Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Earth Day Special: Van Dyke Parks & Esso

This is your Earth Day long read: The story of how musician, composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks came to produce the 16-man steel pan band, Esso Trinidad, following the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. I interviewed Parks in 2009 for Crawdaddy! and since that time, this story has become the most-read on this site, receiving the top number of views daily from around the world. Thanks for your continued readership and for your stewardship of the earth today (Parks suggests planting milkweed, to save the Monarch butterflies).

When 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in January of 1969, the crude-splattered water, beaches, and birds along the California coast in its aftermath became the symbols of modern eco-disaster. While the ensuing public outcry helped hasten the formalization of the environmental movement as we now know it, for musician Van Dyke Parks, the spill and “the revelation of ecology,” as he calls it, was a very personal, life-altering occasion. “It changed my M.O. and changed my very reason for being,” he says. The Union Oil rig rupture in Santa Barbara made Parks go calypso.

“When I saw the Esso Trinidad Steel band, I saw myself in a Trojan Horse,” he says. “We were going to expose the oil industry. That’s what my agenda was. I felt it was absolutely essential.” From 1970 to 1975, Parks waged awareness of environmental and race matters through the music and culture of the West Indies, though in the end, “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s what makes Van Gogh go,” he says, “That’s what great art does.” Though Parks is referring directly to Esso Trinidad’s happy/sad steel drum sounds, he could just as easily be talking about his own experience during what we’ll dub the Calypso Years.

Over a five-year period, Parks produced albums by the Esso Trinidad Steel band (1971) and Bob Dylan favorite, the Mighty Sparrow (Hot and Sweet, 1974); he also recorded his own calypso-inspired works, Discover America (1972) and Clang of the Yankee Reaper (1976). Born from his passion for popular song and launched at a time when grassroots protest was at an all-time high, Parks had every reason to believe calypso consciousness would prevail. But he hadn’t factored in the complications of taking on big oil, nor of touring the US with a 28-man steel drum corps from the Caribbean. He was unable to predict that the sessions with Mighty Sparrow would be fraught with rage, and that his efforts would earn him the enmity of Bob Marley, whose production requests he ignored in favor of calypso. And yet, you get the feeling he’d agree in one hot minute to do it all over again the exact same way if given a chance to revisit this section of his checkered recording history.

Parks is generally a well-mannered and affable Southern-born gent with a mildly mischievous streak. A one-time child prodigy on clarinet, he’s often mentioned in tandem with his Southern California work with Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who was reportedly too tripped-out to continue their Smile-era collaborations. A formidable freethinker and raconteur of psychedelic dimensions himself, you can hear the Parks imprint, curly-cuing through “Heroes and Villains” and “Sail On, Sailor”; songs that made a lasting impression on the Beach Boys sound. Rarely at a loss for bookings as a composer, arranger, musician, and producer (Parks would go on to work with artists from Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr to Joanna Newsom and Rufus Wainwright), his song “High Coin” traded freely on the hippie covers market while he juggled sessions by psychedelic bands as well as singer-songwriters Randy Newman and Phil Ochs. It was following the critical success of his first solo work, Song Cycle, in 1968 and the oil spill in ’69, that Parks began in earnest his pursuit of the music of the West Indies—specifically calypso and steel drum (also known as steel pan). Initially played on instruments made from clankity household odds and ends, by the ’40s, steel drums were made from a surplus of oil barrels, washed ashore the islands of Trinidad and Tobago from the coast of Venezuela. “America pollutes its environment with oil: Little Trinidad makes beautiful music from the drums that you throwaway,” says pan player Godfrey Clarke in the Esso liner notes.

Serving as the accompaniment to Carnival (for which Trinidad is world-famous), calypso is also often accompanied by lyrically potent verses that alternately use breezy and nasty humor to signify its weighty concerns: Imperial oppression and the extreme poverty of the islands. Ideally, the counterculture audience could’ve dug this political/party music with its motives to create equality and earthly harmony. Surely younger folks could identify with the calypsonian struggle, more than say, Liberace’s audience in Las Vegas, which is where Parks found the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steel band working in the late ’60s. “I saw them as enslaved in their relationship to Liberace; I thought it was a vulgarity. I wanted to save them from their trivialization.” What had begun as Parks’ desire to popularize calypso at that point became his crusade.

