Friday, March 29, 2013

"A person is obligated to regard himself as if": An Atheist Jew's Reflections on the Seder

The truth of religion comes from its symbolic rendering of man's moral experience; it proceeds intuitively and imaginatively.  Its falsehood comes from its attempt to substitute itself for science and to pretend that its poetic statements are information about reality.

-- Eugene D. Genovese, Roll Jordon Roll, p. 162.
In every generation, a person is obliged to regard himself as if he personally had come out of Egypt; as it is written, "And you shall tell your son on that day, this is because of what the Lord did for me, when I came out of Egypt."

-- The Passover Haggadah*

So a few nights ago—both Monday and Tuesday nights, in fact** —I obeyed the ancient halachic (Jewish legal) commandment and told my son that we were doing various odd things (eating matzah, etc) because "of what the Lord did for me, when I came out of Egypt."  Rather to my regret, I had earlier used the quote as a punch line of a joke (my wife and I were standing in line with a huge cartload of Passover groceries; she lolled with exhaustion; and I, in a joking-but-really-serious manner, quoted Exodus), so my son took it as a joke: "you didn't really come out of Egypt", he said.  And of course he's right, not only literally, nor only in that, as an Atheist, I don't believe that YHVH took anyone anywhere, but in the sense that I know that—according to the best current historical knowledge—no such event as the Exodus ever happened (save, perhaps, with a handful of people, a number who would leave no mark on the historical or archaeological record).  The Jewish people evolved, culturally, out of the inhabitants of the Land of Canaan aka Land of Israel; there was, as best we know, no prehistory of slavery and liberation.  Thus the sentence is not, for me, true according to the traditional interpretation, that "had not the Blessed Holy One brought our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children and our children's children would still be in slavery to the Pharaohs in Egypt," thus we are all really and truly freed, just, as it were, anticipatorily.***

So why do I tell my son that?

The obvious answer is, simply, tradition.  As a secular Jew, I observe Passover the way secular Christians celebrate Easter: for the fun and the food**** and the family, not as having anything to do with any metaphysical truth.  And that's perfectly true (and certainly perfectly valid) as far as it goes.  But it's far from the whole truth.

Because I've been saying that sentence since long before I became a father, whenever anyone asked me about Passover -- saying it, really, since I started holding to (and not simply celebrating) the holiday, sometime in college.  And I've been saying it perfectly seriously.  So why, and how?

The answer is: it's an act of imagination.  Of pretending.  Of acting, of being, "as if".

This is, of course, not original with me.  The seder has always consisted of an imaginative act.  Indeed, an imaginative act is at the seder's heart.  It takes an imaginative act to regard oneself—born and raised in Roman Palestine or Medieval Spain or Early Modern Poland or fin de siècle New York—as having been personally freed from somewhere you have never even been.  There are multiple ways of doing this, of course; one traditional way is to regard "Egpyt" itself as a metaphor for various states of restriction.  But in any event an act of pretending was required.

The key here is that pretending and imagination are not simply children's games.  They are that too, of course.  But they are also one of the ways that human beings make meaningful the world.

This is why conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager was wrong when he suggested, a number of years ago that
any Jews who believe the Exodus did not occur should have the intellectual honesty to stop observing Passover. They should spend the week studying the truths of archaeology — that is their haggadah — rather than what they regard as the fairy tales of the haggadah and Torah.
This is only true if one thinks that fairy tales have no value—that fiction and imagination and pretending have no value.*****  If the only thing worth observing is the strictly true.  But not only are stories part of what it means to be human, part of how we understand and make sense of the world; the imaginative act has always been central to the experience of the seder.  We have always been commanded to 'regard ourselves as if'.  This centrality of the imaginative act is, I think, one of the reasons that Passover has always been (despite the stress that accompanies its preparation) my favorite Jewish holiday.

Okay, but what is the point of the pretending?  What is the meaning of the imaginative act?

Well, there are multiple meanings.  That's the point.  Imaginative acts, stories, are told in part because of their polyvalence, their richness, their ambiguity.  We can talk about how freedom hits us unprepared; how it always requires outside assistance, and cannot be accomplished on one's own; about how it requires various restrictions, symbolized by abstaining from leaven for eight days; about how it is communal and not individual.  That our freedom was given, not earned; that it is not yet complete.  It forces us to think about the nature of liberation and history and memory.  It opens to the meanings we give it.

Still, for me, the deepest and best meaning is always the one given, repeatedly, in the bible:
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
To imagine ourselves as enslaved—as oppressed, as strangers—should, ideally, be the motive for compassion, for charity, for action towards justice.  Not a celebration of what we have been given, but a determination to share it.

The Exodus never happened?  The Lord is non-existent?  So what?  We have always imagined ourselves as coming out of Egypt: such an act is no harder (and no easier) whether the story is true, exaggerated or simply fiction.  Nor no less meaningful.

