CULTURAL WORKINGS

Welcome to THE CULTURAL WORKER, a blog dedicated to arts of the people, on the Left, ranging from the radical avant garde and free jazz to dissident folk forms and popular arts . The Cultural Worker celebrates revolutionary creativity and features a variety of essays, reviews, fiction, reportage, poetry and musings through the internet pen of this writer, musician and cultural organizer. Scroll straight down and you'll also find an extensive historical Photo Exhibit of cultural workers in action, followed by a series of Radical Arts Links. The features herein will be unabashedly partisan---make no mistake about that. The concept of the cultural worker as a force of fearless creativity, of social change, indeed as an artistic arm of radicalism, has always been left-wing when applied with any degree of honesty at all. No revolutionary act can be truly complete in the absence of art, no progressive campaign can retain its message sans the daring drumbeat of invention, no act of dissent can stand so strong as that which counts the writers, musicians, painters, dancers, actors, photographers, film and performance artists within its ranks. Here's to the history and legacy of cultural work in the throes of the good fight...
john pietaro

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Frank Gant: Essence Beyond the Illness, 'NYC Jazz Record' feature, Aug 2016




NYC Jazz Record, August 2016
FRANK GANT: Essence Beyond the Illness

By John Pietaro

When celebrated drummer Frank Gant first moved into his Lower East Side apartment, the community had been battered by decades of neglect. These days, in the midst of arduous gentrification, the area stands among the most sought-after in a city notorious for displacing its poor. And for an octogenarian stricken with Huntington’s disease and embattled by his landlord, downtown has become a bitterly cold place.

Gant was raised in Detroit, first exposed to the drums in a school band where he quickly came to the attention of peers Barry Harris and Hugh Lawson. “The band director told me I will never be able to play professionally”, he said, with a restrained laugh. “But I practiced. I was serious. Played in my basement every day and I took lessons.”

The drummer’s words were labored, but intent on being heard. His voice, broken with coarse spastic utterances, channeled lasting memories. “Barry, Hugh and I played together, but my first record date wasn’t until 1954 with the Billy Mitchell Band. It was a 7-piece”, he stated. As he searched his memory, Gant’s eyes became riveted, indicating an excitement stifled, perhaps manacled, by illness. “Right after that, I recorded with Sonny Stitt”. This was the event that put him into the category of top-flight sidemen. Among the gigs that came along in the immediate period were several revered nights accompanying Billie Holiday.

Frank served as house drummer at Club 12, a Detroit space which hosted giants including Thelonious Monk. He quickly moved beyond local status and began touring with a wide array of musicians. During one of these road trips he crossed paths with Charlie Parker. “Bird was the man. That’s all there’s to say”, Gant affirmed. “I asked him which drummer he liked best, Max Roach or Roy Haynes”, he reminisced, citing Parker’s groundbreaking percussionists. “Bird said it was Max”. Gant, too, viewed Roach as the master, the architect of modern jazz drumming, while also honoring Haynes. “Be-Bop. That’s what I played. I don’t care who I played with, but I played Be-Bop”, he added tersely.

Other decisive factors in Gant’s career included several gigs with Miles Davis. “I met Miles in Detroit and played in his band with Red Garland and Reggie Workman”. He also performed with Lester Young and came to drive many ensembles at home or on tour. Recording dates with Harris were followed by those with Donald Byrd, JJ Johnson and Yusuf Lateef, leading names of the day as post-Bop cast new genres to a hungry listening public.

“And then in 1960 I came to New York to play a gig at the Apollo--and stayed. Every club had music then. Uptown, downtown, everywhere.” Gant rarely refused work as he was raising a young family. The drummer picked up a regular spot in Harlem with organist Bobby Foster but also performed in this period with Ernestine Anderson, George Coleman and Monty Alexander, gigging quite regularly at the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate and countless other spots. Concurrently, Gant joined Ahmad Jamal’s band, the leader he was most closely associated with over the years.  Publicity photos of the day feature the dashing drummer behind a set of glimmering Sonors, indicating the level of esteem he carried. As a member of the Jamal band during a seminal period, he recorded albums such as “Heat Wave” (1966), “Cry Young” (1967), among many others. The band was also captured in concert to great effect on several other releases.

