Sunday, May 16, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (N. T. Wright, on God As ‘The One Who Satisfies’)

“God is the creator and lover of the world. Jesus spoke of God as ‘the Father who sent me,’ indicating that, as he says elsewhere, ‘anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9). Look hard at Jesus, especially as he goes to his death, and you will discover more about God than you could ever have guessed from studying the infinite shining heavens or the moral law within your own conscience. God is the one who satisfies the passion for justice, the longing for spirituality, the hunger for relationship, the yearning for beauty.”— Biblical scholar and Anglican bishop N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (2006)

Saturday, May 15, 2021

This Day in Jazz History (Ella Fitzgerald Sets Standards Canon With First ‘Song Book’)

May 15, 1956—Two decades after starting a highly diverse career in which she moved from big-band jazz singer to popular music headliner in her own right, Ella Fitzgerald began to create a Valhalla for classic American songwriters in her first LP at the Verve record label: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook.

Some years ago, I heard the musical term “standard” defined as “any song that Ella and Frank would sing.” An inexact definition, maybe, but it comes as close as any other I can think of.

To start with, the two singers launched Cole Porter into the songwriter firmament. Just before the composer-lyricist was about to enter a final lonely, agonizing physical decline nearly two decades after a devastating equestrian accident, he experienced a last burst of popularity as Sinatra (with some help from Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly) propelled the soundtrack for his musical High Society up the Billboard chart, and turned “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” into a major hit 20 years after it was introduced to the public.

But Ella got there first, with her 32-track double-album devoted to the Indiana native who came to personify international sophistication and cheeky wit.

It was not entirely coincidental that 1956 was the year when Fitzgerald and Sinatra made their landmark Porter recordings, as the two singers reached artistic maturity virtually simultaneously through the help of new musical mentors and new technology. 

Sinatra’s musical game-changer was arranger Nelson Riddle, who recorded “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” for their second collaboration, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! Fitzgerald’s was jazz record producer and concert promoter Norman Granz, who had persuaded her to leave her two-decade musical home, Decca Records.

Though it had produced early hits such as her novelty song, “A-tisket, A-tasket,” the label, noted musical critic Dan Morgenstern, was “never quite sure how to present a singer of such versatility….From a positive angle, this made it impossible to typecast Ella; but on the other hand, it prevented her from developing a strong identity.”

Once Granz moved Fitzgerald to Verve (a label founded originally to record her), they embarked on an extraordinary eight-year skein of discs that paid tribute to the finest American lyricists and composers: Porter, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer.

The recordings, which often brought new prominence to little-known gems, made even the honorees take notice. Ira Gershwin once declared, “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” After hearing the collection devoted to Rodgers and Hart, Berlin requested—and was granted—inclusion in the series.

“Armstrong and Crosby and Astaire and Holiday and Sinatra each had an incalculable impact on the canon of modern song,” jazz critic Gary Giddins observed in Visions of Jazz: The First Century. “But Fitzgerald erected the pantheon.”

The still-new technology that benefited Sinatra and Fitzgerald was the long-playing record. Introduced in 1947, it had become, by the mid-1950s, the go-to musical format for audiophiles who appreciated its fidelity to recorded sound and to musicians who enjoyed the increased freedom provided by works of longer duration.

The qualities exhibited by Fitzgerald in her LPs—and especially those in the “Song Book” series—were perhaps best summarized by British critic Henry Pleasants in The Great American Popular Singers (1974):

“She has a lovely voice, one of the warmest and most radiant in its natural range that I have heard in a lifetime of listening to singers in every category. She has an impeccable and ultimately sophisticated rhythmic sense, and flawless intonation. Her harmonic sensibility is extraordinary. She is endlessly inventive.”

By the end of 1956, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook had reached No. 18 on the list of Billboard Best Sellers for the whole year. When the Songbook series concluded with the Johnny Mercer disk in 1964, Fitzgerald was cajoled into trying artists and genres for which she had little affinity, such as The Beatles and country music.

But Fitzgerald, with a falsetto much-admired but seldom matched in popular song, had already created her legacy: virtually institutionalizing the jazz and popular songs created primarily for Broadway and Hollywood musicals from the Twenties to the Fifties. The scat-singer extraordinaire from earlier in her career had become, quite simply, The First Lady of Song.

