Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Harlem Gentrification-itis Blues

Harlem is looking more and more like an outpost for stranded, overly educated Midwestern fashion victims who ought to be background talent for HBO's Girls. Then again, so does the rest of New York City.  I moved uptown to get away from all that.  To (sort of) paraphrase Michael Jackson, I don't want to be where they are -- for a myriad of reasons which should be fairly obvious to anyone that's actually paying attention -- yet for some strange reason, they won't stop following me.   As a slightly intoxicated hipster blurted to me in a Brooklyn bar recently after a breezy chat about everything and nothing, "You're so interesting!"  Hearing him say that made me feel like I just got slimed. More on that some other time.

My favorite moment so far (and yes, I have many) is the one that won't stop happening. At this point, I suppose that makes it a revolving nightmare.  It begins simply enough: I hear about some Harlem hotspot, I show up to check it out and when I walk through the door, the place is filled with white people who look at me as if to say, what the hell are you doing here?  To be honest, yes -- that's what happens just about everywhere I go. Harlem was the one place where that whole staring-at you like-you're-the-one-that's-nuts-while-you-eat-your-roasted-beet-and-goat-cheese-salad thing didn't happen. Well. Not anymore. 

That's right. You heard me. Harlem, an iconic black neighborhood, is no longer a place where a black person can get away from white privilege and entitlement. And that's just one reason of many as to why this place is going straight to hell.

Here's a short segment from therealnews.com about the systematic ethnic cleansing of Harlem by Columbia University's massive expansion and gentrification, and how the city failed the neighborhood.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Happy Birthday, Huey P. Newton

Unbelievable but true: Huey would have been 72 years old today.  And he didn't leave this world in the 60s, either.

I have no doubt that the seemingly innocuous times we live in are raising up revolutionaries in real time. Circumstances demand it. When they aren't slaughtering us in the street for absolutely no reason whatsoever -- and getting away with it -- we are killing each other in record numbers.  Revolution belongs to the young, Huey says. In no time at all, these children will be old enough to truly fight for themselves.  I hope they can survive this mess long enough to change it for the better.

In the meantime, here is Huey in his own words in a rare interview from a non-descript jail cell. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sunday Sermonette

 Here's Andrae Crouch -- a gospel music icon, if there ever was one -- singing his classic Through It All at a Billy Graham revival in New Mexico in 1975. Listen and be blessed.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sid Caesar, Rest In Peace

No cue cards. No teleprompter. No human prompter. No script. No nothing. Just you, spazzing out -- and a few cameras, broadcasting your low brow hi-jinx to millions. Talk about flying by the seat of your pants. Such was the infancy of television, those early bad old days when Ernie Kovacs and Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner and Woody Allen and many more ruled the airwaves as writers initially, and Sid Caesar ran the show.  No. He was the show, in Your Show of Shows.   What's breathtaking is how well so much of that material still holds up -- and how far reaching his influence has been/still is.

I know, I know -- we have The Groundlings, we have The Upright Citizens Brigade. We have a lot of comedy troupes nowadays that have churned out a few diamonds in the rough that institutions like SNL have polished to a brilliant sheen, more or less.  But SNL hasn't been seriously funny in a really long time.  And SCTV happened in the 80s. In Canada.

Very few artists get to live long enough to know how they mattered within their genre or that their work will outlast them.  Sid is clearly amongst them.  I don't know why but somewhere in there, I began to look for the ones whose work had outlasted them. I looked for the qualities that connected them. I deliberately veered away from the trendy, the popular, the now.  I was certainly aware of what everyone else liked but I knew that there was something more.  When I glimpse work that connects with the eternal, I know I'm on the right road.

Avoiding hacks at all costs is key, of course.

This is by far one of my favorite bits.  Sid has this long drawn out wordless argument (!!!) with Nanette Fabray (quite the humdinger in her day -- and yes, she's still alive) -- with the Fifth of Beethoven as an aural backdrop. 