We must inhabit the pretense: really believe it, really feel it.  Taste it in our mouths, like dry, unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

And then we can, truly, tell our children: "it is because of what the Lord did for me.  When I came forth from Egypt."

Because it's true: in the way that the best fiction, the best fairy tales, are true.

Update from the following year: it appears I am far from alone in being a secular Jew who appreciates the seder.  (While updating I fixed some of the punctuation.)

* Normally I would alter the translation to be gender-neutral—"each person is obliged to regard themselves as if they personally", or something like that.  (And the word in the Hebrew is adam—human—not ish, man.)  But Hebrew is such a gendered language that every verb expresses gender, and my sense is that a gender neutral translation here would inevitably be unfaithful to the text—which I would be happy to do in a seder, but not in a quotation, where I'm trying to get it at least plausibly right.  (Of course, my Hebrew is not nearly strong enough to be described as a shaky smattering; so I could well be wrong here.  If so, I hope one of my better informed Noble Readers will let me know in comments.

** Of all the redundantly duplicated holidays in the Jewish tradition, is there any that is sillier and more counter to the spirit of the occasion than the duplicated seder, which, of course, belies the famous line "why is this night different from all other nights"?  Let's face it, "why is this night different from all other nights except last night, which was precisely the same" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

*** A genuinely unsustainable image of historical process and (lack of) historical change, apart from everything else -- a part of the essentially ahistorical view of traditional Judaism.  (See Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi's classic book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory for an exploration of this point.)

**** Er, okay, maybe not for the food.

***** Which is not to be confused for taking pretense and imagination as a route to truth.  Prager, somewhat pathetically, says that he "choose[s] to believe the story despite the archaeologists’ (subjective) claim of no evidence... I didn’t rely on archaeologists for my faith when they confirmed [the Exodus story], and they have no effect on my faith when they deny it".  But the question of whether the Exodus occurred is not a question of faith, but of historical fact.  And the claim of no evidence is not subjective; it is a claim which is made (and can only be disputed) on the merits.  Of course one can choose to believe what one likes regardless of the evidence—that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, or that the moon is made of green cheese.  But it's not something that's reasonable to do.  And, indeed, Prager recognizes this, for in addition to basing his claim on faith he also (trying to have it both ways) makes claims of evidence and reason -- that such a story could and would not have been invented; that the archaeologists in question are biased against religion (and thus, presumably, misreading the evidence)—which are irrelevant if it's a matter of faith.  (If it's a matter of reason, though, they're relevant—just not persuasive, given the totally of the evidence.)  Prager also takes a third tack, and includes a number of rather relativistic denials of archaeological truth, on the grounds that archaeologists change their minds—missing the point that the changing of minds is a mark of attending to evidence, not a reason to disbelieve it.  This sort of shifting of grounds -- denials of reason and evidence's relevance, claims of vindication on those grounds and claims that scientific knowledge is truly possible—is, sadly, all too common when religious believers are confronted with what Stephen Colbert has aptly called "reality's well-known liberal bias".  It's never a pretty sight, though.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Your Grumpy Pedagogical Thought of the Day

My students are engaging in the Audacity of Adequacy.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Your Second Jazz Album

So we've established that the first jazz album you should listen to is, clearly and unmistakably, Kind of Blue.  What's the second?

....Here, things get complicated.  Rapidly, and Very.

If there is a really clear answer, and something approaching a consensus, to the number one slot, below that what we have is chaos.

(And, as a forthright warning, I should make it clear that I don't have an answer.  I'm not sure there is an answer, the way that there is for the question of one's first jazz album.  So if you're interested only in a single answer, you might as well bail now.)

Now, while it's chaos, it's not total chaos.  If you look at the dozen lists of introductory jazz albums I linked to last time (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12), you'll see there's a great deal of overlap.  In particular, if you omit the last two (both of which are specifically trying to be different from the consensus), you'll see a lot of overlap.  Here -- I obsess, you benefit -- are the albums that appear on more than one of those ten lists*:
  • Davis, Miles, Kind of Blue (10)
  • Brubeck, Dave, Time Out (4)
  • Coleman, Ornette, The Shape of Jazz to Come (4)
  • Getz, Stan and Joao Gilberto, Getz/Gilberto (4)
  • Mingus, Charles, Mingus Ah Um (4)
  • Coltrane, John, Blue Train (3)
  • Coltrane, John, A Love Supreme (3)
  • Evans, Bill, Sunday at the Village Vanguard (3)
  • Adderly Cannonball, Somethin’ Else (2)
  • Armstrong, Louis, Best of the Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (2)
  • Davis, Miles , Bitches Brew (2)
  • Evans, Bill, Live at Town Hall (2)
  • Haden, Charlie & Pat Metheny, Beyond The Missouri Sky (2)
  • Jarrett, Keith, Köln Concert (2)
  • Parker, Charlie, Best of the Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings (2)
  • Rollins Sonny, The Bridge (2)
The first thing to note is that Kind of Blue is on all ten lists; the next most frequently represented album is on four.  This is why it ought to be your first jazz album.

