Tag Archives: music

Memories of a King, the Beale Street Blues Boy

15 May

It’s possible that the first photo I ever saw of B. B. King was on the cover of Charlie Keil’s Urban Blues, an ethnographic study that spilled over into common discourse and made Charlie’s career. And I’m sure I read more about him in that book than I’ve read about him since then. But I don’t recall when I first heard King’s music and I only ever saw him live but twice in my life, once at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in upstate New York in the late 1970s or early 1980s and then a bit later in Albany, New York, when I opened for him as a member of The Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band.

I don’t remember much about the SPAC performance except that before long he had us dancing in the aisles, at least those of us close enough to the aisles that we could get out there and dance. The rest of the rather considerable audience had to be content with giggling and grooving in or in front of their seats. By this time, of course, King’s days of struggling were over and his audiences were mostly white, as are most of the people in the USA – though those days will come to an end some time later in this century.

Dancing in the aisles: that’s the point, isn’t it? The music enters your body, lifts it up, and you become spirit. The blues? Why not, the blues?

My memories of the Albany gig are a bit richer. To be sure, as I recall, King’s music was better at that SPAC gig, for the music comes and goes even with the best of them. Our manager (and saxophonist) Ken Drumm had seen to it that King had champagne waiting for him when he arrived in his dressing room and that got us an opportunity to meet him after the gig. But we had to line up with everyone else – mostly middle aged ladies in big hats and Sunday dresses – and wait our turn. We didn’t have more than a minute, if that, in the man’s presence.

And that meeting is worth thinking about in itself. King was the son of Mississippi sharecroppers. I don’t know about the rest of his band, but I recall a thing or two about Out of Control’s line-up at the time: two lawyers (I suppose we could call them ‘Big City’ lawyers for contrast, though Albany isn’t that big of a city), an advertising executive (that would be Mr. Drumm), a commercial photographer, a Berklee College drop-out, a car salesman, and an independent scholar (me). All brought together in the same place at the same time to worship in the church of the blues. I suppose I could invoke the melting pot cliché, but there was no melting going on, though the music was hot enough. As for the pot, to my knowledge the Out of Control boys were clean that night. I don’t know about BB’s band. Continue reading

Advertisements

Software Mysteries: Roll over Beethoven, let Satchmo come over!

9 Mar

I spent a fair amount of time in the last decade of the previous century working in the software industry (see this post for example) and reading popular prescriptions for improving America’s management style, many of those inspired by Japan. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that these new organizational ideas were more like an improvising jazz quintet and basketball than like the classical symphony and football. That is to say, that, stylistically, high-tech owes a debt to African-America even if African-Americans are not widely employed in the high tech world.

That’s what my current piece in 3 Quarks Daily is about: Cultural Styles in the 21st Century, or the High Tech Debt to Africa. This is the kind issue I’ve looked at elsewhere as well. Here’s a passage from Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities:

During the 1960s the late Alan Lomax (1968) decided to investigate folk song styles against the background of cultural complexity. Lomax and his colleagues prepared a sample of over 3000 songs, representing 233 cultures from 5 continents plus the Pacific islands, and had judges code the songs on features of style — nature of the performing group, relationship between vocal part and instrumental parts, melodic style, rhythmic style, wordiness, tone quality, tempo, and so on. They correlated style traits with measures of social complexity and found that the simpler the society, the simpler its song lyrics. The simplest societies used a great deal of repetition and nonsense syllables. Similarly, the precision of enunciation varies with social complexity; the more complex the society, the more precise the enunciation. The prevalence of solo singers was also associated with complexity. In the simplest societies, everyone sang; no one was given or took a solo role. It is only in more complex societies, with permanent leaders and social stratification, that we see ensembles divided into a soloist and accompanists.

This is an empirical finding. And, while it may seem intuitively obvious that complex cultures create a collective ambiance that favors expressive forms that are different from those of less complex cultures, one would like an explanation for this “fit.” I would expect a robust account of cultural evolution to provide such an explanation.

