CULTURAL WORKINGS

Welcome to THE CULTURAL WORKER, a blog dedicated to arts of the people 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

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Essay: SUMMER OF LOVE REDUX, All Over Again

SUMMER OF LOVE REDUX, All Over Again
by John Pietaro

San Francisco, June 1967 (Mercury News)

This piece, a combined essay, recollection and review, was composed in late June, 2007, as the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love had moved into public consciousness. I intended it as a piece for “Z”, a magazine I’d frequently been writing for at the time, but it was left unpublished until three years later when I established my blog The Cultural Worker and included this article within it’s archive. Somehow, with the passing of a decade and so much attention thrust upon the half-century mark of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper as well as that summer in question and its West Coast festival, my thoughts drifted back to this piece.
A bit of dusting is all it took, and upon reading it in light of the nightmare going on in the White House right now, I almost found myself a bit nostalgic for the Bush years. Almost.
In the wake of late 1960s’ mass uprisings, it’s clear that we can do a lot better than George W’s—or LBJ’s--mindless guffaws. But considering the crushing blows that civil rights, women’s rights, workers, the environment and TRUTH have taken in just a few miserable Trumpian months, reaching back to a time of relentless activism as a means of inspiration can only do us a hell of a lot of good. We cannot just flash the peace sign, we must believe it. Liberation must cease to be a concept and once again take on the role of tactic. And when we speak of taking the streets, we’d better mean that we are taking them back. There’s something happening here and it is frighteningly clear.
So, onto my now 10 year old article on the happenings of 1967, ‘Summer of Love Redux’ and take a few moments to consider how far we’ve both come and fallen.

Hey, so it’s been forty years since the Summer of Love. Wasn’t that a time? An illegal war coming to a raging boil, hatred of the US in many parts of the world, an ignorant lame duck southern president flailing about the White House, and of course rising popular unrest. I read the news today, oh boy, and its déjà vu all over again.
But there’s more:  how about the struggle against racism? Though the Voting Rights Act passed the year following the Summer of Love (natch), Americans can still be counted on to seek out blame in other. Oh, and the environment has also made a return. And Labor struggles are coming back, too, but now instead of workers throwing bricks at anti-war protestors, they’re often joining up with them---if this radicalism keeps up, we may grow back the union teeth we lost during the Cold War. Corporate America envisioned world domination during the 1960s and now of course there’s Wal-Mart. And while abortion is not currently illegal, given the climate, who knows how long that may be the case. Still, peace marches go on with earnest tenacity.  And  I Spy mentality is running rampant, but this time focusing on everyone instead of just the Commies. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is reading my email. This may not exactly be COINTELPRO, but it nearly makes me feel nostalgic for it.
Speaking of nostalgia, what about the music of 1967? This summer marked the middle age, if you will, of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” as well as the debut albums of Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, the Band, the Velvet Underground, Donavan, Taj Mahal, Jefferson Airplane, the Bee Gees, the Buffalo Springfield, Procol Harum, Ten Years After, and the Doors. The Stones released “Their Satanic Majesties Request”. Traffic gave us “Dear Mr. Fantasy”.  The Moody Blues took over the symphony orchestra and brought forth “Days of Future Past”. The Beatles also released the singles “All You Need is Love” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” shortly beforehand, offering both a theme to the summer’s proceedings as well as a backdrop for general tripping. All this while Aretha’s 45 RPM “Respect” was burning up the airwaves. Our pocket radios would never recover.
And while ’67 also saw Brian Wilson walk out of the studio before he could finish his legendary masterwork, “Smile”, that year marked a change in popular music that would not be reversed—until we were force-fed daily Britney Spears reports on cable news shows. But I digress. Dylan began experimenting with the power of roots music in a Woodstock basement with the Band. His “John Wesley Harding” hit record stores later that year, as did the Band’s “Music from Big Pink”. And “Alice’s Restaurant” established the career of Arlo Guthrie, son of the man who made Dylan possible. All this while Dylan cohort Phil Ochs expanded his own palette by releasing “Pleasures of the Harbor”, an expansionist view of folk so different than “going electric”. This year also saw the coming of Ochs’ friend Victor Jara, the Chilean protest singer; neither Ochs nor Jara would survive the 70s or revel in the nostalgia. Neither would Otis Redding ---he was deeply relevant, making the scene in both R & B and rock venues and penning classics that do not allow for stylistic boundaries. Likewise, in ‘67 Sly and the Family Stone were preparing for their first album, offering a fusion of everything—but now it all had groove. Ooooh, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Nuff said. And Blood Sweat and Tears were in rehearsal, as was an earlier version of Chicago, then called The Big Thing, forging the jazz-rock that screamed needles off of turn-tables. 
The Electric Flag throbbed with the same vibe—edgy brass and woods laying it down for harrowing electric guitar solos--though from a more Blues-based approach. But then John Coltrane blew them all away with his “Live at the Village Vanguard Again”; jazz-rock couldn’t stand up to this. And  Miles’s “Nefertiti” drove the point home. “Disraeli Gears” by Cream then took the Blues and turned them inside out, but Janis Joplin reclaimed the music, adding a southern authenticity forged through guttural overdrive.  Primal scream therapy coming through your hi-fi.
Love beads may have lost some of their impact, but, shit, that was some great music. Recently we saw the 40th anniversary of Scott McKenzie’s hit “If You’re Going to San Francisco”, which  had actually brought so many wannabes to Haight-Ashbury that most of the originals, like the Diggers and Dead, needed to consider moving on before long. But who could think of that detail, as the anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival is all the rage? Here was the original benefit concert; a professionally organized be-in that featured some of the very best that rock and pop had to offer. Allen Ginsberg’s vision of an amorphous body of social change had been realized, for the better or worse.
The newly released fortieth anniversary edition CD makes full use of today’s technology (extra tracks and all re-mastered) while reminding us of exactly how we got here. The selections scorch their way through your speakers when they are not offering an ethereal, almost escapist means for us to relax. Hendrix, Joplin (with Big Brother), the Airplane, Mamas and the Papas, Butterfield, Simon and Garfunkel, Otis, the Flag, the Byrds, the Who! There’s Ravi Shankar’s mastery and Hugh Masakela’s multi-culti sounds. The usually mellow Association is actually kicking, while Booker T grooved us to death.
This event, and the anniversary disc, demonstrate the power of song in a period of societal transition. Monterey gets overlooked in light of Woodstock, but its time to recognize the foundation the former laid for the latter’s realization of the youth movement. The musicians may not have always known it, but that summer they were singing the soundtrack to a painful, vital graduation.

