Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Buddy and Bird (Kansas City Lightning)

Earlier this month I read Kansas City Lightning, a new biography of the great Charlie Parker by Stanley Crouch.

Stanley Crouch
Right away I decided to write a little bit about Crouch's book, because I love Charlie Parker and his music. I'll still write about Kansas City Lightning, at least a little bit. But the idea has morphed into something else. Reading this book became one of those pleasant experiences where one thing links to another; it led me into other stuff.

I enjoyed Kansas City Lightning quite a bit. I can’t remember now where I first heard of it, but when I did I immediately requested it via interlibrary loan. I expected a rather straight-forward biography. Kansas City Lightning is not straight-forward.

Crouch performed a great deal of primary research over many years, including interviews with Parker's first wife. Perhaps the first thing to note is that this book focuses almost exclusively on Parker’s early life. It ends just as he begins to establish himself in New York, where he became the Bird we know and love. I saw no indication that Crouch intends a second volume. He may, and I hope he does. Crouch is a jazz authority and an incisive social commentator, and a follow-up would be invaluable. But with several other Charlie Parker biographies already extant, Crouch may think his later life is a well-worn trail.

In any case, my interest in Charlie Parker was renewed. I picked up copies, again via interlibrary loan, of Celebrating Bird by Gary Giddins, and Charlie Parker: His Music and Life, by Carl Woideck. Crouch’s text directed me to both. It is plain that Stanley Crouch has not only researched Charlie Parker extensively; he also shared his research with Giddins and Woideck, both of whom acknowledge this generosity.

If I have any criticism of Kansas City Lightning, it’s that Crouch indulges in extended digressions that aren’t always completely relevant. I don’t really mind, though. They provide context, and have gotten me interested in, for example, checking out Jack Johnson, the boxer.

Buddy Bolden
One of these digressions got me looking further into the legendary Buddy Bolden. Crouch discusses him over some four pages, and references In Search of Buddy Bolden by Donald Marquis. (This meant another trip to the library.) Bolden was a New Orleans cornetist active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is considered among the first, if not the first, to play the style of improvisational music that evolved into jazz.

If only we could hear Bolden’s sound! But Bolden ceased playing around 1906. Marquis describes a near-mythic recording by Bolden and his band, said to have been made on one of those old-fashioned cylinders. In 1939, one of Bolden's former sidemen told journalist Charles E. Smith that the recording “had been made before 1898, and Smith ... began an extensive search for it. [His] leads met frustrating dead ends...” By this time Bolden was dead. The cylinder was supposedly made by one Oscar Zahn. A revised edition of the Marquis book reports that in 1999 Marquis got a letter from Zahn’s niece, who wrote that a shed on her property, containing many of her late uncle's old cylinder recordings, was torn down in the early 1960s – and the cylinder collection destroyed along with it.

There is only one known photograph of Buddy Bolden. It's the group shot at the bottom of this post. Bolden is second from the left, in the rear, holding the cornet. The other Bolden image on this page is a painting thought to be made around 1895.

The apparently lost-forever cylinder is listed on a Library of Congress site.

There’s an interesting article from 1957 about Charles E. Smith’s search for the cylinder.

I found a curious, semi-official Buddy Bolden web site.

And Charlie Parker? Bird lives. Check out the video below. Coleman Hawkins plays off the top; Bird comes in at 1:12. A remarkable contrast in styles!

And be sure to read Kansas City Lightning.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Anti-Fan: An Inchoate Football Rant

So, the Denver Broncos are headed to the Super Bowl. No surprise there. They'll take on the Seattle Seahawks, and easily defeat them, on February 2.

I live in the Greater Denver area, but I'm not a Broncos fan. I like them more than I used to, because I've always liked Peyton Manning; he's an amazing quarterback. Yet I can't fully come around.

It isn't just the Broncos. I enjoy football and watch it all the time; it's a good distraction. But I'm completely turned off by the culture of professional sports, and the enormous amount of money driving it.

A repulsive sector within this culture is the sycophantic media that brings us games each weekend. Those nitwit sportscasters and bigmouth ex-jocks – self-important, under-educated, proud of it – are offensive, as are the toadies who write local sports columns.

Primarily, the job of these people is to elevate pro sports to a level far beyond its true worth. I often watch games with the sound turned down.

Most of these media lickspittle have been seduced by the extravagant rewards that come with their jobs. They are without shame. Before Manning came along, the local media here, print and electronic, shredded every Bronco quarterback since John Elway. Even Tim Tebow, after a brief honeymoon, felt their wrath. Their sole offense? They weren't John Elway!

Show me the money. A major part of football revenue, of course, is in the advertising. When you watch a game on TV, commercials give three main messages: drink beer, buy a car, and join the army. There's an additional message for men of a certain age: pop a pill to cure that erectile dysfunction (temporarily), but call your doctor if it lasts more than four hours.

Anyway ... in spite of everything, I enjoy football. I'll watch the Super Bowl; I may even be invited to a Super Bowl party. How 'bout those Broncos?

I grew up a Lions fan. Poor me! Most years the Lions are anywhere from abysmal to middling good. Never a serious contender. But I am nothing if not loyal; another reason I don't like the Broncos. I do not easily switch allegiance. But the Lions are a long way from the Super Bowl.

There's an air of inevitability about the Broncos this year. I'm hardly alone in predicting they'll win on February 2. In baseball it is axiomatic that good pitching will beat good hitting. Is there a similar axiom in football? The Seahawks are supposed to be a very good defensive team. But Peyton Manning is an amazing quarterback. He's going to pick their defense apart.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Toilet Appreciation

What a piece of work is the modern commode!

