Archive for August, 2010

Gene Smith and Mexicana, Part Two

By Anna Mazhirov

(Gene Smith and Mexicana, Part One can be read here)

Having read all of the reviews of Mexicana seven decades later, I’m left wondering, as many critics did in 1939, whether the Mexican government’s endeavor to produce the show was naïve or wise.

What was wise is obvious. The production was a means to stir warm sentiments in the hearts of Americans towards their southern neighbors. Celestino Gorostiza, who oversaw Mexicana as the director of Mexico’s Department of Fine Arts, said in an interview that the Mexican government produced the show as a “gesture of friendship, sympathy, and good will.”  Thomas Dash of the Daily News Record, among other reviewers, noted this aspect of the show’s ambitions. I wonder, though, if this sincere effort was heavy handed.  Looking back at all the evidence today, I cannot say.

Gene Smith strove to tell something honest of people, something that transcended the political context. This was likewise the aim of Mexicana. Brooks Atkinson celebrated the show’s mission in the New York Times, “For this is World’s Fair time, when interest in foreign nations extends beyond armies, navies, and trade to the native arts which tell the real truth about human beings.” Mexicana must have told Smith some truth, powerful and constant, for him to see it sixty-three times in a row.

What might have been naïve was expecting New Yorkers (and I admit to sometimes fitting into this category of the jaded) not to see kitsch in an overabundance of childlike candor. Many critics complained about the revue’s length and repetitiveness. Because of the variety of acts, singing, dancing, and pantomime, some unfairly labeled the production as vaudeville.

The representation of the many sides of Mexican culture might have bordered on tedium. The opening scene, “Ecos de Ayer” (Echoes of Yesterday), tracks the development of Mexican music from ancient to modern in a sequence of dances: Primitive Dance, Dance of the Reindeer, War Dance, “Areito” (a dance of the Aztec nobles), and War Dance between Aztecs and Spaniards. Other scenes try to cover the scope of Mexican folklore. “Yunuen” relates the tale of the fisherman who defeats the lake monster, saves the village, and wins the belle. The popular legend, “La Mulata de Cordoba,” tells of the beautiful girl who, being able to vanish from the men she teases, gets condemned to be burned at the stake as a witch and then uses magic to escape on a painted caravel. “Un Velorio” (The Wake)* attempts to account for the pagan and the Christian in Mexican ceremony, showing the fiesta following someone’s death and the supernatural guests from heaven and hell who vie for the deceased’s soul. Other scenes include, “Patio de Vecindad” (In the Tenement House), “A Wedding in Tehuantepec,” caricatures of a baseball player and Ghandi, and “La Cucarachita.”

But perhaps this mélange, this straightforward effort to tell all, is what upheld the Mexican government’s mission for the show. Michael Mok of the New York Post wrote that Mexicana was, “one of the most disarmingly naïve entertainments ever presented on a Broadway surfeited with professional artifice.” John Anderson wrote in the New York Journal-American that, “At the 46th Street Theater are to be found Mexicans in their true color, without falsification or hokum. These people love art. And they mean “Mexicana” to be art, not mere merchandise.” I can imagine that the production’s hot paints, primordial vigor, and naturalness could have been jolting to Americans (even New Yorkers) of 1939.

I’d venture to say that this raw sincerity appealed to Smith and yet the piece that left the biggest impact on him was the clean, highly technical, traditional Spanish dancing of Marissa Flores and her partner, Jose Fernandez.

Most of the reviews praise the show only within the category of kitsch. Few saw anything elevated about it as a whole, but only single out individual talent. Sidney Whipple of the World-Telegram noted that “by far the most artistic performance of the production, however, was given by Jose Fernandez and Marissa Flores dancing on their heels to the rhythm of castanets.”

Marissa and Jose danced two dances in their “Spanish Suite.” The first was a Bulerias to the guitar playing of Vincente Gomez, who New Yorkers already knew and loved. It is an upbeat dance, requiring speed and skill to maintain the complex rhythm, often played at 240 beats per minute. Because a Bulerias requires elaborate tapping of the toe, heel, and ball of the foot, one reviewer recognized it as a sort of Mexican tap dance. The second dance was an arrangement of the intermezzo of Granados’s “Goyescas,” using two-voiced castanets. Usually, the higher pitched hembra pair is held in the right hand, while the larger macho pair is held in the left. One fragment of a news clipping I found stated that the “Goyescas” dance, “for grace and reticence and subdued eloquence is a masterpiece.”

