Oakland’s Measure HH – Vote Yes

In addition to the noisy campaign for president, in California we have propositions. Lots and lots of propositions. I have a love/hate relationship with the proposition process. I suspect most Californians feel the same way. On the one hand, propositions encourage direct democracy. The electorate has a say on issues ranging from taxes to insurance policy to health care to the criminal justice system. On the other hand, many propositions are thick treatises written in arcane language that even an attorney would have a hard time deciphering. People and corporations with lots of money use word salad propositions to push forward laws to enrich themselves at the expense of the public good. Meanwhile, good propositions that pass can be held up for years, because monied interests don’t want them to ever take effect.

Occasionally, Californians have had to wade through oodles of propositions on the ballot. This would be one of those years. We have 17 state propositions on the ballot. Additionally here in Oakland, home of the gar spot, we have 9 local measures to vote on: one from Alameda County, one from the Oakland Unified School District, five from the City of Oakland, and one each from the AC Transit District and BART.

With the election around the corner, as I wade through all of these various measures, I’ll write about some that catch my eye. Let’s start with Oakland’s Measure HH: A Proposed Ordinance Imposing A One Cent Per Ounce Tax on the Distribution of Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Products in Oakland.

From the official write up by Barbara J. Parker, Oakland City Attorney:

This measure would impose a tax on the distribution of Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Products in Oakland. Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Products are defined as Sugar-Sweetened Beverages or Caloric Sweeteners. The tax would be one cent per fluid ounce.

A new sin-tax, in other words, and frankly one that has been long in coming. Like traditional sin-tax products, tobacco and alcohol, sugary drinks can lead to poor health, in the form of diabetes, obesity, tooth decay, and other ailments. Treatment of these diseases can run into the billions of dollars. Sin-taxes try to discourage consumption of unhealthy products by increasing their costs. At the same time, they typically allocate the money raised to help promote better health. However, unlike traditional sin-taxes, Measure HH, should it pass, would not impact consumers directly. Rather, distributors would take the hit. Though in the end, the cost may get passed on to consumers.

Nonetheless, the American beverage industry — Coke, Pepsi, et al. — have declared an all-out war against taxes on sugary drinks. So far, they successfully have fought off such measures in every city it has been proposed, with one exception: Berkeley passed a soda tax in 2014. Not wanting to let this happen again, they have spent millions against Measure HH and similar measures in nearby San Francisco and Albany.

The beverage industry has labeled Measure HH, and its siblings, as a “grocery tax.” They contend that grocers will raise their prices on lots of items, not just sodas and sugary drinks. It’s a bogus argument that reeks of sensationalism. It does not pass my sniff test. Big Soda also claims that HH will hurt small businesses. Why do big corporations always align themselves with small businesses (that they usually ignore), as if they were all one big, happy business family? Again, this claim doesn’t pass the sniff test.

Big Soda’s claims also did not pass the court’s sniff test.

To date, nothing has shown that businesses in Berkeley have suffered from the soda tax. However, a study conducted by public health researchers at UC Berkeley have shown that the tax has curbed the purchase of sugary drinks in Berkeley by 21%. During the same period, consumption increased in Oakland and San Francisco by 4%. Also, water purchases have increased in Berkeley by 63%. And only 5% of people surveyed said that they get their sugary drinks in Oakland, where no such tax exists.

So from a public health standpoint, the tax works. It does what it sets out to do: curb the consumption of sugary beverages.

Big Soda doesn’t care about that, however. They just want to make money. So they will trump up any statistic, or just make stuff up, in order to defeat future soda taxes, including Oakland’s. They even have on their side Senator Bernie Sanders, who called soda taxes regressive. If they appear on the consumer’s bill, then yes, they could be called regressive. But Big Soda ignores the ill-effects of their products just like Big Tobacco does with their products. Again, they just want to make money.

I love sweets. I have a major sweet tooth. I’ve also had ups and downs with my weight most of my adult life. Sugar addiction is a thing, and it’s slowly killing us. Children should not develop Type 2 diabetes, formerly known as adult onset diabetes, but they do now and at an alarming rate. That was not a thing during my childhood. So clearly, as a society, we need to address this growing health menace.

The soda tax clearly demonstrates that it does. Therefore, Measure HH has my vote.

“Holding the Edge,” A play about AIDS and Life in the 80s (Review)

It’s the early morning hours of January 28, 1986. Hospice Nurse Elaine Magree just pulled an all-nighter, answering calls and visiting dying patients. She’s already tended to two deaths, but then her pager goes off again. She pulls up to her favorite phone booth in East Oakland and makes the call. It’s a friend of a friend, and it doesn’t sound like he has long to live. Damn. She takes the case.

Such is the life described and enacted by Ms. Magree in her one-woman show Holding the Edge, playing at The Marsh in Berkeley (Thursdays and Saturdays through Oct. 15). Magree worked as a hospice nurse at that time, during the height of the AIDS crisis. Indeed, when I saw the poster for her show, the first thing to catch my eye was the “SILENCE = DEATH” poster leaning against her favorite phone booth, the receiver at her ear.

In the printed program for the show, Magree explains that she wrote the play as a reaction to Ronald Reagan receiving a posthumous award at a hospice and palliative care workers conference in 2014. “I was so angry at this travesty I wanted to scream at 2,000 people in the plenary session” and “to smash things.” Anyone who lived through the AIDS nightmare would have had a similar reaction.

She chose the date for her day-in-the-life piece very carefully. On January 28, 1986, President Reagan was to give a State of the Union address. Being the first to occur after the death of his friend Rock Hudson from AIDS, which finally brought the disease out of the closet and into mainstream households, many hoped that the president would finally mention the disease. However, the Space Shuttle Challenger also exploded on this date, which had consequences for the SOTU.

Magree takes these mega-events and weaves them into a very personal story about the toll of AIDS on those who had it and their family and friends. She deftly adopts many personae besides her own as the hospice nurse, including the dying friend of a friend, his bitchy-queer-punk caregiver, the mother of the patient, and many others. It’s the little details that make the story effective and poignant. The mother had been estranged from her ill son, but comes back in the end. The bitchy-punk at first acts defensive towards Elaine the Nurse, but calms down when he realizes that she’s family.

