WHAT MAGA MEANS BY GREAT:

The Story Behind Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ (Liz Fields, 2/24/24, PBS: American Masters)


Abel Meeropol, a son of Russian Jewish immigrants, taught English at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx for 17 years before turning to music and motion pictures, writing under the pen name Lewis Allan. Meeropol was very disturbed by the persistence of systemic racism in America and was motivated to write the poem “Bitter Fruit” after seeing a photo depicting the lynching of two Black teens in Indiana in 1930. The poem was published in the journal The New York Teacher in 1937, and again later published in the Marxist journal, The New Masses, before Meeropol decided to turn the poem into lyrics and set it to music.

After that, Meeropol began to perform the song at several protest rallies and venues around the city along with his wife and African American singer Laura Duncan. The song first came to Holiday’s attention when she was working at New York’s first integrated nightclub, Café Society in Greenwich Village. Holiday was hesitant at first to sing it because she didn’t want to politicize her performances, and was (rightfully) concerned about being targeted at her performances. But the positive audience responses and frequent requests for “Strange Fruit” soon prompted Holiday to close out every performance with the song. Ahead of time, the waiters would stop serving so there was a deathly silence in the room, then a spotlight would shine on Holiday’s face and she would begin to sing

Dieterich Buxtehude, Music, & the Experience of Life (Michael De Sapio, February 5th, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)

“Classical music” is itself a fairly recent concept, going back no further than the early Romantic period, and the formation of a distinct canon of works associated with the term was the work of the 19th and 20th centuries. “Classical music” would have been an entirely foreign concept to, say, Johann Sebastian Bach. For him, music was now, and he had to supply a constant demand of it for the functions of everyday life. The idea of creating art for posterity was characteristic of Romanticism. In Bach’s era the idea was for an artist to do a good job, to be a faithful servant, in the here and now.

And in Bach’s day, music was something to be done, not thought about. Music lovers did not spend hours debating how violinist X and violinist Y played executed a trill differently. They were too busy actually making music.

And music was everywhere. In church, in the village square, in elegant salons of the noblemen. Music for courtly dancing; music for theatrical performances: opera, plays, ballets. Real music, performed by live human beings. Music was experiential to a degree we can scarcely imagine today, when recordings have “frozen” the art form, making it something more like painting or architecture. (And yet recording has its own virtues, allowing us to preserve ideals of performance for reference, enjoyment, and study, to diffuse music widely and allow it to “last longer”—to some extent overcoming its limited and ephemeral nature. This too is a great good.)

We see Bach as the beginning of the Common Practice Period. This is the period that constitutes the mainstream “classical music” repertoire, and it includes the great Germanic line of composers from Bach and Handel through Bach’s sons, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (the Viennese Classicists), and on through Schubert and the German Romantics.

Anything before Bach is typically classed as “early music” and is a somewhat specialized field of interest. This is unfortunate, because there are many musical riches before Bach. Music is a continuing tradition, with each generation building upon the last. Bach’s genius and accomplishments were enormous, but they did not come out of a vacuum. He had an important early inspiration and mentor. His name was Dieterich Buxtehude.

What follows is a brief sketch of this pivotal yet all-too-little-known composer and musician. I wish to highlight in particular how he (like other artists of his day) made music a part of life. In this sense Buxtehude is an illustration of how music used to be enjoyed in a world very different from our own.

REFRACTING AND REFLECTING:

America and Hamilton the Musical (MAJ (RET) Montgomery J. Granger, 2/10/24, American Daily Press)

Despite my frustration at the absence of any traditional patriotism expressed in lyrics or set or costumes, there is, in fact, one mention of such symbolism.

A search of the lyrics of “Guns and Ships” demonstrates that the line “Leave the battlefield waving Betsy Ross’ flag higher” is a metaphorical expression emphasizing the idea of achieving victory and independence. The mention of Betsy Ross’ flag, with its thirteen stars in a circle representing the original thirteen colonies, is a symbol of the United States.

The line comes in the midst of describing the challenges faced by the Continental Army, a “ragtag volunteer army,” in its fight against the powerful British forces. The reference to waving Betsy Ross’ flag higher suggests overcoming adversity and proudly asserting the American cause. It’s a poetic way of expressing the determination and resilience of the American forces in the face of a formidable opponent and adds depth and imagery to the narrative of the musical.

