The Anton Schwartz Loft Concert

I love house concerts. Listening to music in so intimate a setting places the music front and center, where it belongs. The audiences tend to be connoisseurs that have a strong bond with the performers and the music. The setting is warm. I remember going to an Indian music house recital in Los Angeles many years ago that featured the late Shubbho Shankar (son to Pandit Ravi Shankar and Smt. Annapurna Devi) on sitar and Pranesh Khan (son of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan) on tabla. We all crowded on the floor at their feet and listen to them play late into the night. Indian classical music lends itself to this type of setting.

So does jazz. From its early days, jazz has connected with its audiences in small settings, from rent parties in crowded flats to those smoky clubs tucked away in basements or off back alleys. Yoshi’s is awesome, as is the SF Jazz Center. But an intimate setting, where the musicians and audience can truly relate to one another, that’s where it’s at.

Saxophonist Anton Schwartz has hosted concerts in the intimacy of his West Oakland loft for the past 13 years or so. The general format is that he invites a guest musician to sit in with his group, featuring John Shifflett on bass and Lorca Hart on drums. I met Anton after his performance at KCSM’s Jazz on the Hill last year. Since we have a mutual friend, I did something I normally don’t do and introduced myself to an artist I really like. At that encounter, I placed myself on his mailing list. So when he announced a Loft Concert at his place in West Oakland, I couldn’t buy the ticket fast enough. Good thing, too. The second show quickly sold out. I attended the first show, a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

His loft is in a converted school building on the ground floor, already the makings of a good jazz club setting. The performance space looks like a typical modern loft: high ceilings, a concrete floor, an office area on one side and a galley kitchen on the other. The performers played at the front of the room next to a baby grand piano. Lots of chairs tightly packed the floor. No smoking, but Anton’s stage manager and wife Dawn had plenty of munchies to nosh on and beverages to sip casually.

Joining the band at this concert was pianist Russell Ferrante of the Yellowjackets. They began the show with one of his tunes, “Les is Mo,” an homage to Les McCann. It was a good groove and a fine show starter.

Despite the concrete floor, high ceilings, and limited acoustical padding, the space had, to my ears, a very warm sound. Dawn later explained that the audience itself helps with the acoustics, lessening the space’s natural echo. Also, the musicians generally balanced well among themselves, none overpowering the other. Mr. Ferrante’s piano sang beautifully behind Anton’s sax as well as on its own. And Mr. Shifflett’s bass came through clearly as well, with Mr. Hart’s drums holding it all steady.

Balance ruled the performance as they switched between livelier songs like “Les” and more contemplative ones, like Anton’s own “Then Again.” I knew only one other piece from the program, “Pangur Ban” from Anton’s latest album Flash Mob. So I enjoyed experiencing music I had not heard before. I came away from the show feeling mellowed. The music was both exciting and calming. In addition to helping the acoustics, the audience radiated its own warmth, responding well to the musicians. It was a friendly crowd, easy to strike up conversations with during intermission. A few folks I spoke with had studied with Anton. This fits the mold of a house concert, a group of musical connoisseurs in tune with the music and the musicians.

Anton splits his time, when not touring, between the Bay and Seattle. By his own admission, he has not hosted many loft concerts in West Oakland of late. In fact, the one I attended was the first for this year. Let’s hope the warm and enthusiastic response he and his group received will lure him back again soon.

gar’s Famous Bay Area Bumper Sticker Presidential Poll

For the past few presidential election years, while driving around town, I have conducted the least scientific poll imaginable. I call it my “bumper sticker” poll. Keeping in mind that I’m in the bubble of the Bay Area, I still find that this “poll” can provide an interesting read on the state of things in presidential elections. And after all, this is California, the home of the automobile. What better way to gauge the public’s opinion of things than by looking at the rear of their most treasured possession?

Contrary to what one might think, it’s not impossible to find support for Republican candidates in the Bay Area. In 2008, McCain/Palin graced a few bumpers. Similarly in 2012, the odd Romney/Ryan sticker popped up here and there. I even saw, and laughed hard at, a Herman Cain sticker on the back of a somebody’s car. Because I live in such a liberal/progressive bubble, the sight of any Republican candidate’s bumper sticker is sure to catch notice. Indeed, any Republican that can penetrate the bubble likely has a lot of support elsewhere, in less progressive spaces, at the cost of the Democratic candidate.

Such was my observation in 2004. I knew Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was in trouble when I saw a noticeable number of “W” bumper stickers. Bush bumper stickers in Oakland … and Berkeley??? I dismissed the first few I saw as travelers from Contra Costa County, that less-that-liberal spot over the East Bay Hills. But then I kept seeing them, not just on freeways, but also surface streets. Not a ton of them, to be sure, but enough to catch my eye. Enough to show that Kerry was in trouble. Again, I figured that if the Bush/Cheney ticket penetrated the Bay Area bubble enough to be noticeable, then in other, less liberal lands Kerry must be in real trouble. And of course he was. He lost. Even in California, Kerry only beat Bush by just under 10 percentage points, 54.31% to 44.36%. By contrast, Barak Obama beat John McCain by 24 percentage points in 2008.

In 2008, the last time the Democratic presidential primary was competitive, the Bay Area saw a definite battle of the bumper stickers between the two leading candidates, Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton. Thinking back, I’d probably give the edge to Obama, bumper sticker-wise, but really it was pretty neck-and-neck. In the end, Clinton took California in the primary race, 51.47% to Obama’s 43.16%. Judging from the election results, it would make sense that Obama bumper stickers trended slightly higher in the Bay Area.

