Saturday, May 28, 2011

progressive jazz banjo

The Smothers Brothers might be best known for causing a ruckus over at CBS, but the way that story often gets told, it might seem as if Tom Smothers was just another promoter of a counterculture that was already becoming a permanent part of mainstream U.S. culture. In digging deeper, it becomes apparent that he was actually thinking much more carefully about the contradictions all around him.

This last semester I wrote a term paper about “The Incredible Jazz Banjoist,” a recording from the brothers’ fourth album, Curb Your Tongue, Knave! (1963). In it you can hear, both in Tommy’s music and in his preamble, a lot of familiar tropes about white men as square, up-tight and too preoccupied with musical notation and virtuosity. These tropes seem to have arisen in part because historical claims of white racial superiority were premised upon the idea that white men were somehow more rational and predisposed to self discipline, making them better qualified to rule over themselves and others. Warwick Anderson talks about this in a short but thoughtful article in a recent edited volume, and it comes up in a great book by Matthew Frye Jacobson, but if you really want an eye opener about how white people thought about themselves in the 19th century, one of the best books I read this year was George Fredrickson's inquiry into what white people thought about black people.

It would be possible to think of this recording simply as playing on familiar ideas about the supposed incompetence of white people in musical practices more commonly associated with black people. But in fact, many of the expectations Tommy sets for himself aren’t so much associated with black musical practices as they are with a particular kind of whiteness. When he claims to play “progressive jazz banjo,” he brings to mind the music of someone like Stan Kenton, known for his overcrowded scores and lack of emphasis on improvisation. The banjo might have been understood as a white musical instrument at this time, but its inappropriateness here has less to do with its whiteness in a black style of music than with its “half-barbaric twang” in a refined, sophisticated progressive jazz. Tommy fails to live up to the demands of a high-class whiteness.

And perhaps this is also where he most succeeds. He and his banjo may be more than just a little out of control, but when he arrives at that final triumphant chord, his audience bursts into genuine and delighted applause. Tommy may not have measured up to the standards he set for himself, but perhaps the fault lay not with him, but with the standards. In the end, it's just a joy to hear him goofing around.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Moving, Part I

On the fourth Sunday of every month I'll be posting something that's too long for a blog. I anticipate that these will tend to be essays or short stories, but like everything else you find here, they'll be works in progress.

This is the first in a six part series entitled, "Moving."

If you googlemap my old address you can see a beautiful photograph of my former building on a gray afternoon. It must have been warm that day because my landlord can be seen standing pensively on her stoop in a black skirt, her bare forearm raised thoughtfully to her chin. She spent a lot of time at that very spot, chatting with neighbors she had known for decades, waiting for her shuffling but stern husband to pull around with the car, or simply keeping a watchful eye on her street.

Aside from smiles and pleasantries as I passed her on the stoop, I only ever had two real exchanges with my landlord. The first of these took place shortly after I first moved in. I had been fidgeting with the window in the kitchen until finally making the surprising discovery that it opened inward on an angle instead of sliding upward. It stayed that way for a couple days before my landlord caught me in the hallway and asked, in a thick Greek accent, just what in the heck I had done to my kitchen window. It was all I could do to try to explain over her insistent interrogation that I had sincerely thought that it was some kind of stylish window designed to open that way, but I told her that it would be great if she could show me how to open it some other way, especially if it would make her happy. When I unlocked the door, she slipped into my apartment and hurriedly climbed atop the kitchen counter. As she stood above me, tugging and pulling at the window frame with the full weight of her body, I resigned myself to the possibility that if she came careening off the counter to a violent death on the cool linoleum, it would probably be very difficult to explain to the authorities what had happened. Much to my relief, she finally got the window to do what she wanted, but before hopping back down, she looked at the hands she had placed atop the window frame, shook off the dust in disgust and exclaimed to herself, “I don’t know how people live like this!”

Months later, on the very last day I ever set foot in the building, I had my second and final exchange with her, and this time I was the one who went up to her apartment. It was Good Friday, and there was a late-afternoon stillness as I climbed each step one by one. I explained to my landlord that I had moved out the last of my things and only wanted to return the keys, but she started asking me about a window.

“She no tell you about the window?” my landlord wanted to know what my roommate might have told me.

“No,” I answered. The truth was that my roommate, never exactly a very forthcoming individual, had studiously avoided telling me anything for well over a month. Not knowing what my landlord was talking about, I wondered if she was still fixated on the kitchen window from so many months before.

