Tag Archives: Jazz

Lush Life

One of the most sophisticated and exquisite of all jazz standards was written by a black, gay, teenage boy over the course of five years in the 1930s. Billy Strayhorn, who later became famously close to his mentor and writing partner Duke Ellington, wrote the majority of the elegantly jaded lyrics, surprising internal rhyming schemes and beautiful, unusual melody that became “Lush Life” when he was just sixteen years old. The song begins:

“I used to visit all the very gay places / Those come-what-may places / Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life / To get the feel of life / From jazz and cocktails. / The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces / With distingué traces / That used to be there, you could see where / They’d been washed away / By too many through the day / Twelve o’clocktails.”

“Lush Life” became Strayhorn’s signature composition. Many fine musicians have recorded it, but velvet-voiced Johnny Hartman‘s version performed with saxophonist John Coltrane is generally considered the definitive performance. It’s certainly my favorite, though versions by Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Queen Latifah, Sammy Davis Jr. and Billy Eckstine (whose version was Strayhorn’s own favorite) are all notable, too.

 

[Originally published in November 2014]

Crazy for Willie

Nowadays, Willie Nelson is the bearded, braided, grand old man of country music. He’s not only a musician and composer but also an activist and philanthropist beloved by country music fans, farmers (he established the Farm Aid movement with Neil Young and John Mellencamp in 1985), hipsters, even hip-hop artists. When he sang a pot-themed Christmas carol with Stephen Colbert on Colbert’s delightful “A Colbert Christmas” special a few years back, he was the highlight of a highly lit show. So it’s fun to see a clean-cut, clean-shaven Willie in this film clip from 1962 in which he dons a sharp suit and uses his smooth DJ voice between songs.

Willie spent several years as an actual DJ in the 1950s, first in Texas and later in the Pacific Northwest. After getting his start on the radio in Texas, he moved west to broadcast his resonant announcer’s voice from a radio station in Vancouver, Washington, just across the state line from Portland, Oregon. There he bought his first house, had his second child and wrote several songs that became big hits for other country artists. In Texas and in Washington, Willie was famous for opening his show with his signature line: “This is your ol’ cotton pickin’, snuff dippin’, tobacco chewin’, coffee pot dodgin’, dumplin’ eatin’, frog giggin’ hillbilly from Hill County!” (I’m so glad he moved beyond frog gigging.)

Once Willie started having real success in selling his songs, he moved back to Texas to resume his DJ duties while looking for recording opportunities of his own. He DJ’ed on Texas radio stations while teaching guitar classes and writing songs on the side. He moved to Nashville in 1960 hoping to get a recording contract of his own, but all his demos were rejected. He finally got his first contract in 1961 and released his first album, …And Then I Wrote, in 1962.

Well before Willie was a household name, he was writing hit songs for other country artists. His best-known composition, “Crazy,” became Patsy Cline’s biggest hit and is the most frequently played juke box song of all time. He was paid just $50 for the rights to it, but, happily, he said in one of his very enjoyable interviews with Terry Gross on her Fresh Air National Public Radio show that he did receive royalties on it later. (For more on the story behind the song, check out this piece by NPR’s Linda Wertheimer was featured on All Things Considered in 2000.)

Though Willie is a country legend, listen closely to his phrasing and you’ll recognize the huge influence that jazz has had on his performing style. Willie is always singing and swinging just a little off the beat to add interest to every measure. Despite his strong twang and the trademark nasal quality of his voice when he sings in his upper register, a warm mellowness takes over in his lower tones. There is a spare quality to his singing and beautiful guitar playing that reminds one jazz musicianship; his takes on pop standards like “Stardust” often have a dreamy quality.

Willie has recorded with many artists, and his distinctive voice blends well with all sorts of pop, rock, folk, jazz and country voices, smooth and rough, high and low. Willie has taken on a sort of everyman persona over the years, but behind the easygoing, scraggly looking fellow in jeans and bandannas is a major philanthropist, humanitarian and advocate for animal welfare; a sophisticated musical storyteller; a legendary composer; a gifted and subtle guitarist; and, at times, a mellow crooner with a voice and a vision like no one else’s.