These characters are not abstractions. Everyone who lived through the AIDS crisis in 1980s and 90s knew each of these people. We remember how we had to learn how to use needles to administer morphine. We remember cleaning bedpans, massaging feet, and providing any comfort to the sick or dying loved one. Popsicles. I had forgotten about popsicles until one of the characters mentioned giving it to the person with AIDS. Sometimes popsicles were the only thing a really sick person could have. I gasped when it came up. It hit home with me.

One of the most poignant scenes came when Elaine the Nurse answered “the questions.” How does death happen? When will I know? She answered with scientific accuracy yet great humanity, respecting the dignity of the patient. Dignity was in short supply for many PWAs in the 80s and 90s, the reason for the bitchy-punk’s protective defensiveness. This scene, like so many others, felt very real.

Similarly, Magree worked the Space Shuttle disaster into the piece very effectively. It represented a beacon of hope for the dying friend, who wanted to see it launch, only to see it explode 73 seconds after launch.

Though ACT UP was still about a year away, there is a protest scene. Let’s just say that folks felt more than a little peeved at Reagan’s response to the shuttle disaster versus his response to the AIDS crisis.

Elaine Magree tells a very intimate story beautifully and forcefully. She “smashes things” figuratively, if not literally, on stage. She even had us chanting at the end, our fists raised in the air. All that anger from nearly 30 years ago rushed into my raised arm and shouting larynx. Sadly, it’s an anger that can never really die, and is sometimes provoked.

Upon her death earlier this year, Nancy Reagan received bogus praise, including from Hillary Clinton, about the role she played in raising awareness about AIDS. Total and utter bullshit. As many recalled, when Rock Hudson called her to ask for help, she turned him down. After screaming that message over and over, the world press corrected itself and gave the true story, that she hid from the disease just like her husband.

We need more beautifully told stories like Elaine Magree’s to make sure that AIDS history isn’t set a little to straight, that all the crooks and kinks that made life so unbearable for so many people are put on full display, so that we may never forget a time when thousands died and hardly anyone paid attention.

The Candidate and the Buffoon

Before becoming the nation’s 44th president, Barack Obama served in the Illinois State Senate from 1997 to 2004. From 2005 to 2008, he was the Junior Senator from the state of Illinois in the US Senate. These facts are not in dispute. One can easily verify them online or by scouring old newspapers or other paper sources. Yet the narrative that came out of the 2008 presidential campaign by the McCain/Palin camp stated that Mr. Obama was “only a community organizer.” They focussed on this work and ignored his legislative experience. The facts vanished.

Similarly, I remember wondering, in days long before Google and Wikipedia, if Toni Morrison had really won the Nobel Prize for literature. Why? Because news stories that referenced her never cited this award; they often called her a Pulitzer prize winner. She did win a Pulitzer, for Beloved in 1988, however she won the Nobel five years later. Didn’t matter. For years, I saw her name in the papers not as “Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison” but “Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison.” Her most prestigious award vanished.

I cite these two examples as typical of the type of erasure that occurs for African-Americans or anyone who is not straight, white, and male. Society, more often than not, allows “others” a certain level of accomplishment, but no more. For those who pioneer into hitherto forbidden territory — first female African-American Nobel Laureate, first male African-American President — friction occurs. Friction, what am I saying, all hell breaks loose. They get labeled uppity, contentious, troublemakers, know-it-alls, etc. This happens to African-Americans and women in nearly all social strata. Everyone has their place, our society dictates, and you stay in your place until we (society, made up of straight, white male norms and values) deign that you can assume a different place.

For this past eight years, we have seen this philosophy in practice. President Obama has endured some of the most demeaning and humiliating treatment of any person ever to hold the nation’s highest office. Some white folks, particularly white Republicans, have been in a state of apoplexy during his entire tenure in office. I’m not talking about disagreements on policy. That’s cool. I’m talking about the birtherism bullshit and the “You lie (boy)!” moments of which there are too many to recount.

Some folks blame President Obama for the rise of racial tensions in the US. Kathy Miller, former Trump campaign chair in Mahoning County, Ohio, believed that racism did not exist before Mr. Obama became president. She further opined that blacks who can’t succeed have only themselves to blame. I’m sure that’s comforting news to Trayvon Martin. Except, of course, he’s dead.

President Obama’s presidency has only magnified that which has always existed. The racists have basically lost their shit over the past eight years. Hence, for the 2016 presidential race, they have turned towards a candidate whom they believe will reestablish their values. Donald Trump.

Trump has no political or organizing experience at all. Even Ronald Reagan had served as chair of the Screen Actors Guild prior to becoming Governor of California. Trump can’t even claim something like that. What he does claim, repeatedly and loudly, is that he is a successful businessman.

Now we get to experience the erasure in reverse. Rather than erase Trump’s credentials, folks have, dare I say, trumped them up. By any measure, Donald Trump is not a successful businessman. Successful businessmen pay their workers and contractors and don’t file for bankruptcy multiple times. They do not cover their losses by misappropriating charitable contributions. True successful businessmen, in particular Mark Cuban, have made a cottage industry out of calling out Trump for his lack of business acumen.

Robert Reich recently posted on his blog a conversation with a Trump supporter. During the talk, he explained to the supporter that if Trump had better invested the $200 million his father had given him, today he’d be worth around $12 billion, or nearly three times his current, purported worth.

Trump is a master of legerdemain. He knows how to work the system to his advantage in a way that brings him modest profits and mounds of publicity. But that’s all.  This is far too modest a skill set for becoming the 45th president of the United States.

Monday’s debate provided further proof that Trump lacks any of the skills necessary to succeed as US president. He answered questions with babbling word salads, rich in verbiage, low in substance. Sort of like a salad of Ding Dongs, filling, but made up of empty calories. His opponent, on the other hand, demonstrated a depth of knowledge and understanding on a wide range of subjects, and kept her cool while on stage with a word salad spinning knucklehead prone to childish, ad hominem attacks.

