NPR American Masters question: What single work of art changed your life?

This is the colorized cover of the Kindle edition of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” as illustrated by Rockwell Kent for the 1930 edition, but with the author’s name added. (see below) 
Well, I gotta right to sing the blues, Or to sing praises, like a fool, to the earthly heavens where art might come from. And if it is the blues, it’s the kind that inspires you rather than keeps your head just above water.
You see, my song sort of went on and on (by Facebook comment standards), spilling over the 12-bar blues form like water in a sinking ship. But the editors at PBS American Masters Facebook page didn’t jettison any of my load of responses to the provocative question: What single work of art changed your life?
They’ve received 247 responses and counting. Here’s my response. I couldn’t quite help myself. I have even expanded on it here, with a bit more text and imagery.
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As a long-time generalist arts journalist, I’ve encountered so much extraordinary art in all its forms. How to pick one? I might say seeing Picasso’s “Guernica,” but it was an oddly truncated experience, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art closed before I could see all of it. I’d literally been stopped in my tracks on the staircase for long minutes because the center of Guernica filled the doorway view at the top. Then the doors closed. It moved to Spain a short time later, in 1981. So, I live with a reproduction of it, and that oddly but profoundly unfulfilled experience. 1
Imagine seeing, through a doorway, the middle of this astonishing political mural by Picasso, being stopped in your tracks by it on a museum staircase — and then the gallery doors closing on you at 5 p.m. That’s my sadly truncated but unforgettable experience of seeing the mighty “Guernica.” Courtesy Magazine Artsper
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“Guernica,” of course was named for the Spanish town bombed in 1937 by Nazi planes, complicit with Fascist dictator Franco  — the first act of modern war terrorism on a civilian population of nascent World War II.
And then, seeing Arshile Gorky’s often-gorgeous metamorphosis from surrealism to abstract-expressionism — closely reflecting my own artistic sensibilities — at the Guggenheim Museum of Art is another life-changing moment.
The plow and the song - Digital Remastered Edition Painting by Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky’s 1946 painting “The Plow and the Song,” (above) lyrically transmutes his memories of homeland Armenia to the modernist present. The memories were rooted in his long, desperate childhood escape, by foot, with his sister Vartoosh and mother, from the Armenian holocaust conducted by the Ottoman Empire. Their mother, Sushan der Marderosian pictured below — in this wrenchingly poignant Gorky painting from about 1926, with the artist at the age of their exodus — died of starvation in 1918. (Courtesy pixels.)
Pleased with my Milwaukee Journal review of the Guggenheim show, Gorky’s nephew Karlen Mooradian contacted me. I was fortunate enough to obtain an in-person interview with him and Gorky’s sister Vartoosh Adoian Mooradian (Gorky’s original name was Vosdanig Adoian) in Chicago, but I was never able to publish anything from the interview. I did glean great insight from Mooradian’s 1980 book The Many Worlds of Arshile Gorky, about his artist uncle, who committed suicide in 1948. He profoundly influenced many abstract expressionists, none more than Willem de Kooning. 2
The Artist and His Mother, 1926 - 1936 - Arshile Gorky - WikiArt.org
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Then, music vibrates on and on in my life, where the single transforming moment could be the Butterfield Blues Band’s ground-breaking East-West album, or first hearing John Coltrane’s achingly eloquent and exalting A Love Supreme suite, or his searing Live at Birdland, and imaging being there, in that fire.
John Coltrane “Live at Birdland.” Courtesy deep groove mono
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Or, by contrast to such earnest passion, the lacerating sneer of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” which helped pinpoint the existential waywardness of the freedom my generation declared from bourgeois convention and responsibility. Or, by another contrast, Dylan’s affirmatively flashing “Chimes of Freedom,” here now, poetry aflame in music
Or, hearing Beethoven or Mahler in fearless, heaving performances, in Milwaukee and Madison. Grammy-winning conductor John DeMain especially unlocked much of Mahler’s glorious might with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, in a full Mahler symphonic cycle in the 1990s and 2000s.
In theater, a darkly, full-chested staging of Macbeth at American Platers Theater, and a thunderbolt-raging King Lear at UW-Milwaukee. So, yes, the commonality here seems an appetite for grand gestures, of many sorts.
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That’s why I finally must land on the experience of reading Moby-Dick for the first time (as some might’ve guessed). I was already in my ‘40s and, knowing its reputation and having seen Huston’s movie version, I remained unprepared for how inexorably the book swept me away, even though many understandably turn back to the shore. And yet, there’s so much you’d miss. Even the cetology, I gobbled up like so much krill going down a cavernous throat.
Yet the haunting had begun several decades earlier when I found a copy of the 1930 Random House edition which brought the book to widespread readership.
My plastic-covered copy of the 1930 Random House edition of Moby-Dick, what I still believe is the definitive version of an illustrated edition of the book, with art by Rockwell Kent. Photo by Kevin Lynch
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The visual artist in me responded to this powerfully. I knew then, my day of reckoning with the book loomed somewhere in the future. There have been many illustrated editions of this book since, and some are steeped in their own fiery inspiration. But none so eloquently captures the spirit of the book as it manifest itself in the Depression era, as does that 1930 edition.