-John Pietaro is a writer and musician from New York


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Obit: BERN NIX 1947-2017, the Wire magazine

"The Wire" 

https://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/bern-nix-1947-2017-obituary-by-john-pietaro

BERN NIX 1947-2017 

John Pietaro recalls the Prime Time guitarist

Bern Nix, 2017. Photo by John Pietaro

Writer and musician John Pietaro on the “post-modern experimentalist embedded in the jazz tradition” who co-founded Ornette's Prime Time

Bern Nix, the guitarist and founding member of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, died in his Manhattan home on 31 May. His unexpected passing fell just three months short of his 70th birthday.

Nix was widely known as an original, a unique find even among the most avant of the avant garde. News of his loss spread like a firestorm among New York’s jazz community, and the grieved responses of friends and fans are legion. This veteran of Coleman’s legendary sphere contributed his singular instrumental voice to the music continuum, standing as a postmodern experimentalist embedded in the jazz tradition. Nix’s speaking voice was just as intriguing, gently urbane in defiance of an almost sphynx-like repose. His welcoming tone softly beckoned one into his line of logic: Bern enjoyed discussing the nuances not only of music, but philosophy, art, history and radically left politics. A sparkle overtook his eyes as he listened to those in his purview, then raising a finger to signal his entry into the discussion, he quietly came to own the room. As was the case with his guitar playing, when he spoke softly, the focus stayed on him. Bern’s stage whisper was most effective.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, arguably on 21 September 1947 (some bios list his birth year as 1950), Bern Nix was introduced to music in childhood and began playing the guitar at age 11. Driven toward the jazz guitarists of the time, he listened intently to Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Rainey and Barney Kessel, but while encompassing the full canon, he came upon the early electric lead guitarist Charlie Christian who remained a particular inspiration. Nix later moved to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music in preparation for a career in the mainstream. “I always had a penchant for straight-ahead jazz guitar playing,” he told me in 2013, “and I play that still. Before I worked with Ornette, I never thought I would be in Prime Time. But this music allows the harmony to shift, like chase-chords, moving through and beyond. It is in and it is out…”