Incredibly, my discourse on toilets a couple of years ago remains the single most visited post on this entire blog, according to the blogspot counter (although the dump festival is catching up). It's quite puzzling, although I've speculated on why it may be.

I had to fix our toilet again the other day. This time the lift arm snapped. It was a cheap piece of plastic, so of course it gave up the ghost after fewer than ten thousand flushes.

But I had that usual sense of wonder – how ingenious an invention is the toilet! What happens when you flush? You press a lever. That activates the lift arm, which pulls a chain, which lifts the rubber flapper, which lets all the water in the tank rush into the toilet bowl, which by weight of water forces the contents of the bowl through the outflow passage and into a mystery tube, and thence our pristine water supply.

Or something like that.

Anyway, I had to replace the lift arm. As luck would have it I already had a toilet repair kit. But it was the same kind I used before, so I wound up replacing the old cheap lift arm with a new cheap lift arm.

The whole process only took a few minutes. It was easy; I didn't need any tools, didn't have to consult a repair manual, or search for a YouTube video.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Grain Elevator: Rehab At Last

That rickety old grain elevator in my town is finally getting its desperately-needed overhaul.

Work underway: the grain elevator on a recent winter morning
I've written about the grain elevator before: how it's been the subject of an ongoing conflict between real estate developers, anxious to tear it down and grab a prime piece of commercial property, and preservationists who call it a part of my town's heritage.

The preservationists won the battle. The long-delayed first step in rehabbing the grain elevator is stabilizing it. When I drove by recently, I noticed for the first time that work has finally begun (above). Various plans for future use have been bandied about, but frankly I'm not sure just what they intend to do after this first phase is complete.

The structure is more than a hundred years old. It sits alongside some railroad tracks but hasn't been used since the mid-1950s. In recent years it's been inhabited mostly by various wildlife. But I love this old stuff, so I side with the preservationists.

On a pleasant winter morning a few years ago
Saving the grain elevator may be part of a trend. Just today, an article in the local press said elected officials here are adding incentives for owners of historic properties to preserve them. They'll do away with requirements to have properties declared landmarks.

The article did not say anything about the grain elevator. And it used landmark as a verb – "to landmark" – which isn't necessarily the same as having a property designated an historic landmark.

Still, it's a good thing. There must be, or must have been, a lot of red tape involved; the article says having to landmark a building or property is too often a deterrent. “We have had three or four different commercial property owners who showed interest (in landmarking) and then backed out,” one of these brainiacs declared.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

This Is Not Your Father's Marijuana

Once upon a time, it woulda been a dream come true: marijuana is legal!

During my Reckless Youth phase, the idea was – well, a pipe dream.

And yet that dream has come true! Marijuana, for all intents and purposes, is as legal as a shady stock deal. A law approved by voters here in 2012 went into effect with the first of the year. Media types are one-upping each other with bad, predictable puns, like "the buzz on the new law" and "Rocky Mountain high."

But, alas! It's a little late for moi. Yeah, I'll be tempted to step inside a pot emporium, first time I see one. Novelty, you know? But I won't buy anything, or accept a free sample. Smokin' dope, I'm afraid, has long since lost its charm.

I still welcome its legalization, though. It's a new source of revenue, taxable, and a means of eliminating the criminality long associated with it.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em – if you're so inclined.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Resolutions: A Story for New Year's Day

Have you broken your New Year's resolution yet? What's taking you so long?

Some people take New Year's resolutions seriously. That can be a good thing: start the new year with a vow to improve yourself, or correct some detrimental behavior.

Imagine: some guy at a crowded party on New Year's Eve. It's a few minutes before midnight. He goes into the bathroom and lights a cigarette. Resolved: My last smoke forever.

As he savors that glorious first puff, he flips on the overhead fan so as not to alert his non-smoking host. Then he crumples his pack of Winstons and lobs it deftly into a wastebasket.

Soon he's back in the living room with the other revelers. The clock strikes midnight, and on the wide screen Smart TV, the big ball falls in Times Square. He yells Happy New Year! along with everyone else, grabs a woman he does not know, and presses his smoky lips against hers.

Fifteen minutes later, in the throes of his first nicotine fit, he's back in the bathroom sifting through that wastebasket. There mighta been one last smoke in there, he thinks. But when he finds the package and uncrumples it, it is empty.

So he bums one from that woman he just kissed. The party's host admonishes them: if you must smoke, please step outside. They do. The woman has but one cigarette, for she too had thought of quitting, and only brought a few. She is willing to share it. It is a Winston, his brand. As they pass it back and forth, they fall in love.

Or something like that. It could be that a year later, they get married. Again it is New Year's Eve. They both still smoke, but this time, instead of resolving to quit, they resolve to love each other, til death do they part. Afterward they fly off on their honeymoon – to Winston-Salem, or Marlboro Country, or some other ironic destination.

Or something like that. It could be that both are ticking time bombs, with monstrously carcinogenic tobacco sediments in their lungs already spawning cancer. But this isn't an anti-smoking rant, so I'll leave that out.

I don't do resolutions, myself. No behavior will change because of a new calendar. Behaviors change because an individual wants to change. You want to quit smoking; you want to get off the couch and start working out. It doesn't matter whether it's December 31 or August 9. If you want to change for the better, there's no time like the present – if you'll pardon the cliche.