Hey, New Yorker: When it comes to jazz, do you do more than sneer?

new yorker jazzAt first glance, the chief crime of The New Yorker‘s latest “humor” column is that it’s not funny, and that it struggles to reach even the low bar of “mildly amusing.” (Read it for yourself, and let me know what you think).

Except that the biggest offense is this: The New Yorker, based in the city that remains the jazz center of the world, once offered loads of smart, literate, entertaining, insightful coverage of the music. Now, the magazine almost never covers jazz, aside from a steadily decreasing footprint in the listings section.

And when it does deign to offer jazz coverage, a column that sneers at the music is the best The New Yorker can do? Seriously?

Remember the last time The New Yorker made a splash with a jazz piece? It was another largely unfunny “humor” bit, a fake interview with Sonny Rollins, the great tenor saxophonist who remains alive and, at that point, may even have still been performing. The obvious question: Why not do a legit piece on Rollins? That column (poorly labeled as humor) did an even more troubling disservice by leading some to believe that Rollins, a great and gentle spirit in addition to being an enormously creative artist, said some of the drivel the “fake” Rollins was quoted as saying.

Maybe I should make a direct plea to Bob Sauerberg, president/CEO of Conde Nast, which owns The New Yorker. Bob happens to be a schoolmate of mine, from the Lakeland (Florida) High School class of ’79.


Hi, Bob.
As a longtime jazz journalist and musician, and your old Lakeland acquaintance, take it from me: New York remains JAZZ HQ, a place where on any given night you can see a huge range of artists in a wide variety of venues practicing America’s great musical art form. As you may (or may not) know, you won’t find that volume of high- caliber jazz in any other city in the world.

The New Yorker, given its long, fabled history and identity as a purveyor of serious arts and entertainment criticism (among other content), and, of course, its location in NYC, has a unique opportunity to be an important and influential voice for jazz.

I’d call it an awesome responsibility, one that’s even more pressing now that the New York Times seems to be in no hurry to fill the gaps in jazz coverage left by the departures of first-rate music writers Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff.

So … will you consider beefing up the jazz coverage in The New Yorker? I’d happily point you in the direction of jazz writers, New York-based and otherwise, who could support the cause. Heck, I’d be glad to help edit/coordinate such coverage. Or contribute some pieces.
It would be great to hear from you, Bob.




Trio Jazz Intimacy: Mundell Lowe & Co.

mundell lowe

Mundell Lowe, Lloyd Wells, Jim Ferguson, Poor Butterfly (Two Helpins’ O’ Collards) — Poor Butterfly has Mundell Lowe, the virtuoso journeyman guitarist (Sarah Vaughan, Andre Previn), joined by seven-string guitarist Lloyd Wells and double bassist Jim Ferguson for a set that’s uniformly warm and engaging.

Lowe and Wells, both of whom happen to hail from tiny Laurel, Mississippi, previously paired on 2000’s duo release “This One’s For Charlie,” and Ferguson and Lowe collaborated on 2007’s “Haunted Heart.” Here, the guitarists trade off on soloing and comping, sometimes improvising simultaneously. With the bassist in tow on some tracks, the three turn in relaxed, chamberlike versions of standards.

Some pieces, like the lush title track and “For All We Know,” are beautifully synced duets. Others are done solo: Lowe on “I Loves You, Porgy,” “Last Night When We Were Young” and “I’ll Never Be the Same,” and Wells on “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Every Time We Say Goodbye.” Ferguson contributes high, lovely vocals to the closing track, his gently swinging “Uncle John.”

There are no duds here. And all, including Ferguson’s jaunty walking, inspired soloing and affecting singing, are beautifully recorded and leave us wanting more.


Newk in Real Time: Sonny Talks!

It was nothing short of fascinating: Saxophonist Sonny Rollins, the legendary jazz giant, streaming live, in an interview/conversation prompted by a weak and rather mean-spirited “satire” piece in The New Yorker.

“That hurt me,” Rollins, 83, said about the article. “Never mind me. It’s saying some very, very insulting things about jazz, very derogatory things about jazz. VERY derogatory things about jazz — the way it sounds, the way it’s played, the musicians, everything. I can’t even read the article now … can’t take it.

“They got to some people that really thought it was me. And what they were saying was scurrilous. It was nothing funny about that.”

Sonny, a brilliant, and highly spiritual creative artist, spoke with “Jazz Video Guy” Bret Primack, and touched on a variety of topics, including his disappointment when concluding that some readers believed the mag’s piece to be a real interview; his fondness for Mad magazine; the pitfalls of technology; the recurrence of the “jazz is dead” myth; his early years in Harlem; and his interest in truth seeking.

Along the way, he quoted Aldous Huxley, Plato, and Charles Mingus, and made passing references to Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane.

Most encouraging, for jazz fans, was his vow to return to the stage in a big way sometimes in 2015.

“I’m writing a lot of music, i’m thinking about a lot of music, I’m planning for a lot of music, and I’m anxious to get back,” he said “Because my legacy is not complete yet. I’m getting to a point. I feel like I’m close enough that I can make a better representation of my life — Sonny Rollins, a musician. Have a little more to say. So that’s what I’m doing now.”

Some of his most quotable quotes from the interview:

— “A lie goes around the world before the truth can put on its shoes. That’s too bad. That’s what technology has gotten us into now.”

— “Music is the 18th dimension. It’s something we are lucky to have.”

— “People love jazz all over the world. There’s something about jazz — the feeling, syncopation, the spirit of it. It makes people feel good. It’s a great spirit.”

— “They’re trying to kill jazz. But you can’t kill a spirit”

— “Jazz is one of the most humorous musics around. In my own playing, people say, ‘Oh, did you hear what Sonny played? That was really funny. Jazz has a since of humor.