In the end, my own bias is exposed. But maybe that was one of Miranda’s goals. That, like art in general, it’s not about the creator’s interpretation; it’s about yours.

THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES:

J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the Cosmic Music of the Beginnings: The Inklings expressed interest in ancient mythologies that described the creation of the world through music. (Robert Lazu Kmita, February 6, 2024, European Conservative)

However, the theological theory about music that is most similar to Tolkien’s vision presented in The Silmarillion (in “Ainulindalë,” “The Music of the Ainur”) is that of the extraordinary medieval saint and prophetess, St. Hildegard of Bingen (c. 1098-1179). As Barbara Newman has shown in her introduction to the critical edition of the musical work Symphonia armonie celestium revelatione (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations), Hildegard asserts that God is the creator of music, while “the ultimate unmusical spirit was the devil.”

In one of her letters, Hildegard claims that, before committing the Original Sin, Adam’s voice had exceptional musical qualities: “In his voice was the sweetness of every harmonic sound, and of the whole art of music.” Upon hearing the music sung by Adam, the devil, terrified and filled with envy, recalls the beauty of God’s celestial hymns that he had heard before the fall. What follows, we know from the biblical text. From Hildegard’s vision, we learn about music of divine origin and about the fallen angel, who, unable to bear it, wanted to replace the divine harmony with his own musical creation.

The music of the Inklings
The closest of friends, Tolkien and Lewis, showed in some of their literary writings a special preference for a kind of doctrine about the creation of the world that can be named the ‘musical cosmogony.’ This might be a fitting and proper name for those ancient mythologies, including some mentioned above, that describe the creation of the whole world through music.

Beauty is objective

SWEET SOUL MUSIC:

THE BLACK SONGWRITER WHO TOOK NASHVILLE BY STORM (Robert M. Marovich, 1/30/24, Zocalo Public Square)

Theodore Roosevelt “Ted” Jarrett Jr. was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 17, 1925, just more than a month before Nashville station WSM launched the “Grand Ole Opry,” the radio broadcast that turned Nashville into the country music capital. Jarrett’s upbringing was a riches-to-rags story. His father, Theodore Roosevelt Jarrett Sr., earned enough money working for a bootlegging enterprise to enable his family to employ a housekeeper, a cook, and a nurse. But after Ted Sr. was shot and killed, Jarrett’s mother, unable to maintain the family’s standard of living, sent 7-year-old Ted Jr. and his sister, Dorothy, to live with their grandmother and step-grandfather on their Antioch, Tennessee farm. When they were old enough, Ted and Dorothy joined their grandparents in picking cotton and doing other farm work.


Ted always had an imaginative mind, and from knee pants, he spent what little free time he had writing poems. In his pre-teen years, Jarrett was intrigued by newspaper ads that shouted about the “thousands of dollars” to be made by submitting song poems, or lyrics, for publication. Ignoring his step-grandfather’s dismissive retort that “Black boys don’t write songs,” and with surreptitious support from his grandmother, Ted eagerly sent samples of his song-poems to the advertisers. To his dismay, the so-called publishers turned out to be nothing more than “song sharks” who preyed on the hopes of amateur lyricists, only to defraud them in the end.

Disappointed but not daunted, Jarrett made music throughout high school, and enrolled in the music program at Fisk University after graduation. He had to delay his studies when he was drafted during World War II, and again later, when his GI Bill money ran out. To pay the bills, he dove full-time into Nashville’s postwar music scene, fitting in a class or two at Fisk whenever he had extra money.

Jarrett wrote songs and pitched them to Music City publishers. He also worked as a disc jockey on pioneering African American radio station WSOK, as a pianist in the city’s then-booming R&B club circuit, as a talent scout for the R&B and country label Tennessee Records and, briefly, as tour manager for Nashville’s Radio Four gospel quartet. In 1955, his song “It’s Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)” became an R&B hit for local unit Louis Brooks and His Hi-Toppers, and for bigger stars like Ruth Brown, and the vocal group the Midnighters.