The Land of the Hummingbird

“I just love that performance of ‘Aquarium,’” Parks says of Esso’s album finale. “You see, it represents that eco-consciousness that the album should project. I’m just telling you why I did it: I devoted the album to Prince Bernhard, who was the head of the World Wildlife association. Everything was directed to making it a proper, political, green album.” Nearly 40 years later, the Bananastan label has issued newly-minted versions of the Parks-produced  Esso and Sparrow’s Hot and Sweet. Not only are the calypsos strangely contemporary, I find I’m deeply moved by Esso’s environmentally-tuned music from the island officially nicknamed the Land of the Hummingbird. When Parks suggests we meet beside the Santa Monica Bay, I agree:  There is no better place than under the sun for a talk about his rarely-discussed calypso intermezzo. “This has been a well-kept secret,” he begins with a whisper. “The promotion men were successful at that.”

Parks’ devotion to calypso puts him in the unique position of serving as the music’s chief 21st century stateside ambassador; as it is, his relationship to calypso predates his own childhood and runs in the family. According to Parks, his mother’s uncle was the founder of the University of Miami and a calypso devotee. “Of course, they were touched by calypso down there. He had been to Trinidad at the same time as FDR,” explains Parks. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 trip to Trinidad, documented in the song “FDR in Trinidad”, is among the first calypso standards. By the 1940s, “Rum and Coca-Cola”, as sung by the Andrews Sisters, had brought calypso music to the American masses. “Of course, everyone was aware of ‘Rum and Coca-Cola’, which was incidentally my mother’s favorite drink,” says Parks. Though, everyone was not necessarily aware that the jolly little song was also a critique of American military presence in Trinidad (nor would it be a truly great calypso without the double edge). But the Andrews Sisters’ vocal stylings would soon be outdone by authentic calypsonian Harry Belafonte’s ’50s success with the Jamaican folk song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”, calypso’s most enduring hit. In the early ’60s, Parks recalls he and his brother were “left in the dirt” on a bill they shared with calypso’s Andrew “Pan” de la Bastide. But it is in the music’s details rather than its broad overview where Parks gleans inspiration: The origins of the intensity of the music, the unparalleled musicianship of the pan players, the wordplay of the singers and their emotional extremes—from treachery to triumph—are the elements of interest to Parks.

“I was serious about serious music from an early age. Hardwired to a lot of music of dead white guys—very serious discipline—I had three brothers who played. We had this musical oleo in the house, from Bill Haley and the Comets to Les Paul and Mary Ford, Fats Waller, George Shearing, Paul Whiteman, the usual popular American diet, from 78s on. To me, calypso music was everything that the Memphis blues was, everything that Schubert and his sort were of the 19th century Romantic songwriters. Melody: Fantastic, like studying a novel with many subplots, seeing all of them resolved by the conclusion of the work. Lyrics: The scansion, the absolute art of phrasing, it had absorbed everything proper from the British Empire, so you find this incredible intelligence of mind. These are the scions of African nobility, the protectors of the musical and oral tradition. That’s what I think of calypso—the greatest pop music.”

The music of the West Indies was begotten from a 19th century slave history. “Barbados, adjacent to Trinidad, is direct in line of the slave trade that unfortunately plagues us all,” says Parks. But while European settlers imposed customs and traditions on the islands’ people, the indigenous population and those whose origins were African engaged in their own forms of expression. It’s that combination of sound, from two hemispheres and at least three continents, that make up the basics of calypso. Working with the large ensemble steel band, “I took it as an incredible opportunity… from a standpoint of my very American identity,” says Parks. “This group presented such a great opportunity in testing my ethics.” Though were the ethical challenge not combined with the band’s esthetic of extreme musicianship, individually and as a collective, Parks probably wouldn’t have traveled the distance he did with Esso.

“It was really a profound experience to me, to hear the small fish that run by quickly in the ear during Saint-Saëns’ ‘Aquarium’ from The Carnival of the Animals. Those fast notes that shimmer through the piece, they are 32nd/10th notes, there are 10 in a figure, and these guys memorized this thing in a matter of two days and they did an incredible job.” The band was led, as it were, by Hugh Borde. “He was their captain, there was no leader,” explains Parks, though for those two days in the studio he passed his captain’s hat to Parks and pan man Kenrick Headley, who led the group through versions of songs like “Apeman” by the Kinks, “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five, and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” The Rev. Fr. John Sewell, an Episcopalian missionary who served transcribing the ultimately jaw-dropping versions of the playful classical and orchestral pieces in Esso’s repertoire, also assisted the group. “They were the first to do it,” says Parks of Esso’s classical works on pan, “and it became a requirement for all steel bands to have a classical test piece. So they might do ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ by Tchaikovsky or ‘Unto Us a Child Is Born’ from Handel’s Messiah.” For the recording, they chose the aforementioned Saint-Saëns and the frantic “Sabre Dance.” The steel band also cut a Parks favorite, “Erasmus B. Black”, a wordplay tune penned by the Mighty Sparrow in which an innocently christened baby ends up with an unfortunate double entendre of a name. “I thought there was a great deal of theater and comedy in the group. I’ve never enjoyed myself so much, almost understanding what was going on!”