From Wikipedia.

From Wikipedia (annotated by me).

According to the map above, Obama took Bay Area counties Alameda (home to Oakland and Berkeley), San Francisco, and Marin. These are the most progressive counties in the state, and indeed in the nation. He also took very liberal Santa Cruz, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties. Clinton, on the other hand, dominated most of the state, including densely populated Southern California. And that’s likely why she won in the end, though of course she ultimately lost the national primary to Obama.

So I wouldn’t say that my “bumper sticker poll” was 100% accurate, but it did show how close the race was at that time. I should also note that the 2008 California presidential primary was held in February, not the traditional June. The excitement of the Obama candidacy hadn’t really taken hold yet. This would explain the temperate number of Obama bumper stickers. Once Obama became the nominee, Obama/Biden bumper stickers and yard signs appeared everywhere.

So, what have I observed this time around? Again, we have a competitive Democratic primary race. Again, Hillary Clinton is one of the leading candidates. This time, though, it’s not even close. The bumper stickers have spoken: Bernie, Bernie, Bernie, Bernie, Bernie, and more Bernie, with a dash of Hillary on the side. The number of Bernie Sanders bumper stickers observed has increased steadily as we draw closer to California’s June 7 primary. Hillary Clinton bumper stickers have not. This gives the appearance that Clinton bumper stickers have virtually disappeared. They haven’t. They just haven’t kept up the same pace. Because California has a late primary this presidential election cycle, there is time for a candidate’s  “excitement factor” to kick in. And it has, for Bernie Sanders. In 2008, I could see folks being skeptical that black man could win the White House, thus tempering their support for Obama in February. By June, Obama-mania had reached a fevered pitch. Similarly this year, those who may quietly have held Sanders leanings, but didn’t think an avowed Socialist stood much of a chance, have likely been buoyed by his victories. Thus, they have come out of the closet, as it were, to proudly display their candidate’s sticker on their car bumper.

Indeed, in another development, I’ve also noticed Bernie Sanders yard signs. Normally I don’t see yard signs until the Fall for the general election. But this year I’ve seen a few, and they’ve all been for Bernie, Bernie, Bernie.

Traditional polls have all shown Clinton with a decided lead in the California Democratic primary. Though some have shown that lead narrowing a bit. The closest read comes from the Public Policy Institute of California. Their March 6 – 15 poll has Clinton at 48% and Sanders at 41%, with 7% undecided.

If the traditional polls prove correct, then Hillary Clinton will take the California primary. However, if the bumper sticker poll theory about penetration holds true, then I don’t see Clinton having penetrated the Bay Area progressive/liberal “bubble” in a substantial way, meaning that she may be in more trouble than the traditional polls are showing. If she does win, it will be by a razor-thin margin. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Michigan-style Sanders “upset.”

We’ll find out in June. Can’t wait.

Oh, and by the way, I have yet to see any bumper sticker for any Republican presidential candidate. I have seen a couple of “Make Donald Drumpf Again” hats, but that probably doesn’t count.

State-sponsored Bigotry Fuels Hate

In “The Scouring of the Shire,” the penultimate chapter to The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf gives Frodo, Sam, Pip, and Merry a warning about Saruman. Though defeated, his powers diminished, his master Sauron vanquished for good, the old wizard is still capable of a little meanness in a cruel way. Such is often the case after a major victory. The forces defeated linger and can continue to fester and cause harm in manners great and small.

Charlotte, North Carolina passed an ordinance to grant all LGBT folks protection against discrimination. This included the right for transgender folks to go to the restroom of their gender identity. Well, the Republican controlled state legislature wanted none of that. Forthwith, they passed one of those silly and highly bigoted “religious freedom” bills to usurp Charlotte’s ordinance, and all ordinances that grant basic civil liberties to LGBT folks. Many states have threatened to pass such bills, but North Carolina felt motivated to do so because of the Charlotte ordinance. In fact, writes NPR:

The state’s General Assembly wasn’t due to meet until late April, but it scheduled a special session — for the first time in 35 years, member station WUNC reports — on Wednesday to respond to the Charlotte measure before it went into effect.
NPR, March 24, 2016

Georgia’s legislature passed a similar bill, House Bill 757. Another stupid “religious freedom” bill, it would:

…prevent individuals from being forced to perform or attend same-sex weddings …; allow faith-based groups, including churches and religious schools, to refuse employment and service to anyone who violates the group’s religious beliefs; and permit those groups to deny employment to anyone “whose religious beliefs or practices or lack of either are not in accord with the faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.”
Think Progress, March 25, 2016

This bill, says its sponsors, is the result of the Supreme Court’s overturning all anti-gay marriage laws in the country. Those of faith continue to feel threatened because their dogma isn’t the nation’s law, so they are passing these stupid laws. Such laws will not stop the tide of marriage equality, a done deal. But they will continue to enable those who feast at the troff of bigotry. It gives them an out. They can point to these laws and say “See, I ain’t a bigot. The state agrees with me.” The threat of boycotts by big companies and many Hollywood studios that film in Georgia likely compelled Georgia Governor Nathan Deal to veto the bill. But it has already done damage.

Was Georgia’s hate bill going through the mind of Martin Blackwell when he poured scalding hot water over Anthony Gooden, his girlfriend’s son, and Anthony’s boyfriend Marquez Tolbert? Marquez and Anthony were asleep at Anthony’s mother’s house when the attack happened. Blackwell complained to the police that he didn’t approve of the two young men or their relationship.