Jarrett wrote his first No. 1 Country hit, “Love, Love, Love,” that same year. The song, an exuberant pledge of eternal affection, caught the attention of Webb Pierce, a white singer, guitarist, songwriter, and Opry star known for wearing elaborately decorated “Nudie Suits.” Pierce’s version of “Love, Love, Love,” which gave Jarrett’s song a pedal-steel-drenched reading that sounded like a long-lost Hank Williams piece, spent 32 weeks on the U.S. country chart, eight at number No. 1. In November 1955, Billboard presented the song with a Triple Crown Award for being the most played country record on radio and jukeboxes, and the best-selling country record in stores. The December 10, 1955 issue of the trade magazine the Cash Box featured a smiling Jarrett holding 78 rpm singles of three versions of the song: one by Pierce, one by pop crooner Johnny Ray on Columbia, and his own recording for Nashville imprint Excello.

From there, Jarrett grabbed the music industry with both hands. Music, regardless of genre or marketing category, was his passion. He championed Black artists who crossed over from R&B to pop, managed acts, and founded record labels such as Calvert, Champion, Ref-O-Ree, and T-Jaye. In total, Jarrett wrote approximately 300 songs, several of them portending the rise of southern soul music. The Rolling Stones covered “You Can Make It If You Try,” arguably Jarrett’s best known composition, on their eponymous 1964 debut album. All the while, Jarrett never gave up on his dream of a college degree, receiving a bachelor’s in music from Fisk University in 1974, when he was in his late 40s.

JAILBIRD SWEETS:

CRIME NOVELIST MICHAEL CONNELLY ON THE ROLE OF JAZZ IN CREATING “BOSCH” (Peter Solomon, JANUARY 23, 2024, Jazz88.fm)

There’s a couple of musicians, one of whom you just mentioned, that I’ve noticed, you know, appear frequently in both the books and in the Amazon series as well. And it seems like there’s even some dialogue surrounding Art Pepper. I was wondering if you could talk about these two individuals Art Pepper and and Frank Morgan, and the way that you’ve experienced them and why you chose their music.

CONNELLY: Yeah, somewhere along the line, a publisher, a small press publisher, who did some, like limited editions on my books, and was a jazz guy said to me, probably the best book he had ever written (sic) (read) about jazz was Art Pepper and Laurie Pepper’s book, Straight Life. And so I got that book and I read it. And this goes back to what I already said. It’s so hard for me to describe it. I think it’s hard for any writer to describe music. But these were – that book was basically recordings Laurie Pepper made of of her husband Art Pepper, talking about the music he makes on the saxophone. And I just found that book to be, you know, a real head turner. And then it took me down in the rabbit hole into Art Pepper’s work and his connection to Los Angeles and he was this handsome guy who pretty much got destroyed by drugs, spent a lot of time in prison. And that worked for me on on two different levels because I had created this character Harry Bosch who didn’t know who his father was, and so he as a little kid, he built up this fantasy. His mother liked jazz and his – Harry Bosch’s joy from jazz is inherited from his mother, who also had a struggle in life. So I came up with this idea that Harry Bosch is white, Art Pepper’s white, Harry Bosch had this fantasy that that was my dad. I don’t know who my dad was. So he created a replacement. And it was this very cool cat named Art Pepper. And, you know, in the stories about him, you know, Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section is a fantastic album, and the story behind it about how he was junk-sick, and had a broken reed, and all these things he overcame to make music that was so gorgeous, so beautiful, was important.

You know, like, it takes me about a year, back then it took me even longer – to write books. You know, you got to find things that plug you in. It’s a long haul, it’s climbing a mountain, and you got to find things that mean something to you that keep you plugged in. They might totally escape the reader. But you need to be able to climb that mountain and get up every day and all that, but you need something to keep you in. And so the music was a lot of what kept me in. And so that’s where the, you know, the Art Pepper connection, came into play. And later on, I got to meet Laurie Pepper and spend time with her and talk to her about Art. And, you know, it was all part of the research, but also part of my growing reacquaintance and love with jazz.