An Extraordinary Evening with Jessica Williams

Jessica

[The following essay was originally published in July 2005. This year marks the tenth anniversary of my friend Richard’s wonderful house concert series, which began with a concert by gifted jazz pianist Jessica Williams. Last night I had the pleasure of again hearing Jessica play Richard’s glorious Steinway at another intimate house concert. She became my friend at that first concert ten years ago, and I love her and her music still. In honor of Jessica, who is a remarkable musician and a beautiful human being, I reprint this essay and I invite you to visit her website, JessicaWilliams.com.—LG ]

Two nights ago I was invited to share in a magical, memorable evening of of music. Jessica Williams, the extraordinary jazz pianist, played an intimate and elegant concert at the home of my friend Richard. He had spoken to her after her concerts in Seattle over the years, and had the good fortune to be seated next to her on a flight from San Jose to Seattle some months back, which gave them time to share a friendly conversation. Richard is a jazz pianist himself and the owner of a fine piano, and he and Jessica spoke about the idea of her performing at his home for a small group of local jazz aficionados after she finished her bigger Seattle gigs. Happily, the idea became a reality. Seattle is a great town for jazz; the jazz community is avid, active, and friendly, and small enough that everyone gets to know everyone else before too long. This little group knew Jessica’s music well, and the buzz of delight and amazement that we could all get so close to a jazz master had us all feeling a little tipsy before anyone had a drop to drink.

Jessica is well-known and loved among jazz fans and players; the frequently repeated question is, why isn’t she better known to the rest of the world? She’s noted for her improvisational brilliance, has played with jazz greats such as Dexter Gordon and Leroy Vinnegar, and has received lavish praise from the likes of Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner, and Marian McPartland, on whose NPR radio show, Piano Jazz, Jessica has performed. Her pieces have often been played between interviews on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross; Terry is a great fan of hers and Jessica was interviewed on Fresh Air and performed an in-studio concert for Terry’s listeners in 1997. I highly recommend listening to the 2002 rebroadcast, available free online, which includes pieces by Monk and Gershwin and some of Jessica’s own beautiful compositions.

What makes her playing unique and exciting is a combination of dazzling technical skill and warm, melodic, lyrical feeling. Her touch is sure, she plays with conviction, and she has the chops to knock any other player out of his socks if she wants to. Yet at the same time, she breathes warmth and life into pieces that can feel cold in other hands. She can take an atonal, dissonant piece that others might treat as an exercise to show off virtuosity and find the spirit at its core, the life force behind the string of impressive notes, the hush in the middle of the chord that a show-off performer would miss.

Jessica finds great inspiration and pleasure in playing compositions by Thelonious Monk, who’s notorious for being tricky to follow or hard to get. Despite having written the accessible but wonderful ballad “‘Round Midnight,” Monk can sometimes be rough, bouncy and dissonant. When Jessica plays him, however, she isn’t afraid to lighten him up, play up the humor behind the notes, to show the subtlety in his compositions so one can feel the thought behind the dissonances, and understand why they’re right and not random.

Jessica was classically trained, so early on she still believed that there were rules that couldn’t be broken and techniques that must be followed when playing piano. She told Terry Gross the first time she heard a record of Monk playing, she thought he sounded like he was wearing boxing gloves at the piano. But with continued listening, she grew to love his openness to new techniques. She incorporated some of them into her own playing and has developed other innovative techniques that amplify the feeling in her music without ever getting lost in tricks for the sake of tricks.

Sometimes Jessica reaches into the piano to strum the strings while playing keys, incorporating a sound like an autoharp into her playing, as she did at the beginning and end of “Getting Sentimental Over You” when she played it during her Fresh Air concert. She’s careful not to overuse it, however; she doesn’t want to become gimmicky but likes to explore the variety of sounds that a piano can make and integrate these devices into the tunes to add color. During this week’s concert, she reached into the piano to strum it at several points, and she occasionally shuffled the soles of her shoes across the wood floor to create a sound like a drummer would with a brush, or like a softshoe dancer might. She also likes to quote other jazz compositions when she plays, a common tip of the hat from one jazz musician to another, throwing a few measures of a well-known jazz standard into a piece for humor and as an homage. She improvises these surprises and tosses them as little treats for the audience, each one a lagniappe to lighten the heart when listeners get too earnest and caught up in the piece.

On Monday night, she began with a piece by John Coltrane, “Wise One,” followed by “The Very Thought of You” by Ray Noble, “Paul’s Pal” by Sonny Rollins, and two pieces by Monk, “Ugly Beauty” and “Nutty.” I’ve never enjoyed Monk as much as I did that evening. She has said that record producers have often pushed her to show off more of her impressive technique, focusing on speed and flash, and playing Monk certainly allows her that, but she plays him with more subtlety and insight. There’s intelligence in her playing without cold intellectualism, an awareness of exactly what note, what chord, what sense of space is necessary to make a phrase work while still holding the meaning of the song, its essence, the point of it all, in her heart. For her, the most satisfying playing involves a spiritual element. As she told me, she can emphasize flash and technique when she’s playing in a wild or distracted venue or on a bad piano that can’t hold up to subtlety; she can adapt and please the audience when that’s what’s called for. But when she is in the right space with a good instrument and a receptive audience, this nuanced and spiritual essence of her playing emerges, and a thrilling pleasure in being right there, right then, with her, in the palm of her hand, fills the audience, or, in the case of someone lucky enough to own her CDs, fills the listener sitting alone at home if she or he gives her pieces the attention they deserve.