The true problem facing his opponent, Hillary Clinton, is her gender. And I mean problem in the same way that President Obama “caused” the race problem. Her candidacy magnifies the country’s problem with women in general and with women in positions of power in particular. Look at the language used to describe her. She emasculates. She frowns. She wears pants suits too much. She speaks with a strident voice. Complaints against her policies, as in the case with President Obama, are fair game. The rest is sexist bullshit. Sadly, I fear that a lot of the Clinton bashing is informed by the latter more than the former.

Should Hillary Clinton become president, she will no doubt face the same type of obstructionism that President Obama has endured during his entire presidency. This close race is just a taste of things to come, because there is no way a qualified candidate like Mrs. Clinton should be in so tight a race with a buffoon like Donald Trump.

A day at the Monterey Jazz Festival

Until this year, I’ve never been to the Monterey Jazz Festival. One of the premiere events on the jazz calendar, one would think I’d have been all up inside it by now. Sadly, such is not the case. This year, opportunity dropped the festival in my lap when a friend passed along comp tickets to the grounds for Saturday. I had two tickets, but no companion to accompany me. So when I entered, I left the other ticket at the front gate and told the ticket taker to please give it to anyone who was trying to get in. I hope someone got a pleasant surprise at the gate.

I got to see both acts that stood out for me on the calendar that day: veteran pianist Larry Vuckovich and his Vince Guaraldi Quintet and young piano maestro Joey Alexander and his trio. An established veteran and a new voice. My day at Monterey consisted of contrasts between young and old.

Arriving about 40 minutes before Mr. Vuckovich’s show, I hurried to take care of bodily needs, restroom and food. While chowing down on a quick lunch, a charming, elderly black couple joined me at my table. Can we sit here? Of course! They wore matching outfits of white and purple. He was 82, she was 80. They lived within half a mile of the festival, they said, but originally hailed from Alabama. Needless to say, this was not their first time to Monterey Jazz, but they bubbled with infectious enthusiasm, their world still full of wonder and fun. They laughed and joked about their slowness, but kept on moving. We have many friends that can’t anymore, they said, so we’re staying active for as long as we can. Their spirit filled my soul. Thinking back on them, I’m reminded of a tune 80-something Alberta Hunter liked to perform:

I’m having a good time
Please don’t blame me
I’m knocking myself out
Don’t try to tame me

Larry Vuckovich

I love hearing legends tell stories from their long careers. Mr. Vuckovich, who will turn 80 this December, talked quite fondly of his teacher and mentor, Bay Area legend Vince Guaraldi. Mr. Vuckovich displayed a great ability for sounding like his mentor while also showing how he grew from what he learned, informing his playing with his own life’s journey.

In his group were Josh Workman, guitar, Jeff Chambers, bass, Leon Joyce, drums, and John Santos, percussion. Messrs. Workman and Vuckovich traded melodies seamlessly, finishing each other’s thoughts, conducting a conversation in music. Jeff Chambers played a mean bass — with a bow during the seminal “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” — and I loved Leon Joyce’s range, from the gentlest brush strokes to the most rapid fire rolls. John Santos showed off his chops most prominently on a tune towards the end of the set, an unreleased Guaraldi composition that Mr. Vuckovich has in his own personal library.

Larry Vuckovich started the set by announcing that there is more to Vince Guaraldi than Peanuts music, though he did play one of the Peanuts classics, “Christmas Time is Here.” But it was wonderful to hear such a full range of Guaraldi music, from Peanuts to bossa nova, to avant-garde. And most of all, it was a joy to finally see Mr. Vuckovich in person, after enjoying him on the radio for so long. He smiled throughout the performance as he blithely went from his grand piano to an electric keyboard set to sound like a vibraphone. His set was a total joy.

*    *    *

Between my main sets, I perused the grounds. I ran into and had a nice chat with Greg Bridges of KCSM, Jazz 91. Ironically, he was to introduce Joey Alexander, my next stop. I listened a bit to Cory Henry & the Funk Apostles. Their music had me wiggling a bit and kept the packed house at the Garden Stage popping. Then I ran into a well dressed brother named Albert Neal selling his first novel, Ill at Ease, which he self-published. I enjoyed our chance encounter and he gave me ideas on how to move forward with my own work.

After a quick dinner — some delicious vegan Cajun food — I scurried back to the Garden Stage to find that basically no one left after the Funk Apostles set. Not a seat to be found anywhere. Oh well. My back probably needed the relief brought from standing. I had a good view of the stage, minus the usual crowds passing by. I waited for the arrival of the young master pianist from Indonesia.

Joey Alexander

Comparisons to Mozart seem obvious, but I can’t push them out of my mind. At age 8, Mr. Alexander played for Herbie Hancock while the jazz legend visited Jakarta as a UNESCO goodwill ambassador. His words of praise inspired Mr. Alexander to continue his jazz studies. At age 9, he won the Grand Prix at the 2013 Master-Jam Fest in Ukraine. Wynton Marsalis saw Mr. Alexander on YouTube after a friend recommended he check him out. He subsequently helped to arrange the young master’s debut in the US. Mr. Alexander and his family have since moved to New York City.

He learned to play Thelonious Monk by ear when he was 6. Let that settle in for a minute.

So this young titan, now 13, walked on stage with his trio, bassist Dan Chmielinski and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. They started to play. We sat rapt. The melodic harmonies he explored would honor a veteran with years under the belt. And his rhythmic prowess was scary. Left and right hands showed complete independence. Technically brilliant, but also very emotional. He sometimes stood as he played. I thought of Brad Mehldau a bit, another intense performer with a highly intellectual bent, only to discover that Mehldau is one of Mr. Alexander’s influences.

Chemistry existed between all the musicians, as if they had been playing together for decades. I look forward to studying the CD, which I purchased, to get more into their sound.

