Read any Good Books lately? (#16) – The Surfing Years

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

This book was included in President Obama’s 2016 Summer Reading List 
 
“Barbarian Days is William Finnegan’s memoir of an obsession, a complex enchantment. Surfing only looks like a sport. To initiates, it is something else: a beautiful addiction, a demanding course of study, a morally dangerous pastime, a way of life. 
Raised in California and Hawaii, Finnegan started surfing as a child. He has chased waves all over the world, wandering for years through the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, Africa. A bookish boy, and then an excessively adventurous young man, he went on to become a distinguished writer and war reporter. Barbarian Days takes us deep into unfamiliar worlds, some of them right under our noses—off the coasts of New York and San Francisco. It immerses the reader in the edgy camaraderie of close male friendships forged in challenging waves.
 
Finnegan shares stories of life in a whites-only gang in a tough school in Honolulu. He shows us a world turned upside down for kids and adults alike by the social upheavals of the 1960s. He details the intricacies of famous waves and his own apprenticeships to them. Youthful folly—he drops LSD while riding huge Honolua Bay, on Maui—is served up with rueful humor. As Finnegan’s travels take him ever farther afield, he discovers the picturesque simplicity of a Samoan fishing village, dissects the sexual politics of Tongan interactions with Americans and Japanese, and navigates the Indonesian black market while nearly succumbing to malaria. Throughout, he surfs, carrying readers with him on rides of harrowing, unprecedented lucidity.
 
Barbarian Days is an old-school adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road movie, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting, little-understood art.” ……….. Amazon Books.

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In reading this book I recall my early years in Australia. This book is a reminder of the golden years of surfing that was such a significant part of my youth. Australia has the reputation of being the driest continent on the planet and at 59,736 km it also has the sixth longest coastline in the world. While the country’s cultural mythology is dominated by “the Outback” the ocean is the country’s playground.  Like most youth living within reach of the Australian coast I grew up in and around the ocean. In my early teen years I learnt to body surf while on summer vacations with my family at East’s Beach just south of Sydney. In my later teen years I started surf board riding at Freshwater Beach in Sydney. That beach is the spiritual home of surf board riding in Australia. When the Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku visited Australia in December 24, 1914 he gave an exhibition of surf board riding at Freshwater Beach. That was a hell of a Christmas present for Australia.The board that Duke Kahanamoku used for the demonstration was built from a piece of pine purchased from a local hardware store. In my early surfing days at Freshwater Beach the local lads from time to time would haul this massive eight foot / sixty pound surfboard out of storage and try to surf on it. At the time I don’t recall any of the local surfers being all that successful but it did put us in touch with a real slice of history.  Over the years the true value of this surfing artifact was recognized and is now under glass in the Freshwater surf club. There is also a statue of Duke Kahanamoku on the Northern headland over looking the beach.

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From that time on Australian surfing developed independently from the Hawaiian and Californian influences. That started to change in the 1950s and 1960s when the latest innovations in design and techniques once again reached Australia.

I was part of the generation that was susceptible to the new innovations. My surfboards at the time reflected the early days of this new era. At over nine feet long with a single fin my boards are large compared to the under 7 foot multiple finned “Thrusters” of today.

                    

 

My surfing life largely coincided with the beginning and end of the 1960s. When I emigrated to Canada my surfing years were behind me and mountain life styles came to dominate my recreational endeavors. From time to time the latest surfing magazines would show  up in the local book shops and images of sun light on water would still fill my mind and tickle my consciousness. Like the author of the book postulates, Surfing is an addiction that you never truly leave behind. The book, with it’s stroll down the author’s  surfing years, refreshed my memories of many great days, great waves and youthful camaraderie. Admittedly my adventures probably were not of the same magnitude of magnificence as the author’s but while reading the book it was still good to wander through the lands of “what if”, rediscover old stories, old locations and new countries with bigger, better and sometimes scarier surf spots.