Jessica’s playing is so lovely and lyrical that it’s more accessible than many jazz pianists without ever crossing over into that scary “lite jazz” territory. She began her second set with Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful” from the musical Annie Get Your Gun—songs don’t come much more accessible than that. And yet in her hands it was anything but trite; it was fresh again, and as pure as it was when Berlin wrote it. One of my favorite moments in the evening came when she played Dexter Gordon’s “Don’t Explain.” I’ve always loved Billie Holiday’s version, so it’s hard for me to give other artists due credit when they play it, it’s so associated with Lady Day in my mind. But I was right there with Jessica, note for note. Her love for Dexter Gordon the man, as well as for his music was evident in her playing, and it was an emotionally rich piece.

She followed it with her own eloquent ode to her friend, “I Remember Dexter,” and two more of her elegant compositions, “Poem in G minor” and “Sheikh.” She ended with a gorgeous rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” that left me so touched I had to compose myself before I could shake her hand and tell her what a wonderful evening it had been. Ellington himself would have pronounced her performance “beyond category.” At the end of that second set, I realized I’d been staring rapt at her hands the whole time and hadn’t even looked up once to see the faces of the other people sitting around me. At the end of the concert I saw the same grateful wonder in their eyes that I felt, that we could be sitting 10 feet from greatness and share in this experience.

Before the concert, I had the pleasure of talking with Jessica in the kitchen. For all her skill and mastery, and despite all the swooning and kudos afforded her by fans and fellow artists, she is anything but a diva. She was humble and gracious, and she spoke of the pleasure she takes in her art and in sharing life with friends, of the places around the world in which she’s lived, of the kindnesses shown her by several jazz artists, like Dexter Gordon and his wife. She’d never met me before, but asked me about myself as well, and listened and cared about what I had to say. She was there, standing in a kitchen with a stranger, present in the moment and open to the experience. She showed a respectful, commonsense kindness with me and everyone present which I wish was shared by all people of such accomplishment and fame.

Jessica’s lived courageously and taken risks, turned corners when she was told what a mistake it was and been true to her heart, her music, and her passions. She’s been open to new techniques, to new styles, to resurrecting older ideas or creating new sounds that resonate with her heart. The result is a lovely, gracious, multifaceted woman who creates beauty and cares about the world around her and the people in it.

Andrew Gilbert wrote beautifully of Jessica and her art for the San Jose Mercury News: “A tremendously assured musician, Williams marks her style with ravishing lyricism and daring improvisational flights. But what really sets her solo performances apart is her gift for seamlessly weaving together various jazz keyboard styles, encompassing the highly syncopated stride school of the ’20s and ’30s, the light, effortlessly dancing approach of the swing era, the jagged single-note runs of bebop and the rhythmically diffuse sound perfected by Bill Evans in the ’60s, all integrated into an organic whole by her compelling sense of narrative flow.”

Jessica’s well-put-together and satisfying eponymous website, www.jessicawilliams.com, features links to some of her pieces, to interviews, photographs, and, best of all, allows one to order her CDs, some of which are only available through the site. On her homepage she quotes one of her favorite musicians and people, John Coltrane: “I want to be a force for good. I know there are bad forces here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the force which is truly good.” This quotation is so apt for Jessica; she lives her life in a way that brings pleasure to others, and shares her remarkable talents and hopes with others through her musical gifts. She lives her values and speaks through her art. What an extraordinary person.

On Loving Lyle Lovett

If you think Lyle Lovett is just a country musician, you’re missing out on so much. He’s a dryly witty lyricist and composer; a talented guitarist and singer; his songs have been featured in movie scores from “Toy Story” to “The Crying Game”; and he leads a fantastic big band, which Lyle calls his Large Band. Together their music combines country, big band/swing, jazz, blues, gospel and bluegrass. Lyle is a generous bandleader, giving ample time to his musicians to show their prodigious singing and playing skills on instruments from slide guitar to trombone to fiddle to cello. (Yes, cello—his longtime cellist John Hagen brings a beautiful richness to the Large Band’s sound and his solos are elegant and warm—and squeaky and wild when necessary.) Lyle’s backup singer Francine Reed has a big, bold, sexy alto voice and a devoted following of her own; she returns to Seattle for another stint as Teatro Zinzanni‘s resident chanteuse this winter.

