Tag Archives: Oscar Wilde

BEWARE OF THE REPEATER PENCIL

Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. (Oscar Wilde, DE PROFUNDIS)

I think Wilde’s despairing indictment is far too sweeping, but it is often true in jazz, ironically a music that so vigorously presents itself as celebrating originality, singularity, individual utterance.  Improvisation, inventiveness, and the like are exceedingly difficult. But I witness three varieties of “mimicry” often in the art form I love: imitating an individual artist’s style; copying a recording; copying oneself. Obviously, they overlap.

This post has been simmering in my mind for a long time, motivated by people who try to sing exactly like Billie, play like Bix or Bird or a hundred others.  On a technical level, I occasionally admire such mastery but confess I also find it upsetting — rather like a TWILIGHT ZONE episode where the Halloween mask is so perfect yet so energetically malicious that it cannot be removed from the wearer’s face.

I revere the artists who deeply move me, and I understand that one might opt to copy Billie Holiday as closely as possible because, in the act of imitation, the singer can perhaps make it appear that Billie has never died, has never left. The singer can hope to move an audience not only by her own vocal skill but by the thrill of recognition, the doubling of emotion we have when we see the Present and the Past simultaneously appearing to occupy the same space.

But is this act of duplication truly reverence or desecration?  Would Billie have admired the copyist as someone paying homage or someone who hadn’t yet found her own voice and was seeking to hitch a ride on someone else’s style and fame?

I have also asked this question when it comes to the recreation of beloved recorded performances, and have annoyed some people, perhaps to excess, so I will leave that for now.  I know there is indeed something exciting about hearing a favorite solo or recording reproduced “live,” but for me the pleasure is limited.

Copying an artist — in moderation — has its virtues for the young or inexperienced performer, someone whose identity is still malleable. As a way of finding out who one is and who one was meant to be, it can be rewarding. For an amorphous artist to find someone from whom (s)he can “steal” is part of the long process of self-education and self-selection. Young poets and painters in centuries past were set to imitate Horace or Rodin. At the very least, practicing Bix’s SINGIN’ THE BLUES solo over and over means that you are listening to something beautiful, enduring, something beyond your own improvisations.

But creating a self seems to be a process both of accretion and divesting: of taking on models, to be reproduced to the best of one’s ability, and then gradually sloughing them off so that one’s “authentic” self, grown silently, can be revealed in all its shifting iridescent beauty. I wonder if the desire to wholly take on someone else’s essential self is destructive to the borrower.

I have read many reminiscences where The Great Man or Woman (Louis, Bird, Pres, Jo) is approached by a young follower who then plays or sings exactly a cherished chorus that the GM/W has recorded in the past . . . and the Master’s reaction is either gentle puzzlement or strong annoyance, “What are you doing all that shit for? What is the matter with you?”

Benny Goodman did not need clarinet players to be Benny Goodman onwards in to the future.  He was Benny Goodman; he is Benny Goodman. Nothing more needs to be said.

“Who are you?” is the larger question. If you play SEVEN COME ELEVEN, if you sing STRANGE FRUIT, what do you have to offer us that is yours?

My thoughts are motivated by more than one singer devotedly attempting to be Billie Holiday, slowing down the tempo during the performance so that a cheerful song becomes a despairing moan, ending phrases with a large vibrato and downward slides, choking an otherwise open voice into a constricted meow.  I believe that these singers are genuine in their admiration, but the result sounds as if they are offering a product — “Get your Billie Holiday right here!” — for sale.

I do understand such acts as outpourings of love. When I was given a cornet and I could croak through a melody statement of HUSTLIN’ AND BUSTLIN’ FOR BABY, I felt very proud that I could play something remotely like the sounds I adore, though I was aware of the mighty distances between what I heard in my memory and the sounds emerging from the bell — and I sent it into the air as a thank-you to my dear benefactor and an offering to Louis.

But ultimately I think, should I have succeeded as a player, that I would want to be my own original synthesis of everyone I’d ever admired, mixed into a concoction that sounded, for better or worse, like Me — reflecting my love for Louis, for Joe Thomas, for Bobby Hackett, mixed together in what I would hope was a pleasing way.

It is not only musicians who aspire to be their idols; I think of those fans who are most happy when their favorite band reproduces their favorite performance, heard numberless times before. I have been seated in a festival audience when the leader announces that the Romano Bean Famous Players will now offer their version of “WIND MY SPRING AND WATCH ME GO,” and the crowd both sighs with pleasure at something they all know and love and cheers for the same reason. It’s rather like the joy (or is it relief?) one finds in going to a favorite restaurant and finding that the long-imagined dish tastes just as one remembers.

