Seymour Movies: Seymour’s Movies

If blame is necessary, then it goes to my good friend, humane observer and fellow professional spectator Tim Page, who was inspired by this year’s recently completed Academy Awards to come up with his own entirely subjective Best Picture list for every year he’s been alive. He posted this list on Facebook and the heroism of his effort so inspired me that I was compelled to come up with one of my own.

I had fun with it while I was picking and choosing. But as soon as I was finished, I was all but overcome by a profound sadness. Because as I surveyed this list, it came across more like a melancholy relic of an era of moviegoing that is all but swept away by the streams and clouds of the digital age, along with the countervailing bombast of spectaculars and star-packages contrived to keep whatever’s left of the multiplexes alive and upright, post-pandemic. 

Whatever you want to say about my choices, which are presented with little more than random illustrations and no explanations (or, at this point, equivocations), they each came from discoveries I made either at the time they were released or, mostly, long afterwards.  They are not commodities to be assessed like IPAs or yoga mats, which seems pretty much how most “consumers” assess filmed “product” these days; these films were means of stretching my senses, deepening memories, sharpening the landscape around me. They are all places to which I am always happy and eager to return so I can re-encounter the arcane joys they gave me and, maybe, find something new to like about them as an older, if not always wiser viewer. 

“Viewer.” I like that word so much better than “consumer.” Don’t you? 

A couple things before we begin: 1.) It’s entirely possible that some of the things on this list could change over time. They did in at least a few places as I prepared to post this version. 2.) These are in no way intended to be a definitive, all-time-great, etc. or whatever other euphemism you wish to use. They are parts of myself that I and I alone declare as a personal best for each year. You will have your own. I shall be as forbearing towards those as I hope you can manage to be for mine own. 

 

So…

 

 

 

1952: Singin’ in the Rain
1953: Tokyo Story

 

 

 

1954: Rear Window
1955: The Night of the Hunter
1956: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

 

 

 


1957: Sweet Smell of Success
1958: Vertigo
1959: Rio Bravo
1960: Shoot the Piano Player

 

 

 


1961: Yojimbo
1962: The Manchurian Candidate

 

 

 


1963: Charade
1964: A Hard Day’s Night
1965: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
1966: Persona

 

 

 


1967: Bonnie & Clyde
1968: 2001: A Space Odyssey
1969: The Wild Bunch
1970: The Landlord

 

 


1971: McCabe & Mrs. Miller
1972: The Godfather
1973: Mean Streets
1974: The Godfather II

 

 


1975: Jaws
1976: All the President’s Men
1977: Annie Hall
1978: Blue Collar

 

 


1979: Being There
1980: Raging Bull
1981: Diva
1982: Blade Runner
1983: The Right Stuff
1984: Repo Man
1985: Lost in America

 

 

 


1986: My Beautiful Launderette
1987:  The Princess Bride 

 

 

 


1988: Bull Durham
1989: Do the Right Thing
1990: GoodFellas
1991: Daughters of the Dust

 


1992: One False Move
1993: Groundhog Day
1994: Pulp Fiction
1995: Toy Story
1996: Jerry Maguire

 

 

 


1997: L.A. Confidential
1998: Babe: Pig in the City

 

 


1999: All About My Mother
2000: Yi-Yi

 

 

2001: Y Tu Mama Tambien 
2002: The 25th Hour/Talk To Her
2003: Lost in Translation
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2005: A History of Violence
2006: Children of Men

 

 

 

 

 


2007: There Will Be Blood
2008: WALL-E

 

 


2009: A Serious Man

 

 


2010: The Social Network
2011: Margin Call
2012: Lincoln

 

 

 

2013: Only Lovers Left Alive

 

 


2014: Dear White People
2015: Mad Max: Fury Road
2016: Moonlight

 


2017:  Get Out/Lady Bird
2018: The Sisters Brothers

2019: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

 

 

2020: First Cow

 

 

Seymour Movies Asks: If We’re Not Sure What A Movie Is Any More, Then What’s An Oscar?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just so we’re clear, movies aren’t dead, though multiplexes are likely dying. And that process was well underway before COVID-19 locked down the world.

We keep hearing that there’s light at the end of this tunnel we’ve been trudging through for a year. But keep in mind, whether immunized or not, that we’re still in a tunnel, even as I’m writing this. And whenever we all can safely stagger into this light-at-the-end, it’s going to take a while for us to get our cloistered senses re-adjusted. Things will at the very least look a lot different at the outset from how they did a year ago, the movie business being among the familiar institutions most conspicuously affected by a year of closures and strictly enforced re-openings here and there.

Of course, I too have missed going to movie theaters, even the ugliest, most utilitarian of them. No matter how big an HDTV screen you’re able to squeeze into your kitchen or bathroom, the experience of watching any moving picture, whether as intimate as Persona or as populated as Rear Window is nowhere near as immersive as sitting with strangers in even the narrowest darkened room. As with any other self-respecting cinephile, I regret what seems an irreversible decline in a kind of romantic, near-heroic age of moviegoing commemorated by Martin Scorsese during the past year. Streams and clouds are no longer alternatives to theater-going. They are now, pretty much, The Ball Game.  Given the choice between figuring out logistics for going out to see a blockbuster or watch that blockbuster at your own convenience as soon as it “drops,” how many would rather pony up the baby-sitting money, root around for gas and parking expenses and line up single file for whatever dubiously packaged snack will adequately meet their needs and those of the kids tagging along? 

But we’ll still have movie houses; better yet, all those repertory houses that were devoured by the multiplex could come back to life and restore the romance and adventure celebrated by Scorsese. If whatever’s left of the multiplexes still think they can make a go of it by including all kinds of other distractions – arcade games, dining, aerial acts, whatever – they’ll carry on and some may even thrive in such reinvention.

And the really good news, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that the Age of Clouds and Streams will better enable greater diversity of both product and producers. Studios will no longer have to wonder about whether certain scripts and stories are too “niche-ey” to reap theatrical profits worldwide. In other words, Black and other minority filmmakers will have more and better outlets to tell their stories and, through such exposure, may eventually be empowered enough to carry those stories into wider marketplaces.

But that’s all for later. For now, the movies are still trying to pick their way through a bewildering, anxious and altogether strange year that may someday be regarded as a transformative one. Whether the transformations are for better or worse won’t be settled or even suggested by this year’s Oscars that, whatever else you want to say about them, don’t look a whole lot like the Oscars of a decade or even a half-decade before

As always, projected winners are in bold face and, whenever necessary, a FWIW (For Whatever It’s Worth) disclaimer/appendix will follow.

Oh…and one more thing: if you’ve been annually wagering on my picks, please don’t do that this year because this year, as opposed to its predecessors, I expect to be wrong about most, if not all of these. 



Best Picture

 

 

 

 

 

Judas and the Black Messiah
Mank
Minari
Nomadland
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Father
The Trial of the Chicago 7

After all those serial film festival triumphs, rapturous reviews and probing inquiries into its up-to-the-minute-neo-Grapes-of-Wrath relevance (or lack thereof), Nomadland has become this season’s catch-all for smarty-pants revisionism. Critics and civilians alike seem to be groping for reasons to dislike or dismiss it, many of them insisting on greater detail or added socio-political content that the movie’s structure was never built to contain in the first place. Why? Who’s that helping? And aren’t we supposed to be smart enough to tease out such inferences on our own? What happened to the idea of making the audiences work even a little bit instead of the story doing all the work for them?

I still believe in Nomadland, even if I’m no longer certain the Academy does. But what kind of Academy vote will matter here? If it’s the same Academy that punched Green Book’s ticket two years ago, then Mank, The Father or Chicago 7, the closest things to “traditional” Oscar bait, will get this one. If it’s the Academy that gave Parasite its unprecedented near-sweep of a year ago, then Minari, Judas and, yes, Nomadland lead the pack. This leaves Sound of Metal and Promising Young Woman, both very dark in very different ways. If you think the Best Picture vote is the best reflection of an overall industry mood, then I’m going to presume here that the overall industry is both anxious and angry over what’s happened over the last twelve months, or four years, or whatever index you choose to use. The mordant humor of Promising Young Woman is, from this vantage point, best suited to ride that wave. If on the other hand events since January 20th are making Hollywood feel more hopeful than not, then any of the others could take this one home. As with just about every category on the board this year, nothing’s set in granite.

UPDATE (4/8/21): Is it plausible to imagine a world in which the in-your-face storytelling of The Trial of the Chicago 7  vanquishes the sublimities of Nomadland or even Minari (which would be my personal choice)? Doesn’t take much imagining,  because that world has been with us for as far back as the 1940s when issue-oriented melodramas such as Gentlemen’s Agreement could prevail over David Lean’s Great Expectations. (A greater, if not necessarily bigger movie than either Lean’s Bridge Over the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia. ) It’s still anybody’s ballgame as far as I’m concerned. But somehow Aaron Sorkin’s look-back-in-anger over what happened to Fred Hampton in 1969 seems more of an industry crowd-pleaser (and prototypical Oscar-winning Best Picture) than, say, Shaka King’s angrier one. 

Best Director

Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
David Fincher, Mank
Emerald Fennel, Promising Young Woman
Lee Issac Chung, Minari
Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round

Zhao’s ascension is as compelling and inspiring a story as her movie’s. Besides which, it’s past time for a woman-of-color to win one of these

Best Actor

 

 



Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Gary Oldman, Mank
Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Steven Yeun, Minari

There’s been some chatter, as the NSA likes to put it, over how Hopkins’ portrayal of an Alzheimer’s victim is so consummately good that voters may decide he deserves another one of these after all. But Old and New Hollywood, in whatever post-Millennium forms they assume, were deeply shaken by Boseman’s passing last August and his widow’s acceptance speech at the Globes was so startlingly beautiful and moving that voters would love a reprise.


FWIW: Since we’re here, would it be OK if we take a brief tour of Boseman’s (brief) life’s work to determine which of his roles would or should have gotten this award beforehand? We can eliminate Black Panther ‘s title role, even though he evinced a lot of star power in all the MCU movies where his character appeared. Of the historical figures Boseman brought to life, his portrayal of James Brown in 2014’s Get On Up is the one that was at once the most electrifying and credible, though the Jackie Robinson he played in 2013’s 42 was more complex and cogent than was generally acknowledged at the time. A few words, but no more than a few, should be submitted on behalf of his impressive star turn in the 2019 NYPD thriller, 21 Bridges. But what in many ways represented Boseman at his most magnetic was his scene-stealing performance in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods as the charismatic, doomed patrol leader for which he richly deserved a Supporting Actor nomination – and, for that matter, the Oscar. Have I mentioned yet that this particular nomination is only his first? How could I have forgotten to mention that? Oh, and about 5 Bloods? Delroy Lindo was screwed. 

Best Actress

Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman

In any other year, this might have been the occasion for yet another win for Academy fave McDormand. But this a formidable quintet competing in what is almost, but not quite, as wide open a contest as this year’s Supporting Actress race (see below). Early on, Day’s Golden Globe victory took so many by surprise that it compelled several hundred eyes to gaze upon her  intuitively intelligent rendering of Billie Holiday. The rest of her movie, however, can’t keep up with her and, in some ways, drags her down. She could still take it. But Mulligan’s been poised for some time towards Oscar’s embrace the same way that a heat-seeking missile is poised to take down an enemy compound. And this all-out performance of a fierce, wounded feminist avenger, especially when juxtaposed with her un-nominated, but noteworthy turn as an emotionally-tough-yet-physically-fragile aristocrat in The Dig, seals Mulligan’s reputation for range and raw nerve.


Best Supporting Actor

 



Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
LaKeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah
Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Yet another example of what should have been acknowledged as a lead performance that’s (kind of) a ringer in the supporting category. Some think having Stanfield in the mix make a cancelling-out effect, or even a tie, inevitable. Ties are not unprecedented, but it won’t happen here. And I’ve been hearing about “cancelling-out effects” for most of my adult life and now believe them to be as mythological as sports teams getting a championship for no other reason except that they’re “due.” Gambling tip: next time you hear somebody make a pronouncement like that, hook them immediately for whatever hard cash you can risk. And thank me later.

FWIW: If I had a vote, it’d go to Raci, without a second thought.


Best Supporting Actress

 

 

Amanda Seyfried, Mank
Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
Olivia Coleman, The Father
Youn Yuh-jung, Minari

So wide open, as noted earlier, that there’s no such thing as a dumb guess here. Coleman’s recent win for The Favourite makes her the least likely winner. But as I’d warned the year she got that Best Actress prize, quite a lot of people love her and as noted above, The Father’s been picking up some momentum on the home stretch. Close’s work was, by common consent, the best thing about her movie and the Academy seems to be searching for some way, any way, to give her a win after eight tries. Bakalova’s turn as apprentice Kazakh journalist and would-be-sex-partner to Rudy Giuliani may have been the century’s most audacious comedic impersonation and she’s been getting considerable buzz for it. Seyfried already has amassed a great deal of industry-wide affection, and it’s hard to imagine an Oscar contender going away empty-handed after picking Gary Oldman’s pocket in a black-and-white movie in which Orson Welles is more of a supporting character than hers is. Except..in situations such as this, dark horses always have a chance. And since the marvelously bawdy and winsome Youn Yuh-jung has won the SAG, she’s no longer a dark horse. Nevertheless I insist it’s still wide-open. 

