Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill (Pat Padua, 4/17/24, Spectrum Culture)

With her sordid life and angelic voice, Sill is a fantastic subject, and as suits a figure who, with the evidence of her lyrics and her life, regularly conversed with angels and demons both, her muse was to some degree developed in juvenile court. She played church organ while she was in reform school, and that developed her taste for Bach which informed her songwriting and orchestral imagination. Among the interviews with peers like David Crosby and Jackson Browne, critic Tim Page plays something like the role Jonathan Richman played in Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground. He joyfully demonstrates the musicality behind his favorite track, “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown,” and Page is mystified over why it wasn’t a huge hit. Even if you’re new to her music, you will be too.

Yet as Crosby notes, Sill had a reputation for being “fierce”; she knew what she wanted in the studio and, in fact, conducted her own orchestrations. Linda Ronstadt explains that the only other musician during that era with similar musical chops was Brian Wilson. In a marriage of the scared and the profane, Sill informed her folk music with classical structure and beer-barrel boogie, with lyrics that were searching and religious. This outlaw was repentant; she reveled in her transgressions but was just as fervent about the possibility of redemption. She battled demons as deeply as she embraced them and considered it more courageous to fight them. She could play like the devil, and as Natalie Mering, aka Weyes Blood, candidly points out, Sill was not conventionally attractive, but her music seemed to come out of some gorgeous fount.


Harry Burleigh’s “Deep River” of Common Humanity on NPR (Joe Horowitz, 4/13/24, Unanswered Questions)

If you’ve ever heard Marian Anderson sing “Deep River,” you’ve heard an immortal concert spiritual by Harry Burleigh. His name won’t appear on the youtube captions – and yet Burleigh’s “Deep River” isn’t a mere arrangement.

I unpack the genesis of “Deep River” – its surprising origins as an obscure “church militant” spiritual, its indebtedness to Antonin Dvorak, its subsidiary theme composed by Burleigh himself – on the most recent “More than Music” feature on NPR: “’Deep River’: The Art of Harry Burleigh.” The performances (other than Marian Anderson’s) were recorded in concert by the exceptional African-American baritone Sidney Outlaw. It was my pleasure to be the pianist.

The show argues that Burleigh was a major creative force – more than the pivotal transcriber of spirituals as concert songs. In particular, we present his final art song – “Lovely, Dark, and Lonely One”(1935) – as his valedictory: not merely one of the supreme concert songs by an American, but an encapsulation of Burleigh’s life philosophy. It takes an eloquently impatient Langston Hughes poem, and turns it into an expression of hope and faith. “Burleigh consistently refused to participate in movements he considered separatist or chauvinistic,” writes Jean Snyder in her Burleigh biography. He believed that artists, not politicians, would most effect progressive change. “They are the true physicians who heal the ills of mankind,” he wrote. “They are the trailblazers. They find new worlds.” Our performance of this song, at Princeton University last year, is a little slower than other versions; its interior life (the climax is a pregnant silence) felt deep and true.

Burleigh’s own life story is a parable of faith: his patience was rewarded.


Classic Songs: “The Mercy Seat”: Nick Cave, art, and the presence of death. (Loren Kantor, 3/21/24, Splice Today)

In his 2020 book Stranger Than Kindness, Cave reflects on how he came to write the song. “In the early 80s I was fully engaged in the writing of my novel And the Ass Saw the Angel. I sat in a small room in Berlin, typing away, day and night, sleeping little. When I reached an impasse with the novel, I would scroll the odd lyric line on a scrap of paper beside me, ostensibly a song about a man going to the electric chair. The song was at best a distraction, a doodle, a song I never looked fully in the eye. But songs have their own journeys and in time assert their sovereignty. ‘The Mercy Seat’ was such a song.”

In the Bible, atonement for the tribes of Israel is possible only when a rabbi adorns the Ark’s lid (“the mercy seat”) with sacrificial blood. When Cave sings the story of the doomed inmate, he sings of death in this life and God’s judgment in the next. Cave juxtaposes the eye for an eye retribution of the Old Testament against the forgiveness offered in the New Testament. The inmate knows his hours are numbered and his thoughts turn to God.