In another example of the day’s theme, the young and the old, I saw another set of ears and eyes getting into Mr. Alexander, nodding approvingly with what he heard. Quincy Jones sat visibly in the wings, stage right. This year’s Monterey Jazz Festival honored the master musician for his jazz work on A & M Records. Mr. Jones has a long history of seeking out, discovering, and inspiring new talent, so it was not surprising to find him checking out Mr. Alexander. I found watching him reacting to the young maestro nearly as entertaining as the show itself.

I can’t wait to see what Mr. Alexander will do in the future. Nor can I wait to go to Monterey again. I expect if Joey Alexander performs at MJF again, it will be on the main stage. Better start saving up for it.


I bought Mr. Alexander’s album Countdown and listened to his take on Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.” In a word, stunning. I don’t recall how old Strayhorn was when he wrote this world-weary tune — he was a teen when he wrote the similarly world-weary “Lush Life” — but just as Strayhorn wrote tunes years beyond his age, so, too, has Mr. Alexander delicately interpreted this jazz standard with the soul of an old master. Buy his album, if you can’t see him live any time soon. And keep your eyes and ears open. I have no doubt that the best is yet to come.

Star Trek Memories

By early 2006, I flew to LA on a fairly regular basis to see about Dad, take him to appointments. He had spent the previous Thanksgiving in hospital. Now he was frail. Appointments. Follow ups. Medications. Monitoring. Watching. Waiting. He slowed down as the rest of us seemed to speed up. For me, that meant arranging flights, renting cars, making Dad’s appointments, all from Oakland.

Travel makes one harried. I was in a harried state, most likely, when I sat on my dad’s bed next to him, having just arrived at the house, the old house, the one I grew up in. He had the TV going. Don’t remember what was on. Dad moved a lot slower, his sharp mind veiled under the sheets of his ailments. But it was still there. He referenced his vast Star Trek DVD collection, on a shelf to the right of the TV in his bedroom. Let’s watch one, he said. I slowed down, chose “Devil in the Dark.”

Mom and Dad watched Star Trek from the beginning, on September 8, 1966. They loved thinking about the future in their youth. They grew up with Dick Tracy’s watch phones and tales of spaceships going to the Moon or Mars or farther. Asimov and Bradbury lived on their bookshelves. During their courting days, they used to lie on their backs in some grassy field somewhere and look at the stars and daydream. By 1966, they had four kids. The space race launched all around them.

They liked Lost in Space, but found Star Trek more of a thinking person’s show, less bang and boom, more thoughtful analysis of the world around them. Gene Roddenberry had pulled a fast one on the TV executives. He had promised a sort of “Wagon Train to the Stars.” But the master storyteller had other plans. Show a utopian future where the peoples of Earth worked together in harmony, living on a fantastic vessel, searching for new life, new realities. His future included Asians, Africans, Europeans, even aliens, working as one. I’m sure my parents agreed with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that Nichelle Nichols presence on the bridge, playing Lt. Uhura, was affirming and essential. She wasn’t the maid or hired help. She kept it real. They loved that a Russian, Walter Koenig’s Chekov, became a regular in the crew, a vision foretelling a life beyond the Cold War. And of course they loved Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock.

“Devil in the Dark” found the Enterprise visiting a mining planet beset by an unknown terror, wrecking the equipment and killing the miners. Kirk and company beam down to inspect. The miners want the thing found and killed. While Kirk initially agrees to hunt down the creature, Spock is more introspective. Must we kill so callously? In the end, Spock won the day. He used his Vulcan mind meld to communicate with the creature, a Horta, and learned that it was, in fact, the mother of its race, trying to protect its eggs from being destroyed by the miners. The miners didn’t know any better. They thought the eggs were just funny geological formations. Dr. McCoy also rose to the occasion. Having first complained about treating a creature “made of stone,”  (“I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!”) he figured out a way to bandage the wound on the silicon-based Horta with a silicon solution normally used to make emergency shelters. “By God, Jim,” he said, after helping the Horta, “I’m beginning to think I can cure a rainy day!”

I was too young, not quite 18 months, when Star Trek premiered to remember it. I would have been in my crib while my parents watched it on the other side of their bedroom. My older brothers, though, were near-teens. They preferred Lost in Space and mocked my parents for their sudden change of allegiance. One by one, though, my brothers peeled away from Dr. Smith and fell into Camp Spock. In my time, I would follow the same pattern, obsessively watching the original series in the 70s, memorizing every story, every line. My sister, born the year Star Trek went off the air, also got into the show, when she came of age.

When Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out, it became a family outing. We went to some theater in Downey or somewhere like that, far from Hollywood. Dad hated Hollywood traffic and parking. We didn’t care. Star Trek was the point of the trip, not the glitz. We watched anxiously and excitedly. We told ourselves home much we liked it. And I think we did like it, but realized that it wasn’t quite all it could have been. Roddenberry stayed true to his vision of the show, cerebral, thought-provoking. The characters did not, however, get to shine quite as brightly as we had hoped. Still, it was great to have it back. The next film, The Wrath of Khan, would hit all the right buttons.

I had a huge crush on Merritt Butrick, the actor who played Kirk’s son, Dr. David Marcus, in the second and third Trek movies. In 1982, I was still in the closet, so I told no one. Merritt’s character got killed off in the next film, The Search for Spock. I felt sad. Five years later, in 1989, Merritt Butrick himself would die of something far more insidious than a Klingon’s blade. He didn’t even make 30. This devil in the dark ravaged gay men in the early 80s through the mid 90s, while an uncaring world pretended not to notice. By 1989, I was out, loud, and proud, marching in the streets against this disease and the world’s indifference to it. Fight Back. Fight AIDS. ACT UP. Interestingly, I would eventually partner with a man born in the same year as Merritt. I’ve always like older men.

My parents faithfully watched Star Trek: The Next Generation when it premiered in 1987. It took a minute to warm up to it, but they did, as did we all. Who couldn’t warm up to Patrick Stewart? My parents also liked Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Star Trek: Voyager. I liked the former, but fell off the latter after the second season. And I never got into Star Trek: Enterprise. But Dad did. He watched it faithfully, alone, my mom having passed away in 1996.

