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Category: Obituaries

Free Jazz - RIP Ornette Coleman

Free Jazz – RIP Ornette Coleman

It was when I found out I could make mistakes that I knew I was on to something.

The Beard- EP 122 – A Tribute to Ornette Coleman by Beard Radio on Mixcloud

Free Jazz – RIP Ornette Coleman

After I left Texas and went to California, I had a hard time getting anyone to play anything that I was writing, so I had to end up playing them myself. And that’s how I ended up just being a saxophone player.

Free Jazz - RIP Ornette Coleman

Art and expression and feeling seem to be uppermost in the musical compositions of Ornette Coleman. I got into him years ago while flipping through used albums (searching for Rare Groove stuff) at a record shop in Santa Barbara. Free Jazz had a picture of Jackson Pollock’s 1954 painting The White Light, which I had been studying in a course I was taking at university. Without so much as a second thought, I added it to my purchase pile and, thankfully, have never looked back. While not as famous or well-known as other jazz musicians of his day, but like Pollock, Coleman was prolific and by subverting the mainstream movement, he expanded the palate and canvas for all artists to come.

Ornette Coleman, composer, violinist, trumpeter and alto-saxophone jazz bandleader, was born Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman in 1930. Unlike many of his slightly older jazz counterparts who passed away in or even perhaps before their primes (Charlie, Parker, Gene Ammons, Chet Baker, Art Blakey, Paul Chambers, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Grant Green, Billie Holiday, et al), he lived a long and fruitful life with a career spanning 60 years. Not only did he enter jazz at a time in the late 50s when the genre was in retrograde against the high energy of 40s Bebop with the Birth of the Cool (Miles Davis) movement, the West Coast and Bossanova movements threatened to transport the universe in cool modal jazz mode ad infinitum.

Enter “Lonely Woman” (1959, a great year for Jazz) an original composition by Coleman that is the closest thing to a standard in the movement he co-lead with Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Pharaoh Sanders–Free Jazz. Free jazz was an attempt to break through the “rules” that had emerged as jazz convention throughout its young history. The musicians would do this by altering tempo, time signatures and chords changes. Mainstream jazz had come to be semi-rigid and free jazz was seen as an avant-garde alternative that strove to return jazz to its origins, such as in Coleman’s 6th album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation. Which is not to say that all those experimenting with free jazz were strictly Free Jazzers, so to speak. They were the Hippies after the Beat Movement, eschewing all classification and standards not by denigrating the past but by choosing a different route to build onto the past.

Throughout his early career Coleman put out nearly as many live recordings as he did studio albums. Apart from the quiet hiss of the studio monitors in contrast to the applause of a live audience, there is likely very little difference in what he would have played as in how he played it. It seems plausible that Time was the only difference to him in a song. As in how shall I play this song this time, or going even further, how will this song come out of me this time around? He says:

Jazz is the only music in which the same note can be played night after night but differently each time.

The man was flashy and poetic, while being down to earth and gentle. He had his troubles with record companies which is likely why his albums weren’t properly marketed and didn’t sell as well as some of his contemporaries. The early years with Atlantic got him in the game and he was at Blue Note during the hey day of that label, after which he jumped to multiple labels throughout the rest of his career, eventually starting his own with the release of Sound Grammar, the Pullitzer Prize winning album recorded live in Ludwigshafen, Germany, in 2005. A most notable moment includes “Sleep Talking” which begins with the same notes as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. It is fitting that he ended his life in the late spring in New York, a city he came to but was not born in, and made some part of it, however small to him, bigger to the rest of us.

Farewell Uncle Lou

Farewell Uncle Lou

Lou Reed Signed "Loaded" Album

Brian Peterson’ Lou Reed Signed “Loaded” Album

When I woke up to the news that Lou Reed died yesterday, it hit me hard, like losing a favorite Uncle, the one who skipped town for the big city and never came home again. This is not such a stretch actually– we love our favorite artists so much that they can be like family– they comfort us in our darkest moods and they’re urging us on when the sun is strong and our step is confident. And we love them for that. We even forgive them for growing old and losing that magic touch they had when they were young and the whole world was still ahead of them.