In Heaven His throne is made of gold
And the Ark of His Testament is stowed
A throne from which I’m told all history does unfold
Down here, it’s made of wood and wire
And my body is on fire
And God is never far away.


How Prince Introduced Us to the “Minneapolis Sound” (Rashad Shabazz, Sep. 7th, 2017, Zocalo Public Square)

Minneapolis’s polka love provided a perfect entry point for wildly creative black musicians like Prince in another way, too: by forcing them to mix with white culture in ways their brethren in other cities never had to. Black people have lived in Minnesota since before the state was founded. Blacks from Canada traded with Native Americans in the 19th century, and slaves (both slaves and escaped former slaves) also were a presence in the state. The first free black settlement in Minnesota was founded along the banks of the Mississippi in 1857, and in the years after abolition, migration increased. Minnesota’s growing liberalism and the state’s willingness to enfranchise black men sent a signal to many that they would be treated fairly in the northern metropolis.

Still, there were never very many black people in the area. Between 1880 and 1930, the black population in Minnesota grew from a negligible 362 to a still tiny 4,276. African Americans made up just 1 percent of the population in 1930; even when Prince was born, in 1958, the percentage of the state’s black population remained in the single digits. (It’s no wonder that the comedian Chris Rock joked in the 1990s that only two black people lived in Minnesota: Prince and Hall of Fame baseball player Kirby Puckett.)

But their small numbers didn’t diminish the impact that blacks had on the music scene—rather, it may have amplified it. While white Minnesotans played their polkas, black music migrated up the Mississippi, with minstrel shows, ragtime, jazz, and the blues all gaining enthusiastic, if small, followings in Minneapolis. Black musicians started thinking of the city as a place where they could live and thrive. Early black musical migrants included Lester “Pres” Young, the talented tenor saxophonist, and the jazz pianist James Samuel “Cornbread” Harris, II (whose son, Jimmy “Jam” Harris, became a well-known R&B songwriter and producer and an important figure in the popularization of the Minneapolis Sound).

Others followed. The parents of producer Terry Lewis (Jimmy “Jam”s’ musical partner), and those of guitarist Dez Dickerson (who played with Prince’s band, the Revolution), migrated to the Twin Cities during this same period. Prince’s parents made the journey too: Mattie Shaw, a singer, and John R. Nelson, a composer and pianist, both moved up from Louisiana in the 1940s. They met through Minneapolis’s small but vibrant black music scene, also known as the “chitterling circuit,” in the 1950s. Like many black migrants, they landed in North Minneapolis, a formerly Jewish area, where Prince was born and raised.

Because the black music scene in Minneapolis was so tiny, black musicians who hoped to make a living by performing played for white audiences whenever possible. Segregation reinforced the musical color line, with most white audiences wanting to hear classical music, jazz standards, polka, or pop music. Black musicians learned to accommodate them, and developed a vast musical range. Cornbread Harris, for example, learned to play “polkas, mambas, salsas, and calypsos,” says Prince biographer Dave Hill. Black musicians’ virtuosity expanded their own community’s musical vocabulary, melding a new family of sounds into the jazz, blues, and R&B they played for black listeners.

Prince’s generation followed the pattern. In the early 1970s, when Prince was a teenager, the numbers of black people in Minneapolis were still “small enough to be ignored,” according to Hill, and white pop music continued to dominate. Prince was schooled in black musical forms like R&B, funk, and soul, but there was still only one small, low-frequency black radio station, so he and his contemporaries also listened to rock and folk artists such as Crosby, Stills & Nash, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell.

