Patriotism à la Sondheim

April 29, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

As many people have noted (including me here), one of the things that Stephen Sondheim brought to Broadways was ambivalence. It pervaded several of the songs in Sondheim 90th birthday tribute Monday night.  Some songs declare their ambivalence right off the bat (“I’ve got those God-why-don't-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I'll-see-you-later Blues.”) or in their titles (“Marry Me a Little”).  But ambivalence is a subtext in “Send in the Clowns” and “Anyone Can Whistle.” 
Baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell*, for his part in the tribute, chose “Flag Song.”  It's a patriotic song, written for a parade. It was going to be the opening for “Assassins” (“An imaginary parade with a crowd of bystanders watching, some of whom turn out to be assassins we get to know later,” says Sondheim)  but it was cut from the show.

Even in a song of patriotism, Sondheim gives us ambivalence.

You can gripe
All you like,
You can sneer,
“Where are the heroes?”
You can shout about
How everything’s a lie.
Then that flag goes by…

You can snipe
At the greed
At the need
To be a winner
At the hype
You keep hearing
From on high.

For a minute you’re aware
Of being proud.
And then suddenly you’re staring
At the crowd
And you’re thinking.
“They’re as different from me
As they possibly could be— “

Then that flag goes by,
And no matter how you sigh,
“It’s the bright blue sky.
It’s just Mom and apple pie.”
There’s this thing you can’t deny.
This idea.

George M. Cohan it ain’t.

To hear it, go here**  and push the slider to about 1:20. Mitchell introduces the song this way.

If somebody asked Steve Sondheim to write a patriotic song for our country right now with everything that is going on, I think this is the song that he would write. It’s pretty amazing that he already wrote it. Thirty years ago.

Here he his performing it at the Kennedy Center a year pre-Covid-19.

* Mitchell fell ill with Covid-19, recovered, and now regularly leans out his fifith-floor window — still on Broadway, but two miles north of the theater district — and, as people on the sidewalk below listen, booms out “The Impossible Dream.” (A video is here.)

**  After you hear “Flag Song,” push the slider to 1:58 to see “Ladies Who Lunch.” You’ve probably heard about this performance already if you’re at all interested in musical theater, but if not, don’t miss it.

The Worst: Agamemnon . . . and Maybe Some Other Leader

April 26, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I’m not stating parallels,” says Madeline Miller, who writes novels using characters from Greek myth, “but the ancients had a saying, ‘Nothing new under the sun.” She was being interviewed by Ezra Klein in his podcast. This comes at about the one hour mark.

Here’s a slightly edited transcript.

If I were to name the worst person in the Iliad, Agamemnon wins, hands down. And speaking of our current situation, the Iliad begins with a plague, because Agamemnon has taken as a war prize a daughter of a priest of Apollo. The priest of Apollo shows up to take his daughter back, and he offers Agamemnon fair ransom. When someone offers you fair ransom in the ancient world, you’re supposed to give back whatever the thing is.

Agamemnon not only does not give the girl back, he insults the priest and sends him away with harsh words and threats. So the priest of course — this is not very smart on Agamemnon’s part — goes to the god Apollo and says, “Punish the Greeks.”

So Apollo sends down a plague. For nine days, people die all across the Greek army. The fires burning the bodies are burning constantly.

And Agamemnon says nothing and does nothing. Even though everyone knows whose fault it is, he does nothing.

Finally, Achilles says, “OK, we’ve gotta get everybody together. If Agamemnon won’t act, I will act.” And he gets everybody together, and he asks the priests, “Hey priests, what do you think’s going on. Do you think someone offended a god?” And the priest says, “Yes, of course. It’s Agamemnon.”

And Agamemnon blows up at Achilles for embarrassing him even though it was completely his fault.

After Miller’s disclaimer that she’s not stating parallels, Ezra Klein adds, “Yes, there’s a Greek dimension to some of the national figures on the stage right now.” He and Miller are talking about him whose name, apparently, must not be spoken. A man who manages a plague poorly, thereby costing many lives; who refuses to acknowledge his error or do anything to correct it; and who lashes out angrily at those who do say clearly that he is at fault.

