What if happiness hung on a game-winning free throw?

Image may contain: 2 people, people playing sports

Even Malcolm Brogdon missed a big free throw late in the last game! Then there’s Giannis and Eric Bledsoe. A Raptor or two have FT issues. So this poem spoke to me because it puts sports in a bigger perspective while acknowledging its role in elusive human happiness.

“Happiness” By Lisa Zeidner

What it is
is the absence of pain. Nothing more.
Over a decade of life in the bull’s-eye
of the troubled cities in the Northeastern corridor
and I’ve never been raped,
never stabbed, burglarized, or even mugged
though I hate to say or even think
I never get colds (line italicized)
or hear a sportscaster brag
about a basketball player’s percentage from the line

Before the foul shot that would win the game:
why wave a red flag in the bulls face
if the bull is God
in happy pastures, chewing the grass?

Infinite disasters and fender bender’s lurk
around each corner
like the black holes that claim stray socks
at the laundromat.
Best to notice happiness peripherally,

The way walking in his city you take in a pretty weed
growing from a sidewalk crack
or a woman with slim ankles
passing briskly – to meet someone for a drink
perhaps, a man she has not seen,
back whole from a treasure hunt or war.

You, too, have someone waiting at home
and for a goosebumped second you know
that you are loved. That nothing,
at least today, has gone wrong.
— From Vital Signs: Contemporary American Poetry from the University Presses. An anthology edited by Ronald Wallace, UW Press 1989

Bay View Jazz Fest is Milwaukee jazz distilled into one night

Milwaukee pianist-composer Joshua Catania. Courtesy Milwaukee carpe-diem events

The Bay View Jazz Fest 2019 is Milwaukee jazz distilled into one day. Come down on Friday, May 31st and take a big swig or three or four. This should be musical intoxication as good as Milwaukee gets.

The fest is in it’s sixth year, and it keeps on showing what’s really happening in jazz today. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the evening-long bash at nine different Bay View venues kicks off with one of the hottest new names on the Milwaukee scene today, Joshua Catania, at 5 p.m. at Tonic Tavern. More accurately, the 18-year-old pianist-composer  is still getting warmed up, career-wise. Musically, he’s already full throttle. His debut album Open to Now speaks with uncanny authority. Right from the opening bars, you hear and almost feel the power of Catania’s musical chops.

The album of all originals unfolds with myriad shades and colors, dynamic brilliance, some artistic depth and an excellent rhythm section of guitarist Dave Miller bassist John Christensen and drummer Devin Drobka.

Acclaimed Milwaukee trumpeter Russ Johnson. Courtesy The Chicago Reader

Among some of the other recommended and intriguing acts:

  • The MKE Guitar Summit at 8 at Tonic
  • Cameron Webb & Chris Oliver at 11 at At Random
  • Johnny Padilla and Onda Tropical at 7 at Twisted Path Distillery
  • The Eternal Flame: A Tribute to Mahavishnu at 5 at The Back Yard
  • Mrs. Fun +1 at 7:30 at Sam’s Tap, followed by.
    The Chicago Gypsy Jazz All-stars at 9
  • Andrew Trim’s Ordinary Poems at 9:30 at Revel Bar
  • Russ Johnson Quartet at 8 at Magnet Factory

Here’s the link to the whole line-up:

Here’s the Bay View Jazz Fest 2019 lineup

Madison composer-arranger Paul Dietrich’s music looks backward and forward, like sonic cinema

Paul Dietrich Jazz Ensemble – Forward *

In essence, Maria Schneider brought native Minnesota landscape and beyond to the Gil Evans orchestral impression. To stunning effect, Madison’s Paul Dietrich has done as much for Wisconsin vistas. Akin to Schneider, hear sumptuous orchestral shapes draped over ostinatos or vamps, or elegantly unfolding chord changes. Brilliant accordionist Gary Versace offers Grammy-winning Schneider slightly richer textures. By contrast, Dietrich employs a wordless female soprano voice, perhaps imported from Pat Metheny’s ensemble concept. 

