McWhorter’s second NYT column: better, but still no cigar

August 22, 2021 • 12:15 pm

John McWhorter, on top of everything else he does, has agreed to write two substantial essays a week for the New York Times. I discussed the first one recently, and found it wanting. It was about the origins of the term “woke,” and while it was worth reading and surely instructive, it was simply too long. And that is the problem with this week’s column, too, which is about the tortuous history of a black opera that fell into the hands of white lyricists and musicians.

McWhorter, who writes very well, surely deserves a column in the NYT, and not just as a palliative for the paper’s toxic wokeness, but because he has thoughtful things to say. But, as I feared, writing two longish pieces per week for the paper simply can’t be done well on top of all the other columns, video podcasting, and book writing he does, not to mention his regular academic duties at Columbia.  It’s simply too much. I have my fingers crossed, but I fear that for McWhorter, something’s gotta give.

His “newsletter” at the NYT is accessible only to those who subscribe to the paper, and you won’t be able to see it even as part of the five-free-articles deal they have (or whatever the number is now). But if you do subscribe, you can see the article by clicking on the screenshot:


The answer to McWhorter’s question is “yes”, but he doesn’t think black people will necessary like the opera (it has music written by white men, and uses a lot of black jargon), which in its present incarnation McWhorter loves. Let’s briefly go through the gyrations of this piece:

a. Black writer Arna Bontemps wrote a novel called God Sends Sunday in 1931. Its subject was the love between a black jockey and a beautiful woman. It’s not seen as his best work.

b. In collaboration with Harlem Renaissance authors Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, the book was made into a play, as many popular novels were at the time. The play was called “St. Louis Woman” and it fizzled.

c. The authors decided to gussy up the play with music, and called in the great musical writers Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, both white men. But the musical version fizzled as well, though, as McWhorter said, the music is sublime, and “When I first heard this recording at 24, if I had hairs on the back of my neck they would have been standing up.”

d. In the late 1950s, Arlen and Mercer turned “St. Louis Woman” into a piece called “Blues Opera.” According to McWhorter, this was a really good work:

Anyone could hear that this music deserved another chance, and in the late 1950s, Arlen and Mercer transformed “St. Louis Woman” into “Blues Opera.” And I mean “transformed” — we’re talking recitatives, leitmotifs, ensembles and even a murder: opera. There are times when you’d almost think you were at Strauss’ “Salome,” the scoring is so rich; there is even an atonal tango, for goodness’ sake. And a sword dance.

Yet all of this is written in the musical language of the blues and jazz. The motifs are ever morphing, as if improvised — Arlen was good at this, writing pop songs like “Right as the Rain,” that feel organic and accessible and yet never repeat a phrase. Black-born music served up with a busy classical orchestra? You first think of “Porgy and Bess.” But this is different: Blacker, frankly. With “Porgy and Bess,” George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward grafted Black idioms onto the idioms of Debussy and Ravel. Arlen and Mercer let the Blackness flow purely — my synesthetic take on the score is that it’s Maryland blue crab so flavorful it makes you sneeze.

e. Sadly, “Blues Opera” didn’t come off, and was actually shown only in Europe.

f. Now, the opera has been partly reworked by John Mauceri and Michael Gildin, and it still is in statu nascendi. As McWhorter says, “when do we get to see it?”.

Well, we don’t know. McWhorter says that a lot of “Black English” is used in the play and the songs, and perhaps people would object to that, even though he says that “Blues Opera” got it about 99 percent right, and Mauceri and Gildin have brought someone in to fix the rest” (it was McWhorter!)

McWhorter finishes by discussing previous attempts by white writers to create black plays, like “Porgy and Bess” (they should also mention “Showboat”). He argues that “Porgy and Bess” does not deserve damnation for being written by whites, as the music is great. His point is that we shouldn’t demand that “black art” be created only by black artists, just as white art shouldn’t be created only by white artists:

“Porgy and Bess” and “Carmen Jones” have both had their days in the sun recently, and as the world opens back up, producers, directors, and performers are likely to be on the hunt for other shows that speak to the Black experience. And to be sure, there are operas written by Black people that are also deserving: I recommend H. Lawrence Freeman’s “Voodoo,” William Grant Still and Langston Hughes’s “Troubled Island,” and Anthony Davis’s opera about Malcolm X (yes, in 1986!).

But there’s also “Blues Opera” waiting for us. It deserves — nay, needs — a good look and listen. To experience it as merely something “white” is to deny the roiling essence of what America has been — and is.

As far as McWhorter’s essay goes, it’s okay, well written and fairly absorbing, but perhaps not of general interest. It’s too long and a bit discursive. I hope McWhorter finds his groove in his biweekly essays, but I think that he’ll have to let some other stuff go if that’s to happen.