We cannot know if it was with the wisdom or the naiveté of Mexicana, or both, that Smith fell in love with. But it seems this production had much to offer the steadfast, open-hearted viewer. As one spokesman said, “In Mexicana, we have tried to present Mexican bewitchment in a kaleidoscope of color and grace, of legend and mystery.”

* One of Smith’s most famous photographs was The Wake from his classic 1951 photo-essay, “Spanish Village.”

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RUNNING WITH THE BIG DOGS, PART 1

At age sixteen in late 1964 the pianist Jane Getz was the youngest musician known to participate in sessions at 821 Sixth Avenue.  Her name comes up on two chaotic tapes in Smith’s collection from that period.  Pianist Paul Bley, saxophonists Clarence Sharpe and Jay Cameron, and drummer Vinnie Ruggiero are the other musicians confirmed on these sessions.  We can discern these additional first names from the dialogues:  Richie, Bruce, Bob, Jerry, John, Freddie, and Ricky.

Jane told me she was five-foot-two and under a hundred pounds at that time, as now.  In the JLP book I quoted her this way:

“I just went up to the front of the line and said, ‘I’m here.  Can I sit in?’  I thought I was as good as anybody in the room, and I kind of projected that.  People were taken off balance, but I knew what I was doing.”

Jane told us she was working on a memoir; we were tantalized, so she shared a draft.  Although she has few particular memories of 821 Sixth Avenue, much of her story overlaps with various JLP angles and topics.

Over the next three weeks we will present three excerpts from Jane’s memoir, selected and edited by JLP Coordinator Lauren Hart with Jane’s approval.  The first installment, below, serves as an introduction.  The second and third installments will be longer (Part 2 here, Part 3 here). – Sam Stephenson

RUNNING WITH THE BIG DOGS, PART 1

By Jane Getz

Jane Getz

Jane Getz in Los Angeles, 2010

The noonday sun was starting to turn the city into a furnace as I boarded the Greyhound. It was San Francisco in the mid-sixties. I was sixteen, carrying a fake I.D., five hundred bucks and a mother lode of hope. I saw no reason to wait. I knew what I wanted to do. For that I didn’t need a high school diploma or an education.

Back then I had only one desire, one goal: to be a legit player on the jazz scene. I’d paid enough dues playing piano around L.A and San Francisco, so I was taking the big leap. New York. It was time to test the waters.

Approximately three days after motoring across the Bay Bridge the Greyhound glided through the Holland Tunnel. I looked out of the window as it headed for Port Authority. Wow! A place I never dreamed existed.

The old ivy covered brownstones—many of which had steps leading down to tiny basement apartments were connected. Everything was touching everything else. Even the people—who were scrambling like little ants—were elbowing, jostling, and sideswiping each other. And the smell; there was a sweet, fruity, kind of rubbery odor, with just a hint of smoke wafting through the city.

As the bus bounced over the potholes, I could feel the kinetic energy engulfing me. Damn. This was it! The Big Apple. The jazz Mecca. New York, New York. So fucking hip they had to name it twice!

Disembarking from the huge, smoking, sputtering Greyhound, it hit me. I was here—bag and baggage. I took a deep breath, walked out of Port Authority and hailed a cab. I directed the driver to a residence that was infamous on the jazz scene, the Alvin Hotel. An old dilapidated building full of whirring fans and junkies, where drug deals were going down twenty-four seven.

The first night at the Alvin it was hard to sleep with all the loud whispering going on outside my door. But I finally tuned it out. I was in New York for one purpose and one purpose only—to run with the Big Dogs. And of course, to do that I’d have to become a mid-sized dog myself.

The third day after my arrival I hit pay dirt. Walking through the lobby of the Alvin, I happened to glance into a phone booth near the front desk. Inside the enclosure was an alto player I’d once jammed with in San Francisco. His name was Pony Poindexter. He was just starting to dial a number. I rapped on the glass.

“Pony! Hey man, it’s me Jane.”

He hung up the phone and opened the creaky glass door to give me a big hug.

“Wow baby, I was just callin’ Cedar Walton.” As he looked me over, a light went on in his eyes. “Hey, maybe you can make this gig with me.”