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Enough about me and more about the book. When we talk about “sport” we are usually talking about team sports with all the hype and hoopla associated with the entertainment industry.  So in that sense surfing is not a sport. It is a recreational activity. It has more in common with Skiing, Mountaineering, Kayaking, Canoeing, Hangliding and Rock Climbing than any of the sports we are likely to see on TV. The book is a memoir of William Finnegan’s involvement with surfing and the addictive nature of the activity.  For any one who has had even a passing interest in surfing this is a must read book. For others it is a look at “coming of age” experiences and youthful, and not so youthful adventures around the world. There is a distinct lack of jargon and hype that makes it possible for the average reader to get a real feel for the activity known as surfing. For those of us who have lived through any of the surfing eras of the past forty plus years, either as a participant or voyeur, it is a very pleasant reminder of the things we may still miss from those bygone days.

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POSTSCRIPT – Reading List

  1. The Big Drop: Classic Big Wave Surfing Stories. by John Long – “32 classic big wave surfing stories from the sport’s pioneers John Long’s classic collection of big wave surfing stories heralded a new era in surfing literature. Focusing on those elite athletes who live to challenge the ocean’s fury, The Big Drop is more than just another surfing book. It is both an extraordinary collection of thirty-two true tales and a treasure-trove of insight into the evolution of big-wave surfing―with particular focus on the pioneers of the 1950s and 1960s and the skills necessary to challenge huge waves. Providing a comprehensive look at the sport’s eras, locations, and legends, with a host of stunning images and a glossary of surfing terms, it is a truly unforgettable look at the obsession of those who face down monstrous waves. Revealing the tantalizing and terrifying truth about riding big waves, The Big Drop is a must for any surfer inclined to tackle large surf in thought or in fact.” My favorite story in this collection is the one about the “accidental” surfing of a Tidal Wave off the coast of Peru in 1974.

 

  1. All for a Few Perfect Waves: The Audacious Life and Legend of Rebel Surfer Miki Dora by David Rensin. “For twenty years, Miki “Da Cat” Dora was the king of Malibu surfers—a dashing, enigmatic rebel who dominated the waves, ruled his peers’ imaginations, and who still inspires the fantasies of wannabes to this day. And yet, Dora railed against surfing’s sudden post-Gidget popularity and the overcrowding of his once empty waves, even after this avid sportsman, iconoclast, and scammer of wide repute ran afoul of the law and led the FBI on a remarkable seven-year chase around the globe in 1974. The New York Times named him “the most renegade spirit the sport has yet to produce” and Vanity Fair called him “a dark prince of the beach.” To fully capture Dora’s never-before-told story, David Rensin spent four years interviewing hundreds of Dora’s friends, enemies, family members, lovers, and fellow surfers to uncover the untold truth about surfing’s most outrageous practitioner, charismatic antihero, committed loner, and enduring mystery.”

 

  1. Storm – Stories of Survival from Land and Sea, edited by Clint Willis. “Storm” reveals first-hand accounts of battling with the elements: hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes and sand storms – in mountains, seas, plains, and jungles. Included are contributions from sailors, climbers, adventures, and other hardy souls; people like Patrick O’Brian, Stephen Venables, Chris Bonnington, Sebastian Junger, Joseph Conrad and Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Full of harrowing adventures that test human endurance, this volume contains stories of individuals who must fight to stay alive. Barry Lopez is trapped among arctic floes by a sudden squall; Art Davidson’s team freezes in a wind storm on Mount McKinley as the temperature hits 148 degrees below zero; an idyllic sail turns tragic when Gordon Chaplin loses his ship and his lover in a South Pacific typhoon. My favorite story in my 2000 edition is Jack London’s THE HOUSE OF MAPUHI, the story of survival during a typhoon on a Polynesian island. Note: my edition appears to be different from the one reviewed and for sale on Amazon.