In a similar vein, John Roberts, Brian Sutton-Smith, and Adam Kendon (1963) were interested in the relationship between child-rearing practices, community size, types of games, and folk tales. In particular, they were interested in what they have called the strategic mode. Strategy plays minor role in games of physical skill, but a dominant role in games such as chess and poker, which also has strong elements of chance. In folk tales, we can examine how the outcome is achieved, whether through physical skill, chance (guessing, casting lots, magic), or strategy (e.g. evaluating a situation, deception, out-witting an opponent). They discovered that games of strategy are likely to co-occur with folktales having a strong strategic element and that both are more likely in politically complex societies (chiefdoms and above).

The general point is simple: Expressive culture, how and what we sing, dance, and tell stories, is not just about entertainment. It pervades our society and all that we do. The cultural requirements of high tech industries are quite different from those of ‘classical’ industrial revolution. The fact that high tech culture evolved in a society pervaded by jazz, rock and roll, and hip-hop is not incidental. It is foundational.

Kismet: The West Bank Latrobe Federal Brass Band

21 Dec

Can 140 years of Tasmanian tradition be given new life on the West Bank of the Hudson River?

Every year for the past dozen or so years Tony Hicks has put together a brass band to play Christmas tunes, first for the Hamilton Park Ale House, and then when Maggie opened her own place on Newark Street, Tony booked us there, Skinner’s Loft. It was a fun gig. Around 6:30 we’d line up outside on the street and play for half and hour or so. Then we’d come inside, have a beer or two, and play a couple sets in the upstairs dining room. The staff would wear funny Christmas hats and people would sing along with the band.

Good holiday cheer.

This year, alas, for whatever reason, Maggie decided not to do it. We decided, on the contrary, that we’d give her a freebie. Not the whole gig, but out doors on the side walk, we’d do that.

So, after a good half-hour devoted to finding a parking space I enter Skinner’s Loft and see Tony and Ed, another trumpet player, sitting at the bar. I join them and Tony starts telling us about the Latrobe Federal Brass Band, back in Tasmania, where he’s from. Along about the time he gets to telling us about a particularly opinioned character named Scudgy Clayton we decided it was time to play.

So we go outside, set up our music stands, break out our horns—Ed on trumpet, Tony on Euphonium (a $3000 horn he got for $50 in a pawn shop), and me on trumpet, and start playing, Hark the Herald Angels, Jingle Bells, and so forth. Before you know it an eight-year old Vietnamese kid lays a twenty on Ed’s music stand.

Whoa! That never happened before. So we play some more while dreaming of mortgage payments and new shoes and before you know it, another dollar, and another, a quarter, and by the time we’re done, $29.25. All unexpected.

By this time it was raining, not hard, but enough to be annoying. So we pack up, go back inside, lay the $29.25 on the bar, and Tony regales Ed and I with tales of musical daring-do in old Tasmania. Continue reading

Raising the Ritalin Generation – NYTimes.com

19 Aug

It struck us as strange, wrong, to dose our son for school. All the literature insisted that Ritalin and drugs like it had been proved “safe.” Later, I learned that the formidable list of possible side effects included difficulty sleeping, dizziness, vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhea, headache, numbness, irregular heartbeat, difficulty breathing, fever, hives, seizures, agitation, motor or verbal tics and depression. It can slow a child’s growth or weight gain. Most disturbing, it can cause sudden death, especially in children with heart defects or serious heart problems.

More than likely it IS wrong to drug kids for school. There are lots of things wrong with primary school. One of them is that kids don’t get as much physical activity as they used to, and what we got was not enough. Schools don’t have recess as often as they used to. No wonder kids get fidgety. Rough-and-tumble-play is built into the mammalian life-world. Our bodies and brains need and want it. Also, school is so boring.

For a different perspective on ADHD see Music and the Prevention and Amelioration of ADHD: A Theoretical Perspective.

via Raising the Ritalin Generation – NYTimes.com.

Cultural Style: Jazz & B’ball, Classical & Football, and Beyond

10 Aug

This is a set of out-takes from my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. In this passage I’m pursing a notion from mid-20th Century, an idea that provided Ruth Benedict for the title of her best-known book: Patterns of Culture. The title conveys the idea: cultures aren’t arbitrary collections of attitudes, activities, and traits; in matters large, small, and in-between they display patterns.