Keep Your Eye on the Mighty Sparrow

Steel band players gain entry into the prestigious ensembles through a highly competitive audition process. The spirit of musical competition and excellence is rooted in poverty, though it’s a celebratory event, staged each year at Carnival, the annual pre-Lenten festival that finds pan players and wordsmithing calypsonians performing for cash and crowns. The annual Carnival Road March is a calypso competition at its fiercest and reigning supreme eight times was the Mighty Sparrow—his wins rivaled only by contemporary calypso’s Super Blue and Sparrow’s friend and competitor, Lord Kitchener. While Sparrow had traveled to the US seeking help from Belafonte at the height of calypso’s popularity, Kitchener was making a name for himself in England. Upon their respective returns to the islands, Kitchener and Sparrow spent the rest of the decade and into the early ’70s duking out the Road March and Calypso Monarch crowns.

“I wanted very much to do Lord Kitchener,” admits Parks. “Lord Kitchener, to me, is the greatest of all the calypso singers, but Sparrow was absolutely rhapsodic.” In his liner notes to Biograph,Bob Dylan wrote of the Sparrow: “… as far as concept and intelligence and warring with words, Mighty Sparrow was and probably still is the king.” “I thought he would be more difficult to sell than Kitchener,” says Parks. “Sparrow would show up with a cape; Kitchener would’ve shown up in a fedora.” Perhaps Sparrow could sense Parks’ preference for Kitchener upon his arrival at Miami’s famed Criteria Studios. Or maybe it was a hurricane, just about to make its way to land, that turned the session into a perfect storm. “We got to Miami. Phil Ochs appears,” begins Parks, referring to his friend and fellow traditional music enthusiast, famous for folk-singing and a notorious unraveling that had already begun. “Phil is somewhat deranged. The rain starts to whip against the wall absolutely horizontally. We are near the eye of the hurricane. It’s a big one. The studio owner Mack Emerman wondered if we should airboat the whole thing to Barbados.” In a world without Pro Tools, the crew obtained remote power from their own generator and hunkered down as the hurricane passed.  “What you hear, we did in two days. Sparrow would step up to the piano and go pht pht—pht pht. You notice that’s irregular,” explains Parks, pounding on the picnic table before us for emphasis. “It’s not pht, pht, pht, pht. You know, it’s said that irregular beat is something that started in Curaçao as the natives imitated the Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant… he had a lame leg and so he would pht pht—pht pht. That’s what I heard… it’s the rhythm that Sparrow played for two bars before the piece begins. And then the band came in. This didn’t take a producer. This didn’t take an efficiency expert. This was incredible.”

Rather than arriving at the studio with a finished set of lyrics, Sparrow came with phrases. “Sparrow knows exactly where he’s going… he knows how to get the cat out of the tree, get the cat down; he’s got the chorus solved. He’s very able. There is nothing false about his incredible musical skill. That he can ideate phraseology with such powers of deception is a very good quality of his work. It’s the very same power of deception that I see in Schubert, that also likes to take you out somewhere, then puts you somewhere subtly that is surprising and refreshing.” Of the songs he compiled for Hot and Sweet, Parks cites two standouts: “More Cock” (“I asked for it. I know, it’s my fault”) and “Maria.” “My favorite. As Ted Turner said… ‘it only looks easy.’ To me, it’s as good as anything I’ve heard out of Allen Toussaint. It’s tight.”

Co-produced with Andy Wickham, the session with Sparrow was not without incident. Parks describes British Wickham as “right wing” and in thrall to “Country and western and super-America, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.” Parks says, “I remember he was ecstatic with ‘Okie from Muskogee,’” Haggard’s toast to redneckism. And yet, like Parks, Wickham loved calypso. “He came to realize how much the butt [of the jokes] the British were.”  Wickham could also appreciate the melodies (“He loved Wagner, secretly,” says Parks) and the lyrics (“Very good turn of phrase,” he’d say). But it was sport that bound Wickham to the calypsonians. “He knew all the West Indian super heroes of cricket,” says Parks; however, that did not make him the boss of Mighty Sparrow.

