Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

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.

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

Stew and Heidi return with two new albums: Notes Of A Native Song and The Total Bent

The year’s end brought not one but two new albums of material by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, known professionally as The Negro Problem. Stew’s the wordman and Rodewald is the melodicist, arranger and additional voice in the mix. Both The Total Bent and Notes Of A Native Song are thematic works and the material is as wonderful as I remember: the songs were presented as work in progress at a San Francisco performance at the Curran two years ago. Here’s the audio for “Jimmy” from Notes Of A Native Song, followed by an interview I did with the pair in on the occasion of the release of their album Making It (2012), a pop chronicle of love lost.

Heidi Rodewald and Stew, also known as the self-described Afro-pop, “Blackarach” band, the Negro Problem had it all:  Love, creative partnership and attention from a prestigious arts foundation for a stage musical that was eventually bound for glory – Broadway, Obie and Tony awards – and even a Joint by Spike Lee. Somewhere in that order of things, Stew and Heidi’s love hit the rocks, but the show must go on and the resulting musical, Passing Strange ran for 165 performances on Broadway before closing in July of 2008.

And then it got a stranger:  “The end of the play was when I could really hear the door slam,” says Stew, his voice reduced to a hush.  “The art had to end before I realized it was
over.”

For Stew, the nights on Broadway with bassist, vocalist and creative collaborator Heidi were rehearsals for the retirement of their romance. “It’s a fact that we broke up during Passing Strange and we had to be in a play for two years together which is pretty intense,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Making It is largely about that experience…Not every song, but most of it.”

“Yea, it was a little bit of a drag,” is Heidi’s response to opening up the door on her and Stew’s life together.  “I mean, we didn’t decide to do the show, Stew decided to do the show, but I love that about Stew, that he can put into words the way I feel,” she says, though in the case of Making It (released on Stew and Heidi’s TNP label), he took that process one step further.

Explains Stew, “I showed her my part to ‘Leave Believe’ and asked her, ‘Do you think you could maybe write lyrics that are your version of that?’  And Heidi’s response was, ‘That’s exactly how I felt.’ Consequently they both sing the song’s sole lines – “It took a little while for me to see, you stopped believing in me/I wasn’t left
with much to do, so I stopped believing in you” – to stunning effect.

“Stew had starting saying that writing a show about us breaking up was like his therapy and I told him that therapy only works if you tell the truth,” says Heidi, who remains unsettled by airing the confines of her heart for art’s sake. And yet, when Stew turned Heidi’s jabs and other phrases into songs, he sweetened the deal a bit by arranging to open up some space in his word-jammed verses for her to sing the truth from her own lips.  Somehow, Heidi bought the idea and wound up on board with the project, and it’s her add that allows Making It to claim space on the continuum of great break-up albums, from Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear and Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights to Beck’s Sea Change.  Spitting her embittered lines (like “I’m tired of waiting around, for nothing to change” from the sweetly melodious “Love is a Cult”), there’s a power in the jarring rawness and fly-on-the-wall intimacy. Stew’s frankness is just as unnerving, even for someone whose stock-in-trade is walking the razor’s edge between life and art. But lest you think Making It is his diary of a mad artist, or exegesis on fame a la Kanye or Gaga, it’s not: Rodewald’s crystal voice simply doesn’t allow for Stew to wallow in too many teardrops.

Opening with a song about “Pretend,” and “stupid little songs that’ll make you break down and cry,” Stew sets the stage: “Plays are real if you pretend/you are too, until the end/trapped in a homegrown masquerade, costume’s wrong but so well made, curtain fell but who got played…”

“I had my fun,” admits Stew, about the immediate post-break-up freedom phase, “but the bottom line was, when the play closed, we didn’t know if we were going to continue together.”

