The Beatles or Jack Grassel? The Wisconsin guy wins out, riding the wings of Mercury

 

Jack Grassel playing his triple-neck guitar-bass-mandolin at Villa Terrace in a solo performance Sunday morning. Photos of Jack here and below by Mi/Jo, courtesy Jill Jensen.

I had a Saturday night-Sunday morning dilemma that country singers mournfully ponder, but it wasn’t about making up for excess, rather, if anything, neglect.

Saturday night I finished watching Peter Jackson’s wonderfully fascinating and moving three-part Beatles documentary Get Back. It reveals the world’s greatest pop music band in all their genius, idiosyncrasy and humanity. But everybody and their cousin has written and opined about that, which is worth all the praise it has received.1

Sunday morning I did not go to church, rather I attended a solo concert by Racine guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jack Grassel, a Wisconsin guitar god if we have one at all. 2 I suppose I could be accused of paganism because the dominant symbol of the event was the ancient, larger-than-life statue of Mercury, the Greek messenger of the gods, son of Zeus. But perhaps no other concert setting in Milwaukee possesses more radiant overtones of spiritual power commingling with serene aesthetic magnificence than Villa Terrace, Milwaukee’s own little corner of Renaissance Italy. The sculpture itself is a masterpiece of contrapposto, composed yet coiled. (see photos below, and at bottom). 

Last Sunday morning, musical shape-shifter Jack Grassel situated himself in the archway directly aligned with the ancient statue of Mercury. Photo of the courtyard courtesy Villa Terrace. 

Ah, but Mercury was known as a trickster, even with the other gods, what we might call today a shape-shifter.

As Jack Grassel was aligned directly behind Mercury – yet apparently visible to every listener from their courtyard vantage points – some symbolic affinity connected Jack and Mercury. For as long as I’ve known Jack, for multiple decades, he’s been something of a musical magician. But I have never seen him more of a trickster-shape-shifter than he was Sunday morning  3

He took us on a wobbling and bounding tightrope walk across the tensions between the creative artist and the public purveyor of said goods, or talents. Or, as he put it in an e-mail afterwards: “For years I’ve been chasing the carrot. Sunday, I actually caught it for the first time ever.  Now I intend to hang on to it.”

That implies that he succeeded is his quest Sunday, on his own terms as they relate to engaging the audience in his perhaps-unprecedentedly entertaining shape-shifting (more on this shortly).

Part of my motivation for this blog post is not having appreciated Jack “in print” with any critical depth in recent years, although I have written about him years ago (and in my forthcoming book) when he was with the innovative Milwaukee jazz group What On Earth? He launched his solo career in earnest during the 20 years I spent in Madison, and in recent years I have considered him a friend as much as a critical subject. This, of course, doesn’t do the artist justice.

After the concert, I walked up to him and offered him high praise in indirect syntax. “I’ve been thinking hard about the best solo concert I’ve ever heard, and I really can’t think of a better one,” I said. Jack gave me a slightly quizzical smile. Now, upon reflection, I realize it was overpraise to a degree, and maybe Jack knew that immediately.

After all, he and I drove all the way to wintry Toronto in 1977 (with drummer Dave Ruetz, another member of What on Earth?), to hear Cecil Taylor, the Olympian jazz pianist. There Taylor performed two three-hour solo piano concerts, through afternoon and early evening. As Jack might concur, Taylor’s remains the greatest solo performance I’ve ever heard, though recitals by classical pianists Alicia de Larrocha and Richard Goode also stand vividly in my memory. Of course, Taylor’s was “high art” in a dynamic yet almost austere sense.

Jack Grassel is quite capable of “high” musical art, which he accomplishes almost every time he performs and, indeed, more overtly when, for example, when I witnessed him courageously sit in with The McCoy Tyner Quintet at the peak of that great pianist’s powers in the mid-1980s — and pull it off.

But Sunday Grassel was attempting something different — you might call it the advanced art of musical entertainment. Some of the credit for the loosening up of his sensibility should go to his spouse and regular working musical partner, jazz vocalist Jill Jensen. She was there Sunday, working the merch table, but honoring this as Jack’s show all the way.

He situated himself comfortably in the very American tradition of carnivalesque, traveling sideshows and vaudeville – the one-man band. This shouldn’t be too surprising given his deep history as a state champion accordion player in his youth. Ever since, he’s been one of the most rigorously dedicated musicians I have ever met. As for the artist-entertainer push-pull, he’s always maintained stern standards in live performance even though he’s also consistently exhibited a ready sense of humor and musical zaniness. His jazz efforts include a wide range of recordings, including a dazzling collaboration with the great swing-to-bop guitarist Tal Farlow, an album unassumingly titled Two Guys with Guitars.

Having played with the Milwaukee Symphony a number of times, Grassel struck up an artistic connection with then-musical Musical director Lukas Foss, whom he quoted or paraphrased by saying, “all serious music has humor in it.” He set out to prove that Sunday, his tongue firmly in cheek..

Indeed, there was even some “humor” in Cecil Taylor’s 1977 performance, in the absurdity of it’s most over-the-top and improbably moments of physical assault upon the piano. At times, I laughed in amazement. By conventional standards of pianistics, this was definitely Mercurial shape-sifting, even in Taylor’s panther-like dance-move entrances and exits. 

As to Jack’s mission today, Jill Jensen makes an important distinction, as they often perform fairly obscure material across a wide range of styles: “We’re not doing crowd pleasers. We’re trying to be the crowd pleaser,” she says.

How did Jack please the crowd Sunday?

  • He played Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes,” but stylistically as if blues giant Muddy Waters would’ve done it. So Presley’s proto-hip-hopping rhythms turned dolorous and dark, as if a slightly more ominous threat, if you don’t “lay offa mah blue suede shoes!”
  • He played an abbreviated version of the slow movement of Rodrigo’s gorgeous Concierto de Aranjuez, made famous by trumpeter Miles Davis and Gil Evans on the album Sketches of Spain. This made sense in that the piece is originally a guitar concerto. Grassel even pulled out a harmonica, which somewhat evoked Davis’s poignantly eloquent trumpeting, but without mimicry. This did surprising justice as a solo performance of a piece best known as a concerto with a full jazz orchestra.
  • He sang jazz singer-songwriter-pianist Mose Allison’s  “Certified Senior Citizen,” which includes:                                                                                                       I’m a certified senior citizen
    ‘Scuse me while I take my nap
    You don’t like my drivin’, I don’t like your jivin’
    Just don’t give me that ole timer crap                                                                    He did this not to suggest the audience was old-timers, but because, as he explained, he now was “certified” himself.
  • He also credibly sang Sting’s “Sister Moon” in a high baritone approximating that singer-songwriter’s register, though without the resonant romanticism of Sting’s voice.
  • A one point, he even sat down and played a home-made drum set which includes a donging cast-aluminum pot lid from Jill’s kitchen. He evidently practices at home with typical zeal on drums, about which Jill afterwards commented dryly “is grounds…” The second time he sat down at the set, he pre-empted sentiments by saying, “Oh no, not the drums!”

Throughout, Grassel, complemented his artful juggling of his self-designed, triple-necked guitar-bass-mandolin with deft electronic keyboard playing, which also set up looped rhythmic patterns he would play against on other instruments. I hope you begin to sense Grassel’s wizardly and mercurial shape shifting, which certainly would’ve impressed PT Barnum, while maintaining Grassel’s own standards of musicality and wit.

That, however, included a solemn interlude in which Grassel requested the audience not applaud afterwards. He played his own composition “Ghost Ridge,” set against indigenous-style rhythms, on a Native American wooden flute, to honor victims of a genocidal massacre. His playing met the passing winds and invited them to caress the Indian mounds and righteous memory.

By contrast, the extraordinary concert ended on a note so light that the piece’s notes literally floated away. Grassel picked up a bright yellow toy saxophone and, when he started playing, bubbles floated out of the horn’s bell, evoking perhaps for some of the “certified” senior citizens, the bubbling visual effect of Lawrence Welk, in perhaps slightly satirical manner.

Grassel may think he’s only just now “grabbed the carrot,” but you need to go back to 1986 to note when he started making a successful impression at a national level. That was the year his breakout album Magic Cereal, gained both some critical and commercial appeal, making it onto jazz radio station playlists, as far as the market went for such meaty but ingeniously snappy fusion jazz. Magic Cereal managed to vibe both weird and engagingly friendly, with sophisticated electro-sonics but street-right rhythms. His chord changes may sometimes lean sideways into the wind, but he always sustains his floating aura, like a magician rising right out of your morning Cheerios, which might transform into bubbles.