I first saw Lyle and his Large Band in concert in 1987, and most recently saw them last weekend. Their professionalism, evident pleasure in performing, and ability to produce a tight and exciting 2-1/2-hour show after all these years together made them just as thrilling to watch this week as they were when I first enjoyed them all those years ago. The video above shows Lyle and his band displaying all the amazing influences they draw from in one terrific showstopping song. Don’t stop there—check out his albums (especially “Joshua Judges Ruth,” “The Road to Ensenada,” “Lyle Lovett and His Large Band” and “Pontiac“) and you’ll see what I mean.

Sly and Sardonic Lounge-Noir Jazz

While going through my old CDs this week I came across a fun album from 1998 by New York-based jazz group Dave’s True Story called Sex Without Bodies. The group, which described itself as a “lounge-noir band,” morphed a bit over time but was always anchored by writer/composer/guitarist David Cantor and singer Kelly Flint. They played jazz with a cool Greenwich Village underground jazz-club vibe: spare, dry and witty. Flint’s jaded vocals and Cantor’s sardonic lyrics bring a smoky edge to their songs.

Sex Without Bodies starts with the cynical anti-love song “Spasm,” which was featured in an episode of Breaking Bad:

Look at my lips
They’re just dying to taste you
Look at my teeth
They’re just aching to bite
But as for my heart
It’s a big empty chasm
‘Cause this ain’t the real thing
It’s just a spasm

The characters Kelly Flint inhabits are droll and blasé, but they’re relaxed enough that the group’s music isn’t so much dark as overcast. An hour spent with Dave’s True Story is like an hour  in an underground bar quaffing excellent cocktails with a good-smelling man who sports precise facial hair and offers to show you his etchings.

Four songs into the album is my favorite of their tunes, “I’ll Never Read Trollope Again,” the story of an avid reader of fiction whose favorite author is Victorian writer Anthony Trollope:

I was sitting in a quaint cafe
With a favorite tome and some cafe au lait
But my luck ran out when you came my way
Now I’ll never read Trollope again

You spied the cover as you slithered near
And said “The 1800s—that’s my favorite year.”
And then you sat right down and now I fear
That I’ll never read Trollope again

Near the end of their album is a cover version of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” a song which perfectly matches their louche, ironic yet somehow upbeat manner. Despite its cynical heart, the album is not a downer. Turn down the lights, pour yourself an artisanal something-or-other and see what you think of it.

Knocked Out by Whiplash

Whiplash Close

J. K. Simmons (left) and Miles Teller in Damien Chazelle’s film Whiplash

On rare and special occasions, I will walk out of a movie theater quivering with excitement about something I’ve just seen, my heart racing and my synapses tingling as my hands fumble for my cell phone, so anxious am I to call someone right away to rave about a cinematic work of art. I’ve often seen performances that moved me and thrilled me, but when a whole film is crafted with power, tension, exceptional acting and directing, a fine script, masterful editing and a thrilling story arc, I walk away transported and inspired. I felt that way after seeing modern classics like The Usual Suspects, American Beauty and Brokeback Mountain, and this week I felt that kind of thrill after seeing the new indie film Whiplash, which stars Miles Teller as a promising young jazz drummer and J. K. Simmons as his sadistic mentor and tormentor.

Whiplash was originally mounted as an 18-minute short film written and directed by 29-year-old Damien Chazelle, which he presented to great acclaim at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in hopes of attracting enough funding to make it into a full-length film. The gambit worked, and the full feature film was created with a tiny $3.3 million budget and went on to win 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s top audience and grand jury awards. I must warn you, it starts out at a heart-palpitation-inducing level of energy and anxiety and only builds from there. My pulse was still pounding 20 minutes after the film ended—watching it is a bit like having a 107-minute anxiety attack, so don’t expect a light evening at the movies. The film editing by Tom Cross was outstanding—there was power, energy and intensity in every moment thanks to the way Cross and director Chazelle framed and cut each scene. The cinematography by Sharone Meir was also evocative, sometimes claustrophobically close, and together Cross, Meir and Chazelle built the energy levels during the practice and performance scenes to almost painful heights.

Chazelle was himself a jazz drummer in high school, where he had an intense music teacher who was the inspiration for the character of the hectoring, threatening music conservatory jazz band leader played with astonishing power by J. K. Simmons in Whiplash. Miles Teller, who impressed critics with his performances in The Spectacular Now and Divergent, was himself a talented, self-taught rock drummer in high school, but to play the driven, obsessive, arrogant young jazz drummer in Whiplash, the normally lighthearted, enthusiastic Teller had to learn the very different jazz drumming style. He became proficient enough to make audiences believe that his character Andrew Neyman might just be a prodigious, one-of-a-kind talent, a Buddy Rich for the new millennium. His drumming scenes are riveting, and as we watch him wince, writhe, sweat and even bleed all over his drums, we know we are watching a dangerous but exciting metamorphosis. That really is Teller playing, too, though performances were teased out of multiple takes and edited seamlessly by editor Tom Cross. For several years Hollywood insiders have touted Teller as one of the young actors to watch, and he will soon be part of a major franchise as he’s been given the role of Mr. Fantastic in the new Fantastic Four reboot. He’s a fine actor, and in Whiplash he also gave the most thrilling drum solo performance I’ve ever seen on film.