Apart from that, though, this is a list of fifteen other albums, and probably even makes a pretty decent starter list on its own.  It even has the "one recent album" feature that so many of the lists seem to include, since two of the lists chose the same recent album (Haden and Metheny's Beyond the Missouri Sky).

Oh, and remember how I was saying that 1959 was sort of an annus mirabilis in jazz, with no less than five albums selected for the Library of Congress's list of significant recordings?  Well, four of those albums are in the top five on the list -- Kind of Blue, Time Out, The Shape of Jazz to Come and Mingus Ah Um.  The only album mentioned on as many as four lists that is not from 1959 is Getz/GIlerto (from 1964)**; the only album from the 1959 set not on this list is Coltrane's Giant Steps -- which seems, on these ten lists, to have been overshadowed by his most famous earlier (Blue Train) and later (A Love Supreme) albums.  (Personally, I'd have gone for Giant Steps, not necessarily as the best of those three, but as the most accessible -- certainly more than A Love Supreme, good as the latter is.)

But of course this overemphasizes artists who made one very popular (or very accessible) album, and de-emphasizes those for whom there is no consensus about which album to recommend for beginners.  So here's a list, again drawn from those ten linked above, of just of the performers the lists agree on, giving the performers one point for each album (thus if a list gives two albums, they get two points for it).  Then you get:
  • Miles Davis (14)
  • John Coltrane (8)
  • Bill Evans (6)
  • Ornette Coleman (5)
  • Louis Armstrong (5†)
  • Dave Brubeck (4)
  • Stan Getz & Joao Gilbreto (4)
  • Charles Mingus (4)
  • Thelonious Monk (4)
  • Charlie Parker (4)
  • Duke Ellington (3) 
  • Herbie Hancock (3)
  • Sonny Rollins (3)
  • Cannnonball Adderly (2)
  • Art Blakey (2)
  • Ella Fitzgerald (2†)
  • Carlie Haden & Pat Metheny (2)
  • Keith Jarrett (2)
  • Wynton Marsailis (2) 
The ones in itallics are those where each of the lists mentioning them mention the same album.  (Miles Davis is a special case here: all mentioned Kind of Blue, four others added a second album.)  The daggers (†) are because I've credited both Fitzgerald and Armstrong separately for the listing of their joint album (Ella and Louis).  But I credited Haden & Metheny as a team, despite the fact that one list also mentioned a Metheny solo album (it was one of the two that listed the collaboration -- presumably a big Metheny fan).

Coltrane's place here is more clearly representative of his importance (and accessibility); there's just no agreement about which album to start with.  The same holds true in other cases.  More than half the lists think that you should try some live Bill Evans; they just can't agree on which (and whether to recommend Sunday at the Village Vanguard or the complete recordings that were released from that same set of performances).  Minugs and Monk get the same number of votes, but everyone plugs Mingus Ah Um, while the lists that mentioned Thelonious Monk mentioned four different albums (Brilliant Corners, Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1, Misterioso, Monk's Dream).  Herbie Hancock too was represented by three different albums (Empyrean Isles, Gershwin's World, Head Hunters).  This is true too for Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, but it's less surprising in their cases because they had such long and storied carriers, and their work is usually considered by the song not the album (there was a switch at some point).

But if you put these two lists together, you get a sense of some of the places to go -- after, of course, Kind of Blue.  Now, obviously, these are just ten "start here" lists I pulled off a few Google searches.  (And I'm working with the short ones here -- there are a lot of longer lists I'm ignoring because obsession only goes so far.)  But it does show you some of the suggestions people make.

Have I followed these lists?  Somewhat.  I've been listening to a lot of things, including most (but not all) of the albums on the first list (and the artists on the second), but a bunch of other stuff too.  For me, however, the single most important consideration has been whether it's been available at my local public library***.  I'll try almost anything that I can get there; otherwise, my degree of selectivity goes way up.  I have bought a few things the library either didn't have or didn't have playable copies of (one example: Coltrane's A Love Supreme ****).  But my budget is limited, so albums I can listen to for free are prioritized.  -- And this is the way these things usually work, I presume: the lists are then integrated with other considerations, and a new list generated.

Still, those are some albums and artists some people have suggested you might like to listen to, if you'd like to listen to some jazz.  A list to consider with the rest.

...except that all this is assuming that albums are the right category to be looking for.  My next post (if and when I get to it) will consider another possibility entirely -- one that some people, at least, might find more to their liking.  Stay tuned.