POSTSCRIPT – Videos

  1. BUSTIN’ DOWN THE DOOR. There are a “million” surfing movies out there but this  is a  surfing documentary to end all surfing documentaries. It is largely focused on the “Free Ride” generation of the early ’70s, Bustin’ Down the Door reveals the true stories behind the uprising of some of the most influential surfers to have graced the water.Narrated by Edward Norton and featuring intimate interviews with Shaun Tomson, Rabbit Bartholomew, Mark Richards(MR), Ian Cairns, Peter Townend and Mark Warren, talking of the infamous waves along Oahu’s legendary North Shore which they rode with a style, aggression, and raw courage unseen prior to their arrival. Collectively, these surfers changed the face of surfing and were the first to really apply themselves as serious professional surfers.Packed with beautifully shot footage of these masters at work it tells the truly inspirational tale of how they moved over from Australia and South Africa to pioneer a sport that, at the time, was only seen as a past time for “beach bums”.
    However, this is no surfing fairy tale! Enduring incredibly hard times, from confrontations with Da Hui (a group of “locals” in Hawaii dedicated to promoting respect and equality in the lineup) to having contracts put out on their lives, this is a testament to how far these young men were willing to go to make surfing what it is today! Some of the information is not that flattering to some of the participants. The achievements of this group of Australian and South African surfers was a game changer. But there was a price. The arrogance and aggression of the group alienated many of the localHawaiians who felt that tradition and respect was being trampled and they reacted accordingly..
  2.  THE ENDLESS SUMMER by Bruce Brown. This is the iconic surf movie of the late 1960s.The Endless Summer was 1966  when filmmaker and narrator Bruce Brown follows two surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August on a surfing trip around the world. Despite the balmy climate of their native California, cold ocean currents make local beaches inhospitable during the winter. They travel to the coasts of  Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Hawaii, Senegal, Ghana and South Africa in a quest for new surf spots and introduce locals to the sport. Other important surfers of the time, such as Miki Dora, Phil Edwards and Butch Van Artsdalen also appear in the film. Its title comes from the idea, expressed at both the beginning and end of the film, that if one had enough time and money it would be possible to follow the summer up and down the world (northern to southern hemisphere and back), making it endless. The concept of the film was born through the suggestion of a travel agent to Bruce Brown during the planning stages of the film. The travel agent suggested that the flight from Los Angeles to Cape Town, South Africa and back would cost $50 more than a trip circumnavigating the world. After which, Bruce came up with the idea of following the summer season by traveling up and down the world.The narrative presentation eases from the stiff and formal documentary of the 1950s and early 1960s to a more casual and fun-loving personal style filled with sly humor. The surf rock soundtrack to the film was provided by The Sandals. The “Theme to the Endless Summer” was written by Gaston Georis and John Blakeley of the Sandals. It has become one of the best known film themes in the surf movie genre.]When the movie was first shown, it encouraged many surfers to go abroad, giving birth to the “surf-and-travel” culture, with prizes for finding “uncrowded surf”, meeting new people and riding the perfect wave. It also introduced the sport, which had become popular outside of  Hawaii and the Polynesian Islands Islands in places like California and Australia, to a broader audience…….. Wikipedia.The iconography portrayed in the film is not strictly correct. The premise of an endless summer with perfect waves is contrary to the facts. The best waves to surf are generated by storms in the winter months. So to pursue the “perfect wave” one must essentially indulge in an “endless winter” . The biggest and best waves occur in the winter.

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Julian Bream, passed away on 14th August 2020.

For the greater part of the 20th Century the Spanish musician Andres Segovia was the undisputed maestro of the Classical Guitar. Many professional classical guitarists of today were students of Segovia, or students of his students. Segovia died in 1987 at the age of 94. “The final two decades of Andres Segovia long life coincided with many developments in the contemporary repertoire and a sense of change generally in the structure of guitar recitals. In particular the influence of the Early Music movement, at the peak of its progress in the 1970s and 80s, made it rather unfashionable to perform music of the vihuela or baroque guitar eras, let alone music for the renaissance lute, on the modern guitar. Many players began to perform recitals on vihuelas, actual or reproduction baroque guitars, and Panormos. Lute virtuosity, whether renaissance or baroque, hitherto rare, became an available commodity, including continuo and accompanying skills.”  Also there was a new repertoire developing with “compositions by Tippett, Henze, Carter, Brouwer, Reich, Takemitsu, Koshkin, Nobre, Rak, etc, brought about a new aural landscape and unprecedented perspectives for recitalists. In concerts performers jettisoned the chronological approach ranging from the Renaissance to the present day, and shaped their presentation differently, often, like pianists, preferring one or two large works in each half rather than a packed programme of shorter items racing across the spectrum of styles.”

Coincidental with the final decades of Segovia’s life Julian Bream, John Williams, and Alirio Diaz  rose to prominence. Segovia was a magnificent presence in the Classical Guitar world but each of the guitarists mentioned emerged from Segovia’s influence and  managed to carve out his own particular niche in that very select world of classical guitar. While Segovia enlarge the repertoire for the instrument it is undeniable that his tonal palette was decidedly Spanish.

