Thursday, June 28, 2007

CP Time is Real

Apologies for not updating in forever.

I've been swamped with travels (D.C.; Howard University / San Francisco for a reading), doing rent-paying writing (pieces for the LA Weekly and LA Times), and finishing up the manuscript for Vol. 2 of Blood Beats. (This second child is kicking my ass but is, I think, stronger than its older sibling.) I would have to go to an old-fashioned, Tennessee Williams style sanitarium and sit out on a lush, green lawn, staring up at the sky for weeks on end, doped up out the ass, just to come up to the level of being merely exhausted. Plus, I just turned in the liner notes for the Luther Vandross box-set that drops later this year. (It's gon' be a niiiiiiiiiiice set.) Part of the hook that snared me into writing the Luther notes was the fact that one of my idols, the great, great Nikki Giovanni, is writing a new poem just for the set. I hope to drop some new writing here soon. I've seen Michael moore's Sicko (really good but still has some of Moore's patented, bombastic flaws), Hairspray (which I liked a whole lot, which shocked the hell outta me as I loathe show-tunes; it's better than the original but has a couple of predictably fucked up racial snags), and I just reviewed the new Donnie CD.

When do the ho'ish groupies arrive?

Friday, June 08, 2007

Edith Piaf vs. Janet, Beyonce and Madonna

Piaf, Holiday, Garland: All worked without a net
They bled for their art. Can today's pop femmes say the same?

By Ernest Hardy, Special to The Los Angeles Times

      There's a wonderful scene in "La Vie en Rose," the new film biography of Edith Piaf, in which the raw, young singer is being tutored on how to hold her hands and move her arms while singing. It's a thrilling how-she-came-to-be moment for fans of the diminutive, definitive French chanteuse, whose expressive stage mannerisms were part of her legendary performances.
      The tutoring session becomes a bitter struggle of wills between the Little Sparrow, as she was dubbed early in her career, and the demanding male teacher who's trying to instruct her in how to use artifice and theatricality to convey the truth of a song but in ways that seem natural and spontaneous.
      As biographer Margaret Crosland wrote in 1985's "Piaf": "She relied on a minimum number of props: the plain black dress for herself, a wineglass for [the song] 'Les Amants d'un jour' ... [and] a movement of the arms or hands to conjure up the accordionist or the clown, or the flow of the crowd of the street.... Edith was probably not aware how close her technique came to that so admired by Cocteau: the acrobat who works without a net, the skill that must not look like a skill."

      That's in marked contrast to the pop divas of today — Madonna, Janet, Beyoncé, all their clones and spawn — who quite pointedly show off how hard they are working: intricate and militaristic choreography, sinewy muscles and ripped, exposed abs, casts of seeming thousands in huge production numbers.
      Titillating as that may be, it speaks to the difference between women who bleed for their art and those who merely sweat for it. It's the difference between those whose hard work and craftsmanship are also rooted in the great unsolvable mysteries of art, talent and divine inspiration versus those who are the products of demographic analyses and steely media savvy.
      That's not to romanticize myths of the tortured artist or of the suffering female (or to deny that Janet, Madonna and Beyoncé have created some of modern pop's sweetest confections). But it points up the huge differences between how some of the most acclaimed female singers of past eras shaped their work, image and public personas and how their in-gender-only descendants do the same.

      Early in "La Vie en Rose," Piaf proudly points out that she and Billie Holiday were born in the same year. That coincidence is used as a foundation of sisterhood. And though she goes unmentioned in the film, Judy Garland's tortured mythology hangs over it as well.
      Among them, the trio cover the traditions of American jazz, French music hall, Hollywood musicals and American standards. They also have in common crippling drug addictions; tragic love affairs; childhoods defined by abuse, exploitation and abandonment; and brothels. (Piaf was briefly raised in one; Holiday briefly worked in one; and Garland, of course, was a child of the Hollywood studio system.)
      They all had extraordinary career highs and devastating lows in lives that are towering examples of the heroine's journey, their real-life stories proof that truth is more riveting than fiction. And it all plays out in their music.
      The struggles and experiences of Piaf and her peers gave their voices and overall bearings a gravitas and complex interior life that manifested in their work. Piaf classics such as "La Vie en Rose" (for which she wrote the lyrics) and "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" were not only huge international hits and deeply personal statements but can be read as proto-feminist anthems.
      They're simple and direct, intended to be accessible to the working-class folk from which Piaf sprang (her street cred could rival any rapper's), but they're also grand in scope. They ambitiously speak to universal themes of love, loss and struggle.