* Actually, these are also the albums that appear on all twelve lists more than once, since the last two have no overlaps with either each other or the other ten.  This doesn't hold when it comes to artists -- if I integrated the other two lists into the artist list, it'd change -- but, as we Jews say around this season, diyanu.

** The whole album Getz/GIlerto isn't on the L of C list, but its most famous track, "The Girl from Ipanema", is.

***  And whether the disk then works -- our library's CDs have a fail rate of about 10%, based on my not at all random sampling.  I'm not complaining, mind -- I love hearing the music for free, and kvetching that some of it doesn't work would be petty.  But I have found that just because something's listed in the catalog doesn't mean that it's actually available for hearing.  (There are also a fair number of disks which are, seemingly indefinitely, 'out for repair'.)

**** Yes, the library had it, but it was hopelessly scratched.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Happy Passover!

Chag semeach to all those who are celebrating tonight.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Shape of Jazz to Come Recognized as the Shape of Jazz That Was (and Other Jazz at the LIbrary of Congress)

If you're at all serious about it, t takes a really stunning amount of self-confidence to label a record "The Shape of Jazz to Come".  Particularly if you're a relative unknown putting out their third-ever album.

Which makes it pretty bloody remarkable if you title your album that, and you're right.

But Ornette Coleman did, and was.

Appearing only a few weeks, I believe, after Miles Davis's groundbreaking Kind of Blue (1959 was a really astonishing year for jazz), Coleman's album was the opening shot in the "free jazz" style -- avant-garde jazz that (in the way of avant-garde artists everywhere) ditched all the rules, made great art and lousy sales.  Or, as someone who actually knows what they're !@#$% talking about puts it, it
was a watershed event in the genesis of avant-garde jazz, profoundly steering its future course and throwing down a gauntlet that some still haven't come to grips with. The record shattered traditional concepts of harmony in jazz, getting rid of not only the piano player but the whole idea of concretely outlined chord changes. The pieces here follow almost no predetermined harmonic structure, which allows Coleman and partner Don Cherry an unprecedented freedom to take the melodies of their solo lines wherever .they felt like going in the moment, regardless of what the piece's tonal center had seemed to be.
Further reflections on the album from the actually informed can be found here.

I don't have a lengthy review of it -- except that, to ears as utterly untrained as my own, it's fabulous, but not particularly difficult or revolutionary (we're not talking Schoenberg here. Or, to once again quote the above-cited "actually knows something" person,
Coleman's ideals of freedom in jazz made him a feared radical in some quarters; there was much carping about his music flying off in all directions, with little direct relation to the original theme statements. If only those critics could have known how far out things would get in just a few short years; in hindsight, it's hard to see just what the fuss was about, since this is an accessible, frequently swinging record. It's true that Coleman's piercing, wailing alto squeals and vocalized effects weren't much beholden to conventional technique, and that his themes often followed unpredictable courses, and that the group's improvisations were very free-associative. But at this point, Coleman's desire for freedom was directly related to his sense of melody -- which was free-flowing, yes, but still very melodic.
...It's always nice to have one's naive impressions backed up by actual knowledge.  Yeah, this is an album that is fun to listen to and not particularly challenging to the modern ear.

The reason I bring this up is that I saw this morning (via) that the Library of Congress had put out its annual list of 25 items added to it National Recording Registry this week.  Naturally I (given my recent preoccupations) scanned it to see what jazz, if any, had been added, and I noticed at once that Coleman's Shape of Jazz to Come had made the list -- indeed, it seems to be the major jazz album on the list.  So I thought I'd mention it.

(There's a lot of other great stuff on the list, obviously, but that's the album that stood out for me as a nascent jazz fan.)

So three cheers for Coleman, and the Way the Shape of Jazz to Come Was.*

...All of which leads me to the obvious next question: what other classic jazz albums are among the 375 recordings so far chosen for the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry?  (Which, in addition to other types of music also contains speeches, news events, recordings of poems, the famous WPA recordings of former slaves' memories, recordings of whale and bird songs, radio dramas, baseball games -- all sorts of other things.  The criteria, I believe, is historical significance (not aesthetic significance.))

