Ahmad and Miles

July 7, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

(I’m a few days late with this one. Ahmad turned 90 on July 2.)

“When people say Jamal influenced me a lot, they're right.” Miles Davis, Miles, the Biography

But mostly, people don’t say that, and they don’t realize how great the influence was. There’s the musical style of course. In the 1950s, when beboppers were playing as many notes as possible in a measure, Ahmad was allowing for much more space, an approach that also suited Miles.

There was also the choice of tunes. When I was in junior high school, I got a copy of the Miles’s album “Milestones.” One of the tracks is “Billy Boy” — no horns, just Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe. The liner notes said, ‘Miles has an ear for a pop tune ("Billy Boy").’ I agreed. What a neat idea to import this folk tune (not a “pop tune”) into jazz.

I was an ignorant kid. I didn’t know then (and most people still don’t) that the musician who brought it into the jazz world was not Miles. It was Ahmad Jamal. The 1958 Red Garland arrangement on “Milestones” is nearly identical to Ahmad’s 1952 recording — the intro and outro, the added bridge, the block chords with octaves in the right hand.

For the Red Garland version, listen here.

Miles also often gets credit for making “On Green Dolphin Street” part of the standard jazz repertoire thanks to his 1958 sextet recording. It’s a great recording, but Ahmad was the one who clued the jazz world in to the potential of this movie-soundtrack tune. The same sequence is true of “Surrey With the Fringe On Top”: first Ahmad, then Miles, then everyone.

Ahmad did have one huge hit, an album that became a best seller even outside of the jazz world: “Live at the Pershing” (1958). The track that got played over and over again on the radio back then (and often now) is  “Poinciana,”  another tune that Ahmad hauled out of the “unlikely for jazz” bin. 

Here he is at age eleven – Fritz Jones in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

Texas and Messes, Then and Now

July 5, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

How can you get Texans to do something that is inconvenient and brings them no direct benefit but will benefit the general society?

Today’s New York Times had this story on page one, above the fold.

How do you get Texans to wear masks and to stay out of bars? Pubic health orders apparently won’t work, even if they carry $250 fines. As a Lubbock County commissioner told the New York Times, “We’re some of the nicest people in the entire world. But as soon as you make demands and tell them they’re going to do something, you get a different response: You don’t get to tell me what to do.”

Nor will appeals to self-interest and personal safety. These people don’t feel ill at all, and are they sure they know how to take care of their own health.. The statistics don’t seem all that alarming. A large majority of these people will not get COVID, and most of those who do will not have severe symptoms. You might as well tell them that those guns they keep at home are more likely to kill or wound a family member (accident, suicide) than to ward off criminals. Besides, masks carry a political message that’s almost as clear as a MAGA hat. They are part of the culture war Trump is waging. Going maskless has become a way to taunt those on the other side. Besides, maskless is macho.  Masks are for the fearful.

In addition, the economic benefits of “opening up” are immediate and clear. The costs from a huge increase in COVID-19 lie in a far less visible future.

We’ve been here before, and by “here” I  mean the problem of individual inconvenience versus collective benefit.  By “here” I also mean Texas. The problem was not as serious as COVID-19 — highway beautification vs. littering. How could you get people who didn’t give a rat’s ass about highway beauty to stop tossing their empty beer cans out the pick-up truck window?

I wrote a blogpost about it in 2009, reposted in 2017. But it’s relevant once again.

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The guy you were trying to reach was Bubba, the classic red stater – fiercely individualistic, anti-government, macho. Bubba was also a slob, and probably proud of it. You couldn’t appeal to self-interest since it’s in Bubba’s self-interest to chuck his garbage out the window. Even hefty fines (and they are hefty) would work only if you could catch litterers often enough – unlikely on the Texas highways.

The best way in was Values. But how? “Don’t be a Litterbug, Keep Your Community Clean” would be too nice, too feminine or babyish, and, like “Pitch In” too collectivist. Instead, Roy Spence and Tim McClure at the Austin ad agency GSD&M had the Texas DOT go with chauvinism – Texas chauvinism. Spence and McClure were the ones who had distilled the target audience down to the Bubba stereotype, and the idea they played on to reach Bubba was not that littering was ugly or wrong or costly, but that it hurt Texas. And thus in 1985 was born one of the most famous and effective campaigns in the history of advertising.

With its double meaning of “mess,” it captured Bubba’s patriotism and pugnacity. The bumper stickers were soon everywhere. The TV ads featured famous proud Texans. One of the early ones (so early, I can’t find it on YouTube) featured Too-Tall Jones and Randy White, two of the toughest dudes on the Cowboys defense, picking up roadside trash.

JONES: You see the guy who threw this out the window, you tell him I got a message for him.

WHITE: (picks up a beer can): I got a message for him too.

OFF-CAMERA VOICE: What’s that?

WHITE: (Crushes the beer can with one fist). Well, I kinda need to see him to deliver it.

JONES: Don’t mess with Texas.
Litter in Texas has been reduced by 72%, the campaign is still going strong a quarter-century later, and McLure and Spence have a book about it. My source was Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers (no, jazzers, not those Heath brothers), Chip and Dan.