Grassel’s been a successful working musician ever since, even after nearly dying from a respiratory condition contracted while working at Milwaukee Area Technical College, which forced him to retire from classroom teaching.

Nowadays his sets with singer Jill Jensen range from Mose Allison through James Taylor, and Sade through “Besame Mucho.” “The lines between genres are really blurring,” Grassel says. Jensen recalls another remark from an audience member. “‘What do you call what you’re doing? I really like it!’” By way of explanation, she says, “We’re still under the umbrella of jazz but we massage the songs to sound like us.”

Sunday, Grassel stretched and massaged that umbrella until it encompassed the attendant Greek god himself and his uncannily mercurial powers, for at least an hour and a half.

Jack Grassel and Jill Jensen will perform from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26, at Sam’s Place Jazz Cafe, 3338 N. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr., in Milwaukee. 

“We will play a nonstop 2-hour set of adventurous material,” Grassel promises.  

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1 Aside from the three-disc film video Get Back, which retails for $34.99, the best version of the album the group was trying to make is Let It Be…Naked, rather than the re-issue of the original Let It Be album, with lots of outtakes. The group’s explicitly stated purpose throughout the several weeks of preparing for a recorded concert was to do a “live album,” whether before an audience in the studio without any overdubbing, such as the souped-up strings of Phil Spector, on the original release, which Paul McCartney hated. Let It Be…Naked is the unadorned, rather rootsy album as it should have been, which is a mix of live performances from their heart-rending and impassioned last public performance atop the windswept Apple studios in downtown London (which nearly got them arrested), and “live” studio renditions.

2. Now that Les Paul is gone, I suppose it’s a toss-up for resident “Wisconsin guitar god” between Grassel and Greg Koch, who was much more visible, even through the pandemic (unlike Grassel), with regular You Tube video performances. 

3. Bobby Tanzilo, “Restoring Villa Terrace’s Hermes/Mercury Statue,” Milwaukee.com.

Repair of the statue is reportedly at the top of the current villa administration’s “to do” list after having been severely damaged by Wisconsin weather over the years.

“The nearly 8-foot-tall, two-ton statue of Hermes – aka Mercury, messenger of the gods, son of Zeus – that has graced the arcaded courtyard of Villa Terrace, 2220 N. Terrace Ave., since the museum opened, is believed to date to the first or second century A.D. and has parts that may be even older”… Restored in the 17th century – reportedly by master Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, though without definitive attribution (it may have also been the work of Francois Duquesnoy) – the statue is believed to have been purchased in Italy by American collector Mary Clark Thompson.” https://onmilwaukee.com/articles/villa-terrace-hermes-mercury

The Villa Terrace Art Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki

Jazz has led the way in integration as a social and cultural model at least since 1938

George Shearing, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington and Buddy Rich, at the Madison Square Garden Jazz Festival in New York, in 1959. Photo: Herb Snitzer /MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVE/GETTY

Sure, pianist George Shearing (pictured, above left) was literally blind, to color and everything else (and once made an album with all three Black Montgomery brothers –Wes, Buddy and Monk). Nevertheless, this photo – which prompted this brief essay – signifies, for me, the pan-racial solidarity of jazz as a social model, including brash, super-egotistical Buddy Rich — in 1959. 1

I’m no Rich expert but, a cursory examination of his noteworthy 1967 album Speak No Evil, reveals how integrated his sensibilities and practices were by then. The title tune is by the great African-American saxophonist composer Wayne Shorter. The album also includes compositions by black artists Earth, Wind and Fire; Natalie Cole; The Pointer Sisters; and The Isley Brothers. His band at the time featured these black musicians: arranger Richard Evans, piano soloist Kenny Barron, bassist Bob Cranshaw, tuba player Howard Johnson, and vocalist Retta Hughes. Speak no evil, indeed.

There were certainly plenty more of integrated jazz bands by 1967, but let’s especially note examples of pioneering pre-’60s white bandleaders whom one might assume could travel and work easier in racially charged regions of America without the “white man’s burden” which is actually “the black man’s burden,” (as author/editor Greg Tate has eloquently documented 2.) of conforming to societal restrictions on integration, and thus helped advance the burgeoning civil rights movement.

The integration saga begins with Benny Goodman who hired star soloists from the Ellington and Basie Orchestras for 1938 at his epic Carnegie Hall concert, and his contemporary quartet with pianist Teddy Wilson and vibist Lionel Hampton. Earlier in the ’30s, he’d hired Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, and arranger Fletcher Henderson. In the ’40, Goodman hired guitarist Charlie Christian, trumpeter Cootie Williams, and saxophonist Wardell Gray.

Among notable 1950s Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz musicians and bands and musicians were Chano Pozo, Machito, Chico O’Farrell, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader, Prez Prado, Astor Piazolla, Xavier Cugat, singer Harry Belafonte and, yes, that the eclectic Brit George Shearing.

Then in the ’50s, among the most noatable integration developments came from Milwaukee-native and big band leader Woody Herman. He hired a variety of African American musicians in the 1950s, including vibraphonist Milt Jackson, trumpeters Ernie Royal, Reunald Jones, Nat Adderley, and Howard McGee, and bassists Keter Betts and Major Holley bass. Charlie Parker was guest soloist with the band in early ’50’s.

Herman also hired (white) trumpeter-singer Billie Rogers, one of the first female instrumentalists in a male-dominated band who wasn’t a singe or pianist. *

Speaking of women, in the 1940s, we can’t forget the integrated all-woman big band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

The saxophone section of the 1940s tri-racial orchestra The International Sweethearts of Rhythm Courtesy Rosalind Cron 

Besides Shearing, Herman and Buddy Rich, integrated bands with white leaders included The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Lennie Tristano, Art Pepper, The Gerry Mulligan Quartet, Stan Getz, the black and white co-leadership and integrated personnel of the standard-setting Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and The J.J. Johnson-Kai Winding Quartet.

Among integrated black leaders of the late 1950s: Miles Davis (famously on Birth of the Cool, and Kind of Blue), Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, 3 John Coltrane, George Russell, Sarah Vaughan and Bud Powell, who recorded with Buddy Rich back in 1951.

Also, pioneering Black pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams worked with white trombonist Jack Teagarden, and had arranger Milt Orent assist in arrangements for her ambitious 1940s Zodiac Suite.

I know I am forgetting other “integral” leaders from both races.

l’ll just touch lightly on matters of early modern jazz “influence.” Bebop rose as a virtuosic, self-consciously Black-innovated style (like most all major jazz idioms) to deter whites from “stealing” and profiting by mimicking and marketing their style — as happened profligately with swing. Still, bop had a few notable Bud Powell-influenced white pianists, such as Dodo Mamarosa, Joe Albany, and Al Haig. Among 1950s white pianists influenced by Thelonious Monk (and perhaps Herbie Nichols) was the tragically-short-lived Richard Twardzik. 4.  

Perhaps an efficient way to enhance and conclude this brief historical integration story is to note the 1950s phenomenon of “cool jazz,” and here I’m plucking straight from Wikipedia, to dispel the notion this popular genre was the exclusive realm of white West Coast musicians: “Some observers looked down upon West Coast jazz because many of its musicians were white, and because some listeners, critics, and historians perceived that the music was too cerebral, effete, or effeminate, or that it lacked swing.[12][13][14] However, African American musicians played in the style, including Curtis CounceJohn LewisChico HamiltonHarry “Sweets” EdisonBuddy ColletteRed CallenderHarold LandEugene Wright and Hampton Hawes.”

__________

* Thanks to Curt Hanrahan, music director of The Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra, for information on Woody Herman.

  1. Thanks to my good friend, Stephen Braunginn, formerly jazz program host of WORT-FM radio in Madison, and of the Jazz Enthusiasts Facebook group, for posting this photo (at top).
  2. Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture, edited by by Greg Tate, Broadway Books 2003. This book addresses what is now known in P.C. terms as cultural appropriation. But it seems to me that white jazz artists who cover and pay royalties to black composers, and who fairly hire black musicians are, as Spike Lee would put it, “doing the right thing.”
  3. Though most famous for his piano-less “free jazz” Ornette Coleman used white pianists on his important earliest recordings, the Live at the Hillcrest date with Paul Bley (a true quiet giant) and Walter Norris on Coleman’s Contemporary label recordings, recently re-released as a 2-CD box set.
  4. Twardzik’s composition “Yellow Tango,” is a Latin-flavored small masterpiece of offbeat jazz, well represented on The Chet Baker Quartet featuring Dick Twardzik Live in Koln.