 

 

 



Best Adapted Screenplay

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Nomadland

One Night in Miami

The Father

The White Tiger



Usually I go with the Writers. Guild on these, but I’m having trouble picturing the same crowd who put their heads together on Borat Subsequent Moviefilm converging here as one big winner, though it’d certainly be my preference. Kemp Powers is already assured of a win for co-directing Soul (see below). But he’s been such a conspicuously entertaining media presence throughout the Oscar campaign season that it isn’t hard to see him scoring a rare double here. Of course, if Nomadland gets a monster surge of momentum towards the home stretch, I’m an idiot once again.


Best Original Screenplay

Judas and the Black Messiah
Minari
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Definitely going along with WGA on this one for its serrated edges and willful ingenuity. Dark as hell, almost literally speaking, but in its weird, deterministic way, the most fun of these assembled nominees. (I mean, not that “fun” has anything to do with it, but…)

 

 

 



Best International Feature

Another Round (Druk)
Better Days (Shaonian de ni)
Collective
Quo Vadis, Adia?
The Man Who Sold His Skin

Thomas Vinterberg’s Best Director nomination was about as big a “tell” as you can expect as to how this one’s going to go. But it’s also the closest Vinterberg has come to a “feel-good” movie and that will count for a great deal with the general consensus. 

 

Best Documentary Feature

 

 


Collective
Crip Camp
My Octopus Teacher
The Mole Agent
Time

I took Crip Camp to my heart for how authoritative and touching it was in rendering the rise of the handicapped-rights movement. And this grizzled old newspaperman greatly appreciated Collective’s intricate, rousing examination of how investigative journalism can effect change, even in a government as corrupt as Romania’s. But Garrett Bradley’s multi-layered chronicle of a Black woman entrepreneur’s efforts to overcome heavily stacked odds in freeing her husband out from under an egregiously lengthy prison stretch is the most innovative picture among this year’s entire slate of feature films, fiction or nonfiction. This doesn’t necessarily mean it will win. But for those who still appreciate how movies can still catch you by surprise in the things they do (or don’t), it’s, so to speak, Time.

 

UPDATE (4/23/21): Way too late to take my hand off this piece, but the New York Times this morning has My Octopus Teacher the overwhelming favorite and I should’ve known it carried even more of a feel-good vibe than Time. I’m prepared to concede defeat on this one. My only comfort is that it won’t be the only one.




Best Animated Feature

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
Onward
Over the Moon
Soul
WolfWalkers

 

 



A lay-up, of course. All the same, it’s a drag that Pixar releases one of its finest features the same year that the Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon gives cel painted animation a gratifying jolt with the enrapturing WolfWalkers. The jazz beaux and the romantic folklorist living within me are deeply divided — though I doubt either of them will grieve all that much if the Saloon scores the (unlikely) upset.



Best Cinematography

Judas and the Black Messiah (Sean Bobbitt)
Mank (Erik Messerschmidt)
News of the World (Darius Wolski)
Nomadland (Joshua James Richards)
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Phedon Papamichael)

I don’t know who has the edge here, so I’m going to presume that what Messerschmidt does with shadows and light emit dazzle sufficient enough to carry the day.
 

FWIW: Of course, if Nomadland runs the table, etc etc.

Best Original Score 

Da 5 Bloods (Terence Blanchard)
Mank (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)
Minari (Emile Mosseri)
News of the World (James Newton Howard)
Soul (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross & Jon Baptiste)

Reznor and Ross’ only real competition here is with themselves and Stephen Colbert’s unflappable bandleader pushes this one over the hump with the kind of acoustic jazz charts the movies have hitherto forsaken.


Best Song

“Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
“Fight for You” from Judas and the Black Messiah
“Speak Now” from One Night in Miami
“Io Se (Seen)” from The Life Ahead
“Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7

Leslie Odum Jr., the song’s co-writer and performer is compensated for not getting the Supporting Actor prize for re-enacting Sam Cooke. It must be nice….


Two Cheers for “WandaVision”

 

 

 

 

If I read the reviews of WandaVision correctly, those who didn’t like the latest, just-completed manifestation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe came in two categories: those who hate on sight whatever the MCU manifests and those who think the situation comedy parodies are the only possible reason for the series’ existence and (therefore) believe them to have made a flimsy (at best) premise for a full-fledged series. There’s little you can do about the MCU haters because they made up their minds long ago that those absorbed in Marvel’s mythology are all hyperventilating, arrogant, sub-human adolescent males of varying ages who have it in for cinema-as-we-know-it. An understandable simplification, but wrong on at least a couple levels if the teenaged girls materializing in bunches at MCU movies since the century began are any indication. They’re the ones who grew up with all those Avengers and Mutants and were likely far ahead of the critics, even the non-haters among them, in grasping what WandaVision was up to from the beginning.

[SPOILERS AHEAD, SO STOP RIGHT HERE IF YOU STILL HAVEN’T WATCHED ANY WANDAVISION ON THE DISNEY CHANNEL. JUST SAYING…]

For those who don’t know and/or are in any way curious, WandaVision is an eight-episode sequel-of-sorts to the 2019 MCU epic, Avengers: Endgame in which Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch was compelled by the apocalypse beast-man-alien Thanos (I really don’t have the time here) to sacrifice her lover Vision (Paul Bettany), a.k.a. The Vision, an android who (that?) somehow acquired a soul with his human persona. Though the world-as-we-or-they-knew-it is essentially restored, Vision is not and the grieving Scarlet Witch decides to remake a nondescript town in the middle of New Jersey into a simulacrum of the dream life Wanda’s always wanted, with Vision able to hide his identity behind an avuncular horn-rimmed façade and a pair of sons who are both cute and mischievous. There’s even a Wacky Next-Door Neighbor who, because she’s played by Kathryn Hahn, cannot possibly be what she seems – and isn’t, but we’ll talk about her later.

 

 

 


The gimmick that drew viewers and even MCU haters at first was the sitcom angle, where each week depicted Wanda and Vision’s simulated home life in the style and trappings of various eras of half-hour TV family comedies: from black-and-white kinescopes with canned laughter, wide lapels and bulky circa-1950s gas guzzlers through the gaudy “living color” mid-to-late-1960s sheen all the way to the fake-reality motifs of the Modern Family type. As with most gimmicks, the parodies were smart enough to arouse early buzz. But as noted earlier, critics thought the joke was going to wear thin. This was before they and the rest of us began realizing Something Else was going on. And it was far more than an extension and elaboration of a comic-book mythology.

Briefly: outside of Wanda’s dreamy-creamy cocoon, officials of the U.S. government agency S.W.O.R.D. (again, I really don’t have the time) have formed a cordon monitoring the show. A rogue agency head (Josh Stamberg) is ready to move in and wipe out Wanda, her dream life and, if necessary, the townspeople playing their parts under her spell. Standing in his way are FBI special agent Jimmy Wu (Randall Park), data analyst Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and S.W.O.R.D. operative Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), the latter of whom is also not quite what she seems, only we’re not yet sure what that is, so we probably won’t talk about that here.

 

 

 

 

The latter trio are quicker to understand, in ways not even the show’s audience did at first, that Wanda is mostly acting out of a wrenching grief whose depths she isn’t able to completely gauge or totally understand. Hence the infrequent bursts of conscience and second-guessing emerging through the simulated Vision and the way the whole landscape of her dream wobbles and phases in and out like a vintage picture tube struggling to stay focused and, well, alive. It was at this point that WandaVision shape-shifted from a MAD-like parody into something with a deeper, more profound ingenuity and intent: an inquiry into a damaged soul in conflict with itself. For most of its middle-and-later episodes, this series seemed poised to do something that nothing before exhibited by a comic-book franchise had ever dared; the kind of genre-warping humanism most of us adolescents of a certain age remember going to Marvel Comics for in the first place.

 

 

 


Then suddenly…as comic book panels habitually proclaim, the series seemed to snap out of its more thoughtful intervals to remember what it was there to do all along. And so, the latter two episodes transfigured Hahn’s Wacky Neighbor (or was it “Nosy Neighbor”?) into Agatha Harkness, a supporting character in the Marvel Universe who in this quadrant is a really wicked witch prepared to do to both Wanda and her dream life what the government was about to. There is, as Marvel’s True Believers are conditioned to expect, a noisy and protracted climactic battle, actually two of them: one with Agatha and Wanda firing red and purple hexes t each other, the other with Wanda’s Dream Vision duking it out with a newly—rebuilt Vision sent by S.W.O.R.D.’s spoilsports to devastate Wanda and the whole town. Scarlet beats Violet, New Vision flies away, Old Vision fades away with the rest of Wanda’s fantasy. All done – with of course a few of the customary Easter eggs True Believers count on at the end of every Marvel production for whatever’s happening in the future.

It was, in short, an ending that was sometimes touching, but also felt somehow desultory, a conclusion that was, whatever else it provided in visceral catharsis, seemed unworthy of the emotional complexities and internal conflicts that led up to it. Which is not untypical of these limited-run steaming series. The third season of Star Trek: Discovery likewise showed promise throughout its run of shedding some of its more lugubrious tendencies and developing its own agile identity in relief from the franchise’s past. But it too resolved its many plot elements in the manner of a rush-hour traffic maelstrom that barely avoided irreparable damage.

For those of us who seek out genre works that don’t just satisfy expectations, but dare to transcend them, a show like WandaVision, however modest in scale and intent, offers tremendous promise in its process, but always threatens to disappoint in its execution. One can’t blame the actors for this. Bettany was, as he often is, exemplary and persuasive in his own displays of imagination and grace, even in the most absurd situations. It was also nice to know that Olsen can be as genuinely funny as she is intense. Hahn, one of our best and subtlest comic actors, took full advantage of her opportunity to soar way over the top here and while I’m not sure I’m ready for her to do so again, or often, she, along with everybody else in the cast, seemed to be enjoying herself.

This isn’t the time or place to ask me what I think happens next with these characters or, for that matter, the rest of the MCU from here on. But the way things are right now with the entertainment industry, I’m suspecting the screens exhibiting Our Heroes’ future endeavors will be somewhat smaller than the ones that first showed Avengers: Endgame. This would be fine with me as I’ve often believed that the quality of comic-book films increases in direct proportion to how the delivery of their images diminishes. Whatever misgivings I had about how it wound down, WandaVision for the most part proved my (admittedly unwieldy) hypothesis.

 

Herbie Nichols: A Study in Frustration

 

 

 

 

So this is what happens when you’re double-sequestered by piles of snow from a big, beautiful nor’easter along with the ongoing threat of pandemic – and NO damn vaccines available and accessible within miles of where you are. You hear a Herbie Nichols record and think to yourself: this is exactly what makes sense right now.

It wasn’t the music itself that brought me back to Nichols so much as a YouTube video posted by Jason Moran a few weeks ago featuring a rare WBAI radio interview with Nichols from 1962, which meant it took place on Mait Eady’s “The Scope of Jazz” show when the nonpareil pianist-composer had months left to live before dying, at 44, in April, 1963 from leukemia.

The conversation is, therefore, a blessed gift from the universe. It retains Nichols’ lovely and lucid speaking voice and affirms what writers like A.B. Spellman have attested about his warmth and wide-ranging intelligence. One also infers that if Nichols was getting interviews like these, then the relative obscurity he’d faced after his mid-1950s run of albums for Blue Note and Bethlehem may have shown signs of dissipating at last and that listeners were ready to engage what once seemed even to the adventurous an eccentric body-of-work.

 

 



It’s only towards the end of this fascinating interview, with plenty of his compositions and recordings weaved into the mix, that you hear Nichols’ frustration with being marginalized in comparison with fellow modernists such as Thelonious Monk, who was by the Kennedy years enjoying a burgeoning nationwide vogue thanks to his contract with Columbia Records. Nichols aims his irritation, ever so gently, at jazz critics, who he wishes had more grounding in formal musical education and could therefore better appreciate, or at least begin to understand what he’d been trying to do. Eady, sounding somewhat flustered, confesses to Nichols that he has no musical training, prompting Nichols to suggest, with all the geniality at his disposal, that he should consider getting some.

In my time as a jazz journalist, I used to hear this a lot from musicians who believed, not entirely without justification, that we were getting in the way of their transactions with the audience by not being able to satisfactorily explain the technical nuances of what they’re doing. Once, early in my jazz reporting tenure at New York Newsday, I was taking notes at a Carnegie Hall concert when I glanced across the aisle at a competitor for another daily who seemed to be scribbling harder than I was. I tried to match his intensity before leaning close enough to see what he was writing: not words, impressions and titles (as I was), but actual musical notation! Like…notes, key signatures, clefs, man!

I slunk into my chair, despondent, believing myself to be an imposter and wondering what the hell I thought I was doing here. But I still had a deadline to meet and went back to whatever it was I was doing.

In time, I got over this by eventually reminding myself that my job, in the end, wasn’t to deconstruct technical information well enough to satisfy the demands of those I was writing about. My job was to report back to readers how it sounded. To me and, in doing so, convey to those who weren’t at Carnegie Hall that night or any other venue on any other engagement what it felt like to be there. My readers and, for that matter, the musicians on stage were just going to have to trust that I’d listened to enough jazz, done enough background research and cultivated my instincts sufficiently enough to tell my story to others who, to varying degrees, were as familiar with, or more to the point, as interested in the subject as I was.

That was all. Maybe it wasn’t enough for some. But my readers trusted me for a long enough time to put up with my reporting. So I must have done something right.

