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Friday, December 31, 2021

I’ve Heard That Song Before ...

WHAT DO BEETHOVEN, CHOPIN, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Haydn, Dvořák, and Grieg have in common? You’ll find their music in vintage jazz recordings by the John Kirby Sextet, an infectiously bouncy little group that also swung its own versions of melodies by such less-known classical composers as Sinding, Toselli, Donizetti, Delibes, and Massenet. These were terrific versions, too. Listen to Evan L. Young’s arrangement of Schubert’s “Serenade” (“Ständchen,” D 957 #4), and marvel at how the song’s heartbreaking quality is maintained against the band’s swinging pulse.

Kirby believed that his sextet was the ideal size to give such pieces a “tasteful treatment,” as he put it, telling downbeat in 1939, “I believe that symphonic pieces can be handled by jazz groups in such a way that serious music lovers won’t throw their hands up in despair.”

But jazz ensembles large and small have been unable to resist the lure of the longhair, and we can enjoy everything from Duke Ellington and His Orchestra playing “The Nutcracker” to Eddie Lang’s solo guitar performance of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp Minor.

That’s because music professionals don’t see rigid lines between different types of music. Strict boundaries have, however, been thrown up by others – especially those who market music to particular demographics, and thus it is that we’re inculcated with the canard that classical music is an elitist pursuit, and that those who pursue it merit scorn.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Silent Night

I'd like to share another of my video collaborations with Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz, this time realizing a project she suggested to honor her late mother. With Maria Riccio Bryce's arrangement of "Silent Night" as the heart of the piece, Florin Vlad and Natalia O'Connor Vlad created a lovely dance sequence, and it was captured by the skilled videographers at Chromoscope Pictures.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Mark Twain’s Christmas Elephant

Guest Blogger Dept.: Mark Twain’s recently published autobiography runs three volumes, or two and a half if you discount the padding at the end of the third book; but it’s in that book that we read the account of the gift of an elephant that he was supposed to receive for Christmas in 1908. He hired Isabel Lyon as his secretary in 1902 as his wife grew too infirm to handle his correspondence. Ralph Ashcroft was a business associate whom Lyon married in 1909.


TEN DAYS AGO Robert Collier wrote me that he had bought a baby elephant for my Christmas, and would send it as soon as he could secure a car for it and get the temporary loan of a trainer from Barnum and Bailey’s winter-quarters menagerie at Bridgeport. The cunning rascal knew the letter would never get to my hands, but would stop in Miss Lyon’s on the way and be suppressed. The letter would not have disturbed me, for I know Robert, and would have suspected a joke behind it; but it filled Miss Lyon with consternation – she taking it in earnest, just as he had expected she would. She and Ashcroft discussed the impending disaster together, and agreed that it must be kept from me at all costs. That is to say, they resolved to do the suffering and endure the insomnia and save me. They had no doubts about the elephant. They knew quite well that if Robert was inspired to do a kindness for a friend, he would not consider expense, but would buy elephants or any other costly rarity that might seem to him to meet the requirements.

Miss Lyon called up New York on the telephone and got into conversation with Robert. She timidly suggested that we had no way of taking care of an elephant here, it being used to a warm climate and –

“Oh, that’s all right, put him in the garage,” interrupted Robert cheerfully.

Monday, December 20, 2021

The Touches of Sweet Harmony

ONCE I DISCOVERED classical music, I was ineluctably set on a path that would keep me free of the ties of mainstream anything, particularly its so-called culture. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a total snob. But at least three-quarters of me is suffused with a snobdom that I do try to hide when I’m out in public.

In any event, as a cash-strapped teen, my main source of music became the radio, and in the New York metropolitan area, there were three stations broadcasting fairly full schedules of the stuff I wanted to hear. WQXR AM and FM, the “radio stations of the New York Times,” as it was styled back then; WNCN-FM, which lived in its own rarefied universe; and WNYC, which was a Public Broadcasting affiliate, and thus required to add news and public affairs programs to its roster. (WRVR, WKCR, and WFUV sometimes aired classical works, as did Bridgeport’s WJZZ, so don’t complain that I’ve overlooked them.)

And there was a booming yet dulcet voice that issued from the speaker late at night over WQXR, and then on WNCN, and then on WBAI, depending on how fed up any of those stations had grown with Bill Watson. And vice-versa. He was peripatetic. He was opinionated. He was devoted to Walter Gieseking and Jussi Bjoerling, among others, and was inclined to favor their recordings, often in marathon sessions.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Caution (A Legend)

Guest Blogger Dept.: This blog is getting verse – specifically, another poem by P.G. Wodehouse. The creator of Jeeves and Lord Emsworth was also a renowned lyrist in his day, contributing the words to Jerome Kern’s tunes in a series of acclaimed pre-Gershwin musicals. But this predates even that, a tender ditty that creates its own music.


[How many a doctor or architect must own that his professional life consisted of two periods – one in which he was too young to be trusted, the other in which he was too old to be efficient. – Times’s leading article]

O, read my melancholy rhyme,
Peruse my mournful ditty,
Two men there dwelt upon a time
Within a certain city.
Both were distinctly men of parts,
Well versed in their respective arts.

To fell diseases of the kind
That everyone who can shuns,
One of this pair had turned his mind,
The other’s forte was mansions.
They were, as you’d no doubt expect,
A doctor and an architect.

The latter, when but twenty-nine,
Planned a Titanic building,
A house of wonderful design,
All marble, stone, and gilding.
Said he: “My fortune’s made, I wis,
Men can’t resist a thing like this.”

Monday, December 13, 2021

Instruments of Control

From the Soapbox Dept.: I suppose it was those first few years of concert-reviewing that inspired the piece below, as I was confronted with the appalling sameness of one classical-music concert after another. Now, twenty-four years later, most of my working days are spent with music in the background. But at least it’s music I chose to semi-listen to.