Whether Jazz, Hip-Hop or Electronic, trumpeter Jamie Breiwick rides the waves

Jazz artist Jamie Breiwick’s voice and vision have steadily grown, like rippling concentric circles, since he first caught the attention of fellow musicians, critics, and the public. The wind of his trumpet blowing plays a factor, but the wavelike depths arose from his extraordinary knowledge and honoring of the modern jazz tradition, while finding places in contemporary pop vernaculars for his voice, and realizing the wellsprings of his own creative identity.

That analogy seems apt as his seminal inspiration was Miles Davis, who shaped the tides of jazz time for decades, with an uncanny, lyrical and impressionistic sensibility, even as funky as he could get. “I had a Miles t-shirt in high school that I wore constantly,” Breiwick recalls. “The breadth of music he made is really staggering, whether bebop, free, rock, fusion, electronic, experimental, pop, hip-hop. He really blazed a lot of trails and left us with a lifetime of inspiration.”

Right now, Breiwick ranks among the four or five most important jazz musicians in Wisconsin and, among them, the youngest one on a still-rising arc of creative possibility. His prolific recorded output includes with De La Buena, and the influential 25-year band Clamnation. The pandemic threw many artists askew, but Breiwick pressed full-speed ahead, with voluminous recording and releasing on his own B-Side Recordings label.

The group KASE: Jamie Breiwick, trumpet and electronics; John Christensen, bass; knowsthetime, turntables and electronics. 

Breiwick’s graphic design talents sped this output. He creates all his own album covers (and those of others) with an imaginative but clean, post-1960s Blue Note Records compositional style. He just published a book of his jazz cover designs concurrently with an emblematic album, KASE + Klassik Live at the Opera House. His jazz-hip-hop-electronics trio, with bassist John Christensen and turntablist Jordan Lee, joined Klassik, perhaps the region’s most musically gifted improv hip-hop singer-song maker, who also plays keyboards and saxophone. KASE logically expands Breiwick’s creative ripples into exploring “sonic landscapes” – Miles ahead, atmospheric, wonder-inducing.

The cassette cover of “KASE + Klassik Live at the Opera House,” designed by Jamie Breiwick. Courtesy B-Side Graphics

Breiwick’s recorded and group projects have probed ground-breaking jazzers, including Davis, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and world-music traveler Don Cherry. He’s also played and recorded transcribed Davis solos for two Hal Leonard play-along books, among six various he’s recorded.  He values innovative contemporaries like Jason Moran, Ambrose Akinmusire and Nicholas Payton, “an incredible trumpet player and musical conceptualist,” and “a thought leader and outspoken BAM (Black American Music) advocate.” He also teaches music at Prairie School, near Racine. How good is Breiwick teaching music? In 2013, he was nominated for the first-ever Grammy Music Educator Award, selected as one of 200 semi-finalists among over 30,000 nominees.

The cover of The Jewel: Live at the Dead Poet.

Shortly before the pandemic, Breiwick recorded The Jewel: Live at the Dead Poet, a New York trio recording on the leading independent label Ropeadope, with internationally acclaimed drummer-bandleader Matt Wilson, thus extending his national modern-jazz bona fides.

Breiwick plays a live date (here and in photo at top) with renowned drummer Matt Wilson and bassist John Tate.

Breiwick leaves popular success largely to his evolution and artistic authenticity.

“I think it is all in the delivery – people can tell if you are sincere or not. I try to create music and art that I would like myself and try not to be too corny or contrived, while at the same time recognizing my influences. What did Coltrane say? ‘You can play a shoestring if you are sincere,’ I think that is perfect.”

But he knows jazz musicians always need help in America’s capitalist society. Today they can increasingly help each other with online resources. In 2010, Breiwick co-founded Milwaukee Jazz Vision, an online organization that promotes jazz and its community in the Milwaukee area.

His visual-designer talents suggest deeper creative destinations. “It is a similar path of discovery. Visual art and music relate in so many ways – texture, structure, organization, color, tone. Five or six of my favorite designers are also musicians. There’s some sort of elemental connection between the two disciplines…Miles Davis was an incredible painter. Jean-Michel Basquiat deeply loved music and often used musical imagery or references such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in his works.”

Perhaps his most daring recent recording is Solve for X, duets with a longtime collaborator. Guitarist-synthesist Jay Mollerskov took samples of Breiwick’s own trumpet solos, to create sonic counterpoints and textural backdrops for Breiwick to play against. It works like a musical mosaic – outward refracting, rather than narcissistic. That’s because Breiwick knows of whence he came, as a trumpeter and creator.

“I’m inspired by a lot of things, all sorts of music, visual art, architecture, history, stories, traveling,” he says. “I am just trying to better find out who I am, and ultimately just trying to keep moving forward.”

“Like (trumpeter) Clark Terry said, ‘Emulate, assimilate, innovate.’”

So, Breiwick’s self-discovery proceeds. As to forward progress, only time, his seemingly ever-expanding wave, will tell.

_________________

This article was originally published in slightly shorter form in the May 2022 print magazine edition of The Shepherd Express, available free at many locations around Milwaukee County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neal Chandek is gone. May his trumpet bellow from the heavens, and shake our souls with his power.