I've got to work with Mel Brooks.  I've just got to...!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Black History: Pause and Reflect

This is a beautiful way to make historical facts into art. Jess Bachman created this meditative work as a means to pause and reflect on our history. It's not meant to cover everything by any far stretch of the imagination, but it touches on quite a few hotspots. 

My first thought was that slavery really didn't happen that long ago.  We weren't supposed to survive the trauma of the middle passage.  Slavery should have wiped us out. Reconstruction decimated us from the inside out -- and somehow we survived it all, miraculously...

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Sunday Sermonette

This is the music that raised me. This is the kind of music that swirled just above my head before I ever sang a note. This is what I sang as a child, before I sang anything else. This is the pitch and tone of prayer and praise and worship: an anointed, spirit-filled choir that's physically in the groove, with that backbeat driving all of it forward.  I love this song -- Call Him Up (Can't Stop Praising His Name) by Keith Pringle.   When this song is done right, it's everything

Listen in and be blessed.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

A List of Events for Black History Month: The NYC Version

"Pride of race is the antidote to prejudice." -- Arthur Schomburg

I don't have to wait for February to get lifted.  I'm aware of what's out there for me, whether the government/society/the powers that be says its my designated time of the year or not.  For some (black) folk, this is the only real moment in their (school) year/lives when African-American accomplishments of any kind are ever mentioned.  If they'd teach history without deliberately omitting us, we probably wouldn't need black history classes.

The documentary More Than A Month has an interesting premise -- Do we really need Black History Month anymore? -- but unfortunately it brings up more questions than it answers.  I suppose the director has a point.  Then again, there's got to be a way to take bigots to the woodshed on a regular basis. 

For those of you in the tri-state area, this is just a small fun-filled slice of what's available within Gotham's five boroughs.  Please note: Many of these exhibits extend into the summer months and are free and open to the public.
  1. Louis Armstrong House's latest exhibit -- Senor Satchmo: Louis Armstrong in South America --  looks fascinating. AND you get a collectible, as supplies will allow.
  2. Black Artstory Month -- This month-long celebration makes Brooklyn's Myrtle Avenue its main street and includes an array of activities including spoken word, live music, lectures, food and an eclectic discussion about the African diaspora's influence on fashion. 
  3. Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture -- This delves into the shift away from Hollywood stereotypes that happened with black characters in cartoons in the 70s.
  4. The Apollo Theater Open House Weekend: An 80th Anniversary Celebration. If you miss the family-friendly fun on Saturday, February 8th, don't miss a performance by the Rev. Shirley Caesar on Sunday, February 9th. And yes, it's free.
  5. Black Dress: Ten Contemporary Fashion Designers at Pratt Manhattan Gallery focuses on the business of design, features two of my faves (Byron Lars and Tracey Reese) and includes a short video made especially for the exhibit by 2013 MacArthur Fellow Carrie Mae Weems
  6. Go see The Loving Story (A Valentine's Day special!) at Harlem's Mayles Cinema
  7. ...and then return for Blacks in Experimental Film (Part 2)
  8. Central Park Tour: Seneca Village -- Seneca Village (which eventually became a part of Central Park) was the city's first known community of African-American property owners.
  9. Motown: The Truth Is A Hit at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture -- This is a music history lesson about the Motown sound and its origins, with beautiful visuals.
  10. Where this list ends is where you should start, really -- The NYC Five Borough Tour.  You'll hit nine sites on this self-guided tour, including Woodlawn Conservancy, the organization that's dedicated to maintaining and caring for Woodlawn Cemetery (the Valley of the Jazz Greats is a must) and the African Burial Ground National Monument.

Friday, February 07, 2014

The Next Gig: The Sweetheart Soiree -- February 15th

Please note: for this event, I'll be performing a program of Lady Day's rare sides on the third floor of this beautiful, well-appointed mansion with my trio -- Hilliard Greene (bass), Marvin Sewell (guitar) and Wayne Tucker (trumpet). Huzzah! 