By the way, the page where you’re supposed to sign up to get access to his column at the NYT doesn’t seem to show his column. It should be under “newsletters,” so I don’t now what’s going on.

To end: a great song from the opera “Porgy and Bess”, written by George Gershwin “with a libretto written by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin.” (Gershwin, by the way, died at only 38 of a brain tumor. Imagine the music that we would have if he’d lived!)


Rediscovery of a live Joni Mitchell performance originally recorded in 1968—by Jimi Hendrix

August 8, 2021 • 1:30 pm

I found this post on Joni Mitchell’s Facebook page, and it’s an amazing story. What’s more, we can hear one song from the performance, which eventually will be part of a Joni Mitchell retrospective (see post below):

Here’s one song from the performance—from March 19, 1968:

The best of culture (my own view)

July 29, 2021 • 12:45 pm

When I said earlier today that I preferred Van Gogh’s version of “Noonday Rest” to Millet’s original, some wiseass came along and asked me to expound my “theory of aesthetics” that could justify such a decision. Of course I have no theory of art; I know what moves me, and I could give reasons if I’m forced to think about it. But those reasons could simply be post facto justifications for my emotional reaction to a work of art. And of course different theories will lead to different rankings. It’s for that reason that I’m wary of any supposedly “objective” reason why one work of art is better than another.

But that got me thinking about my favorite aspects of culture, which I’d normally label “the best”; but of course saying “the best” automatically means that it’s your own subjective opinion. These are matters of taste, not science.  So I’m going to list off the top of my head the best books, movies, music, and so on—meaning those works I like the most. Regular readers of this site will already know most of my opinions.

I’ll give links to the works, and on another day I might choose different works.

Best painting ancient: The Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grünewald.  (1512-1516). Yes, it’s religious, and all about Jesus, but the images of the crucified Christ and the “atomic bomb” Resurrection are fabulous.

Best painting, modern: Almost any van Gogh painted during the last two years of his life.

Best movie, American: The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich (1971)

Best movie, non-American: Ikiru (“To Live”), directed by Akira Kurosawa (1952). (Second place: Tokyo Story, directed by Yasujirō Ozu; 1953).

Best novel: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878)

Best novella or short story: The Dead, by James Joyce (1914)

Best memoir: Out of Africa by Isak Dinisen (Karen Blixen; 1937). It’s the prose, Jake.

Best biography: This is a tie. The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro (four volumes, one to go); tied with The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill by William Manchester. Two volumes published, but Manchester died before he could complete the third, which would have begun with Churchill becoming Prime Minister and leading Britain during WW!!. The trilogy was finished by someone else, and I haven’t read the third volume. Everybody’s hoping Caro finishes volume 5 before he passes on.  Second place is also by Caro: The Power Broker Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974).

Best rock song: Layla by Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon, as performed by Clapton with Derek and the Dominoes (1970): the electric version, and only before the slow part begins.  Watch here.

Best rock group (best oeuvre): The Beatles, of course.

Best jazz song: This is a hard one. At the moment, I suppose Ellington’s version of Take the A Train, written by Billy Strayhorn. On another day it might be Potato Head Blues by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven (1927), and yet on another day it would be the heartbreaking version of But Beautiful performed by Art Pepper live on the “Friday Night at the Village Vanguard” album.  You won’t find it on YouTube, and the version you’ll hear there is, according to my theory of aural aesthetics, inferior. In fact, I’ve just changed my mind and have moved Pepper into first place. It’s a fabulous song: a musical wail of pain.

Best jazz group (best oeuvre): Duke Ellington between 1940 and 1942.

Best piece of classical music. I don’t know from classical music, and will give no opinion.

Those are my choices and I have no theories to buttress them. You are welcome, nay, encouraged, to list your own choices.

“God Only Knows” redux

July 8, 2021 • 3:00 pm

It’s said that the Brian Wilson/Tony Asher song “God Only Knows” is Paul McCartney’s favorite song, and even if it’s just one of his favorites, it’s a fantastic song. The more I hear of the Beach Boys, the better I like them, and to me this song is their best (the original 1966 recording from Pet Sounds is here).  I believe I’ve posted several versions over the years, but here’s one that’s new to me. It’s a surrealistic version of the song by “The Impossible Orchestra”, comprising a passel of famous instrumentalists and singers.

It was, of course, suggested by YouTube, and was apparently created to celebrate the creation of the BBC Music Channel. Your job, of course, is to listen to it and name as many of the famous singers and musicians you can. I got about 30% of them, for many became famous in recent years and are unknown to me.  But I spotted Chrissie Hynde!

To see a list of all the musicians in order, go here.