This wasn’t a little cruelness, it was a lot of cruelness. It’s hard to put into words the level of evil Blackwell committed. Marquez and Anthony suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns and require expensive medical procedures to heal them. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help defray expenses. Georgia lacks hate crime protections, but the FBI has stepped in to join the investigation. Let’s hope they stack a heap of charges against Blackwell.

State sponsored bigotry, like North Carolina’s law and the vetoed law in Georgia, embolden bigots like Martin Blackwell. They continue to use their hate and inflated sense of purpose to hurt, maim, and kill those whom they dislike, and do so with tacit state support. It used to be that the country moved in the direction of passing laws to prevent this type of targeted abuse against a harassed minority. But not anymore. Using religion as a shield, bigots are launching an all-out assault against not the just the rights but the very existence of LGBTQ people. It’s encouraging to hear the outrage against such bullshit “religious freedom” law. It’s great that many companies are lining up to excommunicate Georgia, should their bill become law.

We have to stand against such laws because of the fallout they produce, the hate they foster, and the damage they do to the real lives of real people. Marquez and Anthony never should have experienced what happened to them. None of us should rest easy until such hatred has been vanquished forever.

Republican Supernova

Stellar evolution. Lately, the current trajectory of the Republican Party has me thinking of the lifecycle of massive stars. All stars go through the same general evolutionary pattern, but larger stars die more dramatically. If the GOP has entered its death throes, then it is doing so in the most dramatic way possible.

Stars in the prime of their lives are said to be on the main-sequence. Our sun is on the main-sequence, slowly converting hydrogen to helium deep in its core. The hydrogen-helium nuclear fusion process is the most efficient and while a star stays in this phase, it remains more or less stable.

Let’s say that political parties with ideas that fit the comfort zone of most Americans are on the “main-sequence.” Their ideas fuel the party’s agenda, the way hydrogen fuels a star’s nuclear fusion and keeps it going. However, political parties, like stars, are not homogenous nor are they static. Hydrogen makes up most of a star’s mass at birth, though other elements are present, too. And of course the hydrogen is slowly converted into helium. Similarly, fringe elements also exist in political parties. When hydrogen no longer constitutes the primary element within a star, and the star begins fusing helium and even heavier elements to stay alive, it is said to move off of the main-sequence. It’s still alive, but it becomes enlarged, erratic — and in the case of massive stars, prone to violent fits, blowing off large chunks of itself.

Eta Carinae (NASA photo)

Eta Carinae, a very massive star, not exploding, just blowing off steam. (NASA photo)

By this analogy, a political party moves off its “main-sequence” when more and more fringe elements begin influencing its direction and purpose, and when those elements begin pushing out what once had been considered mainstream. In the GOP’s case, the fringe elements are mostly religious conservatives, nationalists, xenophobes, and overt racists.

From Lincoln to Eisenhower, the Republican Party lived more or less on the “main-sequence.” By the Nixon Administration, the “hydrogen” began to run out and the fringe elements began taking over. By Reagan, the fringe elements started exerting more influence. No response to AIDS. Contra-gate. James “two Jews and a cripple” Watt. However, the fringe had not fully taken over, not yet. When Reagan vetoed a bill calling for divestment from Apartheid South Africa, Congress overrode him. 81 House Republicans and 31 Republican Senators joined Democrats in that override vote. And despite his conservative bluster and posturing, even Reagan approved bills raising taxes, as did his successor George H. W. Bush, though the move likely cost him his reelection.

But with the arrival of George W. Bush, the fringe took over. The Republican Party moved decisively off the “main-sequence” and adopted a harshly conservative agenda that included no rights for LGBTQ folks, no reproductive rights for women, a hatred for science, and no new taxes under any circumstances. From these positions a majority of Republicans will not budge. Those who show any leniency are quickly exiled, blown into the political interstellar medium like so many random hydrogen molecules off of a fitful, massive star.

At this point in stellar evolution, a massive star is fusing heavier elements — helium, carbon, neon, oxygen, silicon, etc. — in concentric shells above a growing inert core of iron.

Fusion shells in a highly evolved, massive star.

Fusion shells in a highly evolved, massive star. (Wikipedia)

Each of these fusion processes keep the star going, but none are as efficient as hydrogen. Each delivers less energy than the one before it, until you get to iron. Iron won’t fuse into anything, since the process takes energy rather than produces it. Thus, iron won’t react. It sits there like a lump, growing bigger and bigger. Very much like Tea Party Republicans. They refuse to interact with anyone. They refuse to compromise. They prefer to let the country go to hell rather than to actually allow government work. Tea Partiers are the iron core of the Republican star.

What happens to massive stars with large, inert iron cores? They explode into supernovas. Nuclear fusion, which had for the star’s lifetime fought the urge of gravity to collapse the mass of the star in on itself, can no longer produce enough pressure to prevent that collapse. And the iron core alone certainly cannot. So the star collapses and explodes. Thus is the fate of a massive star. Depending on the size of the star, the remnant of the supernova will either become a neutron star, spewing toxic radiation into space like a hyperactive lighthouse. Or it will collapse to a point of singularity and turn into a black hole.

The Republican's Eta Carinae.

The Republican’s Eta Carinae.