Rockwell Kent, in his way, approaches Melville’s genius in his numerous woodblock prints. The black and white Deco-influenced imagery is proto-noir, capturing the sense of lost-at-sea and impending doom and, in deft knife strokes, the essence of characters lurking inside their ravaged, or mortally infected, souls. 3
Infected by what? The blood-lust fervor of Ahab, akin to a demagogue manufacturing an enemy, in the whale that took his leg. The expansively stentorian Ahab, recalling Lear, captivates the whole crew in his questing rage — except for first mate Starbuck and, to a degree, Ishmael, who remains somewhat remote, and “aloft.”
Alas, Random House jumped on their perceived marketing coup with the new edition so strongly that they failed to put Melville’s name anywhere on the cover, only including “Illustrated by Rockwell Kent” on the spine. It was yet another of countless insults to the great and long-forsaken writer, right at the emergence of his genius to broader acceptance. The current Kindle version (at top), at least, corrects that “oversight” with the original cover (colorized though it is).
Captain Ahab — Rockwell Kent – Biblioklept
Here’s a brooding but burning portrait of Captain Ahab, by Rockwell Kent. 
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So, back to Melville’s text:
The extraordinarily antiphonal voices of Ishmael and Ahab echoed through my head and psyche, across the oceanic expanses of poetic writing, gritty details, and surprising humor, which might make some virtually sea-sick, but hang onto the horizon as the crow’s nest sways!
It was indeed postmodern in 1851, in how Melville strangely constructed it, and summed up his own creation as well as anyone: “It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.”
History of Art: Masterpieces of World Literature-Herman Melville
“Thar she blows!” from “Moby Dick,” 1930, illustrated by Kent. 
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Yet it stays afloat as a metaphor and allegory for America, in the tall, creaking bones of The Pequod, manned by people from many races. And what else did it all mean? Defying fate? Or God? Or nature? Or Nature? Hubris as delusion, or the destiny of grace embraced, one storyteller’s backward glance into timelessness?
Rockwell Kent Ishmael Going Abroad Giclee Art Print | Etsy
Here, Pequod first harpoonist Queequeg, who deeply befriends Ishmael early in the novel, remains vigilant for the White Whale, even while down in the forecastle where the crew bunks. Illustration by Kent. Courtesy Etsy.
Rockwell Kent does Moby Dick – Dimdays
Ahab’s covert mercenary harpoonist Fedallah suffers a terrible fate in the novel, here illustrated by Kent. The John Huston movie version of “Moby-Dick” inaccurately makes this scene out as Ahab so affixed to the whale, to melodramatic effect. 
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From childhood, oceanic depths had always scared me. In time, Melville’s mounting whorl of words, and his own extraordinary life story, compelled me to begin writing a novel about its author.
These days, people critique the book’s scarcity of women characters. Yet, as Saschaa squeeze of the hand Morrell comments. “On the other hand, the novel makes numerous appeals to the maternal forces of nature. It also breaks down gender norms and boundaries, from Ishmael’s surrender to Queequeg’s ‘bridegroom clasp,’ to Ahab’s boasting of his ‘queenly personality’ to the ambiguous mingling of ‘milk and sperm’ in the infamously erotic chapter ‘A Squeeze of the Hand.’”
Another she doesn’t mention is one of my favorite chapters, the stunning awe of gigantic maternal nursing in “The Grand Armada.” For that matter, tell (the late) Elizabeth Hardwick, author of a brilliantly concise and empathetic Melville biography, how much it lacks for a human female presence. Or Laurie Robertson-Lorant, author of a comprehensive Melville biography. Or Elizabeth Schultz, the doyenne of visual art about “The Great American Novel.”
Moby Dick breaches like a god reaching for the stars, (or to “kiss the sky,” as Jimi Hendrix would exult in the 1960s). in this image by Kent from 1930.
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On the other hand, one could quote any number of astute observers on the book’s magnificence: Hardwick, F. O. Matthiessen, Harold Bloom, Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, and Lewis Mumford all come to mind, worth looking up. Most recently, I revisited D.H. Lawrence on Moby-Dick and he says: “A wonderful, wonderful voyage. And a beauty that is so surpassing only because of the author’s awful flounderings in mystical waters. He wanted to get metaphysically deep. And he got deeper than metaphysics. It is a surpassingly beautiful book, with an awful meaning, and bad jolts.” Read his essay in Studies in Classic American Literature for more. 4
So, living on the Heartland edge of a Great Lake, I remain haunted by this and more, by Saint Elmo’s Fire and the diabolical blood ritual, by Pip’s foot on the treadle of the loom, by the Catskill Eagle emerging from the woe that is madness, by Ahab’s burning obsession, by the massive will and long, mysterious memory – is it consciousness? — of the white whale and, of course, by Queequeg’s coffin, a miraculous, sacred offering from a brotherly friend, somehow rising, just free of the hellish vortex.
“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf…”
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1 Picasso was adamant that Guernica remain at the Met until Spain re-established a democratic republic. It would not be until 1981, after both the artist’s and Franco’s deaths, that Spanish negotiators were finally able to bring the mural home.
2 Mooradian’s The Many Worlds of Arshile Gorky includes 70 illustrations, a Q& A interview with Willem DeKooning about Gorky, as well as interviews with Alexander Calder, Lee Krasner Pollock, Malcolm Cowley, Reuben Nakian, Barnett Newman, Peter Blume, Meyer Schapiro, Saul Steinberg and other important figures in modern art and criticism.
3 The edition of Moby-Dick with Kent’s illustrations remains in print. I recommend the version with an introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick, published by The Modern Library, in paperback 2000.
4. Studies in Classic American Literature, DH Lawrence, Penguin, 1923, 1977, 159