Alirio Diaz was a Venezuelan musician and as such his repertoire contained a significant number of works by the South American composers Augustin Barrios and Antonio Laurio. His tonal palette was brighter and more aggressive than his teacher Segovia.

John Willams was a flawless technician with a vast standard classical repertoire but he also  experimented with more “modern” sounds. Perhaps he was a more cosmopolitan musician than his contemporaries.

Julian Bream, on the other hand was decidedly English and, maybe to prove a point, he was a champion of the Elizabethan Lute and the music of John Dowland. “Bream’s recitals were wide-ranging, including transcriptions from the 17th century, many pieces by Bach arranged for guitar, popular Spanish pieces, and contemporary music, for much of which he was the inspiration. He stated that he was influenced by the styles of Andres Segovia and Francisco Tarega. Bream had some “sessions” with Segovia but did not actually study with him. Segovia provided a personal endorsement and scholarship request to assist Bream in taking further formal music studies. Segovia predominantly associated his guitar skills to music compatible with the guitar’s Spanish and Latin roots. Julian Bream’s style expanded the use of guitar into more contemporary genres. Bream’s work showed that the guitar could be capably utilized in English, French, and German music. Bream’s playing can be characterized as virtuosic and highly expressive, with an eye for details, and with strong use of contrasting timbres. He did not consistently hold his right-hand fingers at right angles to the strings, but used a less rigid hand position for tonal variety.” … Wikipedia

Bream met Igor Stravinsky in Toronto, Canada, in 1965. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade the composer to write a composition for the lute and played a pavane by Dowland for him. The meeting between Bream and Stravinsky, including Bream’s impromptu playing, was filmed by the National Film Board of Canada in making a documentary about the composer…… Wikipedia

He lived for over forty years at Semly, Wiltshire, at first dividing his time between there and Chiswick, London, then moving permanently in 1966 to a Georgian farmhouse in Semley, living there until 2008.[37] In 2009 he moved to a smaller house at Donhead St Andrew, Wiltshire. Bream was keen on the game of cricket[ and was a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club.  ….. Wikipedia

Julian’s recording career included at least 30-50 LPs and CDs and four Grammy Awards.

Julian Bream (1933-2020)  died on 14 August 2020, at his home at Donhead St Andrew. He was 87years old.

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Some video clips of Julian Bream

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Julian Bream Documentary

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A Touch of Humor – A Lesson in Grammar

Sent to me by Douglas Francis Mitchell – Thanks Doug

LESSON IN GRAMMAR

IS IT “COMPLETE”, “FINISHED” OR “COMPLETELY FINISHED” ? No English dictionary has been able to adequately explain the difference between these two words – “Complete” or “Finished”.

In a recent linguistic competition held in London and attended by, supposedly, the best in the world, Samdar Balgobin, a Guyanese man, was the clear winner with a standing ovation which lasted over 5 minutes. The final question was: ‘How do you explain the difference between COMPLETE and FINISHED in a way that is easy to understand? Some people say there is no difference between COMPLETE and FINISHED.’

Here is his astute answer:

“When you marry the right woman, you are COMPLETE. When you marry the wrong woman, you are FINISHED. And when the right one catches you with the wrong one, you are:

COMPLETELY FINISHED!

He won a trip around the world and a case of 25 year old Scotch

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Something to look forward to………

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A Suitable Boy is a massive (approximately 1500 pages) monumental novel written by Vikram Seth way back in 1993 and is now about to be released as a six part TV mini-series. I can hardly wait. In a nutshell ….

“A Suitable Boy is set in the newly post-independence, post partition India of the 1950s. The novel follows the story of four families over a period of 18 months, and centers on Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s efforts to arrange the marriage of her younger daughter, Lata, to a “suitable boy”. Lata is a 19-year-old university student who refuses to be influenced by her domineering mother or opinionated brother, Arun. Her story revolves around the choice she is forced to make between her suitors Kabir, Haresh, and Amit.”

Way back then I read the closing of the dedication ….

“Buy me before good sense insists / you’ll strain your purse and sprain your wrists”

With a dedication like I had to take him at his word. I could not simply put the book aside without reading it. Sometimes a big novel can turn out to be chore. But not this one It turned out to be a magnificent read about complex family, racial, political and cultural issues set in the newly independent India.  Added to that there were healthy doses of background material to feed my long standing interest in Indian music.