With Donald Trump leading the Republican presidential field, the GOP clearly has a massive iron core problem. Out the gate, Trump aligned himself with the bigots and racists by declaring that Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers. His rhetoric has only worsened. Yet, not only has he continued to get votes, but more Republicans politicians have started to endorse him. Most perversely, Governor Chris Christie and Dr. Ben Carson, Trump’s onetime opponents, now dance with him.

The so-called “mainstream” Republican Party power brokers are aghast at this development. They believe, rightly, that Trump will alienate too much of the voting populace in a general election. But they have no one but themselves to blame for Trump’s rise to power. The GOP mainstream routinely rejects science, disparages women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks, and places profits over everything every time. Every time. By today’s standards, they would consider Eisenhower, who launched the nation’s interstate highway system, or even Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency, communists.

Today’s GOP might think they still have some mainstream values left, but in reality they’ve been off the “main-sequence” for decades. In addition to Trump, they have candidates like Senator Ted Cruz, who singlehandedly held up the budget and nearly destroyed the country’s credit rating. And Senator Marco Rubio, who despite earlier leanings towards solving problems, like immigration, has now tacked hard right to keep up with his opponents. And the Congress is still chockfull of Tea Partiers, unwilling to budge from their positions to compromise on anything.

George W. Bush, the last Republican president, started an unwinnable war and tanked the economy, nearly driving the world into a second Depression. When the GOP finally goes supernova, how much more damage to the country will they do?

Rodney King Beating 25th Anniversary

[Ed. note: Today (March 3, 2016) is the 25th anniversary of the beating of Rodney King by police officers. No single event of police violence has had a greater effect on me. I still can’t watch the video anymore. Before Twitter, hashtags, and #BlackLivesMatter, there was Rodney King, recorded old-school on video tape. It gave the world a glimpse of the type of racist violence heaped upon the African-American community since time immemorial in this country. 25 years later, with a black man in the White House, we’re still being heaped upon. I wrote the piece below after the death of Mr. King in 2012.]

(Originally posted as “The Accidental Activist – Rodney King 1965-2012.”)

In one of my Civil Rights History classes way back when, the professor explained why the NAACP very specifically took up the case of Rosa Parks as a means of challenging the Jim Crow era bus segregation laws.  She had been a secretary for the organization for a number of years and had an unimpeachable background.  By contrast, a few months prior to Mrs. Parks’ famous arrest, Claudette Colvin had been also been arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white person.  Her case joined other, similar cases that went to trial and ultimately undid the bus segregation laws for good.  However, the NAACP did not publicize her case because she was an unwed, teenaged mother, something that undoubtedly would have been a distraction, particularly in the 1950s.  As a political strategy, one can understand the NAACP’s reasoning.

But sometimes, history happens.  Sometimes the right person, the unimpeachable person, is not what fate delivers.  Rodney King already had a past, including encounters with the criminal justice system, by the time of his infamous beating in March of 1991.  But he is who fate delivered as an archetype of gross police violence.  He case did not challenge an unjust law, however.  There are no laws on the books that say “beat black people senseless when they resist arrest.”  That’s not what his beating exposed.  Instead it showed what can happen when people of a certain demographic, in this case black males, antagonize police officers who feel their authority is being threatened.  This is a different type of discrimination, the sort that is common, however, in this post Jim Crow age.  After the Civil Rights movement, instances of discrimination have become harder to codify and thus harder to prosecute and remedy.  Similarly, it has become harder to have a conversation about disparities in society based on factors like race and class.  Rodney King’s beating brought this conversation uncomfortably to the forefront.

In the minds of many, all over the world, the Rodney King case was perfectly cut and dry.  Yes, the man resisted arrest.  No, the man did not deserve or need to be beaten senseless because of that.  Once he was restrained, he should have been taken in, booked, and handed over to a judge.  It didn’t happen that way, and what did happen caused international outrage. Sadly, in the minds of many others, including those on the jury for the four officers prosecuted and ultimately acquitted for beating Mr. King, the beating was inevitable, or worse deserving.  They felt this way because he had past encounters with the law or simply because he was a Big Scary Black Man who disobeyed officers.  These attitudes form the crux of the uncomfortable conversation society has been presented in light of Mr. King’s beating.

And now the debate is happening all over again, just a couple of months after the 20th anniversary.  Rodney King has died.  And in light of his death, debates about the man, his life, his beating, and his place in Civil Rights history have begun all over again on message boards across the Internet.  The nay-sayers, sounding much like the jury that acquitted the beating officers, have opined that he was no victim, that he brought his troubles on himself, and, by extension, that he got what he deserved.  One person in the comment section of Joe. My. God. even went through the trouble of listing out all of Mr. King’s crimes and offenses in chronological order, and then ended by calling him a “scumbag” and declaring that “the world is better off without him.”

Such tasteless statements are par for the course, alas.  He was not a perfect man.  He was not a Rosa Parks who possessed an unimpeachable background.  But for the type of discrimination he revealed, he was in fact the only choice possible.  Mr. King forces us to consider, do all citizens, regardless of their race or socioeconomic background, deserve human sympathy, courtesy, and equal treatment by the police and in the eyes of the law?  As demonstrated by the commenter above, this is a test that many fail.

The conversation about racial profiling and racial discrimination in this post Civil Rights era is harder and harder to have, as Mr. King’s life and death have proven.  Mr. King’s words, spoken at the height of the rebellion in haunted, halted speech, “Can we all just get along?” seem as much a pipe dream now as they did twenty years ago.  We can’t have the conversation if people refuse to participate.  But have it we must.  It doesn’t matter that the showcase person for police brutality and racial profiling was not a perfect man.  It matters that his case showed just how much work we have to do to make the world a more just place.