Composer-arranger-trumpeter Paul Dietrich (left) conducts his jazz ensemble in the recording session for the album “Forward.” Courtesy youtube.com

Forward ranks a mere notch below Schneider’s best album or two. Yep, it’s that good, bolstered by ace soloists among its Chicago-area and Southern Wisconsin musicians. On opener “Rush,” Milwaukee trumpeter Russ Johnson’s warm, stately lyricism rides swelling backdrops and kicking boosts from Clarence Penn, Schneider’s own band drummer. It takes it’s time, building with Tony Barba’s climbing-to-climax tenor sax, but the tune is a rush.

“Settle” suggests history, a homestead, putting down roots, embracing the future with quiet courage. Altoist Greg Ward intimates a family-like vibe of circling tenderness.

The closing “Forward” suite (titled for the state’s motto) first evokes, in playful horn counterpoint, Dietrich’s vibrant hometown of Ripon. 1

“I can return to my hometown..and feel right at home even as life experiences change my perception of the things around me,” Dietrich comments in the album liner notes.  Then “Snow,” a tone poem of enveloping majesty, glows in contours of shade and light. Ward’s ardent soloing melts the snow closer to “Like Water” (a previous tune’s title).

“Roads” unfolds through more nifty crisscross writing, then sequencing of the same phrases among ensemble sections, and Dustin Lorenzi’s burnished, Stan Getz-like tenor peals.

Milwaukee trumpeter Russ Johnson (foreground, left) is among the strong soloists amid Dietrich’s deftly interactive ensemble, in this recording session scene. Courtesy Isthmus.

The suite closes with the poignantly anthemic “Green Fields,” written for the late Fred Sturm, a brilliant Appleton composer and trombonist (with the acclaimed jazz-fusion group Matrix) and mentor to Dietrich and many musicians. His protege’s own trumpet here sounds like cherished memory.

“The former department chair at Lawrence University, my alma mater, remains the most important teacher I ever had,” Dietrich notes. “He was unfairly taken too young by cancer in 2014…his love of music and his radiant (and mischievous) personality left an indelible mark on all who knew him.” Here, the Schneider connection echoes again, as Sturm edited the published scores for Schneider’s album Evanesence.

For all the album’s backwards-glancing reflection and sense of place, the theme of “forward” keeps the listener attuned to Dietrich’s long, winding road over the horizon.


This review was first published in slightly shorter form in The Shepherd Express: https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/forward-by-paul-dietrich-jazz-ensemble-with-clarence-penn/

  • photo of Forward album cover courtesy Jazz Trails

1 The Greater Madison Jazz Consortium commissioned Dietrich to write the Forward suite. The organization supports a wide range of jazz activities and ventures in the Capitol city. “The idea was to write music in a modern big band jazz style that represented my personal images and perceptions of my home state, Wisconsin,” Dietrich writes.  

Press Club prize winner: Review of APT’s gripping apartheid story “Blood Knot”

Gavin Lawrence (left) and Jim DeVita play South African half-brothers in Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot,” currently at American Players Theatre. All photos by Liz Lauren, courtesy APT 

Editor’s note: Due to technical difficulties I wasn’t able to insert the link to this review in my last post. So I decided to re-post my review of American Players Theatre’s “Blood Knot.” The review won a silver award for best critical review last week from The Milwaukee Press Club. — Kevin Lynch (Kevernacular).


Blood Knot by Athol Fugard, Touchstone Theater, American Players Theatre, through September 28. For information APT

SPRING GREEN –  When you’re born in the heart of darkness you may begin to understand a world’s weird palpitations. The sun sets and darkness does a somersault.

South African playwright Athol Fugard can summon such effects, with brotherly insight and affection. I’ve hardly seen the entirety of August Wilson’s 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle.” So suffice to say, south of Pittsburgh, Fugard’s Blood Knot captures one of the most complex aspects of the black experience ever dramatically wrought, perhaps in all the modern world.