Both parties were pained, as evidenced by the album’s set-piece, “Curse,” which sways as heavy as a funeral dirge as it proclaims, “You don’t need a new girlfriend, what you need is a nurse”.  But there’s more to Making It than the depth and drama of coming undone:  The double sword of trying to get over finds Stew rocking a litany of contentious real life subjects: “Pretend” feeds back into “Black Men Ski,” Stew’s impressionistic musings on the New Black and the so-called post-racial thing: “I have poems about sunsets, flowers, and the rain, I’ve read them to policemen, but it was all in vain…” Other matters on Stew’s desktop are death and injustice, empire and war, subjects that get a good going over in “Suzy Wong” (featuring California-bred rhymes like “BART rider” with “brush fire”) and the exploding “Pastry Shop,” concerning “rage against coffee machines” among other crimes, all enveloped in strains of pain and desire (which when you think of it, isn’t so unlike breaking-up after all).

Of course, all the songs are threaded with the kind of wordplay that’s contributed to Stew becoming admired abroad, laurelled and wreathed on the Great White Way, and assigned by The New York Times to report from his trip to Kenya lastsummer.  And yet, he’s still one Negro who can’t get arrested in LA…

As the narrator of Passing Strange, Stew told the story of his character The Youth, who lives like a refugee in South Los Angeles until he gets wind of the idea that a black artist can live more free in Europe  (though when he gets there, he’s hipped to other realities).

As a theater piece Passing Strange is iconoclastic; an unlikely hit that contributed to rock’s new run on Broadway; the play is a timeless, coming of age drama with a killer score, largely informed by Stew and Heidi’s close to the ground relationship with LA rock ‘n’ roll.  Both were fixtures on the rock scene there, first as teens (Stew was conversant in Bowie and the Beatles and says he caught hell in his old neighborhood for it, while Heidi was a bassist from the ‘burbs who made her initial mark with the Paisley Underground-styled Wednesday Week).  As Mark Stewart (Stew changed his name officially when confusion reigned between him and the other Mark Stewart, of The Pop Group/On U Sound-fame), he motored around the city, taking in all
forms of live rock ‘n’ soul and connecting up with like-minded musicians who
understood the Technicolor nature of rock.  He formed the Negro Problem in the early ‘90s and debuted with Post Minstrel Syndrome in ’97.  When Heidi joined the group, he found the perfect collaborator for his whimsy as a songwriter.

Difficulties with their handle notwithstanding, TNP, as they are sometimes called, continued to release albums and gig, finding an audience among industry insiders, fellow musicians and the clubby KCRW set though they remained only a moderate draw at the black box rock clubs.  And so it was at mid-life, the pair set out for New York and something better – a second act, perhaps – where they might find a home for their sophisticated sounds and a space to work on their musical. The rare opportunity to workshop twice what became Passing Strange, once in 2004 and again in 2005 at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, is what brought them into the orbit that landed them in theaters – Berkeley Rep, New York’s Public and eventually Broadway’s Belasco, where Spike Lee filmed the final night of Passing Strange and cut it into a film. By then the circumstances that provoked the themes of Making It were heating up like charcoal on a broiler.  An initial performance of the songs as a stage piece at St. Anne’s Warehouse became the springboard toward completing Making It as an album.

And while it’s a little frustrating for Stew and Heidi to have to explain to their newly converted theater fans that it isn’t really “going back” to rock since they never really left it, fans of Passing Strange as well as the Negro Problem may be interested to know that following the release of Making It, Stew and Heidi are scheduled to return to the theater. Their new musical, The Total Bent, begins a three-week preview run at New York’s Public Lab next month.  Concerning the journey of a gospel turned rock singer occupying “the complicated space from the sacred to the profane,” it’s set in a period of historic political and social unrest, “just south of the Twilight Zone.”

 It remains to be seen what awaits around the bend for Stew,Heidi and the Negro Problem, though from rock ‘n’ roll to theater, their collaboration is secure; they’re making it work.

“I don’t consider myself a confessional songwriter by any means, but Heidi’s the person I thought I was going to grow old with,” says Stew. “In some ways she still is because we’re in this band. I’m hoping we are going to grow old together – onstage.”

