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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Pearl Harbor Day - Some thoughts that I received today

This showed up in my e-mail; perhaps it has already been blasted around the Web. I found it to be worth reading...

"Reflections on Pearl Harbor " by Admiral Chester Nimitz
(This is a true story: Day in American History)

1941- At 7:55 local time in Hawaii, “a date that will leave in infamy,” nearly 200 Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, long considered the US “Gibraltar of the Pacific.” The raid, which lasted little more than one hour, left nearly 3,800 dead. Nearly the entire US Pacific Fleet was at anchor there and few ships escaped damage. Several were sunk or disabled, while 200 aircraft on the ground were destroyed.

The attack on Pearl Harbor brought about immediate US entry into World War II, a “Declaration of War” being requested by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, carried live on radio, and approved in a record time by the Congress, December 8, 1941, only a few hours after President Roosevelt address to a joint meeting of Congress.

December 11, Germany and Italy, in a pact with the Japanese, declared war against the United States. Misinterpreting the anti-war sentiment in the U.S., they thought we would not want to enter two separate wars, particularly with a decimated U.S. Navy and would leave Asia and Australia for Japan to conquer. They thought American's weak and without the will, particularly without the weapons to fight back.

( lower half of )

In reality, Former Admiral Chester Nimitz saw three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could ever make:

Sunday, December 7th, 1941--Admiral Chester Nimitz was attending a concert in Washington D.C. He was paged and told there was a phone call for him. When he answered the phone, it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the phone. He told Admiral Nimitz that he (Nimitz) would now be the Commander of the Pacific Fleet.

After making plans, organizing his staff, Admiral Nimitz flew to Hawaii to assume command of the Pacific Fleet. He landed at Pearl Harbor on Christmas Eve, 1941. There was such a spirit of despair, dejection and defeat--you would have thought the Japanese had already won the war. On Christmas Day, 1941, Adm. Nimitz was given a boat tour of the destruction wrought on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Big sunken battleships and navy vessels cluttered the waters every where you looked.

As the tour boat returned to dock, the young helmsman of the boat asked, "Well Admiral, what do you think after seeing all this destruction?" Admiral Nimitz's reply shocked everyone within the sound of his voice. Admiral Nimitz said, "The Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could ever make, or God was taking care of America. Which do you think it was?"

Shocked and surprised, the young helmsman asked, "What do mean by saying the Japanese made the three biggest mistakes an attack force ever made?" Nimitz explained:

Mistake number one : The Japanese attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk--we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,800.

Mistake number two : When the Japanese saw all those battleships lined in a row, they got so carried away sinking those battleships, they never once bombed our dry docks opposite those ships. If they had destroyed our dry docks, we would have had to tow every one of those ships to America to be repaired. As it is now, the ships are in shallow water and can be raised. One tug can pull them over to the dry docks, and we can have them repaired and at sea by the time we could have towed them to America. And I already have crews ashore anxious to man those ships.

Mistake number three : Every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war is in top of the ground storage tanks five miles away over that hill. One attack plane could have strafed those tanks and destroyed our fuel supply. That's why I say the Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could make or God was taking care of America.

Anyway you look at it--Admiral Nimitz was able to see a silver lining in a situation and circumstance where everyone else saw only despair and defeatism.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Trombone Shorty and All That N.O. Funk

First of all, I am dedicating this post to my old Cal roommate. Tyler was my "trombone brother" in those carefree college days. He is back in the woodshed, working his on his trombone chops, after a successful business career. Tyler is a huge fan of Trombone Shorty; I think they have even hung out on occassion.

Yes, yes - Trombone Shorty, aka Troy Anderson. He is only 25 years old. He plays both trumpet and trombone like a man with hundreds of years of study under his belt. TS grew up in the Treme' neighborhood of New Orleans. He is a stone N.O. guy, a grad of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. He has been playing in bands since he was six years old.

TS came to Chicago last Wednesday night. Tyler flew in for the event; a group of us gathered. The Park West was full and the decible level was very high. There are six players in Shorty's band - baritone sax, tenor sax, guitar, bass and two percussionists. This band had the polish and precision that comes from playing 250 gigs a year. They provided a flawless foundation for Trombone Shorty's wild improvisations. The band also pulled a stunt durng their encore that we used to call "the Big Switch" - all the players picked up different instruments and played (Shorty on drums, the drummer on guitar, the bass player on trumpet. etc.). These guys are professionals.

Young Troy is a phenom. He is built like a welterweight boxer and dances with a boxer's masculine grace. Since I am an old trombone player, I have a deep appreciation of Shorty's towering mastery of a balky horn. Some of his excursions had me howling in amazement. His trumpet work is equally stunning - he has speed, range and power, and he also can use circular breathing to play continuously for long periods of time - a very flashy, crowd-pleasing technique. I can't think of anyone else that has conquered those two instruments so completely. I was flooded by the flow of his musical ideas.

TS is a great singer, too. His tribute to James Brown was a real eye-opener.

My main beef about the show at the Park West was the sound mix. The bass was way too heavy and devolved into an indistinct rumble that muddied up the sound of the band. Of course, I miss the days when musicians played with dynamics. The relentless volume is near-deafening and becomes stupifying after a while. And the crowd was as loud as the band.

I sound like a grumpy old man. As the t-shirt says, "If its too loud, you are too old."

I don't know if a talent like Trombone Shorty will ever cross over into the mainstream popular culture. He is certainly striving to get there.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Just another day in the Loop

We have hit that warm stretch of early fall, popularly referred to as "Indian Summer." I am not sure that this description is still considered to be politically correct, but I don't know what else to call it.

There are no trees to speak of in Chicago's Loop, so we don't see the leaves turning color. As the days shorten, you notice that it is darker when you step off the train in the morning and darker when you step back on at night to go home. You are grateful for the lingering warmth because the big freeze will be on us soon enough.

A splinter group of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement has taken up residence at LaSalle & Jackson, near the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and the Chicago Board of Trade. They, too, were enjoying the fine weather, banging on drums and yelling at guys in ties. It is a small group, expressing generalized dissatisfaction with the status quo. It is hard to figure out what their goals might be. Sometimes you just need to bang drums and yell - beats sitting at home, unemployed and grumpy. One fellow was carrying a sign - "Lost my job - Found an Occupation." That sums it up, I guess.

I went to a breakfast session held by a downtown business group. There was a panel of three economists and investment strategists. They all said that the U.S. is not in a recession yet, but the growth trajectory is so low that many people aren't noticing any change. One of the panel members fulminated about the Baby Boom generation, how the debt crisis is directly linked to the same lack of character and self-discipline in that group that led to an explosion of illegal drug use. He believes that things will gradually get better as younger people move into power positions in government and business. Hmmmmmmm. The panel broke up, we all networked over coffee for a bit. I could be mistaken, but it looked like some people had a slightly panicked look in their eyes.

I saw a guy collapsed on the sidewalk as I walked to the train on Thursday evening. He was bald and overweight. He fell at Monroe near Canal. I think he was dead. The paramedics were working him over but they didn’t seem like they were saving a life - they lacked that "911" urgency. I think I heard one of them say “He’s gone.” If so, RIP, stranger.

Last Thursday was also the day that the obituaries for Steve Jobs were printed. I have always thought that it is dumb to mourn for a famous person that you have never met, but I couldn't avoid it. He was the best of the Boomers.

For some reason, I was happy when Thursday ended.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Pain Can Be Funny

The old saw, "Comedy = Tragedy + time" is absoluetely true. I think of the old Monty Python routines regarding the Spanish Inquisition or the Black Plague - how horribly insensitive! Why are we laughing? Because everyone who suffered these unspeakable horrors, and all the people who knew someone who suffered them, has been dead for centuries. So we can guffaw when we watch the "Bring Out Your Dead" scene in the Holy Grail movie.

It is a lot tougher to laugh about something horrible that happened recently - like the 9/11 attacks or the Japanese tsunami. But I can imagine my great, great, great grandchildren having a jolly time making fun of the silly little messes that all of us ancients managed to get into during the olden days.

It is easier to laugh about your own pain, of course. I can laugh about my teenage angst now, but it was deadly serious and horribly tragic when I was living through it. I can laugh about all of my failures in business, but the stress of those experiences nearly killed me. I can laugh about the bones I broke when various accidents befell me (doing a header off my mountain bike, getting slammed in the ribs by a rapidly opening car door, etc.), but I don't remember finding those injuries to be funny when they happened. So the elapsed time between tragedy and comedy can be shorter if you are the sole protagonist.

I think that this weird method of coping, laughing when contemplating past nasty stuff, is part of our evolutionary adaption. Without the ability to laugh at these things, life might get so dark that living is no longer worth the effort. We laugh to survive.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What a Country!

