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REVIEWING

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa

By Haruki Murakami

Published by Knopf

Reviewed by Michael Moreau

Ozawa-Murakami

Masterful Conversations

Two musical giants were at the top of their games when they came together in Carnegie Hall on that April evening of 1962. In some ways they were alike, yet, in important ways they were very different. Glenn Gould, a piano prodigy out of the north, already famous for his distinctive recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, was 29 and in his prime—yet unbeknown to anyone in New York Philharmonic crowd he was near the end of his public performing career.

Leonard Bernstein, 43, was musical director and conductor of one of the world’s great orchestras and already famous for West Side Story and the televised Young People’s Concerts, with which he seduced neophytes like me into the world of classical music.

Both men lived and breathed music—both were considered eccentric in their own ways, flamboyant performers with distinctive interpretations of their respective repertoires—Gould leaning more toward the baroque, Bernstein a champion of the romantics and fierce advocate for Gustav Mahler.

On the night of April 6, they would collaborate (perhaps it would be more accurate to say they would appear on stage together) on Brahms’s D-Minor Concerto. The first half of the program consisted of two works by Carl Nielsen. After the intermission, the audience and orchestra took their seats something unprecedented happened. Bernstein appeared before Gould came to the stage and faced the audience from the podium to deliver…. What? An apology? A disclaimer, really, for the performance ahead, the Brahms. The maestro, before Gould sat down at the Steinway at center stage, stated that he had invited Gould to perform and that he so respected the younger man’s gifts that he “must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith,” yet he felt compelled to make clear to the audience that “discrepancies between our views are so great that I feel I must make this small disclaimer.” He went on to essentially say that the interpretation of Brahms was Gould’s alone and not his, not Bernstein’s, the conductor’s. The audience must have been stunned.

The longtime conductor of the Boston Symphony and other major orchestras, Seiji Ozawa, was then 28 and one of Bernstein’s three assistant conductors. Not long away from his native Japan he still struggled with English so he wasn’t certain what Bernstein had said until the buzz generated after the concert.

Why would a conductor both repudiate the interpretation and praise the talent of the soloist before conducting the piece? It’s a bit like a stage director coming to the apron before the curtain opens to announce that he has the highest respect for the leading actor, but that he disagrees with the actor’s interpretation of his character. Who’s in charge? It is, after all, the conductor who is responsible for the program.

Ozawa still ponders this a half century later in recorded conversations with the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami in the wonderful new volume, Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa, in which the two masters, in conversations over 2010 and 2011, explore the nature of music and writing with compelling wit and charm—both touching on the craft of the other as windows into their own creative processes.

Murakami transcribed and edited the two years of talks and provides an introduction and explanatory notes (the writer’s longtime American collaborator Jay Rubin translates), spinning an essential narrative for anyone interested in classical music and creative activity in general. The text is primarily a Socratic dialogue, Ozawa the teacher to the younger Murakami (at the time the writer was roughly 62 and 63, and the conductor was 75 and 76).

Perhaps Ozawa is still puzzled over the Bernstein-Gould showdown so many years later because the two musical geniuses in the story were so enigmatic. Gould was a perfectionist who morphed into an exuberant showman—filling concert halls on both sides of the Atlantic—until he suddenly withdrew from public life. Bernstein was an extrovert who was more of a performer than orchestra leader, and whose career is so diffuse that there is ongoing debate about his legacy. Was he primarily a composer of popular works or should he best be remembered for his late-career symphonic and choral creations or as an educator and popularizer of classical music? A world-class conductor?

Ozawa, who apprenticed with both Herbert von Karajan at the Berlin Philharmonic and Bernstein in New York, says Karajan, “never listened to anybody. If the sound he wanted and the sound the orchestra was producing were different, it was strictly the orchestra’s fault. He’d make them do it over and over until they played the way he wanted it.”

Conversely, Ozawa says, he wanted to learn from Bernstein, but the great educator didn’t look at himself as the teacher of the orchestra. He recalls, “the weird thing is, Lenny was such an outstanding educator… But, in dealing with the orchestra, where you’d expect him to do the same sort of thing, he didn’t. He had no concept of ‘teaching’ an orchestra…. ‘You are my colleagues,’ he used to tell us, ‘so, if you notice something that needs correcting, I want you to tell me about, and I’ll do the same with you.’”

