Friday, June 28, 2013

The Cherry Orchard

Donald Eugene Cherry, 1936-1995
Soon after Chet Baker's "Let's Get Lost" faded on the loudspeaker, the soft, high whisper of the late
Don Cherry filled the Central Library's Mark Taper Auditorium. "I grew up in the ghetto in L.A.," the jazz composer/multi-instrumentalist remembered over a short-film prologue to the ALOUD series event Complete Communion: A Musical Tribute to Don Cherry. "In the ghetto, you don't really feel nature. There was so much pollution, you couldn't see the mountains. But I lived on 113th Street, right next to the Watts Towers, which was being built by this Italian man [Simon Rodia] from scraps he found around the neighborhood. He didn't know why he was building it, he just had to do it."

Cherry might have well been speaking of his own musical path, which in part involved seeking out the organic worlds that were denied him as a child. Although most associated with free-jazz titan Ornette Coleman, Cherry's contributions to multicultural cross-pollination in music, art and poetry were, in their own quiet way, years ahead of their time. He was a pioneer of what we now know as "World Music" and spent years traversing the globe and sitting humbly at the feet of itinerant musicians to learn their techniques. Cherry's omnivorous vision wasn't just influential in jazz; it dripped down though the years to the DNA of groups like the Freestyle Fellowship, the Breakestra, and Fishbone. And his is a lineage that keeps on giving, covering the realms of jazz (David Ornette Cherry), R&B (Neneh Cherry), and pop (Eagle-Eye Cherry).

DJ Mark Maxwell (L) interviews David Ornette Cherry
[photo courtesy of Gary Leonard]

Cherry was also a proponent of carrying jazz's liberating possibilities into the spheres of education at a time where school jazz bands weren't as common—or as endangered—as they are now; ALOUD curator Louise Steinman noted as much in her introduction to Monday night's show: "I can only imagine how thrilled he would be to have a tribute concert for him in a public library." Many of the attendees in the audience could attest to Cherry's pedagogical influence, including trombonist Phil Ranelin (who actually taught a course at the Leimert Park's World Stage called "Who Was Don Cherry?"), radio host Leroy Downs, TV host/Dominguez Hills professor Chet Hanley, poet Kamau Daa'ood and writer/community organizer Jeffrey Winston. Cherry himself skipped class from Fremont High School just so he could play in Jefferson High's swing band and study with its influential music teacher Samuel R. Browne alongside other future L.A. free-thinkers like Horace Tapscott, Hampton Hawes, and Eric Dolphy. He later met drummer Billy Higgins when they were in reform school. Both would become a part of the groundbreaking Ornette Coleman quintet that would shake up patrons at Culver City's Hillcrest Club in 1958 and go on to a legendary residency at New York's Five Spot a year later.

Cherry's weapon of choice was the pocket trumpet—sort of like a miniature cornet—and its toreador-spiced tone blasted forth from Tapscott almunus Steve Smith on the opening song "Complete Communion." Veteran saxophonist Justo Almario, primarily known for his Latin Jazz credentials, demonstrated a firm grasp of the avant-garde; his "out" playing on "Golden Hearts" and "March of the Hobbits" was wonderfully aggressive and jarring while still encompassing the skittering Bebop lyricism that was always in the mix in Cherry's music. Roberto Miguel Miranda demonstrated a similar dexterity, switching from congas on the mathematically busy funk of "Brown Rice" and the chant-heavy "Rhumba Multikulti" to acoustic bass on "Cherryco" and "Manhattan Cry," where his pizzicato solos didn't thump or pluck but floated out of the air like amoebic globules.

The Organic Roots Ensemble (L to R): Justo Almario, Ollie Elder Jr., Steve Smith, Don Littleton, Roberto Miguel Miranda (obscured), Jan Cherry, John L. Price
[photo courtesy of Gary Leonard]

The three extended medleys of Cherry's compositions were layered with sit-down interviews conducted by wild-haired KPFK radio host Mark Maxwell with Cherry's daughter, violinist/vocalist Jan Cherry, and son David Ornette Cherry, who related how his father's music comforted him as a child during the Watts Rebellion of 1965. Jan Cherry admitted that her father's musical approach was a shock to her classically trained sensibilities: "Don exposed me to music that didn't have a chordal structure, and that blew me away. I remember thinking, 'They're not using notes! They're just improvising!' The way he conducted and the way he taught us -- 'This is how they do it; this is how I do it' -- the musical themes could switch up at any moment." Later, during testimonials from the band members, electric bassist Ollie Elder Jr. echoed this sentiment when he reminisced about playing with Cherry for the first time: "I asked him, 'Uh, what am I supposed to play? 'Anything!' "OK, in what key?" 'Any key!'"
After describing his father's endlessly curious pilgrimages, David Ornette Cherry sat down with a large dousn' gounni, a Malinese instrument resembling a large sitar with a dodgeball-sized wooden shell, while Smith blew bubbling, strangulated notes on a trumpet mouthpiece. "Calisthenics" was exactly what its title implies: A soaring and vigorous ensemble workout seasoned nicely by John L. Price's vibraphone. "My Butterfly Friend" showed Cherry's love of reggae, with Almario dancing across the stage while soloing to Jan Cherry's scat-croon vocals. "Art Deco" was straight-ahead jazz highlighted by the warm interplay of Almario and Smith. "Coming and Going" built off a Native-American toe-heel drumbeat anchored by the triple-percussion attack of Miranda, Price and Don Littleton. For the closer, Don Cherry's granddaughter—one of at least ten Cherrys present in the audience—jumped up onstage for the proto-slam poetry rap "I Walked." (Apparently, walking and rollerskating were two of her granddad's favorite nonmusical pastimes.) And then, one by one, the musicians strutted off the stage to the beat, still playing. The maestro would have approved.

[photo courtesy of Don Littleton]

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Jazz Baroness of Strawberry Drive

Last week, Los Angeles jazz lost one of its most ardent and influential patrons, journalist/historian Mimi Clar Melnick. What follows is a profile The Beast wrote on this amazing woman for a 2007 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

[photo courtesy of Teresa Jenkins]

On a crisp, sun-dappled Sunday afternoon in the Encino hills, a long line of automobiles crowds the curb in front of a grey California contemporary home. People stream up the steep incline: women with kelplike dreads, African-print dresses and tinkling jewelry; men with snow-white beards in dashikis carrying large conga drums; academic types with soul patches and leather jackets; young mothers ushering distracted children. All make their way towards the open front doors, through which one can hear the low sounds of an acoustic bass being tuned, rimshots, sax and bass clarinet runs, laughing, the slap of backs.

The house is built atop a sconce of desert cacti and gazania. The front doorknobs are swirling nautilus shells of molded metal; the welcome mat is in the shape of a city manhole cover. There are more manhole covers inside, framed black-and-white photographs shot with a wide-angle lens hanging around the white-brick interior. In the family room, about 30 metal folding chairs are set up in tight rows, with more along the wall and in the breakfast nook beyond.

It is already standing room only: many sandaled feet shuffle about on the white carpet. The instruments sit in a corner of the room dominated by a pristine brown 1922 Steinway grand piano, holding court before top-to-bottom sliding glass patio doors that unveil the West Valley as a gorgeous Technicolor fresco. But it’s the opposite wall that draws the eye: autographed jazz visages of Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, Buddy Collette, Ahmad Jamal, Percy Heath, Milt Jackson, Hank Jones, Teddy Edwards and Shelly Manne. Many of the inscriptions are dedicated to the tiny lady with the bell-shaped silver bouffant who sits under the skylight by the front door greeting comers with her blue moneybox: ‘To Mimi, Thank you for your kindness and genuine concern for jazz’; ‘Dear Mimi, Great creative energy in your space!’; ‘To MM (Double Em!): You have brought so much pleasure to the music world’. 

Three or four times a year, Mimi Clar Melnick opens her impeccable home for the Double M Jazz Salon, an invite-only concert series she has been running by herself and at her own expense. The first salon was on February 4, 1996 and posed a problem not of logistics but because the talent present looked so hard to top: pianist Horace Tapscott with bassist Roberto Miguel Miranda and drummer Fritz Wise. The concert was advertised on a single pink sheet of Xeroxed paper, like an errant flyer for a school talent show. “We played and that place just exploded,” says Miranda. “That whole day was nothing but L-O-V-E. It’s as though we had our close friends listening to us and supporting us to be as adventurous as we possibly could be. And man, it was just the beginning.”

Motoko Honda & Wadada Leo Smith at the Double M Jazz Salon (May 2011)

Now, as Miranda affirms, Melnick’s home has become an integral part of the Los Angeles jazz scene. The crème of the art form has since passed though to schmooze and give intimate and rollicking musical afternoons: Arthur Blythe, Bobby Bradford, Oscar Brashear, Alex and Nels Cline, Kenny Burrell, Billy Childs, Gerald Clayton, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Dr. Art Davis, Tamir Hendelman, John Heard, John Hicks, Billy Higgins, Pete Jolly, Don and Jeff Littleton, Roberto Miguel Miranda, Onaje Murray, Charles Owens, Austin Peralta, Don Preston, Wadada Leo Smith, Horace Tapscott, Nedra Wheeler, Gerald Wiggins. It has even evolved into a rehearsal space where musicians woodshed for upcoming performances in clubs or festivals, calling ahead before they drive up the hill with their gear.

Then there’s the audience, which has grown exponentially from an original mailing list of 50 to currently around 500, requiring Melnick to reluctantly forgo what she calls “the personal touch” of individual flyers to bulk e-mail. Yet the personal touch of experiencing music in such a sublime and informal setting—no microphone hum or cellphone gab, no clattering plates or hovering wait staff—is not lost on the crowd. “Some of the best live music I have ever heard in LA has been in Mimi’s family room,” notes local jazz historian Steven Isoardi, who attended the very first Double M Salon. “There is no other experience I’ve had that comes close to being in that little room with all these great artists who are loving being there and sharing their music with you. It sort of spoiled me in a way. I can’t go to a big venue like Disney Hall now, it feels so alienating. Mimi’s made it harder.”

During the performances, Melnick rarely sits. She floats around on the edge of the crowd or stays in her small kitchen cutting up gourmet cheeses or peeling cellophane off a Costco cookie platter. She is a soft-spoken woman who exudes elegance even when wearing cowboy boots. When asked about her stress level at having nearly 70 people in and out of her house for two hour-long sets (broken up by an hour break), Melnick whispers, “It’s out of my hands!” as applause erupts in the next room for a 10-minute slap-and-pluck bass solo. “I’m so honored,” she adds with kittenish excitement. “I feel like I’m in their living room!”

Jesse Sharps, Roberto Miranda & Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (March 2012)

Of course, the salons do not come without their pressure points. Melnick labors to ensure maximum capacity so the musicians can get adequate pay for their efforts, musical and otherwise, even as many of the musicians she features play a vanguard style of jazz that many ears might find too abrasive or aggressive (or, in the lingo, “That cat plays way out!”). “It’s the same concern that the club owners have, so I can definitely identify with them on that,” Mimi laughs. But a gig is a gig, as they say, and Melnick tries to keep the price at $20, mainly to encourage young music students to attend. “It was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard,” says bassist Nick Rosen, who first went to a Double M salon when he was 15. “I was so close to the musicians that I could read their music—you don’t get that anywhere. I got hooked and I haven’t missed one since.” Now, at 21, Rosen is a rising talent who plays with Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. Last September, Rosen and sixteen members of “the Ark” wedged Tetris-style into Melnick’s 20’ x 25’ family room. “That was the first time we made any money playing with the Ark and it was a great show,” says Rosen. “Musicians need to know that there are others out there who appreciate their music. No matter how much we say it’s ‘creative’ and that we ‘need to do it,’ we also need validation in what we do.”

This was evident last January at a Double M salon featuring the Arthur Blythe Quintet. Blythe, a tender-wise Buddha of a man with deep and inscrutable eyes, soloed sweet notes that cried and wailed—one man in the front row held a digital camera up to his alto saxophone, filming the sounds as they were born. As the group ended their second set to warm and genuine applause, the 66-year-old Arkestra alumnus whispered “Thank you"; a voice from the audience responded, “Thank you.” A lady with a frumpy orange sweater and wild-curly grey hair materialized in the foyer, practically hyperventilating. She stopped bassist Essiet Okun Essiet in the hallway: “I so enjoyed watching you play!” Then she asked him to hold out his hands, and ran hers over his outstretched palms.

The Audience at Mimi's (Note Mike Watt in yellow raincoat)

In the 1920s, Reva Howitt was a striking brunette whose effervescent charisma and dancer’s legs had earned her the nickname “Lollipop” and a centerpiece position on the San Francisco Beauties, California’s first all-female tap troupe. After her husband Charles Clar, a colonial fireplace merchant, died in 1977, Howitt sat down in her Los Feliz home to write her memoirs, in which she recalled her ambivalence about her daughter’s precocious talent for the piano. “When Mimi began at an extremely early age to show musical ability, I ignored it. When she was about four years old and neighbors who had pianos told me that she rang their doorbells to ask to play on their instruments, I was amused. By the time she was seven, I had to acknowledge her needs. From the start I made it clear that she was to play for her own pleasure and not for public performances.”

From the beginning, Melnick says she never really loved the classical music that was de rigueur for serious piano students. The sounds of jazz were loose and liberating for a self-described “conventional girl on the outside, not on the inside.” But her mother's lesson is so ingrained that even today, when asked, Melnick shows a reluctance to play her own Steinway. "My mother had said to me from the time I was a child, 'Do not be a performer, because you are always at the mercy of someone else.' And she knew this from experience." Yet, when prodded, she eases over to her piano and runs through some fluid, dirty boogie-woogie before finishing with a delicate little upper-register note, like a devilish wink. "I don't know what kind of pianist I'd have been if I'd gone ahead and really pursued jazz as a career. I do have some regrets about that," she says. "But it came out in my writing."

In the early 1960s, when she was a Music Major at UCLA, Melnick had the convictions of the youthfully obsessed, even facing down the Los Angeles Times’ formidable music critic Albert Goldberg—not the world’s biggest jazz fan—over an essay she wrote for his class. “He handed it back to me and said, ‘Now let’s see what you can do with something serious.’ So I looked at him and said, ‘Jazz is serious.’” Goldberg must have been impressed: he hired her as a Times music writer, as position she held for seven years. It was during this period that she met and married Robert Melnick, an electronics engineer with a passion for photography.

Melnick is a preservationist as well as an enthusiast—besides her jazz salons, she co-written two pioneering and endearingly quirky books on Art Deco-era city manhole covers with her late husband. Many of the iron sentinels they documented were ornate and beautifully embossed antiques by obsolete foundries and utility companies, pieces that the Melnicks saw as irreplaceable examples of industrial art—literally, historical records buried in the street. “We called ourselves, ‘urban archaeologists,’” she smiles. “When we did it in the early 1970s it was a very strange thing to be involved in. A lot of people thought we were nuts, they thought it was so humorous. But everybody responded to it one way or another. We really felt like explorers.”

In a way, this love for the handcrafted quotidian was how the Melnicks expressed their unconventionality in the confines of Nixon-era suburbia. After publishing Manhole Covers of Los Angeles in 1974, the Melnicks embarked on a cross-country drainspotting journey, photographing nearly 300 disks over the next ten years. At the end of the project, Robert Melnick—a lifelong nonsmoker—was diagnosed with lung cancer. After he died in 1984, she she unearthed his proof sheets; Manhole Covers—her words, his photos—was published by MIT Press in 1994. A year after that, Melnick successfully petitioned the city council to preserve sixteen manhole covers as historical artifacts, making Los Angeles the first U.S. city to do so.

After her mother died in 1997, Mimi discovered the memoirs she had written 20 years earlier; it was published in 2002. Lollipop: Vaudeville Turns with a Fanchon and Marco Dancer documents the life of Reva Howitt and the underreported history of the California vaudeville circuit of the 1920s. [Watch a 2003 interview with Melnick about the book here.] But after finishing these projects, she finally turned to something she could truly call her own—sort of. Melnick says that her idea for a series of house concerts had actually been seeded in the 1970s when she attended an afternoon of Indian music in the Los Feliz home of a woman named Jan Steward. “It was such an intimate and casual atmosphere that I thought, ‘I have to do this for jazz,’” she recalls. “After Bob died, I got to know many of the musicians on the avant-garde scene in Los Angeles, and at that time there were not that many venues for them to really stretch out and play.” Theirs was a local lineage graced by the towering presences of Taspcott, Ornette Coleman, Bobby Bradford and John Carter.

Arguably, things have gotten worse in recent years—when a rubric like "Smooth Jazz" not only outsells every other kind but has its own television show. But Melnick points out that Azar Lawrence—he of the epic fractal sax solos with minimal pauses for breath—has recently been playing shows at "straight-ahead" jazz venues, like Charlie O's in Van Nuys and Vibrato in Bel-Air. "The relationship between the avant-garde and the local jazz clubs has actually gotten better over the years," she maintains. "Because if Azar can play those places—Huh? Hello? Azar? That's not dinner music! —something must be opening up."

What connects manhole covers and jazz musicians, of dancer mothers and creative partners, it is that none of them can be replaced once they are gone. Take the bootleg videotape of a March 1997 Double M salon still making its rounds through the underground tributaries of the Southern California jazz community [see above]. It features an elite ensemble: Horace Tapscott and Roberto Miranda with saxophonist Michael Session, percussionist/trumpeter Juno Lewis and drummer Billy Higgins. Lewis, a Leimert Park renaissance man who built his own instruments and collaborated with John Coltrane, kicks things off with a hand-drum solo. As the applause dies down, Miranda’s bass seems to bleed out of the walls like bog sweat as he saws an intensely personal, Jimi Hendrix-flavored solo turn on “Amazing Grace.” Tapscott falls over sideways on his piano bench, laughing in amazement. Then a feisty Higgins drum showcase leads into John Coltrane’s “Impressions,” and Tapscott unleashes a protean five minute and forty-four second piano solo. Session steps up with his soprano sax and blows lacerating and furious runs until perspiration rolls down his cheeks. Then poet Kamau Daa’ood reads his verse over the music, an incantation dedicated to Charles “Yardbird” Parker but somehow apropos to this fleeting moment:

messages from a higher realm descend
here at the center of the universe…
men entwined with their instruments like lovers
and in the air
passion and feathers

On such afternoons—and on the ones since Tapscott, Higgins and Lewis all passed away—Double M feels like some sort of return to jazz’s pre-historical tidepools, to a time when it flourished in private homes and public spaces, places out of the hands of the critics and moneymen and organized by the musicians and the fans. It produces the endorphin rush that comes from the realization: In this city, where so much is determined for us, here we manage to get away with something. Here we share something secret and precious.

The sentiments on the musicians’ side of the equation are best echoed by the formidable Arkestra saxophonist/flautist Kafi Roberts: "Man, anybody in the world says anything bad about Mimi, they'd better duck." When she is told this later, Melnick blushes.

Reprinted from Los Angeles Magazine (August 2007)

[photo courtesy of Don Edmondson]

Friday, June 21, 2013

YOD & HAIR: The High & Holy Days of the Source Family

The Source Family might be America's most successful and well-adjusted cult. Headed by Ohioan Jim Baker, an ex-Marine bodybuilder and self-admitted bank robber from who came to Hollywood for a casting call for Tarzan movies, they were an early-70's social experiment in psychedelic West Coast Utopianism that remarkably did not end in mass suicide.

Baker, who reinvented himself as the white-robed, white-bearded "Father Yod," and his 100-plus followers (whom he all rechristened with the surname "Aquarian") pioneered our current holistic/New Age industry with then-illegal pursuits as natural birth, natural death and home-schooling. They lived communally—at one point in the former Los Feliz manse of Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler—meditating, exercising, smoking marijuana, playing tribal music, and practicing lots of tantric sex. Their most famous creation, however, was The Source, one of L.A.'s first vegetarian eateries. The celebrity-haunted restaurant at Sunset and Sweetzer became the setting Woody Allen chose for the pivotal "alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast" scene in Annie Hall.

Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille tell this uncommonly strange tale in The Source Family, a beatifying but sober-eyed documentary released this week on DVD from Drag City (with an attendant soundtrack of Source Family's original music). Baker died in a hang-gliding accident in Hawaii in 1975, but not before he had cemented L.A.’s reputation for psychedelic West Coast utopianism. The Beast recently sat down to interview both filmmakers on this fascinating and largely forgotten chapter from the cultural and spiritual landscape of Vietnam-era Los Angeles.

THE BEAST: Why a film about the Source Family -- and why now?
JODI WILLE: When I did the book, I was spending a lot of time interviewing [Source Family archivist] Isis Aquarian and a bunch of the other former members. I remember every single day my jaw would drop multiple times at some of the revelations of what the family was doing and what was really going on behind closed doors. Before that, I was really into cult psychology but for twenty years I never heard of the Source Family. I discovered them from that box set [God & Hair] that came out in 1999 and I was really into the music they made. The more I found out about them the more astounded I was. What stood out to me was that I was very humbled by the sincerity and depth of the family members in what they were truly going for. I learned that the experience of the participants was very different from what we've heard from the quote-on-quote cult experts all these years. For a lot of these people, the higher elements of the experience stayed with them for years and years afterwards and inspired and invigorated them. For them, it was more like being in a cultural incubator. I was greatly inspired by the actions they took to build a better world and know themselves on a deeper level. They were trying to find a better, healthier way to live, and they also had a lot of style while they did it. They were very creative and inventive and they took action to live a more interesting life more directly and intensely and doing it from this very idealistic standpoint.

How is this a quintessentially Los Angeles story?
MARIA DEMOPOULOS: When most people think of Los Angeles they think "shallow" or "spiritually bankrupt" or something dark and nourish out of a James Ellroy novel. But when you explore all these untold stories of L.A., you realize it's always been a wild place with all sorts of spiritual exploration that was idealistic and mystical and intuitive...Yes, the Kardashians are what were are to a certain extent, but they are not the essence of what I see when I see the Los Angeles underneath all of that other crap. The Source Family was much in this tradition. From the outside they looked like this wild, deeply bizarre and decadent brand of hedonists, but in reality they were engaging in a lot of healthy and productive behavior...They were a very disciplined group of white magicians and esotericists. They had more in common with the Oneidas or the Shakers than the Manson family.

JW: Not only that, they gave so much to the community of Los Angeles. In the early 1970s we had some of the greatest culture on the planet being produced here: great films, great music, great art and literature, and many of the people responsible for it hung out at the Source Family restaurant -- I mean, Frank Zappa and Joni Mitchell and all of those Laurel Canyon musicians who lived close by and came into the restaurant all the time. To me, the Source Family represents a time in Los Angeles when the city was at its very coolest. Not since the 1910s and the 1920s had spiritualism and esotericism been so prevalent in this city, I think.

Despite the success of their restaurant, Baker and the family had a complicated relationship with the local press. They were viewed as weird outsiders, and there seemed to be a level of harassment and mistrust that got worse when the Family relocated to San Francisco and Hilo.
MD: Yeah, the press reflected the outside perception of the Family. The neighbors were giving them a hard time because of the Manson murders -- I mean, they mean they lived within a couple miles of the LaBianca house! They'd get a lot of harassment from Child Services and the Health Department because in the beginning there were 140 people living in a two-bedroom house. The press just jumped on that story and it became much more sensationalistic as well. This also happened when they moved to Hawaii in 1974, which was a really hard time for them partly because they were non-natives. The locals in Hilo gave them a hard time and the local press just had a field day with them at that point.

JW: Everybody had different ideas about the Source Family. For the film we talked to many people who came into the restaurant and said they got nothing but an exciting experience; others said they were creeped out by Jim Baker, especially by how he wouldn't let any of the male customers talk to the female employees...Some really thought Baker was kind of a dark guy. I mean, it wasn't like Father Yod wasn't a strange and complicated and flawed character; there was plenty of inappropriate stuff going on and mistakes that were made that some people are still healing from today. It was a high-risk venture. Yod never pretended to be a saint; he was more like a wizard. And famous people liked going to the restaurant because the Source family members were indifferent to fame; Baker would hang out with people like Warren Beatty or Don Johnson, but they would never kowtow to their celebrity clientele. They didn't really care. They were sort of beautifully isolated in their own world and they thought what they were doing was more important.

Yet it seemed like Baker/Yod was kind of a realist in a way. He was always reminding his followers that the real world -- what he called the "earth trip" -- was still out there and couldn't, or shouldn't be avoided. Yet, why did his vision turn so dark at the end?
JW: It was a time when a lot of people were engaging in apocalyptic thinking. There was Manson, there was Altamont, Vietnam, Watergate, the ecological crisis, Watergate, assassinations. The entire counterculture was beginning to realize that their big dreams were not panning out. It seems like a lot these spiritual leaders who were tapping into this ethos were getting apocalyptic visions; you get that combined with the press and the city coming down on you, and it's sort of easy for those ideas to build into a dangerous brew. But the thing about Jim Baker was that even when they came close to a very scary situation like the one they encountered in Hawaii, he didn't lead his followers into destruction. He never wanted his family members to come to harm. Compare that to someone like Jim Jones, who was such an egomaniac and a narcissist who wanted to take everyone down with him. Father Yod was not like that. He really did care about the family until the very end.

Baker was a weird kind of capitalist. He was a spiritual free love-and-drugs guru, but he also ran successful business enterprises because he kept an eye towards the bottom line. He even said, "I love America but I love the dollar as well." Some might see that as a bit contradictory.
JW: He was never greedy, and that's what separated him from a lot of business-minded capitalists. He called money "green energy" and he was able to incorporate the idea of making a lot of money into his cosmology. He used to say "money is an energy like anything else" and if you used it consciously it could be a path towards transformation; if you misused it, it could enslave you, like magic or sex or drugs.

MD: He was very good at making money for a long time. I think the biggest he mistake made was to sell the Source restaurant. He never recovered from that. Then he flew 140 people over to Hawaii, bought a plane and a boat....They simply ran out of money. They had a business plan and the plan didn't work.

In their heyday, they had some bling, like a fleet of Rolls Royces and nice clothes. Yet they were able to keep that consumerist bent in check.
JW: Yeah. He knew that if you had money in Hollywood you had power, and he knew that would buy them a lot of freedom to be who they wanted to be. But he never coveted money or success. He didn't care about any of that stuff. Same with their band; they made something like 65 albums but their music was coming from a different place than "making it." They weren't commercially driven in any way. The money was a by-product of his having a very unique and strong vision and not something that was copied from what already existed. In that, Jim Baker was really a pioneer and his "casual healthy" restaurants were very influential within the California landscape. We see it all over the world nowadays.

What's your view of the attitudes towards the role of women in the Family?
MD: It's complex and paradoxical. On the one hand, the women chose the men and yet the men had multiple partners and the women had multiple partners. The women would stay home and take care of most of the domestic duties, so they were a little bit more traditional in that respect, yet in some ways the women had more power. It wasn't necessarily something that I personally agree with, but that was just the way it was.

JW: Maria's right. Father Yod always taught the family that everyone is born through a woman and he taught the members to honor what he called "the sacred feminine." When you talk to family members it really just depends on who they were as individuals and how they processed it. Overall, what we gathered from the women was that from the outside it looked like they were being somewhat subservient to the men -- serving them coffee in the morning, brushing their hair, giving them massages at the end of the day -- but what Father Yod was teaching them was that women were subconscious beings, they have to be totally free, they get to stay home during the day and do whatever they want, and pursue their intuitive interests. He always said that the nature of man was to be creative but it's the nature of woman to create on the astral and spiritual realms. He was really going back to this ancient matriarchal ideal when women led the tribes. He experimented with different kinds of councils -- sometimes all men, sometimes all women -- before finally forming a council of twelve women that pretty much ran the family. So it became this matriarchal family with a sort of passive patriarch at the middle of it all. The women we talked to, including those who were under eighteen at the time, claimed that being in the family was very empowering for them or that they recognized their true value as women. So it was a very complex situation and it went both ways.

MD: What I found interesting was that there was a lot of infighting between the women and internal strife between the council and other members of the group, so to have this powerful leader with this buffer zone of women around him kind of made things a bit more difficult. It's not like that having women run things was the ultimate solution for the family; some we interviewed thought that was the beginning of the end. Father Yod was not into power trips. He would engage his family in things that were whimsical and experimental that from an outsider's perspective might have seemed to be a bit manipulative, but I see him as more of a Peter Pan-type figure who was always attempting to change things up.

Do you think if you had been in L.A. back then and encountered the family at its apex that you would be drawn to it -- maybe even have joined it?
JW: For me, I totally drank the Kool-Aid when I met these people. [laughter] I think about what I was doing in my 20s, the same age that a lot of these people were, I was making a lot of money directing music videos and taking photos of very famous rock musicians and was living what a lot of people might consider a privileged life, but when I look back on that now, I can't help but admire what the Source Family was doing and I can't help thinking that my existence in L.A. was a little bit shallow. I think they were very fortunate to be living in a time and a place when they could explore the outer limits of who they were as individuals. I think I would have been very compelled by them and would have jumped right in!

MD: For me, it's incredibly seductive. Here was a fascinating and eclectic group of hand-picked members; as Magus, one of our subjects, said: "It was the most interesting game in town." I think anyone with a innate sense of curiosity would be drawn to it, but for me I think it would have been a hedonistic vacation for me. I would have dropped in, dabbled a bit and then pulled out because there were aspects of it that I just could not get down with in my heart and soul.

Such as?
MD: Well, I'm really close with my family so I'm would not disown my family or completely separate from them. I have too much of a feminist streak in me to completely give myself over to this person or that group. Even though I would have immersed myself in it for a time, I'm just one of those people who doesn't like to be told what to do. I think I'd be more like Magus in that he was interested in the sociological aspects of it, but I think it might get pretty old to me after awhile.

Was this a social experiment that succeeded or failed?
JW: People say that a lot of these communes from the sixties and seventies failed because they didn't last. But even if it doesn't last, it changes you forever. The people we interviewed were permanently altered by the experience and they think -- and I think -- for the better. They have a much broader things of the possibilities of different ways to live and their place in the universe and I know they feel that they are richer people for it.

MD: Yeah, I'd agree that evaluating the success of these groups by the length of time they existed is a total fallacy. Life is not permanent and things are constantly changing. All that matters is that they got something out of it at that moment. It doesn't matter that it didn't sustain itself, and at least they were able to carry that into their lives now. For a lot of the family members it was the most remarkable experiences of their lives and unlike anything they've ever encountered before or since. That's really all that matters.

What lessons -- if any -- did take away from the story of the Source Family?
JW: Oh, where to start! [laughter] The most important lesson for me personally is that any experience that you get to participate in in your lifetime, anything that happens to you in your life, you can see it as good or bad, something that empowers you or something that victimizes you. It's really up to you and how you process it and what meaning you want to glean from it. There are people in the Source family who stayed until the very bitter end, when things got really bad, and after interviewing 44 family members, they all had extremely different takes on what happened to them and what it meant to them. For me, the message from the film I hope people take away from it is that life is simply what you make it, and it can be many different things. but it's really what about you do with what your given.

MD: I would strongly agree with that. Another lesson is to just live life on your own terms. Life is short, and what they did was bold and public and controversial, and they just did it. It was are pure and sustained creative expression and living in the present moment and going on this wild rollercoaster ride and living life to the fullest extent possible and doing it the way they wanted to do it. Again, there's something very admirable about that.

JW: Another important message I got out of doing the book and the film was that the relationship between teacher and student can be a very enriching one for both, but at some point the student has to become their own master. There's a line in the film about realizing that a relationship like that is a vital one, but should only be temporary.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"RICHIE": The Forgotten Richard Pryor

There's some tantalizingly brief moments in the new documentary Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic where a very young and clean-cut comedian in a crisp suit and tie, hair conked into a shiny pompadour, emerges to a TV studio audience from behind a cheesy curtain and does a hilarious impression of a guy standing uncomfortably at the edge of a party, trying to fit in and failing miserably. One immediately thinks of Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan's Butabi Brothers some 30 years later. Later there's a shot from the same era of the young comedian holding onto another guest's hand and spasming as if being electrocuted. It's a remarkably kinetic performance and one cannot watch it without thinking of Steve Martin or Jim Carrey.

For a man later known for his ferocious verbal skills, it is easy to forget what a gifted physical comedian Richard Pryor was, not just during the unfairly ignored part of his career when he was still in the crossover thrall of Bill Cosby, but later during his brief but fascinating foray into network TV, his early successes onscreen with his melanin-challenged doppelganger Gene Wilder, even his string of embarrassing films in the late 1980s. This is why he returned three times to the medium of the concert film, because it was one thing to listen to Richard Pryor on a turntable -- as many did in clouds of weedsmoke in basements during the Nixon Years -- but it was quite another to watch him: the friezes, the eye-popping but honest fear (despite his "street pimp" swagger, he was a maestro of vulnerability), the slit-eyed, nervous laughing mixed with dangerous anger, the strutting, even Mudbone's subtle facial expressions and trademark lip-smacking was just as vital as the words that came out of his filthy, brilliant mouth.

No Pryor Restraint: Life in Concert, released today on SHOUT! Factory, utilizes the now-ubiquitous CD/DVD format to place both the verbal Pryor and the physical Pryor in close proximity, combining his LP triumphs like That Nigger's Crazy! and Bicentennial Nigger (which now sound like prototypical rap album titles) alongside flawless concert films like Live in Concert and Live on the Sunset Strip. Splayed out across nine discs and twenty-four years (including two hours of unreleased material), the collection is more akin to a visual and aural biopic where one get to experience a man's private life develop in his creative work. And yet, as this collection attests, there is still much we forgot about Richard Pryor.

Even during his Cosby-aping clean-cut collegiate years he could not help but be honest about his Dickens-by-way-of-Iceberg Slim childhood, like when he admits his grandmother, a truly fearsome character with size twelve feet who ran a whorehouse and secreted a straight razor, "made us get undressed before she whipped us. She was weird." He had to learn to work a room; in fact, some of the most fascinating parts of the early years are when Pryor isn't exactly killing but struggling through the stonecutting silencio of half-empty clubs (in one track, there's nearly 20 seconds of unbearable silence where you can almost hear his flop sweat). He didn't just try to be Cosby but Jonathan Winters, taking improv suggestions from the audience that didn't quite gel. (Like Winters, these were often tethered to the times: Pryor does a lisping Batman and a rather racist Asian imitation.) He couldn't suppress relating the hidden world of Black Americana he came from the mainstream one he was entertaining ("Hugh Hefner? In my neighborhood, they call him a pimp!") and he was already perfecting his pinched, nasal, constipated "whitey" voice ("I see you're getting your refreshments there -- wonderful") that would become much imitated by everyone from Eddie Murphy and Robert Townshend to Dave Chappelle and Patrice O'Neal and the entire Wayans clan.

Most of all, he was unable (later, unwilling) to contain his raw and wounded emotions over sex and race: "You have nothing to fear from the black man -- except thoughts," he says with sinister calm just after telling a woman in the audience: "Funny, you don't look like a whore." This was a man working up to a nervous breakthrough. He eventually had it, live on stage at the Aladdin in Las Vegas in 1967, when he told the crowd of rich white swells "What the fuck am I doing here?" Pryor later told a friend he spotted Dean Martin sitting in the audience: "I saw myself through his eyes looking like a damn fool." He saw his future -- and it was Sammy Davis, Jr.

He dropped the mike and left the stage. And never looked back. The subsequent transitional period where "Richie" was on the path to becoming "Richard" covered by Life in Concert shows Pryor edging out onto the edge; by this time he was writing punch-up lines for Redd Foxx, befriending Huey Newton and hanging out with other black comics (including his future right-hand Paul Mooney). He begins to question the white power structure in all its forms, calling black cops "Uncle Remuses" and verbalizes his hatred of black judges ("I hope you turn white!"). There's much here from his second LP 'Craps' (1971), a sort of underground "filthy party" record that shows his debt to Redd Foxx (Pryor recorded it at Foxx's club in Hollywood) but also shows Pryor inhabiting the characters of the brothel he grew up in, from garrulous carpenter Mr. Perkins (an early version of Mudbone) and Black Irma the reluctant prostitute ("Kiss my ass! I ain't givin' up nothin'!") to The Weasel, a hustler who sells whole pianos out of the trunk of his car, and Coldblood, a pimp who constantly brags about how much his suits cost. The sting in his material is more pronounced, like when he shocks crowds by imitating the white farmers who used to frequent his grandmother's whorehouse asking for 13-year-old black girls ("It's rough, but that's the reality"), recalling nasty fights with his wife ("She hurt my ego, I punch her out."), having an orgasm while a woman asks him to marry her ("Yeah Yeah! Yeah!"), getting beaten by his grandmother while he's horny ("Can I jack off first?"), black men being confronted by white police ("I am reaching in my pocket for my license, okayyyyy?'"), town drunks who try to direct traffic on Sunday mornings ("This is a neighborhood, not a residential district!") before claiming they knew Jesus personally ("I tried to warn 'im: 'Boy, don't you go down there fuckin' with those Jews without no money!'").

By 1974, the year he hit it B-I-G, Pryor was beginning to do his trademark extended bits that spun off into something Gothic and wonderful. There are of course the classics: Mudbone ("I looked at this titty lookin' at me, and I swear to God it winked at me!"); the wounded 10-minute riff on LAPD violence in the film Wattstax ("How do you accidentally shoot a nigger six times in the chest?"); his first heart attack; Supernigger ("Equipped with x-ray vision that can see through everything except whitey!"); drunkenly shooting his own car on New Year's Eve; his years of freebasing; setting himself on fire; his life-changing trip to Africa; a wino dealing with Dracula ("What kind of name is that? Why don't you get your teeth fixed?"). But there's also routines that still shock to this day with their ruthless audacity, like his imagining of Nixon getting raped in prison ("What's happening, Tricky Dick? Ha ha ha, yeeaaah! I'm gonna see how 'Tricky' you really are!") or opining that, in the eyes of the U.S. government, Patty Hearst's real crime was to sleep with black revolutionaries.

Pryor's big mouth was a place where comedy and horror and absurdity and unexpected pathos slammed into one another in one sentence. Audiences laughed equally out of surprise as well as mirth. The black members saw one of their own under a spotlight actually laying out what they already knew so well. The whites encountered a "secret" world that was scrappier, scarier and more resilient than they could have possibly imagined, one with its own codes and archetypes that existed independently of their knowledge or approbation. This was the House that Relentless Institutional Racism produced. That was his real innovation.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

June Broom

Sweeping up this month's regional musical debris into our aural dustpan...

...okay, we're not big on analogies today:

June 6 Josh Nelson Trio w/ Anthony Wilson @ Vitello's....June 6-9 Ojai Music Festival @ The Libbey Bowl....June 7 The Kandinsky Effect @ The Blue Whale....June 7-8 Azar Lawrence Quintet @ The RG Club....June 7-8 Harry Partch: Eroica Dances @ REDCAT....June 8 Jeff Richman Group @ Alva's Showroom....June 9 DEVO w/ GZA/The Genius @ Natural History Museum....June 11 Jacques Lesure Quartet @ The Blue Whale....June 12 Vinny Golia Sextet & Bad Luck @ Grand Star Jazz....June 12 Julian Coryell @ Vitello's....June 13-14 Anthony Wilson's The Curators @ The Blue Whale....June 14 Billy Childs Quartet @ LACMA....June 14-15 Azar Lawrence Quintet @ The RG Club....June 14-15 Brian Auger's Oblivion Express @ Baked Potato....June 15 Robert DeLong @ The Getty....June 15 Robert Glasper Experiment @ Playboy Jazz Festival....June 15 Charged Particles @ Alva's Showroom....June 15 Bennie Maupin Group @ The Blue Whale....June 15 Stones Throw Documentary Premiere Party @ ExchangeLA....June 15 MicroFest Presents: Aron Kallay: I (Tune) NY @ Villa Aurora....June 16 Tom Ranier Group @ Vibrato....June 16 The Jazz Leaders @ Levitt Pavilion....June 17 Barry Zweig Trio w/ Katie Thiroux & Matt Witek @ Vitello's....June 20 Todd Sickafoose + Tiny Resistors @ The Blue Whale....June 21 Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti @ First Unitarian Church....June 22 OHM @ The Baked Potato....June 23 A Night in Bronzeville with Miguel Atwood Ferguson Ensemble @ The Blue Whale....June 23 Corey Marc Fogel, Rick Potts & Michael-Pierre Vlatkovich @ Sherman Oaks Guitar Center....June 24 Complete Communion: A Musical Tribute to Don Cherry w/ David Ornette Cherry & Organic Roots @ ALOUD Festival....June 24-25 Gerald Clayton w/ Ambrose Akinmusire @ The Blue Whale....June 26 Tom McNalley Trio & Cardoo @ Grand Star Jazz....June 27 Death at Amoeba Music....June 27 Colin Stetson @ Bootleg Theater....June 27 Steuart Liebig & Joe Berardi @ Battery Books & Music....June 28 Michael White Quintet @ Grand Performances....June 28-30 Kenny Burrell Quintet @ Catalina's....June 29 Death @ the Silent Movie Theatre....June 29 The Roots @ Club Nokia....June 30 Yuko Mabuchi @ Levitt Pavilion....June 30 John Tejada @ California Plaza....June 30 Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Band @ Amoeba Music

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

La Storia Completa E Totale Di Musica (Pt. 4)

Medici House Band
The Beast has an ongoing series we haven't done for awhile called The Complete & Utter History of Music on YouTube, which was meant to educate ourselves as well as entertain y'all. We just returned from a Spring hiatus to Italy and would like to add on a post on the places we visited that fit into the overall narrative. Especially since we found ourselves in two cities known for their museums tracing the origins of our modern instruments: Bologna, called Italy's "city of Music" and Florence, where the piano was invented. Score!

