Archive for the Cultural Matters Category

Jazz and Gumbo!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , on June 24, 2014 by playthell

 Wynton and me

Two Southern boys Partying in the Big Apple

 A New Orleans Style Party at Wynton’s Crib

   The night had been a smash before the party got started.  Earlier in the evening the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra played their season opening concert featuring the inimitable Ahmad Jamal at the piano and we had all attended. It was an affair to remember as the sold out crowd repeatedly rose to their feet in ovations to the musicians.  It is always a special treat to hear Jazz performed in the House of Swing, especially the Rose Theater, the acoustic engineering alone would make it a rare treat for the serious jazz fan; but the opulent and imaginative interior decoration enriches the experience in ways that’s hard to explain but you know it when you feel it.

Hence everyone was in high spirits as we retired to Wynton’s crib for Gumbo and wine, with some succulent and exotically seasoned fried shrimp appetizers.  Nerves were on edge as we waited for the huge pot of Gumbo to heat up, but as there was abundant French breads fruits and wine we persevered. Wynton’s crib is a great place for a party.

It is spacious, elegant but manly and livable, and enjoys a magnificent panoramic view of Manhattan and New Jersey.   The size of the pad and the diversity of the crowd were such that there were actually several parties going on simultaneously.  Wynton mostly hung out in the main drawing room where the piano is located.  Chess sets were also in abundance in the great room, and like the piano they would be played several times before the evening was over.

 Wynton Plays Chess with is homeboy Matt Dillon
 Wynton and LD

 Hanging out at Wynton’s place brought to mind a party I once attended at Duke Ellington’s spot on Central Park South, right after his triumphal concert with the New World Symphony in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, circa 1974.  That gathering also attracted an accomplished international crowd of beautiful people, but Ellington was a much older man and he was treated in the way that religious devotees treat their messiah.

People seemed to struggle to keep from genuflecting before the great man, even the titled European Aristocrats at the party had to struggle to maintain their cool.  But here the vibe was totally different.  Although I’m certain that the guest at Wynton’s party were just as aware that they were hanging out with history, that our host was a rare genius whose great works will live long after he has departed this world, still everybody was laid back and treated Wynton the way he acts: like one of the guys.

 Like Duke Ellington, music is Wynton’s mistress…
 Wynton's Piano
 …..and Just as in Ellington’s apartment, the piano is omnipresent  

 Wynton is the most unpretentious person I know, given his truly spectacular gifts and achievements; he seems indifferent to his greatness and regards celebrity as a picayune matter.  I have known him for twenty years now and I have never seen him talk down to anyone nor show any trace of arrogance or vanity; he seems to always be trying to get better at what he does and help others achieve their dreams.

Musically it amounts to an incredibly generous attitude that I also noticed in Betty Carter and Duke Ellington, who regularly discovered young talent, nurtured it, and graced the stages of the world with their gifts. Although I find him a jovial and even tempered guy, I don’t know anybody who works harder at their chosen profession nor enjoy it more.  Wynton has a restless and endlessly creative mind that is constantly conjuring up new musical ideas, or strategizing with the managers at JALC to market the program, or managing the diverse personalities of the great artists who make up the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and consistently giving great performances on the trumpet around the world.

Thus I would argue that what some critic’s mistake as arrogance is simply the self-assuredness that comes with great achievements and knowing what you are talking about. Hence confidence is mistaken for arrogance.  Wynton does not suffer fools gladly…and neither do I! He relaxes by taking young street b-ball players to the hole, or bombing them out with his “fabled” jump shot on the courts of nearby projects, or scheming on the chess board for the best strategy to defeat his opponents.

But when he defeated Matt Dillon in a game he damn near jumped up did a break dance, yet gracefully acknowledged that Matt had trounced him countless times on the Chess board, even conceding that his opponent had the better game. As soon as Matt decided the Gumbo was properly heated the guest hurried to cue up, and once they savored the gourmet New Orleans cuisine it quickly became apparent from the soft ecstatic moans, and squeals of delight, that Matt “done messed around stuck his foot in the pot” as the old folks used to say down south.

Chef Matt Dillon: The Man of the Hour!

Wynton's buddy Matt

His Gumbo Inspired Much Love from Everyone

Gumbo is obviously a word that is derived from Louisiana’s African heritage, a cultural reality that the arbiters of American culture prefer to ignore.  As cuisine it is a kind of amalgamated stew with generous proportions of shellfish – oysters, clams, shrimp – along with chicken, sausage, peppers, etc served with rice.  It is like a French version of the Spanish dish Paella, except its soupy and a lot spicier.

When properly prepared the myriad flavors assault the senses with a cacophony of delectable sensations that makes it an intense sensual experience rather than merely a meal. It was the kind of meal we used to call “fightyamammys” in Florida back in the day; the idea was that some meals are so good you’ll “fight your mammy” over it.

The cultured and highly civilized guest could barely manage to contain the predatory side of their character in their quest for more of this bewitching brew. After the guest had stuffed themselves on Gumbo and Baguettes, the wine poured and Wynton sat down to the piano and began a lively rendition of “Happy Birthday to you.”  It turned out that it was the birthday of Joe Temperley, the great Baritone Saxophonist with the Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Joe Temperley
 DSC_0004
Playing his Baritone Sax next to the Bassist

Joe is living proof of the global influence of the language of Jazz.  As one of the two great traditions of complex instrumental art music produced in the western world, everybody who is serious about acquiring instrumental virtuosity attempts to play one or the other.  And in rare instances – ala Wynton Marsalis, Hubert Laws, Carlos del Pino, Paquito de Rivera, John Lewis, et al – a truly great musician will perform in both traditions.

Although both genres are expressions of modern western art music, Jazz is the musical Gumbo that was conjured up in the clash and diffusions of West African and European culture as it was played out in the United States.  Wynton recognized this vital cultural connection when he composed A Tribute to Congo Square, an extended work of several movements written as a remembrance of that hallowed ground in New Orleans where the roots of Jazz were formed, for performance by the JALC in collaboration with Adada! a Ghanaian percussion ensemble. The uniqueness of this cultural amalgamation can be seen in the fact that Jazz is strikingly different from the other neo-African musical forms that developed in other parts of the African Diaspora in the Americas.

Offering a Musical Libation to the Ancestors
           Wynton and the Aficans
Photo by: Frank Stewart

There are of course the obvious similarities that are common to all neo-African music, which is a reflection of their common origins, the most important characteristics being polyrhythm, antiphony and polyphony, but while the  music of Cuba and Brazil has remained dance oriented and thus rhythmically restricted to the needs of dancers, jazz is a complex instrumental music in which experiments in melody and harmony were as important as rhythmic innovation; and since the advent of bop it has become increasingly divorced from the dance, evolving into a concert music designed for listening, or deep intellectual and spiritual musings.

Yet what finally sets Jazz apart from any other music of the western tradition are the elements of blues and swing guided by a democratic philosophy that values individual freedom and promotes innovation, which are quintessential American values and thus Afro-American music is a product of the unique experience of Afro-Americans.

We are the only African people who grew up in the belly of the most powerful and technologically advanced nation in the world and played an integral role in its development since birth. The USA is inconceivable without the input of Afro-Americans. From the five thousand patriot/soldiers who fought in the American Revolution that ushered in the bloody birth of our nation, to the quarter of a million black men who bore arms in defense of the Union when the southern aristocrats led the red neck rabble into a treasonous rebellion against our government that tore the nation apart in defense of human slavery, to the many others who fought in the rest of America’s wars that preserved the nation and helped it grow powerful.

And the most powerful defenders of the unique American concept of freedom have been Afro-American clerics, activists and intellectuals. Then there were the unsung millions who cleared the land and tilled the soil, turning the south into the cotton kingdom and making New Orleans the wealthiest city and biggest sea port in the nation by 1850.  A financial empire built on unrequited black slave labor.

But in a grand historical irony, out of this bitter and shameful history came a percolating cultural stew that produced Jazz and Gumbo.  And we had a generous serving of both at Wynton’s crib that enchanted evening, as Matt Dillon not only prepared the Gumbo, he also pre-programmed the music on his computer and we were serenaded with classic recordings from the jazz tradition past and present.  

Joe Temperley, looking as contented as a Carnation cow, gave me a nod, an assured wink, and then declared: “This Gumbo is so delicious eating it is more fun than playing the saxophone.”  Coming from a great Jazz master of the baritone sax, whose big lush silky tone and flawless flow marks him as the rightful heir to the legacy of the late great Harry Carney of the Ellington Orchestra, That’s a rave!

When I was invited to Duke Ellington’s party thirty four years ago I gave not a thought to the fact that I would be an eyewitness to history; I felt the same way about Wynton’s party.  Yet in during the course of the event I realized that it was an event that should be recorded for posterity. So I preserved Ellington’s party for history in the essay “An Evening with Edward Kennedy Ellington.

The Duke!

Duke+Ellington - paragon of elegance

The standard to which the JALC Aspires 

The present soirée will be commended to the historical record as Jazz and Gumbo.  And,fortunately, this time I had my camera…and I remembered the words of James Vanderzee, the photographer who set out to preserve for future generations the images of elegance, accomplishment and pride exhibited by African Americans during the cultural awakening of the 1920’s known to history as The Harlem Renaissance: “A picture will last forever!”

********************

Double Click to see Wynton Warming up Before the Gig

 http://youtu.be/ZqtHqCIMyMs

 D0uble Click to see Ahmad Jamal with JALC Orchestra
- Picture Perfect –
http://youtu.be/NBLIhUOWm9Q
Flight to Russia
http://youtu.be/iW7SRlaLrgE
Photographs and Text
By: Playthell G. Benjamin
*Photos of Wynton, Adada!
and Joe Temperly in Sax Section. 

By: Frank Stewart.

Posted: June 24th 2014
*** The event was held at an earlier date.
 

   

On Racism, Privilege and Power

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , on May 16, 2014 by playthell

Donald-sterling-v-stiviano1

Beauty and the Beast: An Ugly Old Jew and his Gorgeous Young Afro-Latino Concubine

 The Deeper Meaning of the Donald Sterling Affair

After watching Donald Sterling, the disgraced owner of the L.A. Clippers basketball team, attempt to explain away his racist comments in a television interview two things are apparent: You can make a lot of money and yet know nothing of the world beyond business deals, and Donald Sterling is just what Snoop Lion  said he is: “A racist piece of shit!”

It is also obvious that no one told him when you are in a hole you should stop digging, or in any case he didn’t take the advice. Sterling sat there on CNN, with the whole world watching, and spouted mindless babble that was part self-serving apologia and part racist diatribe, while trying to convince us that he is not a racist but a jealous lover driven to distraction by his envy of black men.  The only part of his story that is believable is that he is “jealous” of black men; which I believe is an inadvertent admission that he suffers from acute penis envy.

