Archive | March, 2012

Jazz in Nazi Germany and Occupied Europe

30 Mar

This came across my desk by way of my advisor. I am reproducing it here without comment, but I am bolding the parts I find most significant – look at what they are restricting. Read and discuss.

In the autobiographical introduction to his 1985 novella called “The Bass Saxophone,” Czech dissident and jazz musician Joseph Skvorecky recalled the strictures put on dance bands during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.  They say a great deal about the Third Reich’s views regarding jazz:

  1. Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;
  2. In this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;
  3. As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones (so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated;
  4. So-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs);
  5. Strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.);
  6. Also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylized military marches);
  7. The double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions;
  8. Plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine [bridge], which is henceforth forbidden;
  9. Musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat);
  10. All light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violin-cello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument.

Gay marriage rant

26 Mar

I firmly believe that if we, as a society, retain a certain set of rights for ourselves, then those rights should be available to ALL people, regardless of ideological differences or something as arbitrary and flexible as gender roles. That is not radical thinking; that is basic human decency.

That point aside, these right-wing “Christian” zealots have already come after straight rights as well (women’s reproductive rights is what I’m specifically referring to) and they will continue to do so as long as they can find 20,000 assholes in WA to sign their petition seeking to overturn a fundamental right that was granted to people in Washington state 4 years ago. As Dan Savage is fond of saying, “Straights, you’re next.”

The agenda exists to shoehorn the archaic “morals” of a few onto the lives of the many. These people want all of us to have nothing but missionary tab-into-slot sex, and they want us to hate it, and they want us to do it not for pleasure or an emotional connection, but because they want more mewling little right wing monsters like them to be born into a world where your choice of romantic partner is the sole definition of your humanity.

Do the politicians up there not have better things to do than try to regulate what happens in someone’s bedroom? Color me ignorant, but I will NEVER be able to wrap my mind around the notion that gay marriage is some sort of cataclysm that will rip society at the seams. If you can show me peer-reviewed, empirical data that gay marriage will result in utter anarchy and dogs & cats living together and the downfall of Western civilization, I promise I will carefully consider it. But you will NEVER be able to show me anything of the sort.

The fact that we debate this blows my mind. Love is love. You don’t get a say in who you love – if you love someone, you love them. We straights get to reserve the rights that come with marriage at will. This should be true for everyone. By attempting to regulate out of matrimonial existence 10 to 15% of the population, these fundamentalists deny these rights to loving couples whose only “transgression” is that they have the same stuff between their legs.

I sincerely hope that my homosexual friends know that I am their ally, and I will stand in the rain with a picket sign, I will march down the street flying the rainbow flag, I will go to jail for beating up Fred Phelps if that’s what it takes, I will fight tooth and nail and claw for the opportunity for my friends to love whomever they choose and benefit from the same rights that the rest of us take for granted. I will give up my own set of rights and matrimonial freedom if it means that my gay friends – and I have many – can be with the people they love.

Why should I get married and flaunt a right that only exists because I’m conforming to a gender role? Life is nasty, brutish, and short. It’s the only one you have, and you should live it your way, and the people you love make it all worthwhile. NO ONE has the authority to strip that away from anyone else.

I am a proud straight ally and will fight for marriage equality until this is no longer an issue. And I don’t have to respect any “opinions” to the contrary. To me, this is a no-brainer. Love is our greatest intangible – it sustains us. It should sustain EVERYONE.

Sorry for the soapbox, but I truly feel that I have no business ever getting married and contributing to a system that excludes beautiful, loving human beings from a fundamental right. And I won’t get married until everyone can get married. That’s a promise.

Hey girl hey

24 Mar

I have never really had any close female friends as an adult (until recently). This is in part because I have long preferred the company of men, probably because elementary/middle/high school experiences with female bullies really put me off on the whole GIRL’S NIGHT! thing.

But I just want to mention how blessed I am to finally have some wonderful lady friends in my life, and how grateful I am to have just spent a terrific week laughing and drinking wine and experiencing music with them.

Since having my heart broken around a year ago, I have had some ups and downs, but my friends have been there for me through it all and I am incredibly fortunate to have that bond that only sisters can have. I’ll wait while you go buy some extra Velveeta to go with all the cheese I’m dishing out.

All my battle scars and demons are starting to heal, and life is beautiful. 

