BLU NOTES
Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

BLU NOTES: Larry Blumenfeld on jazz and other sounds

New Orleans—Not Disney & Not Williamsburg

A new tourism campaign promotes “The Princess and the Frog’s NOLA.”

As I sit and wrestle with the issues that swirl beneath the working title of the book I’m writing—“Marching With Saints: The Fight for New Orleans Jazz Culture Since the Flood, and What It Means for America”—I’m forced to reflect on fears many of us shared in 2005 about the future for New Orleans, and to consider the ironic manifestations of these worries.

I recall feeling uneasy about the title and subtitle that Salon placed atop an October 2005 essay of mine—“America’s New Jazz Museum! (No Poor Black People Allowed): Jazz musicians warn against the Disneyfication of New Orleans.”

Yet eventually I warmed to such sensationalism; there were truths in there.

The idea of a Disneyfied New Orleans was a common theme then and now. In the December 2007 issue of The Journal of American History, an essay by J. Mark Souther (whose excellent book, “New Orleans on Parade,” I’m working my way through a second time) considered the matter in great depth. Here’s how he opened:

The idea of a “Disneyfied” New Orleans is not new. Walt Disney, referring to the city’s Bourbon and Royal streets, once remarked, “Where else can you find iniquity and antiquity so close together?” Sharing the assessment of the local author Harnett Kane that the French Quarter, or Vieux Carré, “means New Orleans to the outside world,” Disney added New Orleans Square, a cleaner, shinier replica of the city’s most noted district, to his southern California theme park in 1966. New Orleans leaders, developers, and preservationists, meanwhile, were producing an urban space that, if not as controlled as its Disneyland counterpart, nevertheless invited comparisons.

Souther ended by sounding this warning:

…. Such continued attention to the tourist hub, along with discussion of a “reduced footprint” for the city, conveniently salvages the Disneyfied facade seen by tourists, while writing off the hidden areas where tourism’s laborers lived and its culture thrived. Indeed, Katrina’s flooding consumed the 80 percent of New Orleans that tourists rarely saw, including the notorious Lower Ninth Ward and part of Tremé. Perhaps the countless tourists, trying to make sense of a national tragedy in their own way by straying from the well-worn paths scripted by promoters, may compel New Orleans leaders to recast their city in ways that educate, enlighten, and encourage reform. If not, New Orleans, with its French Quarter ever at the forefront, may well recapture its pre-Katrina reputation as a “Creole Disneyland.”

A post from Sarah Chase titled “The Disneyfication of New Orleans is an Actual Thing” at the NOLA Curbed site made mention of Souther’s essay, as well as the “DizneyLandrieu” brochure that was, as she put it, “the throw of Krewe du Vieux this year” during Mardi Gras season. (That brochure bore the subtitle, “Mitchey Mayor’s Gentrified Kingdom,” the implication being that this was something less than the “happiest place on earth” for locals and lovers of all things New Orleans.)

Chase’s real point was to alert us to some unwelcome irony: “….But for New Orleans to actually use a Disney character to tout tourism? Oh, it’s happening.”

The New Orleans Times-Picayune described “a new collaboration with the Walt Disney Company using the character Tiana from the film ‘The Princess and the Frog’ to pitch the city as a family destination…. The campaign presents family attractions as recommended by Tiana, giving people a view of “The Princess and the Frog’s NOLA.”

“So where does this Tiana chick like to go?” Chase asked. “Jackson Square, Cafe du Monde, the zoo, Audubon Park, City Park, the Steamboat Natchez, St. Louis Cathedral, and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District.”

The animated Disney film “The Princess and the Frog” did introduce theatergoers to a trumpet-playing alligator named Louis, whose horn was actually played by trumpeter Terence Blanchard, thus acknowledging meaningful New Orleans musical tradition. Still, the whole idea of this promotion seems tone deaf to the fears and hopes of anyone steeped in that sort of music and what it stands for and reflects.

I recall standing at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with Alex Rawls, then-editor of the local music monthly Offbeat and who now blogs at My Spilt Milk. Rawls told me:

“The Disneyfication of New Orleans that people talked about after Katrina was supposed to be quick and dramatic. But the danger is not like that. If you take your hands off the wheel and let business interests rule, that sort of thing happens more gradually, almost without people noticing.”

