Starbucks (sung to the tune of “Skylark”)

Starbucks, have you any coffee for me,
can’t you see I am very sleepy,
won’t you tell me where a barista might be,
is there a cappuccino and a table,
an umbrella, and a seat?

Starbucks, can I sit outside your door,
on the sidewalk with a napkin and pen,
writing my poem that no one will read,
doodling my time away
to an ambiguous ending.

And when the barista comes out,
asking me if I’d like some frothy whipped cream,
wonderful cream like the fall of moonlight,
the garden lanterns are lit,
while a gypsy jazz trio plays
dans les nuages.

Starbucks, I don’t know if you have what I need,
a lonely table under a carob tree,
where I’ll sit and sip a cold coffee,
my heart squeezed through a napkin ring,
wishing for skylark wings to fly away and sing.

(“Skylark” is a 1942 jazz standard song, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, music by Hoagy Carmichael.)

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Jazz on a summer’s day
sleepy jazz on a rainy evening
jazz on the night of a full blue moon.
Jazz on a transistor radio in the next room.

Jazz in a whiteout blizzard
jazz on a foggy morning in the surf
jazz on a summer’s day
jazz when the falling leaves fall.

Jazz in a coffee house with wifi
jazz in a clean well-lighted place
jazz high up in the trees
jazz on a yacht in the tranquil bay.

Jazz trio at the wine bar
jazz aboard a tugboat
on the Mississippi jazz live at five
jazz out a picture window.

Jazz on a crosstown bus
jazz at a sock hop
jazz in the cold grotto
jazz in an empty church.

Jazz from a food cart
jazz in a classroom
jazz in Healdsburg
jazz in Drytown.

Jazz in a confessional
jazz working on the railroad
jazz in a sweatshirt
jazz in jail.

Jazz it kind of got away from you
jazz on steamboats fixing everything
jazz at The Coming of the Toads
jazz in and jazz out of a blue collar.

Jazz on a jukebox
jazz at Terre Rouge
jazz in a red convertible
jazz on a Martian moon.

Jazz in the slow lane
jazzy walk around the block
jazz down on Stark Street
jazz at low tide.

Jazz rumbles across the trestle
jazz if you go out in the woods today
jazz between Scylla and Charybdis
jazz on the air.

Jazz in Seattle in a coal car
jazz at a concert in the park caldera
jazz in the near light like a candle
jazz in the faraway dark quiet.

Jazz alone and jazz together
jazz out there and jazz in here
just jazz at a rent party cleaning
up after they’ve all gone home.

Jazz about this and jazz about that
jazz when flat and jazz while sharp
streaming jazz in a steamy heat
jazz on a fine summer’s day.

Nothing but the Oldies

“nothing but the music” (2020, Blank Forms Editions, Brooklyn) is a kind of compilation, a box set, of pieces composed by Thulani Davis over the years 1974 to 1992, lines written while listening to live music or reflecting on the experience of an avant garde art form as it’s happening, and before it might be neutered by mainstream commercialization too influenced by those with control of the means of production. Most of the Davis pieces appeared in poetic form in alternative press issues over the years and some were set to music. The scores are informed, and may be read with reference to, performance and theatre, jazz and punk, R&B, and mixed forms or art form synesthesia, the courage and risks found in the places music is born, but the rewards too of achievement, however much that success may appear to some as failure. The music’s codification (its reliability, approvals, its aesthetic argument) might be seen in the cost for a ticket to get in: $20 – for a 63 page paperback, made possible in part by support from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Is the music now artifact? The oral argument, written or recorded, becomes a document. What the music feels like, in words, what it stands for, and stands against. The importance of the work, these pieces, these entries, is found in the subtitle: “Documentaries from nightclubs, dance halls & a tailor’s shop in Dakar.” Or, in the words of the book’s epigraph:

“to the artists
& dharma guides
who coax us
minute by minute
from retold pasts
& possible futures
ever
to the present
moment”

Each piece is sourced at its end with a date and location and often the names of the musicians. For example: “1982, CBGB, New York”; “April 27, 1977, The Rogue & Jar, Washington, DC. The players: David Murray, Hamiet Bluiett, Charles “Bobo” Shaw, Fred Hopkins. The poet: Ntozake Shange”; “April 15, 1975. Five Spot, New York. The Cecil Taylor Unit: Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, Andrew Cyrille.” That last piece just cited, “C. T. At The Five Spot,” begins:

“this is not about romance & dream
it’s about a terrible command performance of the facts
of time & space & air”

…and moves on:

“ripple stamp & beat/ripple peddlin’
stomps taps of feet slick poundin’ out
tonal distinctions between/keys & sticks”

…and ends:

“I have heard this music
ever since I can remember/I have heard this music”

(22-23)

If music is a cultural argument, an aesthetic fight, it must come complete with a thesis statement about which some will disagree, backed with claims with examples, illustrations, supported with evidence and sources. It’s not enough to dress the part and go punk for an evening; one must want to be hardcore punk, and harder still. The wall does not give way so easily. It’s not enough to listen to the radio or buy the recording; one must enter the mosh pit. Who can survive it?