The book is still sitting on my bookshelf just begging me to take it down again and re-engage in that wonderful world created by the author Virkram Seth. I might just do that before the mini-series hits the airways.

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Covidiots – Keith Baldry (BC Global News Commentator 2020/07/19)

“HOW CAN ONE SO CLEVER BE SO STUPID?” – The Dark Demon in Good Omens

I think it is a good question that should be  right up there with “have good citizens taken leave of their senses?” Or is it just the mass hysteria of people trying to deal with incredible circumstances?. These questions were all prompted by the spectacle on the evening news of public demonstrations against the wearing of masks.

I don’t understand it. Over the years we have spent buckets of money, time and energy on accumulating knowledge and the attendant education and training of experts to evaluate and interpret the data we have accumulated. We ask the experts to step up to the plate and offer guidance on dealing with such an event as a pandemic and when they do we react by throwing a hissy fit and behaving like children. It’s like a roomful of children wanting to go out and play in a dangerous situation and when restrained screaming “I’m going outside to play and you can’t stop me.” On top of that, as adults, they are not only screaming their objections to reasonable advice and precautions  but sprouting ridiculous conspiracy theories and equating reasonable public health measures to dictatorships and fascism. All because they can’t stop for a minute, take a breath, evaluate the reality of the situation and behave in a calm rational manner.

The wearing of masks is the case in point. The simple precaution of wearing masks in crowded situations is not an onerous request or task. It is not a hoax. It’s not a devious political plot. It is not even difficult. It is just a simple, wise precaution aimed at slowing the spread of the covid-19 virus.

So smarten up people and get with the program and wear a mask. The life you save may just be mine.

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A Touch of Humor

A photographer on vacation was inside a church taking photographs when he noticed a golden telephone mounted on the wall with a sign that read ‘$10,000 per call’.

The American, being intrigued, asked a priest who was strolling by what the telephone was used for.

The priest replied that it was a direct line to heaven and that for $10,000 you could talk to God.

The American thanked the priest and went along his way.

Next stop was in Atlanta . There, at a very large cathedral, he saw the same golden telephone with the same sign under it.

He wondered if this was the same kind of telephone he saw in Orlando and he asked a nearby nun what its purpose was.

She told him that it was a direct line to heaven and that for $10,000 he could talk to God.

‘O.K., thank you,’ said the American.

He then traveled to Indianapolis , Washington DC , Philadelphia , Boston and New York .

In every church he saw the same golden telephone
With the same ‘$10,000 per call’ sign under it.

The American, upon leaving Vermont decided to travel up to Canada to see if Canadians had the same phone.

He arrived in Canada , and again, in the first church he entered, there was the same golden telephone, but this time the sign under it read ’40 cents per call.’

The American was surprised so he asked the priest about the sign.  ‘Father, I’ve traveled all over America and I’ve seen this same golden telephone in many churches. I’m told that it is a direct line to Heaven, but in the US the price was $10,000 per call.

Why is it so cheap here?’

The priest smiled and answered, ‘You’re in Canada now, son … it’s a local call.’

KEEP SMILING

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Are we just a little confused?

The Emancipation Proclamation, or Proclamation 95, was a presidential proclamation and executive order issued by United States President Abraham Lincoln  on September 22, 1862, during the American Civil War. It changed the legal status under federal law of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in the secessionist Confederate states from slave to free. As soon as a slave escaped the control of the Confederate government, either by running away across Union lines or through the advance of federal troops, the slave was permanently free. Ultimately, the Union victory  brought the proclamation into effect in all of the former Confederacy. The remaining slaves, those in the areas not in revolt, were freed by state action during the war, or by the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, ratified in December 1865″………… Wikipedia

This was a bench mark step forward in the long struggle to abolish slavery and it is a very important date in American History. It needs to be remembered, honored and celebrated. Particularly in the USA. What impact did it have on black slaves in Canada? Now hang on  a minute……..  September 1862.    Correct me if I am wrong but it is my understanding that at that time there were no slaves, black or otherwise, in Canada. In fact there probably hadn’t been slaves in Canada for around 60 years. So The Emancipation Proclamation had little or no meaning in Canada. The date Canadians should be remembering and celebrating is the 1793 Act Against Slavery.