“A Case of You”

June 23, 2021 • 2:15 pm

Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue“, released when she was only 27, turned 50 years old yesterday. A bit more on that tomorrow, but let’s listen to one of the many great songs on this album: “A Case of You“. This was recorded live in London in 1983. I regard it as one of the best “rock” albums of all time, and Mitchell as the best solo singer-songwriter of my generation.

The only other musicians playing on the recorded version are James Taylor on guitar and Russ Kunkel on drums, neither of them in this performance.

“Kiss From a Rose”

June 20, 2021 • 2:15 pm

This 1994 song written and performed by Seal, “Kiss From a Rose” is considered schlocky by many, but I think it’s beautiful—and very complex.  I’ll present two versions: one from the studio and the other in concert. After you watch one or both of them, be sure to listen to Rick Beato’s analysis of the song’s structure: “What makes this song great?” (It was Beato’s post on Auto-tuning that led me to this song, as YouTube is wont to do and wants to do.) YouTube’s “suggestions” on the side of the video you’re watching have often involved me wasting hours of time, but also finding some cool stuff.

Enjoy, though this isn’t everyone’s musical cup of tea.

p.s. Seal’s real name is Henry Olusegun Adeola Samuel.

The death of pop and rock via Auto-Tune

June 19, 2021 • 2:30 pm

I’ve maintained many times, and still believe it, that rock music is not only most horrible, but reached its apogee in the Sixties and has been going downhill at an accelerating rate ever since. One of the reasons for the acceleration is the use of Auto-Tune: a program that can be used to change the note a singer sings and make it conform absolutely to the predetermined pitch. Increasingly, songs and instrumental notes are used to achieve this kind of “perfection”, which if overused (as it nearly always is these days), can make a song sound inhuman and robotic. It’s become a substitute for being able to sing properly. As the narrator notes in the video below, it’s enabled substandard singers to become rock/pop singers, since even pretty bad singers can sing on key when their voices are electronically adjusted.

Here’s a 14½-minute video by musician/engineer/producer/audio expert, etc. Rick Beato not only showing how Auto-Tune works to change recorded notes, but also how it homogenizes and ruins much of modern rock music. He hastens to add that he’s not opposed to the occasional use of Auto-Tuning to fix individual notes, but that most of the top ten tunes on music sites like Spotify are heavily autotuned. You know what this sounds like: a robotic, monotonic voice.

Beato’s thesis, with which I agree, is that the imperfections of the human voice are what makes non-autotuned music appealing. If notes are sung badly wrong, the way to fix it is not to electronically adjust the voices, but, says Beato, do it the old fashioned way: do enough takes until you get it right. 

h/t: Bryan

“Jack the Bear”

May 29, 2021 • 12:45 pm

Here’s another great song in our Duke Ellington series, again recorded by the “Blanton/Webster” version of the band that was going from 1939-1942. That name came from members Jimmie Blanton on bass and Ben Webster on tenor sax.

This song, “Jack the Bear”, recorded on March 6, 1940, begins with a display of Blanton’s proficiency and swing on the bass—involving solos like the two below and complex plucking—a form of playing previously absent from jazz. It’s hard to overestimate how influential Blanton was on subsequent jazz bassists, and it’s sad to think that he died just two years later of tuberculosis. He was only 23.  Before Blanton, the bass was used like a tuba in earlier jazz—to provide a consistent beat and deep supporting tone.

The other solos are by Ellington on piano, Barney Bigard on clarinet (though I still consider Benny Goodman the best jazz clarinetist ever), Cootie Williams on trumpet, Harry Carney on baritone sax and Tricky Sam Nanton on trombone (with mute). This is truly an all-star lineup, with the sidemen being artists in themselves. The Blanton-Webster period of Ellington’s group produced the most artistic jazz ever.

Blanton returns with another solo at the end.

A note from Jazzwise (I’ve already discussed Ko-Ko, one of my favorite Ellington songs):

The first intimation that Ellington and his orchestra were on the threshold of greatness came from their second session for RCA Victor in Chicago in March 1940. ‘Jack The Bear’ contains a rare moment of jazz history actually being made – Jimmy Blanton shattering the traditional concept of jazz bass playing with his virtuoso pizzicato technique. On it he shows how the bass could contribute exciting solo lines and interact with the ensemble without surrendering its basic timekeeping role. Then there was ‘Ko Ko’, which has been described as “one of the monumental events in jazz music”. It is an orchestral tour-de-force with the minimum of solo space (24 bars from ‘Tricky Sam’ Nanton and 12 bars from Ellington) that succeeds as a piece of absolute or ‘pure’ music in that its minor 12-bar blues form (repeated seven times) has no obvious ‘melody’ in the conventional sense. Its tonal ambiguity and use of dissonance, particularly in the fourth chorus, instantly separates Ellington from the conventional dance bands of the period. Here is a glimpse of the future more profound, even, than Charlie Parker’s ‘Ko Ko’ from 26 November 1945 (not the same tune). Here Ellington looks both ways, to freedom (bi-tonality and his amazing piano splashes of colour that anticipate Cecil Taylor) and form.

