Monday, January 21, 2013

What's missing from the music of the Obama inauguration

At President Barack Obama’s second inauguration ceremony earlier today, Beyoncé sang “The Star-Spangled Banner," American Idol winner (and former Ron Paul supporter) Kelly Clarkson sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee” (it’s liber-TEE, not liber-DEE), and sweet, balding Baby James Taylor sang “America the Beautiful” (a little sharp there, James).

Tonight, the music continues at the inaugural balls—just two official ones this year, due to current economic conditions. At the Commander in Chief’s Ball, performers will include Alicia Keys, Brad Paisley, Chris Cornell, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Hudson, and Marc Anthony. At the Inaugural Ball, Alicia Keys, Black Violin, Brad Paisley, Far East Movement, fun., John Legend, Katy Perry, Maná, Smokey Robinson, Soundgarden, Stevie Wonder, Usher, and members of the “Glee” cast.

Where’s the classical music? I’m prompted to ask by Tessa Retterath Jones, who works for the Schubert Club, a major presenter of classical artists in the Twin Cities. (In April, Jessye Norman will give a Schubert Club recital; she sang at President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration.) Tessa wrote on Facebook: “Just because 2009 was a screwup isn’t a reason to abandon classical altogether. There is no way Kelly Clarkson should be added to the list including Jessye Norman, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma. This was one of the best ways to familiarize the masses with some of the absolute best classical… Really frustrated by this.”

With pianist Gabriela Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill, Perlman and Ma played at Obama’s first inauguration, the “screwup” Tessa mentions. It was so cold that Tuesday the musicians knew they would never make it through the new work John Williams had written for the occasion, so what we heard over the national airwaves was a prerecorded version of the piece. It wasn’t Milli Vanilli (that comparison was made as soon as the news went public), but it wasn’t live. (And neither was Beyoncé.)

Earlier today, the Los Angeles Times noted that “one mark of a competent chief executive—especially one responsible for leading a nation—is an ability to learn from past mistakes. On that count, President Obama’s omission of classical music from his second inauguration ceremony on Monday … seems less a cultural snub than a wise move. That’s because the classical portion of his first inauguration ceremony … was a fiasco.”

Oh, puh-leeze. Let’s agree that it might be best not to expose an acoustic instrument , such as a violin or cello, to freezing temperatures. (Taylor played acoustic guitar, but he kept it very short, singing just the first verse of “America the Beautiful” in a performance that lasted less than a minute and a half.) Let’s not make this a matter of Obama “learning from his mistakes” like a “competent” chief executive. Did he personally choose the music? Pretty to think so, but doubtful. Is featuring classical music at a national – make that international – ceremony like an inauguration a “mistake”? Shut your mouth, LA Times.

The Washington Post put this more politely: “Obama’s well-meaning but not deeply informed feelings toward classical music have not exactly been encouraged by critical response to his forays into the field … So perhaps we critics should change our tone. Sorry. Mr. President. We appreciate your taking an interest in our field. Please continue to notice this music, and we promise to hold our tongues for the next four years about whether or not we agree with your approach.” Well, we don’t have to beat him up, but neither do we have to keep silent. (And “please continue to notice this music” is simply pitiful.)

The same Post writer, Anne Midgette, earlier wrote a piece called “White House could help classical music by having fun with it.” Full of good ideas, this still makes programming classical music sound like an arduous, head-scratching task. We’re talking about the White House, for God’s sake. The President of the United States can get anyone he wants to perform there, except, perhaps, someone whose political views prevent an appearance. But it can’t be that hard to find out who the really exciting classical performers are today, crook a finger, and bring them in. And maybe keep it casual and relaxed. Nix the tuxes and set aside some Tweet Seats.

The total omission of classical music from the inauguration ceremony and both inaugural balls is deeply disappointing. Renee Fleming could have sung “The Star-Spangled Banner.” So could Kathleen Battle, Audra McDonald, or why not bring back Jessye Norman? Why not have violinist Mark O’Connor play one of the balls, or Turtle Island Quartet? They’re all fun. Joshua Bell is fun, and he’s also cute, which shouldn’t really matter but does.

