“Life during the time of isolation and social distancing” Vol. 5 — ASU educator and author Tracy Fessenden

May 11th, 2020

 

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Red Meditation” by James Brewer

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…..In recent days, I have posed this question via email to a handful of creative artists and citizens of note:

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…..“During this time of social distancing and isolation at home, what are examples of the music you are listening to, the books you are reading, and/or the television or films you are viewing?” (If you wish, please feel free to also share your thoughts on the effects this isolation is having on your creativity or on your world).

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…..Responses to this question will be published periodically as this era progresses.

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This edition features the email response of Arizona State University professor and author Tracy Fessenden

(published with only minor stylistic editing)

 

 

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Steve and Margaret Forster Professor, Arizona State University; author of Religion Around Billie Holiday

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This response was submitted on May 4

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…..I made a few years ago a playlist of songs for a book I was writing about Billie Holiday. My habit became to play it whenever I visited some new place, because it helped dispel the strangeness, and made me feel at home.  Now that I am at home, with almost everyone else in the world, I find it returns those places to me, and makes me feel much less alone. I’ve long appreciated poet Michael Robbins’s explanation, in an essay that feels especially brilliant and acute these days, of why this should be so.  Popular songs, writes Robbins—and Holiday was a gorgeous interpreter of them—“depend on the possibility of communal participation” for their full effect; they ground “us in a community, however attenuated or virtual.” The songs we know by heart bring us into the company of everyone else who knows them, too. I have heard of family members sending playlists for those they are barred from being with in nursing homes and hospitals,.and of healthcare workers cradling plastic-wrapped phones to the ears of the sick and dying, to bring them songs their loved ones wanted them to hear.

…..The last trip I took before the pandemic kept us home was to my parents’ house in Massachusetts.  My mother died late last spring, not long after my father, both of them blessedly in the company of family at the end.  My brothers and I met to sort through their things and take some keepsakes home with us. I ended up “taking” some of their favorite records, not the long-since discarded vinyl, but downloads of albums I’d listened to them play over and over: Janis Joplin’s Pearl, The Mamas and the Papas, Abbey Road, the soundtracks from The Graduate and Hair. I have a playlist now that sounds like the parties I stayed awake at night straining to hear, the music and the ice-tinkling laughs, and it makes my 30-something parents and their 30-something friends shimmeringly present to me in all their sweet, goofy, Pucci-caftan-wearing, 1970s glory.

 …..I’ve just about finished the spring semester of teaching, and a shout-out here to students and faculty everywhere who’ve managed to do this on Zoom.  I find being on Zoom awkward and glitchy and draining, and am grateful that it lets us be awkward and glitchy and drained together, which feels as much as anything like being in the moment. I taught a class on religion and popular culture, and assigned a bunch of movies that students reported sat well with their quarantine lives: Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the 1927 Jazz Singer, The Godfather, The Exorcist, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, and Kumaré, which was filmed largely in Arizona, where I teach.  My university is making tentative plans to reopen in the fall, and my expectation is that trying to make anything work in the classroom while wearing face masks and standing six feet apart is likely to send us straight back to the weird techno-intimacy of Zoom.  In any case, when I teach the class again I’ll put more of a focus on religion and American popular sound, with help from great writing like Joshua Guthman’s Strangers Below, David Lehman’s A Fine Romance, Gayle Wald’s Shout, Sister, Shout!, Adam Gussow’sBeyond the Crossroads, and Peter Coviello’s question for the ages, “Is There God After Prince?”, which is not yet a book, but promises to be one, soon.

…..In April I reread a favorite, M.F.K. Fisher’s Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon, the same week I watched all of Season 3 of Babylon Berlin.  It made an auspicious pairing: each a sumptuous, clear-eyed lookback to the year 1929, with Europe hurtling headlong into nightmares just beyond their characters’ line of sight or fathoming. In this regard, the book I’m reading now, poet H.L. Hix’s American Anger, feels terrifying and miraculous.  It was in fact published in early 2016, but it reads as though it were a missive from the future, a blistering retrospective account of America just before the last presidential election. In a remarkable series of interlocking poems, American Anger reveals the springs and motors that would drive us inexorably to the place we find ourselves now: an America where demonstrators wielding assault weapons and Confederate and Nazi symbols storm government buildings to demand an end to public health measures in a pandemic, and are not arrested as terrorists, but instead praised by the president as “very good people.”