Which brings me to a piece by Joah Spearman for Huffington Post titled “Will New Orleans Reach Its Potential?” Continue Reading

Not Their Fathers’ Afro Latin Jazz: Yosvany Terry & Arturo O’Farrill

Arturo O'Farrill (left, Courtesy Afro Jazz Alliance), and Yosvany Terry (photo by Victor Strannik) via Wikicommons

Arturo O'Farrill (left, Courtesy Afro Jazz Alliance) & Yosvany Terry (Victor Strannik via Wikicommons)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: 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 yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, my review piece discusses new CDs from alto saxophonist and composer Yosvany Terry (who also plays a mean chekeré) and pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill, whose Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra is my favorite large ensemble in this city. In my 900 or so words, I couldn’t possibly do justice to the fine details of each recording—the breadth of the compositions, created by composers with roots throughout this hemisphere, on O’Farrill’s “The Offense of the Drum,” for instance, or the all-star pedigrees of the players in Terry’s Ye-Dé-Gbe group on his “New Throned King” that lend wonderful cohesion to his blend of arará ritual (from the former West African kingdom of Dahomey) and modern jazz improvisation.

Terry has digested the full range of alto-sax jazz language; his horn sounds with an elegant force and forms an unusual complement to the sung chants from Pedrito Martinez, who is both a master of Afro Cuban folkloric vocal tradition and, to me, one of the world’s great voices in any idiom. He’s also a master percussionist who here functions as part of trio of masters (with Román Díaz, whose brilliance I know well, and Sandy Pérez, who I hadn’t heard before. Listening to Terry’s new CD was a revelation for me, for both the further ascent it represents in terms of his talent and for its reflection of his deepened investigation into arará, a tradition that is not so well known in the U.S. Catching the CD-release performance at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard was an even more stirring experience, with dancer Francisco Barroso, in traditional costumes, bringing home the fact that this music is meant for dance, and has a functional value. In Terry’s hands, modern jazz is a ritual music, and traditions like arará invite sophisticated innovation.

O’Farrill’s CD is an outgrowth of his orchestra’s concert season, which is the best if not the only place to hear newly commissioned works from Afro Latin composers for big band. Good as O’Farrill’s title composition for this CD is, there’s an even better one O’Farrill presented recently during an Apollo Theater concert called “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite”: Through trumpet fanfares and other details, O’Farrill made reference to “The Afro Cuban Jazz Suite,” a landmark work by his father, the late Chico O’Farrill, within a piece that exploded a previous generation’s aesthetic in something beyond genres borders.

You can find my review of these two new CDs here, or simply continue reading:

Continue Reading

Harvey Pekar, Paul Shapiro & Me: No Garden-Variety Jews

It was a distinct honor and the oddest of pleasures to edit Harvey Pekar’s work for Jazziz magazine in the late 1990s. When I saw the film based on his life and celebrating his work, “American Splendor,” I wondered if I was part of the composite editor Harvey referred to simply as “asshole” in a scene wherein Harvey can’t find his Ornette Coleman recording, and needed to file his review. I remember well the phone call in which Harvey called me a “garden variety Jew” in a combative tone when I queried his commentary about Sephardic musical themes, in a review about a John Zorn album.

Which brings me to Paul Shapiro, a wonderful tenor saxophonist I first heard during his long tenure with the Microscopic Septet. Shapiro is a player Harvey would love; I imagine Harvey wrote about him at some point. My point of connection for all of the above is that Shapiro has a new album, Shofarot Verses within the Radical Jewish Culture Series of Zorn’s Tzadik label, which interprets last of three sections of the Musaf (additional) service recited on Rosh Hashanah. Here, as in his other work, Shapiro reflects the seriousness of musical purpose, natural sense of humor and essential Jewishness embodied in Harvey’s work, too.

To celebrate, there’s a comic strip in the tradition of Pekar (this was his favorite mode of communication), written by Jeff Newelt, and drawn by Joseph Remnant. (both worked with Pekar on his final graphic novel “Cleveland”).

If you’re in New York City, there’a a “Shofarot Verses” launch concert June 19, 2014 at Eldridge Street Synagogue.

And all of this gives me good excuse to pull out an short piece in memory of Harvey that I filed for Jazziz after his death, in 2010, below: Continue Reading

Dr. Billy Taylor Way Honors A Pianist Where He Lived

Credit: William Gottlieb/ Courtesy Library of Congress via Flickr

New York City has quite a few streetsigns that honor iconic jazz musicians where they once lived. The corner of 88th Street and West End Avenue in Manhattan is “Arturo ‘Chico’ O’Farrill Place,” for the Latin jazz bandleader and composer who died in 2001. My favorite, at the cul-de-sac on West 63rd Street, off West End Avenue, is “Thelonious Sphere Monk Circle” (though it took a while for the city to get that one right).

Perhaps no musician is more deserving of such an honor than pianist Billy Taylor, because he quite literally brought jazz to New York’s streets in exalted and empowering fashion. Taylor will get his due when East 138th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, near where he raised his family, gets dubbed “Dr. Billy Taylor Way” through a ceremony from 4-6pm on June 21. (The page on the Harlem Cultural Archives website says “bring your lawnchair and enjoy the festivities.”)