And while I understand the frustration of musicians like Herbie Nichols, I now believe that having critics with the keenest first-hand musical knowledge try to mediate their art with the public doesn’t necessarily guarantee a bigger, more receptive audience. Even scholarly musicologists, I submit, can be overly influenced by conventional wisdom and they can be just as oblivious to Something Totally New as whatever musicians imagine to be the clueless masses. It’s as true with all art: movies, books, paintings, dance and fashion. There are whole eras where it’s hip to be square, or at least, safe. Even “square” can catch people off-guard when they’re expecting something more rhomboid or triangular. If that makes any sense…

Whatever. It’s just a pleasure to be able to argue with a long-lost master in absentia. And as long as we’re here, in case you aren’t aware of who Herbie Nichols was and why he mattered to so many of us who still exult in modernism’s resilient wonders, here’s an entry I wrote for a long-defunct biographical jazz site. It also places before the court an example of how a relative “amateur” in formal musicology tries explaining genius to whomever shows up to listen. Consider this, also, a sideways homage to Frank Kimbrough, a keeper of Nichols’ flame and a great pianist in his own right, whom we lost sometime close to the start of this new, presumably better, year.

 

 




NICHOLS, HERBIE (HERBERT HORATIO) Jan. 3, 1919-April 12, 1963

Herbie Nichols’ compulsively inquisitive spirit lives within every session player struggling to cultivate an individual sound within the din of the marketplace. Nichols spent most of his career working in bands whose music wasn’t nearly as idiosyncratic or progressive as his was. If the stars had been better aligned in his favor (or, as some of his friends have suggested, he was less self-effacing), Nichols would have been regarded in his lifetime as a modern jazz pianist as innovative as Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Yet it is only in the years since his death, at 44, from leukemia that Nichols has slowly achieved the stature he deserves. He has seduced subsequent generations of listeners and musicians with his angular melodies and rhythmically-sculpted harmonies.


The son of emigrants from Trinidad and St. Kitts, Herbie Nichols was born Jan. 3, 1919 in New York City’s San Juan Hill section in the West 60s. At age 7, he moved with his family further uptown to Harlem where, two years later, he began studying piano with a teacher who stressed classical training. As a youth, Nichols was said to be introspective and fun-loving, good at checkers and chess, steeped in books (a favorite author, according to his friend, trombonist Roswell Rudd, was the Russian Nikolai Gogol) and attracted enough to the popular music of his teen years to play jazz with a high school combo.

 

 


His first professional gig came in 1937 with the Royal Baron Orchestra, led by saxophonist Freddie Williams and featuring bassist George Duvivier. A year later, Nichols began working regularly at Monroe’s Uptown House which, along with another Harlem venue, Minton’s Playhouse, would become legendary in jazz lore as an incubator for the modernist upheaval in jazz music. In later interviews, Nichols would say he was both stimulated and put off by the hothouse competitive atmosphere generated by the virtuosi who would invent bebop and other post-swing genres. He was unhappy with what he later characterized as a clique mentality among the musicians who worked at Monroe’s and Minton’s. The critic Leonard Feather, in liner notes written for one of Nichols’ 1955 Blue Note albums, recalled Nichols being “pushed off the piano stool” at after-hours jam sessions by less-talented players.


He was drafted in 1941 and served 18 months in the Infantry with little opportunity to either take part in battle or play music. When he returned to New York in 1943, Nichols was unable to connect with the burgeoning bebop movement, playing mostly with rhythm-and-blues or New Orleans-style bands. Among his more prominent employers from the mid-1940s through the early 1950s were Danny Barker, Hal Singer, Illinois Jacquet, Snub Mosely, Arnett Cobb, Edgar Sampson and John Kirby. Through it all, Nichols was also struggling to find his way as a composer, sending off musical pieces that were either neglected or rejected by publishers.

 

 

 


Then in 1951, Nichols met Mary Lou Williams, a pianist attracted to the kind of quirky, insurgent music being written by Monk and his contemporaries. After hearing Nichols play some of his compositions, Williams recorded three of his tunes, “The Bebop Waltz” (which she re-titled “Mary’s Waltz”), “Stennell,” which she dubbed “Opus 2” and “At Da Function.” (Nichols’ flair with titling his own work would become apparent as he recorded as a leader, though his most famous piece, “Lady Sings the Blues” was originally dubbed “Serenade,” until Billie Holiday heard it and was so taken with the melody that she wrote her own lyrics to the tune, whose new name was also the title of her 1955 autobiography.)
Nichols continued to work mostly for traditional jazz and swing bands throughout the northeastern United States while auditioning for his own club dates and recording sessions. Blue Note Records co-owner Alfred Lion remembers Nichols being especially persistent for more than a decade in asking for a chance to record his own music. Lion gave Nichols his shot. In May and August, 1955, Nichols recorded with bassist Al McKibbon and drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach. He recorded another session the following August with Roach and bassist Teddy Kotick. Two 10-inch albums were released by Blue Note from those sessions and were immediately hailed by critics, though relatively neglected by the public. The same outcome greeted his only other album as a leader, Love, Gloom, Cash, Love, released in 1957 by Bethlehem to glowing reviews and anemic sales.

 

 

 


Nichols went back to playing Dixieland music for dough, though in his latter years, his recordings had acquired cult status among an emergent generation of progressive musicians, including Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Buell Neidlinger and Roswell Rudd. Nichols’ reputation as a composer and innovator was still a well-kept secret and his frustration only deepened with every throwaway gig, every indifferent audience he faced. “He seemed to be dying of disillusionment,” wrote A.B. Spellman, the critic and historian whose 1966 book, Four Lives in the Bebop Business, helped set in motion Nichols’ posthumous restoration. “He knew his worth, but it seemed as if nobody else did.”


Perhaps only a sensibility as independent, contemplative, wistful and tenacious as Nichols could have forged such alluring, yet provocative music. As with his friend and rival Monk, Nichols plays and writes with calculated indifference to melodic and harmonic convention. His main themes, as with the aforementioned “Lady Sings the Blues”, are accessible and even “hum-able.” Yet his variations often spread themselves in eccentric patterns within, around and through the song’s intervals. Listen, for instance, to his rendition of “The Gig” on his Blue Note collection and you’ll hear phrases repeated, stretched, smashed and re-shaped along a seeming riot of tempo shifts that never veer too far from the rhythmic core. You sometimes wonder whether the piano is bracing up the rhythm section or vice-versa. Either is plausible, given Nichols’ affinity for harmonies that keep time as much as they play with it.


The title track from Love Gloom Cash Love   is as melancholy as acerbic as its title  would lead you to believe. Yet its progression owes as much to classical music as it does to Tin Pan Alley song structure. Nichols’ sense of mood, drama and narrative timing can be found in just about any one of his compositions, such as “House Party Starting,” which trumps the sense of anticipation aroused at the start for the eponymous party with what Nichols, in liner notes he’d written for one of the Blue Note albums, “grave and silent doubts as to whether there is really going to be a parry, whether there is going to be lots of fun.” Contrasts stalk a Herbie Nichols composition as disappointment often trailed his life’s achievements.

 

 

 


After Nichols’ death, a host of musicians from Rudd, Neidlinger and Shepp to John Coltrane, Steve Lacy and Misha Mengleberg performed and enhanced his work in order to help fix his name in the global jazz repertoire. One can also hear Nichols’ influence in an eclectic assortment of younger piano talents, notably Geri Allen, Jason Moran and Frank Kimbrough, who in the 1990s helped spearhead the Herbie Nichols Project, an ensemble of musicians dedicated to performing Nichols’ compositions, including those never before performed, though ensconced in the Library of Congress.


RECORDINGS
Herbie Nichols: The Complete Blue Note Recordings (1955-6) (Blue Note), 3 Discs.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Spellman, A.B., Four Lives in the Bebop Business, 1966, Limelight paperback
Davis, Francis, “The Mystery of Herbie Nichols” from Outcats: Jazz Composers, Instrumentalists and Singers, 1990, Oxford University Press.

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Favorite Things from 2020

Just so you all know: I had a tougher time than usual with my annual everything-but-jazz list and not for the reasons you think. There was an awful lot that gave me comfort and joy in the past year because what else did I or anybody else have to do in 2020 but seek such things whenever they could be found. So I left a lot of things I could have included to the side. But I don’t regret anything I retained because the main point for me is to let you know that I recognized and embraced the same things you did and also found out stuff that you may not know about, but need to. So here we go and sorry if I missed something. Chances are I didn’t. But because I once again reside in the global capital of It Is What It Is (a.k.a. Philadelphia), I’m in no position to regret anything here. Next year? That’s next year. For now…in no particular order…

 

 

American Utopia – I saw it live in January on one of its last pre-lockdown Broadway performances and again this fall as a Spike Lee movie. The whole bouncy, juicy enterprise is just as you’ve heard: an invigorating, beautifully staged tonic for nerves frayed and hopes stressed by the previous four years (if not longer). Yet for all the show’s ecumenical uplift and big-tent benevolence, I couldn’t help but think back to its producer-writer -star’s early life as a Talking Head. And by “early,” I mean all the way back to Talking Heads ’77 and such lines from that long-ago breakthrough as: “Other people’s problems/They overwhelm my mind/They say compassion is a virtue/But I don’t have the time.” Of course, David Byrne’s a different person from whatever or whoever he was back then, as am I. And I’d like to think he now wonders sometimes, as I do, whether the spirit animating that chorus from “No Compassion” is in any way partly responsible for whatever culminated over the intervening decades into a Donald Trump administration (especially given how some of you kids, at whatever age, may not be as fluent in irony as you think you are). But while there’s plenty of Heads music to sing along with here (and you invariably will), you’ll never hear a song like that in this show. And you don’t see even a trace of Byrne’s I’m-smarter-than-you glower from those late-seventies days when CBGBs was the place to go for the Next Big Thing. You do hear a lot from Byrne’s gnomic side; the part of him that can’t stop bringing up potato chips even as he’s urgently decrying injustice in all its domestic and foreign manifestations. Only now it doesn’t register as smart-assery so much as cozy schtick and, as such, it enhances Byrne’s bright-beaming avuncularity and, yes, compassion. He’s evolved from not-having-the-time-for-empathy to: “As a people, we’re a work in progress. Who we are extends beyond ourselves.” Just another way of saying “Happy New Year.”

 

 

 

Lovers Rock – Taken together, the films that make up Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s multi-tiered chroniclie of the West Indian experience in London from the 1960s to the 1980s, are a revelation, sweeping and intimate in their depiction of tribulation, perseverance and resistance in the face of white bigotry. The eruption of militant Black protest is given the same respect as the determination of a young Jamaican to protect his community by becoming a patrolman. The harsh coming-of-age of a celebrated YA writer illuminates an era as powerfully as the account of promising, but misunderstood Black children systemically funneled into subpar educational facilities. At times, McQueen can be overly emphatic. In Education, for instance, he piles on the soul-killing drudgery imposed upon warehoused children, making you, at one point, resent the movie almost as much as the clueless white teacher mangling “House of the Rising Sun.” But you don’t in the least mind the way McQueen goes all out in Lovers Rock, a one-of-a-kind depiction of a 1980 reggae house party in which two young people (Micheal Ward, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) manage to go through a full courtship during a tightly wound night of music, food and dance. You’re spellbound by the way these smart, resilient and beautiful kids inject their own martial arts movies into “Kung Fu Fighting.” And you give in to rapture as the young women keep swaying to and singing the lyrics of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” after the record stops playing, in key and keeping the beat. You fall in love with the movie in the same way that the movie – and McQueen’s series — loves its people.

 

 

 

 


The Queen’s Gambit – Its worldwide popularity has set off the inevitable backlash for any number of perceived sins, e.g. too slick, too soapy, too pulpy, whatever. But I was all in with this Netflix adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel, if for no other reason that I preferred living a world in which America’s leading contender for global supremacy in chess dead center in the American century was a moody, pill-popping orphan girl from Kentucky instead of the bombastic, deranged Bobby Fischer. In the lead role of Beth Harmon, the winsome Anya Taylor-Joy grabbed and sustained your attention with the way her complicated, not-always-admirable character grew from gangly teenaged social awkwardness to demure grownup self-possession, even when, near the crest of triumph, she’s still barely holding it together. Verisimilitude is always valuable when it comes to such period melodrama and the series kept excellent time with its sense of detail from the fifties showroom nature of the furniture to the sixties chic of its fashions and, most especially, the soundtrack that took in the Vogues’ “You’re the One,” the Association’s “Along Comes Mary,” Quincy Jones’ chrome-plated arrangement of “Comin’ Home Baby,” Gillian Hills’ “Tut Tut Tut Tut,” and Shocking Blue’s “Venus.” The supporting cast was uniformly excellent; in particular Marielle Heller as Beth’s thwarted dreamer of a stepmother and Moses Ingram in a best-friend-from-childhood role that she almost single-handedly rescues from hackneyed “magical negro” convention. But it’s Taylor-Joy’s star-making show all the way through. And her total magnetism was more than enough to get most of us to dust off our old chess sets and figure out how her character’s huge, espresso eyes are able to see everything happen before it happens – as useful a skill in art as it is in chess.