We packed my third-eldest daughter off to college last week. The family decided that we would make a road trip of this necessity, so we packed up the Volvo wagon, loaded in the rat dog, and headed east from Chicago at a fairly leisurely pace. Our destination was Boston, then back around to Worcester, Mass, home of Clark University. I had quite a lot of windshield time, and we paused to take in a few tourist destinations. The picture above comes from our quick visit to Niagara Falls (the U.S. side). I expected this over-hyped location to be a disappointment, but it was not. My girls, wife and I were all amazed by the scene - noise, stunning falling water and mist. Many, many Japanese people, too.

We also stopped at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and spent a night at a wonderful B&B in the Berkshires. We ate at a restaurant in a converted railroad station in Le Roy NY (birthplace of Jello) and hung out at Ralph's Diner in Worcester MA. (a rock club/bar/diner with awesome burgers). We slept in an out-of-the-way motor lodge in central Massachusetts and got up at 3AM to watch the Perseid meteor shower from the field behind the country motel, free of light pollution. We hiked in a wonderful state park outside of Worcester and saw a small lake full of water lillies. We visited a dive bar in the basement of a Quality Inn outside of Erie PA and heard an incredibly cheesy "lounge lizard" band. We were generally treated with great kindness by total strangers everywhere we went.

Yes, the USA has lost its AAA-rating from S&P. We may be heading into the second part of a double-dip recession. The political environment in our nation's capital is poisonous. It has been a hot summer, too wet in some places and too dry in others. There is turmoil, war and bloodshed in a couple of dozen locations around the world. It is easy to feel uneasy. But after my road trip, I can't help but marvel at the vastness and variety of America. What a country!

In spite of strong evidence to the contrary, I think we will be OK.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Heading South to Humbolt Park on the Bike

The morning of July 4th is a great time for urban bicycling. There is very little traffic, and there is time to absorb your surroundings. Chicago has quite a few bike paths for a big city, so the intrepid bicyclist can have a comnbination of street and park views.

Heading west from my house, I picked up the North Shore Channel Trail. This path runs eight miles between Green Bay Road in Evanston to Lawrence Avenue on the northwest side of Chicago. I picked up the trail at Main Street, about 2 miles from its origin. The path wanders along side the North Shore Channel, which was originally built as a drainage canal around 1908. The original purpose of the drainage canal was to flush the sewage in the North Branch of the Chicago river down the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The 'ol channel can get a little ripe at times, but it isn't as disgusting as it was in years past. You can even see folks conoeing on the turgid waters, and there are fish that manage to survive in there (I wouldn't recommend frying them up for dinner, however). The first couple of miles run along side busy McCormick Road, past several large public scuplture pieces (this is the "Sculpture Park" maintained by the City of Skokie). When you head south of Petersen, the trail becomes a pure delight. It ducks under the Petersen, Bryn Mawr and Foster streets which allows bikers to avoid traffic lights and cars. There are acres of parks, playgrounds, tennis courts, baseball diamonds and even a couple of swimming pools. The trail and its setting are marvelous; you even get to ride past the only waterfall within the Chicago city limits.

At Lawrence, you pop out into Albany Park, a decent neighborhood and the heart of Chicago's Korean community. I kept pedalling south on California Avenue to Montrose. Horner Park is at that intersection - a 55 acre space with nine softball diamonds, tennis courts, basketball courts and a fieldhouse. The park is named after Henry Horner, the first Jewish governor of Illinois, who served from 1933 until his death in 1940. Horner Park is one of the cornerstones of the Irving Park neighborhood. I rode through it and kept going. The northwest side of Chicago is a very mixed bag. Logan Square is pretty much fully gentrified now, but head a bit south of there and you get into some interesting urban grittiness. And if you keep heading down California, you run into Humboldt Park.

Humboldt Park really is two places in Chicago. The first is the neighborhood of Humboldt Park, a Puerto Rican enclave that is the only offically recognized "Puerto Rican Neighborhood" in the mainland United States (New York, with its huge Puerto Rican population, doesn't recognize any of its neighborhoods as "Puerto Rican."). The area gained this status beginning in the 1950's, when a major influx of Puerto Ricans replaced the Germans and other residents of the neighborhood. The second place tied to the words "Humboldt Park" is the 207-acre paradise that anchors the northwest side. I love riding my bike through this oasis; it has ponds, streams, nature preserves, a boat house and the only Chicago beach that isn't on the shore of Lake Michigan. It is also the temporary home to a cadre of homeless folks. They are in the shadows, sacked out under bushes or on benches. Some pitch tents to establish more a more formal abode. Since the surrounding neighborhood has a significant amount of poverty and drug-related activity, the park is a refuge for many less fortunate types.

Humboldt Park has to be one of the most interesting urban parks in the nation, and I don't think it gets much respect.

It was about a 22 mile ride, round trip. The scenary varied from verdant and serene to pot-holed and industrial. I saw well-to-do folks in Ravenswood Manor, hipsters in Logan Square and trembling drug addicts in Humboldt Park. This is the City of Chicago. It is a formidable enterprise.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dave Brubeck and Sons on Fathers Day - Ravinia Festival, Highland Park IL

It is a great thing to have great friends. My old buddy, John Raitt, couldn't use his Ravinia tickets last Sunday (Father's Day evening) so he tossed them over to me. My dear wife and I saw one of the most amazing and poignant jazz concerts in history - Dave Brubeck and his 4 sons - Darious, Chris, Dan and Matt, performing together in the wonderful outdoor setting. Dave turned 90 years old in December of last year, and while he seemed to be fighting jet lag, his playing was beyond belief. Dave has a unique piano "voice," instantly recognizable to a semi-serious jazz fan like me. I put him in a small group of players that have established a voice - Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock are part of that fraternity.

I am astonished that this man has not lost any of his artistry to age. He started playing the Ravinia Festival in 1955; he has graced the stage at least a dozen times. Brubeck's story is well-known; the idyllic California boyhood in the East Bay Area and on a ranch, the switch from veterinary medicine to music in college,the WWII service in Patton's army, the studies with Darius Milhaud, the French classical composer. I can remember some folks sneering at Brubeck's music - accusing him of cultural appropriation, intellectualization of the jazz idiom and so forth. To this I say, "Horseshit." You can like his music or hate it, but you can't deny his impact. The man has created some of the "greatest hits" of jazz - "Blue Rondo a' la Turk," "Take Five," "In Her Own Sweet Way," " Unsquare Dance" and several others. He brought odd meters to the attention of the American public. His record, "Time Out," went platinum in 1959, giving Elvis and Buddy Holly a run for their money. A lesser known fact - he was a quiet but determined advocate for racial justice. He integrated his quartet in 1958 when bassist Eugene Wright became a member; Brubeck cancelled dates at clubs that objected to integrated bands,. He cancelled television appearances when the station management wanted to keep Wright off-camera. These are the types of actions that helped to break down the evil system that dominated the United States for much of the 20th Century.

At Ravinia, Brubeck did his hits - but he also pulled out a couple of surprises. "St. Louis Blues" sounded fresh in the hands of the Brubeck clan. "Someday My Prince Will Come" became a poly-rhythmic, counter-punctual, dense and exciting collection of multiple melodies, odd meters and chord voicings - pretty radical, in fact. "Black and Blue" featured Chris Brubeck's bass trombone - the cat has serious chops - with Matt on cello taking the bass line since Chris put down his bass to pick up the 'bone. "Take Five" was very interesting - the melody was carried by Matt's cello. Now Matt can really play; it is clear that he is a serious classical player. His jazz work is formidable. I haven't heard the cello in a jazz quartet context, so the sound was odd, but not unpleasant.

As the evening progressed, the Dave seemed to tire somewhat. He let Darius play the aggressive piano lead on "Blue Rondo a' la Turk." But when the nonagenerian settled in for a solo, the years fell away. He also was an effective and amusing story-teller between tunes. The encore was a brief and very touching version of Brahms' Lullaby, with chord voicings that made the little piece brand new and uplifting.

The four Brubeck brothers all met the challenge of their father's musicianship. Dave would occassionally stand up at the piano and gaze at his sons making music, and he would smile. They bowed at the end of the second set and left the stage with their arms draped over each others' shoulders. It felt like the folks at Ravinia had been invited to an intimate family celebration.

And as the patriarch and his sons ambled off stage, I found myself thinking about my own son, Ben. He is a successful educator now, living far from me. I miss him. I salute him.

I look forward to celebrating Dave Brubeck's 100th birthday

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Father's Day

Human relationships can be puzzling. Why do we love or hate each other? Is it right to expect others to help you? What is one’s obligation to family members? To friends? To strangers that need assistance?

It may be best not to think too much about these questions. Maybe it is best to embrace the “Golden Rule” as an organizing principal and just take action. “Analysis leads to paralysis” as the saying goes. Or put another way, don’t ask “What is the meaning of life?” Ask “How should I live?”