This is something Mr. King himself came to terms with just months before his death:

 In an interview with The Times this year, King confided that he was at peace with what happened to him.

“I would change a few things, but not that much,” he says. “Yes, I would go through that night, yes I would. I said once that I wouldn’t, but that’s not true. It changed things. It made the world a better place.”
-LA Times, June 17, 2012

Sammy’s Blues – Part III (Conclusion)

Sunday Morning, Liberty Hall, The Huck – North Side, 10ish

Roy ran into Reverend Tamera backstage. They exchanged a quick hug. He asked why the event was happening at Liberty Hall and not the church. “Church and state, honey,” she said, then added that she understood the concept better than some preacher-folks. Roy laughed. Besides, she added, the old rustic hall has hosted every radical movement from the Wobblies to Black Lives Matter. “Let’s add Charlotte to that list.”

Roy emerged from behind the curtains. He saw Harry, Bingo, Liz, and other familiars setting up chairs in the large space. He hopped down and started arranging chairs with Vera in the front row.

“Using the stage entrance?” she said, then kissed him. “No sign of Sammy?”



“Did I tell you about the Mix Up?”

“What about it?”

“We got double carded when we went there Friday night.”

She stood upright and placed a hand firmly on her left hip. “You aren’t joking with your Auntie Vera, are you? Are they still doing that crap?”

“I guess. We didn’t let ‘em get away with it, though. We stood there until they let us in.”

She stood for a moment, shaking her head.

“Outrageous. You know what I did when they pulled that crap? I had a special card made, about the size of a driver’s license. It’s a photo of me doing this.” She cocked her head, crossed her eyes, stuck out her long tongue towards her nose, and flipped the bird right next to her cheek. “That was my second ID card.”

“Love it!”

“I can take one of you and your friends for next time.” She arranged chairs as she talked. “Only next time, I think all you should go to Club Copacetic.”

“I didn’t think they did 18 and over anymore.”

“Hmmm,” she grunted.

*   *   *

The Huckleberry Women’s Big Band led Liberty Hall through a rousing, up-tempo version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a soul sister of Linda Tillery’s version. No one sat still in the audience.

When the singing and dancing ended, and after several rounds of spontaneous applause, hoots and hollers, Reverend Tamara took the stage. The curtain closed behind her. She, too, announced the arrests that took place at Eddie’s Grove, but noted, “Not one new light fixture has been installed on that corner or anywhere else in the park. Not one.” Boos sounded long and hard. Then Tamara called those arrested freedom fighters and the room erupted into applause again.

“I was going to talk about the other event happening this morning, and how I was invited, along with the other religious leaders in the Huck; about how they told me to come and bring my flock with me, but with the stipulation that there wasn’t enough time for me to talk; about how I and some of my colleagues, who were also told there’d be no time for them to talk, saw the event as nothing more than a shield – a transparent shield – to cover the umm-hmm of the man who refused to even meet with the freedom fighters in Eddie’s Grove; about how their so-called ‘Unity Rally’ was really an action against those who did not fall into their narrow definition of unity or community.”

She paused.

“I was gonna talk about all that, and then I decided, nah.” Everyone laughed. “Instead, I want to talk about my idea of unity and leadership.”

Then she began listing qualities of leadership she admired: communicator, active listener, activist, organizer. Mrs. Parker, sitting front row center, said “That’s right!” loudly, after each point. Others in the audience made similar responses. Roy sat between Mrs. Parker and Vera, in anticipation.

“I think you know who I’m talking about,” Tamara concluded. “And I have a feeling you’ll agree that this person embodies unity.”

She stepped aside and out came Charlotte, dressed in a fine suit and a bow tie. The crowd exploded. Mrs. Parker stared at her face and beamed, clapping hard despite her arthritic hands. Tamera stood by the podium a while before leaving the stage. Camera flashes flickered. TV lights turned on. Charlotte stood alone, smiling sweetly and nodding her head. Roy studied her expression closely, keeping a smile to himself.

Eventually the room settled down so she could speak.

“Hello, sisters and brothers. I guess I better just say it, before y’all explode.”

The room buzzed with told-you-sos and uh-huhs whispered from the many who had predicted this moment.

“My name is Charlotte Hunter, and I would like to humbly announce my candidacy for the District 9 city council seat.”

People rose to the feet. Mrs. Parker shed tears of joy. Harry whistled between his fingers. Bingo clapped above his head. Vera shouted, “You go, girl!” over and over as she snapped photos.

From behind the closed curtain came a loud drumroll, then cymbals, then a booming bass drum. A frenzied solo took place. As folks got into it, the curtain opened. Sam-boom reborn. His sticks and kicks exploded in a fury that rivaled Max Roach. He brought the house down.

“Gotcha!” Roy said.

“Remind me to slap you later,” Vera said as she snapped photos.

Charlotte held her hands clutched under her trembling chin. She turned to the mic.

“Now we got it going!” she said.

The Huckleberry Women’s Big Band joined Sam-boom on stage. He settled into a steady beat and on the count of three, they began playing “When the Saints Come Marching In,” Liberty Hall’s theme song. Everyone started dancing again.