We all recognize Trump’s narcissism. And Agamemnon’s. But what about Achilles, who Madeline Miller seems quite fond of? He is the hero of her first novel, The Song of Achilles. In the interview she notes that Achilles, unlike the other fighters in the Trojan war, “is their voluntarily. Everyone else is bound by this oath . .  But he’s just there for the kleos, for the glory. . .  He’s given a choice: you can live a long and happy life, and no one will ever remember your name. Or you can die young and be famous forever.”

Miller finds Achilles’ choice “extremely compelling.” But it proceeds from the same narcissistic rewards that motivate Agamemnon and Trump – glory, reputation, and the defeat of enemies rather than the satisfactions that come from living with others.

The interview with Miller brought to mind sociologist Philip Slater’s book on ancient Greece, The Glory of Hera (1968)*. Slater draws a portrait of Greek males —  gods, leaders, and even less celebrated men — as mostly examples of what we would today call Narcissistic Personality Disorder. “Quarrelsome as friends, treacherous as neighbors, brutal as masters, faithless as servants, shallow as lovers.. . He [the narcissist] will feel that if he is not a great hero he is nothing, and pride and prestige become more important than love.” For Achilles, these were more important than life. “Nothing seemed to have meaning to the Greek unless it included the defeat of another.”

So much winning.


* Slater’s book received mixed reviews, especially in the provinces ruled by traditional classicists — what Slater called “the Un-Hellenic Activities Committee.” That was partly because of his Freudian take on Greek narcissism emphasizing mother-son relations. But listen to Madeline Miller talk about youthful Achilles, petulant and angry at Agamemnon. “He gets his mom to talk to Zeus so that the Trojans start winning and the Greeks all start dying.” Ezra Klein interrupts to point out that “the greatest warrior in Greek history gets mad and calls his mom.” Maybe Slater was on to something.

COVID-19 Politics — Zombies and Boundaries

April 24, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

For a long time now, I have thought that liberal-conservative differences often rest, at least in part, on feelings about boundaries. Conservatives, far more than liberals, are concerned with the certainty and sanctity of boundaries. Those on the right see these boundaries as constantly threatened and constantly in need of defense. As Scott Alexander put it seven years ago, “the best way for leftists to get themselves in a rightist frame of mind is to imagine there is a zombie apocalypse tomorrow.”

Zombie-apocalypse thinking resides in the far right corner of what Alexander calls the  “thrive/survive theory of the political spectrum. Rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.”

It’s a robust idea. Thrive/survive explains those “moral foundations” at the core of Jonathan Haidt’s theory (purity, loyalty, hierarchy, etc.) as well as differences on less abstract things like guns, cops, wealth, science and intellectualism, the military, etc. (Alexander’s post is here at his Slate Star Codex blog. Like most of his blog posts, it runs long — about 3400 words — and is well worth reading.)

But now, seven years later, Alexander finds the left/right reactions to the coronavirus pandemic puzzling, especially because in the thrive/survive model, the zombie-apocalypse threat envisioned by rightists sounds very much like the coronavirus: “one of your long-term zombie apocalypses.” [Alexander’s italics]

Some people have brought up that my thrive vs. survive theory of the political spectrum does an unusually bad job predicting current events, especially the thing where Democrats mostly want to maintain lockdown and Republicans mostly want to take their chances. I don’t have much to say about this, but I acknowledge it’s true, and you should update your models accordingly

One way to update your model is to listen to what the rightists are saying. They are trumpeting something that outweighs survive/thrive, a principle that is consistent with other right-left differences – Freedom. It’s the old conflict  between individual freedom and collective benefit. As the woman who, in mid-March, brag-tweeted about going to a crowded fast food restaurant, “This is America. And I'll do what I want.” As for keeping unspecified others — i.e., the general public — safe, that’s not her job. If, as Conservative Margaret Thatcher said, “society” is a fiction, and there are only individuals and families, then you and your family are the only people you have an obligation to protect.

Still, we would expect the emphasis on individual freedom to shrivel when the zombies attack. When threat looms large, people shift their concern from the individual to the group. Individuals may even heroically sacrifice their own lives to save the group. Curiously, Alexander does not mention this reaction. He does note the emphasis on conformity, which is a corollary of group-centered values. So reactions to the coronavirus still seem contradictory. Those right-wing protestors on the steps of the state capitol should be calling for unity, for conformity to the commands of the governor. Instead, they are proclaiming their right to disobey the rules.