For comfort food, though, we always went back to the basics. Watching “Devil in the Dark” with my Dad, a couple of months before his passing, was like eating biscuits and (vegan) gravy. We watched in silence, in his darkened room, totally absorbed by the action, even on this umpteenth viewing. It was just good to be near him, to see the sparkle in his eye one more time, as the Enterprise sailed off into the stars, another problem solved.

I can still hear him say “Yep” after it ended, satisfied at yet another viewing of the old classic. I felt it, too, Dad. I still feel it. And like Spock told Dr. McCoy in Wrath of Khan, I remember.

Everybody’s Supernova

“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Everyone gasped when Donald Trump uttered those words at his presidential campaign launch event in June, 2015. Out the gate, he hit the racism button, shamelessly scapegoating Mexicans and Mexican Americans for the country’s ills. Complaining that political correctness has kept America from having the “frank” discussions it needed to have about such issues as immigration and terrorism, his language, statements, and proposals have only gotten worse.

During his wild and crazy drive to become the Republican presidential nominee, up to and including his anointment at the Republican Convention in late July, many in the media class have wondered often and loudly, will Trump pivot? Will he mellow and begin to behave more presidential? No, he won’t. Will he start making planned speeches rather than speak off the cuff? Yes, but it doesn’t help. Though occasionally he has condescended to using a teleprompter for his “serious” speeches, he nonetheless continues to hit the racism button with unabashed élan, like a rabid gameshow contestant going for the big money.

In my piece “Republican Supernova,” I called Trump the natural result of a political party in collapse. The collapse has gone beyond the Republican party, however. Now, Trump has become everybody’s supernova. His ascendancy is the latest, and grossest, manifestation of America’s fractured, incomplete, and incompetent discussion on race and class.

His message to blacks: what have you got to lose? Trump states that we live in crime-ridden neighborhoods with lousy schools and have no employment opportunities. He then touts himself as the solution. Stereotyping aside, that Trump himself disdains African Americans is beside the point.

Despite this racist broadside against African Americans, a black minister, Bishop Wayne T. Jackson of the Great Faith Ministries International in Detroit, felt the need to invite the Republican presidential nominee to his church, first for a scripted interview, then to participate in a service. Video now exists of Trump in a largely black church, swaying along with the music. Ugh. Rather than challenge Trump on his racism, Jackson became a willing pawn in his campaign’s efforts to sanitize his standing in the African American community. Bishop Jackson seems well aware of his precarious position. He protested in an interview that “I am not a Uncle Tom. I am not an Uncle Ruckus.”

It’s never a good thing when you have to distance yourself from Uncle Ruckus.

We don’t know Bishop Jackson’s motives for making nice to Trump, though I suspect it’s likely the Bishop’s bling addiction.

The supernova has extended even to Mexico, the original muse of Trump’s racist tirades. For reasons no one can quite fathom, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto invited Trump to his country for, what? A meet and greet? To discuss their policy differences? Who knows. In any case, they spoke for a short time, then held a joint press conference, where Trump stated that they discussed his infamous wall, but did not discuss its financing, i.e., whether Mexico will pay for it or not. Throughout the affair, President Peña Nieto remained subdued, or submissive as some critics have charged. In light of his poor standing after the fiasco, President Peña Nieto tweeted out that Mexico would never pay for the wall, blah, blah, blah. Too late, dude. You had your chance to confront El Diablo when you stood next to him. You failed. Thus, rather than vanquish, or at least wound, a racist demagogue, you enabled him. Hours later, Trump gave a policy speech on immigration that was every racists’ wet dream.

Enablers abound. Dr. Ben Carson continues to stand by Trump. Marco Gutierrez of Latinos for Trump, aka, Mr. #TacoTrucksOnEveryCorner, continues to stand by Trump. Racism that would have banished any other candidate to well-deserved obscurity has only emboldened Trump and his scarier supporters. The more people try to take him seriously or excuse as rants as slips of the tongue or just “Trump being Trump,” the more people stare pensively at their watches, wondering when Trump will start acting presidential, the more society collectively takes ownership of the Republican’s supernova, and claim it as our own.

We have allowed the collapse of the Republican Party to take down the entire country. It’s too late to ignore Trump. That should have happened day one, when he launched his campaign by attacking Mexico. The only proper response to Trump’s campaign is a complete and sustained denunciation of it. Stop waiting for him to become legitimate. Stop excusing his racism as colorful language. Stop enabling him to improve his image by inviting him to your house, knowing he’s going to shit on the carpet then blame you for the mess. Just stop it.

Trump deserves one response: You’re a racist. Go away. We need to say it loudly and repeatedly. Otherwise, the supernova is on us.

I miss #tonightly

I don’t remember Larry Wilmore from The Daily Show. I didn’t watch it often enough to catch him doing his shtick, the “Senior Black Correspondent.” So when he started hosting The Nightly Show w/Larry Wilmore, I didn’t know what to expect. I saw this brother with a huge head, and I thought of Mr. Potato Head. Then I thought of Strax the Sontaran from Doctor Who. Then I thought I was being too mean.

The format of the show, originally, featured Wilmore opening while standing up, then a skit, and then a roundtable discussion with members of his cast and a guest or two. Interesting format. In time, they shortened the panel segment and had just one guest join two cast members and Wilmore. This allowed for more skits and an occasional correspondent report, a la Daily Show.

I grew to like the cast of regulars a lot: Holly Walker, Mike Yard, Grace Parra, Robin Thede, Franchesca Ramsey, Rory Albanese, Jordan Carlos, and Ricky Velez. A more diverse cast on TV you can’t find anywhere, particularly on late night. I liked Grace Parra’s Hollywood reporter shtick. Jordan Carlos could do hoity-toity better than anyone. And Mike Yard just looks like an Angry Brother. One wrong move, and it’s over. Similarly, Holly Walker could also rock the Angry Sister look. Both of them, however, had warm, infectious smiles. They all brought diverse views to the discussions, which I appreciated, even when I didn’t agree with them all the time. I found I disagreed with Ricky Velez’s views more than most, but that made me want to hear them all the more, to check myself.