Whiplash

This film spoke to me with particular power because I myself had an intense, bullying, sometimes violent mentor as my first choir director when I was a child. I attended an elementary school famous for its excellent choir, and couldn’t wait till I got to fourth grade so I could audition. I had been steeped in music my whole short life, attending my mother’s voice lessons with her, listening to her sing and play piano while I took my baths each night, borrowing records from the library to enjoy with her, sitting in the orchestra pit with my mom while she accompanied local musical productions on the piano and turning the pages when she played and sang at weddings. My mother’s friend Owen Goldsmith was not only a choir director but also a composer and arranger, and Mom was the first person to play and sing many of his compositions, so I would sit on the floor of his home drawing or enjoying his books of Addams Family cartoons while the two of them made music late into the night. I sang at the piano with my mother most evenings from the time I was two till I went to college, and during all my visits home until she died years later. When we got together she sang harmony, I sang the melody, and we sang everything from show tunes to European art songs, folk songs to pop songs, hymns to novelty hits. When I was 13 she married a violinist and conductor, and yet more music and musicians came into our lives, including a wonderful evening spent with singer Marni Nixon in our home the night before she sang with my stepfather’s orchestra.

When I auditioned for the choir, the tall, trim, imposingly grim-faced Mr. Kerr had me sing a few intervals and melodies while he sat at the piano. He showed no emotion but, despite his taciturnity, he was pleased with me. I was invited to join both the primary and the honor choirs. Within minutes of my arrival at the first rehearsal, it was clear that I was in for more than I had bargained for.

Mr. Kerr ran the choirs in his spare time; it was an unpaid position but one he cherished. He was primarily a fifth grade teacher famous for his friend Roscoe, a wooden paddle which he was happy to use on the bottoms of children who displeased him. He made a show of adding notches to Roscoe each time he hit a child with it. By the 1970s, he had to secure the permission of parents before he could smack their kids, but several of the “difficult” kids in my class (including a deaf boy with ADHD) were regularly smacked while I was in his fifth-grade class.

Mr. Kerr was no less harsh in his responses to any failure by choir members to follow his strict and unwavering laws. If a child showed up late to a rehearsal for any reason, he was not allowed in. The doors were locked and he could not enter. If someone missed more than two rehearsals, she was dismissed from the choir, end of story. When  people talked back, they were yanked out of place by a red-faced, bug-eyed, looming Mr. Kerr, dressed down completely and were booted out of the choir.

Discipline was harsh and consistent and we lived in constant fear of his displeasure. But he was an exceptional musical director whose singing and performance instruction still informs my performances today. There was no excuse for being sharp or flat, for missing an entrance or ending a phrase sloppily. Every eye was on him at every moment. We all stopped at exactly the right moment, held our carefully shaped vowels and only cut them off with consonants at the very last second. Breath was properly supported and there was no whining nasality, there was no swooping up to notes, and there were no “blatty” broad vowels. Phrases were meant to be held no matter how hard it was to keep them going; there were no haphazard ragged breaths. If breaths needed to be staggered, he would tell us exactly how to stagger them through each section so there were never too many people breathing at the same time, and he knew when anyone, anywhere had made an error. Any child taking a breath in the middle of a word risked sudden death.

There were no fidgety hands or wandering eyes, no looking out at the audience, no breaking focus or slacking off on energy until the end of the song when he signaled to us that we could at last stand at ease. Every child wore a spotless uniform of cornflower blue skirts and white blouses for the girls and matching light blue blazers and black slacks for the boys. Each right hand grasped the matching left thumb and our hands were held in front of us in this folded position whenever we were on the risers. Knees were slightly bent so that we didn’t lock them and faint for lack of enough oxygen flowing throughout our bodies and to our brains—usually. When someone fainted during a performance, the show went on.

We sang intricate scat-phrased versions of Bach bourrées, learned many Latin hymns and movements from various major composers’ Masses, a score of spirituals, folk and holiday songs, and the occasional pop song. Each song was explained to us carefully; we had to think about what we were singing and why, what each inflection meant, what each phrase called for in order to get the point across. When we sang “Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass” our plaintive cry nearly made us weep; sometimes we even made Mr. Kerr cry. When we sang in Latin or Hebrew, he made sure we knew what every word meant. When we sang folk songs or spirituals, Mr. Kerr put them in context and explained what place they had in the lives of those who had written and sung them. And yes, most of the songs we sang in this public school choir had religious overtones, but that was never questioned in the 1970s.