Ozawa does, however, assert that it is a soloist’s interpretation that usually prevails in any given program.

I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s when Bernstein was an ubiquitous, a godlike figure. And, he was seemingly everywhere—conducting the New York Philharmonic, hosting the Black Panthers at his Manhattan penthouse (which fed into a scathing satirical piece by Tom Wolfe), extolling the virtues of Beatles music on his TV program. He was as much a public figure as a conductor of the premier American orchestra. He was also, Ozawa remembers, “a tremendously kind man, and he could accommodate my broken English, so we had wonderful long conversations.”

But, he was also criticized for spreading himself too thin in his early years with the Phil, not doing enough to develop the repertoire. He had detractors. In an uncharacteristically self-serving colloquy in the book, Ozawa recalls how New York Times critic Harold Schonberg routinely savaged Bernstein’s conducting, but that, when the younger Ozawa conducted in a student performance at Tanglewood, the critic said, “People should keep the name of this conductor in mind.”

On the other hand, and perhaps out of deference to the older Ozawa—the conversations are polite to a fault—there is no mention of the critical thrashing he took over his years at the helm in Boston. Boston Phoenix critic Lloyd Schwartz earned a Pulitzer for a body of work that largely attacked Ozawa’s tenure with the symphony.

Ozawa’s long career with the Boston Symphony must have left scars. He led one of the top five symphony orchestras in the country and profited beyond his dreams when he was a young assistant at the New York Philharmonic living on $100 a week in a flat without air conditioning, recalling that he and his wife sometimes slept in all-night movie houses during sweltering New York summers.

It was said he came into his position at Boston untested and too young at 36, and that he never fully grew into his role. Other maestros have met with similar initial skepticism. Bernstein, a protégé of Aaron Copland, was suspected of being a musical dilettante by many in New York when he was hired at 39 to be director of the New York Phil. He, like Ozawa, had been an assistant conductor of the orchestra. But Bernstein became a titan on the music world with multiple recordings to his credit (a distinction that eluded Ozawa). Coincidentally, both conductors were disdainful of managerial duties associated with directorships. But, while others had Bernstein’s back, Ozawa was personally faulted for often flat performances and failure to effectively nurture new talent.

It is remarkably coincidental that after leaving New York, Bernstein was, as Murakami says, “welcomed with open arms by both the public and the press when he went to Vienna,” (to lead the Vienna Philharmonic), where he subsequently conducted all nine of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies to critical acclaim. Coincidentally. in 2002, Ozawa became director and principal conductor of the Vienna State Opera, which for him was perhaps a better fit than was Boston. “Vienna was like best friends getting together to make music,” he recalls.

Of particular value in this book is the close consideration of particular pieces of music that the writer and conductor listen to together. Murakami says that he had no musical training and is strictly an amateur music lover, but many of the most insightful comments are by the writer himself. Ozawa tells him “Throughout our conversations, I’ve been so impressed by how deeply you have listened to each piece of music.”

The following is an exchange over Mahler:

MURAKAMI: I often find myself incapable of grasping the order in which the music unfolds. Take the fifth movement of Second Symphony, for example. It goes this way and that way, and I start wondering why it does what it does at any one point… and, before I know it my brain has turned to mush.

OZAWA: Yeah, there’s no logic to it.

MURAKAMI: No, none at all. That never happens with Mozart or Beethoven.

OZAWA: Because there works adhere to certain forms. The point with Mahler is to destroy those forms, deliberately. So, in a Sonata form, where the piece is telling you, “Here, I want you to go back to this melody,” he’ll bring in a whole new melody. In that sense, of course, his works can be hard to learn…

About Mahler, Ozawa says that of the composer, “If you had two motifs going at the same time—theme A and theme B—there was a clear distinction between primary and secondary. In Mahler, though, the two are completely equal. So, the musicians who are playing the theme A have to put their heart and soul into playing them A; and the musicians who play theme B have to put their heart and soul into playing theme B—with feeling, with color, everything.”

It is heart and soul that comes through in this book, and the affirmation that music and art and literature matter.