Alas, this is a widespread phenomenon among white males that has deep roots in American history.  When I was a boy growing up in Florida, if a white woman chose a black lover she was condemning him to a certain death by mob violence if their relationship was discovered by white men, but many of those same white men kept black concubines just like Donald Sterling while promoting racist policies against the black community.

The most notorious examples of this in American history are Thomas Jefferson – a founding father who sired seven children by his slave concubine Sally Hemmings – and Strom Thurmon, the longest serving senator in the history of the senate who led the fight to maintain racial segregation in the South while secretly siring a black daughter.  In St. Augustine Florida, my home town, it was Jimmy Brock, the manager of the Monson Hotel.

Brock had sired children by two black women in the town; yet he was such a staunch defender of racial segregation – the cornerstone of “white supremacy” the ideological undergirding of the system of institutionalized racism – that he poured acid in the hotel’s pool when Dr. Martin Luther King led a party of interracial citizens for a swim!

It was such a notorious act it attracted the attention of the national media, and pictures of this vicious racist attack published in the nation’s newspapers appalled people around the world – just as the sound track of Sterling’s covert racist hostility is shocking people everywhere as they listen to it on the internet.

 Racist Hypocrite Jimmy Brock
Jimmy Brock - Copy
Donald Sterling’s Soul Brother

Donald Sterling is cut from the same cloth as Jimmy Brock.  The difference between them was well understood by the wise Afro-Americans who raised and tutored me about the ways of the white world.  “The only difference between racist white men in the north and south,” they would say, “ is that the southern white man will tell you how he feels up front, while white men up north will smile in your face and stab you in the back.”

This is the reason why many of them preferred to remain in the south, choosing to deal with the devil they knew to the demons they didn’t.  Sterling’s comments to Anderson Cooper on CNN provides evidence that this is still true…except now, when racism is unfashionable and it’s corollary racial discrimination is illegal, covert racism is the preferred tactic in every section of the US.

Ironically the white Anglo-Saxon and Scotch Irish Protestants who ruled the American south didn’t like Jews either, as is evidenced by the anti-Semitic proclamations of the Ku Klux Klan. So the question arises as to why Sterling appears to have chosen these white racist as his role models…or at least adopted their values. This is the critical question in understanding Donald Sterling’s attitudes about race.

I think the answer lies in his own experience as a Jew in America.  Sterling is 81 years old, which means that he was born during the great depression in the US and the Nazi holocaust in Germany.  It was a time when Jews faced serious anti-Semitism in America and Europe. However unlike Europe, where Jews had experienced centuries of oppression, in the US there was a pigmentocracy based on skin color.

In this deranged skin game people of color were America’s “untouchables” – especially those of African descent no matter how slight – and those designated as “white” enjoyed special privileges.  Hence the trick was to be included among those defined as “white.”  The difference in the life’s chances and life styles of those who were considered white and those considered Negroes were like heaven and hell.

Walter White
Walter White
He Could have “Passed” but Chose to Remain “Black”
Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson as a young fighter
Both White and Johnson were classified as “Negroes”

The arbitrary nature of racial designation in America in which a person of white skin like NAACP leader Walter White and the ebony complexioned World Heavy-Weight Champion Jack Johnson could both be classified as “Negroes” – due to an irrational social construct called “the one drop rule” – made it possible for people legally defined as “black” who looked “white” to secretly “pass” over the color line and become “white.”

And considering the difference in one’s opportunities based on this superficial distinction it is no wonder that some people chose to “pass;” it was literally a choice between freedom and quasi-slavery. The wonder is that everybody who could pass didn’t.  However many Afro-Americans who were light enough to pass chose not to because they grew up with black people, loved their cultural inheritance, and hated the arrogance and racism of whites, which they understood better than their darker brothers because whites, believing themselves to be talking to a fellow white American, would share their deepest feelings about race with them.

This is why Walter white, who could easily have passed, chose to remain in the “world behind the veil” as Dr. Dubois described black life in the early twentieth century. For Jews, who were also outsiders to the Anglo-Saxons who ruled America, “passing” was a lot easier.  They only had to change their names from obviously Jewish ones like Benjamin Swartz, to Anglo names like Tony Curtis.

Many of the biggest movie stars of my youth were Jews who anglicized their names: Jeff Chandler, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglass, et al.   And the titan of television Jack Benny was also an anglicized Jew. Ironically the pressure to pass as Anglo-Saxons was placed on these Jewish actors in and industry owned and controlled by Jews!

Kirk Douglass
Kirk_douglas_photo_signed
Born: Issur Danielovit  
Jeff Chandler
Jeff Chandler
Born: Ira Gossell
Tony Curtis aka Bernard Schwartz                  
Tony_Curtis_as_Houdini
Playing the Leading man with blond Shiksa Tony Curtis with
Blond Movie Goddess Marilyn Monroe
Tony Curtis and Marylin Monroe
As Benny Schwartz “Tony” would have offended white southerners 

The distinguished Jewish film historian Neal Gabler deals with this question with candor and insight in his seminal text “An Empire of their Own.”  Among the many important revelations offered up in this book is the fact that the Jewish movie Moguls who created Hollywood and made it the jewel in the crown of American popular entertainment, were European immigrants who desperately wanted to become real Americans and succeed in business.

It is not hard to understand why a man like Samuel Goldwyn, a self-educated Polish immigrant who was born Shmuel Gelbfisz and raised as a Hasidic Jew in a Warsaw ghetto, was not anxious to become a crusader for Jewish causes in America. In his native Poland Jews faced a hellish existence akin to that of Afro-Americans.  After observing their lot in Europe first hand when he was a student in Germany in the late 19th century, Dr. Dubois thought it might be worse.

Samuel Goldwyn
Sam goldwyn-portrait
Hollywood Movie Mogul

After making his way to America and assuming a new identity, first as Sam Goldfish, and then Samuel Goldwyn, he quickly recognized that despite anti-Semitism America offered great opportunities to “white” men so long as he didn’t make his Jewishness an issue. Hence he assimilated into “white” America as much as possible, went into the developing moving picture business and became a rich and powerful Hollywood Mogul.

Goldwyn and his Jewish colleagues achieved tremendous wealth and influence by producing films that appealed to the major market; which was white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.  It is these little swarthy Jews who created the blond sex goddess: May West, Gloria Swanson, Marylyn Monroe, et al.  By glorifying the fantasies of white America they became the arbiters of popular taste and the shapers of the American dream.

The price of success in their business was to completely camouflage their Jewish identity to the extent that they not only required Jewish actors to disguise their ethnic identity, but name changes were sometimes accompanied by “corrective” cosmetic surgery to change their noses to fit the Nordic ideal.  And movies addressing the Jewish experience, especially anti-Semitism, were taboo!

It was so bad that Jewish organizations called them out on their game of ethnic hide and seek.  However another critical component in the quest of the Jewish movie moguls to become “real” white Americans and give the public what it wanted was the projection of racist stereotypes of Afro-Americans in their films.

Before movies were invented in the early 20th century the most popular form of American entertainment was the blackface minstrel show, in which white men “blacked up” by smearing burnt cork on their faces, painting on ludicrous big red lips, and engaged in racist parodies of Afro-Americans.  It was such a rage among whites in the 19th century that the great song and dance men Bert Williams and George Walker named their act “Two Real Coons” when they got together in San Francisco during 1994.

However they were the first Afro-American act that refused to wear the burnt cork mask that white audiences insisted black performing artist don, in order to assume the identity that had already established by white Minstrels.

The Great Bert Williams and George Walker
Williams-Walker-opener
Two Real Coons?

The black face Minstrel tradition, although begun by WASP like “Daddy Dan Rice” with his famous “Jump Jim Crow” act – which is where the term “Jim Crow” used to describe institutional racism originated – it was taken over by white ethnics and immigrants.  Irishmen dominated Minstrelsy by the late 19th century and Jews followed their lead.

Hence by the time the first “talkie” appeared – the first film where the characters spoke, bringing an end to the silent film era that was dominated by the Englishman Charlie Chaplin – it was Al Jolson, an immigrant Eastern European Jew, who starred in the movie which was titled “The Jazz Singer.               

Al Jolson Singing his famous tune “Mammy”
Al Jolson
The World’s Greatest Entertainer?

 

By blacking up Al Jolson – who was dubbed “The Greatest Entertainer in the World” before he appeared in the 1927 film – became a cultural hero in white America, a status he would never have acquired had he simply presented himself onstage as Asa Yoelson, the Russian born Jew.  Hence by donning the black face mask Joelson was engaging in a double masquerade: an immigrant Jew solidifying his “white American” identity by masquerading as an Afro-American while denigrating black culture and character; a role that was quintessentially white American.

The movie was based on a Jewish play, “Day of Atonement,” with the screenplay and direction by Jews. When blackface acts went out of style the Jewish movie moguls brought the same obsequious comic domestic figure that was so popular in the live “Coon Shows” to the silver screen with real black actors.  The most famous of these was Lincoln Perry, aka “Stepin Fetchit,” whom white Americans found a much more fetching personality than the Jack Johnson “Bad Nigger” type.

The Jewish businessmen who ran Hollywood understood the seemingly insatiable appetite of white Americans for grotesque images of Black Americans, and they delivered them in abundance.  However according to his biographer Mel Watkins, in real life Lincoln Perry was far more like Jack Johnson than Stepin Fetchit; to whom he bore no resemblance, just as the American society portrayed by the Jews in Hollywood bore no resemblance to social reality.

It was a world of make believe in which Anglo-Saxon protestant heroes and heroines were the ideal, Jews didn’t exist, and black Americans lived to serve whites with a smile, whether cleaning house or tap dancing.  In any case Afro-Americans were simple minded happy go lucky darkies who could gleefully sing, as indeed the Jewish composer George Gershwin had a black character sing in his opera Porgy and Bess: “I’ve  got plenty of nothing/ and nothing’s plenty for me.”

Stepin Fetchit aka Lincoln Perry with Will Rogers
Stepin Fetchit
The black faced Minstrel Character brought to film played by real blacks

The Real Lincoln Perry

Stepin Fetchit book cover

A Tough Guy and Militant Fighter for the rights of Black Actors

This is the Los Angeles in which Donald Tokowitz – Donald Sterling’s given surname – grew up as a poor and powerless Jew.  Born in Chicago to immigrant Jewish parents’ in 1934, just after Hitler had come to power in Germany, the family moved to an economically depressed, racially mixed, LA neighborhood called Boyle Heights in 1936, where his father eked out a living as a produce peddler.

There were blacks, Mexicans and several white ethnic groups living there at the time.  Ironically, Sterling’s girlfriend Saviano also lived there. In a May 6, article on Sterling in the Boston Globe, “Becoming white: Donald Sterling’s past offers clues to current outcry,” Journalist Farah Stockman quotes sociologist Bruce Phillips, whose father had also grown up the neighborhood during the same period as Sterling.

