Django Reinhardt, the Gypsy jazz guitarist whose centennial fell early on this year's calendar, infuriated his closest friend and best collaborator, Stephane Grappelli, with stereotypically Gypsy-ish bad behavior that only his sublimely atypical but deeply Gypsy-ish music could excuse. Early in the mid-'90s, when Grappelli was in his eighties but still playing regularly at the Blue Note in Manhattan, I did a fairly long interview with him in which he said, emphatically, "Django made me very angry. Django would not be there--we could not find him anywhere. He drank every day.
It's not that she lied. It’s that when Lena Horne told Rosie O'Donnell, "I like show business," she was being truthful only in small part. The occasion, a talk-show interview to promote a charity for singers, was one of very few interviews Horne did in the years before her death this week, at 92, and, for the sake of a good cause, she allowed herself to say something that she had devoted her final decades to disproving. As she went on to make plain, Horne cared deeply about singers, and she loved the art of music.
The calendar provides this week a perfect excuse to reconsider Geri Allen (whose superb new suite for jazz piano, Flying Toward the Sound, I took up here recently) in the context of her great precursor, Mary Lou Williams. This Saturday, May 8, is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the pianist and composer who stands out as Allen's deepest influence, despite the fact that Flying Toward the Sound is a tribute to Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock.
In art created through not-for-profit funding, the grant proposal too often is the art form. The requirements of application give shape to the work that the artist (or the hired grant writer) proposes to create. The funding process is valuable—indeed, an essential alternative to the free market—but also limited by its necessary politics. You can just smell the grease of the grant machinery in some of the work that comes out of the Guggenheims.
Until my last post, on Julia Wolfe—the undervalued also-ran for this year's Pulitzer Prize in music composition—I had never done much to remind myself of Garry Moore. I was describing an anonymous, home-made YouTube video set to Wolfe's richly textured short piece, "Lick," and I pointed out how easy it is to pigeonhole Wolfe as Cagean. Then I made a wiseass crack: "Whatever. I like the music." Apart from the lame use of "whatever," which no one in real life has used sacrastically since 1994, I should have done better than to use the subject of John Cage and his music to make a snarky joke.
As a serial finalist for nice awards I've never won, I believe in the secondary value in prizes—the value in not only honoring achievement but also in stimulating debate over who wins those honors. Among the major American prizes in arts and letters, the Pulitzers have an exemplary record at stirring that worthy debate.
I liked "Radio Gaga," the bombastic Queen single from the Eighties that provided Stefani Germanotta with a name to match the pop-star image she concocted; it was a fun tune. I liked "Lady Marmalade," the Labelle funk hit; it was sexy and fun, too. I like marmalade itself; it's a fun food. And I like Lady Gaga; she's delicious and nothing but fun, if not my idea of sexy. (Her jokey ridiculousness is fine to watch, but not inviting to me.) To fail to get some pleasure from Lady Gaga songs is to fail to appreciate American pop.
Every artist has a story, or so we in the audience for art like to believe. In music, certainly—particularly in styles of music rich in abstraction, such as the avant-garde and jazz—it’s easier for us to make something of challenging work if we can conceive of the composer or performer in easy-to-grasp narrative terms. If we imagine John Coltrane as a sojourning mystic, we can process his difficult late work as mystical sojourning.
I don't mean to imply that we're friends or anything, because I know him far less well than he knows a zillion other people, but I happened to be at the same jazz club that Tony Bennett went to a few nights ago, and we ended up talking for a little while. Bennett and I and our wives (who are about the same age, I think) had all gone to Dizzy's, one of the three glorious performance venues in the otherwise cheesy Jazz at Lincoln Center building, to see the pianist and singer Barbara Carroll.
It's always dangerous to infer artists' intentions from the effect of their art, and it's especially treacherous to imagine ill-intentions. I bring up this axiom of criticism with contrition, because I've been considering this week—and, more to the point, re-considering—what led Mark Linkous to make the bleak, grim music that seems now to have foreshadowed his suicide last Friday. I had never been kind to Linkous as a listener or a critic. I found his music depressing, and I arrogantly dismissed what he did as an exploitation of the adolescent impulse to glamorize isolation and despair.