A chapter on music and its relation to writing is revealing. Murakami says, “You can’t write well if you don’t have an ear for music. The two sides complement each other: listening to music improves your style; by improving your style, you improve your ability to listen to music.”

He says that he learned to write from listening to music (besides the classical, he is also a jazz aficionado). The most important thing in writing, he says is rhythm. “No one is going to read what you write unless you have rhythm. It has to have an inner rhythmic feel that propels the reader forward.” Ozawa concurs that that must be the obstacle he finds when a piece of writing fails to hold his interest.

This book rarely fails on that score. It would be useful, however, to know more about what initially inspired in these two masters in their love of quintessentially Western music. We know that as a teenager Ozawa studied piano until a hand injury left him unable to continue. His teacher, Hideo Saito, recommended that he study conducting with him. Saito was primary influence on Western Classical music in Japan.

Murakami’s work has always been interlaced with musical influences. The narrator’s girlfriend in Norwegian Wood (titled after the Beatles song) had been trained as a pianist. After the girlfriend’s death, the narrator’s friend plays on her guitar Ravel’s “Pavanne for a Dying Queen” and Debussy’s “Claire de Lune,” commenting afterward that Naoko’s (the deceased girlfriend), “taste in music never rose above the horizon of sentimentalism.”

There is nothing sentimental about the talk in these pages. Both men have admirable bodies of work and long consideration of music to share with us and do so frankly, without pretension. We can be grateful to listen into these conversations.



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REVIEWING

Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, & Drugs

By Martin Torgoff

Published by Da Capo Press

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

Martin Torgoff

’Round Midnight and Beyond

Lsong before Hip Hop, and decades prior to the emergence of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the combined elements of certain illegal drugs, popular controversial music, a youth culture and its rebellious subculture, duly inspired authoritarian laws and policies to do away with all that jazz.

And, it literally revolved around Jazz.

The music, that is. For the longest time, Jazz music was perceived by some parents and many preachers, as well as politicians and the police, as the red-hot soundtrack for a subterranean so-called “underground” youth culture, where all the races mixed, and all types of drugs fueled both the music and the miscegenation.

In Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, & Drugs, independent historian and cultural commentator Martin Torgoff has written a spellbinding, sweeping account of the myriad ways in which a great deal of America’s present was scripted ages ago.

Do you think that America’s new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is the first ever to make bold anti-marijuana pronouncements? Not at all. In Chapter Three of this gripping book, Torgoff details the career and the agendas of Harry Anslinger, who back in the 1920s and 1930s loomed large as a top gun with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Dubbed “The Paranoid Spokesman” (and, Torgoff quotes judiciously and often from the brilliant essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” by historian Richard Hofstadter, to illuminate his main points) Harry Anslinger spearheaded an official, structured, mass-media-driven, anti-marijuana campaign as the 1930s unfolded.

That multifaceted campaign had everything to do with not just making outlaws of anyone who smoked weed. There was more than that at stake. To forbid by law any and all freedoms regarding marijuana, premarital sex (interracial sex in particular), and the devil-may-care hedonism associated with the Roaring Twenties and its failed Prohibition laws – that was the ultimate goal. Torgoff sums it up like this:

“Anslinger became convinced that the only way to ensure against any possibility of a recurrence of what had happened with Prohibition—the phenomenon of a significant percentage of the American population wantonly and brazenly breaking an unpopular law they found obnoxious, living as virtual criminals until the law had to be repealed—would be through a national campaign against the weed.”

And so, Harry Anslinger and his Federal Bureau of Narcotics used the mass media of the day (major magazines, movies, plus newspaper articles). Torgoff notes:

“Before 1935, the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature lists not a single article about marijuana in any major national magazine. From July 1935 to June 1937, four appeared; between 1937 and 1939, there were seventeen.” More and more, those stories highlighted terrible crimes and murder sprees committed by individuals who were allegedly high on marijuana. Demonizing weed at the precise cultural moment when alcohol was again legalized became a crusade that’s still in effect today.

And, suddenly, as the Swing Era uplifted millions of Americans’ hearts and had their dancing feet flyin’ high toward the end of the 1930s, it was clear that for one, brief shining interlude, Swing music would invite Jazz right into America’s living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms (or, wherever else radios blared), and dangers lurked.

Of course, clubs, ballrooms and theaters for big band gigs became beehives.

