BLU NOTES
Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

BLU NOTES: Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

Cuba: The New Normal

Even things that seem necessary, logical and overdue can arrive unexpectedly.

As with President Obama’s announcement on Wednesday that the United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than a half-century.

In his speech, Obama said:

…We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests. And instead, we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries. Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.

Only Congress can lift the official embargo of Cuba, which the incoming Republican majority in both houses is unlikely to support. Yet, according to the president, the United States will: re-establish an embassy in Havana and high ranking officials will visit Cuba; review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism; take steps to increase travel commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba; enable, among other things, the use American credit and debit cards on the island; and significantly increase the amount of money that can be sent to Cuba, and remove limits on remittances that support humanitarian projects, the Cuban people and the emerging Cuban private sector.

All this arrived via considerable drama, involved secret meetings and he involvement of the Pope—as reported in The New York Times:

After winning re-election, Mr. Obama resolved to make Cuba a priority for his second term and authorized secret negotiations led by two aides, Benjamin J. Rhodes and Ricardo Zúñiga, who conducted nine meetings with Cuban counterparts starting in June 2013, most of them in Canada, which has ties with Havana.

Pope Francis encouraged the talks with letters to Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro and had the Vatican host a meeting in October to finalize the terms of the deal. Mr. Obama spoke with Mr. Castro by telephone on Tuesday to seal the agreement in a call that lasted more than 45 minutes, the first direct substantive contact between the leaders of the two countries in more than 50 years.

In his speech, the president said, “these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked.” And this: “It’s time for a new approach.” He lent context to his decision with these words:

Change is hard in our own lives and in the lives of nations. And change is even harder when we carry the heavy weight of history on our shoulders. But today we are making these changes because it is the right thing to do. Today America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past.

Already, church bells in Havana are ringing in celebration. My in-box is stuffed with excited messages from my colleagues, including a good many musicians, about something “we’ve waited a long time to hear.” Furious statements have been fired off by the anti-Castro contingent, including Republican presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (who posted this piece at Huffington Post).

Beyond the effects this sea change will have to relieve needless suffering on the part of innocent Cuban people and lend further maturity, ethical standing and productive thinking to U.S. foreign relations, there will no doubt be a dramatic shift in the context of the culture that has always flowed from the island of Cuba and its essential connections to that of the U.S. As the tone and direction of U.S. policy transforms, the sound of the music that has always bounced between two countries will reverberate more freely and, quite likely, change.

As I recently wrote: “Want to hear the hippest jazz in New York? Follow a Cuban musician. The most exciting storyline right now in New York City jazz and the most invigorating music most often comes from players with Afro Latin roots. That fact, and the specifics of these musical projects, says much about a broadened landscape for what used to be called (but thankfully no longer can) Latin jazz, its elemental value to whatever we call jazz, and to the cultural melting pot that is New York.

In decades of reporting on that cultural beat in New York City, and via four trips to Cuba during the last decade or so, I’ve seen just how deeply and unnaturally the U.S. policy toward Cuba has distorted and at times curtailed this elemental connection. Continue Reading

In Spain, As In New Orleans, Culture Finds Trouble With The Law

Maybe brass band players in New Orleans should sit down and have a talk with the flamenco musicians of Seville, Spain. There’d be some shared rhythmic legacies to discuss, sure. But more to the point, some common and pressing problems with local governments and police.

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been writing consistently about tensions between the celebrated jazz culture of New Orleans and the powers that be in that city—about efforts to inhibit or even shut down cultural expression in ways that reflect not just the forces of gentrification and commercialization but also long-simmering political and social divides.

I’ve also been looking into similar dynamics in other cities—say, when the Giuliani administration in New York City began shutting down rumbas in public parks as part of its “Zero Tolerance” policing program.

