Saturday, June 25, 2011

Recently found myself observing that -- as I listened to my favorite jazz station on the car radio ... .

that I hadn't heard an African American jazz singer for a very long time.  Also, that black jazz musicians have virtually disappeared from the airways, or is it simply that I can no longer distinguish them from their emulators?  I don't think so.   Josh Redman still stands out as having an identifiable black sound.  And, it doesn't take many notes into a song to be able to tell a black from a white voice -- no matter how hip or laid back the performer.  There's a kind of quiet pride when -- alone in car --  Aha! I pounce on the imitators.  And, yes, even Diana Krall and the inimitable Mark Murphy fail my test of the melaninian sound (and I know that's not an actual word - but it'll do for the purpose of discussion).

Somehow great American popular music gave way to overwhelming decibel levels, elaborate costuming, general messiness masquerading as costume, mosh pits, dramatic clown-like theatrical makeup and fright wigs; partial and whole nudity on stage, the smashing of guitars, etc., and over time, both the music and my finely-tuned ear got lost in the carnage of Rock and Roll!

While watching Lee Williams, traditional gospel singer from Mississippi in a gospel concert -- almost motionless and dignified -- dressed in a fine dark brown suit, white shirt, and handsome silk tie standing at the mike before a fervent black evangelical congregation, I was reminded of how far the general music world has moved from complex sound to appearance and marketing ploys to attract sales and new audiences.  And today's white derivative musicians are working frantically to produce that wildly passionate 'call and response' still so natural and alive in the black church.  It was exploding all around us as we swayed to the insistent rhythms at Parks Chapel that day.  What I was hearing (and fighting the urge to dance in the aisle) was the age-old fundamentalist roots of jazz,  the legacy that I've almost lost in the course of becoming acculturated into the American whole

With Lester Young it was a simple pork pie hat; with Duke it was either a continental casual look or those formal tails swinging from the back of that piano bench, and Nat "King" Cole was the very essence of good taste -- right up to his time- and date-stamped patent-leather "processed" hairdo.  Physical appearance didn't compete with the music, even for the women of jazz, the signature was buried deep in the individual sound of their music.  I like to think that their style of dress was in keeping with respect for their audiences and their art.  I also believe that a cultural marker was set by the style created in the jazz world that is still visible in today's black church where one would never be seen in torn Levi's and  T-shirts in the House of the Lord, and where hats are elevated to "crowns" by the "saints" of the congregation.  Traces of the jazz world are still reflected in both the sound from the choir loft and in the pews through the "call and response" and "the beat" of sung gospel.  Black music has been powerful enough to stand alone with little need of enhancement beyond the artist's ability to deliver its message. Think the always well-tailored Wynton Marsalis for a contemporary example, and you'll gain some sense of the sacredness of jazz, and that this is, indeed, the black world's classical music.

The distortions emanated not only from the Rolling Stones and Kiss, but Cindy Lauper and now Lady Gaga in her infamous meat dress.  It seems foolish to hear both Lauper in her day and Lady Gaga, currently, complain that their outrageous look is merely attention-seeking, and that when they're performing -- we should only pay attention to their art.  

They've all been "commodified"  (okay, so according to the spellchecker, I'm making up words again) to the extent that artists have for the past few decades been sold as packages, a package that must include a "look," so that the quality of the music has disintegrated almost beyond recognition.  It's now almost impossible to comprehend either lyrics, or the intent of whatever they're offering to audiences beyond the sensational.  At best, most groups are playing mediocre music -- all different in an identical way, except for those still writing and performing simple original music on acoustic instruments in a genre other than jazz or blues -- but those more clearly associated with the individual artist's life, and within the context of their own experience.  I continue to find indescribable beauty in authenticity wherever it might be found.

But today Sonny Buxton has reminded me that all that good stuff is still available if I just tune in to a time when Jazz at the Philharmonic sessions were recorded for posterity.  I've now lived into that posterity -- and can draw on all those musical treasures for the good of my soul.  I've spent the past several hours just listening and remembering, and oh so many years have been tossed off in the process!

I find myself wondering when we're going to discover that those young black kids who might have become the Nat Coles, Lester Youngs, Mile Davises, the Charles Minguses, the Ella Fitzgeralds and Sarah Vaughns, are probably languishing in the prisons of the nation, completely unaware of the loss of the legacy that was theirs; while their imitators, the well-intentioned "derivatives," have filled in the vacuum left by their absence from the schools, the studios, and the sound stages of the country and the world?  And there's an innocence about it all since I have the feeling that fine white musicians have expropriated black music to the point where it is now they who are defining the genre, and all without any awareness of what role they've unwittingly played in the process.  Don't blame them, they were just "integratin'," and God knows that was the name of the game, was it not? 

... and are we all not the poorer for the loss?

Top right photo: Billie Holiday with Duke Ellington at lower left.
Thinking about jazz today as it plays in the background.  It's Sonny Buxton's Mid-day Jazz ... .

Sat down at the computer this morning wondering just how I could possibly write about yesterday's bus tour and do it justice?  It had been on my schedule for weeks though I'd paid as little attention to its approaching as possible without admitting to myself that there was some concern lurking in a corner of my consciousness that I might not be adequate to the telling of this history?  Would they guess that I might be insecure in this time of such high public acclaim ... acclaim that I still question ... in those minutes just before sleep each night? 

The teachers from Placer County school district under the leadership of the Department of Education (history?) at Sacramento State had arranged as a part of their week-long Bay Area experience, a day at Rosie the Riveter WWII/Home Front National Historical Park; a trip to Angel Island; one to Golden Gate National Regional Park at Fort Mason; and among them would be Professor Shirley Ann Moore of the black history department of Sacramento State.  Dr. Moore was to give a talk following lunch that would prove to be an extension of my own presentation earlier in the day.  Our work dove-tailed as if it were planned. We'd met once before as participants in a seminar sponsored by the University of California, but not where I had any kind of primary role to fulfill, so we were virtually strangers.