 

 

 


Glynn Turman – In a world that makes much more sense than this one, Glynn Turman would be nationally renowned as a generational icon of his profession. It’s enough to say that, at 73, he is a living, breathing retrospective of Black cultural advancement from the civil rights era to the present day. At 12 years old, he played Sidney Poitier’s son on Broadway in the original production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Less than a decade later, at 21, he helped integrate TV’s Peyton Place and was to the 1975 coming-of-age comedy Cooley High what fellow child actor Ron Howard was to its 1973 counterpart American Graffiti. Over the succeeding decades, he became as much of a cult hero for the parts he got (the spit-and-polish Army colonel on A Different World; the sleazoid Baltimore mayor in The Wire) as for the one he didn’t (he auditioned for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie, but George Lucas reportedly backed away from the idea of a Black Han playing approach-avoidance games with White Princess Leia). Plus which, he was once married to Aretha Franklin. This year found people sitting up and taking full notice of Turman’s contained intensity and mastery of space. In Netflix’s production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom he was Toledo, the circumspect piano player for Ma’s band trying to retain composure and dignity amidst the tempest of resentment and rage in the recording studio. And in the fourth season of FX’s Fargo, he was Black mob consigliore Doctor Senator, who displays so much shrewdness, gravitas and diplomacy among the short fuses going off like fireworks throughout circa 1950 Kansas City that you wish he were in charge of all the city’s warring mobsters, Afro- and Italo-American alike. The attention Turman’s been getting for these turns is as gratifying as the grace with which he’s greeted the renewed acclaim. He seems more than happy to be regarded at this stage in his long and illustrious career as an “actor’s actor.” And while some of us still wish he were regarded as so much more, if he’s cool with that status, we should be, too.

 

 


Soul Ethan Iverson has declared this latest Disney Pixar project to be the best jazz movie in a long time. And as I’ve written elsewhere, I’m with him on this — with the caveat that one of the things that disquieted me a little was its implication that the jazz calling and the dedication it requires so obsessed Joe the protagonist that it kept him from appreciating everything in his life that had meaning and resonance. Most of us who love music (and I’m not just talking about “the music,” but all music) believe it to be one of the gateways towards embracing life in all its outward and inward graces. Maybe Pete Docter’s movie was saying the same thing ultimately. But I fear it will nonetheless give haters more ammunition for disdaining or dismissing “the music.” As soon as the closing credits started rolling, there was also the melancholy suspicion that Soul wasn’t going to find as much love out there as other Disney/Pixar inquiries into the metaphysical such as Coco or Inside/Out. It left more questions open than answers, which makes it my favorite DizPix movie since WALL-E – and 2008 now seems a long time ago. Meanwhile, the jazz head in me was more caught up with the movie’s digressions and diversion e.g. the rat dragging the pizza slice in one direction while the cat is dragging another one in the other; the offhand little jibe by the afterlife’s gatekeepers over how too many new souls were being herded into the hovel set aside for self-absorption; the modernist depiction of those gate-keepers that tipped its cap to the UPA and Terrytoons shorts of the 1950s; and. most of all, the characterizations of all its Black supporting characters from the older ladies rocking with Joe’s mom in the tailoring shop to the brothers at the barber shop simultaneously keeping it real and cool. When Oscar time rolls around, I’ll be rooting for Wolfwalkers to win the best animated feature prize because those guys at Cartoon Saloon deserve the love for keeping hand-painted animation alive and kicking in the digital age. But as Ethan says, if there’s an envelope somewhere for Best Jazz Movie of this year (if not the last 10-to-30), this is what it’ll say on the card inside.

 

 



Quarter Life Crisis – I’ve watched enough Netflix stand-up comedy specials over the now-all-but-completed decade to know that the raunchiest, most incisive and most double-dog-daring of these comics have been women. I’ve found something to like and/or admire in most, if not all their provocations. But for whatever reason, none of their specials have kept me coming back for seconds this past year like this recital by Taylor Tomlinson. The title refers to her up-front fatigue with being in her twenties. “I am done with this shit!” she declares. “They are ten years of asking yourself, ‘Is this a phase or is it a demon? Am I fun or should I go to a meeting?’” She’s had a fairly conventional rise through the talk-show circuit and Last Comic Standing duels, but has somehow pulled together a fascinating self-portrait of a Millennial caught squarely in a conflict between her nice-girl upbringing and her nascent yearnings to be a bona-fide mean girl. (And she probably would be, if she didn’t find mean girls to be lame as well.) Watching this tension play out is what keeps you strapped in her passenger seat, along with her gift for the seemingly offhand, Day-Glo zinger. (“[If] love is blind, lust is Helen Keller.”) She’s got so much figured out at such an early age, even with her white-bread religious upbringing, that you can’t wait to see what’s spilling out of her next. And even if she doesn’t figure all of it out (and who does?), it’s still going to be fun watching her try well into her thirties.

 

 

 



James McBride – If this country has a Poet Laureate, then why shouldn’t there be, officially or otherwise, an office for “America’s Storyteller”? McBride has been a rock-solid contender for the title ever since his canonical 1995 memoir of his mother, The Color of Water, endeared itself to generations of readers. He has since demonstrated his chops as a screenwriter (Miracle at St. Ann’s), socio-cultural history (Kill ‘Em And Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul) and short-story writer (Five-Carat Soul). This year provided a double-jolt of added luster to McBride’s reputation: his critically acclaimed novel, Deacon King Kong, an effervescent, humane comedy of errors set in and around a circa-1969 Brooklyn housing project and Showtime’s multi-part adaptation of his award-winning 2013 historical novel, The Good Lord Bird, a boisterous picaresque about a young Black boy’s adventures in Antebellum America with the insurrectionary abolitionist John Brown, played with bravado and poignancy by Ethan Hawke. An accomplished jazz saxophonist, McBride not only knows the secret to holding an audience, but to reaching into its core for shared trauma, yearning and faith. He is capable of making everybody laugh at the same joke at once, which doesn’t seem possible in a time as polarized as ours. If you wonder where to go next, I’d suggest both Five-Carat Soul and the James Brown book, the latter as indispensable in its rock-pop-critical-bio subgenre as Chet Flippo’s Your Cheatin’ Heart, Nick Tosches’ Hellfire and Peter Guralnik’s Feel Like Going Home.

 




First Cow — I’ve heard Kelly Reichardt’s latest exemplar of sneaky-great filmmaking described as both an “anti-western” and a “near-western.” It’s almost as if she were working beyond John Ford’s vision, except I suspect Ford would  appreciate exactly where First Cow was coming from, even if it is set all the way back to 1820s Oregon and carrying an implicit anti-capitalist message that Depression-era insurgents could identify with. (Two ill-fated wanderers, one Jewish, the other Asian, struggle to make a business for themselves by using milk from a rich man’s cow to make ambrosial desert cakes.) It’s a movie that’s both beyond and steeped in its genre conventions and as somebody cheering for the western, in any form, to carry on however it’s able, I’m delighted to see both her and her movie get their props.


Julie Nolke – Not that we’ll ever be nostalgic about 2020. But should the (albeit unlikely) occasion arise to retrieve a taste of what it felt like to be alive in that near-unprecedented maelstrom, the YouTube series of videos by this Canadian comic actress will bring it all back alive. And, just as they did during the past nine months, her videos will continue to offer solace and commiseration for our shared bemusement and exasperation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Stephen Wright & Steven Wright –Just before Everything Changed earlier this year, I came across two very different and eerily relevant novels written by two very different authors with almost the same name. (Neither of whom, to be clear, are stand-up comedians, though each is very funny in a grim, caustic way.) Looking back, I’m a little startled by how effectively both books nailed down deeply rooted illnesses in the American psyche that explained a lot of messed-up behavior over the succeeding months in the face of mass disease and systemic racism.

 



First there was Stephen Wright’s Processed Cheese, a surrealistic pillow stuffed with sharp objects. It’s set in a funhouse version of present-day America whose largest, wealthiest metropolis is called Mammoth City, whose wealthiest and most powerful resident, Mister Menu, lives in a penthouse apartment of a very shiny skyscraper. One day, Mister Menu’s supermodel wife (Her name? Missus Menu, of course) hurls a canvas bag loaded with cash at her husband. The bag sails past him, off their terrace and fifty-two stories to the street where it lands smack dab in front of an unemployed-and-desperate citizen named Graveyard. Not knowing where the million-dollar sack came from or to whom it belongs, Graveyard takes it home to his wife Ambience and, once they’re convinced no one’s looking for their money, they proceed to Live Larger than they ever have before, buying everything and anything they want. You name it: sex, drugs and other commodities with brand names like Walleyed Monkeys champagne, DominationDonuts, the HoochieCoochie flatscreen TV and, inevitably, guns like the Gibe & Cloister 418 firearm or “The Last Judgment” (with a) “silver barrel engraved with lifelike drawings of people in sexual positions most of us couldn’t even imagine.” All this and more sounds as over-the-top as that canvas bag’s trajectory and yet this Stephen Wright, a meta-novelist highly recommended by the seemingly incongruent likes of Toni Morrison and Stephen King, applies a thick Buster Keaton-esque sheen on all this slapstick avarice. You can think all you want that it’s over the top and has nothing to do with you — until the next time you walk out of your house and see all those empty Amazon boxes spilling out of the nearest available dumpster.

 



Unlike Processed Cheese, The Coyotes of Carthage by (the other, differently spelled) Steven Wright is set in this plane of reality. But it’s no less trenchant or unsettling. Its protagonist (not at all the hero) is Dre, a jaded young Black operative for a K Street consulting firm who’s assigned by his bosses to supervise a ballot initiative enabling a metals conglomerate to strip mine an Appalachian rain forest in South Carolina. Saying the least, an African American smarty-pants seems the least likely person to galvanize a predominantly white and right-leaning constituency into parting with such fertile land. So he pulls hidden levers and disperses dark money to enable a local bar owner to become the face of the initiative. Eventually, the trickery and duplicity involved in making people vote against their own interests take their toll on Dre, whose self-loathing reaches red-zone levels. “Aren’t elections about getting people to like you?” the bar owner’s God-fearing wife asks Dre. “That’s a common misconception,” he answers. “Elections are about getting voters to hate others.” Whatever happens over the next 12 months and beyond, both these novels are neon-lit arrows pointing to the pile of crap we’re going to have to clean up if we want to survive as a democratic republic.

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Albums for 2020

With a couple of (qualified) exceptions, there’s not a whole lot on this year’s list that will wake the neighbors or set off cowbells and car alarms. This, somehow, didn’t feel like the year for that kind of noise, though there sure was a whole lot of unwelcome noise pounding on the walls of wherever we hunkered down to Stay Safe. I would like to think that for every two or three people shut in by the pandemic who could do nothing but keep some form of broadcast news on in every room of their houses, there were one or two others determined to find in music, or any other art, some deliverance from the relentless meanness of this year. Maybe that explains why most of the items listed below emit vibes owing to the ruminative, the elegiac, even, at times, the shadowy and ethereal. If you needed swinging, swaying and rocking, you could find all that, too and I wish all three were more conspicuous than they appear to be on this list. My own impulse for breadth and adventure is otherwise mostly indulged here with the hope that you all will do likewise.

One question for further study, and by now it’s a familiar one: Just what the heck is an album these days? And is that really how you all still listen to music these days? I know that’s two questions and I’m not going to go too deep into the weeds on either of them. Discuss. We’ll talk later.

 

 




1.) Jimmy Heath, Love Letter (Verve) – Even before he began recording this gleaming array of ballads two days before his 93rd birthday and polished it to a fine gloss weeks before his death this past January, Jimmy Heath seemed infused with a magical elixir whose ingredients were known only to him. I remember watching him conduct a concert of the Queens Jazz Orchestra en route to his 90th year and his compact, five-foot-three-inch frame seemed as agile as ever; plus he was blowing his tenor saxophone with as much force (if not velocity, but you can’t have everything) as he did when he was a badass young composer, arranger and leader in the 1950s. In each of these tracks, the power of Heath’s playing emerges in its conceptual energy, the soft glow and austere intricacy of his thematic variations, whether on Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” and “Left Alone,” whose lyrics, written by Holiday for Mal Waldron’s melody, are tenderly, fastidiously enacted by Cecile McLorin Salvant; or on Heath’s own pieces, including “Inside Your Heart,” “Fashion or Passion” and “Ballad From Upper Neighbors Suite.” The formidable supporting cast comprises Salvant, pianist Kenny Barron, vibraphonist Monte Croft, bassist David Wong, guitarist Russell Malone, drummer Lewis Nash, vocalist Gregory Porter (featured on “Don’t Misunderstand,” a tune Gordon Parks wrote for his 1972 feature, Shaft’s Big Score) and Wynton Marsalis, appropriately bringing his trumpet along for “La Mesha”, composed by Heath’s onetime confrere Kenny Dorham. Though properly regarded, to quote Gary Giddins’ liner notes, as a “stunningly elegant last testament,” Love Letter sure doesn’t feel final; rather as though its leader is summoning a hard jolt of giddy-yap for the next album. Which is the kind of monument we’d all like to leave behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 



2.) Ron Miles, Rainbow Sign (Blue Note) – The title track immediately conjures up references to the biblical admonition cited at the conclusion of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. (I’ll just let you look it up, if you don’t already know it.) But while such a connection seems especially timely this year, especially for a follow-up to cornetist Miles’ 2017 album I Am a Man given that title’s reference to the signs carried by striking Memphis garbage workers when Martin Luther King Jr. made his ill-fated stand with their picket lines, the polychromatic music on this Blue Note debut is more contemplative and probing than its immediate predecessor. The gorgeous mosaics forged by Miles’ crystalline musings, guitarist Bill Frisell’s laser-light interjections, pianist Jason Moran’s stealthy adornments, bassist Thomas Morgan’s vertically inclined strumming and drummer Brian Blade’s sandman grinding make for a graceful, variegated sound that is deceptive in its seeming calm. The music may secretly wish to cry out, but mostly unravels in a kind of sang-froid wariness for whatever’s ahead. The presence of spirits, including those who have departed this very year, are sensed more than heard outright. As much as Miles’ music fixes your attention overall, tracks like “The Rumor,” “Custodian of the New,” “A Kind Word” and “Like Those Who Dream” also makes you restless with the known world’s prevailing dread. You’re ready to move somewhere, anywhere away from Fear Itself, even if you’re not entirely sure where and when you’re due to arrive.