As deeply disappointing (maybe more, for me) is the total omission of jazz, America’s increasingly marginalized art form. Is jazz no longer fun? Tell that to Robert Glasper or any of today’s musicians who are infusing jazz with hip-hop (and hip-hop with jazz). What about Esperanza Spalding? Hello? I could name a lot of names, but I won’t. (Okay, one more: Poncho Sanchez. Now there’s a party in a beard, and putting his Latin jazz orchestra somewhere on the bill would have been a nice gracias to the Latino voters who helped Obama win reelection.) When the President and his staff want more names, there’s a terrific resource within shouting distance. Pianist, composer, performer, bandleader, and MacArthur fellow Jason Moran is Artistic Advisor for Jazz at the Kennedy Center. BTW, his wife, Alicia Hall Moran, is an opera singer, and she probably knows a few people.

Millions enjoyed Beyoncé, Kelly and James at the ceremony earlier today, and those lucky enough to have tickets will no doubt have a great time at the balls tonight. This is not about disrespecting the talents or efforts of those tapped to perform at these momentous and widely publicized events. Rather, it’s about expressing dismay at an opportunity lost to show that America is also about classical music and jazz. Both should have a presence in today’s events. Not because including them is the right thing to do, and heaven knows it’s not the politic thing to do, but because they are part of our national fabric and identity. They are vital and festive and celebratory. Let’s invite them to the next party.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Omer Avital and His Band of the East at the St. Paul JCC

When: Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 • Where: The St. Paul JCCWho: Omer Avital, bass; Greg Tardy, tenor saxophone; Nadav Remez, guitar; Jason Lindner, piano, Fender Rhodes, and electronic keyboard; Yonadav Halevy, drums

L2R: Remez, Lindner, Avital, Tardy, Halevy
by John Whiting
Omer Avital’s Band of the East is an exciting, mind-expanding jazz quintet. Led by composer and bassist Avital, who came to NYC in the late 1990s in the first wave of Israeli jazz musicians to move here and quickly establish themselves as serious players, they played a generous set in the gym at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center on Thursday night.

Jeffrey Richman, the JCC’s cultural arts director, brings important Israeli jazz musicians to St. Paul every year around this time. Some of the audiences for his annual show have been a bit sparse, due to any number of reasons: it’s jazz, it’s jazz in a gym, it’s jazz in a gym at a JCC, it’s jazz in a gym at a JCC featuring musicians who rarely venture west of the Hudson, and it’s not advertised much. Richman has become skilled at rallying the jazz-loving media troops behind him. Band of the East had a good crowd, probably thanks in part to MPR’s David Cazares, who did an on-air story about Avital that morning. That’s what brought the two men sitting behind me to the show.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Jeremy Walker's hat

We've been here before with the Jeremy Walker hat thing, but he and I have known each other for a long time and we're beyond being casual acquaintances (at least, I think we are), so here we are again.

For me, Hats for Cats—the hats I make for jazz musicians and others associated in some way with jazz or music (sometimes it's a musician's mom, for example, sometimes a club owner or a server)—are a type of karma. If you believe that what goes around comes around, and I do, with all of my heart, then a gift made by hand with respect and affection is, by definition, bankable. Earlier today, another musician for whom I've made a hat (I've also made hats for his son, born nine months ago today) said that he thinks the hats are talismans. I hope he's right. Especially those baby hats.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Remembering Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012)

By Maud Hixson

Maud Hixson is a jazz vocalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has performed with international artists including Warren Vaché, Jon Weber, and Evan Christopher. In October 2012, she appeared in concert with Richard Rodney Bennett in the Midtown Jazz Series in New York. bb

Maud Hixson and Richard Rodney Bennett
Photo by Joe Josephs
“Whatever happens from here on in, I’m way ahead of the game,” goes the Johnny Mercer lyric from a song he wrote with Robert Emmett Dolan, which I first encountered on a recording by singer Carol SloaneI’m Way Ahead of the Game is one of those songs that on first hearing seems always to have existed. It turns out Sloane learned it from composer and pianist Richard Rodney Bennett. 