Sammy’s Blues – Part II

Sammy put on his black jacket and beret after turning out the lights. He closed the store then headed south. Going through the park, he noticed the bandshell resting silently on the far left end of the playing field. A dilapidated chainlink fence still surrounded it. No one has played there since Alfonso was little. Back when he had a full head of thick black hair, summers for Sammy meant gigs at the bandshell. Wondering if the guy from the city would show up to unlock the place and get the power going so that the show would start more or less on time. Worrying about the monitor speakers cutting out again, mid-performance. Working long days with little pay under the oppressive blanket of heat and humidity that settled over the neighborhood. But it was a joy. They got to play together. “Beanpole” Bob Rush on bass, Slack “The Jack” Jennings on piano, and “Sam-boom” Turner on drums. And the audiences always turned out.

He crossed 48th street and found Mrs. Parker on the stoop wearing her burgundy shawl and pink bunny slippers. He took a seat one step below her.

“You just missed Bill,” she said. “He was out here about thirty minutes ago.”

“You remember the time my group played ‘Bitches Brew’?”

Mrs. Parker started laughing. “I think I was the only old fart to get into it. All the rest of them, oh my goodness!”

“We burned through three albums trying to learn how to play it. Goddamn if we didn’t think we were hot shit.”

“Admit it. You loved the chaos from the crowd.”

Sammy did his slow staccato laugh. “Up until folks started throwing things.”

For the “Bitches Brew” show, they were joined by Funk It on trumpet, Logan X on tenor sax, and Beanpole’s brother Big-L on guitar. Some folks in the audience became restless when Beanpole put down his upright and plugged an electric bass into an amp and Slack the Jack set up an electric keyboard. Without any announcement, the band began performing their interpretation of “Bitches Brew.” Sammy and his group couldn’t wait to bring Miles’ revolution to Huckleberry Park. They wanted a scene and got their wish. Folks around their age and younger quickly fell into the groove. Older folks, whose tastes went no further than Art Blakey, hated it. Stop playing that motherfucking shit! When you gonna stop tuning up and play! Fuck Miles Davis! It got crazy. Young folks started dancing to the trippy free flow of the music, while the older folks ratcheted up their indignation. They switched from yelling at the band to yelling at the kids for enjoying the music. The kids yelled back. Eventually it came to blows and when chairs started flying, that’s when Sammy called out a time out.

“By the time we stated playing again, I think most of the old folks had already left, ‘cause Beanpole and Slack still played electric, and they weren’t have it. But at least the crowd calmed down.”

“Hmmm,” Mrs. Parker said, leaning back and reminiscing. “That was still a pretty funky version of ‘Satan Doll’ you all played.”

“Yeah. We thought we were so revolutionary.”

A few cars travelled down the oneway street, towards Lincoln. Faint music floated down from a cracked-open window above. Bill’s room. It sounded like soul.

“You ever think about playing again?” Mrs. Parker said.

“It’s been so long. But just recently, I was wondering where I could set up my kit. Shit, I haven’t taken it out of storage since who knows when. I played my tune for the boys. Alfonso danced so beautifully to it. He just improved it, right on the spot. It was like he had rehearsed it for years. He has the gift.”

“Uh-huh. See? You need to play it for him live.”

“Heh. Yeah. I should.”

“Sammy, before I go I want to see that park fixed and you playing in that bandshell again.”

Fixing the park, one of Charlotte’s talking points.

“You know,” Sammy said, “other than the first time she ran, Charlotte has never failed at nothing she’s started? She owned her job with Larkin. She graduated top of her class, for her BA and MSW.”

Mrs. Parker pointed across the street. “I used to watch her practice double-dutch when she was little, right over there next to the community center.”

Sammy nodded.

“Some of the girls teased her, ‘cause she kept getting tripped up. But she had a couple of friends who helped her and kept turning the rope for her. She got it, made it her own.”

“I think what tripped her up in the first election was that she hates talking about herself. She’s a great advocate for everyone except herself. We gotta help her win this time. I want her to win it, you know.”

“I know, sugar.”

He began scat singing “Lavender Veil Blues,” tapping out the beats on his knees slow and easy. Mrs. Parker closed her eyes and began swaying.

Sammy’s Blues – Part I

Thursday Morning, Fifth Week, Sammy’s Store

Bitches Brew played over the stereo, Miles’ subversive masterpiece that Sammy embraced instantly when it dropped and caused an explosion and scandal in the jazz world. Why, then, could he not embrace his old buddy’s subversive plan for announcing her candidacy? He asked himself that question while not stating the answer. Instead he dithered on side issues. This Sunday? Tamera doesn’t think that’s too soon? Berry’s had three weeks to plan his event, how can we do one in three days? And if it ain’t being billed as your event, why would people come?

Tamera said she’d make it work, Charlotte explained. And folks will come out thinking something big will happen. We’re working the rumor mill, she said.

Sammy sipped his coffee. He heard her, but still couldn’t quite make himself get with the groove, as much as he wanted to.

She stood in front of him, arms folded. Her nearly filled mug sat idle. “Sammy,” she said, “either I do it or I don’t do it. Last time you said I was too passive. You were right. I was too passive. I’m not making that mistake again.”

“You own this neighborhood, Charlotte, in a way that Ford Berry never can. He don’t know the people here. You do. People are expecting you to run. It won’t be a surprise.”

“Yes, I get that. But I still need to bring attention to myself in the media.”

“Look, I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. I’m just saying that it might have unintended consequences.”

Harry entered from the storeroom before she could respond.

“I think it’s pure genius,” he said.

“Oh Great Dizzy, here we go.”