 

 

 

 




3.) Aaron Diehl, The Vagabond (Mack Avenue) – The fifth album featuring Cecile McLorin Salvant’s onetime/sometime accompianist displays what may well be his most comprehensive immersion in musical tradition, whether modernist or post-modernist . Thus, both Prokofiev (“March from Ten Pieces for Piano, Op. 12”) and Philip Glass (“Piano Etude No. 16”) are in the house for interpretive tweaking. But so are Sir Roland Hanna (“A Story Often Told, Seldom Heard ”) and John Lewis (“Milano”), whose rhythmic poise and lissome riffing find in Diehl a stunningly worthy exponent. With his own compositions, Diehl makes his own way through the motifs and dynamics of jazz piano history. Hence the deft negotiation of space and time on “Park Slope” and “Kaleidoscope Road,” reminiscent of both Lewis and Ahmad Jamal in the latter’s latter-day period. His years of comping behind Salvant have bestowed upon him ears big enough to listen, respond and gently steer his conversations with bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. The whole enterprise emits a soft glow of intimacy braced by a subtle urgency for wider vistas. It leaves you with no doubt whatsoever that Diehl, in whatever context, has more of those in store.

 

 

 

 

 

 





4.) Maria Schneider Orchestra, Data Lords (Artists Share) — Within every tender lament for a lost time, there is rage at whatever’s shoving it aside. Most times, that anger is implied. But Schneider, on her first album since the masterly 2015 tone poem, The Thompson Fields , takes her regular patrons aback somewhat with this Janus-faced inquiry into what we once only hypothetically regarded as “cyberspace” has done to our collective minds and hearts. The first disc, “The Digital World,” leans hard on the foreboding, the invasive and the insidious in evoking what the composer-arranger-conductor characterizes as concurrent erosions of public and private space. “Don’t Be Evil” piquantly appropriates its title from one of Google’s maxims to its employees and weaves into its thematic progressions the familiar melody of “Taps.” One isn’t used to this kind of acid spurting out from Schneider’s orchestrated tapestries and at first it seems as if she’s swinging too wildly at her digitized demons.. But what makes this particular recording stand out, both in the first volume and in the second, more typically Schneider-esque volume, “The Natural World,” is the considerable room she’s giving to her musicians to run wild and unfettered on both acoustic and electronic instruments. One could cite as examples tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s shape-shifting wails and trumpeter Greg Gisbert’s electronically enhanced narratives making their way through “CQ, CQ, Is Anybody There?” or how, on the subsequent “Sputnik,” Scott Robinson’s baritone sax climbs the registers in tandem with the rest of the horns to replicate both the relative barrenness of outer space (towards which the orchestra likewise urges you, later on, to “Look Up”) and the lengthening chain of satellites playing pitch-and-catch with our unending data streams. Or how guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Frank Kimbrough, accordionist Gary Versace, reed player Steve Wilson and all the others contribute so distinctively to their leader’s vision of awe, terror and hope in the ongoing percussive shock of the new in conflict with whatever remains of biology, oxygen, water and blood. The more you listen to the whole thing, the less certain you are about where those two worlds it explores begin, end…or, even, merge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



5.) Liberty Ellman, Last Desert (PI) – Maybe the best way to walk into Ellman’s fifth album as a leader is to imagine the guitarist sitting with friends at a table on the first track — conveniently labeled “The Sip” for the purposes of our analogy – and just to make the afternoon lively, opens up a conversation with a few random phrases, each reaching around for some connection with one of the others hanging out: trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, saxophonist Steve Lehman, bassist Stephan Crump, drummer Damion Reed and tuba player (tubaist?) Jose Davila. Since none of these guys are strangers to each other (one or all of them has at some point played with each other on other PI albums), it’s easy enough for outsiders to follow along, even if there doesn’t always seem to be a steady beat to hang on to. So you listen to what each of them contributes and what continually impresses is how lucidly the “talk” seems to flow, sometimes with Ellman augmenting Lehman’s ideas by either sliding alongside in harmony or hanging back with Reed as Lehman elaborates with mounting intensity. Davila’s tuba steps out of the background because it can’t keep quiet for long and Finlayson, now barely able to contain himself, completes somebody else’s premise with sparkly ingenuity. This is all a bone-simple way of saying that this album is mostly and ultimately about group interaction and however you want to listen, talk back or even dance along can only carry the conversation to another level, or tangent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



6.) Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, The Music of Wayne Shorter (Blue Engine) – I can remember a time, maybe a decade-and-a-half before this landmark 2015 concert, when things were nowhere near as collegial between the mercurial, enigmatic Mr. Shorter and the “uptown” jazz classicists of Lincoln Center. The details of this impasse are now blurry to me and, I suppose, everybody involved. All I knew, even then. was that sooner or later there had to be some rapprochement between the Imperial City’s dominant jazz institution and the music’s greatest living composer. Still, going in, one wondered whether Shorter’s oeuvre, most of which was configured for small combos, would be adequately retrofitted for the demands of a 15-piece band. David Weiss pulled it off nicely with his tribute ensemble two years earlier. But Weiss didn’t have The Man Himself playing alongside them the way Wynton’s outfit did that night. The possibilities seemed rife for tension between J@LCO’s imperative to swing and Shorter’s impulse towards introspection. And from the jump – a Victor Goines arrangement of “Yes or No” from Shorter’s 1964 album, Juju — there was a possibility that Shorter would be overpowered by the band’s might. But the deeper their dialogue progressed, the more invigorated Shorter and the band seemed by the exchange. After a while, it became apparent that the tension between these sensibilities wasn’t something to be resolved or overcome during the show; the tension was the show. And through their smart, measured and diligent exchanges of ideas and invention, Shorter and the orchestra managed to make each of these works – “Lost,” “Teru”, “The Three Marias,” even the knotty “Contemplation” sound staggeringly fresh and (very much) alive.

 

 

 

 



7.) Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride & Brian Blade, Round Again (Nonesuch) – Hard to believe that this is only the second album recorded by this celestial body and that its predecessor (Mood Swing) was released way back in 1994. Somehow you’d like to believe in a world where this band of Super Friends could have hung together for that whole 26 years while continuing to veer off occasionally for their respective projects. But that deprives us of the illuminating perspective of their cumulative growth between those albums – and the attendant revelation that they now sound fresher and more inventive, individually and together, than they did when they were daring young tyros. Redman is the nominal leader here, as he was back in Bill Clinton’s first term. But, having just edged past 50, the erstwhile swashbuckling prodigy from Harvard here sounds more authoritative and more relaxed, giving his bandmates plenty of room on the marquee and on these sessions to share with the class everything they’ve learned since they first played with fireworks together. In pianist Mehldau’s case, it’s the spherical sense-of-play on “Moe Honk” that gives his still-frequent cohort Redman another opportunity to light up the sky with his own ballistic spinoffs while McBride, now as prodigious a bandleader as he is a bassist, flashes both his virtuosity and ingenuity on his “Floppy Diss.” Perhaps the most surprising contributions come from Blade, whose trap-set back in the day emitted enough rumbustious flash and bravado to compete with Redman’s own magnetism. Here Blade sounds relatively circumspect and cagey, having figured out as the canniest veterans eventually do, that what you don’t fill in is as important as what you do. Redman’s party favor for the gathering is “Silly Little Love Song,” a soulful romp that gives all four guys a case of the grins as it also seems to be waiting for someone not named Sir Paul McCartney to write lyrics for it. (No knock intended. He’d probably suggest someone else to do it anyway.)

 

 

 



8.) Matthew Shipp Trio, The Unidentifiable (ESP-Disk) – It’s tough to stay an angry young man of progressive jazz piano when you’ve turned 60. But age will never deter Shipp’s impetus to color outside the lines. The older he gets, the more apparent it becomes that few people now living can lay down as many dense clusters of chords in as many combinations as he can. With bassist Michael Bislo and drummer Newman Taylor Baker (I think this is their fifth year together, but one is never totally sure of such things), Shipp is expanding the possibilities for jazz piano trio while at the same time allowing his more lyrical side to gradually emerge from behind his polychromatic walls of sound. The title track provides the best vantage point for where Shipp is right now: a Tyner-esque roller-and-tumbler propelling Shipp’s hands back and forth across his keyboard, shagging and snapping eccentric, oblong riffs that Bislo and Baker field with grace and idiosyncrasy. Baker, by the way, figures prominently on a series of tracks labeled, “Virgin Psych Space,” which I am taking to mean exactly what it says it means. There is even (merciful heavens!) a samba, “Regeneration,” that should someday be a global dance phenomenon when the world figures out how to colonize Venus. That this is among the more satisfying albums of Shipp’s prolific career won’t slow his roll. He’s never satisfied. Besides, angry young men can often evolve into valuable curmudgeons. Shipp, trust me, is already there.

 

 

 






9.) Artemis, Artemis (Blue Note) — Conventional wisdom insists that supergroups never work for the simple – or simplistic — reason that star players can’t, by definition, be team players. Maybe that’s true most of the time. And maybe that’s why the seamless interplay of this septet’s members – pianist Renee Rosnes, clarinetist Anat Cohen, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, trumpeter Ingrid Jenson, bassist Noriko Ueda, drummer Allison Miller and vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant – is a surprise large enough to grab your lapels at the outset. What keeps you involved are the different ways each track hugs and tugs at the core of its respective composition, economy without restraint, minimalism with soul. They all play so well with each other that it’s difficult to single any of them out. But as quarterback for this all-star all-woman team, Rosnes also does most of the arrangements and her bold, slow-hand reimagining of Lee Morgan’s four-on-the-floor burner “The Sidewinder” along with her incisive collaboration with Cohen on arranging the latter’s “Nocturno” provide sufficient evidence that this contingent has far more on its mind, and in its quiver, than Making A Point to male supremacists. She and the rest of the band give Salvant a sultry, multi-dimensional frame for Rocco Accetta’s “Cry, Buttercup, Cry.” Jensen applies unexpectedly deeper shadows in her arrangement of “The Fool on The Hill” while Miller (“Goddess of the Hunt”), Aldana (“Frida”) and Ueda (“Step Forward”) make their own striking contributions to the repertoire of this road-tested murderer’s row.

 

 

 

 




10.) Fred Hersch, Songs From Home (Palmetto) – Not long after the Black Swan of pandemic first locked us out of our schools, churches, gyms, theaters and interstates, Hersch, sheltering in his rural Pennsylvania home, brought some added light into his Facebook followers’ afternoons with his “Tune of the Day’ live piano recitals from his living room. Call this then, “Tune of the Day: The Album,” a ten-track compilation of classic standards (“After You’ve Gone,” “Get Out of Town,”) “contemporary pop” hits (“Wichita Lineman, “All I Want”), originals (“Sarabande,” “West Virginia Rose”) and even a folk tune (“The Water Is Wide”). You are transfixed and startled throughout by the stark intimacy and the quiet intensity of Hersch’s variations and ruminations. The wistfulness lurking within the presumptive gaiety of Lerner and Loewe’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” is gently, resolutely funneled to the forefront of Hersch’s interpretation while Ellington’s “Solitude,” as familiar to a jazz lover as a tender old robe, becomes something far eerier and more profound given both the immediate present-day context and the implied long-term uncertainties towards whatever happens when the coronavirus is finally subdued. There’s not a single piece of this album – whatever albums are supposed to be right now – that we don’t badly need for solace, commiseration and grace. It wishes nothing more than that we stay safe, be well and hang on for dear life.

 

 

 




ARCHIVAL
1.) Edward Simon, 25 Years (Ridgeway)
2.) Ella Fitzgerald, The Lost Berlin Tapes (Verve)
3.) Frank Sinatra, Nice n’ Easy (Capitol)

 

 



VOCAL
Allegra Levy, Lose My Number (SteepleChase)
HONORABLE MENTION: Kurt Elling, Secrets are the Best Stories (Edition)

 

 




LATIN

Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Four Questions (Zoho Music)


 

 





HONORABLE MENTION

Rudresh Manhanthappa, Hero Trio (Whirlwind), Charles Tolliver, Connect (Gearbox), Joe Farnsworth, Time To Swing (Smoke Sessions), Ambrose Akinmusire, On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment (Blue Note), Orrin Evans and the Captain Black Big Band, The Intangible Between (Smoke Sessions)



Gene Seymour’s Objectively Subjective Top Ten List of Political Novels

When I was a UConn student in the early 1970s, I had an English professor named Donald Gibson, a kind, soft-spoken gentleman who by that time had become one of the nation’s most respected authorities on what was categorized in those days as “Afro-American literature.” When teaching courses on all of American literature, including one I took that covered the 19th century of Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, Twain, and Douglass, Professor Gibson wanted it known from the beginning that he considered all novels, and therefore all literature, to be political in nature, even, and maybe especially, when such writing went out of its way to avoid taking any kind of explicit political stance. This to me seemed on the one hand understandable since Gibson had made his reputation with books by Black writers that were always viewed by critics in and out of academia as being primarily political in nature at the expense of all other aesthetic considerations. So I figured that he’d countered their assertions by saying, well, if that’s true, then the same can be said for the rest of the literary canon, in America and elsewhere. On the other hand, I also wondered whether his perspective as applied to all literature turned out to be as aesthetically reductive as however white critics were analyzing Black American literature.