…..Hix calls American Anger “an evidentiary.”  Many universities, including mine, are collating evidentiaries of the plague year, archiving for future historians the ephemera that will document the way we live now.  American Anger predicted the problem of not being able to put boundaries on such a collection, of there being nothing, now, anywhere, that lies outside of the present pandemic and our heroic and murderously inept responses to it. “Put another way,” Hix writes in an afterword to American Anger, “where evidence is limited or scant or elusive, it is susceptible to being marshalled, subjected to my ends, as in a court case. (If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.) Where evidence is unlimited, though, where there is more evidence than could possibly be gathered or relayed, where the evidence is there for all to see, the power relation is inverted: I do not marshal, but instead am marshalled by, the evidence.”

…..A friend tells me that in quarantine we are becoming more ourselves.  Another reminds me that when Pope Francis speaks these days of apocalypse he means it not in the sense of world-ending, though we may come to that, but of unveiling, of bringing to light what is hidden.  The Covid-19 pandemic feels apocalyptic in just this sense: in Hix’s words, it reveals “as evidence the evidence all around us, including and especially the evidence we ourselves are.”
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Listen to the 1937 recording of Billie Holiday singing “Trav’lin All Alone” (with Lester Young on saxophone, Buck Clayton on trumpet, Jo Jones on drums, Freddie Green on guitar, Claude Thornhill on piano, and Buster Bailey on clarinet)

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Click here to read Volume 1 of this series, featuring recording artist Bruce Cockburn.

Click here to read Volume 2 of this series, featuring music writers/critics Howard Mandel and Joel Selvin

Click here to read Volume 3 of this series, featuring journalist Joe Hagan and photographer Tim Davis

Click here to read Volume 4 of this series, featuring Spelman College president Mary Schmidt Campbell

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Click here to read the Jerry Jazz Musician roundtable conversation, “Religion ‘around’ Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday and Ralph Ellison” with authors Tracy Fessenden, Wallace Best and M. Cooper Harriss

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In this Issue

A Collection of Jazz Poetry – Spring, 2020 Edition There are many good and often powerful poems within this collection, one that has the potential for changing the shape of a reader’s universe during an impossibly trying time, particularly if the reader has a love of music. 33 poets from all over the globe contribute 47 poems. Expect to read of love, loss, memoir, worship, freedom, heartbreak and hope – all collected here, in the heart of this unsettling spring. (Featuring the art of Martel Chapman)

Interview

Ornette Coleman 1966/photo courtesy Mosaic Images
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Ornette Coleman: The Territory And The Adventure author Maria Golia discusses her compelling and rewarding book about the artist whose philosophy and the astounding, adventurous music he created served to continually challenge the skeptical status quo, and made him a guiding light of the artistic avant-garde throughout a career spanning seven decades.

Features

Red Meditation by James Brewer
Creative artists and citizens of note respond to the question, "During this time of social distancing and isolation at home, what are examples of the music you are listening to, the books you are reading, and/or the television or films you are viewing?”

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time – the author Philip Clark writes about the origins of the book, and his interest in shining a light on how Brubeck, “thoughtful and sensitive as he was, had been changed as a musician and as a man by the troubled times through which he lived and during which he produced such optimistic, life-enhancing art.”

Interview

NBC Radio-photo by Ray Lee Jackson / Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, acclaimed biographer James Kaplan (Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman) talks about his book, Irving Berlin: New York Genius, and Berlin's unparalleled musical career and business success, his intense sense of family and patriotism during a complex and evolving time, and the artist's permanent cultural significance.

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Maria Golia’s Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure – excerpted here in its entirety – the author takes the reader through the four phases of the brilliant musician’s career her book focuses on.

Art

Art by Charles Ingham
Charles Ingham’s “Jazz Narratives” connect time, place, and subject in a way that ultimately allows the viewer a unique way of experiencing jazz history. Volume 7 of the narratives are “Torn from Its Moorings", "Watching the Sea" and "Plantations" (featuring west coast stories of Ornette Coleman and Billie Holiday)

Interview

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection
Richard Crawford’s Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music is a rich, detailed and rewarding musical biography that describes Gershwin's work throughout every stage of his career. In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Crawford discusses his book and the man he has described as a “fresh voice of the Jazz Age” who “challenged Americans to rethink their assumptions about composition and performance, nationalism, cultural hierarchy, and the racial divide.”

