind as the sea, /heavy, tottering /on the arm of the young / bass player, and they /both talking / Jackie Robinson.” The bass player say, “Wait’ll / you see Mays,” how fast he is too first, like Jackie Robinson—and the last line has Tatum speaking, “I can’t hardly wait.” In another letter, I mentioned Tatum and blind vocalist Al Hibbler having “driving” [an automobile!] contests, and Phil replied, “Art Tatum & Hibbler driving! My mother was almost as bad. When she was in her eighties her sight began to go–macular degeneration–but she didn’t let that stop her from driving, though she did stay off the freeways–by this time she lived in LA. Finally she couldn’t get a renewal on her license, couldn’t pass the vision test, couldn’t get insurance, & sold her car. She never seemed to take into account the fact she might kill a dozen kids–she lived only two blocks from a big high school.”
Here are photos of Philip Levine, with Benjamin Boone, and solo (Photo credits: www.nytimes.com; jazzdagama.com; The Fresno Bee; artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com):
We talked lots of jazz in our correspondence, and I’ll give one more sample here—and then provide a couple more examples of tracks from the The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two CD. I’d mentioned serving on a panel at the Monterey Jazz Festival with Charles Mingus’s wife, Sue—and Phil wrote: “Have you read the book by Sue Mingus about Charles the maniac? It has a name like ‘Today at Midnight’? [Tonight at Noon: A Love Story].The parts that are good are so good that everyone who cares about jazz or human behavior ought to read it. How she stuck with Mingus is beyond me, except he was fascinating as well as monstrous … You mentioned combining music & poetry. I did several concerts with a great percussionist named Steve Schick; I once rehearsed with two of the cats from the Paul Winter consort, the cellist & the pianist, but their playing was far too soft for what I was reading–Garcia Lorca’s toughest stuff from POET IN NEW YORK, “Offices & Denunciations.” And the cellist said flat out, You need a percussionist, & within a day we had this guy Schick, & he was superb. This was for a Christmas thing in a cathedral, & working with these guys was fun. They were real pros.”
And now we have recordings of Phillip Levine reading his poems within a totally compatible musical setting created by Benjamin Boone. Two more of my favorite tracks on The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two are “Belle Isle, 1949” and “The Conductor of Nothing.” The first, after a synthesized “spring” atmosphere is established musically, describes a adolescent “swim” in the Detroit River (the “voice” of the poem and “a Polish highschool girl / I’d never seen before” run down, “in this first warm spring night” to “baptize ourselves in the brine / of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles, / melted snow.” The ending is classic: “ Back panting / to the gray coarse beach we didn’t dare / fall on, the damp piles of clothes, / and dressing side by side in silence / to go back where we came from.” Alternating piano notes and soft melodic alto sax refrain close out the piece, and I couldn’t help but think (or feel), O Yes, memories of those Michigan “first warm spring nights”!
The second poem, “The Conductor of Nothing,” opens with delicate wire brush drum work and soft saxophone trills, a wavering mood; then Phil with a complaint in the voice of the narrator himself: “If you were to stop and ask me / how long I have been as I am, / a man who hates nothing / and rides old trains for the sake / of riding. I could only answer / with that soft moan I’ve come / to love. It seems a lifetime I’ve / been silently crossing and recrossing / this huge land of broken rivers / and fouled lakes, and no one has cared enough even to ask for a ticket / or question this dingy parody of a uniform.” We get a considerable portion of the conductor’s existence, and the poem ends: “Thus / I come back to life each day /miraculously among the dead, / a sort of moving monument / to what a man can never be– / someone who can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ / kindly and with a real meaning, and bending to hear you out, place / a hand upon your shoulder, open / my eyes fully to your eyes, lift / your burden down, and point the way.” The musical close out consists of gentle piano accents, and a wavering saxophone, to point that way.
If you feel the need (and in our present era, that’s a very legitimate need, I feel) for poetry with real meaning–poetry filled with genuine care, insight, and compassion–accompanied by a musical setting that contains the same, The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two (and the first volume!) awaits you.
And what a joy for me: to have known this truly great poet and human being, Philip Levine—just as it’s been genuine joy to have known and written about Kurt Elling and Lynne Arriale. I hope you have taken pleasure in this blog devoted to their latest accomplishments.