““During the Depression, no one had any hope of getting out of Boyle Heights,” Phillips observed, and he described the position of the Jews in the racial stratification system Boyle Heights: ““On the ‘social distance scale, Jews were in the middle, between people of color and white ethnic groups. They were either the most acceptable non-white ethnic group, or the least acceptable whites.”  Outside of Boyle Heights the most conspicuous achievement of Jews in Los Angeles, Hollywood, was not promoted as a Jewish triumph by the movie moguls but consciously portrayed simply as an American, i.e. white American, success story.

This was especially true in this period when white racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi sympathizers argued that Hollywood was a Jewish conspiracy to corrupt the morals of white Christian youths. By 1960, when Donald Tokowitz graduated from law school and set out to make his fortune in the rich and glamorous city of Los Angeles, where the Hollywood Jews had found fame and fortune, he had learned his lesson well and followed a tried and true path to the privileged position enjoyed by successful white men in America.

Thus it is not surprising that one of the first things he did upon graduation was to scrap Tokowitz and formally change his name to “Sterling.”  Although he has attempted to put the name change on his father, court documents examined by enterprising reporters tell a different tale. In the legal papers submitted to the court Don Tokowitz claimed he wanted the change his name to Sterling because his colleagues had a hard time pronouncing Tokowitz.  He went on to say that this could hinder him professionally.

Reborn as Donald Sterling

Donald Sterling as young lawyer

Donald Tofowitz became a Rich LA Lawyer/Businessman

Thus by changing his name – which is a ritual of rebirth – his intention was to blend in with the rest of his white countrymen.  For being a Jew at mid-twentieth meant exclusion from the major law firms that were known in the legal community as “White Shoe” firms, where the high powered corporate deals were packaged. While not subjected to the kind of racial oppression that Afro-Americans suffered, many Anglo-Saxons regarded Jews as not quite white.

Ms. Stockman observes that this “almost white status” led many Jews “to focus feverishly on full acceptance. As they grew more prosperous, nearly all of the Jews in Boyle Heights moved to white suburbs in places like the San Fernando Valley, where blacks and Hispanics couldn’t follow.” And when Sterling became a big real estate owner he adopted illegal racist discriminatory practices that made sure even those Afro-Americans who could afford it would be denied entrance into those neighborhoods – and he was not alone, it was a common practice among racist white realtors.  Yet according to the government agencies that heard the complaints against him, Sterling is one of the worse and received the highest fines ever awarded in a housing discrimination case.

It was yet another bid by sterling to be a “real” white man. When viewed from this historical perspective the comments to his Afro-Latina concubine V. Stiviano makes perfect sense.  In essence he was telling her to do what he did: escape her ethnic identity and all the problems it brings.  This is abundantly clear when Sterling tells her not to bring black men to the games or be seen “associating with black people” online, and she reminds him she is part black.  “It bothers me that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people” says a furious Sterling.  “I just saying, in your lousy instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking black people.” At another point he says to her why can’t she just project herself as a nice Latina.

I guess when you have run away from your own heritage in search of, rejected your birthright for fool’s gold, it seems reasonable to demand it from your concubine – whom he describes as “a street girl” with fifteen Mexican brothers and sisters to support.  It is all too obvious that Donald Sterling is a sad deluded old fool, a shameless liar and hypocrite who burst into tears on world-wide television when he recounted how much he had done for his young Afro-Latina concubine who he “thought really cared” for him.

From all appearances this guy is a perpetual trick, a pathetic clueless Putz who thinks he can buy some young love that is only slightly soiled, and his “girl” V. Stiviano, which is one of several aliases she has used, is a hard hearted hustler out to take this chump for all she can get. It is a tawdry tale about racism, privilege and power in contemporary America in which beauty conquers the beast.  Alas, they deserve each other.

***********************

Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 16, 2014

May the Circle Stay Unbroken

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, On Foreign Affairs on May 1, 2014 by playthell

Duke Ellington in Stetson

The Sound Sorcerer wielding his Mighty Axe; his sound was heard around the world

 Jazz and Modern Black Culture in South Africa

It is interesting to read Playthell’s article, “An Evening with Edward Kennedy Ellington;” it got me thinking of life in the Ghetto of Soweto, in South Africa. The Townships might not have had the architectural wonders of New York and its chic urbane life-style, but, Duke still affected and influenced the life, music and self-esteem of Africans under Apartheid. There has long been a struggle against Apartheid by the indigene refuting the claim that we were uncouth and backward.

As the Township of Soweto expanded and grew, so did the music scene: the South African Jazz Scene. Some of the jazz groups had “American” as their names. There were Jazz big bands; the fashion of the day were Dobbs brim hats, Florsheim shoes – some two tone – double breasted jackets with broad lapels and the whole dress code as was worn by the Americans of the ’30s, 40s and 50s.  I guess what I am saying is that, because of the inhumanity of Apartheid we witnessed an oppressed people immerse themselves in the American Jazz music and African American culture, language and mannerism as a way of keeping our souls intact.

Louis Armstrong Master Musician and Fashion Plate
Louis_Armstrong_and_Velma_Middleton,_Carnegie_Hall,_New_York,_N.Y.,_ca._Feb._1947_ Notice the sharp two toned shoes

John Hodges

 JohnnyHodges0161-thumbnail

 Notice the elegant broad lapels

The sleeve jackets of the LPs were the point of discussions from the Shebeens – Taverns/Speak Easies – of the day. Discussion about music, styles, musical signatures of The “Duke”, the “Count”, Hodges, Archie Shepp, Philly Jo Jones(some People even renamed themselves after their favorite artist here in Mzantsi), Coltrane, Monk, Miles, Bessie Smith, Sonny Rollins, Stitt, Sidney Betchet, Stachmo, Jelly roll Morton, Fats Waller, Charlie Parker, Ida Cox, Lucille Hegamin, Rosa Henderson, Bertha “Chippie” Hill, Sara Martin, Trixie Smith, Lizzie Miles, Sarah Vaughn, Mahalia Jackson, Mamie Smith, Josie Miles, Edna Benbow HIcks, Eartha Kitt, Mae Harris, Lulla Miller, jimmy Lunceford, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Charlie Christian, Ron Carter, Yusef Lateef, Ella Fritzgerald, Scot Joplin, and a host of other many American musicians-too numerous to list here.

Virtuoso Trumpeter Miles Davis
miles-davis-Fashion Icon
Fashion Trend Setter
He Was Miles Ahead in his Ideas and Style
 miles davis  Fashion Icon
In Music and Fashion!
 South African Jazz Trumpeter Hugh Masakela
Hugh masekela-1959 Miles’ Musical Progeny
Real Cool Cats

THE THREE JAZZOMOLOS

Swinging the Blues in South Africa
 Ella Fitzgerald….You Send Me!
 Ella-fitzgerald-4ec7911607ac3
The First Lady sings while master trumpeter / jazz innovator Dizzy Swoons

 

 Sarah Vaughn: The Divine One!
Sarah Vaugh II
The Afro-American elegance and sophistication that inspired South Africans

 

The Divine One and Ella’s Musical Daughters
 SWINGIN DEAUVILLE 1991
Merriam Makeba with the Great Gillespie

 

 This South African Songstress

 South African Jazz singer

She can feel it in her soul: Dem dirty blues and all that Jazz
Jazz Musicians were Africa Conscious
Africa Brass - Coltrane
And Glorified the “Motherland” in their Music

The American Jazz idiom was dominating thoroughly and completely here in Mzatnsi. How do I know all these name of all these musicians.  Well, as kids in the early sixties, we would sit with our Uncles and fathers and hear them argue and debate that was the best on drums, saxophones, composition and arrangements, and passions would rise to pitch level.

There were people who never thought of other artist as deserving mention or to be listened to because they did not meet their standard of what was Jazz or the like. So as we grew up in the late sixties, we were exposed to a variety of different artists of this American genre. Well, in most cases, my generation was scoffed-at by our old timers for not listening to real and classic Jazz when we listened to Jimmy Smith, John Patton, Harold Mabern, Blue Mitchell, Lou Donaldson, Billy Cobham, Booker T., Soul Music and funk.

We were ridiculed by these stalwarts and keepers of the Old Jazz, as me and my peers referred to Classical jazz as “not listening to Jazz,” and knowing nothing about it. But today, with most of them gone, and many of those who survived apartheid – the old timers I referred to above – have formed Jazz Clubs here in South Africa. They meet on weekends and bring out their best collection and spend the whole day listening to jazz, eating and imbibing large amounts of alcohol.

And whilst engaging in this celebration of jazz here in Mzantsi, you would hear talk like Playthell’s, whom I will cite below, as being what was said about these musicians by our elders. Most of the other stuff was learned and read from the LP liner notes by some Jazz critic or aficionado, and From Down Beat Magazine and so forth. It would go something like this passage from Playthell’s essay:  

“Some of these people had crossed an ocean to attend the concert earlier in the day. After a while, it was clear that several of the guests had seriously followed Duke’s work for thirty to forty years. … As Duke responded to requests and moved from one tune to another, I was impressed by the fact that most of these songs were now part of the standard repertoire of American music. … I wondered at the artistic sensibility that could conceive these elegant tone poems, based in sophisticated urban blues and surrounded by consistently inventive orchestrations…. ….When he composed his suites to various regions of the world he never wrote the music when he was in those places.

‘I don’t want to be overly influenced by the local musical traditions, so I always wait until I’m back home to write my impressions.’ And he also confessed to me after a few rounds of Champaign: ‘I’m a sophisticated savage.’ Before I could persuade him to elaborate on his colorful claim our conversation was disrupted by others demanding the attention of the great man. I understood and bowed out.  That enchanted evening in July, 1974 demonstrates that rest the world has long recognized the extraordinary creative contribution of the Duke. It is long past time this prophet became s hero in his own land.”

To be honest, what Playthell wrote above would be taken by these Jazz aficionados, turned on its head, made theirs. And included in their folklore about Jazz, as if it was they who spun the yarn above, and had experienced it, so that they have a one-up on their fellow Jazz buffs.. But, with time, those with the means, have been visiting The Newport Jazz Festival, Montreux Festival, and many of those in Europe.. And the comeback with fantastic tales of their visits and so forth, today (Most of it exaggerated, somewhat, but with some kernel of Truth.

Duke, Armstrong and Singer Jimmy Rushing
Duke Ellington,  Rushing, Louis Armstrong, Billy Strahorn with Photomodels at 1962 Newport Jazz Festival 
Hanging out with High Fashion Models Backstage at Newport 1962

 Today in south Africa, we have come a long from the days I described above.. People are not more able to listen to jazz without the pressures of apartheid dehumanizing us. But African American Jazz in South Africa made our lives more bearable and full of hope. We never gave the Boers a chance to tell us nor believed we were barbarians or savages. Duke and the rest of the African America Jazz Masers, confirmed to us, since most of us looked like many of them and vice-versa- we knew that we were better than what the Apartheid monsters said we were.