I have in the intervening years outgrown my reservations. Don Gibson was right. Novels are all political in some form or another, whether written by Tolstoy or John D. MacDonald, with all kinds of things in between: The Charterhouse of Parma and The Grapes of Wrath; The Godfather and Gulliver’s Travels ; The Plague and The Plot Against America; Candide and Babbitt ; The Handmaid’s Tale and The Autumn of the Patriarch;A Tale of Two Cities  and The Unbearable Lightness of Being; the Martian trilogy of Kim Stanley Robinson, the Albany cycle of William Kennedy and almost all the spy novels of John le Carré especially the ones that came out after Karla turned himself over to The Circus…. 


Whatever’s left of the reading public might think it’s too constricting to bring political angles to works of imagination, especially when (just guessing) the political angles clash overmuch with their own perspectives. They also believe that imposing politics upon a literary work ensures its loss of posterity. Tell it to 1984, which has retained its currency for almost forty years after the real 1984 receded in History’s rear-view window. You wish some things could be made obsolete. But mass mind-fucking and state-enabled terror may never go out of style and George Orwell’s somehow always around to remind us of this dismal fact.

In fact, that may, oddly, be one of the assets of political fiction: to remind us of what we’ve always had to deal with as human beings struggling to make livable spaces for ourselves; you, know, what we tend to call , “societies,” or maybe just leave it at “Society.” And that, however much we try to make things better for humanity and however little we manage to push the needle ahead every once in a while, we’re always left with our messed-up selves and our perennially broken hearts. If love doesn’t break them for us, politics invariably will.

That, for me anyway, is what has always made up the romance of political fiction, which, as Faulkner said of all literature that matters, is about the human heart in conflict with itself. The indifference-bordering-on-contempt that most people hold for politics can be tied directly to how it breaks so many hearts to the point that those people can’t or won’t care about politics anymore.

It’s OK to be mad at politics, even bitter. But if the last decade, and maybe the couple before that have proven anything, it’s that you retain indifference to politics at your peril – and, in the longer run, democracy’s peril as well.

I am in no way saying that any or all of the ten books I’m listing below will save the Republic or preserve democratic values. (Books alone can’t do that; readers can or are supposed to.) But these are all political novels, or novels with politics in them (and yes, there is a difference, but one not worth parsing here) that have shaped my own perspective on politics’ interplay with imagination – and, most of all, how that interplay magnifies possibilities in both. You’re probably going to notice omissions: All the King’s Men (still moving in parts, terribly dated in both its overripe rhetoric and grandiloquent tactics) or Advise and Consent (enthralled with it when younger, doubt I will ever read it again, especially given its author’s skewed, frothing follow-ups). We’d be here all night going over all the others, some of which I cited earlier, as well as those I haven’t gotten around to yet, from Trollope’s Palliser novels to Henry Adams’ Democracy to James Fenimore Cooper’s The Bravo (me neither, until I heard about it a month ago from a fellow voracious reader). So much to look forward to.

Anyway…in no particular order (other titles in bold  within each entry are recommended, but not as urgently):

 

 

 

 

 


The Gay Place — I got to admit that my recent re-reading of Billy Lee Brammer’s 1961 trilogy of interlocking novellas about arm-twisting in both love and politics has been primarily an exercise in wish-fulfillment. Not only do most of the characters in circa 1950s Austin, Texas seem to be having so much more fun back then than me or anybody I know in this age of pandemic, but one also yearns for somebody in public life who can fall back and fire away with something that goes like this:

“I tell you, boy, there aint ‘nothin’ else but power an’ change an’ improvement. The rest…is all a mere middle-class business. Aint no use fomentin’; Learned that long ago. Aint no use ‘cept in the last extremity. You want to overturn the existin’ institution, that’s fine. But you got to be sure you know how to build a better one. The thing to do is to work through the institution…figure a way to do that…to make change and build a city and save the goddam world from collapse.”


That there is Arthur “Goddam” Fenstermaker, the Brobdingnagian governor of Texas and the heady glue that holds Brammer’s novellas together. Fenstermaker is a thinly disguised version of Lyndon B. Johnson, for whom Brammer served as an aide in Washington when LBJ was the most effective, significant and unapologetically Machiavellian senate majority leader before Mitch McConnell. Described by one character as “a combination of Mahatma Gandhi and Rasputin . . . The Prince of Darkness and the Goddamn Mystic Angel,” the bluff, profane and cunningly manipulative Fenstermaker provides both direction and meaning to the lives of three wayward, wooly young men: an epicurean state assemblyman, a diffident U.S. senator (“very junior”) and the governor’s circumspect press aide. All are pressed hard by the centrifugal force of Fenstermaker’s wheeling and dealing to do better for themselves and for their families and constituencies. Never mind the often-distasteful things you have to do to get what or where you want. As the governor insists, it’s always about “power,” “change” and (you hope) “improvement.” What else is a democratic goddam republic for anyway?

 

 

 

 



The Dispossessed (An Ambiguous Utopia) — Along with The Left Hand of Darkness, this 1975 multiple-award-winning science fiction novel is considered one of the high points of Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Hainish Cycle” about interplanetary civilizations. This one makes you think hard and deep about that thing Governor “Goddam” mentions above about wanting to change “an existin’ institution” while needing to know how to build a better one. The protagonist is Shevek, a physicist born and raised on Annares, an anarchist-collectivist settlement on a near-uninhabitable desert world where wealth and responsibility are shared by the inhabitants. It’s all worked well for over an Earth-like century. But there are signs of both stagnation and fraying in the social structure; there are even “propertarians” challenging the consensus of selflessness. Shevek travels from Annares to its “mother planet” of Urras (enough with the giggling!), which embodies everything the Annares colonists were escaping from: rampant individualism, unchecked capitalism, brutally enforced social stratification and gross disparities in both resources and opportunities for rich and poor. On the other hand, there’s enough intellectual freedom on Urras for Shevek’s “theory of simultaneity” that the folks back home in Annares view with suspicion because it could ruin their proud isolation from other, less egalitarian societies. It’s an ingenious, elaborately wrought novel of ideas that keeps your brain lit up without shortchanging suspense and romance. And the social and political dualities it grapples with have managed to ooze from the 20th century into the 21st with plenty of room for arguing one or more sides. What might a Fenstermaker conclude after reading it? That whatever else Utopia is, it aint paradise, it aint perfect, and it damn sure aint easy.

 

 

 

 



The Book of Daniel — As much as any conventional nonfiction narrative on the era you can name, E.L. Doctorow’s 1971 tour de force — which, as I now have the floor, I will declare   his best novel – manages to encompass the whole history of the American Left in the early-to-mid-20th century as reimagined through the riffing, riotously discursive and profoundly haunted “doctoral thesis” submitted for our consideration by Daniel Levin nee Issacson, whose parents were executed in the fifties for allegedly selling atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Doctorow’s boldness in mining fictional possibilities from the real-life saga of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is enhanced by the detailed intimacy with which he evokes Daniel’s memories of the traumatic childhood he shared with his sister Susan. The book is like a hipster’s revision on John Dos Passos’ rip-roaring pastiches, only with language that is at once more introspective and musically vibrant. The overall trajectory of Doctorow’s narrative is like that of Ralph Ellison’s metaphorical boomerang: always coming back, but never in identical arcs. As it is so, Ellison maintained, with history – and, I would add, with politics, too.

 

 

 

 



The Marrow of Tradition — In November 1898, a mob of about 2,000 white supremacists assembled in Wilmington, North Carolina to carry out a violent insurrection against its more than 10,000 Black citizens as well as the homes and businesses they owned in the city. The duly elected Republican government, which supported the Black community, was ousted from power and between 60 and 300 people were killed. Events were (of course) widely misrepresented in public accounts of the time as a Black riot put down by vigilante justice. But just two years later, Charles W. Chesnutt , perhaps the nation’s most prominent Black novelist at the turn of 20th century, published this fictional depiction of what would much later be acknowledged as the only overthrow of an elected government in American history. If you can look past some of the anachronistic rhetorical flourishes, you’ll see how much nuance and sophistication Chesnutt shows in detailing the complicated racial heritage secretly joining together two families living in what he’s here calling Wellington. There is the white family whose patriarch Major Carteret owns the local newspaper and is involved in a plan to take over the town and there is William Miller, a Black doctor trying to establish a practice and a home with his wife Clara, who is half-sister to Carteret’s ailing wife Olivia. The scheming and maneuvering carried out both covertly and openly towards a racist uprising is persuasively rendered as are the myriad consequences to both the Carterets and the Millers. Chesnutt is just as prodigiously attentive to class disparities as he is to the myriad legacies of slavery and the blunted promises of Reconstruction. Chesnutt would later recall of the novel’s immediate reception (poor in the South, mixed everywhere else) that it was treated “with respect, but no great enthusiasm.” For reasons that are likely not obscure to anybody reading this, I suspect it would now be read as keenly, if horrifically prescient.

 

 

 

 

 


The Last Hurrah — Much like Texas governor Fenstermaker, Frank Skeffington is a flamboyant, swaggering force-of-nature who can lie grinningly through his teeth and lay waste to careers while working the levers of power for the greater good. Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 novel, enormously popular enough in its day to be made into a John Ford movie two years later, is inspired by the real-life Boston politician James Michael Curley who dominated the city and its politics for most of the early 20th century in various offices, mostly as the city’s mayor. The novel chronicles Skeffington’s final mayoral run through the eyes of his newspaperman nephew Adam Caulfield. The old man deploys all his proven weaponry — streetwise guile, perpetual glad-handing and backroom machinations – in his go-for-broke effort to hold on to power. But his once-effective tricks are barely enough to compete against a younger, less experienced, but more media-savvy candidate. By the time O’Connor published the book, big-city machine politics of the kind embodied by the Skeffingtons of the nation was well along its inexorable decline and Last Hurrah, while acknowledging and even accepting mid-century tectonic shifts in urban government, is itself a bittersweet relic of its time. Those finding O’Connor’s depiction of a Boston pol’s swan song too tame and judicious have the option of reading George V. Higgins’ A Choice of Enemies, his 1984 novel depicting the plug-ugly decline and fall of Bernie Morgan, an omnipotent Massachusetts state speaker and mean-drunk gremlin leaving physical and emotional wreckage wherever he goes in and around Boston; sort of what Last Hurrah would have been if somebody like Jim Thompson wrote it. If you’re in the mood for Higgins’ misanthropic slant, it’ll do. At this precise moment, I prefer O’Connor’s melancholy reverie.

 

 

 

 




The Quiet American – Am I the only one who notices that this 1955 Graham Greene novel has a kind of perverse doppelganger in Greene’s screenplay for 1949’s The Third Man? In Alden Pyle, the novel’s eponymous “quiet” young American attaché in Indochina, one sees a variant for Holly Martins, the comparably earnest and  clueless American pulp writer in Third Man who bumbles and stumbles around postwar Vienna carrying his illusions around like overstuffed luggage. As for the novel’s narrator (and Greene surrogate?) Thomas Fowler, one sees elements of both the charmingly amoral Harry Lime and the coldly pragmatic Major Calloway. Then again, in Pyle’s secretly enabling a “third way” of staving off Communism in Vietnam, there’s quite a bit of Harry’s duplicity and (even) arrogance while Fowler’s own romantic yearnings, as with Holly’s, cloud his better judgment at times. Once again, as in all the other books cited here, the personal and the political tango with each other, leading to a resolution that makes sense and feels lousy at the same time – much like election results we used to wake up to in a world much different than the one we share now. Journalists who covered Vietnam in the early sixties carried this book as an oracular text hoping that Alden Pyle’s real-life doppelgangers in Saigon and Washington would take the hint and not get in deeper. They didn’t take the hint and as Michael Herr wrote in Dispatches, it was possible for many observers late in the game to believe that time may have already been up for America and Vietnam “when Alden Pyle’s body washed up under the bridge at Dakao, his lungs all full of mud.” Even second-hand, Greene’s imagery leaves a mark beneath your forehead.