It's not as easy a question to answer as it sounds -- where do you draw the jazz/blues line, for instance?  And there are a fair number of items which I simply don't recognize, don't know anything about even if the name is familiar, or which I know in other recordings -- and in those cases I don't know if the (included) recording counts or not.  And, truth be told, I don't have time to research each piece on the list.  But glancing it over, these are things which (I think) are jazz recordings on the list:
    • Ragtime compositions on piano rolls. Scott Joplin. (1900s)
    • "Tiger Rag." The Original Dixieland Jazz Band. (1918)
    • “Canal Street Blues.” King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. (April 5, 1923)
    •  Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. Louis Armstrong. (1925-1928)
    • “Black Bottom Stomp.” Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers. (1926)
    • "Singin' the Blues." Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra with Bix Beiderbecke. (1927)
    • "Star Dust." Hoagy Carmichael. (1927)
    • "Ain't Misbehavin'." Thomas "Fats" Waller. (1929)
    • “Night Life.” Mary Lou Williams. (1930)
    • “Stormy Weather.” Ethel Waters. (1933)
    • "Begin the Beguine." Artie Shaw & His Orchestra. (1938)
    • Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert Benny Goodman. (January 16, 1938; released 1998)
    • "Body and Soul." Coleman Hawkins. (1939)
    • "In the Mood." Glenn Miller and His Orchestra. (1939)
    • "Strange Fruit." Billie Holiday. (1939)
    • "New San Antonio Rose." Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. (1940)
    • "Sweet Lorraine." Art Tatum. (1940)
    • Porgy and Bess. "Original" cast recording. (1940; 1942)
    • Blanton-Webster era recordings. Duke Ellington Orchestra. (1940-1942)
    • "Artistry in Rhythm." Stan Kenton and His Orchestra. (1943)
    • "Straighten Up and Fly Right." Nat "King" Cole. (1943)
    • "Down by the Riverside." Sister Rosetta Tharpe. (1944)
    • Hottest Women's Band of the 1940s International Sweethearts of Rhythm. (1944-1946; released 1984)
    • “Uncle Sam Blues.” Oran “Hot Lips” Page, accompanied by Eddie Condon’s Jazz Band. V-Disc . (1944)
    • Jazz at the Philharmonic. (July 2, 1944)
    • "Ko Ko." Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and others. (1945)
    • "Manteca." Dizzy Gillespie Big Band with Chano Pozo. (1947)
    • The Jazz Scene. Various artists. (1949)
    • Brilliant Corners. Thelonious Monk. (1956)
    • Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book. Ella Fitzgerald. (1956)
    • Descargas: Cuban Jam Session in Miniature. Cachao Y Su Ritmo Caliente. (1957)
    • Dance Mania. Tito Puente. (1958)
    • The Music from 'Peter Gunn. Henry Mancini. (1958)
    • Giant Steps. John Coltrane. (1959)
    • Kind of Blue. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, and others. (1959)
    • Mingus Ah-Um. Charles Mingus. (1959)
    • The Shape of Jazz to Come. Ornette Coleman. (1959)
    • Time Out. The Dave Brubeck Quartet. (1959)
    • The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings. Bill Evans Trio. (June 25, 1961)
    • "The Girl from Ipanema." Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Astrud Gilberto. (1963)
    • A Charlie Brown Christmas. Vince Guaraldi Trio. (1965)**
    • The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake. Eubie Blake. (1969)
    • Head Hunters. Herbie Hancock. (1973)
    • Live in Japan. Sarah Vaughan. (1973)
    • Crescent City Living Legends Collection. New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation archive/WWOZ New Orleans. (1973-1990)
    • Aja. Steely Dan. (1977)
    • The Audience with Betty Carter. Betty Carter. (1980)
      And two non-musical but clearly relevant items:
      • Jelly Roll Morton interviews conducted by Alan Lomax. (1938)
      • Interviews with Jazz musicians for the Voice of America. Willis Conover. (1956)
      I probably missed something obvious, and included something bone-headedly.  But that's what I saw at a glance.  (So, at my rough count, 48/375 items.  A decent total, given the scope of the list.)

      Incidentally, the other jazz item to have been added this year was The Audience with Betty Carter, about which I know nothing other than what the L of C says in its list.  Sounds worth listening to, though.

      Oh, and following up on the "1959 was an annus mirabilis for jazz" thought, note that there are now no less than five jazz albums from 1959 on the list: Coltrane's Giant Steps, Davis's Kind of Blue, Mingus's Mingus Ah-Um, Brubeck's Time Out and, this year, Coleman's The Shape of Jazz To Come.  Really remarkable, frankly.  In no other year could a "best of the year" list be mistaken for a "best of all time" list.

      The list itself contains all sorts of utterly fascinating things, and maybe I'll explore it again sometime.  Check it out if you're curious (and if you're curious, you should be curious about this, because it's worth it.)

      In the meantime, again, chapeaux! to Ornette Coleman's bold, justified arrogance -- in the tradition, as someone has said, of Babe Ruth pointing in the direction he was going to hit his home run.  In America, it ain't considered arrogence if you follow through.  Coleman, like Ruth, did. 

      * Apologies to Frederick Pohl.

      ** No, really!  It seems like it is.  I haven't heard it yet.  But I've seen it listed on at least one 'best of' list of jazz albums.

      Thursday, March 21, 2013

      The Four Questions: A Modern Day Version

      Why is this night different from all other nights?

      On all other nights, the house is a total mess, but tonight, the house is clean.

      On all other nights, we don't eat vegetables, but tonight, we're eating vegetables.

      On all other nights, we wolf down dinner in front of the TV, but tonight, we're actually sitting at a table together.