I discovered this when Bennett and I struck up an email correspondence last winter, after he heard my recording of the song. I read up on him and found his staggering resumé: composer of over 50 film scores; jazz pianist extraordinaire; knighted! My first notes to him were tentatively addressed to “Mr. Bennett,” then “Sir.” He came back with “Mr. Bennett, indeed!” and “The Sir is only for people who don’t know me.” 

I bought a copy of I Never Went Away, a CD of just him at the piano, singing standards and some of his own songs. I already liked him so much personally that I wondered what I would do if I didn’t enjoy it. I put it on and instantly sensed that he would be taking great care of all matters of taste and musicality, honesty, and emotion; all I had to do was take it all in. I was moved by his title song, his choices of others’ songs, the Devonshire lilt in his voice. His ideas at the piano were wonderful. It wasn’t long before we discovered our mutual love of Noël Coward, and Richard invited me to visit him in New York to see Star Quality, the Coward exhibition that was coming to Lincoln Centers Library for the Performing Arts.

This narrow path widened into a flight from Minneapolis to New York on Easter Sunday, 2012 (with a short detour on the subway--I went to 125th Street and had to turn back). I spent a few minutes bracing myself on a sun-warmed bench in the Bull Moose Dog Run across from his apartment as I prepared myself to meet this great man. I needn’t have waited, as he welcomed me like an old friend. In no time at all, he’d consumed the chocolate I’d brought him, spurned the tea (he said he’d detested tea since boarding school), and was plying me with his homemade egg-drop soup and the verse to “I’m Way Ahead of the Game” from his lead sheet. Neither of us had ever been able to find the original sheet music. 

We offered up our stories to each other--like the one about his dinner with Bette Davis, where he and the other guests hunted all evening for her brooch, which she later found she’d left at home. I had recently seen the movie Bennett and Davis had worked on together, The Nanny (for which he’d written the score), and I told him about finding my way towards jazz as a teenager through the MGM musicals of the 1940s. We also conversed with his cats, Mabel and Amelia.

The next day, at the Noël Coward exhibition, I was staring into a glass case at the book Coward had on his bedside table when he died (The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit) when Richard crooked his index finger at me from across the room with a grin. He was standing near a black-and-white photo on the wall. It had been taken during what Coward termed “Holy Week,” a series of events in London celebrating his 70th birthday. This particular image was from the Midnight Matinée, a performance that ran from midnight till 4 a.m., and Richard was onstage with the other performers. He told me he had played Coward’s “Poor Little Rich Girl” and “Sigh No More,” later being complimented by the Master himself for his harmonies. 

The cover of an early 1970s album of classical
music by Richard Rodney Bennett
There were other treasures in the exhibition, like a rather unbelievable and charming letter from Garbo to Coward proposing marriage on a long-ago Leap Year Day. Then we came upon a man who greeted us warmly--Richard pulled his beard--and was presented as set designer and costumer Tony Walton. He and Richard had worked together on the film Murder on the Orient Express, and I mentioned to Richard later that I’d read about Tony in Julie Andrews’ autobiography, which also contained a memorable piece of advice. Andrews’ voice teacher had once explained to her the difference between an amateur and a professional: the amateur practices till they get it right, the professional till they can’t go wrong.

A few days later, we went to hear Richards friend Joyce Breach sing at the Midtown Jazz Series at Saint Peter's Church. They’d made a wonderful album together, Lovers After All. Before I knew it, Richard and I had been booked to perform a concert for the same series in the fall. So I went back to Minneapolis and put the date on the calendar: Wednesday, October 17, 2012. 

I read a quite thick biography (and very funny read) about Richard’s life and began to delve even further into his body of work, enjoying his scores for Indiscreet and Far from the Madding Crowd; his albums with Cleo Laine and other singers; his own songwriter tributes to Johnny Mercer and John LaTouche. Meanwhile, Richard was in London, touring with singer Claire Martin and enjoying his flat there. He told me in an email that a friend of his had recently asked him what he thought of me. “I told him you were a mean bitch,” he joked. He was back in New York by August, and he invited me to come again and work on our concert. I combined this with a trip to New Jersey to play a club date at Shanghai Jazz with trumpeter WarrenVaché.