If you want to hear the quintessence of Ellington (and, to my mind, jazz in general), get this CD set (66 songs from the Blanton-Webster band) from Amazon; click on the screenshot:

Jimmie Blanton:


Concerto for Cootie

May 25, 2021 • 2:15 pm

Why not continue with a little more Duke Ellington, perhaps the greatest jazz artist in history? My favorite songs come from 1940-1941, when the band featured the incomparable combination of Jimmie Blanton on bass (he died shortly thereafter of tuberculosis) and Ben Webster on tenor sax. Ellington was never as good as he was in those two years. This song, “Concerto for Cootie”, was recorded on March 15, 1940, and features the growling trumpet of Cootie Williams. (The song title was later changed to “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me”.)

Jazz doesn’t get any smoother than this, though this isn’t “easy-listening” jazz. Make sure you listen for Blanton’s superb backup. And here, from Ehsan Khoshbhakt’s “Notes on Jazz” is his analysis of “Why Concerto for Cootie is a Masterpiece“. I don’t necessarily agree with everything the critic says, but I do agree about the near-perfect blending of solos and the orchestra.

Concerto for Cootie is a masterpiece because every thing in it is pure; because it doesn’t have that slight touch of softness which is enough to make so many other deserving records insipid. Concerto for Cootie is a masterpiece because the arranger and the soloist have refused in it any temptation to achieve an easy effect, and because the musical substance of it is so rich that not for one instant does the listener have an impression of monotony. Concerto for Cootie is a masterpiece because it shows the game being played for all it is worth, without anything’s being held back, and because the game is won. We have here a real concerto in which the orchestra is not a simple background, in which the soloist doesn’t waste his time in technical acrobatics or in gratuitous effects. Both have something to say, they say it well, and what they say is beautiful. Finally, Concerto for Cootie is a masterpiece because what the orchestra says is the indispensable complement to what the soloist says; because nothing is out of place or superfluous in it; and because the composition thus attains unity.
Concerto for Cootie should not be considered as an ordinary arrangement. Its unusual structure, the polish of its composition, the liberties with certain well-established rules that are taken in it, the refusal to improvise these characteristics are enough to place it rather on the level of original composition as this term is understood by artists of classical training.



May 15, 2021 • 1:45 pm

As I’ve said several times, I’m reading a biography of Duke Ellington, which is a superb book. I’ve heard many of his songs during the last 2 decades or so, and this one, “Ko-Ko”, is my favorite of them all. I can’t take credit here for my discerning taste, as “Ko-Ko” is almost universally regarded as one of Ellington’s best. It was recorded on March 6, 1940, an epochal day in jazz.

It’s amazing that this is even considered jazz. It’s dissonant, lacks melody, has no “swing”, and in fact conjures up a menacing mood. But it’s a masterpiece of instrumentation and imagination..

This is the best of all Ellington’s versions, and it was done by the “Blanton/Webster” version of the Ellington Band, with Jimmy Blanton on bass (he died of TB at only 23) and the great Ben Webster on sax. This is the version that Ken Burns had the sense to include on his CD of his excellent “Jazz” television series.

The composition of the band can hardly be any better: many of these musicians stayed with Ellington for decades, and were fantastic players and contributors to the music (Ellington was rarely the “composer” in the traditional sense, with band members contributing substantially to “head arrangements”). If you know jazz, you’ll appreciate this lineup below:

Composer, Lyricist: Duke Ellington Guitar: Fred Guy Producer: Michael Brooks Mastering Engineer: Darcy Proper Drums: Sonny Greer Bass: Wellman Braud Bass: Jimmy Blanton Alto Saxophone: Johnny Hodges Alto Saxophone: Otto Hardwick Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone: Barney Bigard Tenor Saxophone: Ben Webster Baritone Saxophone: Harry Carney Trumpet: Cootie Williams Trombone: Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton Trombone: Lawrence Brown Trombone: Juan Tizol Trombone: Wallace Jones Cornet: Rex Stewart

I’m stunned that although Wikipedia has an article on Charlie Parker’s song “Ko-Ko”, another great jazz classic (with no relation to Ellington’s song), there is no standalone entry for this song, though there’s an entry on what appears to be a foreign Wikipedia page. Somebody needs to rectify this!