There were many Jazz bands that were spawned as a result of our exposure to the American music scene and its Jazz Masters. These I might talk about in another palaver we might have on this subject. But Playthell’s article, with its cultural opulence and high art life-style, is still what makes our world go round. Duke was our demi-god when it came to Jazz, Style, dress/fashion, comportment and Class. He personified all this and then some to my uncles and their friends.

A Paragon of Male Elegance
Duke Ellington esq-best-dressed-duke-ellington-lg-2
Esquire Magazines “Best Dressed Man”
A Playful Moment with the Great Ray Nance
Ray Nance
 Jiving around onstage in Sweden
A Triple Threat and More….

Ray Nance II

Sweet Ray Nance: a Master of Trumpet, Violin and Dance….he could Sing too!

Our Elders copied many of Duke’s mannerism that Playthell describes above, which he observed on his visit to the Maestro’s apartment.  As you can imagine, many have tried, albeit not on par with Playthell’s analysis, to be what the Duke represented and even added they own spin to the act. Apartheid, in its evil intent to dehumanize us, failed dismally because many Africans in South Africa knew that their Nazi-like oppressor’s claims of racial superiority were lies.

We lived our lives full of Jazz and our spirits danced above the concentration camps they built for us Called Townships… Like the humongous one called Soweto (Southern Western Townships) Digging jazz is still the way to go.. although the present-day youth in south Africa – as in the United States – are out of sync and do not know any better.. Some of us still know what time it is when it comes to Jazz music…

Young South African Jazzmen
 South African Jazzmen.jpg Today

 All Races come together playing Jazz

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 Double Clink on Link to see Duke and Ray Nance

http://youtu.be/gOlpcJhNyDI 

The Ellington Orchestra in live Concert, Zurich 1959

http://youtu.be/Qkn57XP-_kM

SkhoKho Sa Tiou

 Mzantsi, South Africa

May Day 2014

In Defense of Looking Divine

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , , , on April 27, 2014 by playthell

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Parishioners outside Harlem’s Abyssinia Baptist Church

Whatever Happened to Sunday go to Meeting Clothes? “I love dressing up, but I don’t want MY church to emphasize fashion. Everyone should feel welcome -sweat pants and all – that is if it is a place of spiritual worship. My fashion choices should not make one feel insulted IN CHURCH. Let’s encourage people to actually practice, live their religion -even the minister.”

I could not disagree with the above comment more.  Who said the church – in this case the world famous Abyssinia Baptist Church in Harlem – “emphasizes” fashion choices…certainly not I.  What I did was comment on how sharp the parishioners are and celebrate it as a good and welcome practice: decorating oneself to the height of fashion when entering the House of the Lord.

However anybody who knows anything about the history or current activities of this church knows that they are one of the most progressive churches in the nation. This is the church built by Adam Clayton Powell Sr., whose son went on to become the most progressive congressman of his time…and as Chairman of an important committee dealing with health, welfare and labor issues authored and got passed 60 bills that established the laws which are critical to the safety net benefits all Americans enjoy today!

He was also a leader in the civil rights movement and along with his beautiful, musically gifted wife Hazel Scott – and artist whose brilliance is unmatched today – set a standard for high fashion in Harlem that dazzled the world.

The Social Event of 1945 in Harlem

Adam C. Powell and Hazel Scott

The Wedding of Adam Clayton Powell and Hazel Scott
The Performing Artist and the Preacher/Politician
Adam Powell and Hazel Scott
 The Most Stylish Couple in New York!
 The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Marries Nat and Maria Cole
Adam Powell marries Nat Cole 
Elegance and High Style was the Order of the Day
Two Harlem Foxes: New York’s Finest
Adam's wife Hazel and Lena Horne
Hazel Scott Hangin Out with her Girl Lena Horne
 The Elegance of that Era
Abiodun's Tribute 115
Is personified in the high style of Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel
 And the Parishioners of Abyssinia Church
A Fine Straw Bonnet
There are no better dressed congregations in New York City!
Elegance is also Alive and Well on Sugar Hill
On Sugar Hill
The Personification of Old School Cool
 ************

The present Pastor, Reverend Doctor Calvin Butts, a minister with a PhD, is one of the most progressive preachers in America whose good works are far too numerous to list here.  Suffice it to say that Abyssinia Baptist Church embodies everything that is great and good about the black American church which Dr. Dubois, an atheist like me – called “one of the most amazing institutions ever created by human beings.”

Now as to the matter of proper attire for church services: I think the comment  “Everyone should feel welcome -sweat pants and all, that is if it is a place of spiritual worship” thoroughly misses the point.  In every society, no matter how simple or complex its development, there are ceremonies and rituals that require the participants to groom and decorate themselves for the occasion.

The elaborateness of the costume is symbolic of the gravitas of the ceremony.  Hence if one believes that God is the creator of the world, and that any good fortune that befalls us is by his grace alone, then not to adorn oneself in finery when you enter his house strikes me as a sacrilege!!!!

Whatever happened to “Sunday go to meeting clothes?”  I was walking around just this last Sunday and saw some young people coming out of a non-black church and I was appalled!  They looked like they were coming from a hip hop show.  If I were the pastor of a church I would have fashion police stationed at the door for the express purpose of turning such people away!!!!

You cannot convince me that you understand the gravitas of the occasion if you are not willing to groom and decorate yourself in your best garments before entering this holy space!!!!  Enough of this disdain for elegance that is plaguing our society…the difference in the attire of black performers like Nat King Cole, Billy Ekstine, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Jackie Wilson when compared to Snoop Dog and Little Wayne is a measure of the degree of decadence that is infecting black American culture!

Standing in the Need of Prayer!

lil-wayne-photo

Evidenc of the Hip Hop Fashion Disaster
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!!!  IN MY VIEW: IF YOU CAN’T DRESS UP TO VISIT THE HOUSE OF THE LORD THEN YOUR SPIRITUALTY IS ABOUT AS DEEP AS A DRY CREEK BED DURING A DROUGHT!!!!!!

 

*****************

Playthell G. Benjamin
Way Out West, with Harlem on my Mind
April 25, 2014

Praise Songs for a Master Musician

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, You Tube Classics with tags , , , , , on April 8, 2014 by playthell
MODELE ARMSTRONG
Louis Armstrong: His horn and voice changed the world of music

A Fitting Tribute to a Great Artist on the Centenary of his Birthday

On the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Armstrong a celebration in his honor was held at Columbia University, one of America’s most distinguished institutions of higher learning. Titled The Artistry of Pops: Louis Armstrong on his 100th Birthday,” three of the nation’s most outstanding intellectuals and artists – Robert O’Meely, Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis – conducted an ancestor veneration ritual in memory of Louis Armstrong, a great American original.

Robert O’Meely is a Professor of English at Columbia, Director of the Institute for Jazz Studies and a serious Jazz scholar who wrote an important book on Billy Holliday; Stanley Crouch is the nation’s premiere Jazz critic and biographer of Charlie Parker; and Wynton Marsalis is Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center – the most important Jazz performance and education venue in the world – and leader of the internationally renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, an aggregation of great musicians who can play every genre of jazz without accent.

It is a certainty that almost anyone who takes the time to view this video will be greatly enlightened by the experience.  My certainty lies in the fact that I was enlightened by it and I have been writing about Jazz for over 20 years and have published essays about the music in some of the most prestigious journals in the English language.  The video begins with an opening address by Dr. O’Meely, rich in eloquence and erudition, it paints a complex portrait of Louis Armstrong that demolished the stereotypical view of him as a simple minded entertainer and borderline clown.

What emerges from Professor O’Meely’s succinct but learned lecture is a compelling portrait of a great artist who changed western music and won devotees among musicians and music lovers all over the world.  We learn that the ability to play and instrument and also sing well enough to have a lasting influence on both arts is a very rare feat; the province of genius.  Yet, he tells us, this is precisely what Louis Armstrong did.

       Pop’s Armstrong Singing
                         Louis Armstrong singing
Recording with the magnificent Ella Fitzgerald

Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitgerald

                    One of Pop’s many artistic “children”

In his professorial fashion Dr. O’Meely cited a scholarly text to provide evidence of the influence of Louis Armstrong on the major singers who dominated American jazz and pop music for most of the twentieth century and set the standards many singers still emulate. The Book, “Pops Children,” lets us hear it from the horses’ mouths through the author’s interviews.  Among those who pay homage to Pops as an artistic inspiration and guide are Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Lady Day, et al.

O’Meely’s lecture was the ideal introduction to Louis Armstrong, because he enumerates the many facets of Armstrong’s interests and talents and defines the elements that characterize his style and innovations in western music. Although he teases us with glimpses of Armstrong’s multi-faceted personality and varied interests, he reminds us they are laboring under the tyranny of the clock and thus must confine their discourse to the matter of music.

Despite the fact that he is a Professor of English Dr. O’Meely is a fine music critic.  Like Crouch and Marsalis he is a protégée of the novelist, essayist, musician Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray, the recently departed Harlem sage and blues philosopher whose masterpiece, “Stomping the Blues,” is a canonical text on Afro-American music…especially Jazz. Thus O’Meely’s analysis is well informed by a broad knowledge of the history and nature of artistic creation and innovation, and his discussion of Louis Armstrong is conducted within the comparative context of all great art.

As a literary man beguiled by the blues in its many splendored guises, Dr. O’Meeley conjures up the memory of Professor Sterling Brown, a Harvard educated pioneer blues poet and longtime Professor of English at Howard University in Washington, who had jazz musicians play for his class live and who is called out by name as the hippest intellectual in the nation’s capitol in Ledbelly’s famous song “Washington is a Bourgeois Town.”  

It was Professor O’Meely who was called upon to make the keynote speech at the dedication of the monumental statute “Invisible Man,” created by Elizabeth Catlett, outside of Ellison’s residence on Riverside Drive, not far from Columbia’s campus. Unlike Sterling Brown, O’ Meely does not need jazz musicians to play for his class because just a few blocks down Broadway from campus is Jazz at Lincoln Center, where the greatest Jazz musicians in the world perform nearly every night.  O’Meely is immersed in the Jazz milieu being centrally located in the Jazz capitol of the world he has seen it all, which makes him an ideal critic fully equipped to evaluate the place of Louis Armstrong in American music.

I got a taste of the depth of his erudition when we debated an essay on music and literature written by Albert Murray in a seminar at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Debating the Learned Professor O’Meely at the Sorbonne
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        A Joint Meeting of the US and European Associations of American Studies  

At the conclusion of his learned commentary on the character and contributions of Pops Armstrong, Professor O’Meely turned the floor over to Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis after reading their impressive bonafides to the audience, calling them “two of the smartest people talking about Jazz.” Crouch was introduced first to tumultuous applause, but when Wynton walked on stage, trumpet in hand, the crowd went wild.