In the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s—and into the early 2000s, Gant’s touring and recording schedule rarely if ever let up. In addition to the full-time gig with Jamal, he played in bands led by Al Haig, and was called back into service for major label record dates with Garland, Stitt, Anderson, Lateef and Johnson. This steady pulse that bridged decades, however, only wavered his course when his own hands came to betray him.

HUNTINGTON’S DISEASE WAS ONCE KNOWN AS HUNTINGTON’S CHOREA due to the dysrhythmia which causes arms to flail, legs to wander. This is the terrible irony for Gant. As he emoted during the NYC Jazz Record interview, he demonstrated the illness’s manifestations, reaching repeatedly into the space in front, perhaps ongoing perseveration, perhaps a means to ground himself. Beyond his chair was a small drumkit, spare pieces, really. A mini bass drum, snare drum, mismatched tom-tom, conga, and tabla stood beckoning. Gant ambled awkwardly over, his body threatening to misdirect each step. But once seated behind his instrument, spastic movements became swinging drumstick dances over cymbals and skins. His eyes remained riveted, unmoved, but a certain burning essence fought to surface from deep within.

Cards, letters or donations for Frank Gant can be sent to him care of the Jazz Foundation


Steve Swallow: The Vision Forward, cover story, 'NYC Jazz Record' Aug 2016


“NYC Jazz Record”, August 2016

STEVE SWALLOW : The Vision Forward
By John Pietaro

Iconic bassist Steve Swallow has lived out his career thus far by rarely reflecting back. His path has been one of storied turns continually leading to the next stage. “I try not to pause and look backward”, he said. “Every now and then my thoughts wander to the past, but I’m focused ahead.” In his pursuit to the front line, however, Swallow made detailed investigations into the music’s heritage, if only to ratify a foray into newer ground. His place on the cusp of fusion and development of the electric bass within jazz have each left an indelible mark on the past half-century, and then some.
Born in 1940 and raised in New Jersey suburbia, Swallow’s teen years were faced with “an immense pressure to conform” socially and within familial expectations: “These were the Eisenhower years”, he explained. “Institutions like home, camp, school and church were concerned with producing a human product of a very certain kind”. Within music he found a degree of escape from the ‘home, God and country’ ethic, but his immersion into the sounds didn’t really germinate until commencing studies at Yale in 1959.

The bassist cut his musical baby teeth lugging an upright around Boston, entrenched in the traditional jazz scene then experiencing a wave of popularity among the cognoscenti. He found himself in some heavy company, primarily legendary clarinetist Pee Wee Russell.  “Pee Wee was a unique voice but remarkably adaptive---this is something I’ve always aspired to.  What came out of his horn was always unexpected but very firmly grounded in solid theory and the jazz idiom”. Russell’s repertoire, by the earliest ‘60s, expanded into the modern, braving adverse responses from traditional jazz aficionados. He appeared at Newport with Thelonious Monk and experimented with a pianoless quartet. That sense of adventure in one so rooted in tradition stayed with the young bassist. Swallow also worked with the woefully under-recognized drummer George Wettling. “George caught me at a point in my evolution and taught me things only drummers can know. He was a magnificent musician and an excellent painter who studied in that discipline with Stuart Davis”, he attested.

As enamored as Swallow was with some of the stars of the early style, he is wont to focus on the music’s primary attribute. “Too often we look at the famous soloists but early jazz is really an ensemble music. I immediately heard echoes of this in the so-called free jazz idiom, so later it wasn’t strange for me to abandon the expected role of the bassist and enter an ensemble approach. As you get older you’re privileged to have an overview of the cycles. There have been innovators who’ve carried the music into distinct paths, but on the other hand nothing has changed. Louis Armstrong is as relevant today as he was in the 1920s. This is the way of art”.

As a living testament to this thesis, Swallow’s involvement in new realms began in tandem to his Dixieland gigs. In 1960 he played a concert with the forward-looking pianist-composer Paul Bley that was produced by the like-minded Ran Blake. And then nothing was the same.

