Two days left to see Kandinsky, a great thinker and a greater artist

k5 In Gray, 1919

Because I have too much other writing to do today, I’m merely going to give you this little image essay of the fabulous Vassily Kandinsky exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum, running through Monday, September 1. This is a great way to spend some of the Labor Day weekend, especially if the weather continues as it is right now. Don’t miss it, maybe the best art show of the year, at least in the Milwaukee area. A friend of mine who walked into this show saying, “I don’t really understand abstract art,” raved about it continually throughout, and that says as much as anything I can say.

The paintings are not presented here in chronological order. One suggestion or two: Enjoy the representational paintings as such, but then try to look at them as abstracts, to appreciate their compositional, sensual, and even spiritual qualities.

Consider also that Kandinsky did his work before, during and after World War I. Kandinsky said that war stress and imagery can be detected, including cannons and barbed wire fences. During the war, he was exiled to Russia and suffered great privation there. He also wrote a short book, a sort of ruminative aesthetic manifesto titled “Concerning the Spiritual in Art.”

Unless otherwise noted, all the artwork is oil on canvas.kandinsky-2 Yellow-Red-Blue   kandinsky-3 Panel design for the “Juryfreie” exhibition, Wall A (Entwurf für das Wandbild in der Juryfreien Kunstschau: Wand A), 1922 Goauche on canvas13584059265_3bdee49c67_z Fragment 1 for Composition VII   Composition IX    Old Town II 13584092934_c1c6768a63_z Old Town II
13569549583_29c81c1839_z  Painting with a red mark 1914  13569550793_39741cf0fa_z Improvisation III


Composition IX


Simple 1916 Watercolor and india ink


Song (Leid) 1906


My book “Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy” gets a pre-published airing


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This was the setting for my August 24th presentation and reading for my forthcoming (hopefully soon) book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts in Milwaukee. The illustration on the wall at the right above is a photo of Chuck LaPaglia, the founder and owner of the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery. After changing the course of jazz history in Milwaukee, LaPaglia went on to become the talent booker at Yoshi’s in Oakland, which would become one of the greatest jazz clubs in the United States.

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I used a music stand for a podium and among my props were a bathroom back scrub brush (for an anecdote about a very clean Sonny Stitt), a Hal Leonard Jazz Fake Book, and a boombox.

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Among the visuals was this wonderful image by Rockwell Kent which was part of the 1930 illustrated edition of Moby-Dick, which popularized Melville’s great work in the 20th century.
I briefly spoke of how Melville is one of the precursors of many writers my book discusses who understand the jazz and democracy relationship. In Moby-Dick, the whaling ship The Pequod, and its remarkably multi-cultural crew, serve as a striking metaphor for America as a melting-pot democracy.

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I was blessed with a remarkably attentive, literate and responsive audience. It didn’t hurt that they had been fortified with a delicious array of food from the potluck provided by a variety of attendees, mostly from the Riverwest neighborhood.

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Among the attendees was Bill Schaefgen (above), the gifted Milwaukee trombonist-composer and bandleader, most notably of the group What on Earth?  I played a recording by the group and also described their music in part of the reading from my book’s second chapter, titled “The Milwaukee How-Long Blues: An Unlikely Jazz Scene Flourishes.” The band blended “a controlled spaciness, mock defiance and post-bop freedom with both traditional jazz forms and structural ideas drawn from contemporary classical music.” We also took a moment to allow Bill to tell us about the genesis of “Flow,” the tune of his that we played.

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Young visitors to the Jazz Gallery’s Habeas Lounge Riverwest had fun with the bean bag chairs.


All photos by Linda Pollack/Habeas Lounge.

Special thanks to visiting artist Linda Pollack, Mark Lawson, The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts and the Riverwest Artists Association. Also thanks to all the contributors to the pre-presentation potluck. 

George Bernard Shaw scrutinizes human folly and romance in APT’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma”

DD rSir Ralph Bloomfield Bonnington (John Pribyl, foreground) in full blowhard form in “The Doctor’s Dilemma.”

SPRING GREEN — American Players Theatre’s Saturday production of The Doctors Dilemma saw playwright George Bernard Shaw let favorite archetypes tumble into a philosophical pecking order, where artists shone brighter than those with the means “to sometimes cure and sometimes kill.” Morally challenged MDs end up on the bottom with the bedpan.

They know “pain doesn’t come until after, when they get bill.” Merely the least buffoonish of the medicine men dabbles with “the doctor’s dilemma” — whether “to kill someone, so that another might live.” Shaw renders truth timelessly stark, wherein “40 out of 50 people are condemned to death.” So what does a doctor do to save the other 10?

Further, is an “artistic genius” worth saving over one of those lives?

While we chew on those fascinating quandaries, Shaw’s loopy gaggle of Irish characters help unfurl a seamy would-be romance. Despicable Dr.Colenso Ridgeon (Brian Mani) ponders euthanizing the stricken painter, Ralph Dubedat, while lusting for his red-headed wife Jennifer (Abbey Siegworth).