No matter how white the Swing Era seemed to be, with Benny Goodman crowned “the King of Swing” (a title he rejected, by the way) or Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey (as well as his brother, Jimmy Dorsey) finding the perfect middle ground between Jazz and orchestrated dance music – no matter how popular the great big bands became—their music was still rooted in the Blues, and black culture at large.

Benny Goodman was warned by managers and promoters about hiring masterly black musicians a’ la Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, and guitar genius Charlie Christian. Goodman broke “the color line” and Tommy Dorsey followed when he hired arranger-composer Sy Oliver to write classics, like “Swing Time Up in Harlem” and “Opus One.” The Swing Era was integrating culture long before baseball did.

***

It’s no accident that one of drummer Gene Krupa’s biggest hit records was “Let Me Off Uptown,” with “Uptown” being a code word for Harlem. Just as it was no accident that Krupa was eventually framed and busted for marijuana charges, or, that “Let Me Off Uptown” incited controversy because white vocalist Anita O’Day and black trumpet-man Roy Eldridge sang the lyrics as a flirty, jive-like duet.

Martin Torgoff not only connects the dots, but he guides the reader with clarity:

“Anslinger was prepared to put forth a number of signature images to isolate what he saw as the greatest threats being posed to American civilization. If the first image was that of an ax murderer and the second that of a degenerate schoolyard pusher, the third was equally threatening and pernicious: the Negro jazz musician.”

Now it all congeals. Just as the early Jazz of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Roaring Twenties gave way to the Swing Era that tipped out of the Thirties and into the Forties, the all-American craze for alcohol and tobacco was supplemented by the rise of marijuana.

At the same time, a new generation of young writers-in-the-making consolidated around Columbia University during the World War II years: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and others bonded there and had endless encounters and escapades long before the media puffed them up as Beat Generation archetypes in the Fifties.

And Kerouac’s writings, from the get-go, were in many ways his prose attempts to capture and replicate his unconditional love for Jazz. It was Lester Young, in particular, who enraptured young Kerouac with his ethereal, long-line, tenor-sax flights of musical bliss amidst the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1930s and 1940s.

On this note, Torgoff hits the bull’s-eye. He reminds us that when “Kerouac sat down in April 1951 and spewed forth the 125,000 words that would become On the Road in a cathartic 20-day marathon, the manuscript contained a dithyrambic evocation of the history of jazz in America, later published as ‘Jazz of the Beat Generation’—a long jazz-rhythmed passage that used Lester Young as its central driving force and inspiration, and that epitomized the essence of Kerouac’s developing spontaneous prose style.”

The tremendous power of this book arises from the effortless way that Martin Torgoff ascertains such overlapping connections all over the map. We see how everyone from Lester Young to Billie Holiday and Miles Davis and John Coltrane and others (as Swing gave way to Be-Bop and then Hard Bop) lived their lives in a state of constant social tremors, with their musical quests often impeded or redirected by the torment of drugs in their milieus. Busts and jail time and revoked cabaret cards were forever colliding with classic recording sessions and detox struggles.

At the same time, after the Great Depression was resolved by World War II, and then the postwar years were suddenly plagued by Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare, not to mention the wholly unexpected Korean War (add in the rise of Rock ‘n’ Roll as the 1950s were gradually transformed from Radio USA to TV Nation), the literary movement known as the Beat Generation set the stage for tumult in the 1960s.

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the works of Kerouac and William S. Burroughs were affected (and inflected) significantly by the sounds and rhythmic cadences of Jazz.

It’s the convergence of all the racial, musical, literary, and social permutations through those decades that gives this book its heft. And, there are times when a choice quotation from decades ago leaves the readers stunned with its relevance.

Here’s something Billie Holiday said in the late 1950s, when her memoir Lady Sings the Blues was widely reviewed and sold quite well. Her words are haunting:

“On a recent Sunday, Judge Jonah Goldstein talked about the narcotics problem in New York. He told the people the same thing I’ve been trying to tell them; that narcotics has to be taken out of the hands of the police and turned over to the doctors. He said that in all his years on the bench he’d never seen anybody but poor people brought before him for violation of the dope laws.”

