Billy Strayhorn - b. Nov. 29, 1915

November 29, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

How does a small, gay, Black kid, raised and living in Homewood, a Black section of Pittsburgh, come to write, at age 19 in 1934
The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces
With distingué traces. . .*
and over the chord sequence D♭ / B7 / D♭?

Billy Strayhorn was born 100 years ago today. “Lush Life” is deservedly his most frequently recorded song. Lady Gaga and Linda Ronstadt have done it. Sinatra never got more than a few bars into it on a few takes at a 1958 recording session. On the tape you can hear someone suggest that they “put it aside for a minute.” “Put it aside for about a year,” says Sinatra. Even years later, when his accompanist suggest that Sinatra sing it saloon style, “just you and me and a piano,” Frank shook his head.

The lyrics and music have a sophistication that rivals even the best of Tin Pan Alley – Gershwin, Kern, Porter, et al. I sometimes play piano – not well, but enough to fool some people for a short while – and I would never try playing “Lush Life” with anyone else in the room.

Strayhorn’s best known tune is “Take the A Train,” often attributed to Duke Ellington – it was, after all, his theme song – and Duke may have had a hand in writing it.  The two worked together so closely that with many of the songs, it’s impossible to know who wrote what. “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine,” Duke wrote in Music is My Mistress.

Even among jazzers, Strayhorn’s presence faded along with the big band era. Then in the late 60s he was gradually rediscovered, and people started playing some of his lesser known tunes. Here is Joe Henderson playing “Isfahan” from his 1992 Strayhorn tribute album “Lush Life.” The bassist is Christian McBride.

Composers and arrangers remain largely unknown; it’s the musicians on stage that get the recognition. Band leaders even used to claim composer credit on tunes written by musicians in their band. (Cootie Williams is listed as one of the composers of “Round Midnight,” which, as everyone knows, was written by Thelonius Monk.) Duke was more generous. “Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows.”

* The lyric may be too sophisticated. Some singers have turned “distingué traces” into “distant gay traces.”

Striking Discharges

November 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The police do not shoot people. Not any more. Apparently, the word shoot has been deleted from the cop-speak dictionary.

A recently released video shows a Chicago cop doing what most people would describe as shooting a kid. Sixteen times. That’s not the way the Chicago Police Department puts it.

A “preliminary statement” from the police News Affairs division, sent to the media early the next morning, said that after he had refused orders to drop the knife, McDonald “continued to approach the officers” and that as a result “the officer discharged his weapon, striking the offender.” (Chicago Tribune)

In Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter is protesting what they think is the shooting of Jamar Clark by a police officer. How wrong they are. The police did not shoot Clark. Instead, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension

At some point during an altercation that ensued between the officers and the individual, an officer discharged his weapon, striking the individual. (MPR News)

The police don’t shoot people. They discharge their weapons striking individuals, usually suspects or offenders. A Google search for “officer discharge weapon striking” returns 3.6 million hits.

Worse, the press often doesn’t even bother to translate but instead prints the insipid bureaucratic language of the police department verbatim.

Fearing for their safety and the safety of the public, they fired their guns, striking the suspect.

(Other sources on these stories do put the press-release prose in quotes. Also, in California, officers who discharge their weapons also usually “fear for their safety and the safety of the public.” I would guess that the phrase is part of some statute about police discharging their weapons)

Here’s another example from the Wilkes Barre area:

(Click on the image for a larger and possibly clearer view.)

The writer nailed the lede: a police officer shot a suspect. But whoever wrote the headline had majored in Technical Language and Obfuscation rather than Journalism.

Does the language make a difference? I don’t know. Suppose the headlines two weeks ago had said, “In Paris, some people discharged their weapons striking individuals.”

The Elsewhere Effect

November 25, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Americans have a low opinion of Congress. Less than 10% of the voters think that Congress is doing a good job. But their own Representative . . . not so bad. A third of us think that our own rep deserves re-election (Rasmussen). The percentage, while higher than our views of representatives in general, is still much lower than it used to be. Until recently, a clear majority of people approved of their own representative while disapproving of Congress in general. This “mine isn’t so bad” view applies to crime as well. People feel safer in their own neighborhoods than elsewhere, even when those other neighborhoods have less crime.