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Harlem, James Baldwin, Now Playing, , , , , ,

Two California Women in Conversation

Getting to meet inspiring, creative and intelligent people is probably my favorite part of the job as an independent journalist, editor and curator (aside from doing the writing, of course…). Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with two extraordinary women, Kim Shuck, a poet/educator/beadworker and Lynell George, a journalist/essayist/photographer. Somewhere along the way and between individual conversations with both of them, I had the idea to get the pair together to talk about the things we seem to talk about most: The changing cityscapes of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Being born Californian and staying here has given Lynell and Kim a deep understanding of the place. I hope you’ll explore their insights and their work, and I invite you to read the conversation, published this month in Boom California, by the University of California Press.

(photo of Kim Shuck by Doug Salin; photo of Lynell George by Al Quattrocchi)

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, California, gentrification, Poetry, racism, San Francisco News, Women's issues, , , , ,

Take Down The Statues

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All around the country, bronze statues are coming down, thanks to a movement started in the South in 2015 following the church shooting in Charleston. A city, a whole region, holding on to a vision of the past that was not very honorable in the first place is no way to acknowledge true history or let the generations of people who were harmed by that history heal; instead these megaton renderings glorify injustice and beget more violence. A nation in the middle of a prolonged racial crisis can no longer continue to inflict harm on its citizens and yet, these statues are a daily reminder of how twisted, inaccurate, and dated our history has become.  It’s time for a change.

The movement to unpack and teach a more accurate version of our state’s history has finally reached the far west, where we of course are supposed to understand and know better (yet by and large, I’m sad to report, there are those who still don’t get it).  Here in San Francisco last week, Native American activists and their allies achieved a victory that was 30 years in the making:  The rendering of a piece called Early Days depicting a Spanish conquistador and a Franciscan missionary lording over a Plains Indian (who by the way, was not from this region), was finally removed at the break of dawn following a contentious hearing process. I talked about statuary and other civic concerns with San Francisco’s poet laureate, Kim Shuck, a member of the Cherokee nation as well as a Polish American and a native to San Francisco.  She’s an educator with a masters in fine art and knows well the precedents for public art display; as a Native American, a person of conscience, and a mother, she was personally aggrieved by the sight of the statue as she moved in and out of the public library, her primary place of work as our city’s poet laureate.  And we talked more in-depth about the battle to topple the statue and about her San Francisco life.  I hope you’ll read on and link to this week’s edition of my San Francisco Examiner column, S.F. Lives: READ NOW

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Poetry, racism, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , , , , , ,

Boots Riley: The Coup, Sorry To Bother You & The Art of Anti-capitalism

Boots Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Amelia Kennedy.

Readers of Keep on Pushing, published in the Summer of 2011, may remember I briefly noted The Coup as hip hop artists who use ideas and art to make change. When I was writing the book over a five-year-period mid-decade, times were such in post-9/11 USA that “political music” was annexed to the sidelines, largely unheard by the mainstream. “Movement building” was something to be considered a leftover idea from another dimension. Things have changed: Now even your grandma is woke (though chances are your other grandma and maybe even your ma or pa are among the third of folks still living in American dreamland, the one that still doesn’t/never did exist).

Before a handful of musicians rallied behind the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, and decades before the current moment of resistance, there was Boots Riley.

Born into the movement in Oakland, California, Riley was politicized from the gate. Since the early ‘90s he’s used his innate talent and acquired knowledge to make change as a community worker and as a hip hop artist, leading The Coup.  The activist and auteur’s latest project, is the film he wrote and directed, Sorry to Bother You.  It’s an important surreal and absurd social satire, at once entertaining and disturbing (because it hits so close to home, which is also one of its strengths).

Riley, who studied film at university, also understands the wages of capitalism and the politics of labor and the economy; the lyrics he spit with the Coup were loaded with often cinematic displays of the details of his interests. For this month’s column, I delivered a sweeping overview of his band’s catalog as a sort of prelude to the film: I hope every working American will see it.