The other thing is, you know, I’ve been married a long time and my wife – (I’ll) say, Hey, I’m gonna write a book – you know, (she’s) like, good luck. You know, I had a daytime job where I had to spend a lot of hours. You know, being a newspaper reporter on the crime beat is not necessarily a nine to five thing. And so I was already spending a lot of time making a living as a journalist. And I had to make a deal. Luckily, I didn’t – we didn’t – have any kids at that time. But I made a deal with my wife that I need four nights a week to write (for) me to go to disappear. And we had a walk-in closet that I use as a writing room to disappear in there at night, and I went one of the weekend days. And I promise I’ll give this up if I don’t get published in X amount of time. And I blew that deadline, but she put up with me. But she was very much part of the team and aware of what I was doing and aware that I was this guy who you know, like going to see the Allman Brothers and Eric Clapton is now going to the Catalina Bar and Grill, which is a jazz club in LA and Hollywood. So she she knew what I was doing. And so one day she came into the closet with a copy of Newsweek magazine. And, and it was folded open to a full-page story on a guy named Frank Morgan. And the headline was something along the lines of “The Return of Frank Morgan” and it was about this guy and LA musician. At the time based I know he has a big connection to Minneapolis, he had his second album or first album in something like 27 years. Basically, it was almost three decades between his first and second album. And that was because a life of crime and drugs had landed him repeatedly in prison. And as at different times unreliable as a session guy. So it was a long time between the promise of this first album and the second album.

There wasn’t really the internet back then. This is probably in like ‘89 or ‘90. But I I went to the alternative newspaper that came out in LA and listed most of the jazz performances and coincidentally or lo and behold, he was playing three nights at the Catalina that week. And so I went to that I went to hear him play twice. He just became my guy. Yeah, something about his his sound really touched me beyond the guy doing research. Something about his music, and he spoke a lot between sets are between songs and he would talk about his life and the the path not taken or, the wrong path taken. And it just kind of struck me. And he played this one song and he was playing with George Cables, a pianist. They did a lot of work together and George wrote a song called Lullaby- it’s only a minute long, and it’s on Frank Morgan – well I think he recorded it three different times on albums. That song just kind of pierced my heart. There’s something that was sad about it, but also resolute like, you know, I’m gonna persevere basically.

We’re getting into how hard is to write about music. This is a song obviously without lyrics. It’s basically a piano and saxophone that’s it. And it’s just a beautiful song. And that kind of became my writing anthem. And I got the record and I would play that every morning, or every night or more realistically, every night before I started working on my Harry Bosch novel. Those two musicians were pretty much the most influential in the kind of forming of the character of Harry Bosch.

FIRST LADY:

REVIEW: of Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song
By Judith Tick
: An exhaustive, unsatisfying look at one of the 20th century’s premier performers. (Rose Rankin, January 4, 2024, Washington Independent Review of Books)


The telling of a history — whether of an event, a time period, or a life story — involves recounting the basics of who, what, where, and so on. It also calls for explaining the why — why something was different than what came before, or why it came to be so important. On the first account, Judith Tick’s new biography, Becoming Ella Fitzgerald, succeeds admirably. On the second, however, it unfortunately falls short.

Tick digs deep into archival research to painstakingly reconstruct Fitzgerald’s life, starting with her upbringing in segregated Yonkers, New York. Musically inclined from a young age and encouraged by her mother, Fitzgerald initially wanted to be a dancer, but her singing brought her more gigs during her Depression-era teenage years.

After a harrowing stay at a girls’ juvenile-detention facility — for a minor truancy infraction compounded by overzealous sentencing, an all-too-familiar situation for Black youth — Fitzgerald got her first break at the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Hour in 1934. Her nerves almost got her booed off the stage, but thanks to a kind emcee giving her a second chance that night, she ended up electrifying the audience.

EL SUPREMO:

How John Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things’ Changed American Music (Jeff MacGregor, January/February 2024, Smithsonian)


It’s a timeless song and quite possibly the most American recording in history: composed by the grandsons of German and Russian Jews, about an Austrian family fleeing the Nazis on their way to America, played by an African American genius in a vernacular American style, produced by one Turkish American for a record label owned by another Turkish American. The recording is not in or of the melting pot. It is the melting pot.