This chronicle neither romanticizes nor minimizes the grim dread and the fatal doom induced by the abuse of hard drugs. The tragic demise of alto-saxophone wizard Charlie Parker (who died at age of 34) and the death of Billie Holiday (at 44) were heroin-related fatalities. And, Torgoff devotes lengthy, worthy passages to the heroin abuses suffered and gradually overcome (cold turkey) by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and others.

Martin Torgoff’s new book is not just something of a sequel to his excellent earlier work, Can’t Find My Way Home – America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000.

What’s most riveting about Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats, & Drugs is not just the reams of material explicating America’s past, but how the material mirrors our troubled contemporary era.

(M. J. Moore’s novel For Paris – With Love & Squalor will be published in May 2017.)



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REVIEWING

Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci

By Mike Lankford

Published by Melville House

Reviewed by Larry Baker

Mike Lankford

My Friend, Mike

Here’s what most people know about Leonardo da Vinci: He had some secret code that had been ignored by the Western World until Dan Brown uncovered it. I suspect that a lot of people have never even heard about the paintings of Mona Lisa and Jesus breaking bread for the last time with his merry pranksters, i.e. “The Last Supper,” but, they probably think that those were done by Michelangelo.

How do we determine da Vinci’s true fan base? Of course, we turn to Facebook, where two pages bearing his name have a total of 2,498,338 “followers.” Even if we deduct 98,338 of those followers as still being a bit blurry about the difference between da Vinci and Michelangelo...a reasonable guess...the Florentine artist has a respectable fan club of 2.4 million.

Me, I have three—my wife and two children. But that’s probably a lot more than Mike Lankford has right now. But, dammit, Mike, a long-time reclusive friend of mine, is about to become more famous than I, and Leonardo da Vinci is the reason.

A year ago, Mike sent me a manuscript of a new book he had written. Thing is, Mike and I have corresponded regularly for years, and the common thread is our writing. I thought I knew about everything he had been writing. That’s what writers talk about...themselves, their work. But, out of nowhere he asks if I would read his latest...about Leonardo da Vinci. Three hundred pages, as if immaculately conceived and dropped into the world, how do ya like my new baby?

Excuse me? Who? What? And, where did this come from? Me, I have always thought that Mike was a rare talent who was invisible on the publishing radar screen. I think he lives in a cave in Bend, Oregon. Who knows?

He published a brilliant memoir, Life in Double-Time, twenty years ago, about his life a white drummer in a black band on the road. And then, nada. I have read his other manuscripts over the years, one of which I hated, and I even read that one twice. I read his stuff because Mike Lankford has what is best described as an “electric” voice. The prose crackles and jolts. The Twain concept of lightning versus the lightning bug. Mike is lightning. (His real voice, oddly, is best likened to that of Shelby Foote.)

So, he said, “I just finished this about da Vinci and I’m not sure what to do with it. You wanna read it?”

Truth was, I did not. Truth is, I was wrong.

***

I read it because Mike wrote it. I had zero interest in reading anything about Leonardo da Vinci. But, Mike wrote it, so I printed out the first fifty pages and began. And then fifty more. Three hundred pages, and then I read it again.

***

Imagine Mark Twain with a PhD in Art History, or perhaps Will Rogers? American wit and erudition digs up a Renaissance genius? Mike Lankford made Da Vinci real to me, but more than him as flesh and blood, but him as the consummate left-handed artist in a world populated by Michelangelo (that bastard seems to be everywhere) and other renowned artists, a world of the Medici’s and Machiavelli and the Borgia’s, a world of pestilence and war and murder. A world of daily death and disease.

Trouble was, I knew zero about the real da Vinci. Mike is a great stylist, but he might have been pulling facts out of his ass, for all I knew.

But Mike had anticipated skeptics like me. In a recent posting on the Melville House website (his publisher), he explained:

“Over the years I’ve fallen down one rabbit hole after another when it comes to studying amazing personalities (it started with Tolstoy), where I’ll read everything they’ve written, and then everything written about them, before wearing the subject out and moving on to the next rabbit hole (Van Gogh in my case) and doing the same all over again. Typically, I’d spend a year or two on a person before they’d start to seem familiar to me and even kind of ordinary and obvious, and then I’d move on. After a while, these serial obsessions led to a core conviction that, given their various circumstances, people are rather more alike than they are different, even among the most gifted. People are people, after all.