Sparrow was not one to take studio direction. “Which is a big mistake. Every bullet counts on a record,” says Parks. “It was hard. It was a bumpy ride. It was occasionally filled with rage and great hostility. And blackberry brandy; I think the record was a four quarts of blackberry brandy record.” The necessary lubricant relieved some of the tension courtesy of the elephant in the room: The British Empire. “Well, the British were leading the decolonized African freeman, and I was right in the middle of all that. The Sparrow is filled with bravado and severe opinions that aren’t always convenient… There were moments that you hoped the guy in the cape wasn’t going to show up at dinnertime to protest his individuality to everyone.”

By the time Parks was finishing with Sparrow, calypso’s rhythmic energy was in the process of being subsumed by disco, while the war on poverty was being fought by reggae, the Caribbean’s other music. “Calypso was feeling very disco-ed, which is funny because they wanted to feel disco-ed, and yet, they were bothered by the fact that disco was calypso. It was a dead ringer,” Parks says, once again sounding out beats at the picnic table. “They were mad as hell about that. And then reggae hit the fan—in a big way—and I was delighted.” This is when Parks received his call from Bob Marley.

Clang of the Yankee Reaper

“‘Let’s face it, Mr. Parks, the white man is finished in the Caribbean,’” said Marley to Parks. “I thought that was a rather harsh thing to say. He was so pissed at me, because I didn’t have time to work for him because I was so trying to get 28 toothbrushes… I was just too busy and he took it as a slight.” Though, what may’ve been a missed opportunity with Marley, Parks made up for it by recording with his contemporary, Jimmy Cliff. “Jimmy Cliff was a big deal to me,” he says. Believing Cliff’s melodies often prevailed over Marley’s “rhythm machine,” Parks helped the singer secure his publishing and played keyboards on Cliff’s 1976 album, Follow My Mind. “I honestly think that the Jamaicans showed a greater power of adaptability against ‘guns, germs, and steel’ than calypso. Trinidad is more removed—it’s a different world…”

Following the Sparrow production gig and Parks’ own Clang of the Yankee Reaper (a good half of its material bearing the earmarks of calypso), by the end of the ’70s, Parks was back in the bosom of the California singer-songwriter scene, working with Lowell George, Nicolette Larson, and again with Harry Nilsson. So what then of calypso, his first Caribbean love?

“Calypsonians were an uncapturable lot, really, and I’ll tell you why… They never had any regard in an engagement in copyright. Maybe it’s an uncommon modesty of sorts.” Matters of contractual arrangement were a formality that, according to Parks, was of no interest to calypsonians. “It finally dawned on me there is an undeniably vulgar aspect to contract agreements because they’re built to check coercion and that’s a sad way to approach any mutual trust. These songs are for a moment’s discovery, born of such a highly extemporaneous, unanticipated purpose. A solution to a problem is what it’s all about.”

Artistically, he was satisfied by the calypso interlude. “Those two recordings were made at the apex of analog. Such a phenomenon of sound and so nuanced… small notes that all make up the way it feels in the bones,” he said.

Environmentally, the idea to link calypso or any music to the earth’s wellness was visionary on Parks’ behalf; the frontiers of such thought combined with activism are yet to be fully explored. Although at one time he’d hoped to deliver his message directly to consumers at the pump as a “premium gift” with fill-up (the idea was a sound sheet of the Esso Trinidad Steel Band singing “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby), his dream of harmony, enlightenment, and environmental healing through steel band music was too far-reaching. Idealistically, Park could not fulfill his full vision with Esso.

“I was in the crosshairs of the racial divide with these gentlemen who had no idea about such things,” explained Parks. “A guy shot at us—a farmer up on a hill with a shotgun—when the bus broke down on the road in the South. The culture collision was probably among the top five benchmark psychological events of my life, for so many reasons.” Esso’s US tour ground to a halt for good when their aforementioned bus crashed. Several men were hospitalized and one was laid up at the Parks household for four months. “I came up as quickly as I could with another record about calypso to keep the focus on the medium. I put a Greyhound bus and a Continental Trailways bus on the front cover, just to get these men out of bed.” The Parks album Discover America contains interpretations of “FDR in Trinidad”, “The Four Mills Brothers”, and “Bing Crosby”, among others from the calypso canon. Parks’ time with the steel band was drawing to a close, though not before one last act in which he finessed a potentially sticky situation with Standard Oil of New Jersey that ultimately okayed the Trinidad Steel Band to retain the use of Esso in its name, without an injunction.