To once again quote Wikipedia…………

“By 1783, an anti-slavery movement to abolish the slave trade throughout the Empire had begun among the British public. Spurred by an incident involving Chloe Cooley, a slave brought to Canada by an American Loyalist, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada John Graves Simcoe tabled the Act Against Slavery in 1793. Passed by the local Legislative Assembly, it was the first legislation to outlaw the slave trade in a part of the British Empire.  Later the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73) abolished slavery in parts of the British Empire. This Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom expanded the jurisdiction of the Slave Trade Act 1807 and made the purchase or ownership of slaves illegal within the British Empire, with the exception of “the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company”, Ceylon, and Saint Helena.The Act was repealed in 1997 as a part of wider rationalization of English statute law; however, later anti-slavery legislation remains in force.”

So once again Canadians are confused and have assumed the mantle of American history. We have forgotten that slavery in the British Empire and Canada was  long gone way before the American Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The current demonstrations in Canadian cities are further examples of hysterical theater that distracts from real Canadian issues. In addition massive, inappropriate demonstrations do not help in controlling the current Covid-19 pandemic. So, as Canadians we should get the American Emancipation Proclamation into perspective and the date and event we should be celebrating is The Act Against Slavery  tabled in 1793 by John Graves Simcoe.

On a related issue here is an interesting little side bar to the Abolition of Slavery story.

It’s hard to believe but it was only in 2015 that, according to the Treasury, British taxpayers finished ‘paying off’ the debt which the British government incurred in order to compensate British slave owners in 1835 because of the abolition of slavery. Abolition meant their profiteering from human misery would (gradually) come to an end. Not a penny was paid to those who were enslaved and brutalized. The British government borrowed £20 million to compensate slave owners, which amounted to a massive 40 percent of the Treasury’s annual income or about 5 percent of British GDP. The loan was one of the largest in history.

I hope that clears up some of the confusion.

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A LOVE SUPREME

ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER ……….

Jimmy Cobb (January 20,1929 – May 24, 2020) drummer on Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue,’ Dies at 91.

New York Time Obituary, March 7, 2020 – McCoy Tyner, Jazz Piano Powerhouse, Is Dead at 81

Jimmy Cobb’s passing was a reminder of the classic Miles Davis album KIND OF BLUE recorded and released in late 1959. This album started jazz musicians down the modal path of musical improvisation and innovation.

Like wise McCoy Tyner’s passing was a reminder of that other jazz modal master piece –  John Coltrane’s  A LOVE SUPREME. This was a four part jazz suite recorded during December 1964 with John Coltrane on Tenor Sax, Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass and McCoy Tyner on piano.

As described in wikipedia: A Love Supreme is a suite with four parts: “Acknowledgement” (which includes the oral chant that gives the album its name), “Resolution”, “Pursuance”, and “Psalm”. Coltrane plays tenor saxophone on all parts. One critic has written that the album was intended to represent a struggle for purity, an expression of gratitude, and an acknowledgement that the musician’s talent comes from a higher power. Coltrane’s home Dix Hills, Long Island, may have inspired the album. Another influence may have been Ahmadiyya Islam.

The album begins with the bang of a gong (tam-tam) and cymbal washes. Jimmy Garrison enters on double bass with the four-note motif that lays the foundation of the movement. Coltrane begins a solo. He plays variations on the motif until he repeats the four notes thirty-six times. The motif then becomes the titular vocal chant “A Love Supreme”, sung by Coltrane accompanying himself through overdubs nineteen times. In the fourth and final movement, “Psalm”, Coltrane performs what he calls a “musical narration”. Lewis Porter calls it a “wordless recitation”. The devotional is included in the liner notes. Coltrane “plays” the words of the poem on saxophone but doesn’t speak them. Some scholars have suggested that this performance is an homage to the sermons of African-American preachers. The poem (and, in his own way, Coltrane’s solo) ends with the cry, “Elation. Elegance. Exaltation. All from God. Thank you God. Amen.”

To my knowledge there is no videos available of a complete Coltrane performance but there are fragments of performances scattered across YouTube. In place of that there is the excellent complete performance by the Bradford Marsalis Quartet recorded in Amsterdam in 2003.