“Music must connect to its time and place”

 “I left school and presented myself at Paul and Carla Bley’s doorstep in Manhattan, you know: ‘Your bass player is here’. Paul saw possibilities in my playing that must’ve been quite subtle at the time. I was a novice bassist and had no business going to New York then. Luckily Paul took me seriously and spent day after day playing with me”.

While on the cutting-edge, Swallow initially earned a living playing Dixieland in Greenwich Village.
His arrival in NYC occurred in a time when Village bohemianism could still be a reality. Engrossed in rehearsals with Paul Bley, he spent nights gigging in the traditional jazz venues and also playing avant works with Jimmy Giuffree and George Russell. These conceptual composer-improvisers forced Swallow to rethink the role of the bass. “I was 20 years old and working hard, but what an amazing time. I had a loft on 6th Avenue near 24th Street for $40 a month”, the bassist remembered. “Every coffee house had live music and they paid each musician $5 and all of the coffee you can drink. I was finally free of the white middle class life I’d lived till that point”. In this fledgling period, the bassist also listened to modern composers and contemporary popular music as well: “I was introduced to Erik Satie’s music by Carla; he was in the air, a presence in much of what we were doing. Carla was seldom performing then but writing music every day, all day. I’d never seen a composer up close before and she had a very strong influence on me. She also introduced me to the Supremes. This was also a great shock, a revelation”.

True to his stand against nostalgia for its own sake, Swallow laces his memories with metaphor. In speaking of personal growth, he drew conclusions about wider shifts in society. “Change is a process that involves destruction but also regeneration and rebirth. This impulse repeats itself in each generation of artists. Those coffee houses were supporting jazz musicians but in a very few years rock-n-roll and folk music descended upon that street and wiped out the jazz gigs”.

In the jazz universe the matter of radical change played itself out in a small club on the Lower East Side, where a certain artist’s residency had the industry in a tumult. “I practically lived at the 5-Spot when Ornette Coleman was there. His sound was very warm and inviting, though more than other musicians Ornette was testing boundaries. The infusion of folk sources were perceived as an assault, a challenge to everything known and played, but in retrospect his was a gentle music”.

Discussion of Ornette inevitably led to Swallow’s memories of the other principal mover of the era, John Coltrane. “At the 5-Spot one night Ornette and Coltrane sat at a table together. There was an aura of common purpose that belied the controversy going on around them. I’ll never forget it: a unified glow radiating from the table. They were deep in discussion for a long time which the entire room was aware of but dared not disturb”. Coleman’s and Coltrane’s reimagining of the milieu had a dramatic effect on the young bassist, as did the advances of Eric Dolphy, whom he played with in George Russell’s aggregation.

In the mid-60s, after touring with Art Farmer, Swallow got the call to join Stan Getz’ band, then at the height of its popularity.  “The sound of Stan’s horn made me focus on how important the primacy of sound is. Hearing his sound in a room, as opposed to on records, was earth shattering”. The gig also paired him with the iconic drummer Roy Haynes for the first time as well as vibraphonist Gary Burton.

In 1968, Swallow departed Getz’ band to join Burton’s newly-formed combo, which included Haynes and firebrand guitarist Larry Coryell. The band reached forward in scope and became a feature in jazz festivals as well as major rock hubs where they opened for the likes of Cream and the Electric Flag. “I found it fascinating that jazz could move in circles so vastly different. I had been playing clubs were people wore suits”, but this Quartet wore pop culture’s fringe jackets and long hair, and offered arrangements of hits like Bob Dylan’s “I Want You”. The latter featured Swallow’s bass on melody. Steve Swallow remains a close member of the vibist’s circle.