He still stands by a statement he made of Esso, those years ago: “The greatest group I’ve ever had the privilege to produce.” Like his calypso brethren, Parks may’ve been bloodied, but his confidence in the art of calypso is unyielding. “All of the bravado of such poverty—poor people speaking plainly, representing the disenfranchised—is what calypso is all about,” he states. “It’s not only topical songs that are optimally crafted, both lyrically and melody—it’s that they do things: They move mountains. It’s a life force.”

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Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, California, Calypso, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Harry Belafonte, , , , , ,

Jazz Appreciation Month: Branford Marsalis

If you’re a faithful reader of this blog, a fan of jazz, or a follower of Branford Marsalis,  I have some news to share:  I recently did an in-depth interview with the mercurial bandleader and composer for the May 2019 issue of DownBeat, available at newsstands throughout the month of April (and also online). The bonus is the timing coincides with National Jazz Appreciation Month and the magazine itself, publishing since 1934, is a jazz treasure: I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be a regular contributor, and to have been assigned this story about one of the many accomplished members of the Marsalis family musical dynasty.

There was no subject off-limits in our conversation. Marsalis was open with every question I asked and and he introduced plenty of ideas and topics of his own that moved us beyond music and into other realms. And while our side-roads into botany and archaeology didn’t make the final cut, Marsalis stressed how his divergent interests inform his music.  You can hear how the influences add up on the new album by his quartet, The Secret Between The Shadow And The Soul. Have a listen and let me know what you think about the interview.  As ever, thanks for reading.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Jazz, new article, , , , ,

The Lives of San Francisco’s Poets

 

Some people write poetry. Others write about poetry.  I write about poets, among other people and living things. This week, San Francisco remains in the throes of celebrating poet, painter, and publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti who turns 100 years old on March 24.  He is indeed a person and a cause worthy of an extended celebration: A champion of art not only in his own work on the page, but at every opportunity he gets to speak publicly about the City, and as proprietor of City Lights, the bookstore he founded in 1953. There has been and will be much more written about Ferlinghetti as we move into his birthday month’s second half and upon the publication of his new novel Little Boy (pure poetry); I’ll leave it those better qualified to speak to his influence. I can however report firsthand that last Sunday,  on an unseasonably sunny and warm day, poet laureates past and present and assorted other people crammed into the cave-live Koret Auditorium at the San Francisco Public Library for a long afternoon of reading and speechifying in the name of Ferlinghetti’s centennial. There were some laughs and appreciation, but it was largely the kind of event that Ferlinghetti himself might have described as a gathering of “all you poet’s poets writing poetry about poetry.” I mean, I don’t know, I’m just going by what he’s written and what the poet’s poets said about him that day (at some point I lost altitude — not enough air in there).

As Ferlinghetti’s celebration continues, and in anticipation of poetry month in April and well, just because I can, I’ll point you to four recent profiles I’ve compiled about the lives of poets from our City of Poets.  All are in some way connected to Ferlinghetti’s legacy.

In this week’s San Francisco Examiner, I profiled Josiah Luis Alderete, a Spanglish speaking poet with North Beach roots and a Mission District corazón. An amazing performer, his pieces with titles like Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez and Pinche Piñata will set you straight. Read his story here

Kim Shuck is San Francisco’s seventh and current poet laureate:  She is a tireless artist, educator, activist and advocate.  Her poems make racist statues disappear.  Read her story here

Alejandro Murguía was San Francisco’s sixth poet laureate and is the de facto poet laureate of the Mission District. His personal story spans beyond poetry and our city limits, from the bracero camps to the war in El Salvador. Read his story here

Finally, Tongo Eisen-Martin has been reading and resisting across the country the last couple of years. If you’ve had the good fortune to hear him recite his poems in person, then you know. He’s done some deep research into extrajudicial killing of Black lives and his poetry is alive on arrival. Read his story here

None of the tellings of the stories of these poets and their lives would be possible without the poets themselves, The City of San Francisco, The San Francisco Examiner and its photographer Kevin Hume, and the independent booksellers of the Mission District (particularly Modern Times Bookstore Collective, where I was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of these extraordinary artists). Thank you to everyone involved in making San Francisco’s poetry community exceptional and accessible.  And oh yes: A hearty thank you and a very Happy Birthday, Mr. Ferlinghetti. Your insurgent poetry continues to inspire we who are waiting for the rebirth of wonder with you.

 

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Poetry, San Francisco News, Uncategorized, , , , , , ,

Witness

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Treat Street, Mission District, San Francisco

Every Saturday I walk by them, the two women who ring the bell and the single man who answers the door and greets them. For an hour or more, or for at least as long as it takes for my own standing lunch date, they huddle in the doorway, reading pages from Awake or The Watchtower. I’m incredibly moved by this scene of the same three strangers, week in, week out, and the conversation I imagine them to be having about matters of this life and after.