During this most bizarre of election years, #tonightly has been a place of sanity. The centerpiece of their coverage has been Wilmore’s “Blacklash 2016: The Unblackening” reports. Cue the scary horror music: WE’RE TAKING BACK THE NATION FROM THAT NEGRO! For a time, when Dr. Ben Carson led in the Republican polls, they had an alternative theme, the Re-Blackening. Cue the scary horror music: ON NO! ANOTHER ONE! (with scenes of terrified white people running for their lives).

The Republican primary debacle, of course, provided ample material for comedy and satire shows. This meant lots and lots of Trump. They even had a Trump stand-in, played by Bob DiBuono. At times he actually out Trumped Trump, including his tan, which got more and more extreme with each appearance. I think if things had gone on longer, DiBuono would have ended up almost in blackface.

Despite all of this talent, the show did not live up to Comedy Central’s expectations. So they abruptly cancelled it. #tonightly didn’t even get to finish out the election. That’s a dirty, lowdown shame. In addition to low ratings, Comedy Central apparently felt that the show did not generate enough buzz on social media. No viral bits or memes. As one commentator rightly points out, #tonightly specialized in discussions and nuanced conversations.

It also featured discussions that  not many places were having. They got down about the contaminated water disaster in Flint, Michigan. They regularly discussed police violence and Black Lives Matter. When Ahmed Mohamed made news for his arrest after he brought a homemade clock to school — freaking everyone out because they saw him as a jihadist ready to blow them up — Wilmore’s show was one of the first to have him on. They even gave Ahmed an Apple Watch. The show did not shy away from race. It took race by its collar and shook the hell out of it. It similarly discussed sexism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, and other social ills with similar verve. All while staying hella funny.

After his show got cancelled, Larry Wilmore said that he didn’t expect the “unblackening” to happen to him. Unfortunately, this happens all too often to performers of color. Before a show gets going good, it gets canned. Tim Reid famously said of his show Frank’s Place that CBS moved it around the schedule so much, that his own mother didn’t know when it would be on. It never got a chance.

#tonightly didn’t get moved around, but I don’t know if it got the full support it should have. It provided a different type of late night experience and likely required a different mindset to market it properly, help it find its core audience. Abruptly terminating the show during the heart of the election seems to me a lost opportunity. The powers-that-be at Comedy Central should have let it continue at least through November, let it finish out its second year, then reassess. We need their diverse voices.

I have no doubt that the talent on the show will find other gigs. But they won’t be working together, tonightly, week after week, and that’s terrible.

Olympic Outing Outrage: Shame on Nico Hines

Way back when during my waning days at UCLA, not long after I came out, the Daily Bruin did something unconscionable. Buried in the paper appeared a story about the campus police arresting some guys cruising each other in a men’s room. And the paper printed their names. I was mortified. And livid.

With youthful, righteous indignation, I marched to Kerckhoff Hall and raised hell in the Daily Bruin’s office. I found the reporter who wrote the story and called him on it. “This type of shit ruins lives!” I said. Even freshly out of the closet, I knew of this history. In large cities and small towns, countless gay and bisexual men lived in fear of discovery. In a bar, in a bathhouse, in a park, anywhere, police could arrest them and the papers could print their names. They printed their names as a form of public shaming, a latter day scarlet lettering. The men often lost their jobs and families. Some had to move out of town. Some ended up taking their own lives. Society purposely destroyed these men, because of their same-sex attractions.

And before going on an indignant tangent and claiming that “well, no one can have sex in public” just stop and have a seat. I had two friends admit that they had sex in classrooms and even a phone booth on campus. Straight folks having sex in public get shooed away, maybe a ticket. They don’t get their names published in the paper for the purposes of a public shaming.

That the Bruin would do this in 1989 dumbfounded me. Why? The reporter stubbornly insisted that they just reported crimes that happen, and that’s that. His lack of social consciousness was appalling, but not uncommon at that time. We had a president who ignored AIDS and only begrudgingly admitted its existence. We had anti-sodomy laws on the books in many states. We had nothing resembling domestic partnerships, much less marriage. We had a very homophobic and queer ignorant society. On October 11, 1987, hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ folks and their straight allies marched in Washington, DC, for equality and freedom and the mainstream press said NOTHING. I only knew about it because I knew folks who went. That event helped to propel me out of the closet.

Overall, invisibility still overtook visibility, in ways big and small.

It’s 2016 now. We don’t live in that world anymore. We don’t live in a perfect world, to be sure. Folks getting married Sunday can still lose their jobs or rented housing Monday, because many states lack employment and housing protections for LGBTQ folks. But visibility today is lightyears ahead from the late 80s.

So in this enlightened world that we live in, why did the Daily Beast feel the need to publish a story about a straight journalist pretending to be gay, picking up athletes via Grindr, then writing about his experience? Why, indeed.

The writer, Nico Hines, thought it would be funny (HA HA!) to explore the horniness of athletes competing during the Olympic games in Rio. He largely chose to write about those looking for same sex contact, claiming that he received better pickings with Grindr. (HA HA!) Of course, he immediately inoculated himself by stating that he has a wife and child. (HA HA!)

Two problems. I find the very premise of his story patronizing and insulting. Queers are not zoo animals to be looked at and mocked. And hyper-healthy teens and 20-somethings have large sex drives. Big deal. It’s a non-story. Move on.

Most horrifically, however, the story as it originally appeared outed people. Hines gave enough basic info about the athletes he encountered — or more accurately entrapped — that, as Mark Joseph Stern at Slate notes, “anyone with basic Google skills [could] uncover their identities.” Some of these athletes come from highly oppressive counties that treat homosexuality as a crime. Hines’s article literally put their lives in danger. They could end up homeless after family rejection. They could lose their jobs, their homes, or even their lives in acts of state-sponsored sadism.

First Daily Beast defended the story and condensed it by removing parts that could identify any of the athletes. Eventually, they took it down altogether and apologized. Nico Hines, meanwhile, has yet to say anything about the controversy.