      By contrast, many of the proclamations of strength and survival by today's pop femmes are not so much simple as cliché-ridden. Tiny and laughably adolescent, most seem drawn from some narcissistic teen's diary. There's little poetry and less emotional risk in the work of most modern female pop stars because most of them lack the courage of vulnerability; they flee the weight of adulthood.
      The costs of life lessons have been metaphorically botoxed away because real adults, particularly adult women, are MIA from the pop landscape now. They're scary monsters.
      Veterans such as Dolly Parton, Chrissie Hynde and Annie Lennox or genre redlined stars like Erykah Badu, Cassandra Wilson and Jill Scott are doing grown-folks stuff, but they're on the margins. Drunken starlets and useless heiresses in and out of rehab and out of their panties are the ruling women.
      It might seem unfair to compare the Top 40 and "American Idol" divas of today with women who came up through the rough- and-tumble training grounds of jazz clubs, music halls and vaudeville. After all, the pop world has always been filled with disposable fluff by female artists. Thank God.
      But Piaf was also pop at one point. She appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" eight times. She sold out Carnegie Hall. Garland was one of the biggest American mainstream stars ever. And it's not about age: Piaf, Holiday and Garland all started singing as teens or younger and did some of their best, most challenging work while in their 20s and 30s. In fact, none lived to be as old as Madonna is now.
      It really has to do with the toll that fetishized youth culture has taken on the overall culture, specifically how media and music industry dictates of womanhood have shrunken women — in every sense. We're all the losers.

The article can be found here

Blood Beats Vol. 1

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Bjork, Amy Winehouse & Genre as Drag

Drag, conscious and unconscious, is used to unleash some inner self (the real or the desired). It’s used to funnel inner truths, to shape perspective. That’s how Björk uses her unclassifiable genre hopping. Amy Winehouse seized that power on her debut CD, Frank (where she absorbed and re-created jazz divas to tell her tales), and then refocused her shtick on her wonderful sophomore album, Back to Black, where she took Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop” (concept and vocal steez) to album length and pulled art from girl-group artifice. But she was also wading in turbulent waters of appropriation and mimicry, stepping into a complex history of Jewish performers “doing black” in order to reveal something of themselves. Winehouse was liberated. Ironically, “doing black music” hamstrings a lot of black musicians.

For the rest of this column, click here

Blood Beats Vol 1

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Video of the Day

Enrique Iglesias in the most gangsta move of any male pop star in recent memory.

      While gay rumors have surrounded him for years, unlike other male celebs, pop star Enrique Iglesias has always taken them with good humor. And apparently aware that a big part of his fan base are gay men, Enrique serenaded one of them at a recent concert in London.
      Normally when he performs the track "Hero" he invites a girl up on stage to serenade her, but given his audience, things were a bit different this time. The crowd went wild as Iglesias asked a young man on stage and unabashedly gave him the treatment.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Reading in San Francisco

As part of the 2007 San Francisco Black Film Festival, I'll be discussing film criticism and talking about the movies Monster's Ball, Rize, Ghost Dog, Madame Sata, Antwone Fisher and Raising Victor Vargas. Book signing for Blood Beats: Vol. 1 to follow. The event is 2-4 p.m. Saturday, June 9, 2007 at the Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94105. 415-358-7200.

Video of the Day... Brought to you by the letter E

Saturday, June 02, 2007

**SWIPE** Negro-free Jazz...

Few African American musicians booked for Berkeley festival,
none on Yoshi's anniversary CD

by Leslie Fulbright,
SF Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, June 1, 2007


