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.


I started writing a very different post the other night about the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I wrote a draft about the need for police departments nationwide to better police themselves, to root out bad officers, and to hire better officers to begin with so that problems do not occur.

And then Dallas happened. What an awful week.

Just prior to the shooting at the Dallas Black Lives Matter demonstration, where 5 police officers lost their lives, all had been well. The large crowd moved peacefully through the streets. And Dallas police officers marched with them. Some even took selfies with protesters.

Dallas’s Police Chief David Brown, an African American in office since 2010, has worked hard to make his department accountable to all the people of Dallas. Early in his tenure, a police shooting scandal took place: an unarmed man was shot to death after a foot chase. Chief Brown responded by initiating reforms on the use of deadly force. He has also overseen community policing reforms and created a website that posts information about police involved shootings, one of the first in the nation. DPD will also begin using body cameras over the next few years.

Most astoundingly, Chief Brown has also fired officers involved in abusive situations and publicly shamed them on Facebook and Twitter. In one case, he praised an officer for outing a bad one, and called on his force not to retaliate against the one who “broke” the blue wall of silence. This type of behavior does not usually go over well with the rank and file. Indeed, just last spring, at least one of the police unions for DPD called for Chief Brown to resign after he proposed staffing changes that many officers disagreed with. Chief Brown refused to resign, but eventually backed down on the staffing changes.

Generally, however, the Dallas Police Department has been a model of reform. Even during the tragedy of the shooting, calmer heads prevailed. The department initially identified the wrong man, Mr. Mark Hughes, as a “person of interest.” They did so because folks had seen Mr. Hughes wearing a rifle strapped across his chest. (Texas is an open carry state.) However, once Mr. Hughes learned of the shooting, he quickly turned in his gun to an officer. The officer calmly took it and exchanged information with Mr. Hughes. No incident arose.

More continues to come out about the real killer, Micah Xavier Johnson. He was an army reservist who had served in Afghanistan. Early reports did not confirm if he had had special weapons training. But Army Lieutenant Colonel Major Michael Waltz, a White House aide, reviewed the video of the shooting and believes that Johnson had been “well trained” in “close-quarters battle” and urban combat. Johnson also posted rambling rants against white people on Facebook, but no one thought him predisposed to violence.

He was a ticking time bomb, however. He had stockpiles of weapons and bomb-making equipment. So once again, a month after Orlando, we have to question ourselves as a society about the easy access to guns.

The tragic killings of Messrs. Sterling and Castile brought the conversation about police violence against unarmed African Americans back to the mainstream of American political dialogue. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton declared quickly after Mr. Castile’s death, “Would this have happened if those passengers would have been white? I don’t think it would have.” A black female police officer from Cleveland vented her frustrations at the killings in a very moving video posted on Facebook. She did not hide her anger, disgust, or hurt about the racism she has seen in her profession. It looked like the conversation, though deeply painful, was getting somewhere.

Johnson’s obscene, senseless murders have interrupted the conversation. Shills of hate like Matt Drudge and former Congressman Joe Walsh have dutifully reignited the “us versus them” battle lines. They stoke the false narrative that the Black Lives Matter movement wants to see all police dead. Nothing could be further from the truth. BLM is about ending violence, not perpetuating it. It’s about justice, not revenge. Bad cops should face criminal charges for wrongdoing, not murder.

We can’t let the conversation end. If it does and “us versus them” prevails, more lives will be lost.

A Night of Jazz with Daria and the Beatles

My earliest Beatles memory: Mom dancing in the kitchen and singing along with “Hello Goodbye.” I peered at her through the bars of my crib. I was probably 3 or 4 years old. My parents, my three older brothers, and I (no sister, yet) still lived at my maternal grandmother’s house. Having been born a few months before Help was released, I obviously did not live to see much of the Beatles era in person, so I cling to my one memory dating back to that time as a badge of honor. I entered my heavy-duty Beatles phase in high school.

Beatles music has long been fertile ground for jazz artists. Much of their considerable catalogue has become standards. Artists with talent, sensitivity, and a taste for exploration can find new meaning and beauty in these often played, familiar tunes.

Strawberry Fields ForeverBay Area based jazz singer Daria is one such artist. Her latest album celebrates the music of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Strawberry Fields Forever — Songs by the Beatles. To support the album, she has given several CD release concerts. I attended one such performance at The Sound Room in Oakland, on Saturday, June 18, 2016. Performing with her were Jonathan Alford on piano, Dan Feiszli on bass, and Deszon Claiborne on drums. Messrs. Alford and Claiborne also appear on the CD.