DD p

Long-time American Players Theatre favorite Paul Bentzen (right), adds his inimitable comic flair to Shaw in the final year of his career.

Among the other doctors adding to the chaotic fun are craggy Paul Bentzen, longtime APT comic foil, who’s retiring his lean-boned jocularity this year, and especially a foppish, blonde-mopped doctor named Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonnington. “So many of my patients are better dead (than useful),” Bonnington shrugs. “My tastes are simple.”

Or “good wine, happy endings, touching gratitude, enchanting woman, gentle nature…”

He’s not the only one who conveys wit by letting his overactive mouth expose himself. It’s one of Shaw’s most winning ways but, in this play, might also have amounted to a bit of self-mockery, intended or not.

You can’t help liking Shaw’s moniker mongering. There’s also Dr. Blenkinsop (David Daniel), who provides some of the playwright’s most barbed social satire, as a physician too poor to afford his own treatment. Or Minnie Tinwell, a maid, who’s caught up in the unseemly steaminess.

DD 4Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Brian Mani) has eyes for Mrs. Jennifer Dubedat (Abbey Siegworth), the wife of one of his patients.

Despite Ridgeon’s amorous advances, Mrs. Dubedat is dedicated to her wispy, mortally-sick husband, whose corporeal remains seem 98% inspiration and 2% perspiration. What’s left of Dubedat (Samuel Taylor) seems hanging from a tube of paint.

However, ailing Dubedat, an “above it all” artist, is also a master money-grubber and a bigamist. Shaw finally frames things in existentially human terms.

However, the playwright couldn’t stop writing. Judging fate interceded where an editor didn’t — an audience member actually keeled over and a medical emergency stopped the play for nearly half an hour.

That merely slowed Shaw’s brilliant discourse, which should’ve ended with Dubedat’s death, an exquisite set piece by the company, a virtual Pieta on stage, pure spiritual pathos. “I think I’ll recover after all,” the artist murmurs. “I suddenly went to sleep.”


Ralph and Mrs. Jennifer Dubedat in Ralph’s death scene.

That said, this superbly crafted production includes another stunning set piece, actually 48 of them – backstage panels of portrait paintings, ostensibly by Dubedat, of celebrated 19th century medical and cultural icons. These presences frame the dilemmas and shenanigans like so many witnesses to humanity’s folly, grace and endurance.


All photos by Carissa Dixon and copyright of American Players Theatre.


The Doctor’s Dilemma runs throughout October 3 at American Players Theatre’s “on the hill” theater, 5950 Golf Course Rd. Spring Green, Wisconsin. For information, call 608-588-2361 or visit



A review: Charlie Haden and Keith Jarrett’s “Last Dance”

last dance

Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden Last Dance (ECM)

What did they know when they titled the last recording released before Haden’s death on July 11? That his boyhood polio had returned, fatally as it turned out. Polio long ago robbed his young singing voice. So he became perhaps the most songful of bassists. That instrumental voice captures the nostalgia of “My Old Fame” with the gruff huskiness of a burly romantic , whispering the song in her imagined ear, or dancing in his dreams — an uncertain step or two, then finding his inner Astaire.

The rhythmic poise carries a resounding, muscular  tone — Haden dwelled in the bass fiddle’s natural depths, rather than trying to make it zip around like a guitar, as so many contemporary bassists try to.

So he became one of the best duets players ever, going back the quiet revelation of these musicians’ duets on Haden’s 1976 recording Closeness. Nobody listened or responded more closely than Charlie Haden. In this 2007 session, he fleshes out pianist Jarrett’s every lyrical turn of phrase with splendid harmony, or spare countermelody. Some striking substitute chords make the overplayed Round Midnight beam like a new moon.

Haden’s extended solo on “Where Can I Go Without You?” magnificently extends the melodic contours and the meaning of the song as if the rhetorical question had been deposited directly in the heart of the listener.

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Pianist Keith Jarrett (left) and the bassist Charlie Haden, who died July 11, take a break during the sessions that produced “Last Dance.” Courtesy 

Yet his epitaph might be another standard, “Everything Happens to Me.” Not as a solipsistic whine, this was a humble man. Rather, he was person who lived a full creative life, embracing all life’s wonders, cruelty and strangeness with his artful gifts and passion for justice, while battling the infidels of his body and spirit, to the end.

Haden could also swing and fast-walk the bass buoyantly, as on Bud Powell’s “Dance of the Infidels.” Last Dance’s uninvited infidel was polio,* and by the time it ends — with “Every Time We Say Goodbye” and then “Goodbye” — you know how he and Jarrett hate saying goodbye, and yet can’t stop saying it, and singing it.

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A somewhat shorter version of this review was published first in the Shepherd Express.

* Haden died of post-polio syndrome. He had contracted polio as a child.

