Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Sometimes being “chemo sick” robs a person of their creative connections, not always, but often enough so that when those cool, lucid, and inspired moments do occur, I have to take advantage of them.  Hence, a post containing original music.  A first for me here, but after all, it’s all about “call and response.”

The solo was written, recorded, and mixed, using a my 2001 Fender Texas Strat (Humbucker pick up)  played live through my little red Fender 25 R amp, recorded through an Olympus DM-20 digital recorder, HD, and and a omni-directional mic suspended and balanced between live amp and computer backing track.  Reggae style backing track composed using Chord Pulse 2.4 software in the key of Am.  Sound was mixed using Audacity.  All photos edited in Windows Movie Maker, using Google images from “public domain.”


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Colorized version of famous black and white photo of Pops playing for Lucille and the Sphinx, 1961—© Bettmann/Corbis photo

Colorized version of famous black and white photo of Pops playing for Lucille and the Sphinx, 1961—© Bettmann/Corbis photo

As fate would have it, the one rare time Louis Armstrong’s August 24th, birthday (114th) happens to fall on a Tuesday, the day of my jazz show, I was out of town.  I’ve programmed Armstrong birthday jazz shows almost every year since I started programming jazz 16 years ago, but my shows were always either before or after his birthday, never on his birthday.

Whatever fate wants, fate gets…I think Bob Dylan said that.

Being away from the board for two weeks meant that I needed a sub for two shows.  Subs for regular show hosts can sometimes be an iffy proposition—not unlike the many times I needed a classroom sub.  I try not to complain.  I’m grateful that they can fill in to play jazz.  Fortunately, Pam Trenary, who has wonderful taste in jazz, filled in for me, and she put together a enjoyable playlist for the evening.

Thanks to Marc Myers, Wall Street Journal music and arts writer and long-time jazz blogger, I discovered jazz photographer Herb Snitzer.  He’s had a prolific career (born in 1932) as a professional photographer, taking photographs that, in his words, bear out the truth that “Art has the capacity to transform and transcend that which is pedestrian and commonplace.”

I am drawn to his jazz photographs.  He has photographed jazz musicians from Louis Armstrong to Wynton Marsalis, capturing them in particularly revealing and human moments.

Here are a few examples of his work:

Herb Snitzer's Pops on the Road, 1960

Pops on tour, 1960, photographed by Herb Snitzer.

This is one of the most unusual photographs of Pops I’ve ever seen.  Taken in 1960, Pop’s looks beat in this pic: With cigarette in hand, wearing his Star of David around his neck, the blown upper lip, Snitzer has captured him with a distant, far-away looking expression on his face. It’s neither a sad nor a painful looking expression—he’s just somewhere else at that moment. The Star of David he’s wearing around his neck is a gesture of respect for the Karnofskys, the New Orleans Jewish family who showed Louis so much kindness and who helped raise him.

It’s common knowledge among Louis Armstrong scholars that the Karnofskys encouraged Louis’ interest in music: “They really wanted me to be something in life…It was the Jewish family who instilled in me singing from the heart”(qtd. in Garfinkle 156). It is also well-known story that the Karnofskys lent him five dollars to buy his first cornet, which he purchased from Jake Fink who ran Fink’s Loan Office at Rampart and Perdido in New Orleans, specializing in musical instruments.

In this next photograph, taken during a New England tour in Tanglewood, MA, June 1960, Louis just looks tired.  Once onstage, however, his performances, even toward the end of his life, never disappointed his beloved audience. He was  transformative as a musician and performer for both his audience and himself.

Somber Louis by Herb Snitzer

Somber Louis by Herb Snitzer

Pops was always happiest (just look at that smile on his face) at his home in Queens, New York, just hangin’ out, listening to old records and his reel-to-reel tapes, creating his beautiful jazz collages, a visual output of his creative genius, and with Lucille always right by his side.

Louis outside his beloved home in Queens

Louis with Lucille outside his beloved home in Queens, NY, in 1960.

Finally, here is an example of Pops’ elaborate collage work he used to decorate as many as 500 reel-to-reel boxes.  Double that number because he covered both front and back with his collages:

This is a flipped image of the original from the Louis Armstrong Archives, which resides at Queens College in Flushing New York.  You can see typed reference to Swiss Kriss.

This is a flipped image of the original from the Louis Armstrong Archives, which resides at Queens College in Flushing New York. You can see typed reference to Swiss Kriss.