“She no tell you about any window?” she asked me a couple more times, “any window?” eyeing me suspiciously before suddenly accusing, “You broke the window! You gonna pay for it!”

It was only then that I realized what had happened. This had nothing to do with the kitchen window at all. When I had first moved in, a metal beam in the frame of my bedroom window had been broken, and it looked like it had been that way for a long time. It might have occurred to me briefly that I should have asked to have it fixed, but the window still basically worked. I thought about the time that my roommate in Minneapolis had been left reporting that the wiring in the light to the stairwell had been broken for years, since long before I had moved in. After I had been living in the space for only about six months, we invited the landlord up for our Christmas party, and when he got in the door the first thing he said was, “Why didn’t you tell me the light was broken? Someone could get hurt!” We told him that only a handful of people had met a cruel fate on those treacherous steps, and none of them were particularly likeable to begin with, but he insisted, “You should have told me the light was broken! I’ll fix it on Monday.” Six months later I moved out, and if I had to guess, I’d say that stairwell is still dark after dusk. Anyway, I decided, whatever—a broken bar in my window frame doesn’t bother me, the window still sort of works, life will somehow go on. Months later, however, I made the mistake of pointing it out to my roommate, who, without even saying a word to me, turned around and told my landlord I had broken it.

So I was left standing there in my landlord’s kitchen as she pointed at me angrily, telling me how awful I was and how I would have to pay for my offense out of my deposit, a deposit I had long since assumed I would be swindled out of one way or another, any way you looked at it. Honestly, it was hard to blame the old woman. After a year of living upstairs from me, she still didn’t really know me from Adam (I never did learn to pronounce her name correctly). I felt exasperated, but after all of the abuse I had suffered at the hands of my roommate over all those months, it was impossible to really feel angry or defensive, or really to feel much of anything other than cheated. So I shrugged and said, “Look, honestly, I really don’t care. I can’t tell you I broke that window, because I didn’t. But, here’s my keys, I’m done.”

Suspicious people only ever meet potential liars, but they say you can’t con an honest person, and I sincerely believe that an honest person can always spot the truth when it’s told. My landlord looked across the table to her husband who had been watching the entire exchange in sober silence. They knew I was telling the truth. We could feel it.

As we got to talking, it eventually came out that I had been paying about $300 a month more in rent than my roommate, and this despite the fact that she not only kept her own bedroom but had also annexed the living room as her own personal space (I was never allowed to set foot in there). When all was said and done, she had two entire rooms to herself at well below the going price in any building for miles in any direction. I was paying a lot more money for a lot less space and subsidizing the cost of living for a roommate that was happy to turn me out as soon as she no longer needed my monthly check. This wasn’t the least bit surprising, and in any case I couldn’t possibly have felt any more cheated than I already did. My landlord, on the other hand, was livid.

“Why you no come and talk to me? Why you no ask me how much is the rent? I tell you how much is the rent!”

She repeated these phrases over and over again in various permutations, and each time I answered, “I don’t know, I don’t know. It never even occurred to me.” But she wasn’t having it, and she kept asking, again and again, imploring me to explain to her why it was that I had never come to speak with her in all of the time I had been living in the apartment just below her so that she could have told me that I was being ripped off before it was too late until finally I threw up my arms and surrendered, “I should have! I know, I should have. I’m just a fool!”

She drew her body back in her chair and solemnly shook her head.

“No,” she answered slowly in a crackling voice. Then, softly, her index finger raised knowingly, “You’re smart.”

Her husband let out one deep, gentle chuckle and looked at me from across the table with a twinkle in his eyes. How well he even speaks English I’ll never know, he never did say a word to me, but it wouldn’t have made any difference.

I gave them my keys, thanked them for being such good neighbors, and we wished one another a happy Easter. She gave me her number and insisted I call her to say whether my roommate ever returned my deposit. I never did get that deposit, and I never did call my landlord. There was something too filthy about the whole thing, something empty about conspiring with a landlord to get money from a roommate who had padded her pockets by getting the highest price she could get out of me—fair and square, as they say. In the end, it seemed a lot better to move ahead with my life. But there is something I hold onto from it all. It had been a cold, rainy spring that saw me riding my bicycle all over Brooklyn and Queens, trying, disappointment by disappointment, to find a new place to live. In that time, this city sometimes seemed like a wretched place full of wretched people. Yet in the end, for one brief moment in my landlord’s kitchen, something human was communicated. For all of the ways this massive place can make me feel isolated and alone, and despite the fact that this city was built by people taking advantage of other people, I find some lasting sense of hope knowing that on the stoops and sidewalks, at the falafel carts and dinner tables, in the museums and parks, this city can also be teeming with fleeting communities.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Arriving to the future?