I have friends and music and art and beauty and my health is improving and I am a candidate for my dream job.

Life is good.

Life: No one gets out alive

22 Mar

I don’t know if I can keep pretending that settling for anything less than being a professional musician is okay. The more time I spend in academia, the less I want to be an academic and the more I just wanna play.

There’s a massive bundle of neuroses backing this statement, and a train of thought processes that I could never really explain. My brain just moves so fast any more, I can’t keep up and so I just cherry pick the thoughts that are semi-coherent.

I’m visiting a place where people shake your hand and say, “What do you play?” instead of “What do you do?” and there is never an awkward conversation about how musicians are a worthless drain on society and no one asks me what I’m going to do with a Ph.D. What the Christ do you think I’m going to do with it? Literally anything I desire! THAT’S THE WHOLE GOD DAMN POINT.

Sorry, parents and authority figures, but up until now I have been chasing an abridged version of my dreams; a version of my dreams that is tolerable to people who play the establishment game. A version of my dreams that is acceptable to discuss at parties with old ignorant people, one that power-tripping middle-school teachers smirk at and go out of their way to suppress.

Dreaming boldly is a radical act, but actually seizing on the dream and making it a tangible reality is so far removed from convention and establishment thought that it becomes a point of ridicule and people who mean well try to wedge you into their version of acceptable reality.

I have a bumper sticker on my car that says “Those who abandon their dreams will discourage yours.” I think we all leave abandoned dreams in our wake, and up until now I have tried to shoehorn an acceptability onto what I do, as if academia validates my existence.

I’m a musician. I want to be a musician forever. I want to play. I want to ride off into the sunset on my bicycle with a couple of horns and just fucking play. I don’t know how long I can keep pretending that other things make me happy, because nothing makes me happier than playing my horn. I’m so fucking tired of playing it safe.

A Cycling Manifesto

10 Mar

Americans like to suffer. Just ask us. We place value on those jobs which are hard and applaud those who give up creature comforts, because our national identity is this weird Puritanical belief in the virtues of hard work and suffering. In order for the suffering to matter to us, however, there can be no enjoyment of one’s “work” – work is purely an exercise in pain and if you happen to like your job, then you aren’t a “real” American and it’s not “real” work.

I think it’s a combination of the above phenomenon, and a mean jingoistic streak (the sport of cycling isn’t American – it’s EURO), that keeps hostility towards cyclists alive. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. This is a sport for strong, tough, working people – not for those who fret about breaking a nail. It’s like recess for those of us who spend most of our day indoors. It is hard work and suffering, but because it looks like we’re having fun on a kid’s toy, people in cars get testy and rude and often cease to see us as human beings because we’re at play and they aren’t. How dare we.

I don’t know of another individual sport than can give you the same sense of frontier conquest that cycling can. You are limited solely by your legs and the number of drops left in your bottle – that’s it. You can cover 200 miles in a day if you really want to – you could do that from a car in 3 hours, but you wouldn’t hear the wind and the birds and smell cattle from miles away, and you wouldn’t have the satisfaction of staring down one of these notorious Kansas headwinds (Kansas comes from the word Kanza, which means “People of the South Wind”).

You wouldn’t get to eat sticky goo out of a tube for “lunch,” and you wouldn’t get to choke down 80-degree tap water from plastic bottles that turn into little greenhouses on the road. You definitely wouldn’t get to experience the transcendent joy that comes from cresting a monster climb 30 seconds faster than the time before, and you wouldn’t get to spend hours talking to yourself, telling your legs, back, wrists, etc. to shut up.

I went out for a casual ride today. I warmed up for about 30 minutes in town, then grabbed a snack at Wheatfields Bakery. Invigorated by my baguette snack, I decided to ride north (on the country road that 6th St. turns into once you leave Lawrence). There were two guys from a local team at the stoplight in front of me as we prepared to cross the river. Fully kitted out with carbon bikes that cost more than my car. One of the guys had a PowerTap.

The light turned green and they took off. It was pretty clear that this wasn’t a recovery ride. I was riding my steel Canopus, a boutique bike from the 1980s that we scrounged off eBay a few years ago. Steel weighs more than carbon, but it handles better and is more comfortable. My bike has a 6-speed cluster in the back – that’s it. It is a true 80s race bike in nearly every way, right down to the white bar tape. I’m just trying to make it clear that I was riding a vintage steel bike with very limited gearing. Got that part? Cool.