The offer to work with the framer of free jazz was too much to pass up for the budding young guitarist. In 1975, after graduation, he came to New York and successfully auditioned for the job with Coleman, replacing James Blood Ulmer. Nix came to work closely with the master in the developing of Prime Time, Coleman’s vehicle for bringing his harmolodic theory into a funk-oriented, heavily amplified milieu. As was the case with the fervour raised by Ornette’s original quartet in 59, many audiences were critical of the new sound, claiming it to be a “sell-out”. Nix never agreed. “The ‘swing’ was always there,” he recalled. “This music is an extension of the early jazz tradition where the sense of freedom, the improvisation, was constantly creative. Here the band’s roles are never static and are always shifting, evolving…”

Nix became a core member of Prime Time, a focal point of its critically acclaimed debut LP, Dancing in Your Head, which also brandished the spectre of The Master Musicians Of Joujouka in its grooves. The album was utterly epic. Follow-ups Body Meta (1976), Of Human Feelings (1979), In All Languages (1987) and Virgin Beauty (1988) were nothing if not wonderfully controversial. New music circles everywhere paid heed to the band that begat whole schools of downtown thought. But even as he served as its first lead guitarist, Nix began working with others then populating the Lower East Side, crafting fusions of genre unique to the time and place. He toured with no waver James Chance in 1981 and performances with Sedition and Sabir Mateen followed, but the 1984 debut of The Bern Nix Trio offered the guitarist a personalised pool of creativity. The Trio also allowed Nix to maintain a public profile as Coleman embarked on a strike against the recording industry, protesting corporate stranglehold.

Nix’s band wouldn’t record until 1993’s Alarms And Excursions, by which time several changes of line-up occurred (bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Newman Baker are on the record), but its core maintained consistency: pure Bern Nix.

Though the Trio continued as a force, The Bern Nix Quartet grew from within and in recent years became Nix’s primary ensemble. Bassist Francois Grillot, multi-instrumentalist Matt Lavelle (trumpet, alto clarinet, flugelhorn) and drummer Reggie Sylvester cast an acoustic format that straddled the boundaries of free jazz, new composition and, yes, funk. Nix’s solos comprised of quivering single notes, barked dyads and chordal runs up and down and then across his instrument’s neck. He toyed with repetitions before tossing them aside for lines of advanced tonality. Kandinsky-esque staccato phrases and slippery runs alternated. Technique for Nix can be boiled down to legitimacy torn asunder by design.

Pertinent collaborations with poet Jayne Cortez, and downtown stalwarts Jemeel Moondoc, John Zorn, Kip Hanrahan, Elliot Sharp and Arto Lindsay kept Nix at the top of his game. But his presence was also felt in guest spots with 30 years’ worth of young lions, features in area festivals and ensembles such as The Beyond Group (led by flautist Cheryl Pyle) and those helmed by Lavelle, or saxophonists Patrick Brennan or Ras Moshe Burnett among many more.

Nix’s final performance was on 27 May, just several days prior to his passing. His set was a feature of New Music Nights, the series I curated, and by all account this was a particularly enlivened Quartet gig. Afterward, Bern spoke of the callous political climate afflicting the US since January, the weariness evident in his stance. As I folded mic stands, our discussion turned to future bookings in the series. “Of course, Bern. Any time. Any time,” I smiled as he departed.

Ever the bohemian, Nix lived a meagre life in a tiny single room Ooccupancy apartment. He struggled to make ends meet and pondered at length the loss of opportunities for creatives in these times. He played the same guitar over many decades, the carrying case of which seemed held together merely by hope. Arriving at dates with his instrument and an impossibly tiny amplifier, he could make the old instrument sing, cry, bite, bellow and swoon, with nary an effort. Leaning over its sunburst soundboard, he withheld his glance from the front row, tired eyes deep-set, pointed downward, not in a haughty manner but locked in an especially artful space all his own. His was a linear style which cut across expansive melodies, harmonies and rhythm.

While he had no opportunities in recent times to hit the major venues of the Prime Time era, Nix thrived in each performance setting he encountered. Whether on the Vision Festival main stage in 2013 or in the fleeting rooms that sprang up on New York’s Lower East Side or in Williamsburg, he offered audiences a rare, valuable and cherished glimpse into the legacy of Ornette. That giant of free jazz produced a stable of harmolodic emissaries whose work blossomed into whole other forms, still newer realms. Bern Nix stood proudly among them, a survivor, a model, a teacher, a musical adventurer and a gem. We were lucky to have been touched by his bold creativity and gentle hand.

