Saturday, March 29, 2014

Book review: BOHEMIANS A Graphic History

Book review by John Pietaro

BOHEMIANS A Graphic History

Edited by Paul Buhle and David Berger with Luisa Cetti

Introduction by Paul Buhle

 BOHEMIANS would appear to be the book Paul Buhle has been waiting to introduce his entire lengthy career as a writer and editor. While his other thirty-plus volumes on Left history and the blacklist all came from a place deep within, this latest addition to the Buhle canon somehow stands out, a place where the author can step into the times and places of the amazing characters within.

When this book arrived in the mail I thought I would skim it over, reading closely in a few areas and then bang out the review. But it wasn’t possible as these largely chronologically placed tales of radical intellectuals (don’t you just hate that term??) beckoned me to investigate further each time I tried to put the book down. This history is graphically told via the work of underground comic book artists and writers including the late Spain Rodriguez (whom BOHEMIANS is dedicated to), Sabrina Jones, Peter Kuper, Sharon Rudahl and many others, though Buhle makes appearances as scripter in many spots, offers a rock-solid intro and weighs in on the intros to each chapter too. But he’d be the first to point to the actual bohemian input of some of his comic brethren as most salient; Buhle is fascinated by the lives of radical artists though he regularly states that he remains apart from the lot, an observer who chronicles the movements.

BOHEMIANS opens, befittingly, with utopianism, militant uprisings and every pronounced fight-back to reactionary thinking the artists of the day could come up with, from free love, spiritualism, feminism, multi-culturalism and more. What is most compelling, though, is the almost constant connection between the bohemian artists and the concept of modernism. Enlightenment. Gay and Lesbian lifestyles were accepted and the openness of inter-racial relationships a matter of course. Theirs was a world in which one’s politics were as revolutionary as their creativity and all of this was ignited by the vision of a new day. The cultural expanse of communism, socialism and anarchism are widely and deeply felt in these pages. Stand-out chapters include the entirety of ‘Village Days’, a wide-eyed view into Greenwich Village in the 1910s. See John Reed carousing with Mabel Dodge, Floyd Dell, Max Eastman and Arturo Giovannitti, dip into the pages of “The Masses” and “Il Fuoco” and embark on a journey into the Lawrence Strike. And while this chapter informs the reader of the Patterson Pageant, the benefit musical extravaganza Reed wrote with Dodge and performed on stage with actual strikers from Patterson, it somehow doesn’t take us there (note to self: push Buhle to include a section on this when the book goes into a second printing!).

But BOHEMIANS doesn’t stop with the death of Reed. In fact it dips back into the modern art movement in Manhattan in the earliest 20th century, giving an incredible vision into the time and the intensity of the struggle to break through the art establishment. Here you will find yourself walking the precipice of modern art and dadaism, including specific galleries and journals, both homegrown and European in origin, plus Duchamp, Man Ray, photography, cubism and of course nudes descending staircases. From there, its Claude McKay’s prideful, angry journey into life as a writer, in and apart from the Harlem Renaissance, as well as the turbulence of Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, Parisian salons and the tortured celebrity of Josephine Baker. But modern dance is offered thick, detailed segments with much focus also on theatre, folk music, and jazz. Pay special attention to the piece on Billie Holiday: it’s a walk through her pained life with an ongoing experiences of Abel Meeropol, the communist composer-lyricist of “Strange Fruit”, in comparative view. But along the path that BOHEMIANS takes us on, we discover painters, poets, singers, actors, musicians, dancers and thinkers largely lost to the passage of time though they shaped the art of the here and now. Where would today’s youth of Williamsburg Brooklyn be without them?

Chronologically, the book brings us into the 1940s—the era of be-bop, modern jazz--with a close look at both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I must admit, I could have used a lot more Thelonious Monk, in fact this brilliant composer and classic bohemian archetype deserved his own chapter.  The closing piece is the development of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb and the writer who worked so closely with him for years, Harvey Pekar. In later life, the very working-class yet quite bohemian Pekar partnered with Buhle on several books including The Beats and SDS: A Graphic History. To allow for the full breadth of bohemianism, one might have to fully absorb those two volumes while reading through this current one, and spend some time listening to the expansive, free jazz of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Albert Ayler as well as early punk and no wave. Such a radical creative vision cannot rest.