Hines’s pathetic piece mimicked the outing/shaming newspaper articles of old. It matters not that he wrote it with supposed humorous intent. No one is laughing. His article could have already done lasting damage. Why couldn’t he have instead written about the plight of LGBTQ athletes from oppressive countries? Such a story, done properly, could have been moving and informative. Instead, he went for cheap thrills. #Fail

As with the Daily Bruin story of many years ago, I took this story and its consequences very personally. Because I belong to the tribe of folks who first explored their sexuality in public restrooms. I lived a horrible life where I had strong same-sex attractions, but denied having them, even with myself. Like many who live or have lived such a life, I sought refuge in the anonymity of tearooms. When I did have sex, I immediately felt shame, disgust, and self-loathing. But while living in shame and hiding, at least I was not outed. I found peace with myself and came out in my own sweet time. Everyone should have that right.

Had Hines written his piece 30 years ago, there would have been outrage, but it would have been ignored by the larger, non-queer community. That this article received the quick, severe, and universal backlash it deserved heartens me. But it never ever should have existed in the first place.

This is Johnny Hodges

Duke Ellington’s Famous Orchestra had many great soloists. Indeed, it was a band of great soloists. But one stood a notch above them all, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Jazz writer Scott Yanow states that Hodges possessed “the most beautiful tone ever heard in jazz.” He formed his style early in his career and never varied far from it. Like a fine wine or good whiskey, it just became more smooth and mellow as the years went by.

Johnny Hodges

Johnny Hodges

Johnny Hodges was born on July 25, 1906 (some sources say 1907), in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He grew up not far from another future Ellingtonian, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney. His mother played piano and he first started on that instrument. As a teen, he took up soprano sax. Early on he met one of his idols, soprano sax legend Sidney Bechet. Though influenced by Bechet, Hodges formed his style on his own. After making a name for himself in the Boston area, he moved in New York, in 1924.

He joined the Ellington Orchestra in 1928. By this point he played both alto and soprano sax, though he would ultimately give up on soprano by the 1940s.

How does one describe Johnny Hodges’ playing style? Adjectives include luscious, seductive, salacious, smooth, cool, mellow, hopping, and nonpareil. He has a wide vibrato and distinctive way of gliding between notes. His embouchure is as identifiable as a singer’s voice. He’s so unique that I can usually tell if it’s Hodges playing within a few notes. Though he has many imitators, including tenor sax master Ben Webster, who stated plainly that Hodges was one of his main inspirations.

Duke Ellington famously wrote pieces to highlight the strengths of his musicians. He had a field day with Johnny Hodges. “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Never No Lament” (later “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”), and “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” are but a few of the Ellington works written for Hodges. Duke’s son Mercer Ellington contributed the blues stomper “Things Ain’t the Way They Used To Be” in 1942.

A first hint of Hodges’s distinctive style appears in the 1931 recording “Creole Rhapsody.” Starting around 1:54, he solos for a few bars. Note his relaxed delivery as he articulates his phrases, like he’s telling a story. His phrasing plays with time, floats over it, never its slave. The line he plays around 2:51 would become his signature, the long, gliding upward note starting just behind the beat, cut off with a short phrase.

One way Ellington kept his cats happy was to give them a chance to lead small band recordings. In these settings, the band leader became just the “piano player.” During one such session, Johnny Hodges debuted “Jeep’s Blues.” “Jeep” was one of his nicknames — the other common one was “Rabbit.” If you want to hear a variety of “Jeep’s Blues” recordings, listen to Michael Burman on KCSM Jazz 91 at 6:00 Monday mornings when he hosts “A Morning Cup of Jazz.” He always starts his program with this blues flag waiver. My favorite version by far is the one from the legendary 1956 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. Like. Butter.

Composure and arranger Billy Strayhorn joined the Ellington Orchestra in 1939. He had a very close relationship with Hodges and immediately began composing feature pieces for him. One of the first was “Day Dream.” Others include “Star-Crossed Lovers,” “Isfahan,” and “Blood Count.” The last, from 1967, was Strayhorn’s final composition. Hodges played it as a eulogy for his long time friend and comrade.

Despite the liberty he enjoyed within the band, and the occasion to lead his own sessions, Hodges grew restless to go out on his own. This finally happened in 1951. Big Bands were dying. Tastes were changing. He felt he had a shot at leading a small combo based on R & B. He scored an early success with “Castle Rock,” which ironically does not feature his playing. At one point he employed a young John Coltrane, though the future master did not have a lot of solo space in Hodges’s group. Ultimately, leading a band proved too difficult. Unlike Ellington, Hodges did not have a warm, ingratiating stage presence. Indeed, he was famous for looking disinterested while blowing out gorgeous melodies. He rejoined the Ellington Orchestra in late 1955, just in time to be part of the Newport Jazz Festival, and Duke’s career revival, the following year.

After returning to the fold, Hodges was permitted to take approved “vacations” from the band, sometimes for months at a time, to pursue other work. This included fulfilling his recording contract with Verve Records. Though he often brought on Ellington colleagues to these sessions — Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Ray Nance (trumpet, cornet), Lawrence Brown (trombone) — he also played with others. These included younger musicians just getting started like guitarist Grant Green. And he also formed a close relationship with Hammond B-3 organist Wild Bill Davis. They made several recordings together, including the album Blue Hodges. Wild Bill would later join the Ellington Orchestra in the late 60s.

Though a runner in his youth — possibly the origin of his “Rabbit” nickname — by the late 1960s, Johnny Hodges developed heart problems. Smoking and many long years living on the road no doubt took their toll. Duke Ellington began hiring back up altoists to fill-in as chorus players in case Hodges was too ill to make performances. Though of course no one could replace him as a soloist. (Tenor Norris Turney probably came closest.)

He last toured with the Ellington Orchestra in Europe in the fall of 1969. A couple of the performances recorded in England became the seminal Ellington album The 70th Birthday Concert. Hodges received the spotlight on three tunes and shared the spotlight with Wild Bill Davis on a couple of others. “Black Butterfly” appeared on this tour. A relic from the 1930s, Ellington revamped it and turned it into a showcase for Hodges. Here is a video from their performance of this tune in Berlin. The version that appears on the Birthday Concert CD is among my favorite recordings ever.