      On all other nights, Daddy drinks four beers, but tonight, he's drinking four cups of wine.

      Wednesday, March 20, 2013

      Yglesias Contra Brooks

      Via LGM, Yglesias takes on today's David Brooks column.  Yglesias's summary is just awesome:
      Long story short, I would say the CPC budget has the following main advantages over the Ryan budget:
      • More food and medical care for poor children.
      • Less air pollution and a meaningful chance to avert the worst consequences of climate change.
      • Lower taxes on middle-class and working-poor families.
      • Medicare reform focused on reducing the unit price of health care services rather than increasing it.
      • More funding for transportation infrastructure and basic research.
      Brooks says the Ryan budget has the following main advantages over the CPC budget:
      • High-income individuals will be less inclined to take vacations or retire and more inclined to work long hours.
      In a world where trade-offs are, to an extent, unavoidable, I don't see that as an enormously difficult choice.

      Incidentally, the Brooks column includes the following correction:
      An earlier version of this column misstated the location of a statue in Washington that depicts a rambunctious horse being reined in by a muscular man. The sculpture, Michael Lantz’s “Man Controlling Trade” (1942), is outside the Federal Trade Commission, not the Department of Labor.
      I'm looking forward to the following additional correction:
      An earlier version of this column erroneously implied that Keynesian economics is uncertain, and also that it is inappropriate for the present.  Keynesian economics is actually well confirmed, and the economy continues to suck so it is still pressingly relevant.  It turns out my whole worldivew is just wrong.  I regret the error.

      Daily Fatherhood Event

      Driving to school, he asks for a story.  I start a story about a rabbit who can play piano.  He immediately insists it needs to have the Hulk in it.

      Your First Jazz Album

      So I've been listening to a lot of jazz in the last few weeks.  It wasn't a totally new thing for me: I'd heard some before, and had almost a dozen jazz albums.  But I'd never listened to much, and I hadn't known that much about it; I had enough book learning to teach what I teach, but it was a weak area for me*.  I certainly hadn't listened to any (for non-work purposes) in quite a while.  (The mark of this was that when I decided I wanted to hear some, it wasn't on my computer, unlike most of my rock, folk and classical; it was all in CD format, so I had to go down to storage, dig through, get the cds, and add them to my itunes in order to hear them.)  But what began as the merest whim -- partly driven by the thought that my class on Holiday was approaching, and I ought to balance things out any more, partly by the fact that Barry Eisler recommended Junko Onishi, and I listened to a bit she's great -- rapidly snowballed into an obsession, and pretty much all my leisure time recently has been devoted to listening to, and reading about, jazz.

      So I thought I'd tell you about it.  And I thought I'd begin at the beginning -- not the beginning of jazz (wherever you decide to draw that particular line), but the beginning of an individual person's engagement with Jazz.  Of course it won't be the absolute beginning -- who, growing up in our culture, hasn't heard snatches over loudspeakers. as background music in movies, and so forth.  But the beginning of listening to any in any sort of a serious sustained way -- even, one might say, the beginning of listening to any on purpose.  Sitting down to hear an album.

      What should you listen to?

      One might think it's a tricky question.  Jazz is, after all, a whole musical world, with a huge tradition, a wide variety of sounds and styles, and a lengthy back catalog.  It's not really that different from asking what rock album, or what classical music, should one listen to first.  There are a hundred different answers, right?


      There's one.

      You listen to Miles Davis's 1959 album Kind of Blue.

      It's strange how obvious it is, but it is also completely, truly obvious.  Anyone who tries to deny it is either being willfully perverse, or simply trying to be different.

      Now, I'd heard Kind of Blue before: it was one of the dozen albums I got out of storage.  I'd had it for decades -- ever since, probably when I was in college, I asked my father what one album I should listen to if I wanted to listen to a jazz album. and he walked me into a record store** and asked a rather gobsmacked clerk the same question.  Naturally, inevitably, I walked out with the obvious choice.

      Why is it so obvious?  Because -- quite unusually, as far as art goes -- Kind of Blue combines four different, key things:
      • It is, undeniably, a masterpiece of the art;
      • It was an art-changing album, incredibly influential and innovative;
      • It was and is beloved by jazz fanatics;
      • It was and is beloved by people who don't otherwise like jazz at all;
      • It was and is incredibly popular, selling more (I believe) than any other jazz album, ever
      • It is something you can listen to over and over until you've played it so much that it's worn down the grooves in your record just from playing the mp3.  
      Now, getting all of those things into one package is extremely rare -- in fact, I can't, at the moment, think of another example.  A piece of art that is both admired by the experts and widely popular even with people who don't otherwise don't know, or don't care for, the art at all?  A piece that is both a masterpiece, and a breakthrough innovation, and one of the most popular examples ever?  Seriously, does that ever happen?  Usually the great stuff is hard and inaccessible; usually the accessible stuff is scorned by the cognoscenti; usually the popular stuff isn't very good.  But Kind of Blue has it all.