Like most kids I got to know Lou as a part rather than a whole, picking up the Velvet Underground’s legendary box set, Peel Slowly and See, when I was 21 years old, just after finishing college at the beach town of Santa Barbara. I had vague notions of becoming a writer, though at the time it was more of a fantasy than anything. More or less, I was a broke wannabe fabulist hungry for experience, but still considering fallback plans like law school or a graduate degree. The odd jobs weren’t paying much and I didn’t really know what I had to say except that it was important to live and love deeply. Lou Reed and the V.U. were the soundtrack of those early years when I committed myself to a certain lifestyle of risk.

I started to write about Lou Reed and I ended up writing about myself, inevitable when our rock and roll heroes are such personal touchstones. But they are, and we worship them the way we once loved gods and kings. I could never quite love a woman who did not get Lou Reed: failing to apprehend the euphoria of “Sweet Jane” or the despair of “Pale Blue Eyes” would be irrefutable evidence of some deeper irreconcilable disconnect between us. No question that downloading mp3s in the Age of iTunes has cheapened our relationship to music; nevertheless we cling to our heroes. Yesterday I lost one of mine and I can forever put out of my mind the fantasized encounter. The spirit may leave this world but the song remains the same.

Eulogy for the Modern Era

Eulogy for the Modern Era

Doing Work...

Doing Work the old fashioned way...

It is somehow fitting that I write a certain kind of eulogy for two men I didn’t know, a week after the fact of their unrelated deaths, from Tokyo of all places. Nothing is as it was. Not that it ever was, but there is a seemingly palpable sense of hyper-reality lurking about these days, in the people and the places we haunt, that pervades life in modern society, so much we have forgotten that there was a time when it was normal to write by typewriter or talk into a phone connected to a series of cords and lines reaching all the way to the person on the other end. Talk about being in touch. No more. Which is fine, I guess. I’m not sure how I feel about it. I have not taken the time to sit down and write my thoughts out in cursive longhand about it, but the fact remains that before the typewriter and the telephone, predating the telegraph, people did something else, and what they did–whatever it was–was normal to them-be it growing tobacco, listening to rock and roll, or participating in peace protests- though it may have felt like a Mustang bucking out of control to their parents. The thing is, is that, that is normal, probably reaching all the way back to the Neanderthals who lived in caves and were scared of when the dark came. We still basically live in caves and are scared of the dark, although now we get, wirelessly mind you, 500 channels, 24-hour news and 3G service, so our caves are much cooler and aglow at all hours of the night. Wow, are we ever connected and well-lit, and it’s all done invisibly- what Arthur C. Clarke pointed out would have looked like magic to the people who inhabited similar towns and caves one hundred, or even fifty years ago. Has the magic benefitted us? Has it made life better in any way?

Eulogy for the Modern Era

I suppose it is convenient to be able to connect mobilely to a repair shop when a vehicle breaks down in a remote area, as opposed to having to set up camp, start a fire and keep watch out for hostile Indians, maybe even being forced to eventually eat your own family to survive. Yes, maybe the magic of technology has made life better, but has it made us more productive? As a writer of words– (ok, let’s back up here and describe exactly what I do). As an entrist of curved symbols (letters) with prescribed meanings into a glowing magic box (computer) invisibly connected to a vast system of other magic boxes, all of them full of these curved symbols ordered in such a way as to give them all specific meanings, I am able to intermingle my ideas within any system I have access to, from anywhere on the interconnected globe (called earth in the English system of language, but why isn’t earth capitalized?). So having been born in Long Beach, California today means little compared to what it meant one hundred years ago, when a denizen of that fine city would be more likely to have lived and worked within the confines of Los Angeles county, and going to Tokyo would be a major undertaking which would result in loss of employment, maybe nationality, and possibly being swept up into the tail end of the Russo–Japanese War. Allowing me to live and work in a place 16 hours ahead of where I was born, as well as avoiding war, so yes, I think this magic has made us more productive, at least somewhat. What about more honest?