In an extended discussion Crouch compared the heroism of people who invent major movements in art or intellectual ideas to those in classical Greek mythology, and Wynton dazzled with his in-depth knowledge of the art of trumpet playing and the history of its development in the USA. As always, his lecture became a “show and tell” when he would demonstrate his point on the trumpet.

This video is a wonderful portrait of Pops which require no further comment, since we have the film. However it is impossible to overstate the importance of the work that O’Meely, Crouch and Marsalis are doing by institutionalizing Jazz in elite, well funded, American cultural and academic institutions such as Lincoln Center and Columbia University.

It is both fitting and proper that this effort should be led by Afro-American artists and intellectuals.  Jazz is, after all, Black America’s gift to the nation and America’s gift to world culture.  Look, listen and learn about one of the greatest artists and most interesting American men of the 20th century, the trumpet virtuoso that invented both the extended Jazz solo and a distinctly American approach to singing… the Jazz song.

Pops At Carnegie Hall with Kate Middleton 1947
Louis_Armstrong_and_Velma_Middleton,_Carnegie_Hall,_New_York,_N.Y.,_ca._Feb._1947_
                      A Sartorial Trend Setter Always sharp as a Tack
The Axe with Which Louis Conquored the World!
Louis Arnstrongs trumpet presented to him by King George V of England in 1933
This Trumpet was a gift from King George V in 1933
Double click on link to see the video Tribute
http://youtu.be/G0X24dJHYq4 

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

April 4, 2014

It’s Yo Birthday Susannah!

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , , on March 30, 2014 by playthell

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Holla! Hue Yang and daughter Quinlee

 Susannah Makes Sixty and the Eulypians Rejoiced

 She was like the Chief Sorceress in the gathering of poets, painters, thespians, musicians, singers and other makers of that splendid alchemy called art.  As she strolled among the adoring crowd of mostly former students, colleagues and friends,  Susannah Israel – sculptor, writer/critic, and teacher extraordinaire – graciously presided over the crowd with the grace of a queen mother from some ancient time.  It was Susannah’s sixtieth birthday and the convocation of free and generous spirits had gathered to joyously celebrate this gifted artist and teacher that never stops giving.

It was a celebration worthy of the occasion, as Susannah’s friends brought forth a variety of gifts, some in the form of succulent foods prepared with loving care by their own hands. Others, skilled in the culinary arts, offered their service on the grill or in the oven, and some groomed and decorated themselves in daring fashion, adding panache to the party by making exotic spectacles of themselves.  And of course, one of the joys of any gathering of Eulypians – i.e. makers and lovers of the arts – is the stimulating conversation.  Suffice it to say that was in rare abundance.

However of all the evening’s amusements the musicians stole the show.  Of course I am one of those musically sensitive souls for whom the bang of the drum, trill of the trumpet and clash of the cymbals causes my pulse to quicken.  I confess this because I believe all writers who venture value judgments about the relative merits of cultural experiences ought to declare their biases, and I have been madly in love with music all of my life. The proof of it is that I have written about more different genres of music than any music critic in New York City….which is the mecca of music critics.

Yet despite whatever bias I might bring to the subject, I believe I am right in the accolades I pay to the musicians. The groove ranged from the tight Neo-Soul sounds of Harry and the Hitmen, who were jamming in the exotic décor of bassist-bandleader Jesse Toews Studio/Crib.  The band plays original material wherever possible, because they write a lot of music, and if the sampling I heard is a fair representation of what they do – first rate music performed by accomplished musicians.  I think they have a better than even chance making themselves felt in the music industry.

The musical offering was diverse, ranging from smooth Neo-Soul to hard rock guitar boy band sounds and deep Blues.   Veteran musician Dee “Big Dog” Hensley anchored the evening’s musical offering in rock and blues performances. first with a Jimi Hendrix style trio of Lead guitar, bass and drums reminicent of Band of Gypsies, and then a rendering of deep blues. His set was topped off by a blues performance featuring his wife Donalda Gilligan, a former singer with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, who gave a soulful blues shout out.

Listening to the musical peformances I got the same feeling I expeienced in a nightclub on a visit to London. (See “On Being Black in London” on this blog)  I was taken to what I was told was the hippest nightclub in town, which had three floors and on each floor the music was of Afro-American origins. The band on the first floor, all British musicians, was a septet laying Miles Davis’ “ll Blues ” with the same instrumentation.  On the second floor was an elegant restuarant that played only Afro-American big band classics and when I walked in I heard Sarah Vaughn with the Count Basie Orchestra.  and on the top floor was a disco where “Ladies Night” by Kool and the Gang was rockin the house.

The London experience and the Vulcan party honoring Professor Sussanah Israel offered irrefutable evidence of the extent to which Afro-American music has changed the cultural sensibilities of the western world in the twentieth century and left its imprint on world culture (See: “Jazz Around the World” on this blog and Western Culture Revised, in the Freedomways Reader.)  All in all it was a joyous fete that brought friends together and good vibes were everywhere in the air.  It was a happy birthday indeed!

                                                                  Josh and Lexi…….
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……..Were the moving spirits that made it Happen!

 Friends Brought Food, Wine and Wisdom Weed

DSC06763 And Joyous Smiles all Around!
 And Real Prime Northern California Bud!

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 True Wisdom Weed…A gift from the Earth Goddess!
It was a Carnivore’s Paradise!
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Real Mexican Beef!
 And there was Music

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 Vintage Hard Boy Band Rock
 And Real Blues too

 DSC06797

Dem low down dirty Juke Joint Blues
Wailed by Soulful Shouters……
 DSC06832
…….Who stomped the Blues
 Harry and the Hitmen….

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 Rocked tha House
 They Have an Original Sound

 DSC06694

 Not Just Old Wine in New Skins
 And they Keep it Funky!

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It’s all about The Rhythm
They Sing Too!

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 And Rock the Tambourine
 They Are a Self-Contained Band

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They Play, and Sing, and Write their Own Songs
 Erudite Conversation was Common Fare
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Professors Tiffany Schmierer  Michelle Gregor and Jason Dunn
 Some Board Members of the Oakland Ceramic Art Museum

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                                                    Dr. Dar Fong Joined the Fete
  It was a warm Diverse Gathering
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 Where old friends greeted each other enthusiastically
 Lexi Greeting Elaine Toland…….

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 ……….the Illustrious East Bay Painter
 Princess Lia Went High Fashion
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And got it just right: elegance through simplicity

 

And Other Free Spirits……

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……..Were indifferent to fashion

 

Charity, A Grateful former Student and Fine Artist…

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 ……….Gave her Professor  a Big Bear Hug
While Lexi Laughed with A Wild Child

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 If they are lucky 30 years hence…..they may look like the Birthday Girl
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 Susannah at Sixty!!!

second-choice1 

And look what she’s workin With!

 

 A Sizzling Senior Citizen!

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Fire and Ice in a Contemplative Mood
 Double Click to see Harry and the Hit Men

http://youtu.be/rzd79LPvK5Y

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Oakland, Cali
March 30, 2014

Is Hip Hop Art?

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , , , , on March 16, 2014 by playthell
Barack, Byonce and Jay Z
Chilly B, Honey B and Jay Z…..Holla!

Response to A Friend’s Comment on Hip Hop

The first thing I saw when I switched on my Facebook page this morning, which has now become a daily ritual, was a post from my friend Eric Wattree, a learned scribe from the left coast who is also an accomplished jazz musician. The post was a video clip of Quincy Jones presenting Emily Bear, a young white female of rare musical gifts – Quincy pointed out that she has composed several pieces for symphony orchestras – but since this was the Montreux Jazz Festival she was performing jazz piano on this occasion.

The clip was accompanied by the comment “Are we going to become the first culture in the history of mankind who are incapable of playing what we created?”  I thought it a curious comment, since I did not find her particularly impressive as a Jazz pianist.  She reminded me more of Philippa Duke Schuyler, the daughter of Afro-American writer and the blond Texas heiress and artist Josephine Cogdell, who had been selected as a coveted Sennett Bathing Beauty. Phillippa was not only performing the masterworks for piano in European classical music as a child, but showed such promise as a composer by nine years old she was seriously compared to Mozart at her age by American professors of music.

And had it not been for the racism and snobbery that characterized the attitude of the European Classical music community toward Jazz – An Afro-American complex instrumental Music that is now regarded as classic American art – I have no doubt that Phillippa would have mastered Jazz piano too.  After all, she lived on Sugar Hill in Harlem, which was home to many great black jazz musicians, including Duke Ellingon and Andy Kirk, whose wife was a great pianist that gave Charlie Parker his first gig when they lived in Kansas City.  Mrs. Kirk was a fabulous piano teacher who taught generations of Harlem kids to play.

Phillippa Duke Schuyler

 Phillapa Scuyler III  - editd copy

 A Musical Prodigy Performing her Compositions
 Phillippa Schuyler around Emily Bear’s Age
Phillapa SchuylerA world class virtuoso pianist and composer!

When he went on to  observe that “scatching a record is not art,” it became obvious that Eric is alarmed by the wholesale intoxication with Hip Hop beats by young folks – you hear them everywhere, even in the cadences of black marching bands –  and he is responding to the sad possibility that there will come a time when young black musicians will be unable to perform the complex art of Jazz, a genre of instrumental music which in order to perfom properly requires virtuosity from everybody in the band.

The possibility that this grand achievement of Afro-American culture could be lost to future generations of black musicians is cause for alarm….but how real is this fear? After giving his comments a moment’s reflection I thought: My man needs to chill out; things are not nearly so dire regarding the supply of outstanding young black Jazz musicians. I wondered if his pessimism comes from the fact that he lives in LA, because here in the Big Apple there is no paucity of great young black Jazz musicians.

It’s not the absence of black musicians that’s the problem in New York, it’s finding a black audience! By virtue of the heroic efforts of Wynton Marsalis and the magnificent Jazz at Lincoln Center program, there is now a curriculum to guide music teachers in formally teaching the essential techniques of jazz performance available upon request: And its free!

Before Jazz at Lincoln Center got off the ground the great singer/bandleader Betty Carter hosted conferences that brought gifted young jazz virtuosi from all over the country to study and perform at her Jazz workshop at the Majestic Theater in Brooklyn, under the sponsorship of the Brookly Academy of Music.   I covered one of these conferences for the Sunday Times of London, and it was published under the title “School For Cats,”  which can now be read on this blog

One of the revelations in this essay is that all of the most gifted young jazz musicians also loved HipHop.  Pianist Cyrus Chestnut liked playing on rap tracks and Adonis Rose, who was the drummer with the brilliant Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts, told me he had just finished playing behind some rappers and he loved it as mush as playing with Roberts! Hence I concluded that young Afro-americans musicians love both Jazz and Hip Hop equally….its a generational thing.