In 1970, in what became a life-altering moment, Steve stumbled upon the electric bass guitar.  Though he initially carried both instruments to gigs, his focus landed solely on the electric. “The decision was purely based on the physical essence of the instrument. I picked it up and fell in love with it: the length of the finger board, the feel of it, the presence of the frets. I didn’t want to sound like James Jamerson or Duck Dunn, I still wanted to be Percy Heath but I just wasn’t able to put the electric down. I thought ‘Oh shit!’, and was faced with having to explain using this instrument to others when it had been seen as anathema to the jazz community”. Truly secured in his ax, Swallow began touring and recording with a wide array of artists in the decades to follow including Pat Methaney, Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and Michael Mantler, and also began leading ensembles of his own. And while teaching at the Berklee College of Music he began a lasting relationship with John Scofield which bore fruit in the ‘80s and continues on. The pair recently recorded an album of C&W music, Country for Old Men.

Likewise, Swallow can trace back his annual August performance with Steve Kuhn and Joey Barron. “Our reunion is really just old friends shooting the breeze”, he remarked. And this month he’ll also be performing with a new quartet, Monk Revisited. The band, playing reconstructions of Thelonious Monk works, is an experiment for all involved. “I’m curious to see how it turns out”, he said, smiling. And while Swallow claims to struggle through each piece he composes (“I’m glacial”), his writing too has grown with the years. He is now plotting a new quintet album for ECM.

Surely the most visceral of Swallow’s collaborations is that with Carla Bley, the bassist’s life-partner of many years. “There’s something that happens when you spend 56 years in someone’s music. This is something you have to wait a lifetime to experience. The wonders of it and of living with her are equally astonishing. Carla gets up every morning and asks herself, ‘what if?’”. Bley has often used the stage as a platform of protest against right-wing oppression. Of this Swallow commented with pride: “We both feel compelled to address what’s going on in this nation, this election cycle. Carla’s immediate response has been ‘National Anthem’, a drastic reworking of ‘the Star Spangled Banner’. It’s now been added to our performance repertoire”.

“Music must connect to its time and place”.




Friday, July 29, 2016

CYRO BAPTISTA, cover story, NYC Jazz Record

NYC JAZZ RECORD, August 2016

CYRO BAPTISTA: Forging the Alliance of Sound
By John Pietaro



Percussionist Cyro Baptista has lived in the US for well over thirty years since relocating from his native Brazil. The trail has taken him around the globe many times, sharing the stage and studio with many of the most relevant artists of free improvisation, world music, jazz, experimental composition, and some of the best of pop music too. Perhaps it is due to his status as a traveler, but Baptista has never stopped seeking out the community within the music—in any locale it takes him to.
Baptista was introduced to music performance in elementary school where the local music teacher engaged the children in the building of percussion instruments as well as in playing them. “My first instrument was a hollowed out coconut shell”, he recalled fondly, “and when I brought it the ensemble, this simple thing became something great we could do together”.

His immersion in the Brazilian music tradition introduced the percussionist to many instruments as he crafted his own expression and developed that sense of ensemble which remains so meaningful to him. Baptista traveled to New York in 1980; though he was soon to become a downtown stalwart, his initial destination was considerably further north. “I was given a full scholarship to attend the Creative Music Studio up in Woodstock. It was an incredible time to be there”, he explained, still reflecting on his work with Karl Berger and Ingred Sertso with a sense of wonder. “The best musicians in the world came through that program; Don Cherry was a regular! Every day, a new experience.”

After considerable immersion in CMS’ unique approach to improvisation and performance, Baptista decided to move into the City and into the burgeoning new music scene. “I lived on the Lower East Side to be near the music---and it was so cheap then! It wasn’t long before I became friends with John Zorn and Marc Ribot. They were great to me. I played a lot on the streets, trying to get to know people, but I hardly knew any English. I picked up a lot of, um, bad words immediately---but I didn’t know what they meant”, he said laughing. “It took me a while to realize I couldn’t use ‘M.F.’ in every sentence, but it was brought to my attention at a big artsy party on the Upper East Side. That was an eye-opener. My English is still not so great”, he injected with a smile, “Sometimes I think I speak like Tarzan. But back then, it was really rough!”

Cyro began playing gigs at now rather legendary performance spaces in the fertile terrain of downtown, 1980, where experimental composition and free improv tangled deliciously with punk rock and electronica. He found the mélange to be a refreshing change. “Once I became a part of the musical scene down there, a big door opened for me”.