Jazz History Quiz #138

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Shortly following their famed 1938 Carnegie Hall performance, Benny Goodman’s drummer Gene Krupa left the band to start his own. Who replaced Krupa?

Interview

photo unattributed/ Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview with The Letters of Cole Porter co-author Dominic McHugh, he explains that “several of the big biographical tropes that we associate with Porter are either modified or contested by the letters,” and that “when you put together these letters, and add our quite extensive commentary between the letters, it creates a different picture of him.” Mr. McHugh discusses his book, and what the letters reveal about the life – in-and-out of music – of Cole Porter.

Book Excerpt

The introduction to John Burnside's The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century – excerpted here in its entirety with the gracious consent of Princeton University Press – is the author's fascinating observation concerning the idea of how poets respond to what the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam called “the noise of time,” weaving it into a kind of music.

Short Fiction

photo Creative Commons CC0
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #53 — “Market & Fifth, San Francisco, 1986,” by Paul Perilli

Photography

photo by Veryl Oakland
In this edition of photographs and stories from Veryl Oakland’s book Jazz in Available Light, Frank Morgan, Michel Petrucciani/Charles Lloyd, and Emily Remler are featured

Poetry

photo Bret Stewart/Wikimedia Commons
“Afterwards — For the Spring, 2020” — a poem by Alan Yount

Interview

photo by Fred Price
Bob Hecht and Grover Sales host a previously unpublished 1985 interview with the late, great jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, who talks about Miles, Kenton, Ornette, Tristano, and the art of improvisation...

Book Excerpt

A ten page excerpt from The Letters of Cole Porter by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh that features correspondence in the time frame of June to August, 1953, including those Porter had with George Byron (the man who married Jerome Kern’s widow), fellow writer Abe Burrows, Noel Coward, his secretary Madeline P. Smith, close friend Sam Stark, and his lawyer John Wharton.

Interview

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Con Chapman, author of Rabbit's Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges discusses the great Ellington saxophonist

Humor

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
"Louis Armstrong on the Moon," by Dig Wayne

Book Excerpt

This story, excerpted from Irving Berlin: New York Genius by James Kaplan, describes how Berlin came to write his first major hit song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and speaks to its historic musical and cultural significance.

Pressed for All Time

In this edition, producer Tom Dowd talks with Pressed for All Time: Producing the Great Jazz Albums author Michael Jarrett about the genesis of Herbie Mann’s 1969 recording, Memphis Underground, and the executives and musicians involved

Interview

photo by Bouna Ndaiye
Interview with Gerald Horne, author of Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music

Great Encounters

photo of Sidney Bechet by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
In this edition of "Great Encounters," Con Chapman, author of Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges, writes about Hodges’ early musical training, and the first meeting he had with Sidney Bechet, the influential and legendary reed player who Hodges called “tops in my book.”

Poetry

The winter collection of poetry offers readers a look at the culture of jazz music through the imaginative writings of its 32 contributors. Within these 41 poems, writers express their deep connection to the music – and those who play it – in their own inventive and often philosophical language that communicates much, but especially love, sentiment, struggle, loss, and joy.

“What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?”

"What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?"
Dianne Reeves, Nate Chinen, Gary Giddins, Michael Cuscuna, Eliane Elias and Ashley Kahn are among the 12 writers, musicians, and music executives who list and write about their favorite Blue Note albums

In the Previous Issue

Interviews with three outstanding, acclaimed writers and scholars who discuss their books on Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, and their subjects’ lives in and out of music. These interviews – which each include photos and several full-length songs – provide readers easy access to an entertaining and enlightening learning experience about these three giants of American popular music.

In an Earlier Issue

photo by Carol Friedman
“The Jazz Photography Issue” features an interview with today’s most eminent jazz portrait photographer Carol Friedman, news from Michael Cuscuna about newly released Francis Wolff photos, as well as archived interviews with William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, Lee Tanner, a piece on Milt Hinton, a new edition of photos from Veryl Oakland, and much more…

Contributing writers

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