“Sammy,” Harry continued, “we have to hit him and hit him hard, out the gate. Period. End of discussion.”

Bingo came in the front door. He stayed quiet while the others continued.

“One of the first things you said was that I needed to get attention,” Charlotte said. “Stealing his thunder is the best way to do that.”

“That was before…,” Sammy said.

“Before what?” Charlotte said.

“Before Alfonso got involved with things, that’s all.”

“Alfonso Berry?” Harry said. “That’s what you’re going on about?”

“That’s not fair, Sammy,” Charlotte said. “You know how I feel about Alfonso.”

She looked hurt as he feared she would, but at least he spoke his mind.

“Yeah,” Harry said, “Come on, Sammy! If that kid had any sense, he’d up and leave home now. Instead, you see where he’s at. Sometimes I wonder…”

“Wonder what, Harry?” Bingo said. “You’re not gonna start that bullshit about him being a spy for his father again, are you?”

“I’m just saying, that’s all.”

“No,” Charlotte said. “That’s not where he’s coming from at all.”

“He’s in grief over Carlton, Harry,” Bingo said. “Fuck! How hard is that to understand?”

“There’s a lot more to Alfonso than you know, Harry,” Sammy said.

“Yeah, OK. Maybe I don’t necessarily think he is, but you know,” Harry said.

“Then why the hell do you keep bringing it up?” Bingo said.

“Girl, please,” Harry said, returning to the storeroom. “Stop your tripping.”

“No, listen!” Bingo said. “That kid has more guts than all of us put together, OK? He ain’t no goddamn spy for his fucking father!”

“Blah, blah, blah,” Harry said, his left hand moving like a mouth opening and closing.

“Asshole,” Bingo said. “You got my usual, Sammy?”

Sammy took out a pack of cigarettes and put it on the counter. Bingo slapped down a twenty then went for the door. He didn’t bother waiting for his change.

“How long has he been hanging at the clinic?” Charlotte said.

“About three weeks now,” Sammy said. “He’s writing a paper about it for his class up at State.”

“Good. That’s good.”

Sammy sighed. He closed the till.

“He’ll be alright,” Charlotte said.

“I sure in the hell hope so. You sure you wanna do this?”

“Tamera’s already getting the wheels in motion. I have to do this, Sammy. You know, with Carlton…”

“With Carlton it was different. He was already estranged. And he didn’t live under the man’s roof.”

“What am I gonna do, Sammy? Not run? I’m going against an eight-year incumbent. I need the momentum. Anytime I declare will be the wrong time as far as Ford Berry is concerned. We can’t control how he’ll react.”

“I know.” He sat down. “I know. I don’t have any answers.”

“I need you behind me, Sammy.”

A loyalty test? Now he felt hurt, and didn’t care if it showed.

“Of course I’m behind you,” he finally said, refusing to make eye contact.

“Will you be there Sunday?” she pressed.

He remained silent.

“Does his father even know what he’s doing?” Charlotte said.


“So what’s the problem?”

She walked away abruptly, out the door, her nearly filled mug left on the counter. Miles and crew continued over the stereo, filling the store with turbulence.

Sammy stood, picked up Charlotte’s mug. He took it to the storeroom, emptied it, and washed it in the sink. Harry stood nearby doing inventory. They ignored each other. On the trip back to the counter, he turned off Miles. Silence. As he sat, the photo of Charlotte and Carlton on the wall behind the counter jumped out at him. He realized that it had been staring Charlotte in the face during their argument.

“You handled that well, Samuel Turner,” he muttered to himself.

(To be continued…)

A Strayhorn Lagniappe: More Music & A Picture Book

First, I have to correct a glaring omission. In my post recommending Strayhorn recordings to pick up, I left off something that I myself own: Marian McPartland plays the music of Billy Strayhorn. Why did I clumsily leave it off the list? Because when I went to my collection to pull out stuff to recommend, I neglected to find this CD until after I did the post. I couldn’t find it because my CD collection was in a state of disarray. Many recent additions — recent, as in the past 2-3 years — had not been alphabetized into the main collection. This included poor Ms. McPartland, hence why this CD was overlooked. But no excuses!

The late, great host of NPR’s “Piano Jazz,” who passed away in 2013 at the age of 95, recorded a CD of Strayhorn tunes in 1987 for Concord Records. Her quartet includes Jerry Dodgion on alto sax, Steve La Spina on bass, and Joey Baron on drums. The great master piano player deftly handles a collection of Strayhorn favorites, including “Take the A Train,” “Isfahan,” “Day Dream,” “Lush Life,” and slightly lesser known tunes like “Intimacy of the Blues” and “UMMG” (Upper Manhattan Medical Group). “Lotus Blossom” she plays as Duke Ellington often played it, sans accompaniment. The results are beautiful.

One does not have to look far to discover why she would feel so at home with this music. Ms. McPartland counted both Billy and Duke as friends and both are said to have visited after-hour clubs to hear her play. How sad that neither gentlemen lived long enough to have been guests on “Piano Jazz,” which began its broadcast life in 1979. Just imagining her playing duets with Duke or Billy gives me goosebumps. But fortunately it is not hard to find recordings of her playing the music of her long-time friends, and this is one definitely worth getting.

*  *  *


A. Alyce Claerbaut, president of Billy Strayhorn Songs Incorporated, and writer David Schlesinger put together Strayhorn – An Illustrated Life, a coffee table-style book of photographs, essays, interviews, and remembrances of Billy’s life. Bolden, in imprint of Agate Publishing, published the book last fall, to coincide with the centennial celebrations. And my husband bought a copy for me for Christmas. Thanks, Husband!

