Archive for March, 2012

Report from Pinehurst

Yesterday at Sandhills Community College, as part of the Palustris Festival, in Pinehurst, North Carolina, there was a JLP event featuring the Ron Free Trio, with Bob Bowen on bass and Court Stewart on piano.  The event began at 4pm.  We were pitted against UNC-Kansas in NCAA hoops on TV, no small thing in this state, and in one of the capitols of golf we were faced (again, on TV) with Tiger Woods winning Arnold Palmer’s tournament for his first title in two and a half years.  Against the odds, there was a good, engaged turnout.

(It wasn’t lost on us that a Eugene Smith-based event in North Carolina was competing with a basketball game featuring a school from his home state of Kansas.  Of course, another legendary Smith, retired UNC coach Dean E. Smith was also from Kansas).

I’ve enjoyed the opportunity of collaborating with the remarkable Ron Free on a number of JLP events.  His trio isn’t always this precise configuration, but I think yesterday’s set was the best I’ve heard from his band.  The Owens Theater at Sandhills was beautiful visually and the acoustics were above normal.  The Trio’s setlist offered an intriguing sequence:

1. When Lights are Low – Benny Carter

2. Off the Top – Jimmy Smith

3. Ceora – Lee Morgan

4. Bob’s Blues – a blues improv based on a composition by bassist Bob Bowen

5. Dolphin Dance – Herbie Hancock

6. An abstract collective improv introduced by Ron Free this way:  “You’ve never heard this before, and neither have we, and you’ll never hear it again.”  It was the pinnacle of the set.

7. Lucky Southern - Keith Jarrett.

This trio should be recorded.  There is a fresh, open nature to their sound that reflects Ron’s connection to the so-called golden age of jazz along with his relentless desire to find new patterns – in life and music, which makes his younger bandmates natural partners.

Ron is recorded on over 100 reels of Eugene Smith’s loft tapes, around 300 hours of sound.  He’s the most ubiquitous presence on the tapes.  As has been oft-reported in the book, the JLP public radio series, and more, his drum work is the secret to many of the loft’s jam sessions.  Unlike many jam session participants, Ron wasn’t in it just for himself.

You can hear the same sensitive inventiveness in Ron’s work today.  Bob Bowen and Court Stewart have internalized the music from the loft era, as indicated by several tunes in their setlist, but they add their own fingerprints to the music.  The trio’s improvs revealed a trust and intimacy these musicians have won and shared over time.  They’ve played together in Virginia, off and on, for several years.  Their music yesterday sounded better than most of the ad hoc loft jam sessions.

Finally, many kudos and thanks to Denise Drum Baker for organizing this event.  As I mentioned in my remarks, the rewards for this kind of work are the people you meet along the way.  Denise is a new example.

Here is a photograph Denise sent me today from yesterday’s soundcheck.  More photos to come soon.

Jazz Loft stage

Court Stewart, piano. Bob Bowen, bass. Ron Free, drums.

-Sam Stephenson

Comments (1)

A Garden of Sand

garden of sand001

In an effort to help me learn as much as possible about Gene Smith’s life and times in Wichita, Kansas, 1918-1936, my research assistant, Hank Stephenson, who is the only person I know to have read the entirety of Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” (he tracked down and read many of Burton’s original sources, too), recently read Earl Thompson‘s 1970 novel, “A Garden of Sand,” set in Wichita in the 1930s.  This morning Hank handed me Thompson’s opening passage:

“Love a place like Kansas and you can be content in a garden of raked sand. For ground it is the flattest. Big sky, wheat sea, William Inge, bottle clubs, road houses—Falstaff and High Life, chili and big juke road houses—John Brown, Wild Bill Hickock, Carry A. Nation, cockeyed Wyatt Earp, Pretty Boy Floyd, and shades of all those unspoken Indians. Out there on the flat, in a wheat sea, on spooky buffalo grasses where the ICBM’s go down into the shale and salt of a prehistoric sea wherein the mighty mosasaurs once roamed and the skies were not cloudy all day.

Where John Brown and Pretty Boy Floyd could have run one-two in any election through 1937, there are still more members of the Townsend Clubs than anywhere else save Long Beach. And professional baseball can’t make a dime, while semipro can draw 25,000 fans to a swing-shift game getting under way at 1 A.M. of a Tuesday between the Honolulu Hawaiians and the Boing Bo-Jets. The state was strong for Bryan, and it had Alf Landon. It went for Nixon and dug Goldwater. It admired John L. Lewis for his stubbornness but never let labor unions get more than a toehold anywhere. It built one of the best educational systems in the land, then let the Boy Scouts set miniature Statues of Liberty on all the lawns.