One afternoon, at the moment I passed, the women were waiting at the gate, with no sign of the man. I thought Ha! he’d tricked them, and decided to sit out their Saturday ritual, though that was the moment he stumbled forth, buttoning his shirt, opening the door, apologizing to them for the delay. The women weren’t troubled at all and told him to take his time.  They seemed happy to wait.

It is the tender nature of the exchange, between two people of faith and one on the fence, and the simple kindness and respect with which they relate to each other that reminds me of civility, the likes of which is rarely on display in The City where behemoth tech buses roll. I wonder what the two ladies in their simple pressed blouses and tan loafers make of those.

There were days, not long ago, happier times on these blocks, when people strolled in their Sunday best even on weekdays, acknowledging each other with a tip of the hat and by appellation — Miss, Mister, Missus. I’ve told myself so many times, this old world no longer exists, and yet here it is, unfolding for me to witness, every Saturday afternoon in the Western Addition.

 

Filed under: San Francisco News, serial, Sunnyside Up, Tales of the Gentrification City, ,

Two Artists: One Making Art, the Other Making History (An Appreciation)

Last week I had the opportunity to interview San Francisco wire sculptor, Kristine Mays. I should no longer be surprised by how small a

San Francisco artist Kristine Mays, whose sculptures expressing the human form through hundreds of individual pieces of wire are featured at the African American Arts and Culture Complex in the display “Brutally Soft” through March 24, talks about her favorite piece “Birthing Greatness” at the complex’s Sargent Johnson Gallery in the Fillmore District on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

town this city really is, or how synchronicity plays a role in, well, everything. It was a joy to have a meaningful conversation with a working artist, born in San Francisco, whose daily life as a child had her crisscrossing the Southwestern San Francisco corridors I know well. After so many years, Mays is committed to staying here, despite the loss and the grief associated with a city under hard gentrification.  Mays is a member of the 3.9 Art Collective, a group of black artists supporting black artists. I hope you’ll read her story which includes a connection to San Francisco’s most famous and beloved wire sculptor, Ruth Asawa (as well as an unwritten connection to literary legend Maya Angelou whom she often quotes in her sculpted work).  Mays is carrying on the work that both women started here as groundbreaking artists. Read her story in this week’s SFLives column in The San Francisco Examiner.

At this time, I wish to personally remember the San Francisco artist Eugene E. White for a couple of reasons:  He passed on Friday afternoon February 8, in the hours I was speaking to Mays at the African American Art & Culture Complex [AAACC]. He was a dedicated and groundbreaking painter. For over 60 years, Mr. White ran his gallery, Kujiona: It was an unprecedented achievement for an independently-owned, Afrocentric gallery. In 2013, Mr. White was honored with a group show at the AAACC; it was the rare occasion that he chose to publicly show his work. I can’t stress enough how unique Mr. White was, as a person and as an artist.  This film by local filmmakers Citizen Film is a good doorway to his story.  I’ve written about the artist many times in this space and elsewhere and you can link to those pieces for more. In 2018, I was contacted by The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, inquiring if Mr. White was still living. Indeed at that time he was. I hope to hear his work will be on view there or elsewhere in the not-too-distant future. I will point readers to a full obituary when it runs. My heartfelt condolences to his beloved family and friends. And to San Francisco I say, harrumph: You’ve lot another great, under-recognized  artist.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Black Power,, California, gentrification, San Francisco News, , , , , , , , ,