His instrumental voice liberated, Baptista was among a growing brood that soon became known as the avant apex of the day. “We used to play these gigs at the old Knitting Factory on Houston Street, but none of us were well known yet. The audience didn’t come at first--it could be a really tough neighborhood--but after a while, the word spread. John Zorn worked very hard to make it happen and we played together a lot. All of us struggled so much early on but we created that community of sound. People stood together.”

The list of pertinent composers and songwriters, improvisers and many other performers that Baptista encountered in the years since can fill volumes. His work with Zorn is well chronicled but Cyro also spent considerable time with the late percussion master Nana Vasconcelos, whom he considers his “inspiration”. Walking in such good company opened Baptista up to performance opportunities ranging from gigs with founding ‘no wave’ guitarist Arto Lindsay to globally renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma. Along the way, he performed and/or recorded with Sting, David Byrne, Dr. John, Phoebe Snow, Janis Ian, Gato Barbieri, Geri Allen, Trey Anastasio, the Chieftans, James Carter, Edie Brikell, Bobby McFerrin, Cassandra Wilson, Richard Stoltzman, Herbie Mann, Tony Bennet and the list goes on. Cyro enjoys every facet of his role as a percussionist, whether playing the traditional berimbau, hand drums, tearing up racks of blocks, bells and cymbals, or playing what he calls “transparent percussion”, the subtle touches that lie almost inaudibly on a track. His has been a rather storied career.

When Derek Baily, the master improviser and theorist, approached Baptista early on for a recording date, the percussionist jumped at the chance to make his debut recording. “Derek asked me to record with him and so I went and we just played. I never thought anything more of it and assumed it hadn’t been released. Some years later, I was touring in the UK with Nana, and a man came up to me excitedly saying, ‘You’re Cyro!’ and waving this album at me. It was Derek’s record. I was shocked to see that not only had it come out, but Derek had named it Cyro. This was very moving. Soon after we engaged in a pub tour”, he recalled.

But it hasn’t all been freewheeling music. Baptista explained: “I toured and recorded with Paul Simon for six years. He was a very particular kind of songwriter—he allowed the musicians room to create but then was strict about parts being played the same way every time. The band was amazing: Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, Michael Brecker…wow. I had been used to clubs, halls, but with Paul I learned how to play to 30,000 people! We did the Concert in Central Park, played around the world in stadiums”

And what of Herbie Hancock? “He’s Number One. I actually rate my career on what I did before I met him, and after. After Herbie, I was never just a side-man again. The connection we had went beyond music—I became a Buddhist through his example. Musically, everything was so open, the expectations for the band to CREATE every moment was so high. He approached me once, saying he was very happy with what I played but he noticed some of the same phrases night after night. He said I needed to play something new each time”, Baptista laughed. “So I went from a leader that always wanted everything the same to one that never wanted you to repeat yourself.”

The percussionist has been an active composer for years and founded several ensembles which feature aspects of his musical breadth. But he works to build the sense of ensemble in each situation. “Every time I play it’s a different set-up. I’m always experimenting with sounds. For certain gigs, I will learn to play a new instrument. These days I’m killing myself to learn the balafon, spending five hours a day practicing. It’s like starting over, but we should never stop growing”.

Here is where tradition can take wing: “Once you learn the roots of your instrument then you can go anywhere. When I moved to the US I learned the washboard, an American musical manifestation. And when I formed the band Beat the Donkey I knew I needed to include a tap dancer for the same reason”, he offered. “But you must first conquer the roots; that’s where you’ll find the instrument’s genetic code”.

Beat the Donkey (the translation of a Brazilian expression for “Let’s go!”), a true fusion of culture and genre, has been a main Baptista vehicle these past 15 years. He boldly added adaptations of King Crimson and Led Zeppelin into an already expansive repertoire, at times to the chagrin of concert hall administrators.  Still, his work isn’t limited to this band. A case in point is Baptista’s newly released disc Bluefly (Tzadik label), inspired by the title insect’s ability to travel mass distances on the back of a large animal, another metaphor for the leader’s journey. It features a pair of musicians from Sting’s band and a bevy of guest artists. And then there’s the percussionists featured spot on Jamie Saft’s new album Sunshine Seas (Rare Noise).