Where traditionally, though as Republican in taste as Ike’s sport jackets, a governor of the state rarely succeeds in office even if the electorate has to go for a Democrat. It is the same with all public office holders. And should the incumbent’s opponent be of such a known unconscionable quantity that they trust the governor for a second term, he could pay his own carfare and postage and still not go for three. Which is why Wilkie could have carried the state with a picture postcard.

Where ministers preach against “The Carnal Knowledge of Women” as if it were a Communist plot and seek legislation against smoking and obscene literature as if one were the crypto-cover for the other; the girls are prettier than those up in the hills on the Missouri side, and virginity before marriage—or puberty, for that matter—means less than regular church attendance. Calvinism still runs deeper than the missile sites bore, and the Amish are ever more respected than Papists. Women who were taken in by Jackie Kennedy will never be fooled by Jackie O.

Where the displaced progeny of rebels fleeing for their lives after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 came walking out of the American highlands after the Battle of Shiloh looking once more for a place where a man tired of war and rumors of war might live once and for all on his own terms. It is a place where carny hustlers and storefront gypsies can still work the shell game and the money witch every day of the week and Hadacol outsells Johnny Walker.

Calvinism gets its test every summer by any erstwhile Gantry who can rent a tent and con the local funeral parlors out of folding chairs and cardboard fans on a stick. Attendance at regular churches thins out appreciably as soon as the revivalist’s sound truck has gone once around, and Christians, whether they sprinkle, pour, or half-drown, are hard pressed to get up a quorum until the Bible-banger pulls the plug on the last electric Christian guitar and beats it out of town with the tent and awning company wanting to know who is going to pay the last week’s rent on the tabernacle.

Then all those abandoned souls who had mad passionate, spontaneous decisions for Christ down on their knees in the sawdust under canvas shake out their cuffs and come penitently back as from a week’s vacation at the Sodom and Gomorrah Hilton, looking straight ahead, seeing in the eyes of their preacher above that superior, all-forgiving-smile their sin—idolatry! Confessed and forgiven, they are ready once again to bear the winter’s long hymns while a high, bright, cold winter sun illuminates the stained glass. There is that dry prairie cold in which you can freeze to death feeling only a warm drowsiness.

So, though any Kansan knows in his heart that in the end all those dandy saviors go South, there is a kind of displaced black, Highland-Scandinavian hope into which any sort of witch doctor or witch hunter can worm. Sitting on enough nuclear explosive to blow his ass to atoms, the collective Kansas tunes in “Let Freedom Ring” and sincerely believes the only Christian thing to do is to obliterate Peking. And many still want a shot at Rome, too. “Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to do the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country” is how Hermann Goring put it.

Which leaves Kansas just about the same as anyplace else that hasn’t as yet had the benefits of the civilizing influence of the Mafia operating on the local level. Where ordinary man’s sins, repentances, and hopes are of no more consequence than some long gone Indian vision quest. The record is yet more important than the private man.

This is a story of ordinary, hardworking, often out of work Christians who are Kansans until they die.”

Comments (1)

Two Poets

Adcock house.  Raleigh, NC.  February 2012.

Adcock house. Raleigh, NC. February 2012.

My latest piece for Paris Review Daily, “Two Poets,” posted this afternoon.  It concerns poets Betty Adcock and Claudia Emerson.  Betty was married to the late Don Adcock, a longtime JLP consultant.  I paid tribute to Don on this blog last year.

-Sam Stephenson

Comments off

JLP and Ron Free in Pinehurst, March 25


HERE is a piece about the event from the Fayetteville Observer and there is also a mention by the local bookstore providing books for the event, the Country Bookshop in Southern Pines.

Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo open the Palustris Festival with a duo gig on the night of March 22.  Sam wrote about Branford, Joey, and their band for Paris Review Daily back in December.

-JLP Staff

Comments off

JLP and Ron Free Trio in Pinehurst, NC


On Sunday March 25 at 4pm, Sam Stephenson will give a presentation on JLP followed by a performance by the Ron Free Trio (Court Stewart, piano, and Bob Bowen, bass) at the Palustris Festival in Pinehurst, NC.  More information can be found by clicking on the event name on the schedule HERE.

There is a piece about JLP and this event in PineStraw magazine.

-JLP Staff

Comments off

Update on Dream Street


In today’s mail I received from W.W. Norton my semi-annual statement of sales and royalties for Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project.  From April 1, 2011 to September 30, 2011, 199 copies of the softcover edition were sold.  I find that number weirdly wonderful.  Norton’s statement period marks the 10th anniversary of the book’s publication, which was officially October 2001 but it was actually available that September.

I wonder who those 199 people are.  They could fit into a large bar or small theater.


Comments (2)