Let’s consider fatherhood. I am a father – I have four children. They are all interesting individuals. I have intense emotions when I think about my children. I use the word “love” to describe those emotions, but that word has been over-used and trivialized. I can’t really come up with an alternative word or phrase that fits, however.

Let me describe a fatherhood experience.

On Father’s Day weekend each year, there is an art fair in my neighborhood. It is called “Custer’s Last Stand” because it is centered on the intersection of Custer and Main Street in Evanston IL. My youngest daughter (now age 15) loves Custer’s Last Stand. Last year, all of her friends were out of town during the weekend that the fair was scheduled. To her chagrin, I was the only available companion. So we walked to the event and perused the art stalls, the food stands and the music stages. After an hour or so of walking about, we bought ice cream cones and sat on a curb in the shade at the very south end of the fair area. As we ate our cones, about 8 people we knew wandered by and greeted us. Some were my friends, so I introduced them to my daughter. Some were my daughter’s friends, so she introduced them to me. It was a quietly marvelous time.

This might have been my best Father's Day, and no one bought me a tie.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Chicago Blues Fest Day Two

I left the Blues Fest on Friday feeling a little bummed. I went back Saturday, in spite of that. It has taken me a while to get my thoughts in order, but the quick summary is "I feel better now."

The weather was slightly better. Weather conditions matter a lot at these outdoor festivals, obviously. It is tough to get in a jolly, music-listening mood when the rain is coming down and the temps are low. And many folks stay away, which reduces the crowd count, which reduces the audience energy, which impacts the engagement of the performers. Bad weather kicks off a negative feedback loop at a blues festival.

By the time I hit Grant Park, the place was pretty full. There were many more young people in attendence yesterday - and they were dancing! This is a very good thing. I think its wrong for people to sit motionless while intensely rhythmic music is produced by highly engaged performers. I always feel like yelling "Get up offa that thing!"

While I heard several acts, I want to focus on just one set - Curtis Salgado, backed by Nick Moss and the Flip Tops.

Nick Moss is a torch-carrier. He is creeping up on 40 years of age, still a kid in the blues world. He started playing professionally around Chicago in his late teens, and he did his apprentice work with guys like Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and Jimmy Rogers before he launched his career as a band leader. I have been listening to Nick for years; he amazed me the first time I heard him and he keeps getting better. He has mastered the craft of playing the blues guitar, and now he is moved on to creating art with his ax. Nick plays harmonica, and he started his career as a bassist. Ain't no flies on this fella. He also has "blues presence" - he is a hairy bear of a man, and he does the "blues face" really well. For those of you that don't know, "blues face" is the series of grimaces and squints that a guitar god conjures up while wrapped in the passion of a solo. I view Nick as a rock-toned player - in the same zip code as Melvin Taylor, but a bit more traditional in his phrasing and ideas. He also doesn't unleash the "wall of sound" as often as some of the rock-oriented blues guitarists. Nick is a dynamite player.

Nick's band is full of fresh young talent. Travis Reed on keyboards is capably filling the chair held by the legendary Piano Willie O'Shawny. Nik Skilnik on bass and Patrick Seals on drums are tight in the pocket, playing with assuredness not often seen in 20-something musicians. And sitting in on rhythm guitar and vocals, Michael Ledbetter really filled out the band - he has the vocal chops to match up against Curtis Salgado, no small feat. Michael comes from the R&B/soul school - his range and control are impressive, he can handle the falsetto swoops and vocal glissandos that most singers can only dream about. He is young, too - 26 years old, I believe. Unlike some bands in Chicago, Nick Moss' band is an intergrated team.

Nick's wife, Kate, also sat in on a tune - she can shred on guitar! She is a little easer to look at than Nick. Kate is not just a supportive spouse; she is Nick's business partner, too.

I am not a good person to talk about Curtis Salgado because he is one of my idols and I go all "fan-boy" when I get started on him. He is one of the top blues harmonica guys on the planet (up there with Kim Wilson and Billy Branch), but he doesn't play that much harp on his records. He often won't touch a harmonica for an entire set during his live gigs. I think that is interesting - he views his main instrument as his voice; the harp plays a supporting role. Salgado's vocal performances are stunning. His phrasing, tone, range and delivery combine to grab the listener by the throat and the heart. His personal story, the near-death experience with liver cancer and the liver transplant, make his energy and power even more impressive. Curtis opened with a Jimmy Reed tune (You Don't have to Go) and followed with a Muddy Waters cover (Long Distance Call) He is one of the few singers on the planet that is capable of delivering Long Distance Call - other cover versions I have heard have generally been mediocre, embarrassing or both. He covered Magic Sam and Little Milton too. It was an amazing and moving performance. Nick and the Flip Tops were very locked in to what Curtis was doing - it was a great ensemble blues performance. And Curtis played some harmonica - and he killed. Curtis and Michael Ledbetter also sang an R&B duet - their voices blended beautifully.

I didn't make it to the Chicago Blues Fest on Sunday; I was convinced that there wasn't anything that I had to see that day. I stand by my earlier comment that the event was an anemic version of past Fests, but seeing Curtis Salgado with Nick Moss made it all worthwhile for me.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Chicago Blues Fest Day One/Reality on the Street

It was a misty afternoon in Chicago on June 10. The cloud cover slid down to about the 20th story of the Aon Building near Grant Park. The temps were in the upper 50's, some festival attendees were wearing hoodies and windbreakers. It was disorienting - we experienced a 40-degree temperature drop in 28 hours earlier in the week and some people were still in their shorts and tank tops, shivering.

I hate to say it but I will - this year's Blues Fest is a shadow of its former self. If you pick a year at random, say 1989, who was at the Fest? Buddy Guy, Dr. John, Junior Wells, Allen Toussaint, Kinsey Report, A.C. Reed, Jimmy Rogers, James Cotton, Solomon Burke, Irma Thomas and many more. Other stellar names from past Fests - Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt, and B.B. King. In 2009, the Fest was cut from 4 to 3 days to save money. This year, there seems top be two fewer stages operating during the day. I think that the lame duck Daley Administration, the Chicago budget crisis and the retirement of Barry Dolins has led to a less ambitious festival. There was some great music happening yesterday at the fest, but there was less of it. Dolins ran the Blues Fest for 27 years and it will take a while for The Fest to re-set. And I guess that it is a good thing that more of the performers are local blues artists - This is the CHICAGO Blues Festival, after all. But the crowd was smaller and even older than usual. I fear at times that blues music is heading toward irrelevency, like Dixieland jazz, beloved by a small group of eccentric elderly people. This thought makes me feel gloomy.

So I heard my buddies Mark Wydra (guitar) and Harland Terson (bass) playing behind Sam Lay. Sam is a terrific guy and one of the best blues drummers in the history of the music. He played with Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Wille Dixon Howlin' Wolf and was the man who set the beat for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. And of course, Sam Lay played on Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited album back in the day. He didn't play the drums yesterday - he sat up front, sang and played the guitar. He is not a highly skilled guitarist. The band was very loosey-goosey and under-rehearsed. These are outstanding players, though, and the blues is a genre that can be great even if the band isn't tight. I chatted with Mr. Wydra after the set - he noted the scaled-back Fest vibe and seemed a bit glum. But we agreed on one thing - people still need to listen to the blues, but they just don't realize it. If the current economic environment and global mood had a soundtrack, it would consist of blues music, the music of lament.

I also caught the Sanctified Grumblers, a local trio of creative countirfied acoustic blues guys. Eric Noden is a heckuva player - guitar, banjo and vocals. Rick Sherry is always a hoot, playing harmonica, clarinet and washboard. Rick has one of the most interesting voices and vocal styles I have ever heard - he has a ferocious baritone that cuts through the clutter like an auctioneer.

Super Chikan was also booked for the fest this year. This guy is ubiquitous on the blues festival scene during the summer months; he is a road dog with tens of thousands of miles on his sneakers. He is skilled, and he is a crowd-pleaser with his home-made electric guitars and his wild-and-crazy demeanor.

I also caught a bit of the Kilborn Alley Blues Band, a group of young guys from Champaign IL. They were definitely worth hearing, and brought energy and passion to the little Windy City blues Society stage. Great to see some 20-somethings loving the music.

I left Grant Park when the mist turned to rain and headed west toward Ogilvie Transportation Center to catch the 7:35 train back home. There was a large young man standing in a doorway on an empty block of Jackson Street, trying to avoid the mist. He was begging, and not in a quiet voice. I glanced at him, and passed by. But then I turned back - there was something in his eyes, too much pain. I dug in my pocket for some small bills, shoved them in his cup while he thanked me. I asked him his name, he said "Brian, sir, and what is your name if I may ask?" I told him, and he turned his eyes skyward and said "Thank you, Father, for Chris. Thank you, Father, for Chris..." repeating the phrase over and over, mantra-like. Tears rolled down his cheeks. I told him to take it easy, good luck, and a couple of other banalities. I turned and fled. And I thought, "What the hell is going on?"