The boundaries-based update to the thrive/survive model adds one important consideration. It asks which side of the boundary the threat is coming from. For the right, all threats come from others — those who, even if they are within our geographical boundaries, are in some way outsiders. Go back a few years and it’s the Soviets and godless communism. More recently, it has been immigrants and Islamic terrorists, categories the America Firsters generalize to include all darker people and all Arabs and Muslims.

Some versions of the zombie apocalypse are perfectly congruent with the rightist vision. The threat really is external and comes from clearly identified others.
. . . a large number of zombies overwhelming social, law-enforcement, and military structures. Typically, only a few individuals or small bands of survivors are left of the living. [Wikipedia]
But other variants of the zombie scenario sound more like the coronavirus pandemic.
In some stories, victims of zombies may become zombies themselves if they are bitten by zombies or if a zombie-creating virus infects them; in others, everyone who dies, whatever the cause, becomes one of the undead. [Wikipedia]
The rightists are able to see only the first kind of threat. The attack is from the “Chinese virus,” which is an “invisible enemy.” It will be defeated by hardening our boundaries with the equivalent of walls and guns — travel bans that keep it out and medical cures that kill it.

What that right-wing view cannot comprehend is a virus that is being spread not by outsiders or evildoers but by people who are like us. Maybe even by people who are us. In that situation, the boundaries are unclear — boundaries between good guys and bad guys or even between those who are free of the virus and those who are carrying and spreading it. Also incompatible with the boundary-hardening view is a policy based not on medical-military action against the enemy but on a change in our own daily behavior.

Here are the Michigan protestors, the “small band of survivors,” all suited up for the external zombie apocalypse. They have identified the enemy; it’s the governor. They stand close together, only three or four of them wearing masks, all of them carrying guns. Michigan, as of this writing, has the sixth highest COVID-19 death rate in the country. These protestors may come from areas in the state with lower rates of infection, but if there’s one thing we have learned, it’s that rates of infection and death may be low now (“We had 12, at one point. And now they’ve gotten very much better. Many of them are fully recovered,” said Trump in late February), but those rates can rise rapidly, especially when people crowd together, even if they are carrying guns.

Is Trump’s “Invisible Enemy” Trope an Anti-Semitic Dog Whistle? Probably Not.

April 22, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is this anti-Semitic?

The Forward (formerly The Jewish Daily Forward and aka  פֿאָרווערטס) thinks it is.

There is no other way to say it; just like “America First,” the phrase “invisible enemy” has an ugly history that is now being revived and exploited at the kind of moment when such ugliness thrives—when everyone is scared for their lives and their basic survival.
“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” claims to describe how Jews invisibly control the world. It’s supposed to be the “proof” of this “invisible enemy” idea.
(The full article is here.)

The logic seems to be :
Anti-Semites have often claimed that Jews are an invisible enemy.
Trump says the coronavirus is an invisible enemy.
Therefore Trump is saying that the virus is like Jews. So the tweet is anti-Semitic.

The logic is obviously flawed. Yes, there is something typically Trumpian in thinking of the virus as the invisible enemy, but that something is not anti-Semitism.* It’s Trump’s need to see everything as a competition, a fight where there is a clear winner (Trump of course) and a clear loser. Where others might see the coronavirus as presenting a public health problem to be solved, Trump sees it as an “attack” by an “enemy.”

Unfortunately in this case, one of the most important methods of solving the problem — physical distancing to keep people from spreading the virus — doesn’t look like aggressive competition. Distancing is so different from the combative things a man can do to defeat an enemy and to win, things like bullying, mocking, or cheating.

The “invisible enemy” framework is also congruent with another facet of Trump’s thinking (at least as he expresses his thoughts publicly). For Trump, the world is divided into absolutes. Something is either the best ever or the worst ever. Similarly, a person is either a loyal ally or an enemy to be disposed of. Again, this view is incompatible with a distancing policy or public health policies in general, for they do not offer clean and immediate absolutes. Not only do the benefits of distancing lie somewhere in the future, but distancing also has immediate and obvious economic drawbacks. Distancing may save lives, but it does not offer the clear and unmitigated win that Trump needs.

* Some of the people who oppose distancing and other restrictions are blatantly anti-Semitic (see this story about Ohio.) But even if all anti-Semites oppose restrictions, that does not mean that all, or even a large proportion, of those who oppose restrictions are anti-Semites.