I had scored! Open Sesame. This was an opportunity and I was going to jump on that sucker full force. The gig didn’t pay much bread, but at that point I didn’t care. Maybe Pony wasn’t Miles Davis or Wayne Shorter, but the cat could play, and better yet, he was always working.

A few days later I found myself in Pittsburgh, on stage with the Pony Poindexter quartet. A week later the four of us hit Boston. Then we headed for New Bedford—a town full of fishermen, souped up cars, and people who spoke Portuguese. A curious place.

In order to save money Pony decided he’d drive us to our gigs in this old wood paneled station wagon that he’d borrowed from a buddy. There we were, four of us and our gear, crammed like rats inside this ancient gas-guzzler tooling up and down the East coast. It was amazing that no one freaked out or had a major temper tantrum, but there was an unspoken agreement that the music was more important than our little creature comforts. Almost…

Pony Poindexter was another trip. He either blabbed non-stop about the sorry state of his finances or, for a change of pace, maiming or killing all the ofays (white folks) in the world. At first I was very uncomfortable, not only about the subject matter, but about what stance I should take. I mean, if I was a bona fide member of his band, was I still an ofay or was I truly one of the brothers? Then I had a flash. I hadn’t really seen Pony maim or kill anyone personally, so what the hell, he was probably just mouthing off. Beside that, I knew his whole book now; I had all the tunes memorized so it would be a hassle for him to get another piano player closer to his specifications. After awhile, I knew Pony’s little routine wasn’t personal, so when the cat got into his rap, I spaced out or read a magazine until I fell asleep.

After New Bedford, the band had a few weeks off so I went apartment hunting. I’d been to a couple of cribs uptown I liked, so I chose the Upper West Side as my designated search area. After inspecting a bunch of hole-in-the-wall apartments with fallen plaster, chipped paint, rusted pipes, and ancient, yellow-crusted tubs and toilets, I finally found one that was halfway decent. Yeah, I had to pay a few bucks more, but Pony assured me he had a lot of prime gigs coming up. I was taking it on faith.

I now had a three-room crib on Ninety-first Street between Amsterdam and Central Park West—Spanish Harlem.

I bought a piano and a day bed from the Salvation Army. Then I found an old castoff, threadbare, Persian rug rolled up on the curb waiting to be picked up by the garbage man. I carted it up to my crib.

Soon, I discovered I had an upstairs neighbor by the name of Jerome Richardson who, besides being one of the heavies on the jazz scene, did lots of studio work. One day Jerome invited me up to his crib. I was completely floored. I stood there in awe. Jerome had what I considered to be just about the hippest thing ever: adult furniture.  I didn’t know anybody that owned a couch, let alone a couch that didn’t have the stuffing coming out of it.  Even cooler, Jerome had real pots and pans, matching silverware, and carpeting throughout. I thought of my floors all splintery and scuffed up. Now this cat had his shit together.

Sometimes I would run into Jerome sitting on the front stoop. He would always smile and ask, if I was getting enough gigs, then promise he’d keep me in mind if anything came up. I thought he was just jiving me, so I was surprised when he actually came through.

“Guess what?” He said one day, inviting himself in and sitting down on my Salvation Army bed that doubled as my couch.

“What?”

“I think I just got you the gig with Charlie Mingus. I just talked to the cat on the phone and he’ll be calling you in a couple of minutes. Don’t go anywhere, baby.”

Before I could even give him some show of thanks, he was in the wind. As he bounded up the stairs to his crib, a giant wave of fear rolled over me. I felt like a deer, frozen in the headlights.

Charlie Mingus. Damn! That cat was one huge dog. Then I started to wonder; was I burnin’ enough for that gig?  Maybe I thought I was better than I actually was. Maybe I was a musical imposter. I felt like a beautifully made-up ugly chick who knows how to look at herself in the mirror from just the right angle. Someone adept at the art of self-delusion, whose cover was about to be blown.

I sat there in a state of anxiety for about forty minutes. Then the phone rang.

“Hello.” I answered.

“Hi is this Jane?”

It was the Big Dog.

“Yeah.”

“Well this is Charles Mingus. Jerome Richardson gave me your number. I’ve got a gig in San Francisco tomorrow night. Can you make it? I got about twenty tunes to show you. Yeah, Come over in maybe say…an hour?”