I begin with a passage that contrasts jazz and classical music on the one hand with basketball and football on the other, where jazz and basketball embody one style while classical music and football embody a different style. I then continue with a series of passages that move on from that to general styles of corporate organization, contrasting the hierarchical industrial corporation with the flatter and more fluid style that has emerged in high tech companies. I conclude some brief observations from my experience with one such company.

* * * * *

First, confining ourselves to the expressive sphere, let’s consider two brief examples from sports, which is, in many ways, a microcosm of the larger society. It is not difficult to see a thematic similarity between classical music and football, on the one hand, and jazz and basketball, on the other hand.

Football involves highly specialized players organized into elaborately structured units, enacting preplanned plays, and directed by a quarterback representing the coach/composer. Each team has eleven players on the field at a time, with the players being trained for very specialized roles. There is an offensive squad and a defensive squad—not to mention special-purpose units for executing and returning kicks. Each of these squads is, in turn, divided into a line and a backfield, with further specialization in each of these divisions. The offensive team is headed by the quarterback while the defense is similarly directed by one of the backfield players. The flow of the game is divided into four quarters each of which is punctuated by the individual plays of the game. The plays are divided into sets of four, called “downs”, with the players conferring between plays to decide what to do on the next play, or, at least, to confirm instructions sent in by the coach.

Basketball uses a smaller number of players, five, whose roles are less rigorously specialized. There is no distinction between offensive and defensive squads. And, while there are differentiated roles—a center, two guards and two forwards—this differentiation is not nearly so extensive as that in football. For example, on the offensive squad in football, there is a dramatic distinction between the interior line, whose players do not routinely handle the ball, and the backfield, whose players are supposed to handle the ball. No such distinction exists in basketball; all players are expected to handle the ball and to score. Beyond this, basketball involves a free flowing style of play which is quite different from discrete plays of football. Continue reading

Dance to a Different Drummer: Groovology and Politics

14 May

Groovology, about the groove, the human groove, the dancing and music-making at the heart of human community and togetherness. A line of thinkers going back through Darwin and Rousseau argued that it’s music that made clever apes into human beings – and, wouldn’t you know? that connects to the apes, the rabbits, fish, bees, flowers and the earth as well. Because we sing and dance we are human. Groovology is lightness and joy, but also sorrow and healing. It binds us together in common action and feeling, in community.

What has that to do with politics?

Politics too is about community, about negotiating among that various needs and desires of people living in a group. When the group is small, the negotiations are face-to-face, as is grooving. When the group is small, groovology and politics are commensurate, their connection is obvious.

It is when the group gets large, very large, that the connection is obscured. The USofA is very large, our political leaders distant from the local places where we politic and negotiate. And yet there are obvious connections, still.

Politics is not all backrooms and stolen votes. Politics is also ceremony, and ceremony has music: Hail to the Chief, The Star Spangled Banner, Battle Hymn of the Republic, Washington Post March, Taps, and much else. Continue reading

Edgar Kendricks Is Maestro of Gospel Music in Harlem – NYTimes.com

24 Dec

A little more Truth and Tradition:

Mr. Kendricks, who never married and has no children, is the unofficial mayor of his church-laden neighborhood, which is Gospel Central on Sunday mornings. Tourists often outnumber congregants in local churches, even at Metropolitan Baptist.

On Sundays, Mr. Kendricks sweeps in at the last minute for noon services. He is greeted and fussed over by the women, in white uniforms, who serve as ushers, and then makes his way past his (long since assembled) band to the organ, just in time to lead the assembled through opening hymns. “I don’t think there’s a church in Harlem that I haven’t been in,” said Mr. Kendricks, who turned 69 last Sunday. “This has been my life for 40 years.”

via Edgar Kendricks Is Maestro of Gospel Music in Harlem – NYTimes.com.

The Children Will Lead: Ruslan on the Sousaphone

24 Dec

by Peter & Charlie

When you see this short clip, you may say to yourself “Cute kid, but what’s the big deal?”

Well, the big deal isn’t the clip per se, but the story of how an 8 year old gained the easy confidence to pick up a gigantic horn and march around the back yard playing a song. This is symbolic of a very, very, big deal which is that every child has it in him or her to do the same.