I decided to try and gap these two guys before they got to I-70, and then I would just let them go. Maybe it was the amazing baguette I had just eaten, but I was able to chase them down on my little clunker bike with barely a gear to my name. They never knew I was there, because as soon as I caught up to them, I sat up and off they went.

There is a place you reach after enough time spent pedaling. It’s a place that resembles the nonchalant euphoria you can obtain when you meditate. The repetition of the pedals, spinning the same cadence after miles and miles, is a form of meditation unto itself. You must remain intense and focused on turning the pedals consistently, or you will lose speed and energy. But this focus must stay balanced – too much intensity and you will tighten up. On the bicycle, tension is one of your worst enemies, second only to dogs and aggressive motorists.

The best time trialists in the world are masters at this Zen of cadence and power. They are so tuned in to the messages sent by their body that they know exactly where their redline is, and they know to hover just below this redline. Basically, they find the spot where it hurts the most and they hold their pace just shy of this spot. Imagine if you gave nearly everything you had to a sport, to a job, to a relationship, whatever – you find where you suffer the most and you flirt with that place.

That’s where we get to go when we ride. And we get to go there and discover the true mental powers that we all possess, and we get to do it on wide country roads with chirpy birds and the wind rustling the corn, and those are the only sounds you may hear for an hour. Unless you’re doing it right, and then your heart should be pounding in your throat and your ears.

I am chasing the Zen on every ride, where actions become automatic responses to stimuli and sweat makes my eyebrows crunchy and the wind feels like an unbeatable opponent, because it is.

I think the reason I like this sport is that it provides license to suffer; it is a study in coping with pain and mental toughness. Who among us couldn’t benefit from a little more mental toughness? And I get to push these personal limits while having a true “Wheee!” moment on a fast, windy descent or the summit of a big climb that yields a spectacular view of the world below. On that note, I really miss riding where there are actual mountains. But I’m a true Midwestern power rider, and not built for climbing.

Watch out, though – I’m pretty dangerous over short distances.

So maybe people are hostile because we look too Euro. Or because we look like we’re at play. Please don’t run me over – if you can have your whiskey and cigarettes to make life bearable, then I can have my pedaling Zen. I’m not hurting anyone but myself, and only good things can come from this pain.

Nerd time

3 Mar

I currently have THREE academic papers in the works. Well, the ideas are set, anyway. I like to start with a title and then allow that to guide my writing direction.

Here they are.

No Reason to Get Excited: Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” as Myth, Leitmotif, and Metaphor

Free Man in Paris: Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” as Folk Music Watershed

This last one doesn’t have a title yet, but the gist is that it’s about gender roles in brass instrument development in 19th Century Paris (where all the brasses were refined, thanks to the trend towards orchestral expansion).

Sublime to the ridiculous, indeed.

I actually emailed composer Bear McCreary about the first one, hoping to get 15 minutes to pick his brain about it.


I don’t know how much original research has been done on AATW in recent years, but I’m hoping I’ll be the first to get a paper out on it that also addresses the BSG stuff, the Dave Matthews Band covers, etc.

The Joni Mitchell paper has been on my mind since my undergrad days. I realize it’s a bold statement I’m making, that this album helped kill folk music, but the title COULD be more inflammatory than it is. 🙂

For a decent piece of scholarship with an EXTREMELY inflammatory title, check out a book called How the Beatles Destroyed Rock & Roll by Elijah Wald. He argues his case. Not sure how much I agree with him, but it’s a fresh perspective.

Any thoughts? I know the first two are sort of mainstream, like rock journalism, and the last one more “New Musicology.”

On why I love music

1 Mar

My earliest memories are of music. I have a fuzzy, vague, distant memory of being in a car seat and hearing a song on the radio that my dad ALWAYS played on the stereo at home. He had this John Mellencamp album (was he John Cougar then?) and I knew every word of that album before I could even really talk. My youth involved much exposure to Steely Dan, Chicago, Earth Wind & Fire, The Beatles, and Bill Withers.

I was 10 years old and riding in my dad’s pickup with him to school. This was back in the days when my brother and I would spend every other week with my dad and one of us would have to cram into what constituted a quad cab on a Ford Ranger because there were only two seats up front. One time, I got a migraine (I had no idea what it was at the time) while squished into that “back seat” and wound up puking into a 7-11 cup so I wouldn’t mess up the upholstery.