Earth Day Birthday — a Repost

April 22, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Today is Julian Koenig’s birthday. It’s also Earth Day, which is now fifty. Koenig would have been 99.

Earth Day / Birthday. The rhyme is not a coincidence.

[What follows is what I posted two years ago. I’m posting it again because this is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. If only Koenig had been born a year earlier to make it an even 100.]

Julian Koenig was an ad-man. The word “creative” gets tossed around pretty loosely in the ad world, but Koenig truly was. When environmentalists were planning their first big  national event in 1970, Koenig offered to help. Surely he could come up with something better than the name they already had – “Environmental Teach-in.” The day of the event just happened to be his birthday, and the rhyme was a natural.  As the national director recalls,

He offered a bunch of possible names — Earth Day, Ecology Day, Environment Day, E Day — but he made it quite clear that we would be idiots if we didn’t choose Earth Day.

It worked for them. It worked for him.
Our paths — Koenig’s and mine — crossed a few years later, in the early seventies. How that happened is a story I told in brief in this blog years ago (here).    

Then, in 2013, the American Sociological Association gave its Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues Award to Ira Glass and the staff of “This American Life.”  The awards ceremony was a panel discussion. Ira was the with three producers from the show. One of them was Sarah Koenig, Julian’s daughter. David Newman, one of the sociologists on the panel, said that what he liked best about the show was that he could use it to give his students the larger picture of social issues.

But Ira Glass, when it was his turn to speak, said that what the show thrived on was not issues but people. “Don’t pitch us a story about some issue; you have to have a character – a character who has an interesting story . . . and who comes across on tape.” (Not an exact quote, but that was the idea.)

After the panel ended and people were milling about, I went up to Sarah Koenig, still sitting on the podium. “I have a character,” I said. “It’s an advertising guy I met when we worked together on this project in Florida. He had retired but he was just getting back into the business.” I looked at her to see if she was catching on. I couldn’t tell.

“We discovered that we both liked the track. But he really liked it. He’d buy the Racing Form every day, even days he didn’t go to the track.” I thought I detected a hint of interest in her expression.

“And he didn’t throw them out,” I continued.  “He had the back issues stacked up in the closets of his house.”

“I think I know this man,” she said smiling.

She said she’d ask her father if he’d remember me. She was sure he would. I was sure he wouldn’t. In any case, I never heard from her. But then, I never pitched any stories, and she got busy with other projects, like “Serial.”

I Really Do Not Like Thee, Dr. Phil

April 20, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

My post of January 4 (here) had the title “I Do Not Like Thee Doctor Phil,” a variant on a nursery rhyme that’s not as well known here as in Britain. It begins,
I do not like thee Dr. Fell.
The reason why I cannot tell.
I have almost never watched Dr. Phil, so I really did not know the reason why I didn’t like him. Now I do. He is dangerously stupid, at least when it comes to public health.

Last week, he was on TV pushing the idea that businesses should re-open soon despite the pandemic.
If the businesses remain closed, he said, “There’s a point at which lockdown will create more destruction and more death than the actual virus will.”

He said this on Fox News, of course, on Laura Ingraham’s show. He continued,

People are dying from the coronavirus. I get that. But look, the fact of the matter is we have people dying, 45,000 people a year die from automobile accidents, 480,000 from cigarettes, 360,000 a year from swimming pools,* but we don’t shut the country down for that.

As several people pointed out, the swimming pool figure is more than one hundred times the actual number. All drownings, not just swimming pools, account for less than 4000 deaths.

Dr. Phil’s logic is just as wrong as his statistics. Swimming pools, traffic accidents, and cigarettes are not contagious. As John Oliver said last night, “If swimming pools were killing 360,000 people a year, and you could contract a swimming pool on a trip to the grocery store, we might want to think about shutting them down until we worked out what the fuck was going on.”

* Right wingers love swimming-pool deaths, especially when the victim is a child. Ditto for traffic deaths.  Tea Party types frequently use these mortality statistics in arguing for the removal of all restrictions on guns. The logic there is just as shoddy as it is in regards to Covid-19. (See this 2016 post “A Gun Is Not a Swimming Pool.”)

The Creative Destruction of Situations

April 9, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post used a disastrous performance of Peter Pan as an instance wher the “definition of the situation” breaks down irreparably. That kind of total breakdown is rare. Any social situation can go wrong, but it’s a usually a matter of embarrassment, not a complete fiasco, and the encounter can continue though perhaps not as smoothly as before.