Overstatement? Surely arguable, but the man’s a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature for good reason. He turns up the dramatic heat with the slow, laser-focused pressure of a master welder, until the emotional and intellectual impact burns into the viewer’s mind. As per its mission, American Players Theatre offers a classic of modern drama and, at mid-run, they did so Sunday with a one-time, pay-what-you-can price matinee. It’s a professional Theater Guild production, but they want people to see this. It’s well-worth a full-priced ticket.

Regarding our increasingly crazy and disheartening planet, the greater developed world still strives toward liberal democracy. Yet we can get sticky when it comes to political correctness, which typically entails doing the proper thing even though it’s sometimes self-defeating.

I’m wading into that uneasy backdrop, because this play and its casting prove fearless and ultimately correct, in the best senses. Some controversy arose when Caucasian actor Jim DeVita was cast as Morris, one of the two South African brothers barely getting by in a one-room shack in the non-white ghetto near Port Elizabeth.

African-American director Ron O.J. Parson wisely stood by his cast decision. For starters, Fugard’s characters are half-brothers, with the same white mother. More significantly, the play updates the classic Cyrano de Bergerac, wherein a poetical man becomes stand-in suitor for a smitten friend, who’s ill-spoken and ill-suited for wooing a woman. In this case, Fugard boils it down to one brother simply capable of writing, the other illiterate.

DeVita has actually directed Cyrano and, in that sense, this intensely immersive professional has strong experience with Fugard’s source theme. DeVita also played the title role and later directed perhaps Shakespeare’s darkest character-portrait, Richard III. He’s APT’s preeminent actor, having played Hamlet, Tyrone in A Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eddie in A View from the Bridge and received an NEA Literature Fellowship. Specific credentials aside, he’s a hell of an actor who deftly juggles comedy and drama. He has the sonic range, timing and  expressive nuance of a virtuoso violinist.

The white South African playwright himself has said he was actually inspired by his own relationship with his white brother, “and how cruel time had been with him.” So clearly, though the cutting-edge subject matter is clearly race, Fugard aims for the universal.

Make no mistake, Gavin Lawrence proves wonderfully winning, even heart-wrenching, as the illiterate and darker-skinned brother Zachariah. I can’t do full justice to his performance in this context.  Further, the actual true progress of P.C. in theater is gender-and-colorblind casting, which far more typically benefits women and actors of color. Yet this white male actor, in final analysis, proved how wise that ideal can be.

I’m trying to convey the playwright’s mastery of P.C. as social and linguistic subtlety, and regards deeper-seeded matters of brotherhood and, finally, love. This unfolds and sustains superbly with Fugard’s magnificent writing which, with the inevitability of nightfall, casts musical linguistic images in deft shadows, what I would call an ashen lyricism. From seemingly simple images, “the ruins of an old Chevy,” to grander utterances: Zachariah’s “I may be a shade of black, but I will go gently as a man,” or Morris’ mystery-invoking speech at the end.

For sure, this man bears the weight of life’s mysteries. By contrast to his exultant, go-for-it brother, Morris, a seemingly unemployed writer, struggles under a mountain of neurotic and fraternal complexities. Each night, after Zachariah’s shift as a park gate-keeper, the lighter-skinned Morris soaks his brother’s aching feet in epsom salts, a gesture of abject fraternal bond.

The two also recall John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, another parable about two apparent losers in life. Whereas Steinbeck’s slow-witted Lenny habitually looks to the future as a dreamer-fool, Morris calculates obsessively for the shared future of the two brothers, fully sensing how fragile that is. Yet he takes pleasure, even short-lived vicarious delight, in penning little love letters for his brother’s response to a white woman’s personal ad. Remember, this is apartheid South Africa.

“What you have thought, that’s the crime,” Morris warns his brother. “They’ve got ways and means, mean ways.”

Bible-quoting Morris is so deeply repressed that, when his brother asks him whether he’s ever been with a woman, he curls up like a flower burning into an ash.