Return to romance at Michael Arenella's SWEETHEART SOIRÉE. To celebrate the Soirée's fifth flirtatious year, we have, in collaboration with ST-GERMAIN, chosen a most posh and exclusive rendezvous point - NORWOOD, a perfectly preserved, landmarked 1947 mansion. A strictly private club, enjoy a rare opportunity to experience this stylishly bohemian hideaway as our guest.

Whether with an amour, wedded to one you adore or hoping to meet the one you're looking for, this promises to be an evening of enchantment and delightful intrigue. Plenty of plush seating, artisanal French cocktails featuring St-Germain and wooden floors for dancers will assure a most chic and intimate affair.

A passionate programme of entertainment will be featured over four floors of this lavish Victorian manse:

*MICHAEL ARENELLA and His Sextet, your devoted host and beloved bandleader
*NICOLE RENAUD, the luminous accordionist and chanteuse
*Jazz royalty, QUEEN ESTHER and trio
*Tap-dance darlings THE MINSKY SISTERS

Enjoy a dance lesson for both singles and doubles at 9:30PM with the ever-dapper and undeniably adorable RODDY CARAVELLA.

A gorgeous gratis portrait in our St-Germain KISSING BOOTH.

Guests are welcomed with a complimentary ST-GERMAIN COCKTAIL.

Cupid-approved cocktails alongside fabulous wines will be available for purchase at three unique bars. Complimentary gourmet hors d'oevres and sweet treats will be featured throughout the evening.


Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Trayvon Martin: Hey, Nineteen

Trayvon Martin would have been 19 years old today.  What were you doing when you were 19? 

Not surprisingly, promoter/opportunist Damon Feldman of Celebrity Boxing has chosen Trayvon Martin's birthday to announce a celebrity boxing match between DMX and George Zimmerman.  Yes, that's right -- the same George Zimmerman who claimed that he didn't know how to fight, whose lawyers adamantly declared that he was a pudgy wimp that needed a gun to defend himself. As it turns out, he's been a boxing enthusiast for many years before, as he puts it, "the incident".  As a matter of fact, this event was Zimmerman's idea. 

Somebody must be broke.

Meanwhile, today marks the beginning of another Florida Stand Your Ground/Shoot First, Ask Questions Later murder trial: Michael Dunn, the 45 year old white man accused of killing a 17 year old black youth named Jordan Davis last year for playing loud music.  As Jordan and his friends sat in their SUV listening to hip hop, Mr. Dunn demanded that they turn it down. They didn't. Words were exchanged. Mr. Dunn said he thought he saw a shotgun. Or a stick. He pretty much riddled the car with bullets.  And then he went home. None of them were armed, by the way.

I'll bet you a dollar and a Twinkie he gets away with it.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

A (Neo) Vaudeville Moment: The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour

Straight outta 1978, it's a segment from The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour, featuring a hot jazz quintet -- the Foxx himself as Dr. Sausage, backed by His Pork Chops -- and some of the most recognizable comedians/characters from the 70s, including Bill Saluga (that infamous Raymond J. Johnson), Billy Barty and The Unknown Comic (Murray Langston) who was a regular on The Gong Show, and yes, that's Hal Smith -- otherwise known as Otis Campbell the town drunk on The Andy Griffith Show.

If you know who's in the band, let me know.   That can't be anyone else but Slappy White on trombone...!

It's interesting, the way they're leaning so heavily on slapstick and vaudeville. It feels out of time for the 70s, somehow.  Or was the schmaltz of yesteryear a part of the joke? And wouldn't the audience have to know that language in order to get it? Would any of this fly on television nowadays? Very little of the neo-burlesque/neo-vaudeville I see downtown wallows in this kind of schtick -- but when it does, there's a lot of smarts in it, a lot of irony. And quite a bit of filth.

If there's anybody that's doing it better than The Slipper Room, let me know.  (And I'm not just saying that because that's where I met MPB.)

Monday, February 03, 2014

Winter in Harlem: Woodshed with Guitars!