Monday, June 06, 2011

Remembering Lowell Fulson

A dozen years have passed since Lowell Fulson died and I am still digging into his work. I think that he ranks with the other major blues poets - Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, Son House and the rest. I have memorized one of his lesser-known, later songs - "Thanks A Lot." This is one of those tunes that tells a perfectly formed story - in this case, it is the tale of a married man resisting the advances of an unmarried woman. This song has some terrific couplets - here is one I love; "My wife would not suspect because her trust in me is deep; But I would suffer anyway. My conscience would not let me sleep." Arnold Schwartznegger should have listened to this song every day.

Lowell was born in Tulsa OK, allegedly on a Chocktaw Indian reservation. He claimed to be part Cherokee and part Chocktaw - it might be true. He learned to play the guitar and worked with Alger "Texas" Alexander when he was 18 years old in 1940. Lowell toured with the Texas bluesman until 1943 when he was drafted. After he got out of the service in 1945, he ended up in Oakland California. He started up his own band, which included some amazing cats - a young Ray Charles on piano, David "Fathead" Newman on sax and many others. Lowell began uncapping a string of classics in 1948 with "3 o'Clock Blues," a slow, sad tale about a wayward woman. This tune was B.B. King's first big hit.

Lowell's most famous tune is probably "Reconsider Baby," a mid-tempo blues with clever lyrics. This song has been covered by everyone - Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Joe Bonamassa and every singing blues guitar player in the world. Lowell had some other big songs ("Tramp," which is a favorite sample used by Ice Cube and many other hip hop artists), but none as huge as "Reconsider Baby."

Lowell Fulson played for over five decades, shutting down his act in 1997 when his health started to fade. He died in 1999; he was almost 78.

This is a guy that deserves to be celebrated - he was a soulful, funky dude that contirbuted a lot to contemporary music. He had a solid baritone voice and played terrific blues guitar. He was a huge influence on Ray Charles. Why isn't he famous, dammit?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fidelity and Decency

Maybe it is just me, but it seems that the erosion of fidelity and decency in human relationships is accelerating. Hypocrisy is part of the human condition, of course, and every person generates some amount of hurt and disappointment for their loved ones, but recent events have been pretty startling. I have been shaking my head over the shenanigans of IMF chiefs and former California governors.

Fidelity, faithfulness, loyalty, decency - these are the keys in all important human relationships, but especially in marital relationships. When you deeply trust another human and believe that they will keep their promises, it is easier to get through any challenges that you face in your life. Fidelity is a gift, but it is also self-serving. Keeping promises is a form of self-care, a path to gaining confidence in one's own character. Committing an act of betrayal leads to self-loathing and shame.

I have always felt that all good things start with promise-keeping. A person of character stands up and commits, and declares "I can and will do this." A person of character is easily-understood, and harbors no subterfuge or dark secrets. Individuals that fail to keep their promises eventually suffer losses. They might lose their relationships or their jobs; those bad events are preceeded by the loss of trustworthiness. To be betrayed by a deeply trusted person creates a wound that might never heal. An individual who has been betrayed finds it hard to trust anyone - the fear of more pain leads creates an unwillingness to take the risk and the heart can harden.

My mom used to say, "Behave like a gentleman." Gentlemen do not cheat on their wives or force themselves upon women. Gentlemen do not refuse to face their own misdeeds. Gentlemen consider the people involved, and act in their best interests. Gentlemen know that the "high road" is the easiest path, in the long run.

There are few gentlemen in politics and government these days.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Musicians I Love - Howard Johnson

I got to hang out and listen to the mellow tones of Will Baker, bass trombonist extraordinaire, on Sunday afternoon. He is a wickedly talented low brass youngblood; energy and technique to burn. Listening to him is very exciting for a retired bass bone man like me. After his recital, I asked him if he had ever heard of Howard Johnson; he had not. I understand; Howard is almost 70 years old and Will is under 25. But anyone who digs the low-register wind instruments should check out HoJo.

Mr. Johnson started playing the baritone saxophone at the age of 13; he added the tuba when he was 14. He decided to focus on jazz, but not the traditional New Orleans trad jazz tuba stuff (not that there is anything wrong with that). HoJo wanted to front the band and play bebop on the big horn. He made the trek to New York when he was 22 years of age and was embraced by the late, great Charles Mingus. Howard soon became the go-to tubist/bari saxophonist in the Apple, playing with Hank Crawford, Archie Shepp and a host of others. Word began to leak out about his prowess; he was pulled to the west coast and played in more mainstream groups like the Buddy Rich Big Band. He also worked with Oliver Nelson, Carla Bley, Pharoah Sanders and a host of other modern jazz greats.

Howard also thought that the world needed a tuba ensemble, so he formed one, called Substructure, in 1968. This was the group that hooked up with the great bluesman, Taj Mahal, in the early 1970's. Taj toured nationally with the tuba choir as part of his back-up band (check out Taj Mahal's live album, "The Real Thing," recorded at Filmore West in San Francisco in 1971 - whoooeee! It still kills me). HoJo was a boundary-busting guy - jazz, R&B,, rock, blues, orchestral music all interested him. He even served as the leader of the Saturday Night Live band in the late 1970's.

Howard has kept the tuba ensemble concept alive. His current group is called "Gravity," and it is touring internationally. Gravity has released a couple of albums, and they are must-have records for low brass players.

So Will - I love the Lebedev Concerto for bass trombone, but check out Howard Johnson and Gravity playing "Big Alice." Whooooeeee!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cornell Dupree - RIP

Just heard that Cornell Dupree passed a couple of days ago. This man was one of my earliest guitar heroes. That lick he lays down in King Curtis' Memphis Soul Stew is a classic funky, soulful statement - I listened to that tune over and over, just to hear that Cornell Dupree guitar break. "Four level tablespoons of boilin' Memphis guitar" is how King Curtis introduces Cornell's contribution to the tune. Wonderful.

Cornell played with everyone from Aretha Franklin to Paul Simon. His work was on over 2,500 tunes. He was a formidable guitar monster, but humble. He didn't over-play or grandstand. He was the ultimate session guitarist. Some of his licks are deeply imprinted in the national musical consciousness, but most folks never heard his name. Listen to his work on "Rainy Night in Georgia." Fantastic stuff.

Cornell was totally cool but not flashy. He was deeply talented and tasteful, but he was a committed sideman. His mission was to make the best music possible and he didn't care if he got little credit. He was in the public ear, but not the public eye.

Gonna miss that guy. Here is a MP3 of Memphis Soul Stew from YouTube. This is from the King Curtis "Live from Fillmore West" that I wore out when I was in high school. Enjoy it, and reflect on guitar greatness and the importance of sidemen.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Eva Elizabeth Bloom Gillock - March 15, 1921 - July 24, 1993

It is Mother's Day. I am fortunate - I get to spend time with my wife and partner, Connie, who is one of the most dedicated mothers on the planet. I also get to see my daughter, who is in her third year of motherhood and has become a paragon of maternal virtue. But I wanted to write about my own mother today.

I scanned this old photograph of Eva Bloom Gillock I keep on the desk in my home office. She must be in her 20's in this shot, and she looks gorgeous. My mom died in 1993 (before the advent of digital photography) and I don't have that many pictures of her - she was a bit camera-shy, especially in her later years. She also missed email, the Internet, YouTube, Facebook. blogging and Twitter. I can imagine her being delighted with instant communications and revolted by the loss of privacy caused by the 'net.

On the day my mother was born, a loaf of bread cost 10 cents. "Ain't We Got Fun" was one of the more popular songs of the year. Charlie Chaplain's "The Kid" was one of the top movies. The first live radio broadcast of a baseball game occurred in 1921 (the Pittsburgh Corsairs, aka Pirates, vs. the Philadelphia Phillies). Her childhood was so radically different from the experience of today's children - it is mindboggling, really.

My mom was born in a small town in western Pennsylvania called Curwensville, the third of four children and the only daughter in the brood. Her parents, Claude and Christine Bloom, had deep roots in the little town. Her family patriarch, William Bloom. was one of the first settlers around 1800 - before Curwensville was established. At least seven of my mother's ancestors fought on the Union side during the Civil War. Claude Bloom was a pillar of the community; he ran the general store during the Great Depression and allowed hard-pressed neighbors to buy food on credit, often followed by debt forgiveness. He later served as Justice of the Peace.

Eva Bloom Gillock was feisty. As a teenager, she hung out with the "rough crowd" and started smoking cigarettes at the age of 14. She went to college in the late 1930's/early 1940's - Grove City College, a small Christian school not far from Curwensville. Not many young women went to college at that time. She moved to Cleveland and worked as a foreman in a factory, filling in for the men that went off to fight in World War II. She told her father that she wanted to enlist in the U.S. Army. He laughed and told her that she was crazy. So, of course, she enlisted, serving in the Women's Army Corps in New Guinea and the Phillippines during the war. She met my father, Albert Gillock, at a USO dance. She was an active member of the Greatest Generation.