John Pietaro is a writer, musician and cultural organiser from Brooklyn, New York. You can visit his blog at TheCulturalWorker.blogspot.com and website DissidentArts.com

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Reportage: Union Nurse and Healthcare Worker Picket

Registered Nurses & Healthcare Workers Stand Together in Informational Picket and Strike Vote



New York healthcare unions NYSNA and 1199 SEIU unite to battle bad-faith bargaining, Unfair Labor Practices and union busting during two-year negotiation struggle with Fresenius Kidney Care

By John Pietaro

It was a chilly, overcast morning as members of the New York State Nurses Association and 1199 SEIU took the Brooklyn and Bronx streets. Registered Nurses, Technicians, Social Workers, Dietitians, environmental and clerical staff have been in contract negotiations with dialysis juggernaut Fresenius Kidney Care for over two years. Both unions’ negotiation proceedings have been riddled with negativity from the employer, globally the largest and most profitable of dialysis providers. Fresenius boasts a dense network of facilities across the Americas, Europe, the Far East and other regions. Recent reports state that the company’s profits are in the range of $1.5 BILLION.
“Our clinic is staffed short almost every night”, said Stacey White RN, a Fresenius employee and NYSNA delegate. “All I can say is that Fresenius just doesn’t seem to care. Many evenings, we have only two instead of the necessary three nurses on duty--and management has no plan to bring in another. Techs are scheduled the same way. This can jeopardize our patients’ safety”. The union healthcare professionals and technicians have regularly voiced their protest to such dangerous staffing practices.

Bernadette Hankey-Johnson RN, long-time Fresenius employee, felt similarly. “We are always so busy. If the nurses and Techs weren’t so vigilant…” Nurse Hankey-Johnson looked away pensively, tightly clutching a placard reading PATIENTS BEFORE PROFITS.  In the distance others on the line began cheering as truckers’ horns sounded out in support. The thicket of traffic on Atlantic Avenue joined in noisily, excitedly. HONK FOR PATIENT CARE! another placard asked, and passing police cars rang sirens resoundingly.

The unions involved have bargained in good faith toward fair contracts, seeking to maintain union health benefits and pensions, and acquire moderate raises and incremental differential increases for experience. Employees’ last saw raises more than six years back. NYSNA is also seeking a clinical committee to elicit change as needed for safe staffing. However Fresenius continues to present harsh proposals which would take away health benefits and pensions or obliterate union security. The choices have been flagrantly disrespectful.

In 2015 Fresenius closed the Brooklyn Kidney Center, a union facility, and initially stated that the clinic opening in its place would continue to honor the twin union contracts. Though management and the unions met to arrange for the laid-off staff to move to the new site, Fresenius leadership later informed the unions that the company will not honor its earlier promise. The company claims that the site on DeGraw Street in Gowanus is not a replacement but a new operation. Many Fresenius employees remain laid-off after the closure and none have been offered work opportunities at the expansive DeGraw site. NYSNA filed charges of Unfair Labor Practice with the National Labor Relations Board against Fresenius’ actions.

As more staff came out to join the picket, they stated that management, for the first time in memory, had ordered in lunch for them. “But none of us are partaking”, reported Mercedes Anderson-Draggon RN. “Because this lunch they’re offering is not free. The ultimate cost is too high”.


By day’s end, as the strike vote was tallied, it was clear that both NYSNA and 1199 SEIU members were fully prepared for to embark on whatever was necessary: all had voted to authorize a strike. 1199 will be meeting with Fresenius for a negotiation session on April 26; NYSNA activists will be there with them. The outcome of this will be the actual deciding vote as to what comes next. “We don’t want to strike”, one of the unionists told a sympathetic passerby, “but we will if we have to”.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

film review: Thomas Chapin: Night Bird Song

“Thomas Chapin: Night Bird Song—the incandescent life of a jazz great”

A documentary by Stephanie J. Castillo – www.thomaschapinfilm.com

Film review by John Pietaro


Have you had the chance to see this moving, enticing film on Thomas Chapin (1957-1998), the brilliantly artful saxophonist and flutist? It was shown in various locations in Manhattan, from City Winery to Lincoln Center, and also in festivals around the nation and globe, but somehow got passed my watchful eye. Until now. Just caught a screening in Flushing, Queens last night, and it was well worth the trip from my Brooklyn home base. Sadly, Chapin’s all too brief career was also easy to miss, though he was a busy player on the mainstream scene and also hailed a champion downtown, quickly moving to the front of the Knitting Factory stage during the later ‘80s and ‘90s. As per the onscreen testimony of Michael Dorf, Knitting Factory founder, Chapin was the first artist to be signed to the now sought-after Knitting Factory record label and the main attraction of the overseas tours he produced under that banner.