A friend just forwarded an article at Truthout by Yossi Bartal that begins like this:

Recently recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and increasingly used by communities in southern Spain to attract tourism, flamenco music and dance seem to enjoy an unprecedented revival all around the world. But the public spaces and social centers that play a major role in the formation of flamenco culture are increasingly threatened by gentrification, newly legislated municipal ordinances and heavy policing.

I’d literally just written these lines:

Now—as a yet undefined “new” New Orleans rubs up against whatever is left of the old one—a revival of rarely enforced ordinances has met a fresh groundswell of activism. Brass bands have been shut down on their customary street corners, where they play for passersby. Music clubs have increasingly been hit with lawsuits and visited by the police responding to phoned-in complaints. All this has happened in the context of swift gentrification of neighborhoods such as Tremé, long a hothouse for indigenous culture. Continue Reading



http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/27946-flamenco-under-attack

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At Revived Minton’s in Harlem, Pianist Bertha Hope Reflects On Her Late Husband

There’s a bona fide scene going on these days under the revived Minton’s banner in Harlem, and it includes both notable music and good food. Next weekend—December 12 and 13—I’ll be sure to be there for Andy Bey, who gets my vote, hands down, as the best living male jazz singer, and who is also his own best accompanist on piano.

Sunday, December 7, pianist Bertha Hope will lead a quintet dedicated the music and memory of her late husband, Elmo Hope, an important jazz pianist and composer whose was a close associate of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell during a time when bebop innovations were being formulated and refined. Although Betha recorded three piano duets with Elmo (who died in 1967) few knew that she was a talented pianist until her 1992 Minor Music release Between Two Kings.

Like Elmo did, Bertha has a gift for subtle innovation. I hope I make it up to Minton’s to hear her. If you’re in New York, you should too. And here’s a little piece I wrote about here a dozen years ago (hence the dated references) for Jazziz magazine, that I’ve dug up in celebration.

By the time Bertha Rosemond was in junior high school in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, she was immersed in music. She’d walk home from school with a boy from her neighborhood who just happened to be destined for jazz immortality, Billy Higgins, and he’d play his sticks on anything he could: a fence, a garbage can lid. They’d trade recordings of the latest music. One day, a friend of Billy’s lent her something exotic, from New York: The Amazing Bud Powell.

“I was hooked,” she recalls, now decades removed at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan. “I heard this interval I hadn’t encountered: the flatted fifth. I kept trying ‘til I could play that beginning.  I was picking it up by ear.” The young Bertha had started on piano at 3, having played in churches for her father, a singer, at 10 or 12, and having been blessed with the ability to hear such things. Continue Reading

Cassandra Wilson on Billie Holiday

I recently got word that Legacy Recordings, a division of Sony Music Entertainment, has signed singer Cassandra Wilson. Wilson’s first album for the label will be “Coming Forth By Day,” which a press release described as “a musical homage to legendary jazz vocalist Billie Holiday” and a “showcase for contemporary yet timeless standards associated with Lady Day.”

Wilson is hardly the first singer to pay such tribute. (My own favorite album along such lines is Dee Dee Bridgewater’s 2010 CD, “Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee” (DDB Records/Emarcy).

Yet Wilson, whose CD is slated for Spring 2015, in time for the centennial of Holiday’s birth, will, I’m certain, have her own distinctive take. (As readers of this blog know, she’s among my favorite musicians. I haven’t heard the music yet. But the news prompted me to dig out a somewhat long soliloquy Wilson gave me about Holiday, when I was writing a piece about Holiday years ago, that began with my asking, “When do you remember first hearing Billie Holiday?” It hints at where she’ll be coming from when she sings these songs: Continue Reading

Top Ten (So Far)

I don’t love making those year-end top 10 lists (for more on why, look here).

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Manhattan: Subrosa’s Soft Launch Hits Hard

Pedrito Martinez/ photo: Michael Weintrob

The bad news: If you’ve never caught the Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez leading his quartet at the midtown Manhattan restaurant Guantanamera, where he held court for nearly a decade, you never will.