Fugard richly weaves together symbolic objects, including an all-white suit that Zachariah buys with all the money his brother has squirreled away for their future. At this point, the layered complexity of their relationship unfurls, from teasing to playful exuberance, to turning inside out, so we see truth more clearly.

Finally, the play evoked W.E.B. Du Bois’ famous explanation of the “double consciousness” a black man must endure in a society that refuses to see him as a man. Du Bois himself was a rather light-skinned black man, well-educated and capable of passing as white. In this play, Morris carries such tricky “passing” consciousness with the weary endurance of Sisyphus. His brother signifies his potentially liberated spirit, the brother for whom life is too cruel.

Rarely have two so seemingly different brothers been bound together in a “blood knot” that might burst their hearts. And yet, Fugard resists any easy summation, because his ashen lyricism never really rests.

Listen to Morris, obliquely affirmative, near the end:

“Yes, It’s the mystery  of my life, that lake. I mean. . . It smells dead, doesn’t it ? If ever there was a piece of water that looks dead and done for, that’s what I’m looking at now. And yet, who knows? Who really knows what’s at the bottom?”



Culture Currents wins Press Club Award for best critical review of American Players production

For the second consecutive year, Culture Currents blog won a Milwaukee Press Club award for best critical review of the arts. Culture Currents won a silver award for the review “American Players Theatre’s ‘Blood Knot’ Reaches Deep for Ties that Bind.” The play Blood Knot, by South African playwright Athol Fugard, scrutinizes the complex relationship between two South African half-brothers, one black and one white, during that nation’s notorious era of apartheid.

The review was published here on Aug. 13 of this year and is viewable in a Culture Currents archive search, or re-posted in the most recent post, 5/15/19.*

Gavin Lawrence (left) and Jim DeVita played South African half-brothers living together in the era of apartheid, in American Players Theatre’s staging of Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot.” Photo by Liz Lauren, courtesy APT

Last year, Culture Currents won the Milwaukee Press Club’s gold award for criticism for a review of a retrospective art exhibit of work by the late Adolph Rosenblatt. This blog also won the press club’s gold award for best critical review in 2013. The blog’s author, Kevin Lynch, has won a total of five Milwaukee Press Club awards over the years. The Milwaukee Press Club carries a certain distinction as the oldest continually operating press club in North America.
Judging for the critical review awards – as well as numerous other awards by Wisconsin competitors in many aspects of writing, visual media, radio and production in the news media – is done by out-of-state judges.

The annual “gridiron dinner” to administer the awards includes two other special awards. The Headliner Award is presented annually to honor Wisconsin leaders for their contributions to the community. This year the awards went to Martin J. Schreiber, former Wisconsin governor and award-winning advocate for Alzheimer’s caregivers and persons with dementia, and to Mary Lou Young, former CEO of United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County.

In his address, Gov. Schreiber recounted the extraordinary challenge of caring for his longtime wife, Elaine, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, and how that experience inspired him to greater activism for the cause.

The second special press club award is The Sacred Cat Award, presented annually to recognize outstanding achievement by a journalist at the national level.
This year the Sacred Cat Award was given to Chuck Todd, moderator of Meet the Press on NBC and host of MPT Daily on MSNBC. Todd is one of the most respected and recognizable journalists in television today. Todd accepted the award and spoke about the urgent need for journalists to pursue the truth in an era when proper journalism has been called into question for its veracity, very often in a gratuitous manner by subjects of news, such as President Donald Trump.

Longtime “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd makes a point in his speech after accepting The Milwaukee Press Club’s Sacred Cat Award for outstanding journalism at the national level. The press club awards event was held in the ballroom of the Pfister Hotel on Friday. Photo courtesy Milwaukee Press Club

Todd warmed to his Wisconsin audience by speaking of his “second great passion,” after politics: The Green Bay Packers, and sported a Packers tie for the occasion (see photo above). Todd also praised the Press Club for providing awards to outstanding journalists, something he wished Washington D. C. would do more of. There, he said, journalists are often spoofed in “skits” at comparable press gatherings.


*technical difficulties prevented a direct link to the “Blood Knot” review.