“Then along came Leonardo. Everything about the man seemed reversed and counter-intuitive and a complete enigma — and, the more I’d read, the deeper and more complex his mystery became, for me and (apparently) for everyone else. What was going on? After three years and more than twenty biographies (many read multiple times, spines broken) the questions had only multiplied in my mind (along with my fascination), but, by then I’d realized something important: because so little was known about him, all these books I’d pondered and marked up were all built on the same three dozen facts, the rest was spin and conjecture. Expert spin, usually, but essentially still a strong wind blowing from one direction or another, puffing up Leonardo.

“But, at bottom, I think the reason I was still so vague after all this time was the odd way these fossilized stories about Leonardo seemed to obscure rather than reveal him. Like reading a fanzine article about a rock star, everything becomes oversized and extra good and slightly unreal after a while. This was my sense about Leonardo — he’d been buried under the rhetoric and adulation. And, recognizing this, I suddenly became aware that (if looked at from a slightly different point of view), like the rock star, Leonardo could still be seen, hiding in plain sight.”

The genius of Mike’s book, the brilliance of his achievement, might be overlooked even though it is right there in his own explanation, so I’ll repeat it here: “All these books I’d pondered and marked up were all built on the same three dozen facts; the rest was spin and conjecture.”

So, an obsessive writer absorbs thousands of pages of scholarly research, extrapolates from those three dozen facts that had been kneaded and pummeled by a thousand other writers, funnels all that though his own unique voice, and creates a new genre: creative scholarship, which is not to be conflated with creative non-fiction.

***

Mike’s Becoming Leonardo is more than a study of da Vinci. It is an exposition of how a creative mind works. Critics, who actually know a lot more about Leonardo than I do, have discovered the contribution of Mike to the world of da Vinci scholarship:

“With scholarly research and a novelist’s ability to zoom in and paint a truly intimate portrait of one of the greatest creators in human history, Becoming Leonardodoes what historians long to do, and novelists often struggle to achieve: a book that has the pace, elegance, and authorial omnipresence of a novel, but which will enlighten, rather than annoy, the astute historian.”

Noah Charney, best-selling author of The Art of Forgery

Art? That which makes the familiar unfamiliar. Art? That which takes something we think we already know and makes it new in our eyes.

A year ago, I suggested to Mike that he use the title Da Vinci Uncoded. Mike was unimpressed. “I don’t want it to have anything to do with that shit.” And, it hit me, where his book came from. Mike has created a da Vinci that is both real and imagined. The difference between Mike and Dan Brown is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. It’s the same difference between da Vinci and the other artists in his world.

You’re not interested in a book about Leonardo da Vinci? Neither was I. But I took a chance. My reward? A hundred insights about the creative process...not just art or writing or music or painting, but how the mind takes experience and reconfigures that “sensation.” Near the end of his book, Mike, whether consciously or not, aligns himself and other artists with Leonardo:

And by some internal process he found his way, this left-handed dyslexic, uneducated country kid, who might well have had Asperger’s—somehow, out of that unorganized swirl of sensation, Leonardo recognized a way to make sense of it for himself. And, he did it by trusting his own instincts, finding his own connections. Modern hagiographers like to imagine Leonardo as the total man, utterly complete in mind and body, whereas the evidence, objectively considered, suggests someone who was terrifically lopsided and as defined by his shortcomings and disabilities as well as his strengths. If anything, his shortcomings defined him more.



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REVIEWING

Who Can Afford to Improvise? James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners

By Ed Pavlic

Published by Fordham University Press

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

“When it came to people, those in his work, and in his life,

he decided: ‘One tries to treat them as the miracles they

are, while trying to protect oneself from the disasters

they’ve become.”

Although this can often be a difficult book for those who do not have a solid, intellectual grounding in novelist/essayist James Baldwin’s literary works, it is, nevertheless, an excellent introduction for those who may have heard of him or have only read an essay or two.

Author Ed Pavlic, in Who Can Afford to Improvise? In this amazing, thorough meditation on his collective works lets Baldwin do most of the talking. The sense of music in Baldwin’s writing, implied in the subtitle, does not fully make the case and takes a decidedly backseat; still, this book is an often-brilliant effort to try to fuse these two different art forms into one.