Brandon Marsalis – Tenor Saxophone
Joey Calderazzo – Piano
Jeff Tain Watts – Drums
Eric Revis – Doublebass

This performance and the original Coltrane performance is not light weight music. It is a deeply spiritual composition and calling it intense is not an understatement. The music  would not be to everyone taste. But having said that for anyone interested in jazz it is a classic recording and should be on every jazz fan’s shelf

For anyone interested in information about the music and the recording I suggest the publication A LOVE SUPREME – The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Recording by Ashley Kahn published in 2002.

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So What!!

While surfing the web the following item caught my eye….

Jimmy Cobb (January 20,1929 – May 24, 2020) drummer on Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue,’ Dies at 91. He was the last surviving member of that landmark album’s sextet, he was a master of understatement, propelling his band mates with a quiet persistence.

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It was this “blast from the past” that prompted me to revisit the album. Most Jazz fans “have the moment” imprinted on their memory of when they first heard KIND OF BLUE. For me it was during a lunch time break in a record store (remember those) in down town Sydney, Australia. In those days there were head phones or listening booths available to check out the latest releases. The radio in those days was awash with top Forty Tunes and Jazz wasn’t all that popular. Apart from late night smooth jazz radio  to get one’s jazz fix you had to get it when ever and where ever you could. For me it was those lunch times listening sessions in a record store. The opening track on the album,  SO WHAT,  became my all time favorite Jazz composition and performance. Here is that opening track from the classic album followed by a live clip from a TV show.

While the tune in both instances is the same a discerning ear can detect distinct differences between the performances. The first clip from the recording is the classic Miles Davis Sextet of Miles Davis (trumpet), John Coltrane (Tenor Sax), Julian Adderley (Alto Sax), Paul Chambers (Bass), Jimmy Cobb (Drums) and Bill Evans (piano). The contours of the solos played by John Coltrane (tenor sax) and Miles Davis (trumpet) in both clips are similar but demonstrate the variety available within jazz performances of the same material.

The album KIND OF BLUE was recorded recorded on March 2 and April 22, 1959, at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York City. It was released on August 17 of that year by Columbia Records and in the past 60 years has never been out of print. It is regarded as the best selling jazz album of all time and because of its unique approach to composition and performance  it has been deemed as one of the most influential records of all times. On this album Davis followed up on his modal experimentation on his earlier Milestones album. By basing Kind of Blue entirely on modality he departed even further from his earlier work in the hard bop jazz style.

Why the recording is so important in the Jazz repertoire is that it was a radical departure from the way jazz musicians normally approached performances. Throughout the early history of Jazz up until the 50s and even later, the main stay of the Jazz repertoire was what was called THE GREAT AMERICAN SONG BOOK. It was a standard repertoire  filled with the songs of Cole Porter, George Gershwin etc. Generally a performance of these songs included an instrumental statement of the tune, sometimes with variations followed by individual solos by various instrumentalists. The underlying chord structures and melody line  were the basis for the improvisations that applied time honored musical devices to shape individual performances.  The songs may have had mundane lyrics (moon, June, love, spoon, etc)  but the melodies and the harmonic structures were (are) pretty sophisticated. Jazz musicians often ditched the standard melody and made up ones of their own. Sometimes they just used the chord progressions and  came up with completely different compositions. KIND OF BLUE changed that. Instead of using chord progressions for the improvisations Miles Davis came up with a Modal approach. It was no longer necessary to play in a specific key, rather the composer could dictate a series of modes to act as basic scales for the improvisation.

“So What is one of the best examples of modal jazz music. Although improvisation takes up the majority of the piece, it does have a compelling riff that sets the piece in motion and sets up the stage harmonically for the improvisations. This riff is notable in that involves the interplay between the upright bass and the rest of the band. The antecedent phrase is played by the bass, which plays an ascending line of notes that begin with a fourth leap starting from the root note. This is followed by the “response” by the piano or rest of the band, which consists two chords that move in parallel motion downwards in answer to the bass. These chords are a whole step apart and are made up of a root, fourth, minor seventh, minor third, and fifth. The second chord-and final statement of the phrase-is an altered  minor chord. This establishes the harmonic center of the piece.