The next moment, Mingus was rattling off his address to me.

I looked at my watch. It would be tight but I could do it. Damn, It was one thirty now. I could make it from Ninetieth to Twentieth by two thirty. I was already lacing up my boots as the conversation ended.

“I’ll be there,” I said cementing the deal.

“Later.” The supernova at the other end hung up.

I put down the phone, ran over to my old upright piano and reeled off a few frantic scales. Then I went into the kitchen, grabbed a banana and bounded out the door to the subway station.

I felt hot and clammy as I rode down to Mingus’s pad. When the train stopped at Twenty-first Street, I bolted up the subway stairs and sprinted the three blocks to Mingus’s crib. It was a well-kept, white, three-story building with trees in front. Cool pad. I pushed the buzzer.

Mingus buzzed me in and I took the elevator to the second floor. I’d tried to meditate during the subway ride but it didn’t help. I was scared.

I stepped out of the claustrophobic little box trying to orient myself. Then I saw him standing in a doorway. Mingus was a few feet away from the elevator, waving. I looked, then I looked again. Wow!

The word that came to mind was BOOMING. This cat was booming. His voice, his essence, his appearance, his entire being! Yeah, this was one hell of a Big Dog. Barely acknowledging my presence, Mingus ushered me in and sat me down at his piano. Then without further ado, he got out his music. Oh yeah, he was beyond any social amenities.

I quickly realized the music itself wasn’t all that hard; it was the interpretation of his music that was difficult.

“Play it like the Duke,” Mingus ordered.

Being a musical child of the sixties, I didn’t I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. I was into Trane, Sonny, Wayne, Miles…the cats. Not wanting to seem musically illiterate I nodded, trying to imitate the knowing look I’d once seen Miles gives to Red Garland. After running through his book, Mingus abruptly dismissed me, giving me my marching orders. I was to meet him in front of his crib tomorrow morning, eleven o’clock sharp, bags packed, ready to go.

I tried to sleep that night, but my brain was spinning with snatches of melodies and chord patterns. I finally fell asleep from sheer mental exhaustion, only to be awakened a few hours later. Hearing the familiar buzzing sound, I flung the covers back, jumped in the shower, fed my face, did a cursory check of my bags, and ran out the door.

As I went down to the subway station, I said a silent prayer asking for God’s help and protection. I mean, you never really know when you’re going to need some roadside emergency service from the Biggest Dog ever.

—–

Running With the Big Dogs, Part 2

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A Moon Over Pittsburgh

By Dan Partridge

Although the Jazz Loft Project book, radio series, and exhibition are all out there for viewing and listening, we continue to catalog W. Eugene Smith’s audio archive. If you are able to check out the Chicago Cultural Center version of our exhibition, you can hear the handiwork of Greg Lunceford (associate curator at Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs) who integrated several fascinating selections of loft recordings into the current show. Some of these selections are being heard for the first time, as they were pulled from new material we’ve recently discovered. In the following months, we plan to regularly present some installments on this blog that survey other interesting tapes and recent finds from Smith’s recordings. The following pieces represent selections I selected for a presentation as a kind of swan song to some of the more lyrical types of content that resonated with each other and Smith’s comments about a moon over Pittsburgh, with a nod to New Orleans.

Back in May, at the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) 44th annual conference in New Orleans, I was lucky to give a presentation on the Jazz Loft Project along  with Christopher Lacinak, the founder and president of AudioVisual Preservation Solutions (AVPS). Along with Kevin O’Neill and Matt Thompson (when they all worked for Vidipax), Christopher and this team consulted with us and engineered the digitization of the first 300 reels of audio tape from W. Eugene Smith’s archive, in partnership with the Jazz Loft Project at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. It was an honor to represent the Jazz Loft Project at this conference, especially along with Christopher, whose ongoing involvement as a friend of and adviser to the project is invaluable. Treat yourself to a look at the AVPS blog and twitter feed, if you get the chance.

In his part of the presentation, Christopher Lacinak showcased an image of a plank from the floor of 821 Sixth Avenue. Footsteps on these boards are often audible on the tapes Smith made in the loft building. Smith would sometimes drill holes in the floor to make way for microphone housing and cables. Lacinak explained the way that Smith would experiment with different speeds and techniques of recording, often on the same reel of tape. Since Christopher was generous enough to frame the project and explain much of the technical procedure, our work, and how that interfaced with engineering the audio; I was able to present a  of rhapsody  of recordings from the Jazz Loft Project audio archive.  As we were at  the ARSC convention, and celebrating this work, the selections I chose were mainly musical.