“the punks jumped on the stage
and dove into their friends
let their chains beat their thighs
the crowd thought death
in two-minute intervals
heavy metal duos and creaming murder

the band of twelve year-old rockers
wished they could do it
come like that on the refuse
of somebody else’s youth”

from “Bad Brains: A Band”: 1982, CBGB, New York

We find, in “nothing but the music,” in addition to the music itself, criticism, analysis, reaction, conclusions, as well as questions for further research. What happens when the avant garde becomes tradition?

“Not just history not just Trane
No not what we heard about
What we heard
Just what we hear
It always being night
We’ll still be there
Dancing the dissonant logic
The loneness
Just playing music
He speaking to himself
Really paying us no rabbitass mind
Digging what himself was doing
T-monius and ‘al-reet'”

from “T-Monius”: February 17, 1982, 122nd Street, New York (50-51).

In a life of disenfranchisement, art may be the only place to find certain freedoms: of expression and voice, enjoyment and creativity, play and work coming together in a spirit of desire and interests, not of servitude or boredom, and where one may object to a status quo in a statement with examples of new possibilities. And beauty, where beauty may come to rest, looking tired and worn out, where she can mix with the crowd and feel at home and dig the music. And truth hangs out in the rhythm section. Some hep young cat might ask, “What was it like?” And the answer is important, how we answer, what we say, what we hold back. We are old now, and passing, older than we ever imagined. You can’t breakdance at 70 like you could at 17, Cornel West said in his ten minute section of Astra Taylor’s Examined Life: “Time is real.” Yes, and you can find it in the music:

“giving a spring to the dance
of who we are/unexpected beauty
beauty we have known ourselves to be
like reaching old age & infancy in a breath
of this is the music
knowing we can’t be us
& be afraid of who we are”

X-75-Vol. 1, Henry Threadgill “Side B (Air Song/Fe Fi Fo Fum)” (31-32).

Motti, Lazzaro, and Django

The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch (Swiss, 2018) is a coming of age story, Motti’s single marital status of existential concern to his mother, who tries to set him up with any number of, for Motti, unsuitable but available girls whose mothers are equally concerned about the marriage status of their daughters. But Motti has his own ideas about attractions and family values, even as his young and tender heart is yanked from his body by the carefree girl he falls off a cliff for, and a parental sponsored trip to Israel banking on his finding a girl the family can approve of only makes matters worse. Expect much laughter, and crying, out loud, with actors speaking German, Yiddish, and Hebrew. The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch is about the surprise of life.

Happy as Lazzaro (Italian, 2018) is another coming of age story. Lazzaro does, literally, fall off a cliff, but not for love, and his heart remains surreally whole, inviolate, even as his body is bruised and abused. He’s a static character, the same at the end as at the beginning, even as life around him changes dramatically. The dwelling settings, country and city, are brutal but beautiful. The lives of the sharecroppers, under imprisonment and later emancipated but just as poor, still captives of poverty, illustrate that poverty is protean, affecting both the poor and the wealthy.

Django (French, 2017). A dramatization of the life of the guitarist Django Reinhardt and his family during World War II. The Nazis persecuted the Gypsies, many of whom tried to flee to relatively safe zones, joined the resistance, or were caught, killed on the spot, or transported via train to the Nazi concentration camps. The film focuses on Django’s one attempt to escape France, and while he did try to escape to Switzerland, according to the book Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend (2004, Michael Dregni, Oxford University Press), Django spent most of the war in Paris, where he was allowed to continue playing his music because by then he and his music had become so popular. But he had to play for the occupiers as well as for the locals, his safe treatment thus coming at the cost of a kind of debt bondage. From the book:

“Hitler bore a deep hatred for Gypsies…From 1933, German Gypsies were doomed. The Nazis barred Romanies from cities, shuttling them into settlement camps. Nazi doctors began sterilizing Romanies as early as 1933. And German Gypsies were required to wear a brown triangle sewn on their chest marked with the letter “Z” for zigemer, German for “Gypsy” – a precursor of the yellow Stars of David pinned to Jews (168)….Yet in Paris, Django was flourishing. Never did he have so much work or live in such sumptuous surroundings. Just as the Germans permitted jazz in Paris, they allowed Romany musicians to continue to play – and paid to come hear them every night” (169).