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January 29, 2022, 11:45 a.m.
Had a marvelous, stimulating nearly 3-hour visit yesterday with my old friend (and former upstairs duplex neighbor), jazz musician Neal Chandek, who is in St. Mary’s hospital with a bad respiratory condition. He’s one of the most vibrant, knowledgeable and intelligent persons I know, and was in top form yesterday, aside from still being very dependent on induced oxygen, which he’ll need to continue with when he leaves. Thankfully now, he can periodically remove the full face mask to visit with friends (see photo). So please do so, he craves company.
***
“Descanse en Paz Amigo RIP” — guitarist Javier Mendez, in a farewell message to Neal Chandek
This death is devastating for me, the first personal friend of mine to die of complications of Covid. But I can only imagine what it means for the fellow musicians who were closest to him, and to family members.
Neal Chandek once dwelled near the heart of a booming Milwaukee jazz subculture, then for too long, in the shadows of even modest personal success – ever vital, yet a poor man in earthly goods. I suspect he even went hungry too often  And yet, what comes to mind is a quote from a film he might’ve “died for,” Babette’s Feast – “An artist is never poor.”
The notion serves up as mostly cold comfort to me today and yet, deep down, in the vast and sprawling feast-and-famine of life, I feel the warmth of this man’s heart, and the radiant energy of his creative intellect, and hunger for knowledge, beauty, and truth.
Yes, my still-warm and even pulsing memories of him center upon that wonderful afternoon in late January. This deeply-stricken keyboardist and somewhat-forgotten trumpeter had asked me to visit him, and to lend him a book, a biography or autobiography, he said, to immerse himself in, I think. to assuage, and perhaps find meaning for, his suffering.
So, I lent him my copy of Miles Davis, a biography by Ian Carr, a noted British jazz writer and trumpeter. Yet, when I spoke to him for the last time, by phone a few days later, sadly, this voracious reader and maven of jazz and history, could only tell me to come retrieve the book. He feared it might get lost when he is soon transferred. I never made it back in time.
I think he was also pondering a lifetime, his own, and perhaps how it might take the form of a biography, even if it is never quite written. But I hope it is inscribed somehow, on the stone beneath which he might lie, or in the wind of his ashes, even if only a musical sequence of dark marks dancing in the currents that eventually carry him to a higher ground.
My mind traces him with such a notion because, among the remarkable things we touched upon in that deeply-gratifying last conversation – mostly driven by his own desperate need to seize the day, a rare heathy one – was of a higher power.
As we talked, he delved into a profound justification for such a truth, by deftly exposing what he saw as the castle-on-a-cloud constructions of certain neo-atheist theorists, like Richard Dawkins.
I can’t do justice to how surgically he stitched together the underlying truth, as so much is implicitly understood, even hermetically sealed, yet so righteous, a perfectly resolved harmony of the spheres. His thoughts aligned beautifully with that which I carry within me, as a sort of spiritual ballast. I explained to him, I’m an agnostic who spends an inordinate amount of time searching, believing in something, even in the unprovable, which often seems to me so manifest that even The Greatest Silence resounds wordless in The Song of the Wind.
This admission of mine came as a great relief to him as, for some reason, he assumed I was an atheist. I now hang onto this harmonized exchange as a small reward of solace we shared, for him most preciously – for most persons encounter fears of the empirically unknown, while beginning to face mortality’s cruel countdown.
He also urged me to read the great lay theologian C.S. Lewis, who seemed a touchsone for Neal, and I plan on it, probably his Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, for starters, as I’ve read more about Lewis than his actual work, except as a adolescent, the children’s classic The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I also will follow his urging to see the apparently extraordinary Nazi-era film Mephisto, an adaptation of the story of Doctor Faustus. And if I feel up to it, a book called Military Justice is to Justice what Military Music is to Music, a book by Robert Sherrill, with a title employing a Groucho Marx quote.
In those final 40-plus hospital-imprisoned days, the two-headed monster of COVID-19 and COPD pneumonia seared and ravaged his lungs. His pain and angst grew, until finally he could only reach out through social media with beckoning for prayers, the most genuine anyone could muster:
Neal Chandek Facebook Feb. 10, 11:52 a.m.
“Well, here I sit/lay. 34th day at St.Mary’s Hospital. Covid has scarred my lungs so badly that my body won’t absorb any oxygen. They’re not optimistic. I need your prayers. REAL PRAYERS!
READ MATTHEW 6/5 and you’ll know what I mean.”
Here’s Matthew 6/5 and 6/6, from The King James version:
6:5 And when thou prayest though shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.
6:6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
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Doubters, especially now, may reasonably question whether those “secret prayers” were “rewarded.” For sure, Neal clearly loved and cherished life, as a song in the wind he needed to draw from as long as possible. Might some measure of faith allow us to surmise that, by invoking the sacred Biblical wisdoms, Neal began gulping in a long breath of grace? Something to bellow his spirit upwards, and beyond?
The bellow would be the baying of his own trumpet, too-long forsaken, but essential to the musician he was.
Neal Chandek (right, on trumpet) with Bembe Orchestra, at Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Rainbow Summer, 1994. Pictured also, Alan Johnson, (left, on trumpet), Carlos Eguis Aguila, (center, on Bata drum – Okonkolo). Photo by Pat A Robinson.
I am deeply grateful that many friends have already honored him with spiritual salutations of many sorts on his Facebook page. In his last days, he surely had joyous memories of his 60th birthday celebration at Transfer Pizzeria Cafe, where a fulsome variety of friends, fans and well-wishers gathered that evening to hear him play with the Transfer Pizzeria Band, which he led there for more than a decade.
My oldest memories of Neal are of far-more-distant happy days in Milwaukee, when he lived upstairs from me on Astor Street, with fellow musician John Foshager. This was the mid-1980s, when I was covering jazz for The Milwaukee Journal, and he was playing piano and trumpet with La Chazz. That was a marvelous Latin-jazz group led by guitarist Toty Ramos. So Neal and I hit it off, with common interests extending even beyond the grand cavalcade of music of The African Diaspora.
I find it significant that, in the photo below of La Chazz, the band is gathered around a grand piano. That’s the instrument that Neal (second from left, in the photo) played and, as his very first Facebook honorific writer, Michael Reyes, recalls, Neil the pianist “could play a solid montuno, (and) he would often double on trumpet in the same ensemble.”
Image of La Chazz Courtesy of Cecil Negron Sr.
I’ll continue with a copy of Michael’s excellent memorial tribute to Neal:
Michael Reyes 
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Tuesday, February 15, 5:42 p.m. 
A monumental figure in the history of Milwaukee’s jazz scene has left us today at age 66. Neal Chandek was a trumpeter, pianist, arranger, educator, historian and provocative devotee of jazz, blues, latin jazz, salsa, son, rumba and beyond. Neal’s work with the groundbreaking Wisconsin-based supergroup “La Chazz” was nothing short of inspirational. A pianist, who could play a solid montuno, he would often double on trumpet in the same ensemble.
He dedicated his life to the music he loved. An alumnus of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Neal was part of a contemporary group of virtuoso musicians that included Jeff Pietrangelo (trumpet legend), Brian Lynch, David Hazeltine, Jeff Chambers, Carl Allen, Toty Ramos, Cecil Negron, Walter “Wally” Robles, Albert Rivera, Jerry Grillo, Dennis Fermenich, Bill Martin and many others.
Neal’s commitment to music was 24/7. He would practice, teach, study, perform, rehearse and then read and reflect and meditate on music as much as his mind and body would physically allow him. He loved music of the African Diaspora as well as European Classical Music.
During the late ’70’s through the ‘80’s , Neal would often invite musicians to his home for after-hours listening parties (and jam sessions) that would extend past sunrise. Neal’s former room-mate, Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter Brian Lynch, composed and recorded a song entitled “Chandek’s Den” in 1989 memorializing those moments on his album “Backroom Blues” (Criss Cross Jazz 1042CD). Legendary Drummer Art Blakey also included “Chandek’s Den” in his final album “Chippin In” (Timeless) in 1990.
After a period of wide ranging musical freelancing, he started to give lessons on a larger scale. Thanks to musician and business owner Russell Rossetto, Neal began to enjoy the blessing of a steady weekly gig as leader of the Neal Chandek Trio at Milwaukee’s Transfer Pizzeria.
There he would hold court before excited audiences who often were treated to special musical guests who would sit in. Some of those guests included members of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, as well as local, regional and national musicians who would stop by to say hi. Neal also invited young students to sit in to get experience.
Condolences to Neal’s sister Jane Prentice and her family. Sympathies go out to all of Neal’s friends, family, students, bandmates and loved ones.
Farewell Big Brother Neal Chandek RIP (b. 6-30-1955 d. 2-15-2022)
Neal Chandek. Photo by Leiko Napoli
I’ll conclude with a few final thoughts on Neal the man, the artist, and the jazz communitarian, partly inspired by this delightful photo (above) of Neal by noted Milwaukee jazz photographer Leiko Napoli. I think she captures the mature Neal Chandek’s personality as well as any photo that I’ve seen.
The man had a huge heart and a huge mind. The heart I hope to characterize by one more anecdote of my last visit with him on January 29. He was talking very hopefully and boldly as we were discussing common interests. He discovered that I, like him, am a golfer, and we compared notes on local golf courses and agreed that we should play a round as soon as the weather permitted. How much of this was wishful thinking, I wondered, given his state of possibly a chronic deficiency of oxygen, if somehow his lungs could recover. I had heard he was even a candidate for a lung transplant.
Another subject he brought up was gospel music, and he asked if I would be interested in going to a church service with a powerful gospel choir. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I enthusiastically said yes. As it is, perhaps I will hear a gospel choir some time which will bring me a little closer to Neal, and what I fancy to be his archangel’s trumpet.
And then, as we were talking about gospel singing he let loose with a few bars of resounding gospel-like soul singing of his own. I’ve heard a recording of him singing “Georgia on My Mind.” So I knew what he could do with his voice, but I was stunned that he could even belt out a few bars in his oxygen-compromised condition.
Yes, he was a little larger-than-life nearing death, on that afternoon. As the photo above suggests, he had an impish wit and intellect.
He could discourse on any number of subjects of historical or cultural significance. Sometimes, when he was really cooking, his flow of ideas and opinions could get a bit overbearing. But I think he was conscious of that, and during our conversation he frequently pulled himself back, to hear my response. I, of course, wanted to feed him all the intellectual oxygen he could ingest, to transform into golden moments of give-and-take.
I have one last anecdote about Neal, the jazz-jam maestro, which is part of my forthcoming (I swear!) book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy. I will save it for the publication of the book. Neal knows the story very well, and it demonstrates how his ability to connect with, and gather, musicians extended to some of the most celebrated jazz players who ever visited Milwaukee in the 1980s and early-1990s, a heyday of jazz in this city.
Descanse en Paz Amigo RIP.
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Marvin Hill toiled artfully through life, with visionary wit, and knowledge of darkness, on a path to the other side

Wendy and Marvin Hill. Courtesy Wendy Carroll Hill

He’s been gone since 2003, but Marvin Hill is hardly forgotten. My home brims with his wondrous and witty linoleum-block prints. And just as his memorial postcard (see below) was graced with his self-description as “a very lucky man,” I feel blessed as well, with his art and for having known him. I don’t know when exactly Marvin made that self-portrait, but I suspect it was near the end of his life. He seemed like the sort who appreciated his time on this planet, and knew that he had left a rich legacy, filled with hundreds of pathways into his imagination, each adventure returned as a sharply-honed visual story of wonder, humor and mystery.

He died on this day, December Second, in 2003, of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, at 51. His widow, Wendy Hill, who did most of the hand-coloring for his prints, sent out the above postcard in June of 2005, to announce a Marvin Hill booth at Art Fair On the Square. As if nothing had changed, except that angelic tribute to Marvin’s life, talent and spirit. .

He was a sweet, but droll man, with a vibrant creative fire. I once visited his rural studio, slightly pungent with the smell of printer’s ink, and it seemed alive with a slightly cock-eyed aura of artistic affirmation. His artwork was popular, yet idiosyncratic and personal, never pandering. He was always one of the most interesting artists at any art fair he exhibited at, and he was duly feted when chosen as The Featured Artist, for the 1999 Art Fair on the Square in Madison. He designed the official T-shirt for that year’s fair, which he autographed for me and I still have it. Hill exhibited widely at fairs and galleries, and won national awards for his work. 1

Though he once lived on the same street in Milwaukee I now live on, he and Wendy ended up in Johnson Creek, halfway between Madison and Milwaukee, and Madison seemed his strongest market.