The band launched into the title track, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a beautiful, hypnotic interpretation that enhanced the song’s existentialism. I also enjoyed their take on “Come Together,” which oozed with seduction. Daria’s voice molded and shaped the tunes, giving them a personal touch, while remaining recognizable and accessible. Her band amply supported her explorations. I particularly liked bassist Feiszli. Beyond his excellent chops, perhaps I took to him because he played a 5-string electric, like my late brother Robert did.

In addition to her excellent musicianship, Daria has a warm stage presence and playfully teased the audience with Beatles trivia questions. I pleased myself by answering nearly all of them correctly, proving that reading the same Beatles biographies over and over in high school did indeed pay off.

Daria performed several tracks from the CD, including “Fool on the Hill,” “If I Fell,” and “Fixing a Hole,” an underrated McCartney masterpiece in my opinion. In the “Bird” medley, she wove “Blackbird” with “Icarus” by Ralph Towner and the Henderson/Dixon standard “Bye Bye Blackbird.” And I enjoyed her playful version of “Drive My Car,” which does not appear on the CD.

Another tune not on the CD, but beautifully performed, was “My Valentine.” A recent work by Sir Paul McCartney, appearing on his Kisses on the Bottom album from 2012, this piece proves that Sir Paul can still write very movingly. Daria opined that he may have written it with his late wife Linda in mind. Thus, longing and poignant memories informed her performance.

Another performance I really enjoyed was John Lennon’s ode to his mother, “Julia.” A delicate tune, it received a slight bossa nova tinge, as did a few other songs. By contrast, the band could swing hard. And in fact, Daria invited the audience to snap along with “Helter Skelter.”

During my mad Beatles phase in high school, I gravitated towards George Harrison. Even then I liked underdogs, I suppose. Harrisongs, however, do not appear on the CD. But on the CD version of “Strawberry Fields,” Daria’s husband Joe Cohen plays sitar, perhaps as a nod to George. (Full disclosure: Joe and I are old friends, having both studied tabla with Ustad Zakir Hussain.) I would love to hear her interpretations of “Taxman” or “Here Comes the Sun,” or more obscure tunes like “Don’t Bother Me,” Harrison’s first Beatles song. Maybe a follow up CD will explore the Quiet Beatle.

Daria closed the show with the CD’s final track, “She’s Going Home,” an answer to the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home.” Its melody reflects late-era Beatles, with just a hint of Wings. And the lyrics speak of wisdom gained after many years of youthful explorations. She’s finally going home the long way round.

The CD features guitar, saxes, trumpet, trombone, and the aforementioned sitar on the various tracks. I highly recommend it. But I enjoyed the intimacy of the quartet that performed at the Sound Room, a cozy, relaxed space with good energy. If Daria performs near you, do go check her out.

Mom – 20 years later

A megathrust earthquake struck on June 22, 1996. Mom died. So powerful an event, I knew it had happened without solid confirmation.

The nurses kindly said that there had been no change in my mother’s condition, though the pauses in their speech told me what they did not want to say. Later that morning, I cried all during breakfast, unable to finish my blueberry pancakes.

I have a friend who lost his mother when he was only 12. Only recently has he opened up about how her early passing has affected him. Revealing. Another friend, a Twitter acquaintance, wrote about losing their mother when they were nine. A haunting piece. The deepest grief: how to cope with losing someone one barely got a chance to know. That’s a megathrust of a different magnitude. My mom lost her own father when she was 14. I’m sure that haunted her all of her life. She loved her father.

No, I was 31 when mom died, so we had a chance to develop a maturing relationship. I told myself that at least we parted on good terms, with not much left unsaid. And yet, and yet.

She knew her time was near. A few weeks before the end, she asked me if I had had a good childhood. I assured her that I had. I told her that I was about to meet my partner’s family for the first time next month. She “I’m sure that will be a great journey for you.” Mentally, I paused, even as I kept talking. She saw herself not making that journey with me, I thought.

The hardest part was seeing how her death affected my dad. The megathrust struck him hardest. He lost the greatest part of himself that day. Brother Robert had already called to tell me the news when my father did the same some hours later. I was playing tabla at the time, trying to steady my nerves. My other half was booking a flight for me. Dad cried during the whole short phone call. I know, I said, I’m flying home as soon as I can. I love you too, Dad.

If that day had been a Doctor Who episode, I would have entitled it “The Road to Monterey.” As it happened, my other half and I were in Monterey that weekend for a conference he was attending. I don’t think I’ve been to Monterey since.

Amazingly, I found a cab to take me to the house in South Central from LAX. Dumb luck. Fate. Whatever. The street looked unfamiliar. The house still and eerie. I had a drama queen moment. I saw her empty wheelchair in the corner of the living room and a ran towards it, crying. I hugged the empty chair while my family watched, tearfully.