      It has other things going for it.  It's by Miles Davis -- he's the bandleader, and composed or co-composed all the tracks, in addition to playing trumpet -- who was unquestionably one of the handful of major musicians ever to play jazz.  But most of the sidemen are giants, too.  John Coltrane, an almost equally influential figure to Davis, played tenor sax on the album; Cannonball Adderley, yet another major figure, played alto sax.  Bill Evans, a fourth giant, played piano on four of the five tracks, and co-wrote two (and the original liner notes.)  If you're ever going to go beyond one album -- even to as many as five, and unquestionably if you go up to, say, twenty -- then you'll encounter those sidemen again as bandleaders in their own right (Coltrane definitely, Evans quite probably, Adderley probably).  So by listening to Kind of Blue first, you get to know (if you read the credits and listen carefully) not just one, but several of the major figures in Twentieth Century jazz.***

      As a starting place, Kind of Blue is just bloody perfect.  People who don't usually like jazz like it, so it's a good place to start, since you'll probably like it.  But people who do like jazz not only think it's brilliant, but know that it's a landmark of the tradition.  It's not just an easy way in: it's the rich heart of it.

      If you ask people what five or ten albums to start with, you'll get a lot of different answers.  (Here are ten: one, two three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.)  But Kind of Blue is on every single list.  Some of the lists include comments along the lines of "Any list that doesn’t include Kind of Blue as essential listening is worthless and can be instantly disregarded. Hell, I could make this #1-10 and still have a good list."

      Now it's possible to find lists of this sort without Kind of Blue on them.  (Here are two: one, two.)  Most of these seem to be deliberate attempts to be different -- not to list what everyone else is listing.  The first of those two begins by writing "It's too easy for someone to recommend John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.  This aught [sic] to get you off to a different start."  But of course the comment is self-refuting.  It's easy, if you know something about jazz, to list those.  But that's because you know something about jazz; the list is supposed to be for someone who doesn't.  Also, it's easy because everyone knows what ought to be on such lists.  Being different for its own sake has its place, but getting people into the basics of something isn't it.  (Those lists are useful... for moving on from the first top ten.  Not what they declare themselves to be, but what they, in fact, are.)

      In fact, I must admit, while the whole album is clearly the first album to listen to, one track -- the first, "So What" --is clearly the most famous.  In my current obsession I've been listening to mostly albums, but I have also looked at (if only for guidance in selection) four different anthology albums, all multi-disk sets which aim to introduce listeners to jazz.  (I think they're frequently used for college courses; at least one was designed specifically for that.)  The four that I've looked at -- so far as I can tell, the four major ones (but, again, I'm new to this) -- are:
      Unsurprisingly, there's fairly limited overlap between the four.  (It would be surprising if there was a lot; it would be equally surprising if there was none.)  But one song that all four contain is "So What" from Miles Davis's Kind of Blue.

      Now, what should be the second album is much harder -- after one, we have a legitimate difference of opinion.  I hope to get into that in a later blog post.  And beyond that it gets really complicated: if the lists of top tens are different, the lists which contain 25 or 50 or 100 albums are increasingly so (about which too I hope to have more to say anon).  Increasingly you see different views of the matter; different tastes emerge.  And at some point, of course, the explorer will start to develop their own.  Yeah, high numbers are complicated.

      But the first one?  It's not hard.  In fact, it's kind of simple.

      Kind of obvious.

      Kind of blue.

      * The way my course on the history of American culture is structured (if you click through you can see the syllabus), I focus on 21 examples, each touching on various different themes and issues.  One of those 21 is "Strange Fruit", written by Abel Meerpol and sung by Billie Holiday.  Now, I had a (single) Holiday album on my computer even before this recent obsession.  But in the classes I devoted to the song last semester, I spent much more time on the history of lynching, and the history of popular front culture (out of which cultural milieu Abel Meerpol sprang), than I did on the history of jazz (and most of that was about Holiday personally).

      ** I doubt they had many records by that point -- we bought it on CD.  But I don't seem to recall them ever being called cassette stores or CD stores.  Music stores, I guess.  But we also called them record stores.  Until we just started calling them "iTunes".

      *** I don't know much about the other three players on the album -- remember, I'm just starting out.  My sense is that they weren't figures of the stature of Davis, Coltrane, Evans and Adderly.  Maybe I'll soon discover otherwise.  (They certainly were all sidemen on a lot of major projects.)  But, to complete the credits: Wynton Kelly played piano on the one track that Evans didn't play on.  Paul Chambers played double bass on the album (and played on a lot of major albums by both Davis and Coltrane).  And Jimmy Cobb played drums; as of right now, he is the last surviving musician to have played on Kind of Blue.