I wrote an appreciation of him when he died, for The Capital Times in Madison, and I’ll share some of my thoughts from that time:
“Marvin Hill pulled you into his world with art that could be otherworldly, or as comfortable as a pair of old slippers. The pair you slip on after an especially vivid dream, or to sit down with the book that has you under its spell. Books and dreams were Marvin’s milieu.

Or he got you with his warm, twinkling smile, and his passion for art, stories and life –  in a dimension behind the door unlocked with ‘the key of imagination.’ His art was “The Twilight Zone” captured in a frame. Marvin lived the life of the mind, expanded, printed and hand colored.

His art could challenge you but it was hard to resist. He made inexpensive linoleum block prints, one of the most unpretentious of art forms. Yet Marvin took quantum leaps with this medium….

“Marvin’s style blended noir-ish German Expressionism with an utterly American sense of possibility. Space, time and gravity expanded and contracted. He sensed the chaos theory hidden just beneath the dusty surface of ordinary life.”

“‘He was fully formed intellectually when I met him when he was 21’, says Madison artist and cartoonist P.S. Mueller, who says he and Hill ‘starved together’ as street people in Carbondale, Illinois.

.” ‘But he never used drugs, ever. He always said, ‘I don’t use drugs, they interfere with my hallucinations.’ ” 2

That’s how funny and delightfully outre the guy could be.

Now, I will share some images of Marvin Hill art, with commentary.

He only made one print of my personal favorite among those I own (see his edition designation, “1/1” or “one of one” beside the title). This (and three Hill “artist’s proofs” I own — a test print marked “A/P” he sold inexpensively and may or may not have run an edition of) also confirmed to me a closeness in our aesthetic and literary sensibilities.  They were sort of personal favorites that he made for himself, yet still offered to for sale. So they the A/P’s too might be one-of-a-kind Marvin Hills.

My favorite among these is also the smallest single image I ever saw him produce. It is titled  “Fritz Lang walks His Dog” and I post an enlarged version for you to appreciate. Now, shrink it in your mind: The actual image is only 3/4 of an inch by 2 and 2/5th inches!

The enlargement allows you to see the image, but remember, enlarging also roughens its craftmanship. Hill wasn’t obsessive about razor-sharp technique, but his chops constantly served his quirky genius in perfect simpatico, perhaps like the great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, at times a bit scraggly, but that enhanced the art’s peculiar, funky beauty.

The squinty size of “Fritz Lang” is a “big” part of the piece’s brilliance. It’s like a secret portal into his imaginative world, and into how his conception and style manifested themselves. The idea of movie director Lang and his dog recalls an Alfred Hitchcock movie cameo, though this is more sly, as we see only only the projected shadows of Lang and his dog. It also carries an ominousness, as Lang’s most seminal film is M with Peter Lorre as a serial killer preying on children in Berlin in London. The 1931 film, part of the German Expressionist art movement, is pretty much the prototype for all film noir. 3.  Hitchcock arguably predates M with his 1926 fog-bound silent film The Lodger, about a London serial killer, both films likely inspired by Jack The Ripper’s legend.

But Peter Lorre’s creepy breakout performance, enhanced by his weird nasal-breathing speaking style and demonic laugh, helped give Lang’s “talkie” greater notoriety, for its shock value and aura of paranoia — and stylistically, with his more incisive cinematographic intersecting of light and shadow. Knowing all that, Marvin Hill uses his noir-ish wit to humanize the German director, while maintaining his mystique.

Another noir-ish Hill piece which was an “artist’s proof” shows how subtle his craft can be. It’s titled “Enter” (below).

“Enter,” Marvin Hill. Hand-colored linoleum block print (artist’s proof)

The figure entering the dark room is engulfed in a sort of ectoplasmic atmosphere, an effect unusual for knife-executed block-cut prints. It’s unclear whether the figure is the vulnerable one, entering the dark enclosure, or the threatening one, entrapping a frightened person hiding within. The psychological ambiguity intensifies its power. I have positioned it as as a sort of “welcome” for guests to my home, or now, to my office.

A brighter, rather comical Hill print nevertheless retains his surrealistic weirdness. Some have characterized it as “a bit goofy,” true enough, but it held a place of honor in my divorcee bachelor-flat kitchen for many years.

Marvin Hill, “Man Attacked by Green Beans,” hand-colored linoleum block print (artist’s proof). 

I love the animation of “Man Attacked by Green Beans,”  everything is flying askew (not unlike

Marvin could also celebrate serenity and domesticity, as in this elegantly framed (but still inexpensive) print, below, simply titled “e.”, as in the name of the sleeping feline in portrait.

Marvin Hill, “e.”, hand-colored linoleum block print.

Next, the Deco-styed print (below) takes us into Hill’s dream realm, and suggests his striving to connect or follow nature, to transcend the limits of gravity-bound humanity. It feels like a late-period Hill, though I think it may be the first of his I purchased, before Wendy began hand-coloring his images. His sense of time was elastic, reaching into the fates of futurity as well as backward, with symbolic ease, and wonder.

Marvin Hill, “Dream Suite # 3,” linoleum block print.

Photo of Kevin Lynch at Marvin Hill art booth at Art Fair on the Square, in Madison, by Beth Bartoszek Lynch. 

This photo (above) was taken in summer of 2005, at the first posthumous booth of Marvin Hill art at Art Fair on the Square, maintained by his widow, Wendy Carroll Hill. It shows some of his small work and some of the more ambitious work he achieved late in his life, like the stunning, large mandala-like three-dimensional print, to the right of your blogger, in this photo. The several evident circular images, to me, suggest Marvin’s expression of a holistic experience of the world, his coming to grips with where his journey beyond might take him, not into nothingness, really, but to part of a circle (reincarnation?) that will be unbroken, bye and bye, one can hope.

Yet another marvelous Hill image, which my ex-wife and I bought together, and which she now possesses, depicts a shaman in a small shack high in the mountains. It might allude to the end of his life, or beyond. His corporeal end, to any outside observer, and to Wendy, was impossibly sad. He he lost the use of his hands and arms — an artist still at the peak of his powers, which at times seemed visionary, in his humble way. There are more sad details I won’t get into here. I will recount some of Wendy’s narrative, from my 2003 Capital Times obit appreciation:

“He couldn’t take care of himself, he couldn’t walk, but he was still so positive. One day, he looked out the window and said, ‘It’s all good.’

“I said, ‘It’s all good? It sucks! ‘

” He said, ‘No, I want to know what’s going to happen, what’s on the other side.’ ” 4

Fortunately for Wendy, Hill’s work has steadily sold online in recent years, and a goodly but diminishing amount remains available online, including more ambitious works. 5 One uses the above bird-seeking “Dream Suite” image as one of multiple motifs, each dominated by a blackbird in the dazzling 3-D montage titled “Jack’s Message Dream Suite.”

Another, “Lao Tzu and Rene Descartes Engage in a Philosophical Battle,” articulates his self-expressed intellectual hunger and spiritual curiosity (image below).  It’s telling that Hill positions the ancient Chinese philosopher in the dominant dueling position. Descartes, riding a mechanical dragon, uses a book “shield” and wields a giant pointed circumference compass; while Lao, atop a “real” dragon, counters with a traditional saber and a walking stick. Mathematician, metaphysician, and philosopher Descartes is, of course, best known as the Western paragon of rationalist philosophy as a demarcation of reality. Though his historicity as a real person is debated, Lao is credited as the founder of Taoism and reputed author of the philosophical text Tao Te Ching.

By contrast to Western rationalism’s prioritizing the brain’s reasoning powers, Taoism embraces an inquiry into primary sources, the un-apprehended aspects, or vast realms of existence, that may help form our cosmos, our world and affect our lives. Accordingly Tao signifies “the source and ideal of all existence: it is unseen, but not transcendent, immensely powerful yet supremely humble, being the root of all things. People have desires and free will (and thus are able to alter their own nature). Many act ‘unnaturally’ upsetting the natural balance of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching intends to lead students to a ‘return’ to their natural state, in harmony with Tao.] Language and conventional wisdom are critically assessed. Taoism views them as inherently biased and artificial, widely using paradoxes to sharpen the point. ” 6

Marvin Hill, “Lao Tzu and Rene Descartes Engage in a Philosophical Battle.” Linoleum-cut block print. Courtesy www.marvinhill.com

Surveying Hill’s oeuvre, one senses his Taoistic leanings, an intense awareness of forces beyond the empirical. Another ambitious print, is even more surreal than “Man Attacked by Green Beans.” Titled “Nonattachment,” wherein gravity has evidently abandoned a man in his home, and he and his possessions all float freely. Is this evoking a strange scientific phenomenon, or an underlying truth of contingency regarding reason, and even ownership? Were Marvin’s humble and drug-free “hallucinations” also possibly insights? Given his ever-leavening humor, he was a serious reader, and a pan-cultural, pluralistic thinker, clearly interested in the dialectical (and in paradox), and beyond.