There are lots of other interesting details to her path through life, but I don't want to blather on too much. I need to say this - she was a tower of strength. My father, may he rest in peace, was not a tremendous financial success. Once I was born, the money became quite tight, so my mom went to work in one of the few professions that welcomed women in the early 1960's - teaching. Her paycheck allowed our family to live a modest and comfortable middle-class life in a working-class Northern California suburb. She had a significant impact on the lives of quite a few Baby Boomers who passed through her classroom at Garfield School in San Leandro.

Here are some "Eva-isms:" "If you can look me in the eye and tell me you did your very best, I will be happy with you." "There is no sense in crying about it - do something!" "Nobody likes a smart-aleck." "I quit smoking because I got sick of all the nagging." "We all have to die sometime."

Eva Bloom Gillock was faithful; she took her promises seriously. "In sickness and in health" was one promise she fulfilled. As my father's health faded, my mother became his caretaker. She ignored her own needs during that time - deferred her own medical care to attend to her husband. After he passed, she went to the doctor with some complaints. She had cancer, probably brought on by her decades of cigarette smoking. The cancer took her - a damned shame, because her cardio-vascular system was in great shape and her energy level was high. She would have celebrated her 90th birthday last March. If not for the cancer, I suspect that she would have made it.

If I have any good qualities, my mother put them there. If I have any steel in my backbone, she forged it. She gave me lots of love, but she also gave me the gift of high expectations. My biggest fear was ending up a disappointment to Eva Bloom Gillock.

As I think about my own career as a parent, my successes and challenges, I measure myself against her. I lack her consistency and firmness. I let things slide a lot. Fortunately, my kids have dealt with my sloppy parenting with grace and I am very proud of all four of them. I can see some of those feisty Eva Bloom Gillock qualities in each one of them. They are lucky to have that legacy, and so am I.

Happy Mother's Day. If your mom is alive, kiss her. If your mom is gone, reflect upon her life.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

L.V. Banks, Bluesman - Rest in Peace

I heard that L.V. Banks passed away over the weekend. Tom Holland, one of the young guitarists L.V. nurtured, shared the sad news. I knew Mr. Banks and sat in with him a few times - he was very open to harmonica players, unlike many blues guitarists. L.V. was an old-school bluesman, and he almost made it to 80 years of age (a very long run for a blues dude). He came up with the "second generation" of Chicago blues artists - Buddy Guy, Eddie Clearwater, et al are part of L.V.'s generation. He had an eye for young talent - in addition to Tom Holland, L.V. brought Marty Sammon, Buddy Guy's keyboardist, into his circle. He also advised and guided Toronzo Cannon, a terrific "next generation" blues guitarist. L.V. never got rich and famous, but he laid down the straight-up blues for many decades. He was the real deal.

I wrote about L.V. Banks back in December 2008. Here is a link to that entry.

I have some L.V. Banks tracks buried on my iPod somewhere. I will listen to them tonight, and drink a toast to one to the great, underappreciated South Side Chicago blues guitar slingers, Mr. L.V. Banks.

Monday, May 02, 2011

A Momentous Day, But I Want to Think About Music - Gary Valente, God's Trombonist

I listened to President Obama announce the killing of Osama Bin Laden last night. This is momentous and it was a necessary and just act of violence. I can't dance in the street over this, however. It seems like a time for reflection. Human history seems to be a cycle of the strong groups controlling weaker groups, then the weak figuring out how to strike back with brutality, and the strong reacting to that attack and so on and so on and so on. Will killing Bin Laden break the cycle or strenghthen it? I have a hard time thinking about this, to tell the truth.

So I will think about music instead. Guess I am a coward.

When I am feeling troubled and I need to sooth my soul, I turn to Gary Valente, one of the world's greatest trombonists. He is passionate. He is skillful. And he is LOUD. Gary started playing with Carla Bley in the early 1980's and was featured on Carla's "Live!" album in 1982. His work on "The Lord is Listenin' to Ya. Hallelujah!" is stunning; I think of Gary as God's trombonist. This is the song I tee up when I feel the need for solace. Here is a link to a YouTube video of Gary's performance.

Gary is about 57 years old now. He is a big name in the NYC Latin jazz world. He still plays with Carla, I think. His trombone work grabs my heart. He helps me to remember that humans have outstanding qualities. We kill each other, and we create beautiful music for each other. I am trying to believe that the part of our souls that creates the music will eventually overcome the part of our souls that wants to kill.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Down the Great River Road (aka the Blues Highway) - Memphis and Cairo IL

I have been away from my blog for a few days. I often forget about the damn thing for a while, then try to resurrect it. Since I am working from my own leaky memory, I can forget what I was going to say if I wait too long. Since Memphis is such a rockin' place, I wanted to finish up the write up of my spring road trip.
We left New Madrid, exited the Missouri "boot heel" and crossed into Arkansas. We bumbled down the road until we hit Memphis. I have several impressions of this terrific river city:

  • The Peabody Hotel (see picture of the roof-top sign above) is beyond fabulous. We hung out in the lobby to see the famous "duck march" from the fountain to the elevators (the ducks quit for the day at 5PM and head to the roof to their penthouse residence). Next time I go to Memphis, I am going to stay at the Peabody.

  • This is no place for a vegan. Memphis BBQ is a daily staple, and I did not see any restaurants offering barbecued tofu. I highly recommend Charlie Vergos' Rendevous in downtown Memphis, a rambling basement-level establishment that opened in 1948. Charlie Vergos died about a year ago at the age of 84; he was a huge civic booster in Memphis. The dry-rubbed ribs at the Rendevous are terrific and the brisket is even better. Everyone hits the Rendevous eventually - Bill Clinton, George Bush, Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones, Al Green, Bill Cosby, Justin Timberlake, etc. etc.

  • Memphis has one of the best vintage surface rail systems in America - at least as beautiful as the St. Charles line in New Orleans. The trolley cars are meticulously restored and totally vintage - each one is a different size, shape and color. The old trolley cars were originally in service in the U.S., Australia and Portugal. Memphis dismantled its trolley system in the 1940's; the system was relaunched in 1993. The trolleys run down Main Street, which is full of trendy bars, restaurants and hotels. This downtown section of Memphis used to be pretty shabby.

  • Memphis has a terrific zoo. It was named the best zoo in the U.S. by The exhibits all look brand new, and the place is huge. I especially enjoyed the opportunity to hang out and stare at the giant pandas, up close. Those suckers eat a helluva lot of bamboo, yo.

  • Beale Street is very cool, but too dang loud. I love blues and funk music, and some of the bands I heard in the Beale Street bars were very talented. All of them had the volume knob cranked to "11." Since all the bars have their doors wide open, the sound pours into the street, creating a sonic flood that is painful to hear.

  • Confederate Park was pretty creepy. The statue of Jefferson Davis (a traitor to the United States, in my opinion) and the general concept behind the park seemed at odds with modern Memphis. Call me a liberal, but I think that the Confederates and the Nazis had pretty similar views of the world - racism and facism are not values to be celebrated via statues and parks.
  • We spent an extra day in Memphis, then we had to hot-foot it back to Chicago. We did visit Cairo IL on the way home. Cairo is the birthplace of George "Harmonica" Smith, one of my musical heroes (he was a an awesome and innovative blues harmonica player and vocalist who eventually moved to Los Angeles). I could find no reference to George in the town, and Cairo was not looking very prosperous. The place had an air of faded glory; historic buildings have sunk into disrepair. The folks on the street look like they are just getting by. We left the place feeling a bit low.

    And that is it - we raced north on the interstate to get home in time for dinner. Road trips rock.

    Friday, April 22, 2011

    Down the Great River Road (aka The Blues Highway) - Missouri

    We crossed the border from Iowa into Missouri and I noticed some changes. Local accents lost some of the twang and picked up a bit of drawl. Preferred baseball headgear shifted from Chicago Cubs to St. Louis Cardinals. U.S. 61 was quite lovely in certain stretches of Missouri; we were often running right next to the Mississippi. And unusual roadside attractions did appear occassionally. The "Chopper War Memorial" is one such roadside attraction (see cell phone picture above). We passed through a very small town, and on our left was a late-1960's retired US Army helicopter on a strange pedestal. This old bird was the centerpiece of a lonely memorial to local service people that died in America's wars. We stopped and paid our respects; we were alone. There are a number war memorials like this along U.S.61 - generally neat and tidy, but devoid of visitors.