A participating writer catches up with the 2020 NPR Jazz Critics Poll

Maria Schneider conducts her jazz orchestra live at the Jazz Standard in New York. Photo by Dina Regine. Courtesy steptempest.org

My posting of National Public Radio’s Jazz Critics Poll for 2020 is belated partly because my Facebook page was in techno limbo for so long, and the various vagaries of life in a pandemic, and being 65-plus with asthma. Good news, I got my first vaccine this week, and my daily rhythms seem closer to normal. Maybe that’s good or not — disruption that leads to new inlets of creativity, productivity and health should also be considered. I’m still working out that tricky balance.

Anyway, I contributed to the NPR Critics Poll again, and the consensus choice for album of the year, Maria Schneider’s Data Lords, was my Number 2 choice. I heard her play some of that arrestingly layered and signifying music live a couple years ago at the Elmhurst Jazz Festival, and she’s clearly a major artist who’s still evolving with the times, and her own complex muse. The high concept album addresses the ways that huge electronic media companies have transformed our lives and ways of thinking and communicating, for better and worse.

Beyond that, none of the top ten consensus choices were among mine. Some of my choices made the consensus top 50. My choices depended partly on what I’ve heard versus other critics.

Here’s Francis Davis’s lead story on the 2020 Jazz Poll and the consensus top 50 albums: 2020 NPR Jazz Critics Poll

And here’s my Top 10 list, at NPR’s website, along with the other critics’ lists: Kevin Lynch’s NPR Poll

(The Shepherd Express, No DepressionCulture Currents)

And here’s my list below:

The album cover for “Dialogues on Race: Vol. 1”

NEW RELEASES

  1. Gregg August, Dialogues on Race: Volume One (Iacuessa)
  2. Maria Schneider Orchestra, Data Lords (ArtistShare)
  3. SFJazz Collective, Live: SFJazz Center 2019: 50th Anniversary: Miles Davis In a Silent Way and Sly & the Family Stone Stand! (SFJazz)
  4. Adam Kolker, Lost (Sunnyside)
  5. Artemis, Artemis (Blue Note)
  6. Greg Reitan, West 60th (Sunnyside)
  7. Lynne Arriale Trio, Chimes of Freedom (Challenge)
  8. Weird Turn Pro, Maul and Mezcal (Weird Turn Pro)
  9. Dayna Stephens, Right Now! Live at the Village Vanguard (Contagious Music)
  10. Dave Douglas, Marching Music (Greenleaf Music)

REISSUES/HISTORICAL

  1. Thelonious Monk, Palo Alto (1968, Impulse)
  2. Edward Simon, 25 Years (1995-2018, Ridgeway)
  3. Pharoah Sanders, Live in Paris 1975: Lost ORTF Recordings (Transversales Disque)

VOCAL

  • Kurt Elling, Secrets Are the Best Stories (Edition)