I think Marvin Hill’s equilibrium helped focus his insights. He seemed to know how far to go with his dreams. As D.H. Lawrence wrote: “The Holy Ghost (the winged soul within us) bid us never be too deadly in our earnestness, always to laugh in time, at ourselves and everything, Particularly our sublimities. Everything has its hour of ridicule – everything.”  6 Marvin could always laughed in time, like, say, pianist Victor Borge, a musical comedian with exquisite timing. A prime Hill illustration of perfect comic timing is the piece titled “Does Awakening Come All at Once?” The image is of a bespectacled man (le artiste?) getting a blueberry pie splat in the face. Or, there’s the tart irreverence of “Thoreau is Driven from the Garden by Unruly Nature,” the ironic title delivering plenty.

And then, the affliction arose and eroded him. Sorrow welled, though not Marvin’s, until his knife and wit lay still, for the last time, December 2, 2003.

Finally, another Hill “artist’s proof” (below) would become a posthumous gift from him to me (actually sent to me by Wendy, in gratitude for my patronage and coverage of Marvin) – a portrait of the great American poet Walt Whitman, clearly in the autumn of his life. Marvin knew just how to visually honor the mighty, innovative, and quintessentially American poet, also known for his massive capacity for compassion, as a dedicated Civil War nurse. Hill depicts Whitman’s head, well, as if upon a hill. Whitman here seems like granite, or one more great face, to be carved into Mount Rushmore, alongside other American giants, including his contemporary Abraham Lincoln, whom Whitman honored in magnificent verse, better than any other poet.

I didn’t consciously intend this, but “Walt Whitman” sits in my office, atop a bookshelf, the highest location of any artwork I own.

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1 Art Fair on the Square, held each Independence Day Weekend, is sponsored by The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, and is one of the state’s most rigorously-juried outdoor art fairs, along with Milwaukee’s Lakefront Festival of the Arts.

2. Even given Mueller’s story about he and Hill as classic “starving artists,” Hill had earned an MFA in printmaking from Drake University.

3. Among other many great Fritz Lang (primarily) films noirs: include: “Metropolis (silent),” “You Only Live Once,” “Ministry of Fear,” “Scarlet Street,” “Clash By Night,” “The Big Heat,” “and “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.”

4. Here’s a scan of my 2003 newspaper appreciation of Marvin Hill. You might save or download it to a picture file to magnify and read it better.

5. The Marvin Hill website: http://www.marvinhill.com

6.. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laozi

7. D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, Penguin, 1923,1977, 79

 

Restlessly seeking enlightened serenity, Jim Glynn carried his gift to humanity far and wide

Jim Glynn served as best man for my second wedding to Beth Bartoszek, in Madison Wisconsin, at the Unitarian Meeting House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo by wedding photograper. All other photos by Kevin Lynch 

Without the power of his legs, Jim Glynn often seemed to soar through life on wings of passion, love, charisma, and a gift for serenity. He was perhaps the most extraordinary man I’ve ever known to call a friend.

I’m honoring him on the anniversary of his death, October 18, 2004. Coincidentally, I myself became disabled that same year, but in my upper limbs, with a severe neuropathy that continues today.

So, it wasn’t until the year he died that I could perhaps begin to fully relate to the challenges that he overcame with rare and inspiring grace. But it’s always different when you are no longer ambulatory. Jim never simply fell back on the use of a wheelchair, as he regularly used crutches for decades, bolstered by the strong athletic upper body that he kept in superb shape as a swimmer and arm-powered cyclist. “He was a marathon swimmer,” said Harvey Taylor, the poet and singer-songwriter with a truly amphibious relationship with Jim. They swam in the Racine quarry together hundreds of times. “He was a magnificent athlete.”

I too swam with Jim in that quarry, which he seemed to especially value for the serenity that its glasslike water surface signified. 1 And yet he often also swam across Elkhart Lake, which can get feisty and treacherous.

Jim gets ready to take a swim in the Racine quarry, a favorite refuge of his.

Harvey may have been Jim’s best friend, but I held him as dearly a friend as any person I’ve ever known. He was the best man at my second wedding. Jim and I bonded over our love of music, with tastes that were similarly wide-ranging. I met him when I was working as album buyer at Radio Doctor’s “Soul Shop” at Third and North Avenue, in Milwaukee, back in the mid-1970s. 2

Only the hippest white music lovers frequented the soul shop, in the “downtown” of Milwaukee’s inner city. Jim knew and loved jazz — our greatest shared passion —  as a connoisseur, but without pretension. He also craved classical music, from baroque to contemporary, and had a supremely selective taste for the best of all American vernacular musics, as well as emerging world musics.

An avid fan of many musics, including avant-garde Jazz, Jim Glynn (left) joins a reception at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music for the renowned jazz pianist Cecil Taylor (center in sport jacket) along with Cecil’s longtime friend and collaborator Ken Miller, with hand around Taylor.

And despite his apparent physical limits, Jim often seemed capable of morphing into multiples of himself. He showed up at most every notable music event in town. After attending maybe three events in one evening, he’d say, “Well, we did it all, tonight.”

What did I learn from him? One thing is this. More than I, he also gravitated to the sort of musically unadorned kinds of music that emerge from Eastern classical music partly because, perhaps once he became paraplegic, he became a hand drummer like the great Indian tabla players. I’m talking about so-called New Age or what mutual musician friend Mitar Covic called “bliss music.” The harmonic simplicity of “New Age” can be traced somewhat to the modal music of John Coltrane, as well as Eastern classical music. But I felt the new music often insipidly exploited those modalities without their profundities and passion, at best turning potential beauty into prettiness.

Now perhaps I can see more Jim’s perspective, throughout his decades of disabled suffering. He always strove for healing, replenishing and enlightened serenity in life, and that included artistic vibrations. Amid contemporary life’s onslaught of stresses and ugliness, his search for musical beauty and rhythmic vitality, which some of the NA musicians achieve, is something I can still learn and benefit from. It ties in to Zen disciplines and meditational practices, the latter which I have partaken off since college, but with no consistency.

Jim may be imparting a tidbit of wisdom to girlfriend Yovanka Dajkovic in this scene (top photo) from Holy Hill in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine. In the lower photo, the two of them wave picturesquely from below the great cathedral’s tall steeples.

Jim might have been a “guru” of sorts, though I never realized that at the time. But the man’s rare,  aura, his alluring friendliness frequently suggested a tacit invitation to most anyone into his life, to do what he often did with his best friends: Hang, talk, listen and do little jam sessions with a few hand drums and some of his flute playing thrown in. The meditative quality of a Jim Glynn hang-out was often generously enhanced with marijuana. Yet, in later years, he bemoaned the diminishing experience that blended music, camaraderie and marijuana had provided. “I really miss the transcendent experience of a great high,” he said, something that, for whatever reasons, changing times stole from him. Perhaps we had less sense of discovery and revelation after hearing so much music, as well as the oft-discussed damaged idealism and and fading visions of our generation.

The last photo I took of Jim, (playing drums, at far right) at a farewell party for him before he moved from Milwaukee to Portland, Oregon. The other players include (L-R) percussionist Tony Finlayson, pianist Steve Tilton, and harmonica player Steve Cohen (of the blues band Leroy Airmaster). .

But the fact that he could attain such transcendent moments long after he lost the use of his legs speaks volumes for the man’s spiritual capacities. That’s something that people seemed to intuitively sense from him, as he was one of the most effortlessly charismatic people I’ve ever known. It’s as if he made something of his seated posture, implicitly inviting many a stranger into an imaginary crib.  So he befriended people time and again, and quickly called them “brother” or “sister,” often before he really even knew their name.

A good-looking Irishman with a low, naturally-seductive voice, an easy smile and a sly wit, Jim was something of a ladies man. Any number of women over the years eagerly befriended and romanced him, while activating their caretaking instinct. Perhaps his best and most loyal woman friend was Pat Graue, who ended up honoring his wish that his ashes be strewn in Sedona, Arizona — with its mysteriously looming rock formations, like permanent sentinels of ghosts — which he considered the most Nirvana-like place in America.