That’s just the sort of invitation Taylor offered New Yorkers in all five boroughs through JazzMobile, the nonprofit music organization he founded in 1964 with arts patron Daphne Arnstein. Jazzmobile’s annual Summerfest stood as the city’s oldest continuous summer event devoted to jazz, reaching 100,000 listeners annually, mostly where they live. A wheeled float transported by pickup truck served as the stage at most sites, setting up shop for a night in one community or another.

Taylor, who enjoyed a storied musical career (he was house pianist at Birdland during its heyday) and served as arts correspondent for CBS-TV’s “Sunday Morning” and for National Public Radio), reflected on all that in 2010, just months before his death, for a Wall Street Journal piece.

As he explained, in 1964, after hearing of plans to reduce arts programs in New York schools, he used his then-daily radio show on local station WLIB as his pulpit. Continue Reading

A Son’s Tribute to the Father of Many Things: Celebrating Ornette

Ornette and Denardo Coleman, in 1969/ photo courtesy of the artist

The musicians who’ll gather Thursday evening (June 12) at the bandshell in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for Celebrate Ornette: The Music Of Ornette Coleman” come from all over music’s landscape.

Such range is fitting, as is the concert’s site. Coleman is most clearly identified as an iconic jazz master and a founding father of free jazz (a term that, despite its muddied meaning today, signified something as the title of Coleman’s 1961 LP). Yet as an alto saxophonist (as well as on trumpet and violin), and as a bandleader and composer, it’s fair to say that Coleman, now 84, is father to the ideas that drive and distinguish the best modern jazz (maybe even what makes it ‘modern’), and the most innovative music across a range of other styles. His music befits the rolling hills and trees of Prospect Park: It, too, is an engineered environment brilliant enough to celebrate what is natural and organic.

Ornette Coleman is also father to Denardo Coleman, a drummer who first played on one of his father’s recordings at age 10. Now 58, Denardo still generates from his trap set the firm but subtle pulses that define his father’s rhythmic sensibility; he’ll do so at the helm of a quintet that will serve as Thursday’s house band.

Denardo also projects both the air of compassion and dismissal of convention that are bedrock attitudes of his father’s work. Those two qualities more than any stylistic sense form the logical thread through the list of musicians on this program, presented jointly by Celebrate Brooklyn and the Blue Note Jazz Festival: Henry Threadgill, James Blood Ulmer, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Ravi Coltrane, Bill Laswell, Bruce Hornsby, Flea, David Murray, Geri Allen,  Bachir Attar and The Master Musicians of Jajouka and Thurston Moore, among others (perhaps including Ornette).

As a critic and journalist, I’ve written about Ornette Coleman’s music and interviewed him many times through the years. (Here’s one Wall Street Journal piece from a decade ago.) As a father, I’ve been able to share Ornette’s music with my boy, Sam. As a human being, I just like to live in the world this music calls up whenever I can: This concert promises to be a communion, onstage and off, of folks who feel the same way.

Continue Reading

New York’s Vision Festival Honors Its Heroes And Gathers Its Tribe

Charles Gayle will be honored for Lifetime Achievement on the opening night of this year's Vision Festival.

To call New York City’s annual Vision Festival this country’s essential gathering of avant-garde improvising musicians is both true and incomplete.

The music is world-class, sure, and never predictable or rote. As bassist William Parker, one of the event’s founding figures, told me for a 2010 Wall Street Journal piece: “The aesthetic isn’t so easy to define. Nobody does notated pieces. There is improvisation in each band, which sometimes comes out of jazz, sometimes blues or world music or European music or just what I call the X-factor.”

So there’s that X-factor.

There’s also dance, poetry, film, visual art, not to mention the one thing absent from most of the festivals that dot New York from June through August—a true and deep sense of community.

That community is filled with musicians who defy easy description. Some, like Cooper Moore, design and build their own instruments. Some, like Parker, don’t so much bend rules as craft their own systems for musical development. Even in such a context, this year’s honoree for Lifetime Achievement (there’s one showcased at each Vision Fest), Charles Gayle, stands out—for the peculiar beauty of his music and his unwavering pursuit of elusive truths through art. Not to mention his versatility: Gayle, a singularly expressive saxophonist, is also a compelling player on piano and bass.

On opening night of this year’s festival, which runs from June 11 through June 15 at Brooklyn’s Roulette, Gayle will play all three instruments in separate sets during an evening in his honor. The last of these features an all-star “Vision Artist Orchestra” that includes tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan. Jordan is revered as an educator and mentor in his hometown, New Orleans, yet his music is rarely heard and not often genuinely appreciated there. At the Vision Festival each year, Jordan is received in deserving fashion, as a conquering hero. Continue Reading

Dancing With Eleggua, Weekly, at Minton’s in Harlem

Percussionist Román Díaz leads a his new project, El Gallo Mistico, during “Jazz at the Crossroads: The Dance of Eleggua" at Minton's Supper Club in Harlem.