Prince’s unique virtuosity made it possible for him to forge a new style from the wide variety of white and black genres that he and his city loved. Even as a high school student, he could hear a song in his head and translate it to sound. He played several instruments by ear, including guitar, piano, drums, and bass guitar. He coolly mimicked masters like Carlos Santana note for note. Folk influences like Dylan and Mitchell course through Prince’s work with his first band, Grand Central, which played rock-tinged funk and soul. By the mid-’70s, punk, indie rock, and New Wave—the music that floated around the “vanilla market” in the city at the time—had filtered into his recordings, too. This musical collage is apparent on Prince’s first album, For You, which was less a commercial release and more a statement of what the young musician could do: Minneapolis Sound lite, with flares of the sexually provocative lyrics for which he would become famous.


An unvarnished insight into the mind of Sonny Rollins (Philip Clark, 3/17/24, the Spectator)

[A]s jazz was becoming increasingly conceptual, Rollins was concerned that too many musicians were neglecting the basics. His goal was not revolution — he was motivated to achieve complete technical “mastership.”

The extent to which Rollins obsessed over the tiniest of technical details on his saxophone runs through the book. One minuscule finger movement could be enough to alter the resonance of a particular note either radically or indeed so faintly you’d need the ears of a bat to perceive it — and Rollins was open to both. This extended to his pushing his instrument beyond where recognized technique could function, to a point where the instrument operated but only in theory. Experimenting with bouncing the same note between different octaves, he described “higher notes that I have not figured out yet,” then scheduled time to explore beyond where his instrument normally sounded. Perhaps he could locate those notes, perhaps he couldn’t, but it was the endeavor that mattered.

Early in the book another theme emerges: his regret at the lowly lot of the jazz musician. All these decades later, figures like Rollins and Coltrane have become icons, but back in the day “the working conditions of many great jazz musicians are very, very far… below par!” he mourns. Making transcendent art in nightclubs, which were operated largely by shady characters “closely associated with underworld elements,” created inescapable tensions between goals of artistic purity and the brutal economic truth that jazz clubs, for the mob, were all about making money, exercising control and selling drugs.

Rollins’s high ideals rubbed uncomfortably against reality. Jazz, he explains, is “the music of America created by Americans for the edification of all of mankind.” As with many musicians, including Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, the word “jazz” became a bugbear to him, a label used, often cynically, to hold the ambitions of black musicians at bay, to retain them as “entertainers” — to put clear boundaries between black culture and the great Western tradition of Bach and Beethoven.

Rollins is clear that “mustn’t we start speaking of MUSIC and not jazz.” This music was “All American.” And although it’s of black origin, care must be taken “not to synonymize Negro and Jazz and not depict Jazz as a Negro product.” As Rollins unpicks the techniques of Indian music, you realize how deeply he believed that jazz also needed to reach out beyond America itself.


Miles Davis and the Recording of a Jazz Masterpiece (James Kaplan, FEB 26, 2024, Esquire)

The Five Spot was closed on Mondays, but on that March Monday Davis, Coltrane, and Evans had other business anyway: in Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio, they were joining the alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb to begin making, under Miles’s leadership, what would become the bestselling, and arguably most beloved, jazz album of all time, Miles’s Kind of Blue. March 2 and April 22: three tunes recorded on the first date (“So What,” “Freddie Freeloader,” and “Blue in Green”), two on the second (“All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches”). Every complete take but one (“Flamenco Sketches”) was a first take, the process similar, as Evans later wrote in the LP’s liner notes, to a genre of Japanese visual art in which black watercolor is applied spontaneously to a thin stretched parchment, with no unnatural or interrupted strokes possible, Miles’s cherished ideal of spontaneity achieved.

The quiet and enigmatic majesty of the resulting record both epitomizes jazz and transcends the genre. The album’s powerful and enduring mystique has made it widely beloved among musicians and music lovers of every category: jazz, rock, classical, rap. This is the story of the three geniuses who joined forces to create one of the great classics in Western music—how they rose up in the world, came together like a chance collision of particles in deep space, produced a brilliant flash of light, and then went on their separate ways to jazz immortality.