Some of this material was part of a CC obituary profile of Haden at

It Must Work is holding a fundraiser for a new well for orphans without water in West Africa

it must work

Imagine you are an orphan in a West African village, today. You live in the orphanage because your parents died of AIDS, like countless other parents in Africa. One hundred degree heat beats on your brow, and you are thirsty. But you are also getting sick — from the only drinking water you have.

I may be stretching the perceived boundaries of Culture Currents for this posting. But this elasticity is justified: Culture Currents is interested in the uses of social media, which is now crucial for this effort at helping orphans survive in Africa. The effort began with an e-mail (see note with accompanying photo above). The sponsoring organization, It Must Work has gained support from a Facebook-driven non-governmental organization Electricians without Borders 1 for well-building plans and now is doing online and Facebook promotion for a fundraiser upcoming on August 6 at the Highland House, an excellent restaurant in the Milwaukee area which is donating money for each person attending the event (see below).

The Culture Currents blog is joining the effort and is always interested in the social and political aspects of contemporary media and communication, because they help define our contemporary culture — that is, the actions and expression that define who we are, and what we value, as a group of people and, more largely, as a common humanity (thus my blog’s sub-title).

So, this is a matter of imploring humanity to care about orphans in dire need. 

The orphanage’s relatively crude cistern is contaminated “from water runoff from roof gutters overhead and other impure sources,” explains Ed Valent, a Milwaukee educator and IMW board member.*  (see photograph at the bottom right, on the attached flyer.)

So building a well will be the practical solution to the water problem. “They are also trying to grow crops and have a fish farm,” Valent said. “But water is an ongoing problem, and it depends on the rain, which is seasonal. And the temperature there is always between 90 and 100 degrees.”

The effort is spearheaded by a remarkable Midwestern-born Peace Corp worker Rebecca Casper Harles, who worked at the orphanage in Benin, Africa. Here’s a message from Valent:

I’m inviting you to join me for lunch or dinner or drinks at the Highland House on Wednesday, August 6. I’ll be there from 11:00 AM until closing time at 10:00 PM…. for a good cause, so you aren’t just getting an invitation, you’re getting a story too (see below and attached for more on the story).
The Highland House is a great Mequon restaurant and bar that has offered to contribute money for each customer who dines or drinks at Highland House on August 6 for our Build-A-Well-For-An Orphanage fund raiser. You’ve gotta read the story for more on that… but here’s more about Highland House:
Highland House is a family friendly, reasonably priced restaurant (managed by the son of my childhood friend, Frank Stemper)
Here’s their web site: Highland House.
Here’s their address: 12741 N Port Washington Rd, Mequon, WI 53092
Here are driving directions from Milwaukee:
I 43 North to Mequon Rd (exit 85), left on Mequon Rd to cross highway, right on Port Washington Rd for 2.9 miles. Highland House is on the left.

Now (if you’re still reading), here’s the story I promised:

The Water for Orphans Story: Several years ago, Rebecca (Casper) Harles came back from her Peace Corps assignment in Benin, Africa with a mission. While she was there, she befriended Mathieu Honzonon, who has an extraordinary story.
The small town where he grew up was coping with a heartbreaking result of Africa’s AIDS crisis: a large and growing number of orphans. Benin’s citizens rely on the generosity of neighbors to address family crises, but the scope of the problem was unprecedented. Mathieu began an orphanage for about 35 school aged children and set about the job of providing them with an food, shelter, an education and love.
The orphanage has always relied on a cistern system to supply all of its water. Recently, contamination in the cistern water has sickened both animals and children. The solution: a new well. The problem? No money. Fortunately, upon Rebecca’s return from Africa, she set up a non-profit to be able to continue supporting Peace Corps related work in West Africa. Her organization is called, “It Must Work”, the English translation of the name of the orphanage.
Mathieu has reached out for support from “Electricians Without Borders” for well plans and expertise and to “It Must Work” for funding. As a board member of It Must Work, I can attest to the legitimacy of this group. Since it’s beginning in 2009, 100% of every donation for the annual projects the group has undertaken has gone for the charitable work of the organization. All “fundraising” expenses have been paid by board members themselves.

A day or night out at Highland House sounds like a good time, but if you can’t join me on August 6, and you’re moved by the cause, the orphans and I would appreciate a donation. You can mail one to:

It Must Work c/o Paul Casper, Treasurer
1325 N. Van Buren St. #603
Milwaukee, WI 53202
For more about It Must Work, see: It Must Work’s Facebook Page (and like us while you’re there if you want to stay in the IMW loop).
Yours for the orphans,
Ed Valent

929 N. Astor St. #2207
Milwaukee, WI 53202

Attachments area
Preview attachment Water4Orphansv3.pdf

1 Electricians Without Borders FB page is
* Ed Valent and It Must Work founder Rebecca Casper Harles’ father Paul Casper, are old friends of mine, and fellow classmates from Marquette University High School.  For full disclosure, The Highland House restaurant hosting the fundraiser is managed by Frank Stemper Jr., the son of another fellow Marquette High classmate of ours, Dr. Frank Stemper.