Dad always had an extensive collection of cassette tapes (for the younger readers, cassette tapes were plastic receptacles containing a strip of magnetic tape onto which a song would be encoded. The tape deck would then pull the magnetic tape through a set of “teeth” and that would produce the sound through the speakers) in the truck. Good stuff, esoteric stuff.

On one of those trips, dad put Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” on the tape deck. To this day I can point to the exact spot on 87th St. in Lenexa where I first heard that album. That was the moment and the place when it occurred to me that music was the only path. I had never felt that way before. I heard that album and I was transformed. WHAT A SOUND! I was a 10 year old girl and I wanted to know what to call this music. I didn’t know the words “jazz” or “pop” music. I knew John Mellencamp and REO Speedwagon and Blood Sweat & Tears and Marvin Gaye. I just thought of it all as “music,” and what an incredible musical world it was.

This was a sonic world I had never heard before. Mitchell recorded the album with a backing band, Tom Scott’s L.A. Express. This band was a straight-up post-bop entity (it was the early 70’s). Their playing smacked of influences of Dizzy Gillespie and a band like Yes! – they were a jazz band with a prog rock vibe. The incredible orchestrations of the backing band are what sell this album as one of the  1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die – and it was Joni herself who did the bulk of the orchestrations.

Joni was using the L.A. Express as her very own instrument. To hear this album now, it is obvious Joni wrote for the players she had at her disposal. Duke Ellington would die three months following the release of this album. I don’t know if Duke was ever aware of C&S, but I hope he was proud of influencing another prolific American composer to write for their individual players. The only other contemporary mainstream American composer who writes exclusively for their players is Maria Schneider, but she’s a story for another day.

Joni Mitchell had been well known prior to the release of this album as a folk singer, but she had been slowly adding elements of rock into her sound. She had, prior to 1974, resisted incorporating jazz. But then “Court and Spark” came out and she didn’t just come out of the jazz closet, she busted it for kindling. Keep in mind – Joni had been touring with Neil Young for a while and her songwriting on C&S would come to show influences of Young, while retaining a staggeringly original voice.

The other thing that grabbed me and smacked me around was something I now know as texture. There was an incredible palette of color on this album – woodwinds, brass, chimes – and Joni used every single color at her disposal to make this album, an album that I have yet to hear anything remotely emulate. The guitar effects are absolutely perfect every time. The melodies are complex but eminently hummable. Mitchell’s vocal performance and arrangements ranging from delicate to raucous are exquisite. The performances by the musicians are absolutely smokin’. This is a shared artistic vision that only comes along maybe a handful of times in a generation.

I knew there was something about this album, this music, that moved me. All music moved me. I was prone to break into bouts of tears while listening to film scores because I was so moved by SOMETHING in that score. This is before I had any sort of musical education and my parents weren’t musicians. I finally convinced them to buy me a cheap Casio keyboard so I could figure out this music thing.

I started learning songs by ear and learning to play them on the piano. I didn’t get much practical training in elementary school band so I had to teach myself to read music AFTER developing rote knowledge. I didn’t have the vocabulary to express this at the time, but what moved me the most in music were a few things: dissonant, crunchy chords; interesting, active bass lines; and irregular meters.

I didn’t know, 18 years ago, that those were the things I loved about music. But now I know that. Because they’re the things I still love.

“Court & Spark” had all of these elements and then some: memorable melodies, fascinating lyrics, and a level of white-hot creativity that I struggle find any  other album that is its equal in that regard, except perhaps for “In Rainbows” by Radiohead.

Joni became a trusted musical friend. I liked to sit up in my room and just blast the music and walk around the room, listening. Soaking up the different lines and counterlines. Rewinding the track to hear a crunchy chord again. Playing the melody so many times on the Casio that it was nearly confiscated.

From Joni, I discovered Ben Folds Five’s “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.” Somewhere in that time, I heard the introduction to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” – that high, mournful, savage bassoon solo at the beginning. I can tell you where I was sitting in the SM West band room when I heard that bassoon.

I could literally share similar experiences all day, and maybe I will soon. Maybe this is “Part One” of why I love music.

I don’t understand why Europeans and South Americans can take more sophistication. Why is it that Americans need to hear their happiness major and their tragedy minor, and as jazzy as they can handle is a seventh chord? Are they not experiencing complex emotions? – Joni Mitchell