We were the top children’s choir in our division and we won gold medals and blue ribbons. We sang on the radio and on local television. I was the only soloist during the three years I was in the choir, and sat with my family on Christmas morning as we listened to me sing over my aunt’s stereo speakers. It was exciting and shocking to hear myself on the air, but Mr. Kerr wasn’t about to let it go to my head.

He was determined not to let any favoritism show; I may have been given a solo and permission to join the choir early, but I was not to be given any praise or encouragement beyond that. When out of fear I once responded to his telling me that he wanted me to sing another solo with a demurral, he said fine, no more solos ever. He never offered me another. He saw what I thought was a one-time refusal to sing due to nerves as a challenge to him and as an example of my going against his directive: he was my captain and I had refused a direct order, and now I was a bad example for the troops.

I worked so hard for him, but it was never enough. I was deathly afraid of letting down my teachers or my mother, herself a teacher in the same school district, so when I was in his fifth grade class as well as in choir, I made sure my grades were better than anyone else’s. Yet he dismissed my efforts and instead praised my closest academic rival, Ricky, when he spoke to my mother during a parent-teacher conference. He spoke admiringly of what a boy’s boy Ricky was, how he wasn’t a “pantywaist” like other boys. My mother came home disgusted and offered to move me out of his class. I begged her not to; I wanted to be in his choir no matter what, and I’d live through the humiliation and anxiety I felt every day in his class rather than have him look down on me for pulling out from under his iron thumb.

Mr. Kerr was an angry martinet, but he knew how to get the sound he wanted from his choir. He knew how to make us pay attention, how to make us understand what we were doing and why, how to keep our energy up and finally how to lead us to give captivating performances.

I still resent him for reducing children to tears, screaming at us and calling us names, for hitting us and humiliating us. It was wrong and damaging. But when I consider the lessons I learned from him about how to put a song across, how to follow direction, how to support a tone and project it, and how to work with a large group as if we were one entity—he was able to teach these skills like nobody else I have ever seen. Partly we worked as hard as we did out of fear, it’s true, but mostly I believe it was because of the intensity of his focus, his dedication, and his teary-eyed ecstatic face when we performed as he knew we could. I hated his methods and don’t know whether on the whole he did enough good with his amazing choirs to balance out the harm he did to so many fifth graders cringing under his tutelage. But all the kids I knew who studied music under him knew what it was to be real musicians. His methods were disturbing and I think often immoral, but there was no questioning the loyalty or the power of his choirs.

Director Chazelle takes the stereotype of the brutal directorial dictator further than my own choir director ever did, but the questions he makes us ask ourselves will be familiar to anyone whose child is involved in a rigorous, competitive activity. Whiplash requires that we consider whether the delirious joy of creating a masterpiece that pushes an artist beyond his previous limits justifies the monomaniacal arrogance, drive and willingness to risk everything it may take in order for that young person to achieve mastery. What are the acceptable limits to abuse, debasement and ego destruction of another in the service of pushing someone beyond all understood boundaries and into a whole new realm? Can the dehumanizing pain and occasional complete ego destruction that come with breaking someone down in hopes of driving him to new heights ever be justified? How much sacrifice, humiliation and defeat should we allow anyone, let alone a very young person, to experience in order to push the limits of creation or expression or athletic prowess?

Teller is the ostensible star of this film, but the greatest thrill of it comes from the tension between himself and his co-star J. K. Simmons, who is mesmerizing and horrifying as the charismatic band leader Terrence Fletcher. He draws young Andrew in, gives him hope and builds up his ego, and then systematically dehumanizes his young protégé, giving just enough encouragement to mess with the young man’s mind before again dragging him through Hell. This disturbing character’s occasional bursts of warmth and insight and his touches of vulnerability make him one of the great villains of cinema—it’s that touch of humanity in the monster that makes him even more frightening, because then we can catch a glimpse of ourselves in him. Simmons is already on the year’s short list of shoo-ins for an Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, so fine is this performance and so crucial is it to the arc and power of the story.

But it is Teller who must convince us that he has the audacity, sheer talent and burning ambition to make stardom a possibility. His face is wonderfully expressive as he shows us the gamut of emotion from fear and insecurity to modest pride to rage to shame. Teller was in a life-threatening car crash in 2007 that left him with many noticeable scars on his face and neck, scars that were not covered up for this film, and which give him a raw, real, vulnerable quality that helps to balance the moments of extreme arrogance that his character must burrow into in order to do what he has to do, but which also alienates those with whom he craves connection.