It was also a pivotal moment in Coltrane’s career and in his artistry, a tipping point of technique and inspiration, of practice and poetry, of his widening understanding of himself and his place in things. In that single landmark recording, you can feel Coltrane fully embrace the entirety of his promise, not only as a saxophonist, but also as a bandleader, composer and arranger. And maybe as a man.

ZIGGY’S NOT WRONG:

In the music of Bob Marley, a deep connection to Judaism (Benjamin Ivry, May 19, 2021, The Forward)

As a Rastafarian, an adherent of an Abrahamic religion and social movement that developed in Jamaica during the 1930s, Marley was a student of the second book of the Torah, among other Jewish sacred writings. His 1977 song “Exodus” demonstrated as much, voicing the hope that Rastafarians, downtrodden socially and economically in Jamaica, would be led to freedom, as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt.

Marley’s uplifting words, “Open your eyes and look within/ Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?/ We know where we’re going/We know where we’re from/We’re leaving Babylon/ We’re going to our Father’s land” stirred audiences to empathize with a quest for a new spiritual homeland.

“Exodus” was written at a particularly fraught moment of Marley’s life, after he had survived an assassination attempt in Jamaica in 1976.

An earlier song, “Iron Lion Zion,” again referred to the biblical Promised Land in the context of Rastafarian belief that their restored homeland of liberation and salvation would be Ethiopia.

Marley’s “Redemption Song,” written circa 1979, refers to being sold into bondage: “But my hand was made strong/ By the hand of the Almighty” which is seen as a direct allusion to Genesis 49:24: “…the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob.”

His musical transmutations of Jewish history followed charismatically in the footsteps of other Rastafarian-inspired musicians such as Count Ossie, a Jamaican drummer and bandleader; or Desmond Dekker’s 1969 hit “Poor me Israelites,” later retitled simply “Israelites” to refer to the Rastafarian Movement’s links to the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

Bemoaning family separations caused by poverty, Dekker’s song advised Jamaican Rastafarians not to accept social marginalization as an excuse for taking to a life of crime.

In the same year, The Melodians, a Jamaican group, sang a Rastafarian version of Psalm 137 under the title “Rivers of Babylon, a cover version of which by the Euro-Caribbean group Boney M became an international hit in 1978: “By the rivers of Babylon/ Where we sat down/ And there we wept/ When we remember Zion/ For the wicked carry us away captivity.”

So Marley’s creativity was part of an overarching cultural, social and spiritual identification between Rastafarianism, Reggae music and Judaism.

BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A TAPE?:

How Bing Crosby Made Silicon Valley Possible: The singer who popularized “White Christmas” was also a visionary tech innovator (TED GIOIA, DEC 21, 2023, Honest Broker)


Just a decade later, Crosby launched another technology revolution in entertainment. And this time he helped create Silicon Valley.

I’ve written elsewhere about the strange ways in which music made Silicon Valley possible. But Crosby’s role in the rise of Ampex is the most fascinating chapter in this story. Ampex revolutionized data storage—the cornerstone of the tech revolution—but only because a famous jazz singer felt overworked, and needed a way of pre-recording radio shows that sounded as good as live broadcasts.

That singer was Bing Crosby.

Crosby felt exhausted in the mid-1940s. And who could blame him?

Bing was the most popular musician in the world—and it wasn’t just “White Christmas,” which sold more records than any other song in history. He eventually recorded more than 1,600 songs, and more than forty of them reached the top of the chart. But he was just as popular in movies, winning the Oscar for Best Actor in 1944, and getting nominated again in 1945. During that same period, Crosby was tireless in touring and entertaining troops overseas.


But it was his radio show that proved to be too much.

Because of the time difference, Crosby had to do two different live broadcasts—and the network refused his proposal that they pre-record the later West Coast show on 16-inch transcription disks, basically a very large phonograph record. NBC had good reason for this. The sound quality on the disk recordings of that day were noticeably inferior. And the disks were cumbersome to edit—negating one of the major advantages of pre-recorded shows.

Crosby needed better recording technology. And in 1947, a stranger from Northern California made the trek to Hollywood with a big box that not only solved Bing’s dilemma, but set the wheels in motion for a whole host of later innovations.