Here was an alto player of constant invention and a wonderfully listenable tone (I couldn’t help but notice some similarity to that of David Sanborn) who thrived in settings from Lionel Hampton’s big band, of which he was musical director, to the incendiary realm of Machine Gun. Throughout the screening, I kept wondering how I could have not caught on to this deeply talented musician back then, even as I haunted the downtown venues and played at that original Knitting Factory location on Houston Street.

Award winning filmmaker Stephanie J. Castillo was actually Chapin’s sister-in-law, so had access to not only family members for interview segments, but close friends and musical allies with the saxophonist, offering viewers a much fuller understanding of the man than could have otherwise been possible. I’m glad she did. The documentary is a thorough examination of every facet of Chapin’s development, success and challenges. Though the story ends with the terribly young death of the protagonist, his final passing from a vicious strain of leukemia occurred only after achieving his wish to perform onstage one final time. The footage of that event, and surrounding interviews, carries every viewer into the moment and the effect, simultaneously a lamentation and celebration, is stirring.


“Thomas Chapin: Night Bird Song” is not to be missed, especially if you were downtown during the heyday of East Village creativity. Or just wish you were. It hits screens in DC and Charlottesville later this month. On May 6 the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music hosts a concert of Chapin compositions performed by many of the musicians who worked with him over the years. See the above website for details.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

CD Review: Iconoclast, "Driven to Defiance"

"NYC Jazz Record", April 2017
ICONOCLAST, DRIVEN TO DEFIANCE
CD review by John Pietaro
Here’s a duo born of Downtown when that geographic designation meant much more than simply “below 23rd Street”. And well before the bistros and condos. This is grassroots music, as pure as the old Palace Hotel. Driven to Defiance? Iconoclast was bred on it. Alto saxophonist/violinist Julie Joslyn and drummer Leo Ciesa create explosive free music and soaring melodies that mingle gorgeously on an unpredictable playlist. The duo is a grand array of sound now celebrating their 30th anniversary. And there’s much to celebrate.  “Nothing Untold” is a 6/8 Ciesa statement played on toms with timpani mallets deftly variated with subdivisions and bending tempo building toward a mournful alto melody. One hears the Middle Eastern influence within a complete and incisive work. Like many of the original Downtown artists, Iconoclast recognizes the strength in relatively short statements as established by the punk and no wave bands they shared many a stage with in the ‘80s-90s.  Of note is “One Hundred Verticals”, a slow boil into gripping fire music. Joslyn’s violin playing is reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s foray into that instrument, albeit with a modern classical outline ever present. Searching, possibly archaic tunes make frequent appearances as do other melismatic themes. At times while Joslyn is serenading, Ciesa carefully drops in broken blues piano, tabla-like drumset parts or a mix of classic New Thing and devastating industrial percussion. “You’re So Very Touchable” is a warm love song with a sensuous alto resounding over delicate drumming, but no Downtowner worth their salt would allow this emotion to ruminate; “Spheres of Influence” barks at the ear with the impact of a time when avant garde jazzers jammed with punk rockers in unheated squats. And Joslyn’s spoken word is used to dramatic effect on “Part of the Hour”, a work of expressionist, surreal poetry with a very strong Ciesa piano score that feels like ‘30s Hanns Eisler.