In interviews, J. K. Simmons and Teller come across as bright, warm, incredibly likeable actors, and Simmons says they had a great chemistry on the set that made it easier for them to get through the harrowing scenes in which Simmons was abusing Teller. Teller has a light-heartedness that allowed him to let all the abuse roll off his back, and Simmons is a warm, funny, modest man whose strong features and booming voice belie the affable fellow underneath. He is used to playing supporting roles and is skilled at making his costars look good. He had a long career as a stage actor and singer. Simmons played Benny Southstreet in the 1992 stage revival of Guys and Dolls with Nathan Lane and Peter Gallagher, which I was fortunate enough to see live on Broadway that year. He has a fine singing voice, which he demonstrated during an episode in which he played neo-Nazi Vernon Schillinger in the prison-based television show Oz. Simmons is familiar for roles such as the father in the film Juno and as the spokesman in the Farmers Insurance ads. He’s a regular on the TV series The Closer, he plays newspaperman J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, and is the voice of Cave Johnson in the video game Portal 2. He only became a regular screen actor in his 40s after twenty years on the stage, and he credits Sidney Poitier, with whom he acted in one of his first film roles, for being a gracious and generous mentor to him.  Seattle area readers will enjoy learning that Simmons’ sister, Elizabeth Simmons-O’Neill, is a writing professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, and is director of the  Community Literacy Program.

Whiplash is named for the Hank Levy jazz composition that, along with Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” is at the musical center of the film. It is indeed a wild ride that threw my head back and made me dizzy. I can’t wait to see it again.

Feeling Good

Nina Simone’s dark, rich, beautifully bluesy version of the song “Feeling Good” is a classic, and with good reason. The version I grew up listening to is also extraordinary, but quite different. The song was written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the musical “The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd” and was sung on the original 1965 Broadway cast album by baritone Gilbert Price. His delivery is nothing like Nina Simone’s, yet I find it just as beautiful and arresting as her cover of the song. Few people nowadays know Price’s warm and powerful voice; give it a listen and hear what you’ve been missing.

How Schoolhouse Rock Led Me to Jazz Great Blossom Dearie

Schoolhouse Rock

[Originally published as “My Roundabout Introduction to Blossom Dearie” on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

When I was a child, ABC’s Saturday morning cartoon line-up was punctuated with wonderful short musical cartoons sponsored by Nabisco: the famous “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoons. The educational songs created for these cartoons were so clever, catchy, and memorable that they were all rereleased on video in the 1990s for the children of the children who enjoyed them over 30 years ago. I grew up on the “Multiplication Rock” and “Grammar Rock” videos; my daughter loved them 30 years later.

Much of the appeal of these videos was that each was just the length of a pop song, and the music and lyrics were written by proven and talented professional musicians, not by earnest professional pedagogues. They were quick and full of information, and had busy, funny animation. And they were the only regular music videos for kids on TV then; there were weak shows with live-action singers or talentless oafs in bad costumes doing pathetic songs, like on “New Zoo Revue,” and there were catchy theme songs on the somehow compelling yet also vaguely disturbing Sid and Marty Krofft kid shows like “H.R. Pufnstuf” (which starred Jack Wild, who played The Artful Dodger in the musical film “Oliver!”), “The Bugaloos” (whose villain was played by comedian Martha Raye, probably most famous to people my age as a denture adhesive pitchwoman) and “Liddsville,” that bizarre show about the land of talking hats starring Charles Nelson Reilly and Butch Patrick (a.k.a. Eddie Munster). But MTV didn’t exist yet and catchy musical TV ads for dolls or games (from “Life” to “Mystery Date“) were no match for three-minute musical cartoon masterpieces like “Three is a Magic Number” or “Conjunction Junction” or “I’m Just a Bill.” These songs were so good that a number of popular rock bands covered them on the album “Schoolhouse Rock Rocks.”

Of all the songs in the “Schoolhouse Rock” oeuvre, there was one that shone out as a particularly elegant little gem: “Figure Eight.” My mother loved it so much that she bought the “Schoolhouse Rock” album on vinyl many years ago just to listen to that song. This ode to the number eight was illustrated by a figure skater and the song was sung by a woman with an unbelievably darling name and voice: Blossom Dearie. The dearest part is that she was born with that name. And the best part is that sweet, small, clear voice has sung some of the lightest, crispest, most refreshing versions of a number of jazz standards I’ve ever heard. She also has a fresh, spare style of piano playing that underscores that little pussycat voice.