    We pulled off the highway in Hannibal MO. Hannibal is best known as the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain). The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huclkeberry Finn were set in and around Hannibal; there are several buildings that have been preserved as tourist sites - Becky Thatcher's house, the law offices of Mark Twain's father, etc. The downtown is jammed with Mark Twain-themed stores and restaurants. Hannibal prospers from all of the tourist revenue. The town is neat, but the tourist stuff gets a bit repetitive and tiresome. Hannibal had some other semi-famous residents, including Cliff Edwards, the voice on Jiminy Cricket in all the Disney Pinocchio cartoons.

    From Hannibal, we barreled south to St. Louis where we spent the night. We went to the top of the Gateway Arch on the Mississippi (nice view, but not a good trip for claustrophobic folks). The downtown of St. Louis was deserted in the middle of a work day. According to the 2010 census, St. Louis lost over 8% of its population over the past 10 years. It is still a lovely city, but it feels vacant. We had lunch at Charlie Gitto's Downtown, a wonderful Italian place in an old building near Busch Stadium. This is a classic baseball hangout - lots of pictures of the local Cardinal heroes, televisions set to the game, and all the rest.

    We left St. Louis and pointed ourselves south again on the Great River Road. We came to New Madrid (pronouned "new MAD -rid"), which is down in Missouri's "boot heel." There is a large loop in the river near New Madrid - usually called the "Kentucky Bend." The river runs north, then loops back down south. This is the section of the Mississippi that allegedly flowed backwards due to the impact of the great New Madrid earthquakes of late 1811-early 1812; those gigantic quakes rang church bells in Richmond VA. If a similar earthquake were to happen today on the New Madrid fault, Memphis would be trashed. We decided to pull off the highway and go into the town.

    New Madrid's Main Street was the commercial center of the town. I use the past tense because the little downtown strip consists mainly of vacant storefronts now. There are no restaurants and few functioning retail stores. We stopped in at the "General Store" (really a convenience market) and chatted with the folks hanging around. I asked them what happened to the downtown businesses. A sad-eyed guy in coveralls said one word - "WalMart." New Madrid may have lost its struggle. We stopped in at the local museum, which had a surprisingly good collection of artifacts. We were the only visitors. Perhaps the town does better in the summer months.

    We got back in the car and rolled south to Memphis - will tell that story tomorrow....

    Wednesday, April 20, 2011

    Down the Great River Road (aka the Blues Highway) - Quad Cities and Iowa

    I loaded up the Volvo wagon with two teenagers, my lovely wife and the ratdog for an old-fashioned road trip vacation. We headed west from Chicago to the Quad Cities (Moline IL, Rock Island IL, Davenport IA and Bettendorf IA). These four towns hug both banks of the Mississippi. Our plan was to pick up Highway 61 in Iowa and head south. US 61 is called "The Great River Road" since it hugs the Mississippi for much of its length. It is also called "The Blues Highway" since it was the path out of the Mississippi Delta region travelled by the many blues musicians that headed north to Chicago after World War II. US 61 has been eclipsed by the major interstates nearby. The traffic levels on the historic road have dropped. It is a 2-lane highway in some stretches. It was perfect.

    We spent our first night in Moline IL, home of Deere & Company (aka John Deere). Deere's profits doubled in the first quarter of 2011 (compared to the first quarter of 2010). Big Green made about $514MM (which is indeed Big Green). Lots of folks around the world want to buy a new Deere tractor, I guess. The farm economy is doing pretty well due to the spike in crop prices. Our pain is Deere's gain. Moline seems to be booming along with Deere & Co.; the tractor maker is the largest employer in the Quad Cities.

    We stayed at the Stoney Creek Inn, located on the Illinois side of the mighty Mississippi. The hotel is owned by a regional chain that plays up the "Northwoods" motif - stone fireplaces, old wooden signs, moose heads, etc. The most remarkable part of the stay was the presence of the LPA Convention ("LPA" stands for "Little People's Association"). The hotel was full of dwarves and the people who love them. They were a fine group of folks, although dwarves like to party late into the evening, I learned. It was not a good place to sleep.

    We also hit Davenport IA, a lovely town with a great art museum on the banks for the Mississippi (the Figge Art Museum, a sizable institution with a surprisingly large permanent collection of work by Mexican, Haitian and Midwestern artists). Unfortunately, the Figge is closed on Sunday so we could only admire the beautiful building, which was completed in August 2005. Davenport is also the home of the late, great Bix Beiderbecke. Along with Louis Armstrong, Bix transformed the role of the trumpet in popular/jazz music in the 1920's. Bix was a huge alcholic and died of the disease at the ripe old age of 28. The City of Davenport celebrates this native son every year with the Bix Biederbecke Memorial Jazz Festival.

    We hit the local Quad City Botanical Center (where it was Pirate Day - I don't know why the pirates were being celebrated in a huge greenhouse next to the Mississippi River). After that odd experience, we headed south on US 61 to Burlington IA - home of the Lady Liberty facsimile pictured above. Burlington is also the home of Snake Alley, allegedly the "crookedest" street in the world (it looks like a smaller version of Lombard Street in San Francisco). There are some lovely old churches in Burlington (some are available for sale if you have a yearning to own a 19th century house of worship).

    We continued down the Great River Road into Missouri.......I will tell that story tomorrow.

    Sunday, March 20, 2011

    From Hotel to Intermediate Care Facility

    I live a couple of blocks from an old hotel. It used to be called the Ridgeview, because it was within sight of Ridge Avenue in Evanston. The old Ridgeview is pictured above - this comes from an old postcard, postmarked April 4, 1962. The Ridgeview Hotel was built in1924, one of several "apartment hotels" that popped up in Evanston in the 1920's. These facilities were competing for the semi-transient resident that planned on staying in town for a few weeks to a few months. The units in these hotels had kitchenettes. The Ridgeview was sold in 1965 and received some extensive re-modeling. In 1971, it was sold again and converted from a hotel to a 430-bed long-term care facility for disabled adults receiving state assistance. It is still in use as a intermediate-term care facility and it serves mentally ill adults. Most of these folks are Medicaid patients.

    There is a large park right across from the entrance of the Albany Care facility - Grey Park. When the weather is decent, the park is full of Albany Care residents, most of them enjoying tobacco products. This has generated a bit of controversy in the neighborhood (see this article for background). The residents also spend quite a lot of time in the neighborhood, walking around and hanging out. Since most of them are quite poor, they will sometimes ask pedestrians for some money. Their maladies can lead to some unusual public displays - shouting, nudity, public elimination of wastes, etc. The Albany Care building is a few blocks away from the main public transportation hub in the neighborhood, so there is an interesting dance that occurs between the commuters and the Albany Care residents. As one would expect, the interactions are not always positive.

    Here is what I admire about the Albany Care folks - they are fearless! I see one fellow several times a week - he always wants to shake hands and he smiles at everyone. He also wants everyone to give him a dollar - hey, it never hurts to ask, I guess. Some people cross the street to avoid this guy. Others steam by and ignore him. Others engage with him and seem comfortable.

    There are many other examples - there is the guy with the long gray hair that stands outside the Sher-Main Grill, chain smoking cigarillos and muttering "Have a good day, have a good day" to everyone he sees. Many others are trying hard not to be conspicuous; their eyes bulge out, like someone is choking them.

    These people are my neighbors. I struggle with my gut instinct, which is to look away from them and march through their turf without acknowledging their existence, let alone our shared humanity. I have had times when I didn't feel 100% mentally stable, so I should have more empathy for the Albany Care folks. But I don't.

    This is something I need to work on. Religious folks often say, "There but for the grace of God, goes me." This is a noble thought, but I can't embrace it. Belief in God's grace is similar to believing in a shaman's ability to beseech the spirits to send rain during a drought. These "faith" statements don't convince me - sorry about that.

    What does engage me are unanswered questions - what is afflicting each resident of Albany Care? How did they end up there? How likely is it that they will get well and leave to join society? What sort of treatment do they receive from the staff? And so on.

    It is always a challenge to stay mentally strong. Some folks are ill and can't tackle that challenge. I will work on developing empathy for my Albany Care neighbors...

    Thursday, March 17, 2011

    St. Patrick's Day, New York, 2011

    Night has fallen in Manhattan as St. Patrick's Day winds down. Weirdness is in the air. I saw a very tall man, wearing just a thong, his body painted green. Two guys in kilts were kissing at the corner of 46th Street and 8th Ave. I saw cackling harpies sitting on the curb drinking green beer out of plastic cups. There were black people dressed like leprechuans. Little old ladies in lime green trench coats. Homeless people sporting "Kiss Me - I'm Irish" buttons on their tattered jackets. I saw a shirtless woman with strategically-placed shamrocks. I listened to an ancient Chinese man croaking "When Irish Eyes are Smiling." I followed a drunk girl wearing a green plastic derby as she stumbled down 8th Avenue, stopping to hug the cops. I saw a wicked thin socialite, striding purposefully down the street at 10:45 PM, wearing cheap green beads, her six-year-old daughter in tow. In this world of uncertainty and heartache, New Yorkers and touristas are misbehaving and blowing off steam. Many of these people will be nursing 4-star hangovers in the morning.