Sometimes this desire to have Everything The Way We Like It has a sharp edge. I recall Buddy Tate, heroic improviser of the Count Basie band and his own orchestras, telling the story of an angry fan who came up to him after a set, saying accusingly, “You didn’t play that the way it was on THE RECORD!” When Tate attempted to explain to the young man that such variations were jazz, he was met with uncomprehending irritation.

I think of the man who sat next to Tate for two years in the Basie reed section, Lester Young.  Ironically, when Lester became famous and his style clearly recognizable, he was imitated by people who made more money doing it than he did, playing himself.  Lester told either Chris Albertson or Francois Postif, who asked why he, Lester, didn’t play in the old style with his old friends, that he didn’t want to be a “repeater pencil.” People have puzzled over this singular phrase, and I submit that what Lester was speaking of was his own blending of “mechanical pencil” and “repeater pistol,” a device by which one could reproduce the same object — a factory assembly line for art — but with deadly effects. (It is of course possible that Lester did start to say “repeater pistol” but, always gentle, caught himself before that word emerged.)

In two words, Lester reminded us what Emerson had written a century before, that imitation is suicide. In Lester’s coinage, it’s homicide as well — not only killing off those one Reveres, but perhaps an art form as well.

I expect some disagreement with what I have written. I would not step on anyone’s pleasures. If you and your colleagues want to get together, in basement or bandstand, and reproduce note-for-note the recordings that you love, it would be impudent of me to suggest that you cease and desist. If you want to sing exactly as Billie did “on the record,” I would not try to stop you. It would puzzle me, but I would not quibble with you in person.

My question, though, would be, “Now that you can do THAT, what else could you do that would move to exploring new possibilities, giving us worlds we haven’t even dreamed of?”

May your happiness increase!

ZELDA: THE MAGAZINE OF THE VINTAGE NOUVEAU

This post is about a charming magazine you ought to know — ZELDA: THE MAGAZINE OF THE VINTAGE NOUVEAU — whose fifth issue has just appeared.

If you are instantly taken by that cover, you may skip what follows and leap into http://www.zeldamag.com — why waste time with descriptions when you could become a subscriber right away?  ZELDA is published twice a year, and its issues are not the kind of thing you would want to throw out.

ZELDA (named for the brilliantly creative and underacknowledged bride of F. Scott Fitzgerald) was the creation of the very talented Diane Naegel — who died far too young after battling breast cancer.  Her fiance Don Spiro and the people who love her and her vision have kept ZELDA afloat — feeling, I think, that to do anything else out of grief would be the wrong thing entirely.  I learned about the magazine from Lynn Redmile, who has a fine eye for detail — current and vintage.

For three years, Diane and Don (a fine photographer) have also produced a series of monthly evenings (held in a former Manhattan speakeasy) called “Wit’s End,” Jazz Age-themed evenings “with Prohibition-era cocktails and a dress code.”  At these events, friends of Don and Diane played hot jazz — including Dan Levinson, Molly Ryan, Baby Soda, The Red Hook Ramblers, Cynthia Sayer, Gelber and Manning, and others.*

Not irrelevantly, the first Wit’s End party of 2012 is coming up in a few days — and it features the music of the Big Tent Jazz Band (where you can hear Lucy Weinman swing out) in a tribute to Texas Guinan.  Here’s the Facebook link.

But back to ZELDA itself.  It is not a museum catalogue of ancient clothing that one might look at but never put on.  Rather it is a vivid tribute to all things “vintage,” a term that includes the music.

In the best way, ZELDA celebrates living artistically in a style which continues to be strikingly fashionable if one understands it.  “Vintage” here is not just a kind of antique Halloween getup to be applied when the time is right, but an entire way of being — something that Oscar Wilde would have approved of: creating oneself as a living work of art.

But it’s not all about black-and-white shoes.

Well-written features in past issues have included a recalled interview with Ginger Rogers, current interviews with actress Marsha Hunt (then 92), Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Ziegfeld showgirl Doris Eaton Travis, profiles of Janet Klein, Jesse Gelber and Kate Manning, features on vintage cocktails, neckties, fingerwaving, pincurling, profiles of various cities for their vintage appeal, advertisements from shops and online sellers of everything from rare records to vintage jewels, an advice column . . . and more!

The newest issue contains articles and features on Fanny Brice, cosmetics, the Sweet Hollywallians, KING KONG, and more.  It’s beautifully laid out and a pleasure to read . . . and you’ll find yourself returning to older issues for witty, arcane yet pertinent information.  For myself, I will never be a vintage fashion icon — but I take great pleasure in learning about the art and its practitioners.