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Now Texas needs something as brilliant as the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign. The ideas  I came up with spur of the moment —  “Don’t Infect Texas,” macho-looking Lone Star masks, “If New Jersey did it, so can Texas, only better” — don’t really hit the mark. Where are those advertising people when you really need them, because this time the stakes are much higher than highway aesthetics. A convincing campaign could save hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives.

Johnny Mandel, 1938-2020

July 1, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Johnny Mandel died on Monday.

His best-known song, the one heard most often by the most people, is “Suicide Is Painless” though most of those people will not know the title let alone the composer. It’s the theme song for M*A*S*H. The obits will list Mandel's other hits like “Emily” and “The Shadow of Your Smile.”

When I was a freshman, someone in my dorm had a record of the soundtrack from the 1958 film “I Want to Live.” I thought: Wow, can you really do this — have real jazz played by real jazz guys (Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Shelly Manne) in a Hollywood movie. It didn’t occur to me then to think about the composer/arranger. It was Johnny Mandel. Sixty-two years later, it still holds up. You can hear it here.

It’s hard to choose one recording. Shirley Horn has wonderful performances of several of his songs, and so does Bill Evans. There’s a Stan Getz recording of “Close Enough For Love” that I like because the piano player on it is Lou Levy, and once when I went to see him at a bar in New York, he let me copy the changes for that tune from his lead sheet. This was long before the Internet made that sort of thing so easy.

The beautiful “Moon Song” is not well-known, and when it’s performed, it’s usually done as a very slow ballad. But Fred Hersch, on his all-Mandel solo album “I Never Told You,” takes it at a livelier tempo, which makes easier to hear the melody and harmony.

You All Might Get Covid-19, But At Least I’ll Get Some Shuteye

June 30, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

This photo, posted to Twiter on Sunday, has gone viral. It was taken two days earlier on a flight from Cleveland to Nashville on Allegiant Airlines.

The man in the MAGA hat summarizes the Trump demographic — a White male (overweight) in his fifties. But what triggered Twitter was the symbolism of the mask. Turning the face mask into an eyeshade is the perfect metaphor for the Trump mentality. Masks (in the US, not elsewhere) have become political; they are not just a means to reduce the spread of Covid-19. They are now symbols of ideology, especially for those who refuse to wear them.

But what does not wearing a mask symbolize? Most obviously, for this man and many others, it symbolizes support for Trump. More specifically, it symbolizes the willingness to sacrifice the health and safety of the general society when that goal conflicts with personal convenience and preference. Mr. MAGA places his desire to block out some ambient light above the health and well-being of everyone else on the plane.

The ideology that justifies this behavior is what Claude S. Fischer has called ‘voluntarism” — the idea that I have an obligation only to those groups that I have chosen voluntarily. These other passengers are not a group I have joined. They are merely a bunch of other people who happen to be on my flight. So their well-being is not my concern, and I can legitimately ignore their norms. (For earlier posts on voluntarism, go here, and here.)

Often “voluntarism” marches under the banner of Freedom, and in America, Freedom is a very powerful argument. Even people who in the current pandemic want everyone to wear a mask feel its pull. People like me. Freedom seems like such a good thing, and its opposite such a bad thing, that we assume that people from other advanced countries, people who seem similar to us, share our view of Freedom. So I was surprised at how different we Americans are in balancing individual freedom against government policies on public health.

Surveys done three months ago asked people in twelve countries if they would be willing to accept a decrease in individual liberty for purposes of public health.*

One of these countries is not like the others. Timing may have something to do with these results. Three months ago, the increase in US rates of infection had started only about a week earlier, lagging Europe by one to two weeks, and US cases were still concentrated in the New York area. Still, the comparison with other countries, especially Canada with its much lower rate of infection, shows us how greatly the US differs from these other countries. It seems that we are far less trusting that the government will do the right thing and perhaps more suspicious that it will do the wrong thing.

This difference shows up on two other items, one on presidential power, the other on government control over the media.

True, these are unusual times. The pandemic may have increased the willingness of Europeans to trust their governments. In the US, Trump’s preference for authoritarian leadership (so long as he is the leader) may have decreased trust in the government. (Again, the survey was done in early April. The poor performance of the Trump administration and some local officials was not yet so obvious.)  It’s also possible that the Trump presidency may have raised the affinity for authoritarianism— greater presidential power, especially power to control the media — among his supporters. But remember, the survey questions relate these matters specifically to public health, and it wasn’t until March 29 that Trump acknowledged that Covid-19 was worse than the ordinary flu.

My guess is that the survey results reflect a deeper and more abiding American exceptionalism. When there is a conflict between individual freedom on the one hand and general benefit for the society on the other, Europeans and Asians, compared with Americans, give more weight to promoting the general welfare.


* The paper is “Note — Économie sociale du Covid-19,” by Stefanie Stantcheva, Clément Herman, and Constantin Schesch. As far as I know, it has not been published and is available (here ) only in French. The survey item statements above the graphs are my own translation.