 

 

 



Jack Gance – To aficionados of Washington novels, Ward Just led the list of practitioners who weren’t nearly as famous as they deserved to be. At the time of his death last December at 84, Just, who first won renown in the 1960s as a Vietnam War correspondent for the Washington Post, had published 17 novels and at least a couple of short-story collections beginning with The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert, a title that doesn’t sound nearly as implausible back in 1973 as it does now. Few writers in any genre wove the effects of the personal life on the political – and vice-versa – with as much deceptive ease and seamless grace as Just. This particular novel from 1989 doesn’t get the kind of props that such works as A Family Trust (1978), An Unfinished Season (2004) and American Romantic (2014) have received from various critics. But I like this one best because it’s as outwardly unassuming and craftily impassioned as its title character, who on the surface is a prototypically fretless DC pollster and “fixer”, as blithe about his proficiency at swinging elections as he is immune to emotional commitment to women. It turns out that there’s a context in Jack’s past life for his determination to avoid skid marks within the system: his father, a failed real-estate broker in Chicago, took the fall for tax evasion because he wouldn’t accept a political favor to avoid prison. Jack’s dances with political machinery in both Chicago and DC are impeccably crafted and timed and it’s enough to make him a valued source for data and dirt . But then, relatively late in life, Jack decides he’s burned out with fixing stuff and wants to be a Democratic politician instead of merely advising them. A less experienced or proficient novelist than Just likely couldn’t pull off such a transition convincingly. But Just gives you a character complex enough to calibrate sensitivity and toughness towards what seems an unlikely, but inevitable transition. This is as satisfying a portrait as you can find of an artist of the possible – e.g., a politician without horns egregiously painted on his forehead.

 

 

 

 

 



The Gilded Age – Mark Twain collaborated with Charles Dudley Warner on this 1873 melodrama that, had it done nothing more than provide a name for the era it chronicles, would have been a landmark in the national culture. The reason it’s endured for as long as it has is the rich and pungent depiction of post-Civil War Washington’s carnival of crooks, plutocrats and thwarted schemers. It all starts with a stretch of Tennessee backwoods belonging to a poor family who can’t give it away despite its best efforts. Colonel Sellers, an unsavory amalgam of Mister Micawber and Falstaff, involves the family in land speculation in Missouri and eventually the family’s alluring and intelligent adopted daughter Laura Hawkins winds up in the District as a lobbyist; it’s mostly through her gimlet eye that we get the full panoply of rapacity and corruption. The sardonic set pieces and wild interludes are of such heft and variety that it’s possible to view the whole book as a portable quasi-steampunk Netflix series that at once tempts and discourages binge-ing. In an essay written on political fiction several years ago, New Republic editor Chris Lehmann cites Gilded Age for establishing the template for the American political novel: one in which “Washington was to be the premier setting of a strikingly continuous American political fable of innocence at risk.” Such a convention would become hackneyed or overplayed in successive generations of novels. But what Twain and Warner subtitled   “A Tale of Today”   manages to stay news because the distinctions between Selling Out and Buying In remain as tricky to parse as they are impervious to time.

 

 

 

 



King Strut — As the 1960s were recombining dourly into the 1970s, a sub-genre was making its way through the nation’s bookstalls that, for want of a better phrase, I’ll label “race revolution thrillers.” I’d put the trend’s origins as far back as the apocalyptic ending of 1967’s The Man Who Cried I Am by John A. Williams, who followed that underrated classic about Black literary lions making their way through the American century with 1969’s Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light, which is all about Black conspiracy and revolt in the Great Society’s wreckage. The standard for the sub-genre was all but established that same year by The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Sam Greenlee’s saga of a Black CIA agent who goes from being the Company’s “showcase negro” as implied by the title to taking what he knows about guerrilla warfare and subversive tactics to the streets. You had to figure that a white writer would somehow get in on the action and that somehow it had to be Richard Condon, author of The Manchurian Candidate and Winter Kills, whose 1976 novel, The Whisper of the Axe imagined that a Black criminal lawyer named Angela (I know, right?) Teel leads a band of revolutionaries on an attempt to overthrow the U.S. Government the same day as the nation’s Bicentennial.
I am, however, going to bypass all these variably worthy options for King Strut and a big part of the reason is blatant conflict-of-interest since its author Chuck Stone is my late uncle and also because it shares with Gay Place and Last Hurrah a larger-than-life American political titan as inspiration. When my uncle published the book in 1970, he was still seething over the expulsion three years before of his then-employer and all-time hero Adam Clayton Powell Jr. from his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. This novel remains the closest thing to a published account of my uncle’s reminiscences of those years, only reinvented as an exuberantly satiric roman á clef. The   protagonist’s name is Hiram Elliot Quinnault Jr. and, instead of Powell’s Harlem, Quinnault instead hails from and represents the Black neighborhoods of Chicago (which is where Chuck attended graduate school at the University of Chicago and later worked for about a year-and-a-half as editor of the Daily Defender before running afoul of the Richard Daley oligarchy). Chuck seasoned his wise insider’s knowledge of politics, white and Black, with some outrageous set pieces including a raucous sex scene in the Lincoln Bedroom involving Quinnault and the First Lady (and that, too, has a basis in fact because…well, never mind.) The climax comes, as with the aforementioned novels, with violence in the streets. But (again) never mind how all that happens. Don’t want to spoil too much in case you happen to come across Strut in second-hand book sites, which is the only way you’ll find it these days.
As with everything else my uncle wrote, King Strut is willful and unyielding direct action in the service of his people. Also, as with everything he wrote, there was unfettered joy and heedless abandon in the process. “I got my rocks off writing this thing!” he exulted to the family shortly after publication. You may well feel the same as he did while reading it.

 

 

 

 



Briarpatch – This may be, by default, the best-known of Ross Thomas’ 25 dark and bloody comedies-of-manners by virtue of a mondo-quirky TV mini-series adaptation aired earlier this year on USA Network with Rosario Dawson, Alan Cumming, Kim Dickens and a gaggle of vicious carnivores, not all of them human, wandering loose and at-large somewhere near the Texas-Mexico border. The book is nowhere near as surreal, but it’s still a svelte, acerbic page-turner, very wise in the ways of power and money as are so many of the books published by Thomas (1926-1995), both under his name and that of Oliver Bleeck. People have often linked him with Elmore Leonard because of their droll, taut and wickedly subversive ways with genre fiction. I prefer to believe Thomas to be what Evelyn Waugh would, if, instead of being an English Catholic Tory, the latter were a yellow-dog, large-D-Democrat from the American Southwest.
The story’s protagonist is a congressional investigator whose sister, a police detective still living and working in their hometown (never named but very likely in Thomas’ native Oklahoma) is blown to bits by a car bomb. When he comes home for the funeral, the investigator finds evidence that his sister was seriously “bent” in her ethical conduct. He suspects otherwise and uses his own professional chops to uncover a squalid legacy of murder and corruption deeply embedded in the local history that entangled his sister’s complex-but-not-necessarily-crooked life. That may be as much the book has in common with the series. But it’s not the narrative here so much as Thomas’ wry-but-doleful observations about how easy it is for appalling human transactions to become normalized by socio-political imperatives. It will be easy for most Americans to relate this notion to the last four years. But as much of Thomas’ oeuvre and many of the books cited above attest: ‘twas ever thus.



Our 100 Year Inheritance from Charlie Parker

 

 

Jimmy Cannon used the phrase “an American heirloom” to describe Babe Ruth. I like to think the same could be said for Charlie Parker, even if most Americans, know relatively little about him when compared with the “Sultan of Swat.” Both seemed supernatural phenomena who seemingly came out of nowhere, capable of leaving witnesses spellbound in the very different ways their profound sense of swing reshaped the air around them. Both had massive, seemingly insatiable appetites, living fast, playing hard, dying too soon, making indelible history in their respective art forms.

 

 

 



With the Bird, I think the legacy is even subtler than what you find on his recordings, which still can astound new listeners on first contact.

 

 



The tone is what shocks you before the tempest of invention all but overpowers your resistance. It is a bright, hard tone, shiny and serrated like sheet metal edgy enough to scratch any surface, supple enough to shape into any form, whether terrifyingly new or dreamily familiar.

 


The things that remarkable-on-its-own voice could do within the cramped space of a two-to-three-minute recording are what made its owner a near-divinity even in his brief lifetime. At any speed, in any context, Charlie Parker could fold into the narrowest blank space stream upon stream of inferences, wisecracks, mimicry, thematic variations and nonverbal poetry. I can imagine all those ex-servicemen who left for war at the end of the swing era and returned to hear this coming out of their 78-RPM players and thinking, as Parker and his combo created a whole new front end for “Cherokee” (“Ko-Ko”)  or “Embraceable You”, “He can do that? He can actually do all that?”

 

 

 

 

 

 


Springing outward like weeds from such questions were others that asked, “Should he do all that?” Critics as different from each other as Ralph Ellison and Phillip Larkin were adamant that he shouldn’t have. Sharing their corner were moldy figs of varied ages who echoed Emperor Joseph II’s sentiments in Amadeus when he told an astonished and infuriated Mozart that there were “too many notes” in his otherwise “ingenious” compositions. Louis Armstrong dissed what he famously labeled “Chinese music” a.k.a. bebop and many still blame jazz’s precipitous decline in widespread popularity on boppers like Bird, his “worthy constituent” Dizzy Gillespie and others for making music that made social dancing difficult, if not impossible. (My parents and their friends thought differently, and I know this because I saw them dancing to a Parker record as if it were just another of what were once labeled “pop platters.”)

 

 

 

 


Nevertheless, for true believers in the primacy – and the imperative — of improvisation, Charlie Parker was and is a secular god. Every virtuosic barrage of notes he emptied into space has been chased down, contained and examined on both masters and outtakes by obsessives of all ages and temperaments. The irrepressible Phil Schaap has for almost 30 years used morning airtime on New York’s WCKR-FM to provide detailed exegeses of every note Bird blew, even the wrong ones, if, in the minds of Parker cultists, there were such things.

 

 

 



Guys like Schaap existed even when Parker was alive and blowing, the most fanatical of these being Dean Benedetti, a saxophonist who followed Bird around with a wire recorder and stuck a microphone in front of Parker whenever he soloed. Those solos, and only those solos, were recorded and transcribed by Benedetti, who died in 1957 at 34, the same age as Parker did two years earlier. (The Benedetti recordings were released in 1988 and, even with the hi-tech production wizardry of Mosaic Records at work, they’re a strain to hear, but worth the trouble if you’re a true believer at the altar labeled “Bird Lives!”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


That Parker died so young and packed his brief life with as much density and turbulence as one of his solos (the coroner’s report put his age at 53, or so legend has it) is part of his everlasting mystery and magnetism. He did all that? you think when hearing his work. He actually did all that? Wave upon wave of surviving colleagues, younger acolytes, historians, musicologists and poets have struggled to explain how he did “all that.” Sooner or later, however perceptive or intuitive their engagement might be, all of them end up doing little more than projecting their own version of Bird to the point that there are many different Birds flying around the world. Early in my own such engagement, I always thought it was interesting to wander through Robert Reisner’s 1962 “oral biography” Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker and note how there seemed to be no two photos of him that looked exactly alike.

 

 

 


Stanley Crouch does plenty of his own projecting in 2013’s Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker mostly because there is so very little verifiable data on Parker’s early life that can be found despite Crouch’s valiant research. Still, this first of what is intended to be a two-volume biography rides towards its conclusion with as vivid and as persuasive an assessment of the Artist as a Young Man on the precipice of discovery as James Joyce’s own:


“Wherever he was in whatever room playing whatever horn whether owned by him or not, Charlie Parker was in a condition of confrontation. That was inevitable. By now he knew, deeper than his marrow, what all serious artists realize: that no matter how great and perfect a major creator is at a moment of sublime delivery, there are always limitations. No one person is perfect enough to conjure what another person feels as he tries to express what is inside. Parker…was beginning to realize that no established genius, however rough, tough, and dreamily hypnotic, could hear what he was hearing. Perhaps what he heard was actually his and his alone.”

If Charlie Parker is an heirloom, his inheritance encompasses  not only musicians but all who yearn to Play What They Hear, whether with paints and brushes, pencils and word processors, ballet slippers and soft floors, turntables and microphones. William Blake aside, the idea was never to Go to Extremes – and Parker would be the first to tell anybody who tried to follow his example that there were places he went that weren’t necessary to perform his miracles. Life, not Art made all that mess. Learning to negotiate the distinctions is part of the process and at some point, you are left with the beautiful mystery of his speed, power and lyricism. It’s enough.




 

Not the Perry We Want, But Maybe the Perry We Need

 

 

 

You had to wait till HBO’s Perry Mason ran its course to realize how good it was in the same way you had to wait till the end of a vintage CBS  Perry Mason episode to find out who the real murderer was.

It was good and, at times, great. But it was touch and go throughout, world. If you’re binge-watching it now, you might not appreciate how many of us who took each episode in weekly installments were ready to bail on this old/new/new/old iteration of the Lawyer Who Never Loses. The art direction, which remained the true star of the series till the end, kept our heads in the game with its meticulous recreation of Los Angeles in the deepest pit of the Great Depression.  

 

But brothers and sisters, did this ship take its sweet old time to reach port! It seemed intent, at times, on creating its own fog and squalls along the way. One more histrionic revival meeting, one more instance of Perry (Matthew Rhys) physically and emotionally getting his butt kicked, and some of us were ready to abandon ship without bothering to find out what kind of asshole sews open the eyelids of a dead infant as a way of making his parents think he’s still alive.

Which doesn’t sound even remotely like the kind of murder case that would create billable hours for Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason back when he was sweeping the courtroom floors with William Talman’s Hamilton Burger on CBS’s prime-time schedule in the late fifties and early sixties. Granted, those old shows could get pretty weird themselves with their noir-ish SoCal landscapes, berserk red herrings, cobra-like plot shifts and absurdly alliterative episode titles like “The Case of the Woeful Widower,” “The Case of the Bountiful Beauty,” “The Case of the Devious Delinquent” – and that was just the seventh season!