It is widely recognized that music education — think performing, playing, and experimenting more than “Music Appreciation” — gives many skills to students, but it also improves thinking ability, which transfers over to all the other core studies such as math and science. Students with experience in music have higher SAT scores and lower instances of substance abuse. To put it another way, “The musician is constantly adjusting decisions on tempo, tone, style, rhythm, phrasing, and feeling — training the brain to become incredibly good at organizing and conducting numerous activities at once. Dedicated practice of this orchestration can have a great payoff for lifelong attentional skills, intelligence, and an ability for self-knowledge and expression.” Ratey, John J., MD. A User’s Guide to the Brain. OK, enough – I could write volumes about this, and nobody is disputing the truth of it anyways. The puzzling thing is how music, and the arts in general, are underfunded and undervalued in our schools. We know music education will help students do better on math tests, but we cut the music program so there will be more time to study for the math tests, and everybody in education understands that this ultimately results in lower math scores. Kind of like eliminating soap, so everybody will have more time to wash their hands.

OK, back to the video. Ruslan isn’t worried about wrong notes, proper technique, marching “in time,” or his reputation as a performer. In other words, nothing has discouraged him from playing. Encouragement, enjoyment and participation are what he knows. Here’s how Charlie Keil, a key figure in this encouragment, describes it:

Put “Ruslan Sousaphone” in the google slot and click on the vid of the kid with the ‘phone beyond trombone in his big green backyard. Ruslan announces “This is how you play the — prompt from his older brother, ‘sousaphone’ — Sousaphone!”

He doesn’t know the name of the instrument for sure; he’s never played one before, unless he puffed on it a few times just before somebody said “let’s do a video of this,” but he is very confident that he can show you how it is played. Then he says “Let’s do ‘Peace is the Way’!” and off he goes with a horn generously barter’d to me from ethnomusicologist Steve Feld, once evaluated by trombone legend Ray Anderson, currently on loan to Ruslan’s father. May the gift circulate! Continue reading

Community Bands in America

18 Dec

In 19th century America, the community band was at the center of community life. Here’s a documentary about them:

Meet The Band, a Hindsight Media production, is a one-hour documentary tracing the history of community bands n the United States. We profile four very different bands from around the country and takes us through the American Revolution, the Civil War and the 20th century.

On the March

20 Nov

I’ve got another case to add to those in my earlier post on intuition and the sense of reality. This case arose in a long, and often interesting, discussion of the recent evictions of Occupy Wall Street encampments. The discussion has been taking place at Crooked Timber and has involved, among other things, a fairly extensive conversation between one Adrian Kelleher, about whom I know nothing, and Rich Puchalsky, whom I know from The Valve and CT.

Kelleher has been making long, detailed comments saying, more or less, “you’re doing it wrong, you can’t possibly succeed.” Puchalsky, who’s been working with the Occupy group in his neighborhood somewhere in in not-Boston Massachusetts, has been saying, “you don’t at all understand the Occupy movement.” In particular, Kelleher made two long comments, 333 and, particularly 334, which is about how OWS is swimming against “the tide of history.” Puchalsky responds in 341.

Here’s my reply to Puchalsky:

Puchalsky: It’s possible for someone to have quite conventional political views and yet act quite differently within a social situation that is different.

BB: Bingo!

Puchalsky: When that failure happens, people in OWS will have friends that they can trust, people who they’ve worked with at a very elemental level.

BB: Bingo! Bingo!

BB: Let me invoke Marley’s Theorem, named after my old buddy Jason Marley: “If you want to know what it’s like to drive a car, you’ve got to sit in the driver’s set and drive the car.” Sitting in the passenger’s seat watching the driver won’t do it, nor will sitting in the back seat, and certainly not sitting at home in your den imagining what driving a car is like. You’ve got to be IN the car, making decisions about traffic, the road, and pedestrians. It’s that elemental.

That last paragraph is where we get the intersection with my earlier remarks about intuition. Puchalsky is IN the OWS movement and so understands it from the inside; he’s in the driver’s seat. Kelleher, apparently, is not. Continue reading