      When Yoshi's jazz club in Oakland released its much-anticipated 10-year anniversary CD last month, local jazz aficionados were outraged that no African American musicians were included.
      The tension grew days later when the Bay Area's jazz community learned that the Berkeley Downtown Jazz Festival had invited only six African American musicians to perform at the five-day event in August.
      Together, the two revelations upset musicians, club owners and fans, some of whom say racism is at play in the local jazz scene. Anna DeLeon, owner of Anna's Jazz Island in Berkeley, complained to organizers when she learned who was scheduled to play at her club during the festival.
      "There were 17 musicians in four bands, and none were black," said DeLeon. "It is hard for me to imagine how this could happen, how they could not notice."
      Word spread quickly as people voiced outrage via e-mail over a problem many said had been simmering for a long time. Jazz professionals met to plan a response. Club owners and musicians went on Doug Edwards' "Music of the World" show on KPFA-FM on May 19. A week later, Susan Muscarella, who books the jazz festival and runs Berkeley's Jazzschool, appeared on the same show to respond.
      Muscarella says the situation is being overblown. She said she hasn't finished booking the festival but has so far confirmed four African American acts, and it was coincidence that none would perform at Anna's. Last year, 30 percent of festival performers were black, she said.
      "These allegations are outrageous," Muscarella said. "Diversity has always been at the top of my list. I hold African American heritage in high esteem. But I do choose quality and not ethnicity alone."
      Many artists said that holding black heritage in high esteem is not the point. Inviting six African American artists to a major jazz event that includes dozens of performers and excluding black artists from a selection of 10 performances at the East Bay's most prominent jazz venue is simply unacceptable, they said.
      "It is like going to a Chinese restaurant and there are no Chinese people," said Howard Wiley, a local saxophonist. "It is very disheartening and sad, especially from Yoshi's, which calls itself the premiere jazz venue of the Bay Area.
      "I mean, we are dealing with jazz and blues, not Hungarian folk music or the invention of computer programs."
      Jazz grew out of the African American experience, and many historians call it the most significant contribution from the United States to the music world.
Well-known jazz artists, festival organizers and academics say the two incidents show how African Americans are being squeezed out of the art form more broadly.
      "This is stemming from a much larger dynamic with regard to jazz and what is becoming a legitimized and institutionalized lack of inclusion of African Americans," said Glen Pearson, a music instructor at the College of Alameda and a full-time musician. "Jazz was once looked at as inferior music from an inferior culture, and now it has become embraced socially and academically, so there has been some revisionism."
      Pearson said some music critics believe the African American roots of jazz and its black contributors are sometimes featured too heavily in education and portrayals of jazz, such as in Ken Burns' television documentary series. There were complaints that the PBS series, "Jazz," focused too much on African Americans, Pearson said.
"I am comfortable saying that every significant white contributor to jazz studied from someone of African American descent," Pearson said. "So for a world-class jazz venue to not include an African American performer in a 10-year tribute is just so sideways."
      Over the years, countless prominent African Americans have performed at Yoshi's, including Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis, Howard Wiley, Abbey Lincoln, Mulgrew Miller, Terence Blanchard, Marcus Shelby, McCoy Tyner, Shirley Horn and Elvin Jones.
      Peter Williams, Yoshi's artistic director, said the exclusion was an oversight and that the club does not have the right to record all the performers that appear there.
      "We apologize to anyone who feels slighted by the omission of African American artists on this project, as that was never our intention," he wrote in an e-mail to concerned supporters. "This compilation CD was meant to celebrate a milestone for us in the Bay Area and not necessarily meant to be a representation of all the artists and music styles ever played at our club."
      DeLeon said she and others angry about the CD do not suspect that Yoshi's conspired to leave out African Americans; they are upset it happened without anyone noticing.
      "The Bay Area is a jazz mecca, considered one of the top three or four markets in the country, so for its premiere venue to leave out African American artists is amazing," said Herve Ernest, executive director of SF Noir, an arts and culture organization that highlights African American contributions, and a co-founder of the North Beach Jazz Festival.
      "From what I have perceived and what I've witnessed, there is a certain whitewashing of jazz both locally and nationally," Ernest said. "I think it is done from a marketing standpoint and is a response to the largely white audiences that patronize an establishment."
      Ernest said one of the reasons he founded SF Noir was that he noticed the jazz festival aud iences were 90 percent white, and he wanted to try to appeal to a more diverse crowd and put a stronger focus on black contributions to the art.
      "It really gets me upset that people like Norah Jones (who is white and East Indian) get pushed through with heavy marketing when there are dozens of African American female jazz vocalists who, in my opinion, are 10 times better," he said. "I'm not sure if the exclusion is intended or an honest overlook, but we created jazz and we are still playing it, so we should not be overlooked."
      Local jazz artists said they see the discussion as positive in that it is offering a chance to address an issue that has been stewing for some time. A desire to organize has been lacking, said local jazz singer Rhonda Benin, but now a number of musicians are ready to take action.
      "It's an ongoing problem that was brought to a head by these two events," said Raymond Nat Turner, an Oakland-based jazz poet. "That set in motion a chain of e-mails and unleashed an energy that had been dormant for years.
      "People who had not been communicating have started talking and networking," Turner said.
      At a forum at the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music last month, about 35 people discussed how better to support black-owned venues and artists and recruiting more African American children into the world of jazz.
      "We are becoming the minority as Europeans and Caucasians take over," Turner said.
Those who attended the forum plan to meet again Sunday to develop a long-term strategy.
      "This is an African American art form, and they are excluding the very people who created it and continue to play it," said Benin. "It's a travesty."