For more information, visit fangrecords.com. This project is at Michiko Studios Apr. 7th. See Calendar. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

AMINA BARAKA RECORDS DEBUT CD, HEADLINES NYC PERFORMANCE

AMINA BARAKA RECORDS DEBUT CD, HEADLINES NYC PERFORMANCE
By John Pietaro

Amina Baraka photo by Joyce Jones

New Masses Nights, the monthly series of radical performance, will celebrate Black History Month with the legendary Amina Baraka who will perform selections from her recently recorded debut CD.
Ms. Baraka, a vital force of social justice and fight-back over decades, is a poet of unique talent who stands as woefully under-recognized. Though she’d been active alongside her late husband, the celebrated poet Amiri Baraka, her work as an independent artist has often been overlooked outside of the activist circle in the New York/New Jersey area. While some state that this was caused by being outshined by the fame of Mr. Baraka’s output, others attest that the couple’s international profile as voices of radicalism enforced an unspoken censorship about her. “Plus, I was raising a family”, Ms. Baraka clarified. Those were hard years. Someone had to be here when the children came home from school. When Amiri traveled, I often needed to be home”. The family experienced threats by reactionary forces, and during the height of COINTELPRO operations, the Barakas were subject to federal and local government investigation, compelling Ms. Baraka to stand protectively over home and children.

Stories of a lifetime
Ms. Baraka’s plans to record an album of her poetry have been long-standing, a goal she always intended to see realized. Working in a collaborative effort with this reporter over the past year, she began to formulate the project as one which would offer a vision of herself through the stories of her lifetime. “Some of these poems date back to the 1960s and ’70s. Others were written very recently as I sit up nights into the early morning hours.  Memories, faces, sounds. It’s all about the people’s struggle”, she explained.

After signing a contract with renowned underground jazz label ESP-Disk (which released albums by such seminal artists as Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman), Ms. Baraka worked with this reporter’s quartet the Red Microphone to establish arrangements for her poetry. Some of the pieces were set to original compositions of band member Rocco John Iacovone while others were cast over free jazz, blues or R & B-flavored music. The material was recorded in January’s chill at Park West Studios in Flatbush, Brooklyn NY. The CD is due for release in late spring or early summer. ESP-Disk’s Steven Holtje has remarked that the project is one of “historic” proportions.
During the recording session Ms. Baraka remarked: “I’ve been waiting my entire life to record my poetry this way. I thrive on the music and much of it is improvised, so that leads me to perform the pieces in new ways, in some cases with new words. This CD is very important right now as we face a kind of American fascism we haven’t known before.”

In performance
Ms. Baraka, in the company of the Red Microphone, will perform selections from this collection at the radical arts series New Masses Nights on Saturday February 25, 7pm at the Henry Winston Unity Hall located at 235 West 23 Street, 7th floor, in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. Admission is a $10 donation. The members of the Red Microphone are Ras Moshe Burnett (tenor saxophone, flute), Rocco John Iacovone (alto and soprano saxophones, piano), Laurie Towers (electric bass) and this writer, musical director/drummer-percussionist John Pietaro.

Toward the cause of Black History Month, other performers on the February 25 bill include jazz bassist/poet Larry Roland’s quartet (Larry Roland-Bass, Poetry, Voice; Michael Moss-Reeds, Flute; Waldron Ricks- Trumpet; Chuck Fertel- Drums) and guitarist Dave Ross’ trio (Dave Ross- Guitar; Eric Lawrence-Saxophone, Flute; Ras Moshe Burnett-Saxophones, Flute; special guest Shlomit Oren Ross: Movement, Voice). There will also be a reading of a Langston Hughes work originally published in “New Masses”, the revolutionary cultural magazine the series is named for.

For more information on the series see www.facebook.com/NewMassesNights and see the FB event page https://www.facebook.com/events/1534135256626751/

Thursday, January 5, 2017

NYC Jazz Record feature: LEON PARKER

"NYC Jazz Record", January 2017


LEON PARKER: Reaffirming Roots and Branches


By John Pietaro

After 15 years of life abroad, where he engaged in a musical pilgrimage of sorts, native New Yorker Leon Parker is back. Hopefully, to stay. 

Known as a brash young lion at the dawn of the ‘90s, the drummer/percussionist was as celebrated as deemed notorious due to a thorny frankness and an arduous drive to authenticity. Parker explained, “I’m the same person as back then, but after much reflection, I don’t hold the anger I once did”. What he may have given up in agitation, Parker’s cultivated in a renewed vitality for the drumset as well as the realization of his concept of body percussion and voice he calls EmbodiRhythm.