Race relations too are bad . . . elsewhere. In the last year, the percent of Americans saying that race relations in the country are “bad” doubled (roughly from 30% to 60%). That’s understandable given the media coverage of Ferguson and other conflicts centered on race. But people take a far more sanguine view of things in their own community.  Eighty percent rate local race relations as “good,” and that number has remained unchanged throughout this century. (See this post  from last summer.)

Not surprising then that the problem with marriage in the US turns out to be about other people’s marriages. A recent survey asked people about the direction of their own marriage and marriage in the US generally.

Only a handful of people (5%) see marriage generally as getting stronger. More than eight times that say that their own marriages have strengthened. The results for “weaker” marriage are just the reverse. Only 6% say that their own marriage has weakened, but 43% see marriage in the US as losing ground. 

Why the “elsewhere effect”? One suspect is the media bias towards trouble. Good news is no news.  News editors don’t give us many stories about good race relations, or about the 25-year drop in crime, or about the decrease in divorce.  Instead, we get crime and conflict and a variety of  other problems. Add to this the perpetual political campaign with opposition candidates tirelessly telling us what’s wrong.  Given this balance of information, we can easily picture the larger society as a world in decline, a perilous world so different from the one we walk through every day.

At first glance, people seeing their own relationships as good, others’ relationships as more strained seems like the opposite of the pluralistic ignorance on college campuses. There, students often believe that things are better elsewhere, or at least better for other students. They think that most other students are having more sex, partying more heartily, and generally having a better time than they are themselves. But whether we see others as having more fun or more problems, the cause of the discrepancy is the same – the information we have. We know our own lives first hand. We know about those generalized others mostly from the stories we hear. And the people – whether news editors or students on campus – select the stories that are interesting, not those that are typical.

Kanye, We Hardly Knew Ye

November 24, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

On the new-books shelf of the library yesterday, I saw this.

The Cultural Impact of Kanye West already? You mean Kanye has already levitated from mere pop to high art? With new discussion questions?

I remembered what W. H. Auden said in an interview long ago – maybe in the late 60s or early 70s – when he was asked what he thought of Bob Dylan as a poet. Auden confessed his ignorance and explained, “One has so much to read.”

Alec Baldwin, interviewing New Yorker editor David Remnick (the audio is here), tries to get Remnick to diss the New York Times for its culture coverage. Says Baldwin “There’s things that they cover in pop culture, I go: They put that on the front page of the Arts section of the New York Times??”

Remnick disagrees. “I think that’s OK.” and adds, “It’s important for somebody my age [he’s 57] to remember that Kanye West is for his audience . . . what Bob Dylan was for his audience thirty years ago.” Remnick also identifies himself as “somebody who still goes to see The Bobster and others, and it still means everything to me.”

Like Auden, Remnick puts Dylan (and Kanye) in the bin labeled Pop. The difference is that Remnick has time for them while Auden attends to more serious things. But as time passes, and as academics move into the neighborhood, what was once pop can become serious. It’s like that New Yorker cartoon of a course at the New School devoted to “I Love Lucy.” (I can’t find the actual cartoon. As I recall, it shows a professor in front of a large whiteboard filled with diagrams – arrows linking circles labeled “Ethel” or “Ricky” or “Chocolate factory.”)

Dylan and Lucy, starting from very different cultural places, both wind up in what Jenn Lena calls the “Traditionalist genre.”

At the start of the Traditionalist genre, a scholarly literature emerges that strives to preserve, codify, and organize the field. . . .Scholars and lay historians are often preoccupied with the quest for the true or authentic, complete history. [from Banding Together ]

I thought it might be a bit early for Kanye to have entered this ultimate and elevated genre. But there was that book. True to academic protocol, nearly all the essay titles in it have a colon (only two of fourteen have had their colons removed), titles like “When Apollo and Dionysus Clash: A Nietzschean Perspective on the Work of Kanye West,” or “Confidently (Non)cognizant of Neoliberalism: Kanye West and the Interruption of Taylor Swift.” Ah yes, the Interruption. What book about Kanye could omit an analysis of that crucial historical moment, an analysis very much in keeping with “quest for the authentic history.”

It’s as though the scholars are saying to Kanye, “Imma let you finish your career, but first I’m gonna write this essay about your oeuvre to date. ”

One thing puzzles me: those “new discussion questions” promised on the cover. I wonder, do they elevate Kanye even more, inviting still more academic analyses? Or do they lower the Kanye Studies program from highbrow to middlebrow, like those discussion questions now tacked on at the end of novels aimed at the book-club market? Maybe Kanye’s next album will come with the study questions already embedded.