      **** In addition to the 5-CD set, there was also a series of 22 albums, each serving as a "best of" of one of 22 jazz musicians.  (You certainly can't fault PBS for inadequate merchandising.)  And there was also a single CD called The Best of Ken Burns Jazz, which was a "greatest hits" of the 5-CD greatest hits selection -- a distillation of the distillation, all of jazz in 20 tracks.  One of those 20, naturally, is "So What" off of Kind of Blue.

      Monday, March 18, 2013

      In Lieu of an Actual Post on the 10th Anniversery of the Invasion of Iraq

      I offer the following words from Jim Henley, writing on the fifth anniversary, about how he (and, it should be noted, so many, many others) managed to get the Iraq war right when so many of those in power (including the media & other power centers than government) got it wrong:
      What all of us had in common is probably a simple recognition: War is a big deal. It isn’t normal. It’s not something to take up casually. Any war you can describe as “a war of choice” is a crime. War feeds on and feeds the negative passions. It is to be shunned where possible and regretted when not. Various hawks occasionally protested that “of course” they didn’t enjoy war, but they were almost always lying. Anyone who saw invading foreign lands and ruling other countries by force as extraordinary was forearmed against the lies and delusions of the time.

      Saturday, March 09, 2013

      Today I Am (Well It's My Birthday Too Yeah)

      "Good morning," said Deep Thought at last.
      "Er ... good morning, O Deep Thought," said Loonquawl nervously, "do you have ... er, that is ..."
      "An answer for you?" interrupted Deep Thought majestically. "Yes, I have."
      The two men shivered with expectancy. Their waiting had not been in vain.
      "There really is one?" breathed Phouchg.
      "There really is one," confirmed Deep Thought.
      "To Everything? To the great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything?"
      Both of the men had been trained for this moment, their lives had been a preparation for it, they had been selected at birth as those who would witness the answer, but even so they found themselves gasping and squirming like excited children.
      "And you're ready to give it to us?" urged Loonquawl.
      "I am."
      "Now," said Deep Thought.
      They both licked their dry lips.
      "Though I don't think," added Deep Thought, "that you're going to like it."
      "Doesn't matter!" said Phouchg. "We must know it! Now!"
      "Now?" inquired Deep Thought.
      "Yes! Now..."
      "All right," said the computer, and settled into silence again.  The two men fidgeted.  The tension was unbearable.
      "You're really not going to like it," observed Deep Thought.
      "Tell us!"
      "All right," said Deep Thought. "The Answer to the Great Question ..."
      "Yes ... !"
      "Of Life, the Universe and Everything ..." said Deep Thought.
      "Yes ... !"
      "Is ... " said Deep Thought, and paused.
      "Yes ... !"
      "Is ... "
      "Yes ... !!! ... ?"
      "Forty-two," said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.

      -- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Chapter 27

      In fact it was simply chosen because it was a completely ordinary number, a number not just divisible by two but also by six and seven. In fact it's the sort of number you could, without any fear, introduce to your parents.

      -- Douglas Adams (quoted in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Original Radio Script)

      At this moment the King, who had been for some time busily writing in his note-book, cackled out `Silence!' and read out from his book, `Rule Forty-two. ALL PERSONS MORE THAN A MILE HIGH TO LEAVE THE COURT.'
      Everybody looked at Alice.
      `I'M not a mile high,' said Alice.
      `You are,' said the King.
      `Nearly two miles high,' added the Queen.
      `Well, I shan't go, at any rate,' said Alice: `besides, that's not a regular rule: you invented it just now.'
      `It's the oldest rule in the book,' said the King.
      `Then it ought to be Number One,' said Alice.

      -- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 12.

      The helmsman used to stand by with tears in his eyes; he knew it was all wrong, but alas! Rule 42 of the Code, "No one shall speak to the Man at the Helm," had been completed by the Bellman himself with the words "and the Man at the Helm shall speak to no one." So remonstrance was impossible, and no steering could be done till the next varnishing day. During these bewildering intervals the ship usually sailed backwards.

      -- Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark, Preface
      42 is the 5th Catalan number.

      -- What's special about this number?

      The Catalan numbers (1, 2, 5, 14, 42, 132, 429, 1430, 4862, 16796, 58786, 208012, 742900, 2674440, 9694845, ...), named after Eugène Charles Catalan (1814--1894), arise in a number of problems in combinatorics.... Among other things, the Catalan numbers describe the number of ways a polygon with n+2 sides can be cut into n triangles, the number of ways in which parentheses can be placed in a sequence of numbers to be multiplied, two at a time; the number of rooted, trivalent trees with n+1 nodes; and the number of paths of length 2n through an n-by-n grid that do not rise above the main diagonal.

      -- Source

      Time is so short and I’m sure
      There must be something more

      -- Coldplay, "42"

      For more see here, here, here, here and here.