DEBUT

  • Emi Makabe, Anniversary (Greenleaf Music)

LATIN

  • Poncho Sanchez, Trane’s Delight (Concord Picante -19)

I believe my top choice, bassist-composer Gregg August’s astonishingly powerful and provocative Dialogues on Race, Vol. 1, should’ve rated much higher than 33 on the critics’ list. However, Dialogues has been nominated for a Grammy Award, a worthy honor. My rather outlier top-ten picks overall suggest to me that distribution of albums, especially indie-produced ones like this one, can be spotty, and that there appears to be too few of the 148 participating jazz journalists in the heartland area (Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa), though Chicago, of course, is well-represented. One’s locale, if not itinerant, determines sensibility to some degree, I believe. I’m Milwaukee-based with a strong Madison history, as well.

So I’m really glad that Madison friend and Strictly Jazz Sounds DJ Steve Braunginn included August’s Dialogues in his February 25th Black History Month radio program on Madison’s WORT, 89.9 FM, Here’s a link to the show’s announcement, and to the audio archives you can use to get to Steve’s Feb. 25th show:

Black History Month Pt. 2 on Strictly Jazz Sounds

That station’s Monday-through-Thursday afternoon jazz programming is the most consistent source of exposure of recorded jazz in Wisconsin (Braunginn alternates weeks of the Thursday 2 to 5 p.m. shift of Strictly Jazz Sounds with Jane Reynolds).

That’s not to minimize Dr. Sushi’s Free Jazz Barbecue from 9 a.m. to 12 noon Tuesdays on WMSE, 91.7 FM in Milwaukee. I’ve done a fair share of jazz radio programing in the past, so I’m sensitive to its role, especially in this era of online access to recorded music. I’m deeply grateful to these dedicated radio folks, including WORT’s Alexander Wilding-White (Mondays), and John Kraniak (Saturday morning). Research shows that radio remains a very popular medium, despite the the explosion of online media.

Nevertheless, Milwaukee misses longtime jazz DJ stalwarts Ron Cuzner, Howard Austin, Gene Johnson and others, and Madison misses Michael Hanson and Gary Alderman.

I did review a few of my Top Ten albums this year, Here’s my take on Gregg August’s Dialogue on Race:

Gregg August’s “Dialogues on Race” is jazz facing up to racial history and present

And Adam Kolker’s Lost:

Saxophonist Adam Kolker travels in the long shadows of Wayne Shorter

And Lynne Arriale’s Chimes of Freedom:

Jazz pianist Lynne Arriale’s “Chimes of Freedom” testifies to forsaken humanity

Perhaps I should be using this post to expand on my other poll choices. But you readers make your decisions on purchasing recordings most of all by hearing music, which my music writing strives to get you to do. And this poll is facilitated by the nation’s public radio network, which does fair justice to jazz elsewhere, in some of its interview features and jazz album reviews, though not much actual jazz music programming.

So I recommend listening to NPR, the aforementioned local jazz radio programs, as well as accessing recommended music samples online. If you’re interested in the programming and live beyond either WORT or WMSE’s relatively small Wisconsin broadcast range, the shows are streamable.

If anyone is curious beyond the three reviews above about the whys of my poll choices, I’d be happy to expand on them in a Facebook message or, preferably, an e-mail. I’m at kelynchmi@gmail.com. (Unfortunately, I need to fix this blog’s out-of-commission “comments” section below — apologies.)

A blog reflects a writer’s mood and mine today contemplates the connection between sonic media and The Music.

To that end, I will end by at least giving you a sample or two here:

From Gregg August’s Dialogues on Race, Vol 1: “A Wreath for Emmett Till” 

From Lynne Arriale’s  Chimes of Freedom: “Chimes of Freedom”

The Lynne Arriale Trio (drummer E.J. Strickland, left, and bassist/co-producer Jasper Somsen, right) recording “Chimes of Freedom.” 

I’m a bit biased towards jazz with a social conscious. I think much of authentic instrumental jazz does have that, at least implicitly, as I explore in my forthcoming book (I promise!) Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy. But these two pieces, with texts by Marilyn Nelson (“Wreath”), and the astonishing lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes” make that case more obviously. Dylan’s lines refract with a poetic density of images, but with clear pay-off kicker lines. It’s a lyric that, I believe, traverses the political spectrum. I mean, it’s the chimes of freedom, for a vast array of characters. Listen, think and feel.

It’s worth searching out the full lyrics of one of Dylan’s greatest opuses. Arriale’s version, sung by K.J. Denhert and beautiful as it is, only presents three of the six verses.

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