— “Jazz has been mocked, minimalized, marginalized throughout its whole history. Jazz is on the bottom of the floor here. … Why not satirize the rich and the powerful. Satirize that. Try to change something in the world.”

“It’s (jazz) something real. It’s something important in this world. It doesn’t hurt anybody. It helps people. It makes people feel better. It gives people something to strive for.”

— “When I was a boy, they used to call me ‘Jester.” I used to make jokes … and all that. So I love humor.”

— “Jazz is free music. Jazz used to typify America. America used to be the land of the free, home of the brave, remember? That’s what jazz is. It typifies that — Its syncopations, its melodies, the way you improvise, you pull things out of the air. That’s genius. And that’s jazz.”

— “Jazz isn’t going to die. And why should it die? Do you want freedom to die?”

— “Music is beyond politics. It’s beyond economics.

— “There’s something beautiful about life as expressed through music.”

— “One day, as a boy, it came to me that I was going to be successful in my career, in my life as a musician. And I have. So I don’t know if everybody is going to be as successful as I am, or not. But that’s not the point. Everybody can’t be John Coltrane. Everybody can’t be Miles Davis. But we need music, still. So we have to have people playing music. People want to hear music.”

— “When I play my saxophone, I get into a zone. That’s where truth exists. All these kids that are trying to learn their instruments — that’s where they should be. That’s the most beautiful place in the world. You’re not hurting anybody. You’re learning. You’re trying to communicate with whatever higher power you believe in. That’s where we should be going. That’s why this piece was so damaging. Because it mocked that.”

— “Music is celestial. Let’s not forget that.”


Louis Maistros’ The Sound of Building Coffins (Review)

The Sound of Building Coffins, by New Orleans author Louis Maistros, is an intriguing tale of jazz and voodoo. I recently reviewed the novel the-sound1for the St. Petersburg Times.

Click here to read the review, published Sunday. Maistros’ creative web site devoted to the book is here.

Read the full text (“director’s cut”) of my review, below:

The Sound of Building Coffins

By Louis Maistros

Toby Press, 358 pages, $24.95

New Orleans fiction has its comic juggernauts (John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces), literary reveries (Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer), gothic horror stories (by Anne Rice) and crime novels (by James Lee Burke).

Now comes The Sound of Building Coffins, by first-time novelist Louis Maistros. It’s a macabre and utterly hypnotic feat of literary imagination, an extended tale of voodoo and jazz in the Crescent City, circa the turn of the 20th Century. The novel is so fluently delivered that it sometimes feels as if it were being channeled via the same spirits — evil and good — that inhabit these richly drawn characters.

Maistros, a New Orleans record-store owner and former forklift operator with no formal training as a writer, has crafted a work, spiked with historical characters and events, so striking and original that it probably deserves a place on the shelf of great fiction from his adopted hometown.

The novel, written before Hurricane Katrina, closes with another mighty flood, as a fictitious version of real-life musical innovator Buddy Bolden — sometimes credited with inventing jazz — stands on the roof of a building that’s being dismantled by the storm. He raises his beloved cornet to his lips, and sends a song of salvation into the darkened skies. The same night, corpses, loosened from graves built in a city below sea level, rise by the dozens.

“As the city dies, so the city is reborn,” Maistros writes, wielding a sentiment of hope that’s been expressed frequently in New Orleans in recent years.

That’s just one of many engaging set pieces, if you will, that sustain a distinctively strange narrative centered in part on the vibrant life and tragic loss experienced by the Morningstar family, a clan led by a gospel preacher who chose to name all of his children for diseases.

“The Sound” opens with a singularly bizarre sequence, as nine-year-old Typhus Morningstar pulls a trio of aborted babies from a burlap sack, and places them in the waters of the Mississippi River. There, he performs an act of magical realism, his pure love and his singing of an old spiritual combining to provide the fetuses a “water birth” during which they are transformed into catfish.

The book’s extended cast of characters, including the Morningstars, whose home is located little more than a mile away from storied Congo Square, live in a world that’s often unkind and seldom gentle. The men, aside from Bolden, are mostly gamblers, drinkers, con men, abortionists, sailors on leave, prison guards, gravediggers, and Yankees looking to make a killing down south. The women, other than Gloria Morningstar, who died giving birth to Typhus, and voodoo queen Malvina Latour (another historical character), are hangers-on, mourning mothers, barmaids, and Storyville sex workers, some of whom claw their way up from claustrophobic street-front “cribs” to upscale houses of ill repute.

An historical event forms the backdrop for the story: In 1891, nearly a dozen Italian immigrants were lynched by a mob seeking revenge for the murder of Police Superintendent David Hennessey. The imagined sequel to the hate crimes has a group of seven including Noonday, Typhus and daughter Diptheria Morningstar, Bolden, and a newspaper reporter face down a demon possessing the soul of Dominick Carolla, the one-year-old son of one of the lynched Sicilian man.

The exorcism results in bloody murder, and the events of that day resonate throughout the novel, as Buddy’s playing grows in power and stature, Diptheria gains fame as a high-class lady of the evening, and Typhus runs headlong into a twisted love affair. And the Mississippi rushes on, playing witness to and sometimes participating in multiple acts of birth, death, and rebirth.

Maistros handily gets inside the heads of his characters, using vivid descriptions and apropos vernacular to bring to life a wildly conceived world, one informed by accounts of the actual place and time. He occasionally takes risks, gambling that readers will follow him through dark byways with no clear payoff. The results, more often than not, are transporting.

Tampa writer and musician Philip Booth blogs at www.flickersandlit.wordpress.com