*For more information about the Wit’s End gatherings, visit    http://clubwitsend.com/

But these events are serious about vintage attire, so be forewarned: “ABSOLUTELY NO ENTRY WILL BE PERMITTED TO THOSE WEARING JEANS, ATHLETIC SHOES, ZIP-UP JACKETS, OR CASUAL ATTIRE.”  Elegance asks only that we leave our sneakers at home for one night — to recall a time and place where one dressed differently for, say, gardening, and going to an evening dance.

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING (WILL BE WONDERFUL): SWEET AND HOT, Sept. 2011

The sentiments, slightly modified, come from Mae West (by way of Oscar Wilde, two people who knew the delights of overabundance.  But this post is about jazz, not sex, even though the words SWEET and HOT are in the title.

I have just seen the schedule for the September 2011 Sweet and Hot music extravaganza — to be held at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott over Labor Day weekend.  You, too, can see it here:

http://www.sweethot.org/schedule/2011/SH_Schedule_2011.pdf

These five pages are wonderful.  I see my heroes and heroines and friends — those I’ve met and those I’ve only heard — in profusion.  There’s Chris Dawson, Connie Jones, Rebecca Kilgore, Eddie Erickson, Katie Cavera, Dawn Lambeth, Marc Caparone, Ralf and John Reynolds, Mark Shane, Dan Levinson, Molly Ryan, Hal Smith, Clint Baker, Tim Laughlin, Randy Reinhart, Dan Barrett, John Sheridan, Joel Forbes, Chloe Feoranzo, Corey Gemme, John Allred, Howard Alden, Bob Draga, Sue Kroninger, Richard Simon, Johnny Varro, Dan Levinson, Carl Sonny Leyland, Marty Eggers, Allan Vache, Ed Polcer, Jim Galloway, Banu Gibson, Dave Koonse, Russ Phillips, Herb Jeffries, Jennifer Leitham, Janet Klein and her Parlor Boys . . . . and I know I’m leaving out a dozen more.

This amplitude, this cornucopia isn’t in itself a problem.  Better to have your plate heaped high with deliciousness than have one elderly green bean to gnaw on.  The problem — if you see it as such — is in the choosing.

When scientists experimented on the subject of choice, they found that children asked to decide between three breakfast cereals did fine; children asked to choose among twelve burst into tears.

I’m in slightly better shape, especially because I never eat cold cereal.  But I wish JAZZ LIVES readers would come up with a solution to my jazz dilemma.  There’s only one of me, and when in one room the Rebecca Kilgore Quartet is swinging away, in another the Reynolds Brothers are romping, in a third it’s Jones-Clint Baker-Laughlin-Dawson-Hal Smith, in a fourth Levinson, Ryan, and Shane . . . what’s a fellow to do?

The Beloved, bless her heart, offered to take another video camera to another set . . . and I thank her for it . . . but perhaps my readers have some suggestions.

I know!  Come to Sweet and Hot and help me solve the dilemma of abundance.  By the time Labor Day weekend is over, we’ll have worked something out.  Right?

MORE, OR LESS?

Meditations from mid-December 2010 (but they could be anytime in the last few years):

Both Oscar Wilde and Mae West, in very different contexts, had their personae utter the sentiment that too much was just enough — barely so.  I am musing on plenitude.  Plenitude and its discontents?  Or its contents?  

When I was a young record collector, with fewer records available to me and limited funds, I would sometimes imagine that one vision of jazz paradise would be having more music than I could possibly listen to.  Standing in front of the racks of records in a Greenwich Village shop, I would think covetously of having it all.

Now that my weekly allowance is larger and it seems that everything ever recorded is available for purchase, I haven’t turned demonically acquisitive.  I am pleased to report that when I visited two of those shops on a rainy afternoon ten days ago, I found one CD I really wanted to buy, bought it, and was delighted.  And I left the stores without any wistful backwards glances.  Better to have one CD I would listen to and prize than a half-dozen ones that I would not get through ever.    

But at home I am surrounded by music, and not just because I own an iPod.  I don’t just mean the CDs and records I’ve acquired over the decades, nor the ones that come through the mail (both solicited and not).  As I write this, I am trying not to consider the boxes of cassette tapes next to my desk, or the small hoard of vinyl records.   

What caused me even to think of writing this post was a moment this evening where I found myself downloading jazz videos I had taken onto YouTube (something that doesn’t require minute-by-minute supervision) on one computer while listening to a new CD that I wanted to review on my stereo system.  In another room, I was using my laptop to transfer music from one format to another. 

I wonder what a moralist would make of this scene — a somber illustration of “Be careful what you wish for,” or the epitome of delight?  (Of course, I would only consider with any seriousness the opinions of moralists who knew who Walter Page was.)