Still, Django worried for his family and for his own life, and if some considered him a hero, others thought of him as a conspirator: “Being in the spotlight saved him from the fate awaiting other Gypsies, but Django began to sweat under the glare” (182). Django takes off with his pregnant wife and his mother. They get caught and are imprisoned, but then, in the absurd way these things seem to happen, Dregni says, “A miracle arrived in the unlikely form of the German kommandant. He was a jazz fan, and when he came to question his new prisoner, he was astonished. ‘My good Reinhardt,’ he said, ‘whatever are you doing in this fix?’ Django promised not to try to escape again, and was freed” (184).

Django the film is must see for anyone interested in Gypsy jazz. But it’s also just a classic film – the acting, the setting, the timing, the war, the family and country drama and suspense. It features much magnificent music, including the organ “Mass” piece Django created. Django the book by Dregni should also be read. Django never learned to read or write, save at a most rudimentary level, and that late in his life (he died age 43). The book reveals a deep history of jazz music in Europe, particularly Paris, including stories of the many Black American musicians who traveled through Europe, most stopping in Paris, many playing with Django, following both World Wars. It covers the business of music and recording and performance management, popular success and failure, the changing style of jazz as musicians work to assimilate new music experienced from new exposures.

We Are Sorry For The Delay

I had answered my ringing house phone to a recording. I put the phone on speaker, set it down on the counter, and waited for the caller to come on live. The recording continued, as if with indefinite intent. I opened Garage Band on my laptop and recorded the message, later adding the other tracks with instruments and vocals.

78 RPM Saturday Night: “Big Frank Bunts”

Beach painting by John Linker

Songs Without and With Words

“Music as discourse (jazz) doesn’t work,” John Cage said. “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it, and use words.”[i]

Cage’s claim might have met with some disagreement last Wednesday evening, when around 100 jazz and book festive fans filled Classic Piano’s small recital room for the launch of Lynn Darroch’s new book, “Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest.”[ii]

The recital room filled with folding chairs sloped downward, a small theatre, to a raised stage. In the back of the room, a table laden with cheeses and crackers and wine and such was bookended with a chair on which sat a stack of Lynn’s book, fresh from Ooligan Press, ready for selling, signing, and reading.

On the stage, Lynn stood behind a podium and read aloud in his distinctive forte-piano voice passages from his book, accompanied by jazz pianist Tom Grant, improvising in a range from pp to ff , in focused conversation with Lynn. (Visions of Rexroth and Ferlinghetti and “Jazz in the Cellar,” but missing Kerouac and company buzzing around existentially obnoxious.)

The discourse worked. “The musicians seem to trade remarks, and sometimes talk along with one another, as if each were reciting a text – a poem or a scripture – which they then consider” (28). “Iyer said: ‘It’s not that we just hear sounds. We hear the sources of the sound, and we’ve evolved to identify them’” (28).[iii]

But do we hear the sources of the sound when we listen to music through electronic speakers? Or when we listen in retrospect? Is the source of the sound the speaker, and not the instrument, the source of sound the instrument makes having been converted from wood and string, brass and breath, hand and beat, and which substitutes or confuses audio signals with true source sound?

Lynn backed away from the podium, and Tom Grant segued into an intricate rendition of Thelonius Monk’s “Blue Monk.” Grant sat at a grand piano, his feet never tiring on the pedals, his focus on Lynn’s discussion.

There came a break during which Lynn sold and signed copies of his book. He gave away a free CD containing some his readings, accompanied by jazz, to fans buying the book at the launch. Tom sat on the edge of the stage chatting with the vocalist Shirley Nanette, who had been sitting in the front row in the audience. In the back of the room, several students associated with PSU’s Ooligan Press chatted about book design, jazz, blogs and other forces of the moment, contributing to a new chapter of jazz in the northwest.

Outside, the evening was dark and wet and not many people were out and about. A few smokers occupied the tables and chairs on the sidewalk next door at the Aladdin Theatre.