While general benefit and productivity can be quantified by data, honesty, being a human trait, is trickier to pin down. If we define honesty as the act of being truthful, yet mustn’t we openly admit that truth for one person is likely to be different from the truth for another? Ok, for the sake of argument let’s agree on a kind of open-ended universal truth that applies to all people, places and things and consult an object called a history book in order to see if we as a species are any more honest than we were before we had magic in our lives, or if we are just generally a priori dishonest creatures. Wait, you are thinking, this must be a joke, because everybody knows that history books these days are full of misconceptions if not outright lies. Ok, that was a test, which good, you passed. Have you ever read the American historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States? The runner up for the 1980 national Book Award is split into two parts: Columbus to the Robber Barons (containing eleven chapters) and The Twentieth Century (containing fourteen chapters), all told from the point of view of the working class: Native Americans, slaves, the poor, women, unions, rebels, or the people whom were most directly affected by the changes brought about during the metamorphosis of the United States into a country of the people and by the people but run by the government in a way that is favorable for corporations rather than for the people, a statement which the supreme court legitimized recently with its decision in the Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission case to grant corporations equals rights as humans. Zinn died of a heart attack on January 27th, just days after the Supreme Court’s decision. Unconnected? As unlikely as any obituary running a photo of recently deceased author J.D. Salinger taken with a digital camera, or anytime within the development of digital, or maybe even color film, technology.

A photo taken of the author while on the lam in the mid-90s

A photo taken of the author while on the lam in the mid-90s

On the same day, presumably somewhere on the east coast, Jerome David Salinger, celebrated author of the Catcher in the Rye, the Glass Family Chronicles and likely a whole heap of hidden manuscripts no one will ever get a chance to read, died at the age of 91. Good. Most people thought he was dead anyway. I have always comforted myself with the thought that I was happy to have been simultaneously alive and walking and sharing the same air somewhere on earth. I think this about all former and future girlfriends (I’m currently single), writers I admire and the Dalai Lama. Regretfully the authors Thornton Wilder, Rod Serling, P.G. Wodehouse, some months before I was born, all died. I hate that. Hate it so much it has driven me to write to each of my favorite authors in order to verbally shake their hands and pat their backs, to praise and honor, to conspire and laud, and through overly verbose heave and ho, to show off a bit too much as opposed to just getting to the point of why I was writing, which I suppose even I didn’t really know at the time, if only to say I Am Here, Listening To You. Of all the authors I wrote to (Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, Salinger) with number two pencils on yellow legal pads (pretentious I know), the only reply I received was from Salinger’s lawyers, which was quite surprising and went something like:

To Whom It May Concern,

It has come to our attention that you have been attempting to illegally sell copies of some of Mr. Salinger’s copyrighted short stories via EBay. Please cease and desist copyright infringement of the entitled 22 Stories immediately or we will be required to pursue this matter in a court of law. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Harold Ober Associates, Incorporated.

The mystery surrounding the reclusiveness of the would be Bodhisattva Salinger had impacted upon me so fervently when I first read Franny and Zooey, rather than Catcher in the Rye, and I was even more enthralled with the Glass family in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, that when I entered the University of California system I almost immediately took advantage of the Melvyl Article database search function to locate all of Salinger’s published short stories, as well as the interlibrary loan service to have them sent to my campus library if they happened to be locally unavailable. I then photocopied each yellowing page of all the twenty-two previously published, though uncollected and hard to find, stories I had found in old Cosmopolitan, Harper’s, Saturday Evening Post, and not a few New Yorkers, and bound all two hundred and fifty or so pages into a Kinko’s reader, copies of which turned out to be extremely popular on the new and wondrous technology called The Internet, a thing which had suddenly appeared on the world stage as possibly another interesting way to watch pornography, but certainly would never replace good old face to face interpersonal relationshipping as the preferred medium for meeting people and overall communication of any kind, or so I guessed.

Ahh 1995...when life was good

Ahh 1995...when life was all martinis and breasts

It was, after all, 1995, and I had just gotten away with massive credit card fraud when the head of a major retail store’s security team was killed while trying to stop a large man under the influence of drugs from stealing a television and all the clothing he could carry and thusly could not testify against me, and now I was getting threatening letters from powerful incorporated associates. Worried about life in the new face recognition software paradigm, I realized I had more important things to spend my time doing than writing to dead or dying authors about the State of the World, like finding out where to, as Thompson put it when Nixon beat McGovern in ’72, “hunker down and ride out the storm” as these faddish new technologies hopefully went by the wayside or how Harold Ober got my address. Probably EBay had given it to him.