Adonis Rose

Adonis Rose II

A Young Master keeping the tradition alive!

Eric is right that scratching records is not making music in the traditional sense of playing an instrument, but scratching records is only a part of what hip hop MC’s do -there is the art of sampling records and creating unique beats, often creating entirely new songs.  And some of them can rap!  Many outstanding old school jazz masters not only recognize, but admire, the achievements of Hip Hop artists. A couple ot years ago I heard Grady Tate – the most widely recorded drummer in history – being interviewed at the Jazz Museum in Harlem, which is creating a priceless audio-video museum of jazz history.

When asked about hip hop in a room full of jazz heads, mostly middle aged and older, Tate had this to say: “I think the most innovative thing happening in recorded music today is hip hop.” A collective gasp of shock and disbelief went up in the room, but he continued: “I believe that certain people are genetically programmed to play music.”

He explained how he became a musician because he went to a high school with a great music program which even supplied the instruments – like the school I went to – then he pointed out how many inner-city kids were robbed of that opportunity because the philistine businessman and accountants that control school boards that fund education cut out formal musical instruction, school marching bands and orchestras. In response to this bleak musical predicament they created a new way of making music: HIP HOP

                                Grady Tate: Master Percussionist and Jazz Virtuoso
Grady Tate
He became a musician because of his high school music program

As a drummer he loves their beats, and as a Shakespearian actor with a degree in English literature he loves many of their clever rhymes and free verse poetry set to those beats. Tate went on to further explain that these young black and Hispanic kids in New York – the real home of Hip Hop – have not only created an art form which is now practiced around the world, but when he is touring he makes a point of checking them out, and he has discovered that the themes in their rhymes address local realities and concerns.

For instance, when I interviewed the Editor of Cuba’s first Hip hop magazine and radio programmer, he told me: “Hip hop is the true voice of young Afro-Cubans!” Then he proceeded to show me how young Afro-Cubans were setting the poems of Nicholas Guillen, the great Afro-Cuban Poet Laureate of Cuba, to rumba beats and reciting them over the beats. In other words, it is the specific lyrical content that determines the character of a particular rap.

Like Ragtime music, which is now universally recognized as a great art form, but in Scott Joplin’s time was regarded as “Whore house music.” And that, as Scott Joplin complained at the time, was due to “the bawdy lyrics” that so often accompanied the music. That’s why Joplin wrote Treemonisha, a full scale grand opera set to ragtime music, in order to demonstrate the nobility of the form. Hip hop is a very versatile form and has the power to affect human sensibility in myriad ways….it depends upon the artist!

Scott Joplin
Ragtime_Piano_SCOTT_JOPLIN__sheet Music
 Composed a Ragtime Opera to prove nobility of the music

And contrary to conventional wisdom about all rap lyrics celebrating murder, mayhem and debauchery, Hip hop mogul Russell Simmons never tires of pointing out: the “positive poets” have found the greater success. For instance Queen Latifah, Will Smith, LL Cool Jay, Puffy, et al. I started writing about hip hop from its inception here in New York.

I was friends with Joe Robinson, the owner of Sugar Hill Records, who recorded the first Hip Hop group, The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” before anybody had made a rap record. When I first met Joe, the epitome of an old school gentleman gangster, he was in the Rhythm and Blues business but was an avid Jazz fan. However he was in business to make money; so he let the market dictate his business decisions – which is to say he was always looking for the big hit….and that was not going to happen recording jazz acts. Alas, the jazz acts that made money i.e. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, the Jazz Crusaders, et al were already signed to major labels.

Joe was indifferent to what these young people were inventing  – it was just a “product” to him – but  I, like Grady Tate, Max Roach and Quincy Jones, dug what these kids were doing from the git go. And I wrote about the virtues and vices of this new popular art form in: The Village Voice, New York Daily News, Sunday Times of London, Guardian Observor of London, Source Magazine: “The Bible of Hip Hop,” Spin Magazine, etc.  Grady Tate made one more important point about Hip hop artists in comparison to some of the greatest figures in modern Jazz: The jazzmen were so high on dope they didn’t know where their money went! While hip hop artists smoke Wisdom Weed and control millions!!!!All True!!!

Russell Simmons

Russell and Obama

With President Obama; you’ve come a long way baby!

Russell Simmon’s house on Long Island is the biggest mansion on the East coast – including those of the 19th century Robber Barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt Mansion on the famed Fifth Ave “Millionaire’s Row.” and among his guests are Bill and Hillary Clinton. According to a CBS 60 minutes report Jay Z heads a billion dollar business conglomerate; which means has made more money than Mitt Romney, and Mitt started life in a Michigan Mansion while Jay Z started in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn. See: Is Jay Z a Better Businessman than Mitt?”at:  http://commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com/?s=jay+z.

Will Smith turned down a scholarship to MIT to pursue a hip hop career, and he has gone from rap music star, to television star, to movie super star. He and his wife Jada were replaced as the number one power couple in Show business by Jay Z and Beyonce. Ice Cube is a for real movie mogul who has the wherewithal to greenlight his own movie productions, and Sean P Ditty Combs has gone from a local producer of rap concerts in New York City to a businessman with a fortune estimated to exceed 500 million dollars!

                                                        P Ditty

Sean Puffy coombs (2)

 Playing it to the MaX

He owns apartment buildings on the posh upper side of Manhattan, is an award winning designer of formal men’s evening wear, and played the complex starring role in A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, to critical acclaim from both professional critics and the seasoned actors in the cast. Jay Z and Beyonce, next to their Friends Barack and Michelle, are America’s most popular power Couple and also talented performers. And they replaced Will Smith and Jada Pinkett in that role.  In hip hop the rappers come from all stations in life and what they share in common is their love of bustin a rhyme over dope beats while they tell a story about the gritty realities of life.

                                                            Will and Jada
                 Will Smith and Jada IIII                     
Hollywood Power Couple
Jay Z and Beyonce

Byonce and Jay III

America.s most popular power couple

Hip Hop is the first truly Afro-American popular musical form that manages to speak straight-up to all of the issues that concern them personally and Afro-Americans in general. The blues, for all of its profound insights into the human condition, developed in the deep-south where a black man could lose his life for telling the truth as he knew it, especially if he did so with the irreverence and total disregard for white sentiment as these rappers.

Hence the blues is replete with complex metaphors and allusions, while the rappers “keep it real.” The range of beats, vocal “flows,” technical innovation in the recording studio, and the lyrical content range from the trite and vulgar to the profound – the entire range of human personality and experience. One need only listen to the raps of Oakland’s “Too Short” and compare them to the lyrics – and superb studio work – of Ohene of Philadelphia.

Too Short is a specialist from the ghetto who tells tawdry tales his fans call “straight gutter,” while  transcendent poetry that profoundly addresses the complexities of global black experience in the 21st century are the stock in trade of Ohene – and both do what they do with high style and panache. I am including clips of both these artists so the reader can hear for themselves what I mean.

Too Short!

Too Short

Livin his Short Guy Dreams?

In Too Short and Ohene with see a sharp contrast in Hip Hop styles i.e. the purposes to which this performance vehicle is put: the images and values it projects.  And we can see how much musical talent and general intelligence shapes the character and complexity of their product.  As in all things talent, character and intelligence will distinguish one performer from another and in the case of Too Short and Ohene the difference could hardly be more dramatic.

The two performances I have attached below will demonstrate the polar opposites of their concerns and musical skills, yet both are legitimate representations of the Hip Hop genre. In two Short’s “I’m a Player” we get yet another tour through the twisted life of a wannabe ghetto pimp.  His descriptions of a desirable relationship with women are bizarre; a third rate Mack’s rap – I’ve heard much better from real Macks I’ve known – that sounds more like war than love.

Too Short brazenly puts all of his pathologies on display: There is no shame in his game.  It does not take a psychiatrist to recognize these lyrics as the creation of a man with a strong Napoleonic Complex – aka Short guy inadequacy syndrome – and a deep fear of being dominated by women.  After all, he looks like a chocolate version of Mr. Peanut and was grew up poor to boot.

We can be sure that he was not the ideal lady’s man, but he became one by persistence and astute observation of female character and desire.  Among the things that he no doubt discovered is that seduction is a game, and persistence, self-confidence, a quick wit – i.e. knowing what to say outta yo mouth at the right time – are more powerful weapons than good looks in this game.  When you add the elements of fame, money and the ability to back up your boasts in bed to the mix, you have the makings of a formidable ladies man.

It seems to me that despite his successes this fear of being “chumped” by women remains, and it is the source of his super macho pimp daddy demeanor; his stone cold Playa attitude.  Yet every time I see one of these rappers coming on all hard I wonder if it’s real or they have swiped somebody else’s story.

Is this guy  for Real?

Too short II

……..Or just another Perpetrator?

Inevitably, when I am wondering if somebody’s street cred is real, that chilling video by Eazy E, “Real Motherfuckin G’s!” always comes to mind.   In this video they call out Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog and the whole “Death Row Records” crowd – a label that everybody in the record business thought of as cold blooded killers, especially the 300 pound giant who ran the company, Suge Knight. But Eazy E and his crew called them “Studio Gangstas,” i.e. great pretenders, “actors,” perpetrators with no respect on the streets, and dared them to “step to some real motherfuckin G’s!”

The sincerity of the challenge is clear in the video; it is the sonic equivalent of a drive by shooting….a point that they visually portray at the end of the video.  Gangsta Rap is California’s contribution to Hip Hop, and when murder and mayhem is your theme…”keepin it real” is an invitation to disaster.

Eazy E

eazy E II

A Real Cool Killer? Or Avatar of US Gun Culture

That’s the tradition which spawned Too Short…except his raps wisely concentrate on fuckin more than fightin….the war between the sheets rather than the war in the streets.  Yet the lessons to the youth are just as destructive….if not more so.  It is from fucked up relationships such as those portrayed in Too Short’s raps that produce the psychologically damaged kids who grow into the monsters that wreak havoc on our communities and put all young black males in American under suspicion.

A lot of people who promote this music because of its enormous popularity among teens and young adults of all races and classes, try to deny that this is the consequence of these compelling narratives set to hypnotic beats and seductively spouted by ghetto speakcians, skilled motor mouths who prize the spoken word over the written word.

Ohene: Artistic King of Hip Hop!

Ohene I

 His words are sonic balm that heal the spirit

While being no less committed to the spoken word recited over funky beats dance oriented beats, Ohene – whose name is the traditional title of Ashanti warrior Kings – has completely different concerns and is an accomplished musician who loves jazz.  One need only listen to this track below “Big Things, Y’all Can’t Stop this Music!” to hear this.