Born in White Plains, New York, 1965, Leon Parker was exposed to the lineage of jazz as a toddler. “My grandparents had met uptown during the Harlem Renaissance and they carried this incredible record collection with them through the years”. He was drawn to the inherent rhythms of jazz and early showed an affinity toward percussives. The decisive moment was seeing Buddy Rich play on the Tonight Show. “My parents got me out of bed to see this. I was about 6 years old and was inspired enough to demand they buy me a real drumset as opposed to just toys. Seeing someone play so strongly and with so much command of the instrument, I know I needed to do this”. 

In grade school, the youthful Parker began playing drums in a school band and befriended another budding young percussionist, Scott Latzky. “His father was a complete jazz nut and we used to go to his place to listen to his records”. Both then entered a local talent show, performing solo drumset spots. Within a few years, both were members of the Westchester Youth Jazz Ensemble, directed by James Harewood, later Frank Foster.

“I listened to a lot of the old Gene Krupa records when I was learning. Especially what he played on Goodman’s ‘Sing, Sing’, Sing’. I still love the floor tom; it’s a special drum that needs taming. Then I came to love Art Blakey’s drumming, especially his supportive playing behind others in his band. And I’ve always enjoyed Tony Williams and use some of his spice. But my favorite musician in the world is Roy Haynes. I’ve never copied his approach but the spirit is there.”

Parker, at age 17, began performing frequently with a local band and also started working with Hudson Valley area saxophonist Carmen Leggio. Still, he felt a world away from New York’s jazz center. “White Plains to NYC is only a 40 min train ride but for me it was as far off as Australia. The bridge was guitarist Melvin Sparks. He introduced me to Dr. Lonnie Smith”. Parker also engaged in Barry Harris’ programs and by 1986, was an “unofficial student” at the New School’s jazz program, under the watchful eye of Arnie Lawrence. He credits saxophonist Virginia Mayhew (“an unsung hero”) with bringing him to Lawrence’s attention. Serving as the frequent drummer on many student recitals, Parker came into contact with the up-and-coming players of that period. He also began making nightly vigils to Bradley’s during Kenny Barron’s long tenure at the club. When invited to do so, Parker began sitting in with the group, but not by taking over drummer Ben Riley’s kit: “I was fascinated by the cymbals. When I was 22 years old and used to go to Bradley’s all the time and carry only a cymbal with me. Kenny would let me sit in”. And then when Riley was unavailable to make the gig for one week, “I took the drum chair”, he said with a laugh, “but still played on just the one cymbal”, causing a rumble across the jazz community. 

Playing a slightly fuller drum set, he formed his own quartet and also began working with Bill Charlap and Joshua Redman. Soon, he too would become house drummer for the Blue Note jam sessions and at the terrace of the Village Gate, leading a trio with Brad Mehldau and Uganna Okegwo. In 1992, the drummer recorded and toured with Dewey Redman. 

A year later, Parker recorded his first album as a leader, ‘Above and Below’ and with it, set out to redefine the drumset to his own specifications. “Trying to do gigs on the ride cymbal alone, I realized it was crazy. I had come up with a drumset that let me do gigs like a normal guy with a focus on the cymbal”. A period of experimentation had him incorporate a hi-hat briefly. “Now I have one cymbal and no hi-hat. I can communicate so much more with that. BD, snare, two tom-toms, one cymbal”.
After releasing several more albums, the drummer became disenchanted with the direction the jazz industry was taking the music. “I saw all the bullshit involved. I was looking for something but was very outspoken”, he said of his bifurcated rebellion against and desire to be accepted by the broader jazz community. “I saw the authentic values disregarded while the music industry capitalized on the tradition of jazz. So I left in 2001”. 

Relocating to a small French village, Parker immersed himself in the essence of music’s communication. “I didn’t bring a drumset with me. I had been experimenting with body rhythms and vocal sounds, and wanted to explore this more”. He avoided much of the French jazz scene, focusing instead on teaching EmbodiRhythm workshops. Over the years he was away, Parker had only isolated occasions to play drums before heeding the call from old friend Aaron Goldberg. After playing a local show with the pianist, Parker was ready to return home to the US; he arrived in New York in time for last fall’s performance season. Gigs with Goldberg continue and Parker is now well within his comfort zone, performing with his own Humanity Quartet and facilitating EmbodiRhythms workshops. “Deciding to move back to New York, I had to look over the earlier expectations I had put upon myself and the institution of jazz. I no longer believe in institutions. We are artists and if there’s sincerity and authenticity in our work, then it remains powerful”.