Quote of the Day (Leonardo da Vinci, Defining Painting and Poetry)

“Painting is poetry which is seen and not heard, and poetry is a painting which is heard but not seen.”—Italian Renaissance architect, musician, inventor, engineer, scientist, sculptor, and painter Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), First Part of the Book on Painting,“Paragone: A Comparison of the Arts" (1651)

Friday, May 14, 2021

Quote of the Day (David Brooks, on the ‘Distrust Doom Loop’)

“Once it is established, distrust tends to accelerate. If you distrust the people around you because you think they have bad values or are out to hurt you, then you are going to be slow to reach out to solve common problems. Your problems will have a tendency to get worse, which seems to justify and then magnify your distrust. You have entered a distrust doom loop.”— Columnist David Brooks, “Our Herd Immunity Failure,” The New York Times, May 7, 2021

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Road to Utopia,’ As Bing and Bob Plan How To Hide Their Treasure Map)

[In 1890s Alaska, Chester and Duke have each taken their half of a map pointing them to treasure.]

Chester Hooton [played by Bob Hope]: “What're you doing?”

Duke Johnson [played by Bing Crosby]: “Putting mine in my hat in a safe place. And you'd better do the same thing.”

Chester: “In a safe place, huh?”

Duke: “Sure.”

Chester: “Say, what do you think of my underwear?”

Duke: “Not much, but put it there anyway.”— Road to Utopia (1945), screenplay by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, directed by Hal Walker

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Quote of the Day (Jake Tapper, on the Importance of Writing At Least 15 Minutes a Day)

“I write every day. Even if it’s just for 15 minutes. If you write 15 minutes a day for a week it adds up. Wherever I was I had a laptop and I worked on the book when I had free time. From April through August 2020 I had no commute. I worked from home.”—CNN anchor and sophomore novelist Jake Tapper (The Devil May Dance), quoted in Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, “Jake Tapper on Writing 15 Minutes a Day,” The Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2021

This is not a bad guideline for those of us who write…

(The attached photo of Jake Tapper was taken Mar. 10, 2017, for “Unprecedented: The Election That Changed Everything.”)

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Quote of the Day (Aldous Huxley, on ‘The Leisured Rich’ and the Poor)

“The leisured rich, who are not paid to do anything, themselves pay for the privilege of filling their vacuum with active occupations or passive diversions. Sport in all its varieties, alcohol and elaborate eating, love-making, theater-going, card-playing—these are some of the activities and diversions with which the rich can afford to fill up the aching void of their leisure. By means of such distractions they contrive to keep boredom and melancholia at bay….To the onlooker, the leisures of the rich may not provide a particularly uplifting spectacle; but for the rich themselves unemployment is not intolerable. A poor man, living at subsistence level, can buy no opiates or stimulants. Foe him, the vacuum of leisure is complete. He is exposed to the full force of boredom and depression. He is never able to forget, as the rich man can forget in the whirl of his distractions, the futility of a life deprived of sense or purpose and contributing nothing to the greater life of society at large. The effects of prolonged and unmitigated leisure are appalling. Slowly and insidiously it tends to reduce its victims to a kind of living death.”  — English novelist/essayist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), “The Man Without a Job,” December 20, 1936, in Aldous Huxley, Between the Wars: Essays and Letters, edited by David Bradshaw (1994)

These days, addiction rates are twice as high among the jobless as among those with a job, according to the information web guide Addiction Center. So Huxley’s contention about the poor man being unable to buy “opiates or stimulants” does not hold true today, no matter what may have happened when he wrote this during the Great Depression that gripped both side sides of the Atlantic.

Huxley—who, later in life, experimented with mescaline and LSD—recognized, in his 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World, that “psychotropic drugs were not just toys for recreational purposes but had the power to fuel political and religious change,” according to this Oxford University Press blogpost by pharmacology professor Richard J. Miller of Northwestern University.

Huxley's other point, about the poor being exposed to “the full force of boredom and depression,” remains true, as does his warning about “prolonged and unmitigated leisure” among what used to be called the “idle rich.” The impact of the current COVID-induced recession will take a long time to sort out, but the psychological effects cannot be discounted.