It’s hard to make out the lettering on this one.

Dixieland Jubilee

From Louis Armstrong Archives, Queens College, Flushing, New York

Marian McPartland of Piano Jazz fame with “Swiss Kriss” descriptions.

Swiss Kriss Collage

Jazz pianist Marian McPartland, Louis, and “Swiss Kriss.” From the Louis Armstrong Archive, Queens College, Flushing, New York

For more on Louis Armstrong’s collages and collection of reel-to-reel taps, see this edition of the spring 2008 edition of The Paris Review.

The Louis Armstrong aesthetic is complex, yet it belies an unmistakable child-likeness that allows us see Pops as one of us, one of the family.  I certainly have always seen him that way, and I thank him for it.

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“Lenox Avenue: Midnight”—Langston Hughes

The rhythm of life
Is a jazz rhythm,

The gods are laughing at us.
The broken heart of love,
The weary, weary heart of pain,—
To the rumble of street cars,
To the swish of rain.

Lenox Avenue,
And the gods are laughing at us.

Gene Krupa Album Art

Jazz album cover art from the brilliant Jim Flora: jazz as aural cubism. See his site jimflora.com


We can accept this fact at the onset: Yes, modern jazz is a complicated music art form.

Nevertheless, like anything artistic that has any aesthetic value, even if it is complicated and we do not understand it, art can still touch us emotionally by what we see or hear. This is true for any of the arts. Yet, music or painting can only touch us if we are willing to temporarily suspend our judgments and keep an open mind.

Picasso’s Women of Algiers (Version O), 1955

Frankly, I do not understand Picasso’s work, even with my limited university art course back ground, but my lack of understanding does not hinder me from being moved, even in some indefinable way, by his work. For example, Picasso’s painting Women of Algiers (Version O), which recently sold for a record $179.4 million, is visually stunning, even shocking, its images and geographic shapes complicated.  The painting challenges the way we normally see our balanced and symmetrical world. Rather than a “realistic” representation of objects in the world as seen through the picture window of a painting, Picasso has “deconstructed” the conventions of perspective so that these “objects” become, instead, visual metaphors that refer to or represent these objects. In Picasso’s words, “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction” (The Art Story).

Eugène Delacroix’s The Women of Algier in Their Apartment, 1834

By comparison, it’s interesting to note the conventions Picasso is deconstructing in his painting are found in Eugène Delacroix’s The Women of Algier in Their Apartment, 1834. Apparently, Picasso had an imaginary conversation with Delacroix: “You had Rubens in mind, and painted a Delacroix. I paint [the Les femmes d’Alger series] with you in mind, and make something different again” (Art History News quoting A Picasso Anthology: Documents, Criticism, Reminiscences, ed. by Marilyn McCully, London, 1997). The “something different” is easily apparent when the two paintings are compared side by side.

This is a creative process not unlike that of jazz composers, such as Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and others, who deconstruct a melody as a way of reinventing the original melody by stripping away everything but its “naked atomic elements” (C. Michael Bailey). The reinvented melody then becomes a kind of aural metaphor that references the original melody; what we hear is not the same original melody because we experience it differently.

This is what Teddy Wilson’s version of Gershwin tune “Embraceable You” sounds like (opening bars from the 1959 Columbia LP Mr. Wilson and Mr. Gershwin):

Wilson’s interpretation of the song’s melody is harmonically balanced, uncomplicated, and easily recognizable as melody.

Compare now to Ornette Coleman’s version of the same song (taken from his 1961 Atlantic album This Is Our Music, featuring Coleman on tenor, Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums):


Typically, it is the melody of the song that helps us connect emotionally to it. So, if we cannot identify melody, if we don’t hear it, our natural inclination is to reject this music. We might even claim that this isn’t music at all because there is no melody. Without melody, we may tell ourselves, there is nothing to please us, nothing to keep us listening. The challenge of the Coleman version is that we have to try to connect with his music emotionally in a way we haven’t experienced before.

Jazz music, like Picasso’s cubist paintings, is complex, and challenges us to question the ways we perceive the natural world and to approach the music in unconventional ways. If we have been exposed to classical music all of our lives, jazz may sound, at least on the surface, discordant, unstructured, chaotic, without purpose—no beginning, no middle, and no end.  But jazz music, like painting and novels, doesn’t always conform to popular culture’s expectations, and that, of course, is the way it should be.  After all, “the gods are laughing at us” anyway.

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