No Literary Work Here, Not a Chance

Sometimes I write.  Well, most times I write.  Daytime.  Nighttime. And often at the crack of dawn. Very rarely am I up in the middle of the night, though if I’m working on something strong, it’s been known to happen. What I write is not always for publication and it’s not always for you to know, though occasionally, I will publish work that is outside of the square boxes that keep writers locked in and gatekeepers busy doing the ticking.  That box labels me a journalist, a columnist, a music critic, an arts reporter. And yes, I know it’s so confusing but I also review books and films and write extensive profiles of people. Can you imagine that I also have dared to write about politics?  Please don’t fret, it’s usually just personal and local though occasionally it reaches out into the world. Crazy, I know! Here’s the thing and you might not be ready for it, but heck, I’m about to tell you anyway: I write writings of all kinds, occasionally sacred and other times sordid (as are most matters for hire, which means I get paid for those pieces).  Sometimes I volunteer my time (the pros call it pro bono work. I call it writing). What I’m getting at is the list of themes and assignments is long and frankly, a little unbelievable so I’ll spare you the details, partly because so many of my subjects have crossed over to the other side: They can’t testify for themselves, but among the living, I can tell you that most all the customers report satisfaction. Generally, I specialize in “difficult to categorize” “unwieldy” and “marginal” subjects, though there is one kind of writing to which I lay no claim though have been accused of lately and that’s poetry. Actually some “friends” told me the work, published here and there and most recently in a chapbook, The Rakish Tam, could be called such a thing. I disagree with them.  I am a writer, plain and simple.  Writers write.  So go ahead and call me what you like, just know that square boxes and categorization are not for me.  If you care to learn any more about what all my fussing is about, you can send a self-addressed stamped envelope the size of a notebook eight dollars — six for the book and two for postage and handling — to keepon.keepon.pushing@gmail.com and you can decide for yourself.  Or not. Though while we’re here: Limited edition reprints of my first chapbook, Awful Sweet, are also available at the same cut-rate. And with that, I thank you for leaving your preconceived ideas about writing in the 20th Century, and as ever, for reading: Because while I’m happy to give away everything on these pages for free for use in classrooms and homes throughout the world, I’m not as happy to post everything I write on the worldwide web for no compensation and a whole lotta unsolicited feedback. Which is why you won’t find anything remotely literary here. Not at all.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, California, Editorial, Freedom Now, gentrification, income disparity, It's Personal, Poetry, police, Sunnyside Up, You Read It Here First

Two Bay Area Lives in the Arts

Curator and art history instructor Kathy Zarur (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

It’s funny when two stories I’ve worked on for a good while both wind up publishing on the same day, but that’s just how things work sometimes.  In the case of these two pieces, the first on independent curator and adjunct arts instructor Kathy Zarur and the second on public art muralist Daniel Galvez, it turned out they compliment each other quite nicely.

One of the reasons I interview people and arts professionals is that I like them, they’re my people.  In the case of Zarur and Galvez, it couldn’t be more the case.  Both were extremely generous with their time with me, allowing me to probe into their personal and professional lives. They didn’t have to do that, especially not at a time when artists, professionals and everyday Americans from their respective communities are under extreme pressure.

Muralist Daniel Galvez.
(Ekevara Kitpowsong/CurrentSF)

 

Zarur is a born and raised, second generation Palestinian American who has devoted her life to studying the arts and passing on her knowledge as a college instructor.  She also independently co-curates exhibits and installations.  It’s a precarious way to make a living in San Francisco but she is committed.  An interesting side note which did not make it into this week’s SFLives column but which demonstrates the intersections between all of us who live, work and maybe were even born here in San Francisco: Zarur’s family and my family were likely on the same block at the same time in the early ’70s.  I hope to explore these intersections in a future project but until then, I’m just counting it as more evidence that we are all part of one human family.

Galvez, also native to California but from the Sacramento area, has made his home in Oakland for the last 30 some years. His father was Mexican American and met his mother who was from Mexico; he is the first person in his family to attend college and the first artist among them. Galvez’s public works can be seen coast to coast but there is one mural of his that I pass frequently in the course of my own work in San Francisco’s Mission District:  He recently restored this work titled Carnaval, based on photographs by photojournalist Lou Dematteis. Someday, I hope to visit the Audubon Ballroom where Galvez created a permanent mural depicting the life of the late Malcolm X.

I have to say I feel a bit of pride in our Bay Area for supporting the work of artists and arts professionals, diverse people across generational, gender and cultural heritage lines. But jobs in the arts are becoming more scare here due to extreme gentrification and the high cost of living.  I hope and actually, I pray, that people like Zarur and Galvez can continue to thrive and contribute to the arts and culture communities here so that future generations can enjoy what they and their families worked hard to make possible:  A richer life for all of us.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Latinx culture, , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Last Holiday: On Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron and the Dream of an MLK Birthday Observance Made a Reality

150119092427-restricted-02-mlk-0119-super-169Today is the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929. It was a long road to the third Monday in January when all 50 states will observe a federal holiday named in his honor.  Largely owed for making the dream of a King holiday a reality is Stevie Wonder, who back in 1980, wrote the pointed song, “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott- Heron along) to promote the idea which was first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The musical efforts were ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures that had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring a day for MLK. Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to the party, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance of the civil rights giant. “Happy Birthday,” which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is  the last track on Hotter Than July. The album also features “Master Blaster,” Wonder’s tribute to Bob Marley (he’d been scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate). Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, posthumously published memoir The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism, and helps retrace the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home the last US federal holiday, with the help of a song.

