A history lesson

I spent some time this weekend at the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington D.C. I remember, when it opened a few years back, all the buzz it created, not just within the African American community, but in society at large. Many of the historical exhibits weren’t a huge surprise to me. What resonated with me though, was the way in which African American culture shaped the trajectory of US history; how it made us more self aware as a nation. Artistic expression played a huge part in creating this awareness by shedding light on the struggle in unique ways. There were so many unsung heroes who risked life and limb for the opportunity to be seen and treated as a human being and to enjoy the very inalienable rights American was founded upon.

It takes more than one visit to truly appreciate all the museum has to offer, but in the span of just a couple of hours, I left with a renewed appreciation for our history, how we suffered, how we conquered, and the sacrifices that helped expose injustice and encouraged a national conversation around discrimination and its affect on generations of black Americans.

Someone once said that history is written by the conquerors. But the museum is an enduring example of the fact that, more often than not, a “conquered” people can, with a collective voice, illustrate the devastating effects of injustice through prose, poetry and music. There are so many examples of this throughout the museum, all of which reminded me how vital it is that we use our talent and our voice as more than just an avenue for self-expression. Each of us, regardless of skill, have a responsibility to expose injustice wherever we may find it, and defend those who are unable to defend themselves.

Although my visit was far too short, I left with a renewed sense of pride for my heritage, and a profound appreciation for the trailblazers of years past, most of whom were not fortunate enough to see the fruits of their labors.

I didn’t get to take many photos, but here are a couple that resonated with me.

Have you visited the museum yet? Share your experience in the comments.

“Listening to Jazz Now” – a jazz poem

Poetry and jazz are two of my favorite jazz poems. I stumbled on this one, not looking for anything in particular, but curious what jazz in poem form would look like. This one made my heart smile.

“Listening to Jazz Now” by Jimmy Santiago Baca

1. 

Listening to jazz now, I’m happy
sun shining outside like it was my lifetime achievement award.
I’m happy,
with my friend and her dog up in Durango, her emailing
me this morning
no coon hound ailing yowls
vibrant I love yous.
I’m happy,
my smile a big Monarch butterfly
after having juiced up some carrots, garlic, seaweed,
I stroll the riverbank, lazy as a deep cello
in a basement bar– 

smoke, cagney’d out patrons
caramel and chocolate women in black
shoulder strap satin dresses,
and red high heels. 

Originally posted here

A Vintage Hobby

Over the holidays I was able to dive heart first into a love of mine I haven’t had the opportunity to explore in the past. I’ve been intrigued by turntables, vinyl, the authentic sounds produced by records since I was a boy. Of course, modern technology has made the turntable all but obsolete. But, upon further research, I was shocked to discover that vinyl hasn’t gone the way of the dinosaur just yet.

One of my Christmas gifts was an Audio-Technica unit and a set of speakers. I’ve eyed this particular model for some time and I couldn’t’ have been more thrilled to crack it open and try it out. But then there was the task of choosing records, and I didn’t want to just go at it without a purpose. So, I decided I’d dedicate my new turntable to sampling music I don’t ordinarily listen to. Jazz will always be at the topic of the list, and right way I knew I wanted a few classics by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, etc. You haven’t experienced authentic jazz until you’ve listed to an actual record. Digital just doesn’t do it justice.

My first choice was my favorite Miles Davis record of all time, Kinda Blue, followed by Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. I played those practically nonstop, until I stumbled upon the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s album “So It Is”. I’d never before heard any of their music, but the tunes had a very New Orleans vibe. It’s upbeat and fun and reminds me why I fell in love with jazz in the first place. “So It Is” is a great soundtrack for winding down, believe it or not, especially after a particularly crazy work day. I put on the record, made a martini and was, for the next several hours, happy as a pig in shit.

As with any passion pursued, if done right, there’s much to learn, and taking care of vinyl is no exception. Don’t touch the record, only the edges. Clean them every few weeks. Don’t keep vintage vinyl in the sleeve it came in. Clean your records every few weeks. Make sure your needle stays free of dust and lint. Buy a special cleaner, only rinse your records with distilled water….so on and so forth. Needless to say, the learning curve is pretty steep, and curating the perfect collection is an art, not a science. And finding great deals on records is a skill that takes time and practice to master. But the best and most enduring reward is being able to enjoy great music on a platform that isn’t as ubiquitous as it was two or three decades ago, and that’s what makes it so rewarding.