Harmonically speaking, this piece is fairly simple. It is centered around the D Dorian mode, and there are no harmonic progressions other than the modulation from D Dorian to Eb Dorian, which occurs throughout the piece. The piece follows a 32 bar AABA structure, both during the melodic line and during the solos. This translates to 16 bars in D Dorian, 8 bars in Eb Dorian, and 8 bars again in D Dorian. The piece begins with a piano and bass opening with a slower tempo than the rest of piece. After this bass and piano alone play the melodic line with the drum as accompaniment. The drums serve to get the atmosphere going with a laid back, ‘cool’ atmosphere. The other instruments join in and after one chorus, each performer takes an extended solo in the following order: trumpet, tenor sax, alto sax, and piano. After the solos, the melody line is played for a chorus. The piece ends with the melody being just played with the bass and piano (with drums for accompaniment) before fading out.

The harmonic simplicity of So What gives the instrumentalists a certain freedom in their improvisations not found in other forms of jazz music. The differing creative approaches are evident in each of the different solos; for example, Miles Davis’ solo can be characterized as very melodic which is mainly focused on thoughtful phrasing whereas Coltrane uses a harder and often scalar approach, playing faster and leaving less space between his phrasings. Despite this, the atmosphere throughout So What remains mostly unchanged thanks to the vamping of the rhythm section and the careful upholding of the structure of the piece. The composition and the performance is a Jazz Masterpiece. Miles Davis was famous for approaching recording sessions with no set agenda. Just a sketch of some scales or chord progressions to be played with very loose instructions to the participants about tempo, structure and what he wanted to achieve. KIND OF BLUE and SO WHAT conform to Miles’ general approach to recording. In his later electronic explorations (BITCHES BREW, etc)  he even took it further using the recording studio as a compositional tool. Literally editing, cutting and pasting and shaping the final product (I find it hard to call it a performance) to his compositional needs. Miles never dwelled on his musical past and in later years when asked about the recording he tended to be dismissive of the effort and basically had the attitude “been there done that and I have moved on”.

Modal Jazz, in some ways reaches back to earlier classical and folk music ways of playing music. It did not replace the time honored Great American Song Book, rather it opened the door to different ways of composing, playing and improvisation. FREE JAZZ, a later development in jazz performance ,  was another way of organizing (some would say disorganizing)  the music …. no prepared structure, no set key, rhythm etc. Here in 2020 Free Jazz has been around for 50 years and while is still has a significant following it remains controversial.

I have this uncalled, and I dare say sometimes unwelcome urge to educate my peer musicians in some of the finest recordings out there. I sent these clips out to friends and one response astounded me. The composition and performance was described as and interesting “song” and it kind of illustrates the difficulties modern audiences have with instrumental music. Calling SO WHAT  a song is like calling Beethoven’s A minor STRING QUARTET #15 a song. We are all used to listening to “songs” but most of us have little or no educated experience with listening to instrumental compositions. As a result a large percentage of audiences have no sign posts to help them understand the music. Instrumental music is about the architecture of the piece; the use of melody, harmonic invention, rhythm and variations within all of those elements. Songs, as typified by the normal singer/song writer, and instrumental compositions in the Jazz and Classical traditions operate at two different levels and there is no way to really compare the two. Songs tend to be (not always of course) factual and concrete and generally touches our humanity with portrayals of every day circumstances and emotions. Instrumental music on the other hand tends to be more abstract and puts us in touch with music at a more mystical level.

Each musical style or school has a specific, and often unique, way of composition and performance. For instance,  Arab and Middle Eastern music is based on completely different concepts of harmony, melody and rhythmic rules to  western music. To understand and appreciate that music requires a re-education in the rules of the game. Similarly, Northern and Southern Indian Classical Indian that, to some extent , came from the Arabs is different again. In fact Northern and Southern Indian traditions are sufficiently different to require another re-think when moving from one tradition to the other.

Closer to home, Celtic Music is based on time honored airs and dance tunes with a large component of modal methods and a different feel to the music. Blue Grass had its origins in Celtic music but the feel is different. To my ears Blue Grass musicians do terrible things to Celtic tunes. At a Celtic music session in Dublin I once  asked my daughter in law what she thought of the music. Her response was “it all sounds the same to me”. For most people that is the response to most, if not all, instrumental music ……  “It all sounds the same to me”.

But with a little bit of effort it does not all have to “sound the same to me”

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Post Script. Over the years there must be thousands and thousands of words examining, defining and analyzing the album KIND OF BLUE. One book of note that I can recommend is KIND OF BLUE – THE MAKING OF THE MILES DAVIS MASTERPIECE, by Ashley Kahn, Da Capo Press Books, 2000.

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