I’d not yet been to Minton’s, the new supper club that revives a storied Harlem name on 118th Street, until this week.

I can tell you that the cuisine, under the direction of executive chef Alexander Smalls, is both fine and creative. But a new series “Jazz at the Crossroads: The Dance of Eleggua,” which continues each Tuesday night through August, was the real lure for me.

This past Tuesday, alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry and his brother, bassist Yunior Terry, who were born in the town of Florida, in Cuba’s Camagüey province, and live in New York City, performed in a group that showcased their father, Eladio “Don Pancho” Terry. The elder Terry is a violinist the founder and director of the “Orquesta Maravillas de Florida,” an important band in the Cuban charanga style. He is, perhaps most notably, a master of the chekeré, the beaded gourd used for percussion; in his hands, it can direct a group with the authority and flair of drummer Roy Haynes’s trap set. The group at Minton’s performed a mixture of traditional charanga tunes and more modern jazz, some drawn from the books of Yosvany Terry’s brilliant and forward-leaning bands. Yet this was no survey or fusion; the set was an example of how Afro Latin music, grounded in traditional rhythms and flecked with modern jazz’s full stylistic palette, can flow pretty much wherever it wants without losing its spiritual heft and sense of musical purpose.

That’s what this new series is about, according to Dita Sullivan, whose recent credits along similar lines “New Dimensions in Jazz” and “A Cuban Drum Series,” both produced for Manhattan’s Jazz Standard. Continue Reading

In and Around Jazzfest, Fair Grounds for New Orleans Culture (and What That Means)

The sky was blue, the sun bright and the temperature comfortably cool on a late-April Friday for the start of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Continue Reading

Jen Shyu Returns Home & Unpacks Her Ancestry

Time flies. When I got a call from Jen Shyu the other day, we realized it had been more than two years since last we spoke at her Bronx apartment for a Wall Street Journal story.

Here’s how I began that piece:

Lettered tiles crisscrossed the coffee table in singer Jen Shyu’s Bronx apartment, remnants of an unfinished game of Bananagrams—a sped-up, free-form variant of Scrabble. How fitting. A playful yet rigorous approach to language animates her stirring music. Sounding fierce at times, ruminative at others, displaying tonal precision and an intuitive rhythmic sense, Ms. Shyu is among New York’s most invigorating vocal presences. And perhaps the most enigmatic.

Yet it’s inadequate to call Shyu a singer. In a video for her new multi-media work, “Solo Rites: Seven Breaths,”—a collaboration with the celebrated Indonesian director, Garin Nugroho—she calls herself  “an experimental jazz vocalist and composer, a multi-instrumentalist, dancer and researcher”—which sounds like a mouthful yet also seems accurate.

When last we spoke, Shyu was about to leave for year in Indonesia, her great-great-grandmother’s birthplace, on a Fulbright scholarship to study dance and improvisational singing traditions. But her planned year in Indonesia turned into almost three, she explained, traveling also to South Korea, East Timor, and Vietnam, among other places, where she studied, composed, performed in villages, taught and, and collaborated with local artists.

Before she left, a friend urged her to watch Nugroho’s film, “Opera Jawa,” in which Shyu sensed the  “fresh marriage of tradition and modernity I was seeking in my work.” Continue Reading

When Cassandra Wilson Turned on Her Blue Light

The rapper Nas will be touring this summer, performing in full the material from his breakthrough 1994 recording, “Illmatic,” 20 years after its initial release.

Blue Note Records, through its new parent company, Universal Music, has released an remastered and expanded edition of singer Cassandra Wilson’s “Blue Light ‘Till Dawn.” The new CD bears a sticker that says “20th anniversary edition,” which is sort of a fudge, mathwise—the CD originally came out in November, 1993. Yet that doesn’t discount the fact that, like Nas’s album, Wilson’s was a game-changer for artists, listeners and music labels. (Wilson’s U.S. tour, on which she’ll perform “Blue Light” material, begins May 3.)

There are attitudes and aesthetics that might link Wilson’s and Nas’s 1990s achievements. There’s also blood.

Nas’s dad, Olu Dara, a musician I’ve written about several times, played brilliant and concise cornet on Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail,” on Wilson’s “Blue Light.” He’s from Natchez, Miss., not too far from Jackson, where Wilson was born and raised.

Dara lent Wilson more than just his distinctive tone: As she tol told me in an interview for Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal piece, Wilson gained from him this lesson—”to honor and not hide where I’m from.”

Part of Wilson’s awakening involved picking up the guitar she’d hidden in fear that “the ‘jazz police’ would come looking for it.” That one was a Martin acoustic. I like the photo above, because it shows her playing the red Fender she played recently for new project, Black Sun. Continue Reading