“What Was I Made For?”—Billie Eilish as Gen Z Icon (Liz Snell, 3/96/24, Rabbit Room)

Gen Z is the most self-marketed generation of all time. Like Barbie, Gen Zers how to make themselves into products for consumption. They know what sells. But do they know who they are? “I was an ideal/Looked so alive/Turns out I’m not real/Just something you paid for”—I wonder how many young influencers see themselves in that mirror. Eilish has said that at one point she felt like a parody of herself. It wasn’t until after she and her brother had written “What Was I Made For?” that she realized, “This is me. This is my life, and how I feel.”

Youth culture’s obsession with Billie Eilish seems to represent a longing for authenticity, for stars who are real and who can speak deeply to human experience, not just to the lifestyle of the rich and famous. I appreciate Eilish’s honesty both in her interviews and music, an honesty too often absent from Christian art. Eilish is thoughtful and creative and addresses important cultural issues with amazing awareness for someone so young. I applaud her probing, existential themes, but I wonder hope looks like in her world. She seems to be wondering, too.

“What was I made for?” It’s a question at the core of what it means to be human, at any age. It’s a timeless question, and Eilish sings it with all the quavering, searching restraint it deserves. Eilish is seeking the answer to this question through her music, and her fans are seeking along with her. Was I made to be exploited or to be powerful? Was I made to love myself or someone else? Was I made to be happy or depressed? Was I made to save the world or watch it burn? Gen Z is asking big questions. What answers are we going to give?

LOCKED HORNS (profanity alert):

The Icon and the Upstart: On Miles Davis’s Legendary Feud With Wynton Marsalis: James Kaplan Remembers One of Jazz’s Great Generational Battles (James Kaplan, March 6, 2024, LitHub)

The young trumpeter was highly opinionated and highly quotable, and from the beginning the music press, sniffing a possible feud, gave Marsalis’s venting about Miles—he even critiqued the outlandish outfits Miles had taken to wearing onstage, calling them “dresses”—plenty of column inches. The first time the two met, Miles said, “So here’s the police.”

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, George Butler, the vice president for jazz A&R (artists and repertoire) of Davis and Marsalis’s mutual record label, Columbia, tried vigorously to get Davis to bestow his blessing on the up‑and‑comer, to little avail.

“George [kept] trying to make friends out of [me and] Wynton Marsalis,” Miles told me. “Like, I’d be sketching, right? And the phone would ring. Cicely [Tyson] says, ‘It’s George.’

“So I said, ‘What does he want? Can he tell you?’ She said no. So I answer the phone. Say, ‘George, what it is?’

“He says, ‘Why don’t you call Wynton up?’ “I say, ‘For what?’

“He says, ‘Because it’s his birthday. He’s in St. Louis.’ “I say, ‘Oh, George—’ ”

I laughed.

“See, you laughing,” Miles said. “But when that shit comes at you like that, you’re like, What? And Wynton and I get together and talk about music; he tells me he’s tired of playing classical. I said, ‘But you’re the only one playing it. Of our race. And you play it good.’ ”

This is what Miles said he said to Marsalis. But in various public contexts he’d also potshotted right back, often asserting what he’d said after Marsalis recorded his first baroque concerto album in 1982 (and would repeat for posterity in his autobiography): “They got Wynton playing some old dead European music.”

And in June of 1986 there had been an incident.

The episode, at the first Vancouver Jazz Festival, was the most exciting thing that had happened in jazz for years, throwing a spotlight on a genre that, in American culture at large, had long since contracted into niche status. The event quickly took on folkloric dimensions. In some accounts, there had even been a threat of physical violence between the frail sixty‑year‑old Davis and the twenty‑four‑year‑old Marsalis. In Wynton’s 2015 retelling, it all started with the goading of the three musicians who played with him at the festival—the drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, the bassist Robert Hurst, and the pianist Marcus Roberts.

The four were in a car approaching Vancouver, Marsalis recalled, when Roberts, Watts, and Hurst began teasing him about some belittling remarks Miles had made to the press about Wynton and his musical family, New Orleans jazz royalty (his father, Ellis Marsalis Jr., and his three brothers, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason, were all renowned jazz musicians). How long was Wynton going to stand for this? they asked, jokingly. Was he scared of little old Miles? Davis was going to play that night, they pointed out, and they were off. Why not jump onstage with your horn, barge in on his act?