Just a month earlier, I rode the motorcycle down to visit during Memorial Day weekend. The last waltz. Mom had been in the hospital a few weeks earlier, after the first heart attack. She had recovered, though was weaker. I measured her strength by the tightness of her embrace. Lovingly solid, but definitely weaker. When I rode up to in the front yard, she was sitting in the doorway, in her wheelchair. Waiting for me.

There are songs from that period that I can no longer listen to. Nor will I say what they are. I still haven’t played them, all these years later. Megathrusts have lots of aftershocks.

Dad came out, a smile on his face. He was happy that to see us. My three brothers, my sis-in-law, me. My sister wasn’t there. She had been out at an event, hours away. An early adopter to cellphones, she nonetheless was out of range. I had a secret dread. What if something happened to her? What if we lost both of our strong women that same accursed weekend. I felt great relief when she finally got home.

The next day, Sunday, we all gathered again and talked. What do we do. How do we proceed. My dad seemed lost, and genuinely confused. When he asked questions, he looked at us for answers. I felt his eyes waiting for me to give a reply. A shift of duties. I became the adult. That was hard. My parents did not belong to any church, so we had no church service. We divided up the roles. Robert gave the benediction. Louis the eulogy. I mc’ed. I think that’s how it went. I have the program buried somewhere. One day, I may dig it out.

Dad made only one request for the service. He wanted the Might Russell Players, me, my sister Tania, and brothers Louis & Robert, to perform “You Are So Beautiful.” We obliged.

I think I went into a form a shock. I heard voices that night while trying to sleep. One brother, then the other, then someone else. It sounded like they were in the room with me, though I was alone, lights out, the radio quietly playing classical music. I couldn’t hear my mother’s voice, or even remember exactly what it sounded like, and that scared the shit out of me.

The megathrust took on various forms in the weeks and months afterwards. As I have written before, classical music had to go for a while. In came jazz. After the initial crying spells, I really couldn’t let myself go again for months. I tried, feeling that I needed the release, but it just wouldn’t happen. Until October. I got my long-distance phone bill and it was noticeably smaller. Mom and I talked a lot on the phone, sometimes several times a day. Seeing the smaller bill told me that she was really gone. Forever. And I stayed home from work and cried. After a few hours, I went out a bought a copy of Mary Poppins to watch. I had wanted to get my usual depression go-to film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but the store was out of copies.

It’s hard for others to fathom what a megathrust can do to you. Someone I worked for as an assistant said to me that she knew was I was in grief, but that I really wasn’t there for her. She needed me to be more focused on the work. What I had failed to do for her, she never said, or maybe I just don’t remember. Regardless, my anxiety about being good employee clashed with my anxiety over losing Mom. Another aftershock. We hadn’t worked together for a very long time. She may have been having a bad day. We all have bad days. I lost a beloved relative, and my body and mind were still in adjustment. Such things take their own time, not anyone else’s. I’m glad we no longer work together.

Aftershocks fade after a while. The ground settles. Other events happen to fill the mind and occupy the time. But they still occur, sometimes at the oddest provocations. Brahms can still be a problem. And then there’s the other, whom I still haven’t played. Maybe I will again, one day.

But now Dad is gone and Robert is gone. So much loss. Too many ghosts. When my dad died, I said that his death was sad — he was just shy of 80 and had lived the last 10 years of his life in grief over his wife — but my mother’s death was a tragedy. She was only 67 and had lived too many years in pain from lupus and other ailments. Robert’s death came back full circle to tragedy again. It was a different type of megathrust. I’m still feeling my way around it, two years later.

But 20 years has not erased the intensity of the Original Megathrust. Like an actual earthquake, it caused upheaval, cracks, uncertainty, panic, loss, loss, loss, loss, and more loss. Since 1996, I’ve measured my life in events that happened before Mom died and after. She met my husband, but she never read the final version of my book. She never heard Shirley Bassey’s “History Repeating” no matter how many times I think we discussed it. She was there for Rodney King, but missed 9/11. Oh, 9/11 would have destroyed her. My faith in humanity came from her, and such a cold, murderous act would have undone her. The hatred and islamophobia that followed would have crushed her further still.

Ella Fitzgerald died a week before Mom did. Finally, towards the end of her own life, she admitted that she was jealous of Ella, and that’s why she claimed not to like her. She finally came around, in the end. Heaven knows why she was jealous — she had a gorgeous voice. But these things happen. Because human.

I heard a voice in my head that day, while walking around a park. It was my mom’s voice. She said “And while my time is nearly done, the best of times are yet to come.” I head it twice, like an incantation, and then it stopped.

Our last phone call, two days before the end, had a pregnant pause. I still wonder what we both said to each other during that moment, before we said goodbye, then hung up.

Mom, 1965, around the time I was born.

Louise McVey Russell, 1965, around the time I was born.