The record comes on swinging hard and Ohene’s voice replaces the traditional horn improvising over the rhythm section rapping in the phrase that suggest instruments “I’m the undisputed rap coach!” he declares, throwing out the traditional challenge to sucka MC’s who might be feeling froggish and contemplating stepping to him lyrically by flowing over weak beats.

He quickly warns “My chat is in sync with the syncopation of Max Roach / Imagine Bird with his sax folks / Theolonius Monk with his third hand…..” Ohene continues to extol the prowess of black Jazz greats until he reaches a point where he announces “Playing piano like my dad.”  At this point the performance goes from brilliant to sublime as he begins to play the piano.

To accompany yourself on piano while singing is difficult even if the song is Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but to play rhythmically complex Be-bop riffs on the piano while singing lyrics you have written to it is off the charts of measurable difficulty.  It is a spiritual communion expressed as musical artistry.

The aesthetic achievement of this performance ranks with the very best that has been achieved with voice, lyrics and instrumental composition.  Lyrically Ohene’s raps reveal him to be a man of vision and gravitas who, like Richard Wagner, seeks to elevate a nation of people with his songs.  While the track attached below celebrates the heroism of Afro-American jazz musicians, Ohene has written poignant narratives about all phases of life in contemporary American society.

As a serious researcher into Hip Hop’s roots, Ohene, who teaches a course on the art of Hip Hop at Temple University,  employs all the beats in the evolution of the genre and he uses them like an alchemist constructing foundations of rhythmic sounds upon which to build edifices of thought in words like “love is the ultimate truth in any culture.” In raps like “Nobody is Fighting…I just Don’t Understand,” which is a call for Pan-African resistance to the forces that would destroy us, and is also appended to this text below.

Hence to sum up the difference in the Hip hop styles of Ohene and Too Short, who represent polar opposites in rap music, suffice it to say that the former presents an enlightened vision of human possibility designed to inspire “the better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln once put it, thus providing the kind of hope and inspiration that can elevate a nation, while Too Short appeals to the worst in us….and preaches a gospel of decadence and debauchery that can only lead to tragedy.  As in Hip Hop – So in Life!

Hip Hop Ladies: All Hail the Queen!!

Queen Latifa II

Her Sharp Tongue and Regal Presence Empowred Girls of all Ages!

Like Jazz, Hip Hop is a predominantly black male art, but there are some outstanding female stars.  And none shines brighter than Queen Latifah.  While some female rappers seek to answer the males with raps that are just as down and dirty – like Roxanne Shante, Foxy Brown and L’il Kim – the Queen mostly kept her rhymes clean.

With a keen intellect and razor sharp wit she sassily took on the misguided macho misogynistic posturing that characterized so much of male rap.  A physically imposing woman with a fearless demeanor, she “represented” for women with Raps like “Ladies First.”  She was a culture hero to many girls of all backgrounds, my daughter included, and she went on to become one of Hip Hop’s biggest stars bar none.

The Queen as Glamour Girl

Queen Latifa

Tall, Tan, Thick and Fine

While Foxy Brown and L’il Kim are big stars in the Hip Hop world they have never been able to break through to a more general audience because of the raunchy image they chose.  Hence while there is no question that L’il Kim’s “Don’t Want Dick Tonight” is a wonderfully composed and performed rap, it is too risqué for general audiences.

Latifah’s style on the other hand will play everywhere; that’s why she went on to become a bonafide star in television and movies. She made big women fashionable when she was selected as a spokesmodel for Cover Girl cosmetics.  As I write she is hosting her own syndicated daytime television talk show.  Queen Latifah, a Rapper from New Jersey, has marketed her brand world-wide.  Eve, a rapper from Phily, rose from being a hair dresser to stardom and was the first female rapper to have her on television sitcom.  But she has not shown the staying power of the Queen.

Some Final Observations

Hip Hop is the closest that Afro-Americans have come to producing a song poetry that approaches the profundity that is common fare in the art of Calypso. see http://commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com/?s=long+live+calypso. As to whether or not Hip Hop is art, I would say that its record of success in speaking to the hearts and minds of people around the globe, by virtue of the product Hip Hop producers and performers create in the studio, there can be no question that it is great commercial popular art at its best.

I however do believe that there is a distinction between fine art and commercial art, and that its merit on the scale of artistic achievement and cultural importance can be graded. But it is an objective that is exceedingly hard to achieve, for to succeed at this one must be broadly learned in the art forms under discussion, and objective enough in one’s approach to privilege an unpleasant truth over confirming one’s prejudices.

Many smart and sincere people have failed this test – like the musicians in the high German church who were convinced that Bach was ruining sacred music. Given the volatile emotions surrounding hip hop we will certainly not resolve the question as to what constitutes fine art here – so profound a question is clearly beyond the scope and ambition of this essay….Hence we will simply let our statement stand as is….

To hear Ohene double click on link below
Too Short
I’m A Player
 
Eazy E

http://youtu.be/vQNLEhVAXSg

Real Motherfuckin G’s
Queen Latifa: Ladies First

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLB5bUNAesc

See Emily Bears Performance

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JpACC1_jP8

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Playthell G. Benjamin
New York and San Francisco
March 2014

A Note of Condolence to Ademola

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , on February 20, 2014 by playthell
DSC03742 An innovative Artist and Cultural Hero

A Remembrance on the Passing of his Beloved Mother. 

As the old adage goes: “Behind every great man stands a great woman.” And the woman behind this great man, artist, culture hero and faithful friend was Mrs. Golda Valencia Matthias-Thomas, who lately danced and joined the ancestors.  Born at the dawning of the 20th century, 1921, on the small island of St. Johns in the former Danish Virgin Islands, which had only recently come under formal American control on March 13, 1917, she would spend the majority of her life – which spanned nearly a century – in the great metropolis of New York City.

Coming of age on the smallest and most underdeveloped of the cluster of Virgin Islands,  life was difficult and young Golda was tasked with transporting her father’s catch of fresh fish to the market in Cruz Bay from their home in Coral Bay by donkey – a trip that took from sun-up to nightfall.  Because she had to work as a child she was unable to gain much formal education, but this experience taught her the virtue of honest work and the value of education which inspired a life-long love of reading. Like most enthusiastic autodidacts she developed broad eclectic intellectual interests that included art, music, theater, math, geography, world politics, etc.

A regal ebony beauty with a model’s physique she became a skilled seamstress and made her own wardrobe, which stood out both in her native Virgin Islands and when she relocated to New York City in 1945, after marrying Harold Alexander Thomas Jr., the son of a respected community leader and the first native born pharmacist in the Virgin Islands.

They settled first in Brooklyn, where they found a vibrant West Indian community, but as an American naval veteran from World War II Harold was eligible for residence in the newly constructed Amsterdam Houses, which are adjacent to where the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts now stands, and was a historic Afro-American neighborhood with a dynamic artistic community called “Black Bohemia” in the pre-Harlem period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was a multi-ethic public housing development that was envisioned by its planners as an enlightened alternative to ill kept segregated tenements.  Another distinguished artist who grew up there and, like Ademola, would go on to make an indelible mark on American culture through artistic innovation was the great Jazz pianist/composer/bandleader Theolonius Monk.

Due to the fact that Ademola’s father was a merchant seaman, the daily routine of raising their family of three boys – Bedwick aka “Ademola,” Verl and Harold – fell to his mother.  It was she who tutored them in their homework while imparting her reverence for learning and love of the arts, and imposed a strict discipline that steered her sons away from the many vices and pitfalls that were common fare on the streets of New York City.  Even more remarkably she accomplished this daunting task while successfully negotiating the myriad obstacles she confronted as an immigrant, a black person, and a woman with an amazing grace.

The greatest testimony to her success in transcending these barriers that would have defeated a weaker person is her three sons, all of who are law abiding productive persons that have made positive contributions to American society.  Since I met Mrs. Golda Thomas only once, and she was then a stalwart octogenarian, I know her mainly through her sons, especially Ademola, who has been like the brother I never had…my brother from another mother.

Of all the remarkable men I have met in life none ranks higher in my estimation as a man of honor, integrity and sterling character.   And since I am one who believes that we have no right to claim the achievements of our ancestors, because we contributed nothing to their success, but the character and achievements of our children is is just cause for pride or shame because they are our handiwork, the ultimate testament to the life of Mrs. Golda Thomas is the caliber of her sons.  Her life spanned nearly a century and from all accounts her good deeds were immeasurable.  Now she shall take her place among the honored ancestors for eternity.  May she rest in Peace.

 Ms Golda’s Other Sons

Ademola's Brothers Verl and Harold

Veryl and Harold 

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New york
February 20, 2014

Johnny Mack’s on the Attack!

Posted in Cultural Matters, On Sports! with tags , on January 28, 2014 by playthell

John McCain

 McCain in Beast Mode

 Is this Senator Suffering from Penis Envy?

When I first heard John McCain’s attack on star NFL cornerback Richard Sherman, trashing the entire Seattle Seahawks football team, my immediate response was “What tha fug is he doing jumping on that bandwagon?”  Why is he joining an attack on this young football player whose offense pales into insignificance when compared to the racist assault that has been launched against him by white football fans after a trash talking tirade against Michael Crabtree, a receiver on the San Francisco 49ers, whose lack of sportsmanship in defeat sparked the confrontation.

 What is even more grievous than  a sitting US Senator, who is old enough to be their grandfather, calling them names on national media, is the fact that Johnny Mack never even bothered to get his facts straight. It was enough that he saw a young black buck – which is the way old crackers talk when they are among themselves – asserting himself in an aggressive way. Considering the senator’s silence about the rampant violence in hockey, a virtually all white sport, it must be the sex and race thing that’s got him in hissy fit.  Like my grandfather would say: “dat boy’s out there cutting tha fool in public.”

These guys, rightwing Republicans, just can’t help them self, they really don’t like Afro-American men:  That’s why all the black men in the Grand Obstructionist Party are poot-butts and pussies!  Considering the outright disdain that the Republicans hold for any black person who dares to speak about the rampant racism and economic inequity that is institutionalized in the US, only a self-effacing coon could find a home in the GOP.  That’s why they all come across as grotesqueries. – like that crewcut-wearing lunatic Alan West, or that obsequious lickspittle Tim Scott.

I have not heard a peep out of any black Republican, although the Senator’s statement was clearly racist.  McCain left little doubt about his feelings when he held the blond golden boy Peyton Manning up as a model of virtue, denouncing Richard Sherman and all of his team mates as thugs.  Hence the senator has cast the two football teams in stark Manichean terms with the white guy symbolizing virtue and the black players as villains. He could not have been more obvious had he spelled it out by writing it in the sky.