Johnny Hodges recorded his final album in early 1970, Three Shades of Blue, made with Leon Thomas and Oliver Nelson. Shortly thereafter, he recorded for the last time with the Ellington Orchestra, The New Orleans Suite. Hodges features prominently on the first track “Blues for New Orleans.” Hard swinging, fluid, soulful, it is pure Johnny Hodges. I like the false ending, after which Johnny comes back to blow some more, as if to say “I ain’t done just yet!”

He was to perform on the piece “Portrait of Sidney Bechet.” Duke Ellington sat in his living room, trying to figure out how to convince Hodges to take his soprano sax out of retirement for the piece when he received a phone call from Cue Hodges, Johnny’s wife. The great sax master died while at the dentist’s office from a heart attack, May 11, 1970.

Never the world’s most highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes – this was Johnny Hodges. This is Johnny Hodges.
-from Duke Ellington’s Eulogy

Saxophonist Norris Turney composed a piece dedicated to Hodges called “Checkered Hat.” It appears on the Togo Brava Suite album from 1971. He does a masterful job of imitating Hodges’s distinctive style.

Johnny Hodges was a blues man through and through. Most of his solo work consists of blues, some stompers, some swingers, some more laid-back. But his work on ballads is unparalleled. It can literally bring tears to the eyes. Some shortsighted critics, like Ellington biographer Stanley Dance, have commented that while Hodges played ballads beautifully, that it was unfortunate that he is mainly known for this work. Baseless, machismo rubbish. Dance is the same ninny that thought that Billy Strayhorn’s music was too “mawkish.”

Fortunately, posterity wins. Such thoughts exist only in dated biographies. They do not live in the minds of those like myself who worship at the alter of Johnny Hodges and revisit his vast library of work again and again.

Run Screaming to the Right? I Hope Not

Lots of screaming occurred during the Republican National Convention this past week. The Never Trump folks had a series of hissy fits as they tried in vain to derail the inevitable. Hampered by shenanigans during the Rules Committee, overruled on the floor of the convention by the chair, a group of folks saw no other option but to leave the floor mad and screaming. Though presumably they returned eventually.

Ted Cruz proved that he still doesn’t like Trump by refusing to endorse him during his prime time speech. And the convention booed him for his insolence.

Hillary Clinton induced the most screaming. Lock her up! Shoot her up! Faster, pussycat! Kill! Kill! It was ugly. The whole spectacle was an ugly turn in American politics.

So now we have Trump, officially, at last. One of the oddest turns at this oddest of conventions, where screaming and hatred ruled the day, was the sudden kumbaya gestures made towards the LGBTQ community. Peter Thiel, billionaire and destroyer of Gawker, proudly proclaimed himself gay, a Republican, and an American when he spoke at the convention. And folks cheered him on. Later, during his long-ass acceptance speech, Trump talked about supporting all Americans even LGBTQ onesAnd he thanked folks for applauding him for bring up this much-maligned population. His sudden embrace of the LGBTQ community, rather than reassured me, creeped me out. I felt like Draco after Voldemort hugged him.

But don’t let the superficial overtures fool you. Trump is still Trump. Build the wall. Keep out the Muslims. Diss our allies. Bullhorn bigotry at its most bombastic. It’s what he didn’t say — how he would do any of the things he planned — that scares me the most.

Right, we’re stuck with him as a candidate. And learned folks from Michael Moore to Nate Silver say he has a good chance of winning. So what will Hillary Clinton and the Democrats do? Here’s what I hope they do not do: run screaming to the right. It’s a old story. When the shit hits the fan, when everyone points and yells LIBERAL! LIBERAL! — when it looks like the odds are stacked 1001 against, what happens? Democrats run screaming to the right.

Numerous examples exist. One that sticks to mind, because it pissed me off so much at the time, is the case of former Senator Blanche Lincoln. Ms. Lincoln represented Arkansas in the US Senate from 1999 to 2011. During the health care debate, she came out against the “public option,” that part of the Affordable Care Act that would have created a government-run health care option that folks could choose on the healthcare exchanges. It would have competed head-to-head against corporate healthcare companies, something conservatives didn’t like. After all, they only like competition when the monied class wins. Since Ms. Lincoln saw herself in a tough reelection battle in 2010, she thought it best to run screaming to the right.

Lots of Democrats ran screaming to the right in 2010. And we saw what happened. Democrats lost the House and barely held on to the Senate. They would go on to lose the Senate in 2014. The main casualty in 2010 were Blue Dog, conservative Democrats such as Ms. Lincoln. I’ve always said why vote for an imitation Republican when you can vote for the real thing. Apparently, a lot of other people felt the same way. Blue Dogs are a rare breed these days.

Will Hillary Clinton run screaming to the right? One wouldn’t think she would have to, considering who she’s running against. But the temptation always seems to be there for Democrats. Bill Clinton did rightist bullshit prior to his 1996 reelection bid, such as sign the stupid Defense of Marriage Act. Even though he was a popular incumbent that most felt was assured reelection, fear, apparently, tempted him to run right, albeit without too much screaming.

Secretary Clinton faces greater temptations since she is trying to get her foot in the door. Some worry that her VP pick, Senator Tim Kaine, is too safe a choice, too middle-of-the-road. A step to the right? Not necessarily. Patrick Caldwell at Mother Jones called Kaine a “reliable, quiet progressive.” Kaine personally opposes abortion, but is pro-choice, like Vice President Biden. He also supported the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, at least until Clinton tapped him to be her running mate. Based on his record, then, I wouldn’t call him a lefty firebrand, but I wouldn’t label him a Blanche Lincoln-style Blue Dog either.

The Democratic National Convention will put the party and their candidate in the spotlight. I do not expect to see the same level of screaming vitriol that Trump put on last week. But will they run screaming to the right? I hope not.