Woodshed: To lock oneself away with a musical instrument and practice, either a particular piece or in general, until the player has improved greatly or can perfectly play the piece he has been practicing. 

Today's blizzard hit hard in the wee hours of the morning and won't let up until later this evening.  What with all the delicious leftover eats from yesterday's SuperBowl and the drinking bonanza that went with it, it's the perfect time to call in sick and work from home if you've got it like that. Folks must have been thinking ahead this time around.  The streets aren't as busy as they usually are.

I've got cable tv, Netflix, Klondike bars and bacon. I've got Winsor Pilates DVDs and Greens Plus. I've got a retooled acoustic baby Taylor, a five string banjo on permanent loan, some pretty cool electric guitars and a Pignose amp. I've got a humidifier that's on blast -- and thankfully, so is the heat. I've got a gigantic pot of the most delicious lamb stew that I made last night, while MPB was yelling at the tv during the game. I stocked MPB's bar with absolutely every varietal of Trader Joe's three buck chuck and then some. I even have lamb riblets that I'm going to pan sear for dinner tonight.

I also have a voiceover audition today -- from home, thanks to GarageBand

What I don't have is a good reason to go outside.  When the snow day is this severe, it's time to stay home and woodshed.  I'll start by digging into Rocksmith, which I totally love a lot because its hard and fun. I haven't touched it in forever.  I have no idea why.

Another snowstorm of epic proportions is expected on Wednesday. Lucky me. 

Before I disappear, here's something for all you guitar players: a 1964 performance of the song Hey! from "The Originator" Bo Diddley that includes his right hand lady Ms. Norma-Jean Wofford, otherwise known as The Dutchess -- playing rhythm and lead guitar and keeping in step with the back up vocalists, and in a gown and heels no less. 

Although she played guitar and gigged here and there later in life, her career came to a screeching halt when she left the band in 1966, got married and moved to Florida to raise a family. 

Here's a photo of Bo Diddley, The Dutchess and percussionist Jerome Green

I think she's stunning, a bonafide trailblazer (why don't any guitar magazines or guitar lists ever mention her?) and most definitely an inspiration for me as a nascent guitarist.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Alive in the Dead of Winter

"Pride of race is the antidote to prejudice." -- Arthur Schomburg

Happy Black History Month -- for whatever its worth.  There's almost always a ton of activities, exhibits, workshops, family outings, concerts and goings-on in any African-American community to celebrate who we are. On second thought, I don't know any black folk who don't do this every day in every way, on their own terms.  Every day is Black History Month in my world.  No blurbs in the media, though.  I'm not so sure Black History Month is for us, nowadays. Perspective is a funny thing. But that's a whole other conversation.

There's a great deal of beauty and safety in all this snow and cold.  It's a great time for unbridled productivity and quiet reflection and solace. What with all these layers I'm wearing, I can hide in plain sight, get things done, finish up old business, work on fresh ideas and let something new take root, and oversleep when the mood overtakes me.  The good news at the moment is, my (years-long!) makeover  has almost reached some sort of glorious end.  (Yes, that's right -- years long. Extensive dental work takes time, folks.  And it ain't cheap.) I'm losing weight, my hair is growing like crazy and I'm getting my teeth fixed.  The more progress I see, the more patience I have.  The banjo isn't getting any easier but thankfully, fingerpicking is.  One thing is glaringly obvious -- It's time for me to get on my grind, while it's still the dead of winter.

Now that I'm starting to see the light at the end of at least one of the tunnels I'll have to run through to get to where I'm going, it's time. It's time to start working out like a straight beast. It's time to release my Black Americana album.  It's time to get more gigs, book a European tour, do a residency and yes, another showcase.  It's time to edit my closets and declutter this apartment and do a severe amount of spring cleaning.  It's time to learn my intervals. 

Joan Crawford was right. Life is discipline.

When it's time to do anything, you have to do your homework.  I really like this infographic, in part because when you're working on a corporate plantation, every interview question has a well-curated answer if you dig carefully enough.  Then again, I suppose that's any question.  

Here's to a year of straight answers.