    God bless us all, and good night.

    Sunday, March 13, 2011

    Michael Yeo Yew Heong

    From 1984 through 1987, I lived and worked in Singapore. It was a challenging time - the island nation was going through its first economic downturn since WWII and the business I was leading was experiencing difficulties. I was pretty young, and the job in Singapore was my first management gig. In many ways, I was clueless, and that cluelessness on the job migrated into my personal life as well. I needed backup in the worst way.

    Michael Yeo Yew Heong applied for an opening in our Singapore office and I had the backup I desparately needed.

    When you first saw Michael, you are immediately taken by his physical presence. His height, for one thing, set him apart in Singapore. There are not a great many tall Singaporeans, folks over six feet in height tend to be expatriates on a work assignment. Michael was 6 ft 5 in and his shoulders were very broad. He moved like a tall man in a short world, perhaps overly conscious of his unusual status. Michael's schoolmates teased him - called him a "Northern Barbarian" in reference to the physically imposing inhabitants of China's northern regions which prompted the Qin Dynasty to finish construction of the Great Wall . Michael embraced the "Northern Barbarian" tag, and laughed at himself frequently.

    Michael was a highly competent executive. He had great intuition and strong cognitive skills. He was dependable and dedicated. His ability to solve problems impressed me. But all of those traits, though admirable, were not the aspects of Michael's personality that made him special.

    Michael was kind.

    He had a raucous sense of humor.

    He had a talent for sharing wisdom in a casual, off-hand way that can impact the recipient for a long time. I still ruminate over some of the things that Michael said to me in the mid-eighties in Singapore.

    Michael fully inhabitied his life. He enjoyed socializing with friends; we enjoyed many Tiger Beers together after work. He was an enthusiastic scuba diver. He was a deeply committed husband and father.

    I left Singapore in 1987; Michael moved up into the leadership slot that I vacated. We didn't talk much after that - Chicago is a long way from Singapore - but I kept up with him via email, sporadically. He took a new job in 2001 and was handling business activites in China for his new employer.

    Last week, I realized that it had been well over a year since I had connected with Michael, so I dropped him an email on Thursday. Due to the 14 hour time difference between Chicago and Singapore, I didn't expect to hear back from him immediately. My dog barked at 1 AM on Friday morning and I woke up. After dealing with the mutt, I saw that the email light was blinking on my Blackberry. I checked it - there was an email from Singapore, but not from Michael. One of his colleagues from work had intercepted my message and answered it. He told me that Michael died on December 5, 2010, while snorkeling in the Philippines.

    I am trying to wrap my head around this. Michael would have celebrated his 58th birthday on March 15. He had stayed fit. He was a regualar scuba diver and therefore was a strong swimmer. This is a very improbable way for Michael to leave.

    Michael Yeo wasn't a famous person, just an outstanding person. He stood by me during a difficult time. I let the relationship atrophy. Now I am feeling the deep regret that comes when you realize that you have no time to repair a friendship that has been neglected.

    I went to a local joint, the Hop Haus, yesterday to take a look at their beer list. Sure enough, they had Tiger Beer from Singapore on the list. I ordered one and drank it, remembering my big-hearted friend, Michael Yeo.

    Friday, March 04, 2011

    Strangers on a Train

    I am a regular Metra rider, ususally on inbound train #320 leaving my local stop at straight-up 8:00 AM, arriving Ogilvie Transportation Center in Chicago's Loop at 8:26AM. I was on it this morning, heading to the office for a Friday full of conference calls and persuasion. I usually read my paper or listen to the iPod, but today I decided to sit quietly and look around me. I concluded something - commuting is a very odd activity.

    Across the aisle from me is a man that I have noticed many times in the past. He is a tall, substantial guy, not overweight or anything, but solid. He could be 40 years old, or he could be 50. His face is unlined and his hair is thick and dark blonde. He always wears jeans and boots. In the winter, he wears a pullover sweater. In his hands, an iPhone or an iPad. The expression on his face never changes - he seems implacably calm.

    To my right on the long bench is a clenched fist of a man, short and paunchy, in a pin-striped suit. His thinning hair glistens with some sort of styling gel. He has turned his back to me and pulled away to the far edge of the seat so he won't accidently catch my eye or brush his body against mine. His eyes are focused on the novel scrolling across his e-reader.

    To my left is a mid-thirties blonde woman who pays close attention to her appearance. She is staring into a compact mirror, adjusting her lipstick. This process takes a surprisingly long time. She finally snaps the compact shut, slips it into a big-ass purse, sighs, leans back and closes her eyes.

    Down the aisle comes the aging conductor, bellowing "Tickets!! Display all tickets!! Main Street, Rogers Park, Ravenswood tickets!!!" He is short and round. He has a gray beard quite similar to my own. His voice shatters the peace; his timbre is nasal and unpleasant; it makes my ears ring. It is incredibly irritating.

    Every seat is filled and people are standing in the aisle by the time we reach our destination. The passengers generally don't converse with each other. They don't even acknowlege each other, although they have been riding in the same train car together for quite a while (sometimes for years). We can't greet each other by name, we don't introduce ourselves, we are physically close but emotionally distant.

    The train stops with a jerk, the doors hiss open; we file out and rush to our high-rise offices. In eight or nine hours, we will reverse the direction of our travels and head back to our suburban bedrooms. Then we get up the next day and repeat the process. And the day after that, and the day after that, and so on until we lose our jobs or retire or die.

    Doesn't this seem odd? What if someone broke into song? What if someone told the loud conductor to shut up? Would chaos ensue? Would the facade crumble?

    Anyway, I should start winding down my day so I can train.

    Monday, February 28, 2011


    I felt a twinge in my knee last night and when I woke up this morning, it was still there. I decided to skip my workout to let my knee settle down. The last day of February was a little rough in Chicago - the rain that fell overnight turned to ice when the temperatures dropped around 2 AM. My neighborhood was a huge skating rink. I left the house for my morning commute, moving gingerly and feeling grumpy.

    I made it to my local Metra stop and headed up the ice-covered, hazardous stairs. I looked up the stairs and saw a woman really struggling to climb to the top. She was of short stature, and it was clear that she was suffering from some sort of chronic condition - perhaps multiple sclerosis. She had a hard time lifting her feet to climb the stairs, and she was hauling herself up by pulling on the handrail. I offered to help her; she thanked me and asked me to carry her bag. She made it to the top of the stairs, we exchanged a few pleasantries and we headed off to face our futures.

    I remembered that I have seen this woman a few times as I scurried to my train. She never caught my attention before. My busy-ness and self-involvement prevented me from truly seeing her. As I rode the train into work this morning, I felt awe and shame.

    I was in awe of this woman's persistence. She is working while battling a condition that a non-afflicted person can't really understand. She was pushing through her infirmities to do what needed to be done. I think that she must be one of those exceptional people - a true optimist, who overcomes her challenges with hopefulness. Just an everyday hero, getting on with life.

    And then I felt ashamed. I am one of the luckiest people on earth. It is deeply wrong for me not to feel gratitude and thankfulness every waking moment. A twinge in my knee and ice on the sidewalk - trivial matters!! I am not worthy to be the bag-carrier of the woman stuggling to climb the icy stairs. I owe her both an apology and thanks for opening my eyes to see past my own privileged existence.

    Reggie Watts

    I was ranting recently about the things that make me anxious; now I am going to talk about joy. Reggie Watts makes me feel joyful.

    Just look at this guy! He has the wild hair going on, the multi-culti vibe, a hint of a smirk. When I look at him, I can't help but smile. He makes me glad to be part of the human race.

    But his fun appearance is not the story. This fella is a towering talent. I first picked up on his mad musical skills when I ran into a Seattle band called "Maktub." (Digression: "Maktub" means "It is written" in Arabic). I heard Maktub's second album, "Kronos," in 2003 I think. I instantly became a fan, largely due to Reggie's awesome voice and improvisational abilities. He started doing stuff that didn't involve his Maktub bandmates, specifically solo excursions using a stereo digital multitack "loop" recorder. He decided to be his own band, using his voice to lay down percussion and "instrumental" tracks, then singing on top of those tracks. Check out one of his improvisations by clicking HERE. He also got into comedy and ultimately caught the attention of Conan O'Brien. Check out this piece that Reggie did for the Conan folks a while back.

    So Reggie may be Bobby McFerrin's successor in the world of crazy vocalization. He may just be a very talented silly guy. I sure am glad to know about him.