Also in yesterday's group would be recently-retired former journalist Tom Debley, historian from the Heritage Department at Kaiser Permanente corporate headquarters in Oakland.  We will be working together on a project involving the Pullman story involving Ethel Dotson's little International Hotel over on South Street in Richmond.  This would be the first time he would experience Betty the Tour Guide and self-proclaimed "historian."  Wow!  Two professional historians before whom I would be conducting 3-hour bus tour based on WWII history -- an era I'd surely lived through as a naive 20 year-old, but certainly not studied.  As I've said, I'm not working from an acquired store of knowledge, only personal remembrances of the era of WWII; my personal oral history.

Early in our 30-minute orientation before boarding the bus I opened with, "you will be experiencing through me, a very subjective presentation of one who lived the experience, but in no way do I claim to be an historian."  That being said, I almost immediately lost all self-consciousness or feeling of being inadequate to the task before me -- which meant almost 3 hours of being "on" with microphone before 50 passengers on a huge bus -- who magically were transformed into 50 pairs of eyes set in faces that expressed an avid interest and mirrored back to me expressions that assured me that it mattered not what labels were used, these were eager listeners to the stories -- and as such gave me more than polite attention.  They were involved.  As always, I felt the excitement of sharing those stories and, as always, they came alive for me as well.

But these thoughts are competing with the music of the jazz station, KCSM out of San Mateo, playing in the background.  Maybe I need to stop and write them out of mind while they're fresh and clear ... .

The music also brings to mind, Dmitri and the fact that I've not yet had a chance to hear him again; maybe this summer he'll be coming to one of the jazz festivals; there's one at Stanford university tomorrow at 2:30 featuring a Tribute to Nat Cole, just maybe ... .Skipping over to the website I learned that the great Brazilian composer/musician Milton Nasciamento will appear some time during the festival ... .The only time I wish to be young again -- the music I'd love to live over again.

Maybe there is comfort in being reminded that there are at least two tracks to my mind, and that I can still entertain more than one interest at a time even at this age without losing it!

(Now I'm listening to a Slam Stewart solo with Slam humming along with his acoustic bass in a fantastic improvisation on Hoagy Carmichael's Stardust -- with solos by trumpeter Willie Smith, Lester Young on alto sax, and Lionel Hampton on vibes from a concert produced by Gene Norman in Los Angeles in 1947.) 

I need to give this full attention, guys, sorry!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

If I ever wondered how it would feel to be 'cartooned,' the answer is in ... .

As I understand it, in the Sunday edition as published this will appear in full color and that day the little child characters will be talking about the figure featured in the Soul Corner.

Received a call today from the office of the city manager announcing that the mayor of Richmond's sister city, Shimada, Japan, is arriving soon with his entourage of about 16 visitors, and that they would like to schedule a bus tour for July 5th.  That means working through an interpreter, of course, but that is far less daunting than you might assume.

I'm looking forward to another adventure in international relations -- and by that time I will surely have had some word about whether my contract is being renewed or if I should get out the kazoo and start humming!

In a few short weeks we'll be observing another Day of Remembrance at the Port Chicago site of the July 17, 1944 tragic explosion during WWII.  That night 320 young American lives were lost.   Everyone is deep into the planning of this second such event since the site became the 392nd unit of the National Park Service in March of 2010.  It now has assigned staff and is developing programming that is bringing to light the little-known history of the mutiny trials that eventually resulted in the desegregation of our armed forces.  (Enter "Port Chicago" into the search bar at the top left side of the screen - above the banner - for the full story.)  The process took 5 years to complete, but it was a watershed in our history of social change that forever changed the nation.

But, for now, I'm needing to reacquaint myself with the stories of Japanese internment (120,000 taken from their homes and sent to relocation camps -- 70,000 of whom were American citizens), so that I feel competent to handle any questions that may arise on the July 5th tour.  But, if I recall, last year when I conducted a tour at the Rosie Memorial for visiting students from Japan -- their professor told me that the internment is not taught in their schools -- so maybe I'm being overly sensitive.  We'll see.  But I'd want to be sensitive to the possibility that someone will remember ... .

I still do.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Can you imagine ... ?

.., I was asked to serve as interpreter for a bus tour of the scattered sites that make up Rosie the Riveter WWII/Home Front Historical National Park.  It was to accommodate a request from the director of California State Department of Parks and Recreation in Sacramento.  The special guest was award-winning Morrie Turner, nationally-syndicated cartoonist (featured in over 100 newspapers), the creator of Wee Pals.  He had been following stories about me and wanted to know more about my work and that of the National Park Service.  Occasionally, he does a Soul Corner in which some person of interest is featured -- and it seems that I've come to his attention.   

We spent 3 hours wending our way through the city while I told the stories of the WWII era and what was happening on the home front at that time.  During the course of the tour I discovered that he'd grown up in Berkeley, that he knew my husband, Mel Reid, and that we'd crossed paths many times over the decades.  He was wonderfully warm and engaging, and as our visit came to a close he presented me with his original draft of the pen and ink original sketch on Betty Reid Soskin that will be featured in full color in about 8 weeks in the Sunday comic sections!

Can you imagine being presented with an honorary doctorate and appearing as a cartoon character in the same summer -- or even the same lifetime?

Next thing you know I'll be dancing on coffee tables and playing my kazoo (which I'm practicing just in case my position comes to a close in a few weeks as my current contract ends)!