I remember seeing Blossom Dearie interviewed on TV in the 1970s; she had wit and sparkle, and I was rather amazed that her tiny little voice seemed not to be a put-on but the real deal. When I started listening to her recordings of jazz standards years later, I found there was less cutesiness than I expected, and more of a wistful, light yet wry quality to her singing. I love the way she delivers Dorothy Fields‘ lyrics in “I Won’t Dance” (“For heaven rest us, I’m not asbestos”) and the light but knowing quality of “They Say It’s Spring.” “Rhode Island is Famous for You” makes my daughter and me laugh, and it’s fun to compare her version of that song to Michael Feinstein’s. While I love Feinstein’s direct, swoony, passionate if sometimes campy treatment of lyrics, and think he does that song well, Blossom Dearie’s delivery has a quiet humor and a conspiratorial wink, whereas Feinstein’s is more of a showman’s romp, bigger and bolder and more obvious. Both have their place, but Dearie’s intimacy makes me feel like I’m in on a more sophisticated joke.

Horror Vacui: The Fear of Empty Space

Horror vacui - Mosque Tiles

[Revised from the original article published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

I once heard the late jazz pianist and singer Shirley Horn say that her mentor, trumpet legend Miles Davis, always liked the way she used space in her singing and playing. I liked that description so well, since Shirley Horn was a master of slow, careful, pared down musical expression. There was never an extraneous note in her playing, and she could never be accused of playing anything too quickly. Sometimes there are such long rests between her lyrics that I worry, Shirley, may, never, get, to, the, end, of, the, phrase. But I have to admit that her singing and playing were very elegant, and the lack of adornment does focus the ear and the mind on the sound and the meaning. (And her version of Kermit the Frog’s anthem, “(It’s Not Easy Being) Green” is exquisite.)

I admire minimalism in architecture and fashion, too, but I’d be bored out of my mind living in minimalist clothing and surroundings all the time. My visits to W Hotels and to Ian Schrager’s Paramount and Hudson hotels in New York left me thinking how fun it was to be in such stark, angular spaces for a little while, and how chic and clean the lines are, how pure and streamlined the sensibility was—and how I could never live like that at home.

In autumn and winter I wear a lot of black, and I feel very good in it. I love to travel in black so that strangers can’t tell that I’m a tourist, or where I come from, or what I sat in on the subway. I love the classic, crisp, elegant anonymity of it. But my lavender shoes and my bright pink coat and the crazy, oversized floral patterns on some of my favorite skirts are just as necessary to my wardrobe, and to the vision I have of myself and how I must sometimes present myself to the world.

I think a lot of us fill up the spaces in our lives carelessly to make ourselves and those around us less afraid. We feel we have to talk through an entire visit with a friend, have the TV on in the background, fill every shelf, and try every dish at the buffet. My mom, who found the study of art and art history thrilling, as I do, laughed with me when she realized that the Latin term “horror vacui,” which describes the fear of empty space which makes some artists decorate every inch of a surface, applied to her and to her life as well. She feared too much quiet or extended contemplation in much the same way that she feared a bare wall. She found it too easy to project her fears of inadequacy, loss and emptiness into those spaces, both literal and metaphorical. A lack of adornment meant a lack of value to her; less was less and more was always more. I’m often guilty of this sort of thinking, too. I collect too many things and crave too many distractions, accumulate to fill up voids in my life and avoid winnowing my collections so I can focus on novelty and expansion, on all the things I might do with them in the future, all the possibilities open to me because I have such a collection of stuff. Winnowing would mean admitting that there are limits to my life and its possibilities, that I may never need that unused German language workbook, might not create a work of art incorporating vintage mah jongg tiles and dominoes after all, probably won’t review my Chinese history notes from 1983 again, and don’t need a dozen Depression glass candlestick holders after all, even if they are 70 years old and very cool.

I think there’s an optimism to accumulation and void-filling, a belief that I’ll use this, I’ll enjoy that, my life will be better if I expand and decorate and dress it up with one more thing. I really will be fluent in French someday! It’s not too late to learn to become a goldsmith! Those broken plates could make an amazing mosaic top for a bedside table! I’d always be sad if I got rid of that Singer sewing machine from 1924! But of course, this sort of self-confidence through accumulation bases value on the ephemeral and external rather than on the lasting and innate. Emphasizing that expansive optimism is how our culture justifies binge spending, over-extended credit (both personal and governmental) and constant expansion. It’s a sign of fear and a lack of discipline, I believe; evidence of a fear of growing older, of growing bored or boring, of appearing outdated to others, of having to make do or invest more energy or time in something or someone, of facing what we really are, have, need, or are capable of. Stuff dulls the senses and brings comfort. I love it, but I think it’s time to stare down that horror vacui a little bit, and see what riches I’m missing in my life by focusing too much on the riches that cost me money.