Read the entire article at Tourworthy.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, California, film, Keep On Pushing, , , ,

Extra: More S.F. Lives to read all about

Since the first of this year, it’s been my great pleasure to write a column for the Sunday San Francisco Examiner in which I introduce readers to some of the everyday citizens here who make our city a better place under difficult circumstances.  Yep, I said it:  For the last couple of years, you’ve probably been hearing about what some of us politely call “the changes” and what one of my favorite artist/activists calls the problem of gentrif-c-ation. Despite the pressures of living in the city with the highest cost of living in the United States, if we’re lucky (and I am) we’re making it with some help, some compassion and on the wings and the prayers of our best and brightest residents.  I hope you’ll read the latest published stories in our ongoing series of profiles: On artist Marco Razo, poet and movement worker, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Cherokee broadcaster, Mary Jean Robertson, Japantown preservationist Karen Kai, and public health advocate Mike Shriver and let me know what you think.  This Sunday we’ll be featuring the super-charged electrical contractor, Hanson Lee. Oh, and I get to collaborate with a great photographer, too: Here’s a snap I took of Kevin Hume at work photographing Karen Kai.  Thanks for reading!

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, San Francisco News

SF Lives: A New Column By Yours Truly

Stacks of the newest edition sit on the steps of San Francisco Bay View newspaper newsroom. (Emma Marie Chiang/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

I wanted to wait until we had a couple of editions under our belts to let my readers know I’m writing a bi-weekly column for The San Francisco Examiner called SF Lives.

My intent is to bring you news of everyday people who are leading extraordinary lives despite living under pressure in the most expensive city in the United States.  Many of us feel despair, as if we are underwater, unable to cope with the realities of the changing tides in our much-fabled and beloved city. Things are not always what they seem, especially to those of us who were born here and hold close The City’s secrets, legends, and sometimes myths and lies. Long term residents and newcomers alike are feeling the heat, but there are people among us who carry a torch for what we call “the old San Francisco.”  They bear the weight of upholding our city’s heavy reputation for innovation and iconoclasm with a humane touch:  They are the doers, and they are often the rulebreakers. They are definitely the unsung and they are the keepers of the spirit and soul of San Francisco now.

The SF Lives column is a small attempt to unpack the clashing ideas and ideals here, and to offer a glimmer of light in these dark times.  I’m not entirely sure where we’ll end up, but I hope you’re up for taking the trip with me.  If you’re interested in tuning in, follow the links to the first three columns now posted online: Mayoral candidate, Amy Farah Weiss; the couple behind The Bay View Newspaper, Mary and Willie Ratcliff; filmmakers Sophie Constantinou and Tamara Walker. As ever, I’m happy to hear your thoughts on the column and I appreciate your readership.

Filed under: California, column, gentrification, San Francisco News, ,

Congratulations Kim Shuck

Kim Shuck was named the new Poet Laureate of San Francisco today. Author of several collections of poetry, editor of anthologies and contributor to countless publications and journals, Kim is part Cherokee, part Polish, and is a fifth generation San Franciscan currently living in the Castro District.

“I’m delighted and flattered and ready to get on with the job,” she told me this morning upon the announcement of her post. “It’s not about me as much as it is about poetry and supporting poetry in the City.”

A lifelong reader, educator, lover of San Francisco’s libraries, its poetry, and writing history, I know Kim best as the curator of the Gears Turning Poetry Series which started at Modern Times Bookstore Collective in early 2015 and ran until the store’s closing at the end of 2016 (Gears Turning continues at Adobe Bookshop). Thanks to her efforts, her monthly reading series hosted a truly diverse, intellectually gifted, and emotionally-deep line-up of Native American readers and San Francisco poets, from the Mission to North Beach: She introduced voices that are not always featured at the usual bookstore readings and helped to restore a sense of normalcy to a bookstore that was having trouble surviving the new San Francisco.  She will be publishing a book of collected works by the poets in the series soon.