In “The Elvic Oracle: Did anyone invent rock and roll?,” in an aside on Sam Phillips’s Sun Studio experience, Louis Menand relates an anecdote on the studio sound as follows: “The band had damaged an amplifier on the way to the studio, so it buzzed when music was played. Phillips considered this a delicious imperfection, and he kept it. That is the sound that makes the record, and many people have called ‘Rocket 88’ the first rock-and-roll song.”[iv]

Many of today’s music listeners value the most expensive and exotic, delicate and accurate sound systems, in order to reproduce the sound of a broken amplifier. The recording and reproduction of music and sound typically, if not always, can only cover the original. “All history is retrospective,” Menand concludes: “…a legend is just one of the forms that history takes” (87).

[i] “Music as discourse (jazz) doesn’t work,” John Cage said, in his “DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD (YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) 1965,” the first text in his collection “A Year From Monday.” “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it and use words” (p. 12).

[ii] Rhythm in the Rain: Jazz in the Pacific Northwest, by Lynn Darroch (Foreword by George Colligan), Ooligan Press, Portland State University, 2016. 235 pages.

[iii] “Time is a Ghost,” by Alec Wilkinson, Feb. 1, 2016, The New Yorker, on the physicist turned jazz musician Vijay Iyer.

[iv] “The Elvic Oracle: Did anyone invent rock and roll?,” by Louis Menand, November 16, 2015, The New Yorker, on the random, fortuitous, indifferent forces that have helped influence what listeners hear and who they hear it by, and how those forces get encoded in legend in retrospect.

Old Blue

An instrumental guitar version of the old folk song, “Old Blue,” recorded impromptu using Garage Band on the laptop, two tracks, each recorded using Telephone Vocal, then copied and pasted twice, for a total of six tracks, the pasted tracks each using a different Garage Band library voice (including Deeper Vocal, Dublin Delay, Surfin’ in Stereo, and Mystery Chorus). Check it out!

Catsup Cafe

Little Lady Bug

Back Story Folk Guitar

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This Yamaha Red Label FG-180 guitar was probably built in 1969. The woman in the guitar store next to the Loyola Theatre in Westchester said Jimmy Webb had been in the week before and picked up this very Yamaha and played a few chords. She couldn’t believe I’d never heard of Jimmy Webb. It was March, 1970, and I’d just returned from active duty in Forts Bliss and Huachuca. Having talked to some other guitarists, I already knew the FG-180 was the guitar I wanted for the money I had, factory made in Japan, so inexpensive, but playable, reliable, and sound worthy. The guitar, case included, cost $100, a Martin dreadnought knockoff, no extra charge for the Jimmy Webb back story.

A back story is a forward. The forward is not a trailer, nor is it an abstract. The back story never spoils. It’s an appetizer. The back story, moving forward, provides the predicament that explains the current situation. Without a back story, new episodes drift aimlessly and meaninglessly, random dead links. The back story deflates absurdity and fills the reader with hope. The back story is a proposal, a hypothesis, an argument.

My first guitar was a hand-me-down from a neighbor friend, but its neck was broken by an early girlfriend jumping off the top bunk. I then purchased for $25 from an ad in the South Bay Daily Breeze newspaper, a nylon string, plywood top Orlando.

What is the relationship between physicists’ string theories and guitar? The on-line forums for both are full of confusing, contradictory claims, but full of back stories. A guitar often comes with a back story. Several guitar cases were recently spotted for sale in thrift shops, but the guitars were long gone. We might have some idea the age of the universe, but is it old or young, and what does it matter? The Ventura guitar case the guitar shop offered to throw in today shows the wear and tear of travel in a deuce and a half, to Fort Liggett and Camp Roberts and Camp Pendleton, and later trips to gold rush country and various ocean beaches, and not a few years sleeping in a dank basement while the guitar enjoyed an open stand in the living room.

This FG-180 has a spruce, two-piece solid top, mahogany sides, and a two-piece mahogany back. The neck is a thick bar of nato of one piece with the head. The fretboard is one quarter inch thick rosewood. The Yamaha link (above) says the backs were three-piece, but the top and back of this one are both two-piece, book matched. The bridge is rosewood. The FG stands for folk guitar. This one has a thin crack in the back of the head, at the top of the neck.

The top under the bridge has lifted some, and the head crack is a bit worrisome; light or extra-light strings will reduce tension. The FG-180 is now set up with D’Addario XL Chromes, flat wound, jazz light gauge, electric guitar strings. The electric strings when played acoustically don’t produce as loud or deep or full a sound as acoustic strings, but they pop, ping, and twang, “like a steel rail humming” (Pete Seeger, “Hobo’s Lullaby”), and if you do want to plug the guitar into an amplifier, use an old fashion, Dean Markley sound hole fitted pickup.