I haven’t been as vigilant quite yet about avoiding spending premium price for records. The most expense one I’ve bought to date is around twenty bucks. Friends tell me yard sales thrift stores and the like are a great place to find hidden gems, but I have yet to really dive into this. Give me some time. If there are diamonds in the rough to be found, I’ll find them. In the meantime. I’m thrilled that I get to explore something that’s been an interest of mine for so long. And I’m always on the lookout for amazing finds. If you have any, shoot me a note or drop your suggestions in the comments. I’m all ears!

Jerry Vezza performs at Shanghai Jazz

Tonight, I’m doing dinner and drinks at Shanghai Jazz in Madison, NJ.  I remember stumbling on this best kept secret while in the area a few years ago, and I’ve been a big fan ever since. The venue is typically busiest on Friday and Saturday nights, but snagging a reservation during the week means the space is less crowded, with more seating options closer to center stage.

The story of how this hidden gem got started is quite interesting. Owners David Niu and Martha Chang opened Shanghai to the public in the summer of 1995 and, over the next twenty-five years, have seen their labor of love hit the list of “Top 100 Jazz Clubs in the World” (Downbeat Magazine), and garner a host of accolades from The New York Times, Star Ledger and Zagat.  In 2017, Thomas Donohoe took over as proprietor, leveraging his expertise in the hospitality industry to further enhance the space and dining experience, while positioning it for continued success in the next quarter century.

In addition to the outstanding Asian fusion cuisine, one of the things I love most about Shanghai is the exposure I get to musicians I wouldn’t ordinarily bump into. Touching stage tonight is Madison, NJ resident Jerry Vezza, an accomplished pianist, band leader and musical consultant who has rubbed shoulders with such icons as Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck and Harry Connick, Jr.  While most (myself included) would probably think his collaboration with these heavy hitters is limited only to their music, Jerry has also made a name for himself as a concert piano technician.  And his versatility doesn’t end there!

Jerry performs tonight with Hal Slapin on bass and Pete McDonald on drums.  If you’re like me and have never seen him perform live, here’s a snippet of Jerry and his quartet performing at Shanghai a few years ago with Grover Kemble. Boy am I in for a treat!!

Been to any cool jazz spots you’ve fallen in love with? Shoot me a note and share yours.

When did you fall in love with Jazz?

I first fell in love with jazz in the mid-90s with that first CD I bought at a flea market.  I hadn’t been introduced to the legends yet. As a teenager, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker weren’t even on my radar. I was into more contemporary stuff like Kenny G and Dave Koz. I was one of those kids who always had a cassette in the stereo. I’d tune the radio to the only station in Philly that had Sunday jazz brunch – live from Zanzibar Blue. You could hear plates and glasses clanking in the background. People laughing; bits of conversation. Then applause as someone took the stage. There have been many; Grover Washington, Jr., Lou Rawls, Nancy Wilson, Chuck Mangione. And even though I was listening over the airwaves and not seated at one of those quaint tables, there was a sense that I was still very much a part of the experience.

Jazz has this uncanny ability to be different things to different people.  For me, it gave me  the chance to dream, to realize there was more to life than what existed inside the four walls of my childhood home.  It helped me realize it’s okay to march to the beat of a different drum, whether one has a choice in the matter or not.  So, listening to those Sunday morning brunch sessions at Zanzibar when I should’ve been studying was my way of flipping the bird to the status quo (who needs algebra anyway?).

I’m grown now with kids and a job and bills.  Dreaming these days often takes a back seat to necessity.  I spend so much time in the rat race that I often forget to take a step back and chill out. But when I do, nothing takes me back to that safe space like the music.  It might be Eric Darius’s “On A Mission” while I’m cleaning the house or Kyle Eastwood’s “Songs from the Chateau” while I’m cooking dinner. Every once in a  while I might just pause for a minute and let the music wash over me.  Before I know it, I’m a teenager again on the floor of my bedroom, cassette loaded, finger on the record button.