The other end of Nirvana on earth was the hellish day, during the Vietnam War, when his Army jeep swerved in the French Alps, to avoid a blocking car. Flung from the vehicle, Jim fell hundreds of feet, but somehow survived, though this leg functions did not.

For me, he is now a quietly great figure who built up a strong and loyal following of listeners on his mind-expandingly eclectic music programs on WUWM and WMSE radio. And this greatness he wore with the grace of a bird’s wing. The quote of Harvey Taylor above is from Amy Rabideau Silvers’ superb obituary on Jim in The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel upon his death. Reading it again, I’m amazed at the humility of the man, despite all that he added up to, which seems now the essence of cool.  Some of the most remarkable aspects of his life detailed in Silvers obituary were revelations to me, even though I thought I knew Jim intimately for over three decades.

For example, while in the service he worked in Army intelligence, including the Cold War’s most famous espionage event. He tracked U-2 spy plane flights by pilot Francis Gary Powers, including the one in which Powers was shot down and captured by the Soviet Union in 1960.

And despite our shared love of jazz, he never told me that long ago, as a fully functioning drummer before his accident, he had played with Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, and the Everly Brothers when they would visit Wisconsin.

On that October day in 2004, my mother called to tell me Jim was dying. I was living in Madison and jumped on a Badger Bus to meet my folks (also great friends of Jim’s) at the Milwaukee bus station. When I got there, they told me he was gone. Harvey had been there with him. I melted into tears.

Jim bequeathed his huge CD collection to me. I couldn’t practically accept it, as my own collection was nearly as big already. But the gesture deeply moved me. After being cherry-picked by me and a couple friends and WMSE disk jockeys, the recordings were donated to that radio station by his sister .

Something of a philosopher, Jim also helped counsel paraplegic veterans in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Washington D.C. in how to “take a fall and get back up” as his brother Steve Glynn explained to Silvers. That included, “you can still have an active sex life.”

I’m sure he delivered that assurance with an offhanded air akin to Paul Newman’s title character in “Cool Hand Luke,” with “that old Luke smile.” Like Luke, Jim Glynn lived in a sort of prison, but he could break away from that trap with the same kind of uncanny ease.

(One of three post parts on Jim Glynn)

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1 Our Racine Quarry swimming inspired a poem I wrote in about 1985. I would never had such an experience of nature, and nature interrupted, but for my friendship with Jim Glynn.

2. Jim actually knew two of my six sisters before he met me. He became a great Lynch family friend — my parents were big jazz and classical music fans — and attended a number of our family’s Thanksgiving meals. In the photo below, he’s seen with his girlfriend Pat Graue in the foreground. (Pictured, L-R, Norm Lynch, Nancy Aldrich, Erik Aldrich, The Turkey of Honor, Lauren Aldrich, Jim Glynn, Pat Graue, and Anne Lynch).

(Pat Graue now goes by the name Zoe Daniels)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maria Schneider strives to slay data dragons and earns two Grammies

Composer-arranger-bandleader Maria Schneider won two Grammy Awards for her album “Data Lords.” Courtesy the artsdesk.com

All praise Maria Schneider and her larger-than-life, intrepid orchestra! She just won two Grammy Awards for best instrumental composition (“Sputnik”) and best large ensemble recording, for Data Lords. Like a goddess sprouting heavy new wings, Schneider brilliantly ventured far beyond her comfort zone of nature-inspired jazz impressionism, in the Gil Evans tradition: Schneider Grammy announcement

Despite her clear and proud roots, Data Lords affirms her genius as a true original and her prominent place in jazz history. I never actually reviewed this album partly because I’ve given her so much blog and newspaper play over the years and I reviewed in-depth a live concert she performed while unveiling some of Data Lords material, before the album’s release.

Data Lords album cover

I chose Data Lords as my No. 2 album of the year in the NPR jazz critics poll largely because, to me, my top choice, Gregg August’s Dialogues on Race, was too urgently relevant in light of last year’s world-wide racial-justice protests. August’s large ensemble album also carried massive musical weight on its own.

But Schneider’s every statement now virtually demands critical attention, not unlike John Coltrane and Miles Davis, avatars of the post-bop era. Data Lords revealed the fire, indignation and backbone of the music’s leading composer-arranger, fully wielding her past mastery of scoring for jazz orchestra, like a woman warrior leading troops. And, yes, Delacroix’s famous romantic painting “Liberty Leading the People,” comes to mind. And no album had more great music in 2020 than hers. As an artist who records on a self-created label (ArtistShare) and distributes independently, 1 she’s not only a self-made artist but extremely attuned to the role of “data lords,” the gigantic online media companies (Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) that play a grossly outsize role in how we pursue and receive information on the Internet, and spend our money on cultural products or activity. In other words, Schneider asserts that they virtually lord over our lives because so many of us are now dominated by our involvement in online media.

The Grammy-winning composition “Sputnik” is part of the “protest” side of this two-CD recording, yet it retains the depth of textured and spiritual beauty that trademark her best work, while evoking a profound sense of angst and desolation. By nominally invoking a famous space travel vehicle, it suggests that we may need to travel to new realms far from “home” to regain truth, self-determination, sanity, freedom and societal-coherence – not overseen by the data lords. Here too, an allusion to the Underground Railroad and slavery hovers in the stratosphere. I suggest this not to equate the two, but to honor the cultural pervasiveness of that darkest chapter in this nation’s history.

Such elevated praise might indicate that this is The Maria Schneider Show with musician munchkins. But she chooses her world-class players with Ellingtonian acumen (here, among others, Donny McCaslin, Rich Perry, Steve Wilson, Scott Robinson, Ryan Keberle, Gary Versace, Ben Monder, and the late Frank Kimbrough) and gives them many extended spotlights, which helps expand this to two discs, and there’s hardly a moment of seeming filler.

And Schneider rewards listeners for the facing the sometimes-dissonant challenges of the first CD, “The Digital World,” by reminding us of what she is fighting for, in “Our Natural World,” the gloriously beautiful second disc. Another implication, in these juxtaposed titles, is that data lords’ dominance affects our overall priorities and collective consciousness, perhaps to the detriment of addressing climate change, and the perils to the natural world.

Great art like Schneider’s does its extraordinary work on its own terms, while reaching out to us, to some degree. The cultural covenant is completed when we respond as we will, which that art itself is not responsible for, and yet which reflects its sometimes-uncanny powers of evocation, provocation, and communication.

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  1. Thanks to Ann Braithwaite and her staff, of Braithwaite & Katz Communications for their superb, dedicated promotion of Schneider, and many other independent artists and labels over many years.

 

Bassist/composer/bandleader Dave Holland wins NEA Jazz Master Award for 2017

Dave Holland Quintet

Dave Holland (left) has led a group of master improvisors and communicators in his quintet for years. Here is Robin Eubanks on trombone, Nate Smith on drums, and Chris Potter on soprano sax, performing at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2011.

Has there been any better jazz bandleader than Dave Holland over the last two decades? Has there been a better bassist?

Dave Holland has just received the nation’s highest honor in jazz, a 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Award. Few musicians deserve the award more.

And it seems overdue, akin to Wayne Shorter finally winning a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award this year, which might not be as high an award in jazz, but the Grammy is a bit glitzier and, of course, Shorter is deeply deserving.

Other 2017 Jazz Master Award winners recognized for their lifetime achievements and exceptional contributions to the advancement of jazz include vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, critic and author Ira Gitler, keyboardist Dick Hyman and organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. Each will receive a $25,000 award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and will be honored at a tribute concert on Monday, April 3, 2017, produced in collaboration with the Kennedy Center.

Below is a bit more from the press release from Braithwaite & Katz Communications, an excellent promotional company for many independent jazz and creative musicians.

Then I will offer my own thoughts on and experience with Holland, by excerpting two passages from my forthcoming book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy.

The first passage from the book is a brief anecdote of my interacting with Holland between sets at the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery. The second is a longer critical assessment of Holland, from the books final Chapter, FREEDOM JAZZ: I GOT A WITNESS, CAN WE GET A CONSENSUS? Or, MEETING OF MANY MINDS, A CAUCUS OF SOULS .

From Braithwaite & Katz Communications:

The renowned bassist/composer and bandleader Dave Holland is also visiting artist-in-residence at the New England Conservatory.