The entire kerfuffle over Sherman’s trash talking after making the play that sent his team to the Super Bowl is absurd.  In a country where the World Wrestling Association and cage fighting are big business, the outrage over a little trash talking at the end of a football game makes no sense if the race and gender of Richard Sherman is removed from the equation.

One need only read the virulent racist rants – calling him a nigger and a monkey characterizes the bulk of the comments…and some have called for his death, even said they hope he runs into George Zimmerman!  The entire episode reveals the torrent of rancid racism that lies just beneath the placid surface of an American society which the racist right says is “post-racial.”

The experience of Richard Sherman is especially troubling because he is everything American society prizes.  He is a law abiding young man who worked himself up from an impoverished inner city neighborhood in Los Angeles, wisely avoiding all of the pitfalls that destroyed so many of his peers.  He graduated second in his class in high school and then went on to earn a degree from Stanford while starring on the football field. He is the personification of the American dream.

Sherman switched positions as a college senior and in a few short years has become the best in the NFL at one of the most demanding positions in football.  Sherman is tall, dark, handsome, elegant, eloquent, and a millionaire mega-star.  Its easy enough to explain the source of the smoldering hatred directed against him by working class white sports fans: The big boob blond white girls they have wet dreams about are having wet dreams about black Richard with the lion’s mane!

Yet the question remains: In the midst of this madness, with these atrocious assaults on a 25 year old young man who by all objectives is a splendid fellow that I would be proud to call my son, why is John McCain, a rich over-privileged old white fart, joining in the media lynching? I believe it’s because he is a very unhappy man; a sad old cracker who has a serious problem with assertive athletic young black men who attended elite universities….and are the best at what they do. Maybe they remind him to much of that young smartass silver tongued black guy who whipped his ass in the presidential race.

While he he may look enormously successful to most people – rich blond wife, seat in the US Senate, celebrated war hero, more mansions than he can remember – I believe the Mack Man feels like a bit of a failure.  When he looks in the mirror he sees something different from those looking over his shoulder.  It’s the half empty, half full enigma.

The truth is that John McCain has failed at the things that are most important to him.  What he wanted most was to rise higher in the world than his father and grandfather, to move out of their shadow and cast his own.  Hence he followed them into the profession of arms, but didn’t even have the gumption to enter a different branch of the service.  Since he became a flyer, it would have made better sense to join the Air Force than the Navy.  Alas, if Johnny Mack had gone into the Air Force rather than the Navy he would have had to get in on his own merit!

The son and grandson of Admirals, each of whom had a wartime command and served with distinction, John McCain aspired to the same status when he joined the Navy air corps.  Evidently a mediocre pilot – he graduated from Annapolis at the bottom of his class – McCain wrecked a jet plane during an exercise, and then he got shot down over Vietnam. He was held in captivity for the balance of the Vietnam war and squealed like a pig!

A less well connected Swabbie might have been Court Martialed for giving “aid and comfort to the enemy.”  Hence his chance at military glory as a combat officer went down the drain.  And he acts as if he has been looking to start a war in order to experience the thrill of victory ever since.

Shot Down
Mccain in 1967-vietnam_
Captured by the Vietnamese 

Unable to match the success of his pop and grand pop in the military, Johnny Boy decided to go into politics, because the only way he could rise above their pay grade in the military establishment is to become Commander-In-Chief!   But when he ran for president, cast as the silver haired war hero and paterfamilias of the nation, he picked a motor mouth barbarian from the Alaskan wilds as his running mate.  He made a shameless Faustian bargain in the hope of victory that would have put an irrational dumb bell, Sarah Palin, a heartbeat away from the most powerful office in the world.  Even so, he got his assed kicked bigtime by a mouthy, brilliant, Harvard trained black guy!

That was the stake through the heart that is still driving him batty.  I heard on the Washington grapevine that the Great Mack Daddy took the defeat so badly he used to wonder out loud if his balls were as big as Barack’s.  And it is only natural that, when he compares Cindy to Michelle – one a rich, white, pampered, spoiled, dope fiend; the other a daughter of the black working class with an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a Harvard Law Degree, just like her honey in the Oval Office – despite Cindy’s millions Johnny Mack must feel cheated in a wife.

Finally, there is McCain’s curious silence on the ongoing sexual assaults on women serving in the US military; there you have some real criminal thugs.  But John has been silent as a butterfly pissing in the breeze regarding the behavior of his fellow white brass!  Once again he reveals himself to be a shameless hypocrite!  Thus it is reasonable to conclude that there is no question of principle or proprietary involved here. I suspect that Richard Sherman is just a nameless, faceless, black guy upon whom McCain projected all of his hostilities and angst toward President Obama……he may even be suffering from penis envy!

Richard Sherman
 Richard Sherman
The Best in the Business!!!

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Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

January 28, 2014

Conjuring Goddesses and Nymphs

Posted in Ceramic Sculptors, Cultural Matters with tags , , , , on January 5, 2014 by playthell
DSC04645
Exhibition at the John Natsoulas Gallery circa 2013

The Neo-Classic Womanist Art of Michelle Gregor

Not that long ago I thought of clay – in the rare instance when I thought about it at all – as toys to be manipulated and twisted into fantastic shapes by curious children, or as a medium for modeling the work of sculptors for works to be cast in bronze.  This view was fashioned from watching two great New York based artists – Vinnie Bagwell and Gabrielle Koren – who create heroic sculptures in bronze.

However in the San Francisco Bay Area I discovered a community of sculptors for whom clay is the material of choice: ceramic artists.  These sculptors have developed a series of techniques that enable them to produce art objects whose beauty and intricate design place them among the first rank of fine artists.  Professor Michele Gregor is one of the leading lights in this vibrant and growing artistic community.  Mention of her name among colleagues, critics and gifted up-and-comers elicits a torrent of panegyrics.

Her colleague Susannah Israel, herself an outstanding ceramic sculptor and college teacher, wrote of Ms. Gregor’s work in an essay titled Transcendent: Michelle Gregor, David Kuraoka, and Don Reitz – published in Ceramics Art and Perception, Issue 88, 2012.       “Michelle Gregor is a neoclassic ceramic sculptor with a contemporary flavor,  inspired by the urban diversity of the San Francisco Bay Area and informed by previous travel to Bali and Southeast Asia…(she) distills the best of figurative art traditions world-wide, mixed with contemporary influences, to give us the personal expression of an artist whose first allegiance to beauty.”

The recently mounted exhibit at the Natsoulas Gallery, located in the bucolic University town of Davis, set in the heart of Northern California’s agricultural region, was a praisesong to beauty.   Whether we look at the exquisitely executed forms and finishes of the sculpture, or the pathos, pain, wisdom and gravitas on the faces of Ms. Gregor’s women….. everywhere we witness revelations of beauty manifested in myriad ways.  Her sculptures are full figured voluptuous women that radiate an aura of strength and sensuality, no bulimic babes or anorexic Annies here; Professor Gregor is clearly no slave to au courant notions of feminine beauty.

There is also a generous dose of truth in the emotions with which Professor Gregor has invested her sculptures, for it accurately reflects the predicament of women in the world at the dawning of the 21st century.   Whether we take our cue from the dastardly machinations of the Republican Party’s attacks on the rights of American women – at present one of the freest and most empowered groups of women in the world – or women in the Islamic world, who are the most oppressed, we see the rights of women under attack everywhere.

I advance these views as speculation only.  Alas,  it is a risky business attempting to read the minds of artists, since their sensitivity and imagination often operate on a different frequency from the rest of us.  Yet if the artist offers the  work for public exhibition without instructing us on how we should view it, then we must assume that they intend us to make of their offering what we will.  That is what I have done with Ms. Gregors’ splendid show.

Fascinated by my discovery of what great ceramic artists can do with clay, which is a fancy name for special sand, I have sought to learn how these latter day alchemists turn clay into timeless art treasures. Looking at the delicate colors in the sculptures of Professor Gregor in the photographs below, they remind me of impressionist paintings about classical myths.  The question every thoughtful observer must ponder is: “How is it possible to heat an object to over 2,000 degrees and it not turn out charred?”

The answer to this lies in the fact that great ceramic artists must know something of science, because in ceramics art and science merge.  Professor Israel, who can go seamlessly from discussing techniques for glazing and firing sculptures in a wide variety of kilns, to the chemical uniqueness that distinguishes clay from mere sand, is a classic example of this merger.

In discussing the techniques Ms. Gregor employed in producing the beautiful sculptures in this exhibit,  Israel tells us “Gregor emerged early on as a particularly fine colorist, and her subtle brush work shows the unmistakable evidence of originality and dedicated practice.  Her figures wear colors as subtle and sophisticated as an oil painting, but here, these effects depend upon intensive thermochemical changes occurring within molten glass inside the kiln.  Calculated to a nicety, she layers raw glaze, so delicately positioned that it melts and flows, to create the convincing illusion of a silk garment over skin.”  There are several sculptures in this exhibit that demonstrate this technique.

A splendid Example of Professor Gregor’s Technique
DSC04590
Turning Clay into fine Art

Fortunately, it is not necessary to possess even a small fraction of what Professor Israel knows about ceramics in order to be edified and spiritually elevated from experiencing Ms. Gregor’s art.  Many of these works possess great spiritual power, and the messages they communicate are as universal as the poignant portraits of human character painted by Shakespeare.

The power of Ms. Gregor’s art as womanist propaganda was succinctly explained by Chairman Mao Tse Tung, leader of the largest mass transformative movement in history.  In his famous Lectures at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, held in his mountain hideaway during the heat of a revolutionary war, Chairman Mao observed: “All art is propaganda but not all propaganda is art….in order for art to succeed as propaganda it must first succeed as art.”  Hence Professor Gregor’s power as a propagandist for universal humanist values lies in her spectacular success at producing great art.

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Pictures From the Exhibition

DSC04579

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I Loooves Michelle!

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Cried John Natsoulas, Gallery Director

A Deep Communion

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Between Art and Artist

Professor Israel Droppin Science!

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Offering an impromptu disquisition on the elements of great Art

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Professor Gregor
Michel the Artist
Hangin with her Peeps

Note: I first met Michelle Gregor – Professor of Art and head of the Ceramics Program at San Jose City College – in September while she was working on this exhibition and I found her to be very well informed on the major issues that converge to shape the human condition in our time.  She was not only knowledgeable but committed to adding her voice to those calling for the elevation of humankind.  Hence it comes as no surprise to me that her work mirrors this concern; not as mere agitprop but as fine art achieved on the highest level.  Thus she is a paragon of what the French call the “Engaged Artist.”

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For a demonstration of how ceramic artist work their magic…
http://youtu.be/8XfczswBjJc
…double click to see master potter David Mcdonald
 See Professors Gregor and Israel conduct a workshop
http://youtu.be/cSzZFTaRpRw 
Double click on link above
Text and Photos by:
Playthell G. Benjamin
San Francisco, California
January 2014
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