Instead, however, it is a fascinating intellectual biography of the man, based on vast amounts of direct quotes from Baldwin’s many book reviews, novels, essays, open letters, plays and decades of being interviewed.

***

James Baldwin, growing up poor in black Harlem, never stepped foot in a college. He started his career with only a lowly diploma from Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx in the late ‘40s. His first efforts were book reviews for an expressive number of New York City literary and left wing political magazines. There, his talent as a masterful prose stylist with a deadly, wicked wit quickly became apparent.

Pavlic gives us this from a 1948 review in the New Leader of the novel, The Moth, by James M. Cain: “The only thing wrong with (Cain’s characters) was the fact that they were still reeling from the discovery that they were in possession of visible and functioning sexual organs. It was the impact of this discovery that so hopelessly and murderously disoriented them.”

By the time, we get to 1963, after his extraordinary essay, The Fire Next Time, was published the year before in The New Yorker, James Baldwin was arguably the most celebrated writer in America, even making the cover of Time magazine.

Here, author Pavlic use a quote from one of Baldwin’s friends, the composer and jazz pianist Alonzo Levister, “When FIRE came out in The New Yorker I was at Horatio Street. He was an overnight star, and I took him to an upscale store, British American House, for him to buy what I think were the first nice clothes he ever had ‘til that time. That’s how I remember it.”

As the Civil Rights Movement accelerated, and the “Long Hot Summer” of costly black race riots that still haunt black communities today, nationwide; and the political assassinations of the Kennedys, Malcolm X, and Dr. King; and people of every walk of life starting to come out in the streets in cities and college campuses, all across the country, now protesting a deeply unpopular Vietnam war—many in white America turned to novelist/essayist James Baldwin because he seemed to have predicted all of this with insightful precision in the Fire Next Time. It came to life and started scaring them to death.

Also, and just as important for the new national spokesman, now there was the Black Power Movement, which spawned The Black Arts Movement, and the black this, and black that.

What was Baldwin now to do? It was becoming increasingly clear to him that he was being thrown increasingly into a powerful maelstrom. Also, he started to have serious doubts about his prose; as brilliant and beautiful as it was. But, in the end, was it of any use, especially for influencing blacks?

Pavlic writes, “As background for the cover story about Baldwin in Time magazine (May 17, 1963) Washington correspondent Loyle Miller reported back to the bureau from Harlem, “It is as you suspected; in Harlem, Malcolm X is a man of fame, but James Baldwin was right when he wrote ‘Nobody Knows My Name.’”

Baldwin had now confronted what every black creative writer in America has always faced, especially the males: who was he writing to? Is it “My fellow countrymen,” that Baldwin always addressed with his exceptional prose, or, the blacks of the Harlem he once knew? Could they ever recognize his genius and laud him?

One prominent Harlem leader, former Manhattan borough president and former Malcolm X’ lawyer, Perry Sutton, poured cold water on that idea. And, said that there was no way that was ever going to happen:

“Baldwin is interesting reading,” he said to Miller in 1963, “and, we quote him when he serves our purposes. But, he really has no influence. For one thing, he’s difficult reading, so, only the Negro intellectual reads Baldwin, and that severely limits his communication. Remember that Negroes are not influenced by a writer, any writer, because we are not in the main intellectuals. Not enough of us read. The Negroes are influenced by the lecturers, the compelling speakers, the men like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. When you see him (Baldwin) as a lecturer, you see an effeminate, and that ruins him even with those who have read him. He’s a faggot, a fairy. And, we as Negroes have much greater animosity towards lesbians and homosexuals than does the white man, because this is weakness, and there is already too much weakness among Negroes, even among the few that really know about him, and, if he doesn’t impress, he can’t influence.”

Now you can understand why so many black male writers fled America, and why Baldwin died in France. There is a lot to learn in this book.



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REVIEWING

Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges’ Obsession with Smartness Shortchanges Students

By Alexander W. Astin

Published by Stylus Publishing; Reprint edition

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

Many books are published yearly that never grace the aisles of Barnes & Nobles nor the few remaining privately-owned bookstores, like Vroman’s in Pasadena,Ca. where I like to peruse the aisles to see what’s been published recently. If deemed particularly worthy, you may find an advertisement for some in the New York Review of Books, where University presses publish ads, but most of these books languish without receiving much of a readership. Among them are numerous publications penned by university faculty members. (I don’t know if the “publish or perish” rule still applies, but I do know that a professor raises his or her profile by publishing.)