If this is going to be an actual thing, there’s got to be a plan. These are McCarthyisms for Your Work Week, and there will be something waiting here for you every Sunday morning, bright and early, EST. I hope you might decide to make a habit of it and would love to hear your feedback or ideas on whatever appears here. This blog has no particular focus, but since I’m in the middle of a long, drawn out end of my spring semester, you’re going to be subjected to some of the things I’m working on for my classes, such as, for example, this video by Nacional Electrónica:

If you’re interested in knowing more about this project, you might consider some of the duo’s own remarks on what they’re doing:


The sentiment expressed by Edwin Casanova in that last video, the idea that there is something limiting Cuban musicians to the performance of familiar dance genres or folkloric music, isn’t a new one. People have been saying it for at least 25 years (Peter Manuel heard it from people he met in Cuba in the late 1980s, and that was before the “special period”). One trouble is that even people who most want to promote Cuban music can end up exacerbating the situation by seeking out examples that they imagine to be somehow distinctly “Cuban” and shunning anything that sounds too much like something they could already hear in the U.S. Admittedly, it's wonderful to hear some of the thriving diversity of music from all around the world, but what Casanova seems to be picking up on is that, far from empowering him to experiment with new styles, this rhetoric ends up trapping him into playing the same genres that were already popular in the 1950s.

What makes the video here particularly interesting to me is the way that it sounds out the duo's feelings about a present-day situation in a Cuba where even Fidel is unsure what the future could hold, or perhaps more importantly, what people should want that future to hold. The percussive opening synth beats out a line that is closely based on that most Cuban of all rhythms, a 3-2 clave, and you can hear it structuring the entire recording, both at that first tempo and in a layer moving half as fast. This has two effects. First, the slow clave layered over the faster clave creates a kind of floating feeling that’s also evoked by the use of slow motion in the video. Second, since the 3-2 clave has two halves—a first half that is more syncopated and a second that is more “straight,” a first half that is denser and a second that is sparser—it is almost as if a great deal of energy is expended in “taking off” in the first half, leaving the listener to float freely in the lighter second half (and this at both the slower and the faster level). Yet this sensation is repeated again and again so that the “takeoff” is never quite successful. It’s more like a child skipping hopefully (or a cosmonaut jumping from one point to the next on the surface of the moon?) without ever getting too far off the ground.

This is the musical accompaniment for a video featuring a deluded Soviet cosmonaut strolling through a post-industrial neighborhood under the watchful eyes of a few bewildered onlookers. It’s a video that is at turns witty, absurd and perhaps even tragically hopeful. What might it say about Cuba? What are Alexis de la O and Edwin Casanova saying about the future at which they’ve arrived? Does that poor cosmonaut really end up flying away into the sky?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Disco Dialectic?

I've had this blog for a long time now and was so stunned by how feng shui my first post was that I just couldn't bring myself to add anything. Perhaps it's finally time to ruin the balance I had so painstakingly achieved.

Those Graduate Students in Music at the CUNY Graduate Center generously invited me to submit a paper for everyone to discuss at the upcoming conference,
Locating American Popular Music: Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality, to be held on May 14th. We'll have the opportunity to work with Maureen Mahon, and two of my peers, Amanda Cannata and Alex W. Rodriguez, have submitted papers that I'm looking forward to reading. Please join us!

My paper is entitled "A Disco Dialectic: Changing Imaginaries in Physical Places and Virtual Spaces, 2007-2010," and it's based on some conversations I had with the great guy and talented blogger, Carlos Reyes. Check out his blog at

The paper will discuss a handful of the many, many songs Carlos has so thoughtfully reviewed, and I've attached links for these here (in the order in which they appear in my paper). You'll find them downright danceable, with or without a well-developed understanding of a disco dialectic.

Teleradio Donoso
Teleradio Donoso
Os Mutantes
She's a Tease
Disco Ruido
Javiera Mena
Calle 13
Celso Piña
Nortec Collective

For a less dialectical approach, consider the gainfully employed Steve Dahl: