Is Sean Hannity the new shadow president?

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Sean Hannity talks and Trump listens hard, it seems. Courtesy imgflip.com

CULTURE CURRENTS MEDIA WATCH Celestron 25x100 SkyMaster, Weather Resistant Porro Prism Binocular with 3.0 Degree Angle of View, U.S.A. - 71017

April, 18, 2018

Regarding the new controversy in TV-besotted Trumpworld: Fox talk show host Sean Hannity’s evidently increasing closeness and influence over Donald Trump and his “thinking,” ie. his tweets and even policy behaviors.

“It’s impossible to overstate how much influence Sean Hannity has on Trump and the White House,” says a pundit on a show Wednesday afternoon, hosted by Nicolle Wallace, a Republican talk show host on MSNBC.*

“But it’s innocuous, because it’s so transparent, “ says Donny Deutsch, an advertising executive and former talk TV host, who’s a curious sort of pundit on serious politics. He seems to take a quasi-aesthetic/ political gamesmanship angle, the kind who manipulates mirrors to see things, then “re-focuses” to his curiously skewed viewpoint. He’s the sort of “liberalesque” guy who might be liked by Trump (See Deutsch’s controversies below 1)

“Here’s where it’s dangerous,” Wallace quickly countered. “Fox isn’t state-run media; the state is run by Fox…It’s dangerous, Hannity has accused of Bob Mueller launching a war on Trump.”

Wallace has become one of MSNBC’s most watchable and compelling hosts, even though she’s a bit buried in the middle of the daily afternoon slot. I’m fortunate that I work largely at home, and can catch her from time to time. And she’s worth political reflection for not being an obvious liberal, like most MSNBC hosts. I admit I seem to be a clear liberal now, having been pushed further left in recent decades by Republican corruption, inhumane destructiveness, and now a sort of presidential insanity and the pervasive spinelessness of Republican Congress members.

(Similarly another Republican commentator frequently on MSNBC, former George W. Bush strategist Steve Schmidt is, for my money, among the most lacerating, illuminating, and eloquent critics of Trump. He’s a paragon of a true Republican patriot, and could be a strong (R) presidential candidate, if he were so inclined. 2)

Back to the exchange on the Wallace show: Deutsch’s waffling-banalities-disguised-as-bright-ideas continues: “A poll says half of Republicans say that Fox News is the most reliable source of information…I think Fox viewers accept whatever Trump has to deliver. He’s a master communicator.”

To me, “master communicator” is an utterly grandiose way of putting it (or driving it when he should be putting it, to use a golf analogy Trump might understand).

A “master communicator” cannot persistently be a “you know what I mean” president, as Wallace again pithily nailed Trump as, versus one who can actually study, understand and articulate a viable, humane, democratic, and coherent policy. We’re increasingly frightened by Trump’s dangerous, by-seat-of-his-pants “foreign policy.” What’s left of my hair turns whiter daily.

To me, Trump is not “such an idiot” as a friend of mine recently said, in understandable exasperation. More precisely, Trump is an idiot savant, of sorts. And it’s quite clear by now that is “genius” is his ability to manipulate both his 30% voter lemmings, the base group called “The Base” – and, sadly, the daily news cycle, with his irrepressible and typically semi-articulate Twitter bleats. So yes, there’s also some strange breed of fox in this orange-haired Fox suckler.

Another dangerous aspect of the Hannity-Trump “symbiotic” relationship (as these pundits agreed on) is that not only is Hannity the “unofficial Chief of Staff’ as White House insiders now call him. With John Kelley seriously on the outs (and Trump following the advice of no official staffer, except maybe his newbie toy nuclear gun John Bolton), Hannity might be morphing into the type of presidential whisperer that Dick Cheney was: in effect, the shadow president when George W. Bush was nominally president.

Bush implicitly admitted this, by having to repeatedly assert his independence from Cheney by calling himself “The Decider. “ The problem, and danger and tragedy (see: The Iraq War, and the unleashing of Middle East chaos, which continues exacerbated today) was that W.’s decisions stood on the hyper-macho mountains of bullshit built – and fed to him – by Cheney, and the nuclear tomahawk who is now Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton.

Lord (if you’re paying attention anywhere), have mercy on us!

I don’t watch Hannity enough to give him a pointed or pithy labeI, or characterization.  I’ll leave that up to others. Thoughts?

Respond on Facebook, preferably, or on the comments section here.

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*I apologize, I turned away from the TV to begin typing notes for this post, so I missed the name of this quoted commenter. If any reader can identify him, please do!

  1. In 2014, Deutsch was ordered to pay a real estate broker a four percent commission for the 2010 sale of his $30 million home in the Hamptonsarea of New York. He was ordered by the New York Supreme Court to pay $1.2 million to Sotheby’s for his breach of contract with broker Edward Petrie.[19][20]
  2. Schmidt’s comments often provide striking historical perspectives, like his acidic but imaginative tweet posted Wednesday: “Understanding what Trump did to (UN Ambassador Nikki) Haley requires a leap of imagination to the surreal where after Adlai Stevenson delivers his brilliant exposition of Soviet lies, Bobby Kennedy calls the Kremlin and says don’t worry about it, we don’t mean it, and then JFK takes Zorins’ side.” (Valerian Alexandrovich Zorin was a Soviet diplomat best remembered for his famous confrontation with Adlai Stevenson on 25 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

The late Cecil Taylor reconsidered and revisited: An interview from 1986

Almost exactly two months before my June 11, 1986 interview with pianist Cecil Taylor, he’d been in Berlin performing solo, and recorded for what became his next album, For Olim, on the Italian Soul Note label. The concert was for the “Workshop Freie Music 1986,” a festival of improvised music. I just now realized that time frame, and consider how that might illuminate our remarkable interview. I’m taking care to think of temporal matters, as I don’t laugh off non-scientific things like numerology.

And now that Cecil has died, which changes many things, some small details grow in magnitude. As I mentioned in my previously posted Taylor appreciation, he was born in March 25, 1929 in Long Island. My father, who had a similar interpersonal warmth, was born less than 4 months later, July 20, 1929, on the opposite American coast, in Seattle. Norm Lynch first spurred my interest in music with his love of jazz and classical music, and his favorite jazz artist was composer/arranger bandleader Stan Kenton, whom classically-trained Taylor also held in high regard.

I certainly felt a connection to Taylor when I met and interviewed him that summer. And I was stunned when, after the interview, our mutual friend Ken Miller persuaded him to fly to Milwaukee to merely visit, a place he may never have been to, though he did teach at the UW-Madison for several years in the early 1970s. Perhaps Cecil was coming out of the grief and mourning of having lost the musician closest to him, longtime Unit member and saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, who died in May 1986, the month right between his For Olim concert and our June interview (The For Olim album is dedicated “To the living Spirit of Jimmy Lyons”).

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Which brings me to say that, though I have nothing but fond memories of him, I don’t want to paint Taylor with a hint of a Pollyanna patina. That first teaching gig of his in UW Madison’s music department revealed how Taylor could be a difficult person. 

I know not much of that period of his life, aside from my very first Taylor concert experience – seeing him perform solo at UW-Madison’s Mills Concert Hall. I was in the third row, and I could almost feel his leaping, cougar-like muscles, his flying sweat. This was an astonishing revelation of the potential of live music performance, something that could easily encompass, music, dance and athletic feats, like playing a full game of competitive basketball (I easily imagine the small, wiry Taylor as an Allen Iverson-style point guard; he typically wore athletic garb for his performances). He played this concert without his nearly ever-present glasses, so his extraordinary physical dynamism and intensity led to an almost comical circumstance.  1, 2 His black knit cap repeatedly slipped down over his eyes and he would play blind for several minutes at a time, before easing the pace and allowing himself to push the cap back out of his eyes.

Once of the mysteries of Cecil Taylor was that he lived to be 89 while being a life-long cigarette smoker. However, the rigorous athletic lifestyle he otherwise kept probably contributed to his longevity. Courtesy jazzbluesnews.space

And the UW is where he met Ken Miller, the dancer with whom Taylor would form a deep, lasting bond, and who became the first person to ever dance with the Cecil Taylor Unit.

However, it’s a matter of history that in this teaching position he controversially flunked two-thirds of his final music class. I think the extraordinarily high standards that he set for himself, he also expected or hoped of others, especially his students. At UW, I suspect he was still learning how to maintain reasonable rubrics of instructional expectations. After all, he did live in The World of Cecil Taylor (as one of his first albums was titled) which was a profound, wide-ranging and sometimes mysterious realm. 

And I know, from first-hand experience as a recent graduate student and teaching assistant, that even today it’s easy for professors – at large universities where research expectations are valued more than teaching – to elide the clarity of set rubrics, in the name of “academic freedom.” But students can be left groping, without proper benchmarks for a good grade.

Madison jazz pianist Jane Reynolds, who did a PhD dissertation on Taylor, says the UW music department stopped allowing Taylor to use their pianos because they thought he was damaging them. “That pushed him over the edge,” Reynolds says. Taylor soon left UW, with Ken Miller, for a teaching position at Antioch College. He later also taught at Glassboro State College in New Jersey.

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I digress: Taylor’s 1987 Milwaukee trip had no prospect of a gig or payment, only socializing, hosted by Ken, a dear old friend. Cecil and Ken came to my home for dinner and attended a reception in Taylor’s honor, the real centerpiece of the visit, filled with many musicians. 

Cecil Taylor greets fans at a reception held for him at the Wisconsin Conservatory of music in Milwaukee in 1987. His long-time friend and collaborator Ken Miller, who organized the event, sits directly to his left. 

Pardon the personal indulgences. But my welter of feelings and thoughts upon his death last week finally focused on the realization that posting that 1986 interview was a very logical extension of the remembrance I wrote. The interview is, among other things, sort of the soul of my relationship with Cecil Taylor, such as it was. I reported and wrote it for Down Beat magazine, but it was held in his front practice room, on the second floor of his three story townhouse, beside his grand practice piano. He would not reveal the brand of that piano, perhaps because he didn’t want potential thieves assessing is value. He had good reason being wary, partly because he knew he was a naturally gregarious person who might easily be hustled. This indeed happened late in his life, when a contractor he thought of as a friend bilked him out of his $500,000 Kyoto Prize, though the man was later exposed and arrested.

When I interviewed him, Cecil talked well into the second of two 90-minute cassette tapes I had with me. I’ve never needed, before or since, more than one 90-minute tape for an interview of an artist. Again, the numbers suggest something about the nature and quality of the conversation. It mainly reflects Taylor’s thoughtful, poetic eloquence, his extraordinary, quicksilver mind which took surprising tangents but usually tied them together in his own distinctive way. I hope the interview as published conveys the best of that talk, although much was edited out. (More commentary and photography below, after the magazine interview) 

The cover of Taylor’s 1987 album “For Olim,” was among his most acclaimed of many solo piano recordings. The triple-exposure photo by Ken Miller aptly characterized Taylor as an embodiment of the title’s meaning. On the back cover is this explanation: ” *Olim – An Aztec hieroglyph meaning movement, motion, earthquake.” Album Photo by Ken Miller, courtesy Soul Note IREC.

 

 

What also presses greatly on my memory and heart now is Ken Miller, a nearly forgotten man who died in his mid-40s of respiratory illness. His death crushed me, as I was by then working in Madison and had lost touch with Ken in the pre-social media era. He was a sweet, gifted and remarkably wise man who, more than any other friend, helped me through my tumultuous first marriage. He helped counsel Taylor through his teaching career and far beyond. He was also a talented cultural facilitator and promoter, photographer and visual artist.

His brilliant photos of Taylor, taken in the pianist’s Milwaukee hotel room, also inspired a promotional campaign for Polygram Special Imports, the company that distributed the Soul Note label of Taylor’s recordings at the time. The promotion included a “Jazz Mount Rushmore” motif built around Miller’s iconic cover photo of Cecil on For Olim. I was among the jazz journalists who received unsolicited a sweatshirt and a large promotional pin. A nifty marketing strategy, however Ken Miller knew nothing of it until I told him of the promotion items using his superbly sculpted portrait (see photo below). He later said he never received any compensation for their artistic liberties with his intellectual property, unlike DownBeat which paid for in their original use of his photographs 

Photo of Polygram Special Imports promotional items by Kevin Lynch

I believe part of the reason Ken Miller died so young was that he was a financially struggling artistic black man who didn’t get the proper medical treatment he needed. I always wanted to talk to Cecil about this, but when I finally phoned him, late in his life, he never called back. I sensed that the subject of Ken it may have ventured into private matters. They were both gay men, but Taylor, born in the Great Depression, survived partly by staying in the closet until the 1980s, when he was outed by a conservative journalist who also played drums and had an ax to grind, because Cecil did not let him play in The Unit.

I suspect Taylor’s strong private side reflected his generation’s struggle with sexual politics, like other great gay jazz men – pianist-composer-aranger Billy Strayhorn, born in 1915, and singer-songwriter/pianist Andy Bey, 10 years Cecil’s junior. Only now, of course, are we addressing important issues like marriage and gender equality, in a nation where we profess that “all men (and women) are created equal.”  I believe that, had they both been born later, Ken and Cecil would’ve become legal partners. Only one of them lived anything close the expectancy of a full life, and Cecil’s was lived uphill most of the way, outperforming white men and virtually everyone, to finally gain, as an old man, honors with financial rewards.

Now, I also recall of my day with Cecil, several cats roaming his home, and a poster on his practice room wall of Chicago multi-instrumentalist and composer Joseph Jarman (best known as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago) looking down on us. The Jarman poster now seems more significant, again for temporal reasons. The Art Ensemble’s artistic motto was “Ancient to the Future.” If any other musician, outside of that ensemble, embodied the motto’s values, it was Cecil Taylor. His vision traced our culture’s past and unfolding future and, we hope, vitality. He studied and understood the genius of ancient non-Western cultures and hovered like, a great American eagle, his wings helping illuminate – by directing sunlight with shadow, back and forward – a long road less-traveled. 

And that has made all the difference – for sure at least, an incalculable difference.

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  1. Among the giants of new thing jazz in the 1960s, Cecil was about the only one who wore glasses, as he was quite nearsighted and a voracious reader and not uncoincidentally perhaps the most overtly intellectual. However, a comparable case could be made for Archie Shepp, who didn’t wear glasses to perform, but was the first black saxophonist to record with Taylor (soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy – a Russian-American Jew who, like Taylor, loved and worked with poetry – played on his recording debut in 1957). Another avant-garde contemporary of Taylor’s of far less renown, who was comparably bespectacled, was trumpeter Bill Dixon. Among the few other bespectacled great musicians of that generation, but hardly an avant-gardist, was pianist Bill Evans. Yet, in a far quieter way, he was a great and influential innovator.
  2. Among the next generation of jazzers, baby boomers, trumpeter Woody Shaw is one of very few who performed with glasses, also clearly a strong prescription. Woody also was a deep, heady musician and – as a younger baby boomer trumpeter and jazz scholar, bespectacled Brian Lynch, has shown in recent years – a musician still underappreciated for his innovations. (This p.s. shouldn’t be misinterpreted as picking on near-sighted musicians, as I myself have a comparable strong prescription.)
  3. I listened again to the very beginning of the recorded Cecil Taylor interview, and had forgotten that the first thing Taylor does, after greeting me and offering me some fruit juice, was sit down and play a typically powerful, repeated, two-handed Cecil Taylor etude figure on the piano — my very own mini-Cecil Taylor bootleg! And he knew I was recording already. Critic Whitney Balliett was so right about his desire to share his music. Why else would he typically played well past when most people would drop over from exhaustion?

 

Jazz singer Steve Marche-Torme forced to cancel tonight’s performance at Jazz Estate

 

CANCELLED SHOW: Tonight, Saturday, April 14, 8 p.m. The Jazz Estate – Jazz singer Steve Marche-Torme (the son of Mel Torme) is a superb vocal stylist in his own right and will make his debut at an intimate Milwaukee club.

MARCHE-TORME HAD TO CANCEL THIS JAZZ ESTATE GIG, DUE TO ICY ROADS IN NORTHERN WISCONSIN, the Estate reports. The management apologized for circumstances “totally beyond our control.”

Marche-Torme has been rescheduled for June 9 at 8 p.m.

For those who purchased tickets, the tickets will be automatically moved to the June 9th event.  Anyone who purchased tickets can get in tonight’s show for 1/2 price, we’ll have a list at the door, The Estate explained. 

Tonight, April 14, the bassist Jim Paolo’s Quartet will fill in, with saxophonist Eric Schoor, pianist Mark Davis, and drummer Dave Bayles.

Jazz Appreciation Month heats up in late April with Eddie Gomez Trio

The great bassist Eddie Gomez, of Bill Evans Trio fame, will be a highlight of Jazz Appreciation Month in Milwaukee, when his trio plays at the Jazz Estate on Thursday, April 26. Courtesy WMKY

  • Thursday, April 26, The Jazz Estate – The great virtuoso bassist Eddie Gomez, renowned as the linchpin of the longest-running Bill Evans Trio, brings a piano trio to Milwaukee, with Stefan Karlsson on piano and Rodrigo Villanueva on drums. The  two-time Grammy winning Gomez has worked with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea,  Gerry Mulligan and numerous others jazz and pop music artists, as well as venturing boldly into classical music realms, a musical range beyond most musicians.

It was an “aha” moment when I pulled the big, dark LP box out of a library clearance sale bin. It was the final “modern jazz” segment of The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. I’d read about it, but had recently been downsized out of a nearly 20-year staff arts reporter job at The Capital Times, and my financial future was uncertain. So this was a small blessing, as the box set cost me a mere three dollars. 

I knew the whole set was as close as any single collection of recorded jazz history could be, partly because the great critic and author Martin Williams headed the jazz and “American Culture Program” at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.. There, in 1973, he compiled and wrote liner notes for The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. 1 His album notes for a subsequent collection, The Smithsonian Collection of Big-Band Jazz, earned Williams a Grammy Award. But many jazz buffs knew him from his books of criticism Where’s the Melody? and especially The Jazz Tradition.

The Smithsonian’s boxed jazz history set (see footnote) may be the most readily available byproduct of the organization’s contribution to the art form, which includes a vast treasures of historical holdings in Washington D.C. at The National Museum of American History, such as the invaluable Duke Ellington collection. This includes Ellington’s sound recordings, original music manuscripts and published sheet music, hand-written notes, correspondence, business records, photographs, scrapbooks, news clippings, concert programs, posters, books and other items.

Since 2001, the Smithsonian Institution has sponsored Jazz Appreciation Month in April. That leads to my real purpose – pointing out how much top-notch live jazz is happening in Milwaukee in the second half of Jazz Appreciation Month. A a sign of the significant progress in gender equality and opportunity in jazz is that two of these bands are led by women. Here’s your thumbnail JAM guide:

  • CANCELLED Tonight, Saturday, April 14, 8 p.m. The Jazz Estate – Jazz singer Steve Marche-Torme (the son of Mel Torme) is a superb vocal stylist in his own right and will make his debut at an intimate Milwaukee club. MARCHE-TORME HAD TO CANCEL THIS GIG, DUE TO ICY ROADS IN NORTHERN WISCONSIN, the Estate reports. The event has been rescheduled for June 9, at at 8 p.m. Tonight the bassist Jim Paolo’s Quartet will fill in, with saxophonist Eric Schoor, pianist Mark Davis, and drummer Dave Bayles. For those who purchased tickets, the tickets will be automatically moved to the June 9th event.  Anyone who purchased tickets can get in tonight’s show for 1/2 price, they’ll have a list at the door.
  • Sunday April 15, 8:30 p.m., The Jazz Estate – Post-bop flutist-composer Jamie Baum leads her New York quintet, a rare chance to hear a flutist leading a band. Baum, a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow, gives her instrument the full range of modern jazz possibility. She’s been nominated by the Jazz Journalists Association for “Flutist of Year“ eight times and placed in DownBeat polls annually since 1998.
  • Thursday April 19, 8 p.m., The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts – Try some left-of-center improv collaboration between Minnesota pianist Matt Blair and jazz/improv-leaning Milwaukee string quartet (which includes a bassist) The Tontine Ensemble.
  • Friday, April 20, 8 p.m. The Jazz Estate – Promoting her brilliant new album Heart Tonic is up-and-coming progressive jazz alto saxophonist and composer Caroline Davis from Chicago. This is heady but accessible music built with Davis’ highly distinctive composing style, and the album’s single cover, of Wayne Shorter’s “Penelope,” suggests the rare strata of her compositional acumen.
 
 Alto saxophonist and composer Caroline Davis will play at The Jazz Estate on April 20. Courtesy carolinedavis.org.
  • Sunday, April 22, Turner Hall – Big-name jazz artists John Scofield and Joe Lovano will lead their quartet Past/Present.  Scofield is among the most celebrated and versatile guitarists in jazz, and Lovano probably jostles with Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter as the music’s preeminent tenor saxophonist. Tenor Saxophonist Joe Lovano and Guitarist John Scofield bring their Past/Present Quartet to Turner Hall on Sunday April 22. Courtesy pabsttheater.org
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1. The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz has been updated and re-released as Jazz: The Smithsonian Collection, a 6-CD,111-track set, pictured here:

Steve Cohen learns more about the profundity of inhumanity and the universality of the blues

Steve Cohen (rear) holds a letter from his uncle, AlMilwaukee blues musician Steve Cohen (left) holds a letter written by his grandfather, an American soldier, to document his witnessing of a Nazi death camp at Buchenwald in 1945. Cohen found the letter in the possessions of his uncle Neil Cohen (right). Courtesy Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

This is The Blues.

This is the blues in the most profound sense of the art form. Its implicit state of mind and spirit is born of the black experience, the black genocide that was slavery. Yet, by extension, this sensibility is shared by all of humanity that is oppressed by forces from within or without. That is the music’s universality.
This is the blues, as expressed in a 12-page handwritten letter that Al Cohen, a Jewish-American Army soldier wrote in 1945 to his mother back home, after he entered and witnessed the carnage and genocide of the Holocaust in the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald.

This is the blues that Steve Cohen understands in the core of his being, partly because that soldier was his uncle. There’s a deep strain of Jewish klezmer music’s mournful penetrating microtonalities in Cohen’s understanding of the music. That lineage and history contributes to what has made him among the greatest blues musicians that Milwaukee has produced since the blues revival of the ’60s.

Some readers of this blog, oriented to American music vernaculars, would specifically know Steve as the central figure of the longtime Chicago-style blues band Leroy Airmaster. But he’s also a blues scholar and, in recent years, has deeply delved into and performed the roots of the blues, that is, country blues from Charley Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson forward, especially as he has become a more accomplished singer and guitarist, along with his virtuoso harmonica playing.

Further, many blog readers and online media consumers don’t read daily newspapers much these days. So you may have missed the feature in a recent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel about Cohen’s uncle. Steve’s familiar face in a photo (above) made sure I saw the story and it’s a good one.

But the core of it, Al Cohen’s remarkable and disturbing historical letter, was glossed in Stingl’s relatively brief column. Steve Cohen had recently discovered the letter among his uncle Neil Cohen’s papers. When his uncle Al Cohen saw the horrors of Buchenwald he wrote the letter to his mother and insisted that she share it as much as possible, so that people would understand the tragic inhumanity of the Nazi Holocaust. The stuff of “never again.”

Al Cohen who a teenage soldier when he rolled into

American soldier Al Cohen, who wrote the letter describing the Nazi death camp in Buchenwald. Courtesy the Cohen family

Apparently Al’s mother was reticent about sharing the letter, which includes graphic, troubling details, and it never saw much readership beyond her.

It’s fortuitous that it has come to light and can be shared now, because anti-Semitism and neo-Naziism, and racially-motivated hate crimes and hate speech, seem to be on the rise, as well as the strange phenomenon of Holocaust denial.

This important letter is a primary historical source, as researchers say, something that provides greater understanding of larger truths that we can build from, for a better society.
That is why Culture Currents believes it is important to share it as well online. After Stingl’s the article, The Journal-Sentinel received a strong clamor from people who wanted the letter published in full. The newspaper belatedly transcribed and posted a copy of the letter online.
But here it is for Culture Currents readers, courtesy of the Journal-Sentinel and Steve Cohen. Here’s page one of Al Cohen actual letter, then the full transcription:

This is one of 12 pages of a letter that soldier Al

The first page of Al Cohen’s 1945 letter to his mother.

Here is the complete transcription of Cohen’s letter describing the Nazis’ Buchenwald death camp:

April 26, 1945

PLEASE PASS THIS LETTER AROUND, MOTHER, LET OTHER PEOPLE SEE IT.

Dear Mother,

I am sorry that I can’t write more often but I’ve been working for a long
time. We have been in Germany for almost a month and I’m glad to say that
what parts of it I have seen are smashed to the earth.

A few days after Buchenwald, the notorious concentration camp, was
liberated, I got an opportunity to visit it. You can never realize what it
was like. Approaching it, I saw people dressed in striped pajamas – like
clothing walking around. They were thin as skeletons, weak and quiet, just
walking around aimlessly. The place was surrounded by barbed wire fences
and overlooked by towers where guards used to stand. The enclosure was
very large and for the main part filled with wooden barracks. Across the
street were S.S. barracks and factories. As I entered, my attention was
attracted to a pillory (?) in which inmates were locked and beaten by SS
men with clubs and a tin whip. There were other things that Nazis had
constructed to torture people in the country too.

The next place I visited was the oven room. Entering the basement, I saw
the room where as many as 80 people at a time were hung by their hands
from pegs high on the wall and beaten to death with big wooden clubs. When
they were dead or almost so, they were taken down and loaded on an
elevator, then hoisted up to the ground floor where they were shoved into
ovens and cremated – dead or alive. There were still partially burned
bodies in the ovens.

Walking outside, my attention was drawn to a huge wagon in an inner square, filled with corpses. They were skinny shrunken bodies with big staring eyes and open mouths. It was so horrible that I was not bothered by it at all – it seemed too unreal. Believe me though, I
have seen with my own eyes what sights I describe. Some of the boys took
pictures of this and I’ll send some home at my first chance.

Every once in a while, some of the inmates would bring in a pushcart full
of bodies from the woods where the S.S. troops had taken them and shot
them. These corpses were dumped on a pile with others which were later
taken away to be buried. They were heaped together like a pile of leaves.

The hospital was a dirty grimy building and it was the smelliest place in
the whole camp. This was probably caused by the dirty bed clothes and the
dead and dying people. It was hard to tell the difference; they both had
purple skin. The main cause of death was malnutrition. There were barracks
after barracks filled with people who were slowly dying from that cause,
whom it was impossible to serve. The inmates were beaten down, broken-spirited people. Til the time when the Nazis had to leave there were 51,000 killed in the camp and there
was a high monument with that number on it in the center of the courtyard,
which had been placed there by the Nazis to commemorate their murderous
achievement.

I spoke to some Polish boys of a group of boys my age. They were placed in
a concentration camp at the age of seventeen and were there for five
years. They told me that the only thing that concerned the Nazis was how
to kill the people fast enough. One of the methods they used at first was
to inject chlorine or a strong acid either into the heart or veins with a
large hypodermic. This killed them instantly but it was not efficient for
large numbers of people so new methods were evolved. They were herded into
a large barracks, 800 at a time, and all the doors and windows sealed off.
SS men stood guard – a week later all the people in the barracks were
dead. The Kommandant’s wife was an ugly woman but it meant 25 lashes for
any men who looked at her. Her hobby was making lamps and knick-knacks of
parts of humans.

The food at the camp was not fit for human beings. It was dirty looking
soup and coarse-grained bread. In one barracks of living-dead men there
was a collection of rotten potato peelings which the prisoners were saving
to supplement their meal. I had brought them K rations and cigarettes from
stuff I had accumulated and they went for those things as if they were the
most wonderful things in the world to eat. The joy of seeing that I had
done some little thing to help them was worth all the discomforts and
disappointments I have found in the Army.

One old man walked up to me and stood there staring at me with a
holy-looking smile of gratitude on his face. He quietly thanked me for the
things they had gotten. I told him “I knew how it was – my name is Cohen.”
He said again, quietly, “When you came in the door I could tell that.” I
never felt prouder.

The Polish boys told me that often the people in the camp were starved
badly. One day there was a wagon load of a hundred corpses standing in the
yard waiting to be taken to the crematorium. When the driver came out to
take his wagon away, there were only 80 bodies remaining in the cart and
there were prisoners standing around eating arms, shanks and other human
parts. This scene was witnessed by these Polish boys – it is not just some
thing they overheard being rumored. For all I know, they may have
participated themselves.

The Nazis used to fill little pails with ashes from the furnaces and sold
them to the relatives of the murdered. Usually they were not even the
ashes of the person they were said to be.

We are deep into Germany now and capturing prisoners quite often. Just
this afternoon at lunch there were captured in front of our mess hall.
Things are more difficult now that there is nothing to worry about. I’m
scared and a scared man is always careful.

Thanks very much for the package.

This letter is long so I’ll close it with lots of love,

Al (Cohen)
__________________

p.s. here’s a link to Al Cohen’s full actual letter, scanned to the Milwaukee Journal Online. https://www.jsonline.com/picture-gallery/news/columnists/jim-stingl/2018/04/06/photos-stingl-family-finds-letter-about-freed-death-camp/33605479/ Click on the small photos sequenced below the main photo of Steve Cohen.

Cecil Taylor (1929-2018), a titantic pianist, poet, dancer, and a social animal

In this YouTube video, Cecil Taylor, at 80, performs solo at the Perugia Jazz Festival in Italy, 2009. The ensuing 1984 video is also well worth experiencing, including his poetry recitation and dancing.

The news pains my heart like a plunged lance with a thousand blue-noted edges. Those are the sorts of notes that Cecil Taylor wielded in any given performance over his incomparable career. My second impulse is to not believe that he has passed at 89.

That’s because, if ever a musician broke through the “mask” that Ahab decried of Moby Dick’s inscrutable forehead –to understand the mysteries on the other side – it was Cecil. His energy and organic realm of soul and structure allowed him to deeply penetrate music and possibility, but also to build a fortress with wings — a weird image, yes, but he was at once of this earth and ever rising and falling, a Prometheus who would never simply acquiesce to physical death.

Writer Howard Mandel reported his passing to the other side, with his concise appreciation, expanded on in the major segment of his book Miles, Ornette, Cecil, an essential study of jazz modernism at its most personal and embracing. Elder pianists as diverse as Erroll Garner and Thelonious Monk were big Cecil Taylor fans. Yet perhaps the great belle lettrist of jazz journalism, Whitney Balliett, said it best, as Mandel quotes him: “…Cecil Taylor wants you to feel what he feels, to move at his speed, to look where he looks, always inward. His music asks more than other music, but it gives more than it asks.”

Keep that desire in mind as you listen to Cecil or watch him on a video. His desire to connect was as overt as the most pandering Kenny Gs of the world. And yet, for the profusions of the dippy saxophonist that might ostensibly connect him to Taylor, they’re worlds apart. If you have the open-mindedness to enter Cecil’s world, you’ll feel it and likely be moved, perhaps in unexpected ways. So it’s unsurprising that  The World of Cecil Taylor was the title of his earliest albums.

On that recording, he came out swinging in his own way, yet he moved deeply in the jazz tradition. Listen to him trading fours with drummer Dennis Charles on “Air,” the first tune on The World of Cecil Taylor – the sharp, swift interplay sounds like Muhammad Ali in his prime, shadow-boxing with himself. As annotator Martin Williams notes of the album’s second interpretation of a jazz standard (preceding “Lazy Afternoon”): “Cecil transforms ‘This Nearly was Mine’ into a blue aria. Richard Rodgers wrote the melody for Pinza to sing, and I find it most moving. In this track, Cecil’s ideas and his playing demonstrate strikingly his ability to sing an interpretation.”  1

Speaking of arias and the “brooding air” of another tune on World, I’m sure Taylor would allow my “air” analogy some breathing room. His whirl-over-the-keyboard approach and attack – for its frequent harmonic density and deep, bluesy eloquence – seemed like he was clearing space for the very evident dancer in him to pax de deux with his huge piano. Another album that emerged from the World sessions was titled simply Air. A solo piano recording in mid-career he titled Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within).

One of Cecil Taylor’s evocative, poetic and apt album titles and covers. Courtesy djstrangeblood.com

The titles are always significant in Cecil’s music, always poetic, evocative and personal. I risk venturing into literary interpretation because Cecil was a poet of the highest order.

Consider a few more album titles simply worth savoring: first, the fulsome single word – indent, Regalia, Conquistador!; Gallia, Melancholy, Trance, Complicite, Remembrance, Garden 1 and Garden 2.

…To the more descriptive: Cell Walk for Celeste; Spring of Two Blue-J’s; Silent Tongues; Dark to Themselves; Unit Structures, New York City R&B , Jumpin’ Punkins; Winged Serpents (Sliding Quadrants); Double Holy House; Leaf, Palm, Hand;  and For Olim (named for an Aztec term for the motion of a volcano).

…To his grandest titular haikus: Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come; Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly!; It is in the Brewing, Luminous; and the brilliant rhythm and momentum of One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye.

To a word person like me, my breath slips away just to contemplate these titles. This was because Cecil was fascinating to talk to and listen to, nearly as much as his piano playing could “lift the bandstand,” as Monk once put it, and carry the listener to breathtaking heights of vertiginous magnificence. You hung on for dear life to this winged titan of piano creativity and blues power, flying in the face of the fiercest winds. 1

To put Cecil Taylor the poet in literary context, I refer you to the superb anthology Moment’s Notice: Jazz in Poetry & Prose, edited by Art Lange and Nathaniel Mackey (Coffee House Press, 1993). It includes only one of Cecil’s poems, “Garden” (for which he titled two aforementioned albums), but the poem covers a long gust of pages. You see in this book how he fits in to the quietly sumptuous realm of jazz and letters, which dwells largely in silent tongues, unless one opens such a book and reads, and aloud.

Yet to speak personally, I had an opportunity to interview Cecil in 1986 in his home in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, an encounter facilitated by our mutual friend Ken Miller, a Milwaukee modern dancer who was the first person to ever dance with the Cecil Taylor Unit, in the early 1970s, when he was a music faculty member at the UW-Madison. 2

My interview is in the November, 1986 issue of Down Beat magazine, and during the conversation Taylor sat on a rug cross-legged in a Buddah-like posture beside his nine-foot grand practice piano. Utterly gracious, he expounded and reflected, thoughtfully, expansively. He shared with me some of his visions of music, culture and life. The article was titled “Cecil Taylor: The Poetics of Living.”

As per his desire to “give more than he asks,” Cecil purposely situated is mighty grand piano in the bay window of his Brooklyn brownstone, so passersby could readily hear him playing and practicing.

Despite his music’s extreme originality – a fusion of 20th century “classical” music and technique with aspects of African music and jazz from Waller and Ellington onward, and Taylor’s rigorous practicing regimes –  he was the opposite of an ivory-tower dweller. He was a very social being.

The day I interviewed him, he invited me to a party the next day. This was a first, among all musicians I’ve ever interviewed over 35 years. I accepted, and found myself strolling with Cecil through a Brooklyn neighborhood until we got to the apartment of the party, where Cecil dove in and engaged with several partygoers in bracing and animated conversation (as the photos below indicate).

The personal rhythm and musicality of Cecil Taylor is evident in these shots of him at a Brooklyn party. Photos by Kevin Lynch

The following year, Cecil agreed to fly to Milwaukee – merely to visit his friends and admirers there, with no concert paycheck to be had. He came to my Riverwest flat for a dinner prepared by my spouse Kathy Naab Lynch. I was honored when, entering the house, he immediately gravitated to an abstract bronze sculpture of mine titled “Free Space Relief,” a phrase which might describe a Taylor composition.

Cecil Taylor (center) at a Milwaukee reception in his honor, greeting an admirer, Karen, the spouse of VIolent Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo. Also in the photo, at left, is Jim Glynn and, to Cecil’s left, our mutual friend Ken Miller.

The next day, he attended a reception in his honor at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, which Cecil soaked up gratefully. Photographs that Ken Miller took of Cecil in his room at Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel graced the cover of Down Beat containing my article, as well as the cover of Taylor’s ensuing solo album For Olim.

My favorite portrait of Cecil Taylor was this one, taken by our mutual friend Ken Miller, for my Down Beat interview feature on Taylor. Courtesy downbeat.com

He died in his long-time Fort Greene brownstone. I imagine Cecil trying to practice that day, perhaps even expiring at the keyboard. Born at the crux of The Great Depression a few months earlier than my late father Norm Lynch, Cecil possessed a comparable personal warmth. That came from his generous physical heart, guts and brain. One of Taylor’s finest comments on the notion of “free jazz” is from the liner of Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly!: “There is no music without order — if that music comes from a man’s innards. But that order is not necessarily related to any single criterion of what order should be as imposed from the outside. This is not a question, then, of ‘freedom’ as opposed to ‘non-freedom’ but rather is it a question of recognizing ideas and expressions of order.”

My final word is left to Cecil Taylor the poet, from “Garden,” his long, bountiful poem from the Moment’s Notice collection:

Respect Respect
Aretha aires
absolute absolum
Aretha absolute
Witness sweet inspiration
Witness absolute gentleness 

Aretha

Possess’d
lil’ Stevie
by holy rock
remains
stand standing
Wonder
             (too)!
Heritage – echoes – silence – moving – Universe
manners hip food gatherin a be seen gregarious
slip’ en slidin’ getting entities hallowed
            thy will be done

foraging among crabs long tongued ancient snapp’d
but regard is weight hipness lighten’d
           Ray Robinson steered, fandancin’
           out orbiting (no game) sludge
knowing out, in, sideways tall, possibility axis & fall
           Muhammad Ali
           like Amma, arboreal
           corpuscle twine harmonium
them 2 legs (Dinosaurs) that’s got
            each (fine graining) his
natural (from Jack Johnson portent
            know, see, the
             Barring –

            – apart from –
            over reiging

             head, scalp or hand Domed)

of colored goings doings love our way
his own
            Johnson then Robinson War
            Clay now (‘them-thar lookin’
                            fidgetin’ wonderin’
                            how – admiration
                            to – ball breakin’)
Johnson – Robinson – Armstrong – Louis – Ali
inscription held fertile glories passed
magnificence back & forth on & on…

copyright: Coffee House Press, 1993

____________________

  1. Taylor’s enveloping interpretation of the Richard Rodgers’ song gives lie to the ignorant comment of one online commenter on a recent YouTube of Taylor performing, that “he doesn’t know how to play the piano,” and has perpetuated a “scam” for decades. On his 1956 album Jazz Advance Taylor ingeniously covered tunes by Monk, Ellington, Cole Porter and the standard “Sweet and Lovely.” That Taylor, an honorary doctorate graduate of the New England Conservatory, still suffers such indignity even upon death at 89, smells of the winds of ignorant reaction I alluded to above, which often blew in his face, and which seem especially polluting in the Age of Trump. As with too many original jazz artists, Taylor’s largest and most supportive audiences were in Europe, and perhaps Japan.
  2. Cecil Taylor was also pivotal to my arts journalism career. In 1977, amid a winter deep-freeze, I drove to Toronto with Milwaukee guitarist Jack Grassel and drummer Dave Ruetz, to solo piano concerts by Taylor. He performed two three-hour non-stop concerts, at 3 and 7 p.m. — in sum, the greatest solo music performance I’ve witnessed, perhaps the greatest performance of any kind. There, I also met Bill Smith, editor of CODA, the Canadian jazz magazine, and he accepted my proposal for a record review of then-emerging saxophonist David Murray, and published it, and my jazz journalism found its footing.