MUSIC HAS THE CAPACITY of being the least instrusive of the arts. That gives it the potential of being one of the most manipulative. Thanks to decades of proper conditioning – conditioning we’ve undergone since birth – we are no more aware of such manipulation than we are of our breathing. (Until a more obtrusive purpose is required and the political thrust of a hunk of music is made obvious. You know the sound of a protest song: it sounds stirring and is excitingly fun to sing.)

The musical identity of this country has its fussy heart in a generation-to-generation revision of values signified by the evolution of a tangled vine of musical stylings. It began at the beginning of the century, when jazz unseated the dry huffings of a boring crew of classical composers (slaves to a European tradition), and it ended with the end of the folk-song boom of 20 years ago.

Significantly, we’re once again listening to what the Europeans are saying – if we’re listening at all.

Continuity of music is found in celebration; change is fueled by rebellion. More drastic musical change was effected in the United States during this century than anywhere else in the world over any given time period, yet it’s a history so fraught with compartmentalization that a view of any appreciable scope must be sewn together from scattered ingredients.

Friday, December 10, 2021

To a Tee

From the Tech Vault Dept.: The evanescence of technology is such that nothing in the article below has any currency. The company that made those printers is gone, and you’re now able to design a T-shirt and upload the design to a company that will provide the finished product for far less than you’d invest for the products below. We’re going back twenty-five years, after all. (Photos by John Popplewell.)


LIFE’S SIGNIFICANT ACHIEVEMENTS are often marked with trophies and plaques and, more whimsically, clothing. Whether it’s your baseball team’s recent victory, your church choir’s tour, or simply surviving another year at work, there are celebratory messages to be worn.

The T-shirt-inscription business has flourished accordingly. Needless to say, there are folks who do very good work in this field, but you still have to relinquish control when you hire somebody else to do it for you. Thanks to your skill at the computer, though, that’s no longer the case. Anything you can render onscreen can be turned into a professional-looking tee with the help of Fargo Electronics’ PrimeraPro Color Printer and its special T-Shirt Transfer Paper. Design it, print it, iron it on. It’s that simple.

Once you make the investment in the printer, your per-shirt cost is much less than a commercial outfit charges, especially for a limited run. And the possibilities open up from there. Printed garments (let’s not forget sweatshirts) have great fund-raising potential. It’s nice and sentimental for your group to promote itself by sporting appropriately legible clothing; it’s often nicer and more profitable for your group to sell those shirts to its fans.

Ultimately, you’ll be able to make a business out of it. With a good graphics program, a creative eye, and a collection of headline typefaces, you already have the design tools. Add an entrepreneurial spirit and the PrimeraPro printer, and you’re ready to go. It’s a trade you should get into – if you’ll pardon my saying so – while the iron is hot.

Monday, December 06, 2021

Something to Believe In

From the Food Vault Dept.: After the demise of Albany’s Metroland Magazine, there was a short-lived pseudo-alt-weekly that was published for a while under the hopeful name of The Alt. It had none of the alternative-news sensibility one expects from such a paper, and it was further hampered by its editor’s very limited cultural intelligence. I wrote some pieces for the mag during its brief existence; here’s one. As of this writing, the Iron Gate continues to thrive.


IT WAS AN UNLIKELY BIRTH for a restaurant. “I’ve always related to the Ramones,” Kevin Dively explains. “I bought my sister one of their albums for her birthday when she was, like, ten – because I wanted it – and it changed my life. I mean, at the time, what was the music out there? And here are the Ramones! So me and my brother and a neighbor decided that we could do this, and we started a band.”

Which meant he didn’t fit well into the nine-to-five employment paradigm. “When you’re doing the band thing, the one job you can always get is a restaurant job. So I bounced around a lot of restaurants.”

Meanwhile, his parents had bought and restored a four-story Victorian mansion in downtown Albany, the onetime School No. 10 that was owned by industrialist James Holroyd in the 1890s. The single-family structure came with a small office space attached, “but the people in there moved out because there wasn’t any parking. My dad didn’t know what he was going to do with it, so I said ‘Let’s put a little sandwich shop in there.’”

Friday, December 03, 2021

Mosaic on the Move

MOSAIC RECORDS WAS FOUNDED, nearly forty years ago, with the mission of reissuing great jazz recordings in a way that best showcases a particular artist or label. The reissues are prepared from the best source material that can be found, with skillful audio restoration to minimize noise while maintaining the music’s integrity. This is the Criterion Collection of recorded jazz. When one of the limited-edition box sets sells out, you’ll find it on eBay and elsewhere for far more than the original retail price.

Michael Cuscuna
As co-founder Michael Cuscuna wrote in 2017, “Charlie Lourie and I started Mosaic Records in 1982 and our first releases were in 1983. The company was almost an afterthought. The idea of definitive boxed sets of complete recordings by jazz masters at a crucial time in their careers was a small part of a proposal that we made to Capitol Records in 1982 to relaunch the Blue Note label. Even before Capitol turned us down, it occurred to me one night that the release of these boxed sets could be a business unto itself if we made them deluxe, hand-numbered limited editions sold directly to the public.” And so it has been, with each box set limited to a few thousand numbered copies, each boasting a booklet renowned for its scholarly essays and exhaustive discography.

Now, 271 box sets later, Mosaic is closing its offices. If you’re on the list, you got the e-mail. (If you’re not, you can sign up at It sounded a little alarming, especially considering the financial perils the company has shared in the past. But Cuscuna assures us that it’s a positive step. The email also invited the record label’s fans to an open house. Not the first one that Mosaic has held, but this would be the last.