I haven’t had a chance to read the whole book yet, but just skimming it has revealed a wealth of interesting information on the background to the hitherto unsung master musician.

Here’s just a sampling of pictures from the book.

From left, sister Lillian Strayhorn Dicks, mother Lillian Strayhorn, and sister Georgia Strayhorn Morris Conaway.

From left, sister Lillian Strayhorn Dicks, mother Lillian Strayhorn, and sister Georgia Strayhorn Morris Conaway.

The Maestro at work, jazz and cocktails.

The Maestro at work, jazz and cocktails.

Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn.

Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn.

Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn

One aspect about pictures of Billy that always captures me is that he always looks so modern, as if the photo had been taken yesterday and not decades ago. My sister pointed out to me that his dress sense reflected style, which is immortal, and not trends, often ephemeral. Very true. And in  the many photos of Billy Strayhorn in the book, even those dating back to his youth before he had began earning a living in the Ellington organization, he dressed most stylishly.

The book is broken into two major sections: “Part One: Musical Orbits” and “Part Two: Moral Freedoms.” His life and music receive equal examination, including his never-hidden homosexuality. It’s comforting that the book follows Strayhorn biographer David Hajdu’s example of not excluding any aspect of Billy’s complicated, if tragically short, life.

I have no doubt that this book will provide endless hours of fascination and I look forward to delving into it more deeply. Even unread in its entirety, I can recommend it highly to Strayhorn fanatics everywhere.

A Patti Smith New Year


A Christmas gift from a friend. Tickets to a rock concert. I had only been to one other, a stadium affair. U2. This felt different. Perhaps more authentic.

New Year’s Eve. Folks wore party hats and spirits, sparkles and glitter on their black and silver clothing. The line snaked down the block. It led to a brick building, used, weatherworn. After a brief frisk by security, you went up some stairs to get inside. They scanned your ticket. The lighting was dim. I saw my husband at the top of the stairs, waiting for me. I had raced back to the car to get a forgotten item. He went inside, but waited just inside the door for me. We went into the Fillmore auditorium together.

Old chandeliers hung over us. Pink horses shone against the red curtains on the right. No general seating, only a few tables under the horses, reserved for others. We looked at each other, my husband and me, girding ourselves for several hours of standing. I had the beginnings of a cold. But that’s alright. I had to go.

The band came out shortly after 9 and started playing tracks from 1967, the Summer of Love. They knew their crowd. Folks lapped it up. Then came two by Jefferson Airplane, “Somebody To Love,” and “White Rabbit.” On the second song, she slinked out, seductively, playfully, sashing her hips, her head covered in a cap and hoodie. We roared. Off came the cap, off came the hood. Her long hair greyed with life and experience flowed over her shoulders. She took the mic and sang. We cheered. We roared. We danced. I forgot that my arthritic ankles were starting to ache after only 45 minutes of standing. My husband took me from behind, put his head on my shoulder. I could feel his smile as we swayed and rocked. After she finished singing, she yelled “GRACE SLICK!”, paying homage. But it was Patti Smith who entered the space and our hearts. And then, she was gone. She slinked back as quickly as she had come out. The band played a couple of more numbers, before also leaving the stage. End the first set.

Way back in the day, we sat in another auditorium. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Ustad Zakir Hussain had the stage. I looked at him, he would become my mate, nervously. A welcoming to my world. Would he like it? He said he did.

Now the roles had reserved. I entered his world, though after many years of prepping. Patti Smith had become a part of my world as much as Ravi Shankar, Alla Rakha, Nikhil Banerjee, et al, had become a part of his. In his youth, he saw Iggy Pop and the Stooges. He listened to Patti Smith. In time, I learned to listen, too.

Around 10:30, they came back on the stage. They played Horses, the entire album, in order, track by track, song by song. A 40th anniversary celebration. Some songs I knew, and I shouted with the masses on the choruses. Others I listened to pensively, while still getting my grove on. Sore ankles and hamstrings went away when the music played. And my husband smiled and danced. He looked so happy. That gave me energy. We energized each other under Patti’s spell.

During the second song, someone passed out. She called for a medic, urged folks not to crowd around the one who had fallen. “What drugs are you guys taking?” she asked, teasingly. Pot filled the air. Who knows what else accompanied it. But the crowd was cool. Patti and her band picked up where they left off and kept on going.

She held the album cover a few times during the show. At one point, she took the album out of its sleeve. “This is when we take the record, flip it over, and put the needle in the groove. Side 2.” We cheered. Even the young folks got it.

They finished the album before midnight, and kept playing. We lost track of how many encores they performed. At midnight, when the new year began on the West Coast, we were showered with balloons. We kissed. We hugged. We tossed the balloons around. And they kept playing. The crowd thinned somewhat, but we stayed.

Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!

Oh no! She began reciting Ginsberg’s Footnote to Howl. I lit up. In my wildest dreams I didn’t think she would perform this, but she did. How many times have I heard this around the house? Holy Peter! Holy Allen! Holy Solomon! A live performance from Portland. They rocked Ginsberg hard. But this time, she recited it alone, with minimal music. My husband held me close and tight. A bonding moment.

Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!

She performed and gave herself to us, even as her voice began to crack, because the night, because the fans, because the music, because the poetry, because the art. What a way to end one year and start another.

Happy New Year.