Bologna is dominated by the local university and like Austin, TX or Chapel Hill, NC (or even Xalapa, Mexico) still has a vibrant music scene. Only Bologna's music scene goes back about, oh, a couple thousand years. Always a bit of an artsy, proudly Leftie city -- we arrived in the midst of the annual May Day Festival in the main Piazza Magiorre, where a band was rolling through an Italian version of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" before an enormous banner proclaiming Lavoro, Sviluppo, Legalità ("Work, Development, Legality") and a lot of young white hipsters bearing wraparound Italian sciarpas and t-shirts proclaiming "Basta!" ("Enough!" -- some sort of local anarchist cry). They were the inheritors of a city who had seen many great musicians -- Ottorino Resppighi, Gioacchino Rossini (who debuted at age 13 in 1805 at the city's Teatro del Cortso), Gaetano Donizetti, Padre Giovanni Battista Martini and even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart -- who have either lived, studied or performed in Bologna. The Academica Filarmonica, founded in 1666, included Rossini, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Liszt and Brahms as members.

"...alla ricerca del fantasma di Tom Joad"

We caught a snootful of Northern Italian Hip-Hop at Arteria, a small club right by the University with a dizzyingly quick lineup of bands like BoomBap Haze, Ribbores, E-Green and Brain. (Note: Italian hip-hoppers don't say "yo-yo-yo" but "ya-ya-ya" and it's not at all annoying; they also give shout outs to their own band names at least every other line, almost double that of American rappers). We stood sipping on a Bierra Moretti and watched this cavalcade from a giant cloud of marijuana smoke in the basement of some ancient crumbling dance club. Just two blocks away on Strada Maggiore was the International Music Museum and Library, where the Beast and Mrs. Beast had paid a visit to just a few hours before. The place contains about six centuries of well-preserved musical history in the stunningly restored 18th-century Palazzo Sanguinetti; the entrance is through a grand-domed staircase where hundreds of tiny stars hang from thin wires and give the impression they are floating in midair:

Of course, this was only prelude to the goodies inside. There;s the Harmonice musices odhecaton A, the first musical instruction book printed with movable type by Ottaviano Petrucci in 1501, an anthology of French-Italian chansons that made printed music available to the masses, where previously it had been the province of vanity luxury items of the very rich. (Essentially, the Rosetta stone to all those Mel Bay books we grew up with.) There's Rossini's autographed original score to Il Barbierie di Siviglia. There's the entrance examination from to the Accademia Filarmonica by a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that he, under the aegis of his mentor Padre Giovanni Battista Martini, submitted on October 9, 1770; apparently, the young prodigy failed to understand musical counterpoint and Martini, who just happened to be one of counterpoints pioneering theorists, had to pencil-whip it into shape to his student could pass. (A few months later, the 14-year-old Mozart, who had already dropped out of the Accademica, debuted his opera Mitridate in Milan.)

But the best part was its collection of musical instruments, including an amazing pair of chromatic double-harps [pictured above] -- one carved in maple; the other sculpted from pine into the figure of a female -- that were the antecedent to the piano. There was a diverse assortment of five-piped flutes (Armonia di flauti), the sordellina, which is a set of bellows with numerous boxwood pipes that resemble lobster claws, and stringed instruments like the Archlute, a pineapple-shaped soundbox with an impossibly long neck and a wonderfully complex interweb of single and double strings. There were such truly rare and esoteric inclusions as the Heckelphone (sort of a giant oboe), an omnitonum (monochord) harpsichord created in 1606 by Vita Trasuntino, a series of pochettes (small violins used by dancers), and of course, that Sting/Arcade Fire-revived/Donovan name-checked hipster instrument the coppia di ghironde ("hurdy-gurdy"), popular with court dancers and street beggars alike in the 16th and 17th centuries that looks like a large pepper grinder and makes music much the same way, by rotating a rosined wheel inside a hollow wooden box.

We continued our musical-instrument tourism in Florence at the Galleria dell'Accademia, which holds a mouth-watering array of swag from the powerful Medici and Lorraine clans. Much of the collection comes from Grand Prince Ferdinando de' Medici (1663-1713), who was more of a music and arts lover than his politically charged family. Among the treasures was the salterio, a sort of flat box engineered from different types of marble that contains twenty strings to be plucked or strummed (the antecedent to the hammer dulcimer and the autoharp); a spinette ovale, built in 1690 by master Florencian craftsman Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1732) out of rosewood and cypress, a rectangular case with Gothic-arch sides containing symmetrical strings with a small ivory keyboard (the antecedent, we surmise, to the Casio portable keyboard); a pianoforte vertical [pictured above] that was basically a grand piano with the entire case folded straight up in the air in a spectacular "giraffe" shape; a serpentone, which is a bass horn constructed out of leather and chestnut wood in the form of a long snake; a corno di bassetto that looked like a clarinet with hinges; the tromba marina, which is sort of like a piece of clock-shaped furniture with a single bass string (shades of the diddley-bow) that when plucked or bowed apparently sounds like a trumpet (??); a splendid pair of hurdy-gurdies carved out of mahogany and overlaid with mother-of-pearl; and our personal favorite, a strange little character called the chitarra a pianoforte [pictured below] which is like a teardrop-shaped lute with a tiny little five-key chromatic keyboard mounted right above the bridge; apparently, this was constructed by a London guitar maker who was asked to create an instrument "suitable of girls of good families" that would safeguard their soft fingertips.

Oh, and there were also a bunch of churches, museums and ancient ruins and stuff.