New Orleans born Danny Barker, who shows up at the loft at a New Year’s Eve party to usher in 1960 with a banjo melody that lulls, then accelerates in stages, to quadruple time. This song includes one of the few moments from this party when the revelers quiet down to listen to the music.

Roland Kirk playing a solo on multiple horns where he utilizes circular breathing to maintain one long note. On this recording, Paul Bley shows up and joins in on a song that started off with Kirk counting out the rhythm to fellow saxophonist Jay Cameron. You can hear a Roland Kirk tune on our Chaos Manor playlist but this was the first time this one had been heard in public.

Similarly, I excerpted a piece that extends beyond track 9 on playlist Chaos Manor that features Sonny Rollins and Hall Overton in conversation at the New School for Social Research, in New York on June 29, 1963. On tenor sax, Rollins demonstrates a harmonic series of eleven double tones, framing them in an imitation of American Indian chants. In addition to this demonstration, he discusses his use of different extended techniques with Overton. You can hear the beginning of this on the playlist.

A fragment of a wild tenor sax solo from multi-instrumentalist Eddie Listengart. Smith made what may be the only record of Listengart’s musical genius since he was likely never recorded anywhere besides the loft. It was probably not long, within a year or two after this recording was made, that Listengart was institutionalized and he never returned to the jazz world.

Sonny Clark, playing My Funny Valentine from the ashes of a group jam session, at the end of a tape. This session was most likely late summer, 1961. Clark overdosed and was revived in the loft by means of amateur CPR. If he hadn’t survived this overdose, he wouldn’t have made the sessions that he played on over the next year and a half before his untimely death in January of 1963, including the November ’61 session for his last album, Leapin’ and Lopin’. What emerges is an example of how  theses late night jam sessions could produce moments of unexpected beauty that rewarded Smith for his obsessive recording and the depth of understanding he brought to the process.

And on that note, we feature Smith’s explanation of one page from his photographic and textual essay on Pittsburgh in the 1959 Photography Annual. Smith references a photograph of a dancing couple holding hands that he placed, stamp-like, in the upper right hand corner of this page titled “Of cathedrals, inclines and a sight of the moon.” Beneath it, he placed the photograph of a majestic nighttime Pittsburgh cityscape skyline featuring a full moon in the return address corner of the image. This photograph is juxtaposed with one of steelworker housing (presumably) with the shot-from-above picture offering no skyline. And steep stairs (“mighty climbs to workers homes are thoroughly characteristic”) that extend skyward, disappearing into the shadows of some trees, and likewise into that return address corner of the frame. Regarding this, here is my transcription of what Smith had to say to an as of yet unidentified interviewer:

Conflicts, contradictions, suggestions. On the next page the Love turned into a touch of a man in a woman at a dance, just holding hands. Which again, I just wanted, not as “a great photograph,” “a great statement..” I don’t care whether they saw the photograph or not up there in the corner. I just wanted them to kind of feel it. As we talk more about the city, and reportorially I wanted to say: Look the skies are clear, you can now see a moon occasionally in Pittsburgh without it being a depressing thing. And here, I think it’s where it’s kind of important a time to uh, to know enough about the background, say, to know that at one time: Can you imagine someone who has always been romantically involved with the moon? You know, and just loved it, rather on a farm or a city. Would they ever realize or take into their artistic consideration that a moon over Pittsburgh could have at one time meant real hardship, etcetera­, because a moon over Pittsburgh meant that work was not happening at the plants and therefore you saw the moon. You were immediately depressed because you knew it meant hunger, and hardship. And the whole, and the moon takes on a different connotation. But you’ve got to know that before you can utilize it in a layout, and before you can think about it. And so, the whole thing started developing from those first three pictures, you see. And so, Love kept developing, the other things kept developing in that way, and um, and so Thompson said the layout was a mishmash.

If you’re interested in seeing these W. Eugene Smith Pittsburgh photographs, check out the book Sam Stephenson edited Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project. In many ways, this work explains where Smith was coming from as he segued into his life in the loft at 821 Sixth Avenue.

-Dan Partridge


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