“At first we played traditional Cuban songs, but then we decided 
to just play what we love and let people get used to it,” Martinez told me for this feature story I wrote about him in 2012.

People got used to it—enough so that the gig became a scene, drawing players from all walks of music, from Wynton Marsalis to Eric Clapton.

But that gig is done.

The good news: Martinez’s residency lives on—now transplanted to Subrosa, a new venue in Manhattan’s newly fashionable meatpacking district. Subrosa is owned and operated by the Blue Note Entertainment Group, a company anchored by its namesake Greenwich Village jazz club. The new club, which seats 120, feels intimate without seeming cramped, elegant yet not slicked-up: white-painted brick walls and cafe tables give way to a horseshoe-shaped bar in the rear.

By now, Martinez’s mesmerizing talents as singer and percussionist have made him as potent a force on New York’s music scene as there has been in many years, sparking new attention to and possibilities for Afro-Cuban tradition. If Thursday night’s first set was any indication, the high energy, deep musicality and spontaneity of his former Guantanamera residency continues apace.

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Guitarist Marc Ribot: The Future, As Streamed, Look Grim

I’ve been talking to guitarist Marc Ribot lately about the ways in which cultural policy, or lack thereof, challenges the creative music community of which he is a shining light—about musicians and venues being essentially priced out of downtown Manhattan neighborhoods they helped put on the map through cultural achievements. (If you want some background on those issues, try this Youtube clip of a City Hall demonstrationfrom 2007.)

I’ve also been listeningto Ribot’s CD, “Live at the Village Vanguard” (Pi), which should make many Top 10 lists, and through its inclusion of bassist Henry Grimes and its allusions to the legacy of Albert Ayler, speaks of the legacy Ribot taps.

But Ribot’s music and his activism is wide-ranging in its considerations and its reach. As president of the Content Creators Coalition (c3), he is conducting a study of the economic impact of Spotify and other streaming services on their artist members.

Which led to  the following post by Ribot’s to The New York Times online opinion pages, titled: “If Streaming Represents the Future of Music, Then My Own Future is Looking Grim.” Continue Reading

Harry Shearer On What’s Funny About Nixon And What’s Not In New Orleans

At Manhattan’s Slipper Room on Wednesday night, Harry Shearer spent two hours on a stage discussing the role he considers his defining one.

Not the megalomaniacal Mr. Burns, who he voices on “The Simpsons,” nor Spinal Tap’s affably insecure bassist, Derek Smalls. The character Shearer has lived with longest is Richard Nixon. His latest take on the 37th president, “Nixon’s the One,” can be seen in weekly episodes through Nov. 25 on YouTube.

With the Nixon historian Stanley Kutler, Shearer combed through thousands of hours of the tapes Nixon secretly recorded in the Oval Office, then staged re-enactments of key moments as if captured by hidden cameras, remaining “faithful to the words, the rhythms, and even the pauses,” he said. Even so, he said, “it’s not a history show, but a character comedy series.” My interview with Shearer about all that ran recently in The Wall Street Journal.

After that Slipper Room performance, Shearer, who lives in New Orleans, and I spent some time discussing an issue that just now seems defining for anyone who understands and adores New Orleans indigenous culture. And is distinctly unfunny. Continue Reading

Herbie Hancock Talking Possibilities

Here I am, reading a bit from the beginning of Herbie Hancock’s new book, “Possibilities,” (Viking) written with Lisa Dickey, at the start of our public conversation last night at Barnes & Noble on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The upstairs room, less than a dozen blocks from the apartment Hancock live in decades ago, was overflowing. When the time came to field questions from the audience and Hancock waded into the seats, microphone in hand, the staffers looked concerned: But Herbie was just doing what he does—engaging people, and improvising.

I began our talk by reading a bit from his book set in the mid-1960s, when Hancock was a young musician in Miles Davis second great quintet, playing alongside Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams.

“Miles starts playing, building up a solo, and just as he’s about to really let loose, he takes a breath. And right then I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from—it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit….” Continue Reading