One such book is Are You Smart Enough? by Alexander W. Astin, professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and founding director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. Professor Astin is a frequently-cited author in the field of higher education.

In Are You Smart Enough? Professor Astin calls attention an injustice in United States colleges’ system of admitting students. They are admitted almost solely based on their SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Tests) scores. The top ten colleges in the country—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford, UC Berkeley, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Chicago—admit students based almost entirely on their SAT scores. This is practice which has been going on for some time.

Indeed, an entire industry has grown to help student improve their scores, for a cost, of course.

At first glance this might not seem like an injustice at all—why not admit students based on their scores? But, upon a closer look, we find that doing so slants admission in favor of the smart white students who excel in taking these kinds of tests.

“The pecking order of America’s 4,000-plus colleges and universities can be visualized by imagining a pyramid-shaped hierarchy with only a few dozen elite institutions occupying the peak. [Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Chicago University, NYU, Barnard, etc.] As you drop down lower in the hierarchy, the pyramid keeps getting wider until you reach the base, which is very wide and contains mostly community colleges.”

As we all know, it’s quite prestigious to gain admission into Harvard or Yale or Princeton. If you do, you will be considered to be very smart by your family and peers. If you don’t score well on the SAT exams, you will be deemed only worthy of a lesser college or consigned to taking courses part-time at your local community college.

By the time they graduate from high school, most students will have made the assumption that they just aren’t smart enough to study at the Ivy Leagues. And, we all know, don’t we the power one’s estimation of oneself plays in one’s achievements.

Other attributes are summarily ignored—like being handy, creative, musical, sensible, well balanced, athletic (unless one is outstandingly so and therefore offered a scholarship to play on a school team.) If you are dyslexic or have any other kind of learning disability, forget about it.

From 1981 to 2007, I lived in New York City. I taught at mostly institutions that were designed to give poor and immigrant students job readiness skills, things like typing, word processing, Excel, business English, and computer programing. I was impressed by the level of intelligence of my students. I thought, if they were given the right opportunities, they might do just as well as their “smart” peers who attend prestigious institutions. I also thought that the variance in levels of intelligence were exaggerated, that there was less difference than commonly thought.

Professor Astin points out that when so much emphasis is placed on how smart students supposedly are, other things are ignored—like the business of teaching itself, which is the main purpose of institutions of high learning.

This admission procedure tends to ensure the status quo remains as is regarding the power structure that dominates our country, to ensure that white men from wealthy families stay in power. It means that the hierarchy that governs our country is locked in place.

Professor Astin writes: “When we look at American education as a whole, continuing to focus so much attention on merely being smart and on identifying the smartest students is a losing proposition. Such a focus not only leaves the average and below-average students out in the cold, but also distracts our educational institutions from concentrating on their principal mission: to develop students’ smartness. By continuing to define smartness with such narrowly conceived measures as the SAT and ACT, we ignore the great diversity of human talents, especially those ‘affective’ talents—leadership, empathy, tolerance self-understanding, civic-mindedness, interpersonal skills, and so on—that are so necessary to an effectively functioning society and world.

“Finally, by continuing to rely on normative measures simply because they simplify the task of identifying the smartest students, we artificially ration the amount of excellence that is possible in our educational system and continue to send negative and discouraging messages to most of the students who take these tests.”

The school one graduates from can make a difference in one’s ability to succeed in his or her life. Those who graduate from one of the big ten schools have a leg up from the get-go. There are law offices who will only hire Yale graduates.

How can a system weighted in favor of white students from highly-educated, well-to-do families be changed?

Professor Astin generously highlights the problem but offers little by way of advice as to how to fix it.

Perhaps it’s a ray of hope that we live in a very creative time, when all kinds of smart people are using the Internet to create start-up businesses and for other purposes.

(Jane M McCabe is an Associate Editor of Neworld Review and has been writing reviews for the magazine for ten years. She is also a painter. She lives in Los Angeles and has a dachshund named Sadie.)

 

 



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