The road of bohemianism is jagged and cuts through every revolutionary social movement. What could ever stop it?

-John Pietaro is a musician, writer and cultural organizer from Brooklyn NY –


Saturday, March 22, 2014


CD Review by John Pietaro

Sana Nagano Trio, “Inside The Rainbow”, independently released 2014

Sana Nagano-violin

Karl Berger-vibraphone

John Ehlis-guitar

Recorded, mixed and mastered by Ted Orr at Sertso Studio, Woodstock, NY January 2014.

Produced by Sana Nagano, Karl Berger

All compositions by Sana Nagano, Karl Berger, John Ehlis

Sana Nagano is the kind of improviser that recalls the very best of free violin, resurrecting the spirit of Billy Bang and the full breadth of modernism all in one fell swoop --of her bow. A mainstay of Karl Berger’s twenty-five member strong Improvisers Orchestra (where she regularly shares the space with the likes of Jason Hwang), here Nagano stands at center stage---the heart of a trio that includes Berger and another member of Karl’s large group, guitarist John Ehlis. The trio has a beautiful sense of oneness, allowing the violinist to lead the improvisational encounters, really journeys into unknown landscapes amidst burning colors and other-harmonic sounds.

Nagano explained that all of the pieces were freely improvised but with a nod toward composition, thus there are beautiful patterns which catch the ear, beckoning us along, as well as pointillistic forays based on staccato repetition. The title track is a prime example yet it drops off into a gentle legato strain just before suddenly coming to an end. Nagano states that she made use of the recording studio’s editing possibilities in the service of weaving the improvisations together into more of a focused, composed presentation, but there is no sense of “cheating” here. The intent was to create a free improv album that would be palatable to a wider range of listeners, in some smaller doses and toward a vision of completion. Bravo. The final result is most satisfying as we move through the selections, with at least a hint of a suite in the big picture. To that end, I would have enjoyed some of the themes to have returned in later cuts, offering a more clear rapprochement as the larger piece takes us through its many facets.

Nagano’s violin is clean, cutting, sinewy, regal, magical. This die-hard improviser grew from many years of formal training, all put to excellent use. Yet nothing seems to please her more than ripping into a burning improvisation. She clearly musses the conservatory up with Downtown in the best imaginable way. Her performances beyond this disc feature a full scope of the musical experience; it mystifies me that she is not getting the press she deserves. Nagano’s resume includes work with Joseph Jarman, Yusuf Lateef, Adam Rudolph, William Parker and an array of others in addition to Berger’s Orchestra where this writer (the percussionist of that large ensemble) first encountered her. Since then we have shared the stage in a band led by Rocco John Iacovone as well, and she never fails to achieve the highest level of invention.  

Though Karl Berger is by now the grand old(er) man of improvisation, with a resume that ranges from legendary work with Don Cherry to founding the Creative Music studio alongside his wife and partner poet, vocalist Ingrid Sertso and Ornette Coleman. In the still fairly concise circle of international free musicians, Berger’s great relevance is obvious, so it is always a treat to hear his vibraphone in a small group like this. As a vibraphonist myself, Karl has been a clear influence (Cherry’s “Symphony for Improvisers” explains a lot!) and on this disc his unique approach to the instrument is evident. When he desires to his ax sounds like glass or the echo of an ice cave. Alternating comfortably between pianistic chordal sustains and sharp attacks where his vibes act as a xylophone, Berger offers the history of avant mallet playing over these tracks.

Ehlis’ guitar is often terra firma with thumbed basslines laying down a bottom over which he drops chords and finger-picked motifs that explore the space about him and inspire the parts above. In the Berger Improvisers Orchestra, Ehlis is usually seen brandishing a mandolin, adjunct to the formidable section of violins and violas, but in this setting he is able to bring a wider range of sound to the fore. Terse textures that claim space only in the most supportive manner, Ehlis is the necessary third component to this ensemble, dark counterpart of Nagano and Berger’s upper range.

After carrying us through a compelling set of underground sounds, Nagano’s album closes off in classic style, with a pulsating dance into creative music that rises into another place before turning away and looking back at the listener in a pensive moment that steps, with conviction, into a tacit.


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