    Tuesday, February 15, 2011

    Free-Floating Anxiety

    Here are things that are making me anxious today:

    1. Tigers: I saw a billboard today that reminded me that there are only 3,200 tigers left in the wild. That doesn't sound like very many, people. In the early part of the 20th century, there were over 100,000 tigers. Tigers were voted "World's Most Popular Animal" by the viewers of the Animal Planet cable station, narrowly beating out the dog. So the world's most popular animal is on the verge of going "bye-bye." This makes me ANXIOUS.

    2. U.S. National Debt: The total debt issued by the U.S. Government is about $14.2 trillion and will hit $15 trillion later this year if Congress raises the debt ceiling (and they will). Oh. My. God. $15 trillion of debt outstanding is equal to $48,100 for every citizen in the U.S. Enough money to buy 36,855,036,855 tickets to see Lady Gaga perform! It is impossible to imagine this much money, and don't we have to pay it back? This makes me ANXIOUS.

    3. Iran: The news is full of reports about the latest demonstrations in Tehran and the latest brutal crack-down by the Iranian government and their goons. It is heart-breaking. I have known a few Iranians, and they are very cool folks; they really should be living in freedom. I don't think that the success of the Egyptians in chasing Mubarek out of town will be duplicated in Iran in the immediate future - Iran is hard-core, they could care less about what the world thinks of them. Ahmadinejad is a very scary guy and he is backed by people that are even more extreme. Public executions seem to be a form of entertainment for the Iranian government. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, I think a nuclear exchange becomes pretty likely. This makes me ANXIOUS.

    4. Black Ice: It has been 2 weeks since Chicago's big blizzard and all of our snow is melting as temps head above freezing. But it gets cold at night, causing the melted snow to re-freeze. On roads and sidewalks, the result can be invisible - "black ice." I slipped in my driveway when I stepped on some black ice and almost did a face-plant (managed to stay upright by flailing my arms around and grabbing the doorhandle of my car). Black ice makes me ANXIOUS.

    5. Unemployment: I am among the fortunate folks that kept working through the recession. I know people that have not been so lucky. The official unemployment rate in the U.S. has been 9% or higher since April 2009. But the official unemployment rate is vastly understated. If you add "discouraged workers" (folks that want jobs but quit looking due to lousy prospects) and the underemployed (folks with part time jobs that want full-time jobs), the rate is at least 20%. Oh, and don't forget all those college grads that are working fast food jobs - they are underemployed, too. And the 55 year old former head of human resources for a mid-sized company that is working at Starbucks to get health benefits - he's underemployed, too. I am a father; two of my kids are working (Praise Be!) and two are still in school. I worry about their employment prospects. Real unemployment numbers make me ANXIOUS.

    Well, that is enough free-floating anxiety for now. Have a nice day.

    Tuesday, February 01, 2011

    The Day Before Groundhog Day

    Tomorrow marks the 125th anniversary of Groundhog Day. Since my mother's side of the family came from western Pennsylvania, less than an hour's drive from Punxsutawney, I grew up with pictures of the Groundhog Day ceremony in my house. I knew all about Punxsutawney Phil before Bill Murray made the movie. Before Murray's "Groundhog Day" movie, February 2 was simply a holiday based on an old legend about a rodent's weather-forecasting ability. The movie changed the meaning of the holiday in our popular culture. The phrase "Groundhog Day" has come to represent the act of going through a phenomenon over and over and over until one spiritually transcends it.

    Here in Chicago, we get that "Groundhog Day" feeling about this time of year. Starting sometime in December, the skies turn grey and often stay that color for weeks on end. We get blasted with snow and cold. The days are short and so are the tempers of our fellow citizens. It does sometimes feel like we are living the same winter day, over and over and over. Save us, Punxsutawney Phil!!

    But tomorrow, my friends, will be different.

    According to the U.S. Weather Service and the chattering herd of media hypesters, Chicago is to be hit with a great-grandmother of a blizzard, starting this afternoon and extending into the wee hours of Groundhog Day. Breathless disaster junkies are claiming that this could be "the big one" with snowfall exceeding the infamous "Blizzard of '67." Winds will howl, leading to white-out conditions. THE CITY COULD SHUT DOWN!!!! PANIC AND CHAOS COULD ENSUE!!!!! RUN AWAY RUN AWAY TO ARUBA!!!!! (Except O'Hare will be closed).

    Excuse me, but a big snowstorm in Chicago in early February simply isn't a newsworthy event. We are Chicagoans. We have four-wheel drive vehicles, several hundred thousand tons of road salt in storage, and drink antifreeze in the winter. Snowstorm? Feh!

    In the immortal (immoral?) words of the 43rd POTUS, "Bring it on!"'

    Saturday, January 15, 2011

    An Instrument I Wish I Could Play

    While in high school and college, I spent quite a bit of time sitting in the trombone section of the jazz band, honking on the bass trombone. It was quite satisfying to blow low tones and anchor the brass section. And I had several opportunities to play in unison with my brother low-register specialist, the baritone saxophonist. This is how I fell in love with the bari sax.

    A good bari player can really throw down a bass line. He/she can make it pop in the low register, rumble and growl, adding bottom to jazz, funk and rock music. A virtuoso baritone saxophonist can blow like Coltrane and Bird, but in the bass tone zone. There is a soulfullness to the sound of a bari - gruff, yet warm and it grabs me every damn time I hear it. And bari sax players tend to be a tad on the geeky side, which I really like. They aren't the movie stars of the music world.

    I have a list of bari players that just knock me out -
    • Gerry Mulligan: Gerry left us in 1996, and he was one of the greatest bari players in history. His tone was different - lighter and cooler than the typical rollicking baritone sax sound. He was bari guy on the Miles Davis "Birth of Cool" record. He played with Duke, Monk, Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker and Dave Brubeck. He put the bari in the jazz spotlight. Here is a clip of Gerry playing a wonderful old standard, "Satin Doll."

    • Harry Carney: Mr. Carney was probably the first major performer on the baritone sax. He played Conn saxophones with a very large-chambered mouthpiece, which produced a huge, rich tone that most bari players try to replicate to this day. Carney ran away from home at the age of 17 to join Duke Ellington's orchestra! Wow! And he was one of the first practicioners of "circular breathing," a technique that allows a hornplayer to hold a note indefinitely. Check out this youtube clip and you will hear Harry's artistry and experience the incredible tension and release that the cicular breathing technique can create.

    • Pepper Adams: Pepper was the "anti-Mulligan." Gerry was light and cool; Pepper was sharp and hot. They used to call him "the Knife" in honor of his attack and cutting tone. Pepper was a "hard bopper" and recorded with Mingus, Coltrane, Donald Byrd and a long list of other greats. He died of lung cancer at the age of 56 (which happens to be my age....). He played with a joyous ferocity that few musicians have ever attained. Here is a clip - wonderful stuff!

    • Ronnie Cuber: This guy is still alive and kicking ass! He can do it all - harp bop, soul, funk and every damn thing. In addition to playing with stars like Joey DeFrancesco (Hammond B3 organ superstar), Randy Brecker, Maynard Ferguson, and Lee Konitz, Ronnie has also played with a bunch of pop stars seeking that magical bari sound, including Paul Simon and Chaka Khan. I love this guy - he looks like a paunchy accountant, but he is one of the funkiest horn men alive today! Check out this clip...

    • Stephen (the Funky Doctor) Kupka: Doc has anchored the Tower of Power horn section for almost four decades! Imagine that! He introduced an entire generation to the robust bass honk af a well-played bari sax. He was a soulful, nerdy white kid back inthe 1970's; he is a distinguished-looking senior playa now. I still can't get enough of this guy - he has anchored TOP and defined its sound since its inception. Doc is a section player - not a soloist. And that is cool - here he is with TOP on the Letterman show some time back.

    • Dana Colley: Dana is a bari guy that nearly achieved rock superstardom. He was a member of the odd-ball power trio, Morphine, in the 1989-1999 period. The instrumentation was electric bass, drums and baritone saxophone. This band was led and driven by the late, great Mark Sandman (bass and vocals); Mark died of a heart attack on stage in 1999. Dana played some amazing bari and opened a new frontier of the baritone sax as a frontline voice in a rock/pop context. The music was incedible, rumbling with funky darkness down in the bass register. Even Sandman's voice was a baritone-bass instrument. Here is a particularly mesmerizing tune by Morphine, recorded in a small club - wicked!!!

    I could add many more names to this list. Here in Chicago, we have a few local Baritone Sax Studs - Bob Centano is the guy that leaps to mind immediately. Bob plays the entire range of woodwind instruments, but seems to spend most of his time on the bari. He is no spring chicken - well into his retirement years. Bob worked in the Federal courts - clerking for Federal judges was his "day job" for many years. He is back to being a full-time musician in retirement. He also leads a big band around the Chicago area, and it is an excellent ensemble. Bob's playing is deeply soulful and full of surprises.

    I am always amazed when a talented musican plays a big, intimidating instrument like the baritone sax and generates such marvelous sounds. I wish I could play that damned bari sax!