 

 

 


Yet I happily and regularly devour those old CBS episodes as have many of my friends lately for the tasty, caloric comfort food for the soul they always were. Yes, they were formulaic. But as art critic Dave Hickey writes in his wondrous essay, “The Little Church of Perry Mason,” there remains after all these years something at once sublime, gnomish, fortifying and finely wrought about the series; Hickey especially appreciates how, after a murderer’s confession was successfully yoked on a witness stand, Perry, Paul Drake (William Hopper), Della Street (Barbara Hale), and sometimes Ham Burger and LAPD Lieutenant Tragg (Ray Collins) would always get together for coffee, dinner or a late-night office nosh to go over how Perry figured out yet another one.

 



I came later to read some of the original Perry Mason mysteries by his creator Erle Stanley Gardner. In all there were roughly 80 such novels published between 1933 and 1973 (two years after Gardner’s death) and I know only one person who managed to read all of them after combing through used bookstores, tag sales, church basements and garages. Apparently, he finds them just as addictive as the old TV show. They can seem just as formulaic but, to their immense credit, just as unaffected and straightforward in their overall presentation.

 

 

 

 


“I write to make money,” Gardner once said, “and I write to give the reader sheer fun.” He called himself a “Fiction Factory” and he dictated his stories to typists, at least two or three books at a time, or so I’m guessing. Every once in a while, they read as if they were dictated and Gardner’s friend Raymond Chandler once wrote a note warning him of occasional discrepancies and inadvertent repetitions finding their way into published texts.

 

 

 

 


Even so, the Mason books are fun to read, as crafty, rakish, unflappable and droll as their hero. Burr’s interpretation of Mason retains the character’s almost eerie composure and serene command of the legal code to the point of breezy, but never brash arrogance.

Speaking of Raymond Chandler, here’s part of a morale booster he wrote to his friend Gardner in early 1946 that pretty much sums up how the world felt about Mason even before he became a TV icon :

“I regard myself as a pretty exacting reader; detective stories as such don’t mean a thing to me. [NOTE: THEY REALLY DIDN’T] But it must be obvious that if I have half a dozen unread books beside my chair and one of them is a Perry Mason, and I reach for the Perry Mason and let the others wait, that book must have quality….
“You owed nothing to Hammett or Hemingway. Your books have no brutality or sadism, very little sex, and the blood doesn’t count. What counts, at least for me, is a supremely skillful combination of the mental quality of the detective story and the movement of the mystery-adventure story….Perry Mason is the perfect detective because he has the intellectual approach of the judicial mind and at the same time the restless quality of the adventurer who won’t stay put. I think he is just about perfect…” 


HBO’s Perry Mason, on the other hand, has plenty of brutality, blood, sadism and sex…all the lurid stuff that Chandler appreciated the Gardner books for avoiding. You could say it’s a lot closer to Chandler’s vision than to his friend’s. Try imagining, to press the point further, what Day of the Locust, Nathaniel West’s house-of-horrors vision of Depression-era Los Angeles would read like if Chandler had written it instead.

Having this iteration of Mason start out as a bottom-feeding private eye is at least consistent with Gardner’s roots as a Black Mask contributor of hard-boiled crime stories in the twenties and thirties. But devotees believed it altogether inappropriate to bring up the baggage of Mason being a shell-shocked WWI vet adrift and hopeless in 1931 Los Angeles, all too ready to dive headfirst into a Hooverville, a speakeasy or between the legs of his sultry Latina lover (Veronica Falcón). I suppose it’s possible to imagine this grimy, war-haunted vagrant evolving from the depths of the Depression into the coolly competent smoothie we remember from the dawn of the Space Age. In those latter days, we would never expect Mason to get into the kind of trouble this poor schlub endures.

Burr’s Mason, as noted, was like a sheet of ice on the sidewalk at night: too cold, too slippery and too devious to get stuck in mundane dangers like guns to the head or being roughed up and tortured by goons. What danger was for Mason, especially in the Gardner novels, was risking disbarment for – how did Della put it? – “stepping over the line” to prove his client’s innocence. The law for that Perry Mason wasn’t an occasion to be cynical; it was a near-holy order, a call to secular grace:

“I have never stuck up for any criminal. I have merely asked for the orderly administration of an impartial justice … Due legal process is my own safeguard against being convicted unjustly. To my mind, that’s government. That’s law and order.” – from 1943’s The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito.

 

 



Matthew Rhys’ Mason climbs up from the mire to where he’s supposed to be, eventually. There are hints throughout the series that he was always there, even if for much of the series he looks less like a budding smoothie and, in his still moments, like the ravaged, doom-haunted photos of James Agee taken by Walker Evans in the late thirties while they were struggling to finish Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

 



The kidnap-murder of the infant boy and its ties to an evangelical church run by an Aimee Semple McPherson-style superstar preacher (Tatiana Maslany) is so sordid and complicated that you look forward to the light-and-lively banter among Mason, legal secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance) and her cuddly, curmudgeonly boss Elias Birchard “E.B.” Jonathan (John Lithgow). But Mason can’t truly relax with them any more than he can figure out how to hold on to his family farm somewhere near the Mojave. Or figure out how he can get enough scratch for his keyhole-peeping to cover himself and his partner-mentor Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham).

But this apparent inaugural season isn’t about a dead baby, a glitzy temple or even a murder case whose thinness, wearing away even more during the trial, makes one wonder the same thing Murray Kempton wondered while covering New York City’s (Black) “Panther 21” trial in 1971 after the prosecution rested its case: “And is it all no more than this?” (from Kempton’s The Briar Patch, 1973). It is, in short, not about the central mystery at all. It’s about the growth of a human being.

“And is it all no more than this?” you may well ask. Quite a bit more, especially at this point in our own real-life history.

Let’s do what we always do in a Perry Mason story and look for clues. To me, the biggest clue comes towards the end of the first episode, when a movie mogul and Groucho Marx look-alike takes Mason into a back room and has him trussed up by a couple of goons, shaking him down for the compromising photos he took of a naked horndog comedian. “You need to think about your actions,” the mogul purrs to Mason who’s about to get a heated gun barrel applied to his chest. ”You need to decide what kind of person you want to be.”

The protests we’ve been seeing since May throughout the country over police brutality and systemic racism have been asking variations of the same question. And it’s been hurting us to ask that of ourselves, about as much as that hot rod is hurting Mason.

It’s worth remembering here that Erle Stanley Gardner shared the same view of justice vs. law-and-order that his lead character did. His early career as a litigator was taken up with defending underdogs, often Mexican and Chinese immigrants, who he believed were unjustly indicted and couldn’t afford the defense they deserved. In the early forties, he formed an organization, “The Court of Last Resort”, devoted to helping those imprisoned unfairly or couldn’t get a fair trial. Both a prize-winning book and a short-lived TV series carried the name and the mission of Gardner’s precursor to today’s Innocence Project.

Maybe watching Rhys’ Mason, as opposed to Burr’s, struggle, stumble, whine and grumble his way towards his ultimate destiny is an analogue for our own halting, stumbling and grudging efforts to restore balance and fairness to our legal system. And while Gardner, if he were alive today, would likely shudder over just how much of a mess the American criminal justice system has become, he would likely put his man, high-handed tactics and all, in the forefront of setting it all right again.

From the apparent success of the HBO series, we’re going to see more of this new/old Mason, and it’ll be interesting to see how or if his self-improvement continues as his cases get as weird or weirder than the ones his predecessors dealt with on- and off-screen. I’m also wondering just how the producers are going to finesse a Black Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) trying to pry buried secrets from white people in an L.A. mired in Depression, impending war and racial segregation.

 



No, it’s not your father’s or grandfather’s Perry Mason. But this stressed-out, caffeinated and volatile Perry Mason belongs to us more than we’re willing to acknowledge. He knows we’re all guilty. But that doesn’t mean he’s giving up on us. So don’t give up on him.

A Referendum on a Statue? No. It’s Another Referendum on Lincoln.

 

Both my age and my lifelong inclination to study  History place me squarely on the side of those who want to leave the Emancipation Statue where it is in DC’s Lincoln Park. I do, however, understand the problem today’s Black Lives Matter generation of activists have with it and why they’d like to see it go away.  The sight of a newly freed slave crouched beneath the Great White Father/Emancipator looks  so patronizing when framed against the present-day urgency that it likely doesn’t matter to Millennials and Generation-Z African American activists that this particular piece of public art was paid for almost entirely by freed Black slaves and that it was unveiled in 1876, which would be the last year of post-Civil War Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow’s reign of terror in the South and elsewhere. Nor will it matter to them that before that statue (sculpted by a white artist named Thomas Ball) there were precisely no statues in the Nation’s Capital depicting a black person and quite likely a very long time before there would be another. 

No, I suppose that there may be from here on a dispute between generations of Black folk in Washington and elsewhere over the optics of this statue. But “optics,” I’m thinking, are the least of it. This isn’t just a dispute over a statue. It revives an ongoing referendum Black Americans have had for at least a couple generations over the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. It’s a dilemma that goes all the way back to the statue’s unveiling, when Frederick Douglass, who spoke at the dedication ceremony, rehashed some of his own mixed feelings towards the 16th president he got to know well enough to be impatient with him when it came to not only Emancipation, but what would, or could, happen afterwards. 

I came of age at the outset of Lincoln revisionism among Black writers and historians such as Lerone Bennett Jr. and Julius Lester during the 1960s. Decades later, I had a chance to openly declare where I landed, more or less, on the Lincoln dilemma when in 2009, the bicentennial year of his birth, American History magazine assigned me to review  Lincoln on Race and Slavery (Princeton University Press),  in which Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Donald Yacovone gathered together excerpts from speeches, letters, and debates to create a mosaic of Lincoln’s racial politics which, though by no means conclusive or satisfying to anyone, may well be the best we’ll ever get in one volume beyond making the effort to sift through his papers ourselves.

My piece, printed in its full (pre-publication) form below, wont settle anything either. But I love the process of coming-to-grips with things that is as American as a burger or a blues joint. Which is why I love the arguments over the Emancipation Statue for their own sake.  I hope they never stop arguing about it because, to a considerable extent, it serves Mr. Lincoln right. 

 

 

 

This year’s bicentennial celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday finds us in a far different state-of-mind than 100 years ago, when the 16th president’s stature as a secular saint was pretty much taken for granted. Now we have questions. They come from many walks of life, but the civil rights movement that, many believe, finished what Lincoln started, has especially made African Americans, once his most devoted and unequivocal acolytes, turn a more gimlet eye towards the Great Emancipator and his legacy.

Among their questions: If Lincoln really hated slavery, why did it take so long for him to declare emancipation? And is it possible that he didn’t love black people as much as they loved him? After all, he kept insisting that, once slaves were freed, he’d rather have them all shipped back to Africa rather than given the same rights as all American citizens. Or did he?


You can get whiplash sifting for answers to these and related questions through the corpus of Lincoln’s letters, speeches and official documents. So Henry Louis Gates Jr. does the work for you with Lincoln on Race and Slavery, a compilation of excerpts from Lincoln’s writings dating back to his earliest anti-slavery statements as an Illinois legislator in the late 1830’s to his last public address on April 11, 1865, in which he said black Union troops proved they were worthy of enfranchisement as voters. John Wilkes Booth heard those words and decided the president had to die for them – which, with Booth’s help, he did four days later.


Along with the PBS documentary Looking for Lincoln, Lincoln on Race and Slavery represents Gates’ conscientious effort to re-engage, if not altogether reconcile, with Abraham Lincoln as man and legend, hero and conundrum. The film, however, is more travelogue than analysis. Gates, both host and co-producer, lugs Lincoln’s complexities and contradictions into personal encounters with fellow scholars, tour guides, schoolchildren and even some present-day stars-and-bars sympathizers. The image of the nation’s “go-to” black public intellectual making nice with proud sons and daughters of the Confederacy makes for interesting television, but seems symptomatic of the intermittently provocative drift permeating the entire enterprise. Viewers could be forgiven for complaining that the film doesn’t answer any of the above (or related) questions; nor does it resolve issues it raises.

 


But as Gates makes clear in his far more cogent introductory essay to Lincoln on Race and Slavery, looking for simple or comforting resolution even in the man’s own words (the only rational option at hand) may be a fool’s errand. With a surgeon’s deftness, Gates (with help from editor-writer Donald Yacavone) fashions a simulacrum of a state-of-mind at constant war with its assumptions and ambitions. To read the segments gleaned from the epochal 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, you’d think Lincoln spent most of his time reassuring his white audiences that, of course, he didn’t believe blacks were sufficiently human to mix with their kind; at the same time, he kept insisting that the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal” applied to black men as well. A contemporary reader could at once bemoan such brazen avoidance of consistency while marveling at the rhetorical agility of what Robert Lowell, in an otherwise disapproving sonnet to the Emancipator, deemed “our one genius in politics.”


And yet, the artifacts of that genius become more tangible, more manifest, when they surge from beneath the web of its owner’s calculation, forcing his listeners to confront not only “the better angels of our nature” but the darker forces within. One thinks, particularly, of the moment in his 1858 speech in Edwardsville, Illinois when he dares to ask whites about dehumanizing and subjugating blacks: “Are you quite sure the demon which you have roused will not turn and rend you?” Skeptics of all colors are free to doubt whether Lincoln still belongs to the ages. But when you see how such a question may still be posed in your own life and times, you’re hard-pressed to deny lasting resonance to such fierce and mighty words.