The only answer was to drop out of society. So after the spring quarter final exams, I withdrew all my money and canceled my bank account, filled my backpack with a few clothes and headed for Mexico. Well, Baja California, which most people will say isn’t really Mexico, but whatever man, look at a map. I was going to live on the beach, do a lot of drugs and write the great Baja Californian novel, or one of them anyway, but, well, two out of three isn’t bad. When fall quarter came around I was back enrolled in school and about to move in with my girlfriend. Life seemed bright and full of promise, like a perpetual Saturday afternoon at the beach. I was determined to finally get one of these electronic typing machines my professors were telling me I had to correctly format my papers with and a friend turned me on to Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and the more palatable Alan Watts, whose teachings told me that I didn’t need to travel to far off lands and sit beneath Bodhi trees in order to find enlightenment, but that I could find it without moving an inch.

Like Salinger I was completely content in not leaving my house: I had a used Mac G2, available sex and climate change was yet to be a real issue. But like Zinn I was restless and yearned for the truth and it was this part of me that won out. After breaking up with my girlfriend and donating my computer to goodwill I struck out into Europe and Asia, and have spent the better part of the 00s not so much trying to find enlightenment as perspective, a way of looking at things without which it becomes hard to know whence you come and how to get back. I bet if the three of us were sitting down over banana daquiris and Parcheesi we could agree that Tom Waits said it best: If you get far enough away, you’ll be on your way back home.

Thanks for the history lesson Howard and bon voyage J.D., hope it was a fun ride.

Howard Zinn’s memoir You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train is also the name of the 2004 documentary directed by Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller.

Other stories by Salinger which allude to the Glass family:

A Young Girl in 1941 with No Waist at All (Mademoiselle, May 1947)

A Perfect Day for Bananafish (The New Yorker, January 1948)

Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut (The New Yorker, March 1948)

Down at the Dinghy (Harper’s, April 1949)

Teddy (The New Yorker, January 1953)

Hapworth 16, 1924 (The New Yorker, June 1965)

Vonnegut self-portrait (HESO Magazine)

Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt (Or God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut)


Vonnegut self-portrait (HESO Magazine)

Vonnegut self-portrait

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. died this past week, but it is not true to say that we suffered a terrible loss with his passing.

There can be no question that his passing will be noted. If not all of us collectively, I, at least, will certainly miss him. But Mr. Vonnegut described to us throughout his life the one true, terrible loss we all suffer without exception. His work was an obituary he wrote to us over and over to remind us of a thing we had already gone, but one that he exhorted us to become aware of. His reminders were intended to move us, finally, to take the steps in our power to gain that thing back.

Our true loss is our discarded humanity. It is our shared international cultural goal to slip out of the bonds of kindness, rationality, and responsibility to one another faster than the next human in the race. In short, our terrible loss is our missed chance to be good.

We should be bereaved to see our curmudgeonly kind man of letters pass. He treated us as a friend, and we need as many of those as we can get. But do not take off the black crepe when the customary time for mourning a man and a friend has elapsed. Mourn then that in his stead among men of letters in our day there are few but dandies. Mourn then that among men of peace there are few with influence. Mourn then that, because of this, once our selfishness has seen to it that we’ve used up the means to support everything we’ve become, once we’ve surpassed our capabilities to replenish all the clever devices that support who we are, and once our balance of mutual enmity passes into a permanent and irreconcilable surplus- our computers, our stereos, our printing presses, our guitar amplifiers, our televisions, our automobiles, our trains, our refrigerators, our airplanes, our libraries, our roads, our post offices, our museums, our clean water, our food, our stories, our poetry, our art, our love, our families, our cultures, our cities, our civilisation- all of this, even the letters that make up the words you’re reading now, will probably be irretrievably lost.

And then, Goddamnit, stop mourning. Be different. Be kind. Be good. We don’t have any more time to waste.

Thank you, Mr. Vonnegut! Would that you could have said at the end, “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” Would that it might one day be true.

April 18, 2007
New York

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