When Wynton replied, seriously, that he had too much respect for Miles to do that, the others began laughing at him and playfully betting that he was too scared to face off with the great man. Marsalis laughed along with them as they raised the ante. When the bet reached $100 apiece, and Wynton saw that his bandmates were serious, he said he would do it. And so he did.

According to a wire‑service report,

Wynton Marsalis surprised everyone—especially Miles Davis—when he walked onstage with his horn, uninvited and unannounced, as Davis and band were in the midst of a blues number. The upstart Marsalis approached the veteran Davis but Miles shook his head in a negative fashion. Instead of leaving, Marsalis walked to a microphone and began playing, which resulted in Davis stopping the music. The abashed Marsalis, who has always revered Davis, then walked off. “I don’t know why he was up there,” Miles said. “We have things that we do and we time everything. If he wants to jam, why doesn’t he go out to a club? I wonder what would happen if I did that?”

As Miles recalled the incident in his autobiography, he and his band were playing to a standing‑room‑only crowd at an outdoor amphitheater. Engrossed in his music, he suddenly sensed a presence in his periphery, and saw the audience reacting strongly—and then Marsalis was standing right next to him and whispering in his ear, “They told me to come up here.” Miles was furious. “Get the [***] off the stage,” he said. Marsalis looked shocked. “Man, what the [***] are you doing up here on stage?” Davis said.

“Get the [***] off the stage!”

Miles stopped the band, he writes, because Marsalis “wouldn’t have fit in. Wynton can’t play the kind of [***] we were playing.”

Marsalis claimed that Davis was playing the organ when he walked onto the bandstand, and that the music was too loud for him to hear anything Miles said. Once the band stopped, Wynton recalled, Miles said a few words to him, but “[***]” wasn’t one of them. And even though Davis was physically fragile, Marsalis, remembering that the great trumpeter had once trained as a boxer, watched his hands carefully, certain that any kind of physical altercation would go in his, Wynton’s, favor, and wind up making him look like nothing but a bully.

The story, Marsalis said, blew up out of all proportion to what had really happened or what he and his band ever thought it would be. And, he said, he never collected his $300.


If Music Be the Food of Love: A Conversation With Composer Michael Kurek (Joseph Pearce, March 6th, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)

Alluding presumably to my interest in what he now thought of his early compositions, those which were influenced by musical modernism and postmodernism, Dr. Kurek spoke of the “elements of craft to be learned with skill and diligence, which I was required to learn and compose as a student (and even later as a professor, in order to successfully gain tenure).” Having mastered the craft dutifully, he began to see and realize that it was “a misguided craft, the pursuit of which, for its own sake and as an end in itself, only evinced an arcane musical alchemy of techniques that did not edify or uplift humanity”. The realization came as a revelation, an epiphany, which led to a rejection of the techniques he had learned. Feeling creatively revitalized, he began anew. “I started over from scratch, learning the old techniques, not from living teachers (there were no longer any) but from studying the musical scores of the great composers of the past, who became my teachers.”

Driven by a new enthusiasm, he now sought to write music that he would himself enjoy were he a member of the audience. Added to this unabashed populism, he also sought permanence or at least durability for his musical compositions, seeking to write music that people would want to hear more than once, “preferably many times over, even falling in love with its beauty”. There was also a sense of responsibility to the wider world and the living culture. “I wanted to write music that I hoped would mean that, after I die, I would be leaving the world a little more beautiful because of my creative contribution.” Last but indubitably not least, he sought to offer his gifts in thanksgiving to the Giver of the gift, “to honor God with a teleological narrative”, in which the music is seen to be working its way toward a climax or musical goal. “This, for me, reflects a goal of hope and ultimate salvation, unlike music that sounds random, aimless, purposeless, and Nihilistic or like Dada.”


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