As Goffman says in his classic essay “Embarrassment and Social Organization”*

The elements of a social encounter, then, consist of effectively projected claims to an acceptable self and the confirmation of like claims on the part of the others. The contributions of all are oriented to these and built up on the basis of them. When an event throws doubt upon or discredits these claims, then the encounter finds itself lodged in assumptions which no longer hold. The responses the parties have made ready are now out of place and must be choked back, and the interaction must be reconstructed.

The Peter Pan that went wrong as described on This American Life wasn’t “restructured.” Instead, at least for the audience, it became something else entirely — a sequence of hilarious sight gags for them to laugh at. 

These breakdowns don’t always end badly, though they usually do. Sometimes the moment of embarrassment can lead to the “creative destruction” of a definition of the situation that was not working and its replacement with something better.

In the final story of the episode of This American Life, the encounter that goes wrong involves a journalist Margy Rochlin in 1982 interviewing Moon Unit Zappa, whose “Valley Girls” was climbing the charts. Moon was 14. The interview took place in her living. Her mother was also present.

The interview was not going well. As Rochlin, tells it, “I’m sort of that rock bottom level that everyone can get at in an interview, where you’re just saying, like, what's your favorite color?” The cup of coffee that Moon’s mother has given Rochlin has gotten cold. And then. . .

And so what happened was Moon told me a joke. And I didn’t see the joke coming. And right before she told me the joke, I had taken a big swig of the coffee, which was now cold. And when she told me the joke, I burst out laughing. And I started to choke. And so I pressed my lips together, so I didn't spit it out. I didn't want to do a spit-take. And the coffee came shooting out my nose. . . . I was really embarrassed, but simultaneously, I couldn't breathe. At the same time, I was choking. And I jumped up. And I sort of started running around the room, knocking things over.

It gets worse. The mother chases Rochlin around the room trying to give her the Heimlich manoeuvre. (you can hear Rochlin’s full account here).

Ira Glass: Now, what happened after that? 

Margy Rochlin: It was sort of like we’d all been in an earthquake together. And all of nervousness left the room. And suddenly we were three gals, just chatting. And I remember that I sort of hugged them both when I left. They were now my friends. 

Ira Glass: It’s interesting, because one of our criteria for a fiasco is that all social order, the normal social structure breaks down. And literally, that’s what happens here. The normal interview stops. And the social structure of the moment completely changes. The mom gives you the Heimlich maneuver. And then, suddenly, it stops feeling like an interview.

Ira Glass calls it “the social structure of the moment.” Sociology instructors call it the “definition of the situation.”

*American Journal of Sociology, Volume 62, Issue 3 (Nov., 1956), 264-271.

When Definitions of the Situation Fail

April 7, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

This weekend’s episode of This American Life (here) was called “Fiasco.” The title for Soc 101 would have been “Definition of the Situation.”

Most of the time, we don’t realize that we have such a definition. We know what something is – a play in a theater, police responding to a minor call for assistance, a journalst doing a celebrity interview. Nor do we realize that all the participants must do their part to sustain that definition. It’s only when something goes wrong that we begin to see these requirements.

These stories all involved things going wrong, very wrong. At first, people tried to maintain the definition they had come with. They tried to ignore or explain away the events that don’t fit. But eventually, they had to abandon the defintion.

The first story, recounted by journalist Jack Hitt,  was about a production of Peter Pan, the play where Peter and the Darling children fly. But the stagehand operating flying mechanisms don’t know what they’re doing, and the actors are swung about randomly or just left hanging in air.

 [The transcriptions below do not include all of what is in the audio clips.]

Ira Glass: Wait, wait. And the audience reaction to this point is just — are they laughing?

Jack Hitt: No one is laughing. One of the great things about audiences, especially in a live theater production, is that they’re very forgiving. They want the show to work. And so everyone is sort of gripping their chair a little tightly. We feel for them. They’re up there — they're embarrassing themselves for us.

Ira Glass: We identify with them. We become them.

Jack Hitt: And so the audience, I think, was very forgiving and very understanding of this moment.