The Hotter Than July tour brought Gil and Stevie to Oakland, where they played in the name of King, along with Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana. In a weird turn of events, the concert on December 8, 1980, coincided with the shocking night John Lennon was killed. The musicians and crew learned of the tragedy from a backstage television; the job fell to Wonder,  with Scott-Heron and the other musicians at his side, to deliver the news to the arena of assembled music fans. “For the next five minutes he spoke spontaneously about his friendship with John Lennon:  how they’d met, when and where, what they had enjoyed together, and what kind of man he’d felt Lennon was,” wrote Scott-Heron.  “That last one was key, because it drew a line between what had happened in New York that day and what had happened on that motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, a dozen years before.  And it drew a circle around the kind of men who stood up for both peace and change.”   Scott-Heron devotes the final pages of The Last Holiday  to a remembrance of how the murder of Lennon fueled the final drive to push for a federal observance of an official MLK Day.

The politics of right and wrong make everything complicated

To a generation who’s never had a leader assassinated

But suddenly it feels like ’68 and as far back as it seems

One man says “Imagine” and the other says “I have a dream”

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Blues, Bob Marley, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia, Gil Scott-Heron, ,

Wayne Shorter’s Legend and Legacy

88be2d1eb4124206aeb362e8da4e0f22Saturday night’s celebration of Wayne Shorter’s music in San Francisco turned out to be a symbolic passing of the torch by the Wayne Shorter Quartet to jazz’s new leading lights, Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin. The LA musicians and their relationship to tradition, innovation and carrying the music forward is similar to the role Shorter and his close collaborator Herbie Hancock played in the ’70s and beyond.  Read the entire review, my take on the show, in DownBeat online. 

Also, in this week’s online issue of DownBeat, my profile on pianist Joey Calderazzo of the Branford Marsalis Quartet on how he beat cubital tunnel syndrome. The story also appears in the January newsstand issue of the magazine: DownBeat has been publishing since 1934 and I am thrilled to have become a regular contributor there. Look for the February issue on newsstands now.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Concerts, cross cultural musical experimentation, Jazz, , , , , ,

A Very Merry Christmas

Holiday greetings:  This post is adapted annually for your reading pleasure.

Some time in New York City, 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono came up with a Christmas song for the ages, its subject peace on earth during wartime, its melody extraordinarily similar to “Stewball,” a hoary folk song about a racehorse. Behind its veil of bluegrass, “Stewball” has deep roots plus class and race resonances, but only a tangential connection to the “Happy Xmas” song (if you’ve got the time to delve into these matters, there’s more where this came from, including clips and further linkage).

In his final major interview, Lennon explained, “‘Happy Christmas’ Yoko and I wrote together. It says, ‘War is over if you want it.’ It was still that same message—the idea that we’re just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. As long as people imagine that, somebody’s doing it to them and they have no control, then they have no control.” Lennon and Ono had used the slogan “War Is Over! (If You Want It)” in their 1969 billboard campaign that sold peace to the people just as aggressively as consumer goods and war were promoted in the public sphere.

Recorded in October at the Record Plant and assisted by producer Phil Spector, the Plastic Ono Band (who for this session included Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, and Hugh McCracken) were joined by the children of the Harlem Community Choir (they sing, “War is over if you want it”). The single was released in the US on December 6th and held until the following November of 1972 for release in the UK.

Spector’s influence is clear—you can hear his signature claustrophobic effects, similar to those on the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” and the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him.”  But there is another ghost of rock and roll past in the room: The song borrows the feeling and the melody of “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace, a well- known Lennon favorite.

As for the slogan War is Over, the Doors had previously  used it in their 1968 anti-war song, “Unknown Solider” as had W.S. Merwin in his anti-Vietnam poem, “When the War Is Over,” published in 1967.  “Happy Xmas” bears traces of all the aforementioned melodies and influences, in addition to their somber moods, along with the note-for-note cadence of “Stewball.” Opening with a whisper to their children from whom they were estranged at the time (“Happy Christmas Kyoko, Happy Christmas Julian”), the lyrics open with a rather pointed question (“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?”) and wishes for a better world to follow. All is forgiven by the final uplift.

The persecution of peacenik Lennon as well as his end have been well-documented; Ono continues to work for peace and against gun violence and nearly 50 years since its release, their seasonal single and collaboration has taken on a life of its own.

 

 

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, rock 'n' roll, video, , , ,

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