However, this month the focus is on Banquet of the Spirits, yet another band under his leadership. Several members of the assemblage (pianist Brian Marsella, Shanir Blumenkranz on bass, sinter and oud, and drummer Gil Oliveira) will perform along with special guests in a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert this month. The event is Baptista’s tribute to Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s greatest composer, and an extension on a project began a generation ago, ‘Vira-Loucos Villa-Lobos’. He ranks this upcoming concert as one of the highlights of his work, a chance to both celebrate and reconstruct this master’s music.

In many ways, this brings it all back home for Baptista, as does the goal of inspiring coming generations. “In addition to writing music, Villa-Lobos ran a program for school children to perform his choral works all over Brazil. Every year they’d pull these choirs together for a concert in a soccer stadium”. In this regard, Baptista has been facilitating a project with drummer Kenny Wollesen, “The Sound of Community”, which brings music programs to economically deprived areas. “We’ve done this in Mexico so far, but plan to extend it further. We create instruments with old people, children, workers—and then together all of us create compositions for these instruments. In the end, we hold a concert with them. The program allows even the poorest people to see the possibilities”.

“Music is music, but we keep changing”, the percussionist relayed. “In the end we can bring it back to what it was in the beginning, when people sat around a fire for survival, sharing songs”.


Opinion: THE VERY REAL CHALLENGE BEFORE US




WE ARE NOW FACED WITH A SIMPLE CHOICE.

As a Bernie Sanders supporter who campaigned and stumped for the man during the primary, I find myself taking a strong, sober view of the campaign season. I am more alert than ever of the dangers of demagoguery and the importance of fighting against the Trump vision of our future.

It took a Bernie Sanders--and the millions he activated--to wake Hillary Clinton up and push her out of the usual bland Dem middle of the road. The platform of the Democratic Party is a deeply progressive one. Finally. And perhaps the gains of FDR's New Deal will become central to a candidacy for the first time since Roosevelt. There is a sense that a vote for Hillary will not simply be a lesser of evils. We have yet to see if this will be so, but in the wake of a powerful convention with strong almost continuous progressive messaging, there is great promise. So the battle is officially at the core of our 2-party system.

As a Marxist, as a cultural worker, an outspoken activist, and a member of the labor movement, I can only truly see the need to end the Trump campaign of hate/fear manipulation. Whereas Clinton is drawing on the Dem heritage of FDR and JFK, Trump is thriving on the Republican heritage of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and arch-Right philosophy. That philosophy was realized during lynchings, Red scares, institutional bias and the so-called Moral Majority and the drive to outlaw abortion. George Wallace, J Edgar Hoover, Joseph McCarthy, Father Coughlin, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, David Duke, Edwin Meese, Strom Thurmond, Roy H Cohn, the segregationists, the fear-mongers, the neo-Nazis, the censors, the greedy, the war profiteers, have been at the heart of the Right-Wing all along, emerging at points of financial and international tumult. And at present, under Trump, we are being fed all of the ingredients of fascism, make no mistake of that. An angry, chest thumping man of great wealth railing on about who our enemies are and how only he can save us. The fomenter of fear and suspicion. The figure of division who claims to unite. The would-be statesman that denounces the nation in order to frighten us into having him "fix" it. The alpha male who stifles and threatens those who dare oppose him, most openly the media. The silver spoon man of wealth who somehow convinces the working class that he is of them. These have all been successful means toward power grabs around the world and most prominently in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy---and the periods that led up to them.

No, we cannot take this election lightly. No, we cannot allow this demagogue who would prey on fears for personal gain to have a glimmer of hope here. No, we cannot turn our back on our Left values by letting the childish, ignorant, hateful, manipulative Short Fingered Vulgarian believe he can or should have a position of power on our watch.


-John Pietaro, Aug 29, 2016, Brooklyn NY