“We identify with them [the actors],” says Ira, “We become them.” But it would be more accurate to say that we identify with the entire situation. The actors may be “embarrassing themselves,” but as Erving Goffman says, embarrassment affects the entire situation and the people who are part of it.
Even when the little boy playing the youngest child is being jerked up and then suddenly plummeted almost to the floor, “No one said a word. We just all sat there sort of holding our breath. And there’s that weird tension of being in the audience thinking, oh, oh my goodness. They have gotten off to a very bad start. Oh, this is not good. And we feel for them.”

To put it another way, our definition is still that this is Peter Pan. It’s just a Peter Pan where things aren’t going well.That definition starts to crumble as the younger people, teenagers, in the audience start laughing. The adults though held on to the old definition for a bit longer.

Jack Hitt: There was a split in the audience. Sort of the younger people who were the least forgiving, they started to go first, OK? So the high school students, couple of college students maybe, they started to laugh out loud. . . . But then whatever restraint that the audience had, it just evaporated at this point because there were a number of things that happened in quick succession that just made it impossible to hold any sense of decorum.

The audience was arriving at a new defintion. This is not Peter Pan, where we think about the schemes of Captain Hook and the responses of Peter and the children. It’s a fiasco, where we wait for the next sight gag.

Jack Hitt: There are just belly laughs rolling up to the stage from the audience. People are howling with laughter at every mistake. And now any small mistake just takes on these-- any instigation for laughter is just enough of for this audience. And now the old people have given it up. Everyone has quit being nice. Now there's just this kind of frightening roar that comes from the audience every time there’s a mistake.

Once the audience has this new definition, they sustain it in the same way that they had tried to sustain the old one, ignoring or rejecting information that doesn’t fit.

Ira Glass: At some point the audience turned and realized, oh wait. I realize what’s going on here. This is a fiasco.

Jack Hitt: Yeah. This is a fiasco. And what’s really interesting about a fiasco is that once it starts to tumble down, the audience wants to push it further along.

Ira Glass: Oh, they get hungry for more fiasco.

Jack Hitt: Oh, yeah. Ira Glass: If the play proceeded perfectly, they would be disappointed.

When Virtue Is Its Own — and Only — Reward

April 3, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

A warren of journalism professors have written on open letter to Rupert Murdoch demanding that his Fox News stop spreading misinformation about the corona virus.

The basic purpose of news organizations is to discover and tell the truth. This is especially necessary, and obvious, amid a public health crisis. Television bears a particular responsibility because even more millions than usual look there for reliable information. Inexcusably, Fox News has violated elementary canons of journalism. In so doing, it has contributed to the spread of a grave pandemic. [This HuffPo piece contains the full text of the letter.]

This is a noble sentiment, but it’s a little like saying that the basic purpose of a president is to run the executive branch of the government effectively. The trouble with these ideal versions is that they ignore a basic principle of behavior — the reality of rewards. As Deep Throat said, follow the money or whatever else the people involved crave.

For both Fox News and Trump, the reward they pay attention to is popularity. Fox News is not very good at telling the truth, but it is very good at keeping and expanding their audience, and the larger the audience, the more money Murdoch makes. Apparently, it is by profits that he measure success, it is profits that bring him gratification.

Similarly for Trump. He’s not very good at running the government, but he is very good at keeping and even expanding the number of people who pay attention to him and who approve of him. Those ratings, along with the number of his Twitter and Facebook followers and his TV ratings, are what bring him satisfaction. They are what he craves.

As long as spreading misinformation brings no loss in popularity, Fox News and Trump will continue to do what they do best. The truth and the well-being of the population will remain secondary considerations with little consequence and therefor little influence; even less so will be the opinions of professors or even the judgment of history.   

Ellis Marsalis, 1934 - 2020

April 3, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

His sons Wynton and Branford became far better known, even outside the jazz world, especially when Branford was leading the Tonight Show band back in the Jay Leno days. But Ellis Marsalis was a fine pianist. This is his recording of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” from the album Heart of Gold, recorded in 1991. The other 14 tracks on the album are with bass and drums. But this one is solo piano., the melody once through. It shows his great sense of harmony.

I had known of this song, but the recordings I’d heard were treacly romantic versions from the 1940s. I never really heard it till I listened to Marsalis’s treatment (which I have tried to more or less copy when I play it). It’s as though he were singing it, and I’m sure that as he played he was thinking the lyrics to himself.

The Times obit says that he died of complications from COVID 19. He was 85.