In Astra Taylor’s film “Examined Life,” Slavoj Zizek explains how we are seduced by ideology. If the universe has a back story, our present predicament can be explained, even if the explanation makes no sense. The Big Bang is a big back story. When an effect tickles or bites or bombards or floods us, we search for a cause. We reconsider our back stories.

We somehow must work and rework, correct or clarify, our back stories into our instantaneous presentations and performances amid the distractions, commercials, hypes, phobias, click bait, news tsunamis – the whole bafflegab of what’s up now.

Zizi Papacharissi, in “A Networked Self,” appears to understand the ability to “back-story” (to verbalize a noun, to go with the flow, “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” as Eliot said in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) as an adaptation skill, the ability to adapt to changes in social environments, from a supposed fixed state, where the self was assumed to be a character bound in a book with a lineal story, to a fluid self that is constantly seeking its own level, walking on the deck of a small boat, changing with every social interaction, mimicry as a survival technique (elasticity of demand in a social market):

“Narratives about the self have always been performative. That’s what renders aspects of our identity a discourse. What changes is that performativity is augmented through online means of self presentation. And it is this enhanced theatricality, afforded by certain online platforms (SNSs, and various forms of blogs and microblogs), that individuals find most appealing.

Sociability is practiced to the network, via the network. Performances of the self enable sociability, and these socially oriented performances must carry meaning for multiple publics and audiences without sacrificing one’s true sense of self. These polysemic performances not only contain many layers of meaning, but are remixed and remixable – sampling digital traces of identity to piece together performances that are further remixed and re-interpreted by multiple audiences and publics.”

That could be used as a back story that may now explain the emergence of the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. The revival, originally acted out in small coffee shops, living rooms, and campus settings, was at first minimally commercial. Few expected to earn a life-long living from singing folk song covers, but that wasn’t the goal, and the identity of the performer was inseparable from the identity of the audience. The audience participated in the performance. But that participation wasn’t a surge of fans aspiring to go on stage. There often wasn’t a stage, and each time a song was sung it was renewed in an altered form. Many of these performances were not recorded. They were passed on as living songs. Folk music is chameleon and transferable.

One of my older sisters sang in a high school folk group, “The Travelling Trio.” Their travels did not take them out of the Los Angeles Basin. They sang in living rooms and the local high school gym. Imagine a young Judy Garland singing Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train.” But unlike my sister, whose voice flowed like melted chocolate over fresh strawberries, your voice sounds like a galvanized plumbing pipe rattling in the wall with trapped air bubbles. Such a voice might confuse Tom Waits with Hedy West. Still, your Kentucky grandfather played the spoons and the harmonica, to add more filler to your back story, and you were an easy target for the music bug early on.

But a singing gig was not to become part of your back story. You played finger style. You liked the guitarist John Fahey, saw him play at Long Beach State and again at the Ash Grove. Not only did he not sing, on stage he never said a word. You were playing what you pretended was folk blues and fell into jazz. You took up what you called jazz guitar, though not everyone necessarily heard it that way.

Classical guitar lessons are useful for a few years. Your fingers already know how to play, but your brain doesn’t always know what they are doing. Over time, you’ll use up several teachers who will walk you through a couple of Aaron Shearer books, and a few of the Frederick Noad books, and teach you the Segovia scale method (which you might later hear Joe Pass dis, along with the number system). Your first teacher will probably introduce you to Leo Brouwer and his “Etudes Simples.” The Cuban composer’s short pieces are of course not all that simple, but at least you don’t have to sing. You’ll learn to read, slowly, like a stuttering primary school student, and learn enough to work through a Dionisio Aguado book, “Studi Per Chitarra,” on your own. You’ll learn by heart the old cliché: “The guitar is the easiest of instruments to play poorly, the most difficult to play well.” You’ll return to jazz and folk and find your breath and take solace in another cliché: “Close enough for jazz.”

Close enough substitutes feeling for the pursuit of perfection which as Cornel West explains in “Examined Life” is the romantic road to disappointment. So it was in the spirit of close enough that I answered an invitation from Sunshine Dixon to read a poem at an artists’ reception in the campus library, but I suggested that instead of reading a poem I might bring my old FG-180 guitar and sing a folk song. I worked up a folk version of “Gospel Plow,” using Dylan’s version on his first album as inspiration. If a recording pops up on-line somewhere I’ll add a link to the back story or upload a piece of it to SoundCloud. Maybe sister Peggy Ann will tune in.

And if you’d like to read more about the artists’ reception, Sunshine and I collaborated on a short article now on-line here, already part of a back story.

Backstage