Over the course of a nearly five-decade career, Holland has never stopped evolving, reinventing his concept and approach with each new project while constantly honing his instantly identifiable voice. From the electric whirlwind of Miles Davis’Bitches Brew-era band to the elegant flamenco of his collaboration with Spanish guitar legend Pepe Habichuela; accompanying the great vocalist Betty Carter in her last years to forging a new sound with the pioneering avant-garde quartet Circle alongside Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton, and Barry Altschul; standing alongside legends like Stan Getz, Hank Jones, Roy Haynes, and Sam Rivers to providing early opportunities to now-leading players like Chris Potter, Kevin and Robin Eubanks, or Steve Coleman; Dave Holland has been at the forefront of jazz in many of its forms since his earliest days.

holland w Miles

Bassist Dave Holland performs here with the legendary trumpeter Miles Davis and drummer Jack DeJohnette the British jazz club Ronnie Scott’s. Miles encouraged Dave Holland to follow him to New York when he heard him at the Soho venue in 1968. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

Outside the jazz world, he’s collaborated with Bonnie Raitt, flamenco master Pepe Habichuela, and bluegrass legend Vassar Clements. In 2013, the Wolverhampton, England native unveiled Prism, a visceral electric quartet featuring his longtime collaborator and Tonight Show bandleader Kevin Eubanks, along with keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Eric Harland. In addition, Holland continues to lead his Grammy-winning big band; his renowned quintet with saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, and drummer Nate Smith; and the Overtone quartet, with Potter, Harland, and pianist Jason Moran.

— Ann Braitwaithe, Braithwaite & Katz Communications

*******

Excerpts from Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy

Chapter 2 — THE MILWAUKEE HOW-LONG BLUES: AN UNLIKELY JAZZ SCENE FLOURISHES

Chuck LaPaglia, the owner of the Miwaukee Jazz Gallery in the late ’70s and early ’80s, is discussing the dynamics of his club, a central catalyst of the city’s surprisingly vital jazz scene at the time:

“I think there’s a different sort of rapport than happens between the audience and the musicians,” LaPaglia explained at the time. “It has happened here, I’ve seen it. The audience gets warmer and warmer as the night goes on, and I think the music improves.”

For that matter, it was the kind of place where, on a night I wasn’t working, I’d step up to hang in LaPaglia’s apartment between sets and find myself sharing a joint with the brilliant bassist Dave Holland (one night I wasn’t reviewing a Jazz Gallery event for The Milwaukee Journal). How could Holland play such demanding music under the influence? The answer, it appeared, was that he took small, calibrated hits.

From Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy,

Chapter 16 FREEDOM JAZZ: I GOT A WITNESS, CAN WE GET A CONSENSUS? Or, MEETING OF MANY MINDS, A CAUCUS OF SOULS:

I will examine two albums that demonstrate and signify how contemporary jazz correlates to the democratic process as an act of interactive consensual process, the Dave Holland Quintet and group of pianist Myra Melford who, like this book, sees the process as partaking in the inexorable power of rivers.

The Holland Quintet is a virtual consensus choice of critics and fans in recent years as the finest jazz group in the world.

Their acclaimed 2001 album directly declares that this music is Not for Nothin’, the CD’s title.

holland nothin

 

If it is for something, bandleader-bassist Holland begins to make it clear from the very first tune, which is titled “Global Citizen.”

I offer a few thoughts about the interpretation of wordless music. Yes, the following description is an interpretation open to debate. But we must concede that if the group titles the piece “Global Citizen” and that jazz musicians so often say they play music to “say” something, to speak their piece. (It’s significant that all of the pieces on this album are written by members of this group, a not common phenomenon in contemporary jazz and in interactive types of rock jam band music, which borrows heavily from the manner and spirit of jazz (Hip hop does as well with rhyming words added.).

The tune “Global Citizen” is open to meaningful interpretation. The band plays in a minor key but with a growing sense of excitement and purpose, articulating musical thoughts and feelings imbued with the hard questions and tough relativism of their time. Much of contemporary jazz plays in, or orients itself to, minor keys and dissonant-laden harmonies. Here, however, each rhetorical statement unfolds in a citizen-like manner, whether at the end of a solo, a chorus or in restating the theme in quickly ascending phrases that seem to say “What about you?,” or “Why not?” or “Whaddya think?”

The complex solos each encounter pithy interjections from the group, as if reminding the speaker of the theme or point at hand, and each time rising to a slightly higher level of discourse. Then all musicians fall silent to hear out the sage-sounding bass voice of leader Holland. The similarly quiet-tempered voice of the trombone ensues in a mature spirit of thoughtfulness.

The point is that effective, communicative form and interactive process leads to constructive inspiration – new ideas that no one may have imagined before, that everyone appears to agree on, at least conditionally.

This is true dialog. It is even more dramatic in the ensuing tunes “For All You Are” and especially “Lost and Found” which seem to be about losing one’s way and finding it again, through determination and open-mindedness. This is what happens in the democratic spirited discussion that allows free input from any voices, even the most fringe or eccentric.  In “Lost and Found” the group’s interaction becomes so animated, intense, and excited as to be palpable, to the last note which is a long held note by the alto saxophonist, which seems to say yes, we have reached a conclusion, the debate and discussion is resolved for now.

This is “free” jazz for the new millennium.

holland qint Montreux 2011

“Dave leaves everybody a great deal of freedom to express themselves,” the band’s vibist Steve Nelson (at left, above) told Down Beat’s Howard Mandel. Dec 2002 p 32 “The music is demanding because we have so much freedom. As in a lot of improvised music, there’s a blueprint but around that a million things can happen. I never know what direction Dave, Robin, Billy and Chris are going to go, so I have to keep listening.” (“Dave leaves everybody”: Howard Mandel, Down Beat, December, 2002. p. 32.)

Listening is the key to true dialog and achieving consensus, perhaps in achieving a nation, in the striking phrase of Malcolm X, known for the seemingly uncompromising slogan “by any means necessary,” revealed that one important means was listening closely to others, to get past bluster or rhetoric.

“There’s an art to listening well,” he told Alex Haley in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” “I can listen closely to the sound of a man’s voice when he’s speaking. I can hear sincerity.” (“There’s an art to listening well”: Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. p. 460 Ballantine Books, 1965.)

Jazz listening, response and interaction are more a model and inspiration than an example, which more literal and literary art forms provide.

But the powerful collective human voice of jazz is unmistakable, throughout the Dave Holland Quintet’s recordings and countless other instances of jazz, be it serious or joyous, blues-laced or ecstatic, ironic or idealistic.

Copyright: Kevin E Lynch 2016

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Dave Holland Quintet photos from allaboutjazz.com.

“Not for Nothin’ ” CD cover from allmusic.com.

Why should we care about Miles Davis? New biopic, live tribute, local thoughts

Portrait of US jazz trumpet player Miles Davis taken 06 July 1991 in Paris. Portrait du trompettiste de jazz Miles Davis pris lors d'un concert le 06 juillet 1991 à la Halle de la Villette à Paris. (Photo credit should read PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/GettyImages)

Portrait of US jazz trumpet player Miles Davis taken 06 July 1991 in Paris.
Portrait du trompettiste de jazz Miles Davis pris lors d’un concert le 06 juillet 1991 à la Halle de la Villette à Paris. (Photo credit PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/GettyImages)

Why care?

Miles Davis dwells at, and helped create, the root thrust of many music vernaculars of the 20th century — from vintage bop with Bird, to purring like a breeze-cooled cat in Birth of the Cool, to kicking in the blues ‘n’ back beat of workin’, walkin’ hard-bop with Trane, to modal jazz trance with Kind of Blue, to cutting-edge modern slash with his second great quintet, to polyrhythmic Afro-fusion with Bitches Brew, to deep street funk and proto-hip-hop ‘tude with On the Corner. And he always gave us the essence of personal style, as an expression of American individuality and romance. Whew.

Well, that’s by way of introduction to this radio story. Thanks to 88.9 Radio Milwaukee’s Glenn Kleiman and trumpeter Jamie Breiwick for including me in this fine feature. http://radiomilwaukee.org/discover-music/still-care-miles-davis/

The feature, with interviews of Breiwick and me is hooked on Don Cheadle’s highly-anticipated biographical film about Miles Davis Miles Ahead, and “A Tribute to Miles Davis,” (a supper club edition) a live concert event at Company Brewing, 735 E. Center St, Milwaukee, at 9:30 p.m. on April 15. The event is organized by and features saxophonist Jay Anderson along with trumpeter Russ Johnson, pianist Mark Davis, bassist Ethan Bender, and drummer Mitch Shiner. This is an excellent ensemble event, featuring music by and associated with Miles, not to be missed: https://www.facebook.com/events/1671208159798613/

Also, here is a link to my review of the 1983 Miles Davis concert in Milwaukee, for The Milwaukee Journal:https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1499&dat=19830218&id=XWgaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=4ykEAAAAIBAJ&pg=4166,4949562&hl=en