Richard loved to cook. He gave me his recipe for Eggs Mollet, and they’re so popular at my house now that they’re simply referred to as The Eggs. He introduced me to Zabar’s deli on my first visit, and I’ve been pining for it ever since. He showed me how to make his famous Italian pine nut tart and taught me to chop onions without tears by biting on a wooden spoon (of course, he just did it, then waited for me to ask him what he was doing). He also began drawing me little bus maps, as my transportation misadventures continued, and he admitted he had never really taken the subway in New York. 

One of Richard Rodney Bennett's collages
Photo by Maud Hixson
He was fond of making lists, usually seated at his drafting table where he read or worked on collages. His walls were covered with collages and bookshelves. I found the Noël Coward section in his library, and he pointed out the first book of Coward’s he’d acquired in his youth, Collected Sketches and Lyrics, and gave me his extra copy. I stayed up late reading it in bed, laughing at Coward’s own Cockney parody of a scene from his play Private Lives.

We both had best friends from school days named Veronica (mine lives in Brooklyn now), and I came back from an outing with her to find him engrossed in the journals his Veronica kept during their time together at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He said it seemed they were forever going out dancing and having the flu, and he wondered where they got the energy. We also sat at his two upright pianos in his study and shared songs. On my first visit, he was playing away, and when I asked him if he’d like to play something of his own, he looked up at the wall in front of him, proclaimed “I’m not interested!,” then went on playing songs by other people.  

He played many of his favorite recordings for me, and I played some that I’d brought along for him to hear. One I’d been intrigued by after hearing it in a Dickens bicentennial program was a song by William Walton. Richard retrieved a book of his compositions for me to peruse and told me that he’d enjoyed a long correspondence with the composer, later discovering that he was one of only a few people who wrote to Walton in his later life. Richard said he wished he had known that, because he would have written to him every week.

When I returned to New York in October, Richard met me at the elevator, and I crowed “I didn’t go to 125th Street!” When we took the bus together, I got to watch him scare the daylights out of riders who were speaking too loudly on their cell phones. He would begin with a very loud “SHHHH!” which made them jump out of their seat. They would forget a minute later and he would follow up with a percussive “Shut! Up!” that would finish them and start a wave of giggling in the bystanders. He took enormous pleasure in it--“It’s my new thing!” 

He made curry for me and his dear friends Gerry Geddes and Frank Underwood before we all headed to Birdland for open mic night. The names and characteristics of various singers were bandied about. When Rod Stewart’s came up, I mentioned the fact that whenever I hear a recording of his in a public place, in the time it takes me to figure out whose voice I’m hearing, I invariably think, “Who’s that old lady?” That got a spit take from everyone at the table. Later that evening, performing for a hushed crowd, Richard sang and played “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” announcing it as “a song from my childhood.” Then he brought me up to sing Harry Warrens “The More I See You,” and when we sat down again, Lorna Luft came over and said into my ear, “That was great!” I couldnt help thinking of her mothers famous line: “Toto, Ive a feeling were not in Kansas anymore.

On the day of our concert, we put the finishing touches on our program, and I asked Richard if I could use his iron. He slammed his open hand on the kitchen table and said, “There are limits!” We took the bus to Saint Peters in Midtown and spent a sunny hour sharing great songs. They included Mercer and Kern’s “I’m Old-Fashioned” (with Richard singing Noël Coward’s additional lyrics) and, of course, “I’m Way Ahead of the Game.” 

There was such a feeling of expansiveness in the space, the sound, the warmth of the crowd, and the arrangements, if you could call them that. We’d installed certain signposts along the way, but those didn’t stop us from just listening and moving as a unit, which we did so easily (and stylishly, I thought) that I had no nerves and was overjoyed. Afterward, we laughed and chatted over lunch with many of his friends, including Ronny Whyte, who had booked us for the concert. 

It’s hard to realize that performance was Richards last. Like the song says, “I’ve had the kind of adventure I’ve read about, I’m way ahead of the game.” After I returned home, I met a rare music collector via email who found the original sheet music for the song and sent it to me. I mailed a copy to Richard, and it was the last thing I was able to give him. He gave me so many songs and stories, and his faith and humor and love. I already miss him terribly.

Richard Rodney Bennett died December 24, 2012, in New York City at age 76. bb