Kim’s own poems explore life’s often ineffable and sometimes more tangible mysteries, the light and the dark of them. The work is at once lyrical, traditional, and new. There is joy and grief and hope to be found in the collections of her poems, Clouds Running In, Rabbit Stories, Smuggling Cherokee, and the chapbook, Sidewalk Ndn. She is also an awarding-winning bead work artist.

Kim steps into the poet laureate position where Alejandro Muguía leaves it:  Both Alejando and Kim identify as poets of the People and of the Mission District, though they certainly have their respective histories and ties to San Francisco’s other poetry district, North Beach.  But what I really wish to acknowledge here is their tireless (a cliché, but true) efforts to raise the Mission’s profile as a literary destination in itself and for never saying no when called upon to read, present, or otherwise boost poetry in the neighborhood and beyond it.

A side note: Yesterday’s NPR program Fresh Air featured an interview with Native American writer, Sherman Alexie who noted there were fewer Indian voices at work than when he started publishing. He joked he and Louise Erdich hoped for a Native American writing renaissance and I immediately thought wait: What about the recent poetry prize awarded to Joy Harjo? What about Kim Shuck? Today’s news confirms that Native voices, and all the poets of San Francisco, past, present, and future, will be well-tended to in the hands of our seventh poet laureate. Congratulations to her.

 

 

Filed under: Book news, Books, California, Poetry, Women's issues, , ,

Latinas And The Roots of American Music

For my monthly column on music making a difference, I tried to capsulize the long history of Latinas contributing to popular music in America. From the earliest phonograph records made by San Antonio’s Lydia Mendoza, to LA’s Alice Bag (pictured here) who helped invent West Coast punk, and into the 21st Century with Fea, that’s nearly 100 years of recording history on their side. Read the entire article here and let me know what you think.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, column, cross cultural musical experimentation, Latina, Latino culture, Latinx culture, Mexican American/Latino Rock, Punk, Texas, , ,

Postmodern Times Requiem

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Poet Janice Mirikitani, GLIDE co-founder and housing activist, at State of the City Forum on Gentrification Issues, curated and moderated throughout 2014-15 by Denise Sullivan at Modern Times Bookstore Collective

How does a revolutionary bookstore and its personnel survive in the new Gilded Age?  A rhetorical question perhaps, but often asked, discussed, debated, and ultimately decided at 2919 24th Street in San Francisco, Modern Times Bookstore Collective. After 45 years of selling incendiary books to the loving people, the bookstore will close its doors next month.

You say you’re sad? We are too. You hope another independent radical bookstore will take its place. How can it?

Modern Times is where the brave, the broken, the bleeding hearts go to be repaired and refreshed, to be fed by literature and conversation, made (mostly) by Marxists,  Radical Queers, revolutionary sweetheart poets, and organized minds, the kind who protect Black Lives and Sacred Waters; your housing advocates, labor unionists, People’s politicians, Green partiers, anti-ablist, anti-ageist, anti-capitalist, anarchist cooks, militant vegans, and hopeful activists. And then there were the passersby who knew–there was a bathroom inside.

It was dirty in there: Waged that  war once or twice and lost it. I heard the staff of another neighborhood bookstore, never mind its name, speak ill of our sacred, safe, Spanish-speaking (ok, poor-Spanish-speaking), space. It hurt, but why reply and dignify ignorance: We were too busy anyway, blasting the surveillance state, police terror, environmental crisis, and the racist, sexist, bully nation.

We’ve been beat up, we’ve been thrown out, but we’re not down. We’re coming up, coming out, over the wall, across the bridge, under the freeway, on the block, in the chamber, in the jail cell, special housing unit, death row, and we’re gonna be alright. Because we don’t stop, you don’t stop, and there is no. sleep. ’til recall. Just know, even when the power gets cut, and the nights grow long and cold, Modern Times still sees you, and the little light that shines from your heart.

Written on October 11, 2016, barely revised, and read live that night at the Mission Bookstores/ Litquake Benefit, accompanied by Victor Krummenacher on guitar. Long live Modern Times Bookstore Collective.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Book news, California, Never Forget, Now Playing, Protest Songs, racism, San Francisco News,

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